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Michael Sean Comerford Headshot

Living Road: Runners on Road for Life

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Robert "Shacky" Shackelford and Vanessa Runs in front of their camper with the Grateful Dead-style skeletons running with their cats and dogs.

"Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body yet endures."
Marcus Aurelius

Standing roadside for hours in heat or cold or rain, the most difficult part for this hitchhiker is dealing with this hitchhiker.

I'm living on carnival wages, so hitchhiking is a necessity, as well as being a great source for stories.

So one thing doesn't torture me, the thought that there is an easier way.

Still, the biggest single ache, comes in the form of self reflection that whirls in circles. It never seems to advance much unless I sit and write. I suspect mathematicians don't get too far without writing down, or typing out equations.

"This project will fail. The sun is giving me cancer and is shriveling my face. People who hate me are right, my insights are as inspiring as a tin road. Why would anybody pick me up?"

Cars and trucks go by like the world, or my life. Then the world stops, my breathing stops, all because a car stops.

The waiting is a dull pain that seems like it will never go away and getting a ride is a trip.

Magic rides ahead

Dropped off late by former carney Fast Eddie in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, I walked up a hill to an old baseball field to sleep in a mosquito-filled scorer's box.

In my bivy, I was safe from the mosquitoes but the wooden box buzzed like a beehive.

It was the July 4th weekend, so this far north it's light until after midnight and then again around 3 a.m. I hit the road's shoulder at 4 a.m. and did the same the next day.

At about 9 a.m. the third day, I decided to confront drivers who went into the tourist center with my all-American Fourth of July pitch.

"Hi, are you Yanks? Happy Fourth. Going to Alaska? Help out a fellow American?"

But the charming and dark-haired Vanessa Runs and her burly, adventurous co-adventurer Robert "Shacky" Shackelford had seen me the day before and had already decided to pick me up if I was still there talking smack to myself beside the road.

From the Patch to running caribou

Fort Nelson is on the northern tip of the Rocky Mountain range, also known as "The Patch," the oil and gas producing region of Canada - the biggest importer of American energy.

Hitching this part of Highway 97 is best when drivers have stories about making a living on the Greater Sierra Oil and Gas Field. Here, permafrost and ice roads make crossing the muskeg and boreal forest possible.

"Is fracking controversial up here," I asked the local tourist center assistant.

"No," she happily said, "why would it be."

Energy industry trucks, heavy equipment trailers and forestry haulers passed by me as I stood, hoping to get a slow ride from a Patch worker with stories of brutish labor in white, dark primal winters.

Smoke stacks and plants dot the town's outskirts but over the horizon is a wonderland of rivers, mountains and provincial parks.

On the western edge of Ft. Nelson there's a giant metal bear and a welcome sign. On the back of the bear, graffiti read, "Hitchhiker's are Bear Food."

More like bug food, I thought.

Vanessa and Shacky picked me up and we headed through the Northern Rocky Mountains and Muncho Lake provincial parks and past the Muskwa, Toad, Liard, Coal and Hyland rivers to Watson Lake.

Suffice it to say, lots of moose, bear, goats, sheep and buffalo crossed our path. We whizzed by snow capped mountains and high rivers, due to heavy rains in recent weeks.

Vanessa made me a few snacks. I took a video of a caribou running beside the van. By the end of the day we reached Watson Lake, about a 320-mile, seven-hour trip.

The only way to explain it to my fellow Chicagoans would be to say it was better than a Natural Geographic 3D IMAX movie at Navy Pier. The skyline is higher and snow capped. And the wild life doesn't shoot you for your iPhone.

We all left home in February

In the midst of this beauty, on a sunny British Columbia day, Vanessa and Shacky talked about living their dream life.

She's a 31-year-old former Canadian health editor, blogger, author. He's 43-year-old former navy petty officer and electrical engineer for a San Diego DNA firm.

They shut off their lights, let the bank take their home and took off in their van in February, the same month I left Chicago.

What is it about February?

Their new home is a Realta 22-foot Winnebago camper with solar panels on the roof and an Aloha Hawaii, four-inch green-skirted bobble doll on the dash.

They're both bloggers and ultra-marathon trail runners. Vanessa already wrote and published a book, "Summit Seeker," which started like EyesLikeCarnivals, with a blog (she recommended EyesLikeCarnivals go to e-book like hers.)

Check out their adventures and lifestyle recommendations at VanessaRuns.com and SummitSeekersAdventures.blogspot.ca

When I mentioned I am living on carny wages, they mentioned Craig's List Joe, who made a film about living off Craig's List charity for a month.

As for their inspirations, they pointed to DriveNachoDrive.com, which is written by a couple who quit their jobs in 2011 to drive slowly around the world in a 1984 Volkswagon Vanagon, to discover "culture, food, recreation." Part of their trip is being financed with t-shirts, coffee cups and gym bags with their logo.

Their chief inspirations are in the running world, barefoot, minimalist and ultra marathon. The reputed founder of the ultra marathon movement Gordy Ainsleigh wrote the foreword to Runs' book.

They talked about runners like KenBob Saxton, author of "Barefoot Running, Step by Step." They introduced me to Pat Sweeney, a vegan sponsored by a beer company who runs "insane" races, including a nude 5k, a beer race and a Krispy Kreme race.

People they know people who write or film their lives like Steve Kroleschel, who made the film, "The Beautiful Truth" and operates a wildlife refuge in the Yukon.

Is carny life part of dream life?

They're traveling people, why not travel with a carnival.

Before they met me, they said they were seriously thinking of joining a traveling carnival. They still might.

They hope Vanessa's blog and e-books will earn some money along the way. All cashed out, they believe they can live another two years off savings but they are prudent and want to work. They'd like to work in national parks, or farms, or with ecological groups in the United States or South and Central America.

In the meantime, they are driving around Canada and Alaska viewing mountains and wildlife. They run two to three times a week. They are always on the lookout for races.

In her blog, Vanessa recently wrote about George Bernard Shaw quitting his dead-end job to become a full-time writer. Another person living his dream.

"I want to be on the road for the rest of my life," Shacky said during our ride. "There's a lot to see still."

As for hitchhikers, Vanessa wrote the following on her blog.

"Every hitchhiker we pick up confirms my suspicion that strangers are inherently awesome, trustworthy, and good human beings ... dangerous men are more of a minority than we believe."

Signs point to road home

I left them in Watson Lake, Yukon. It's most famous landmark is the Sign Post Forest.

The "forest" was started by Carl K. Lindley who was working on the Alaska Highway in 1942 when he thought it would be funny to put up a signpost for his hometown, Danville, Illinois.

Travelers have joined in on the fun and now there are 76,000 signs in the Watson Lake town center.

The Sign Post Forest is thick with messages but all with a similar theme - from here, home is far.

Vanessa and Shacky drove into a parking lot and pulled the shades to sleep in the land of the midnight sun.

I stood across the street from their camper and thought of the two runners inside, so sure of great adventures ahead and so surely in love.

I didn't wait a half hour before a brand-new white Mack Pinnacle, 22-wheel truck with a silver bulldog on the hood stopped and the driver asked if I could keep him awake all the way to Whitehorse, Yukon - 270 miles and about five hours away.

"Why else would you ever pick up a hitchhiker in the middle of a sunny night?"

After two desert dry days in Fort Nelson, I had a 600-mile hitchhiking day.

So much of my time hitchhiking, I think of roads. Of Patch workers on ice roads. Of roadside running caribou. Of traveling carnival convoys. Of runners in love living their dream lives on the road.

There's a lot of living on the road and some rides go far.

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Michael Sean Comerford, Shacky Shakelford and Vanessa Runs in Watson Lake's Sign Post Forest.