In which the author, Loren McGinnis, rides shotgun with the King of the Ice-Road Truckers as they tour America in a giant big-rig on a gonzo book-signing tour.
The first thing the CBC North radio announcer noticed was that Alex and I had the same laugh. Twenty-four hours after returning home to Yellowknife, after a two month American road trip with Alex Debogorski, he and I were back sitting side by side doing a radio interview. Alex’s laugh is famous. It’s a long, slow, belly laugh that sort of mimics and then amplifies Santa Claus’ ho ho ho. But instead, it’s a ha ha ha, and it keeps on going. Before the trip, that’s not how I laughed. I suppose that unknowingly, if not reluctantly, I’d taken on some of Alex’s mannerisms. It was bound to happen. That must have been why so many of his fans had asked me if he was my dad.
Early in the trip, I would respond to that question clearly: that no, I wasn’t his son, I was a hired filmmaker making a documentary about Alex’s book tour. But as the trip wore on, my responses became indignant. Eventually, I stopped fighting. When people asked me how amazing it was to have a guy like Alex for a dad, I’d say, “not bad,” or, if I was feeling tricky, “I’m a pretty lucky son.” By the time I returned to Yellowknife my friends were talking about “the Alex Debogorskification of Loren McGinnis.” I hadn’t noticed the laugh. I had noticed the 14 pounds I’d gained eating trucker breakfasts, the wild beard I’d grown, and the cowboy boots I’d started wearing in Tennessee. Now, even I can see that after 55 days, 23,000 kilometres of American highways, dozens of fan mobs and book signings, and countless hours of unsolicited moral advice and belly laughter, the Alex Debogorskification of Loren McGinnis is complete. The dilemma now is, do I want to undo it?
When the tour began, Alex and I were friendly, but only as two people doing a job. However, as we carried on, spending hours each day together in a truck, he couldn’t repress his primal instinct – to give advice. He made his intentions clear. He was going get me back on track as a good Catholic. He planned to teach me a thing or two about hard work. And above all else, he wanted me to put a ring on my girlfriend’s finger and start making babies.
Alex claims that, though he says the things people don’t want to hear, in the end he’s always right. Always. “A long time ago, I had to decide if I was wrong and everyone else was right or the other way around. And I’ve decided,” he’d say. When he was 12, shortly after the death of his mother, he was walking behind a hay bailer on his Polish immigrant family’s homestead. The notion to have 12 kids popped into his mind. He decided that’s what he’d do. He now has 11.
Before the trip I hardly knew the guy. Same as most people, I was familiar with Alex as a character on History Channel’s hit reality TV show Ice Road Truckers. Some five years ago, a big Hollywood production company came North, having heard about the roughly 500 kilometre ice road that connects Yellowknife to the two diamond mines out on the Barrenlands near the Nunavut border. It was the same production company that makes the series Deadliest Catch, about crab fishermen off the coast of Alaska. They specialize in reality TV programs that show manly men (and now some women) doing the most dangerous jobs on the planet. The way Alex tells it, the company interviewed a bunch of ice-road truckers in search of characters. At the end of each interview, they would ask who else they should talk to. Over and over they heard Alex’s name. When they finally sat down with him, they knew they had a character who could carry the show. He’s been on camera with them for five years now, driving wild highways everywhere from the Northwest Territories to Alaska to the Himalayas. But I didn’t know any of this at the beginning, and Alex didn’t know anything about me. It was the simple fact that I played hockey on the same beer-league team as one of his sons that I got mixed up with this crazy road trip in the first place.
Just before the hockey season was to kick off, Curtis Debogorski, who serves as his dad’s manager, approached me about tagging along on a book tour through the U.S. Curtis saw the tour as worthy of documentation. The tour was, after all, going to be a travelling circus: a sort of gonzo adventure, hastily planned to capitalize on the launch of Alex’s memoir, King of the Road, True Tales of a Legendary Ice Road Trucker. Alex would ride from town to town and truck stop to truck stop in the largest big-rig in the world. He would meet his fans, sign books and, in general, perpetuate the fame that has become his bread and butter. With little besides the hockey team to keep me in Yellowknife, I jumped on board. Even then, I knew it would be the adventure of a lifetime. Two weeks later I was on a plane to New York to meet up with Alex.
But I didn’t dare go alone. To handle a project of this magnitude and wackiness, I knew I’d need help. So I brought along my Yellowknife winger and accomplished filmmaking buddy, Jay Bulckaert, to serve as the director of photography. I held onto the title of director – though our titles eventually blurred and went to mush. Alex, Jay and I came to operate like a family. As the miles rolled past and the days turned into weeks, we bonded through love and trust, but also through dysfunction, bickering and, most especially, humour – a family in the fullest sense. But that didn’t happen at first. It took time.
New York was a wake-up call. Early visions of fun and adventure quickly gave way to stressful, exhausting, unpredictable reality. The Big Apple was supposed to be the proper launch of the tour, kicked off with national media coverage on Fox Television, Sirius Radio, and possibly even a big late-night show like Letterman. The pitch was simple: They’d get a big dose of Alex’s haywire star personality, plus a chance to check out the world’s biggest semi-trailer truck, the Red Giant.
But while getting Alex into New York would be no sweat, getting the 30-metre Red Giant into the gut of the city turned out to be a nightmare. The plan had been to drive it into Times Square during the wee hours of the night, when traffic would be light. And when the sun came up, the colossus would be there for all to see: Fourteen metres of tractor with a huge LCD screen on each side, and a 15-metre trailer wrapped in a decal, both broadcasting larger-than-life images of Alex and his new book.
But by 3 a.m. Sunday night, we were not in Times Square. We weren’t even in New York State. We were stuck across the Hudson River in New Jersey, at the Vince Lombardi Truck Stop. Turns out that since 9/11, security to haul and park a monster big-rig in downtown New York City had really tightened up.
Sitting in the Red Giant that night, in a small sleeping chamber with two bunk beds, I watched Curtis have a meltdown. He was calling producers of the most-watched morning show in America, Fox and Friends, to cancel Alex’s spot. Then he did the same with Sirius Radio, and then he pulled the plug on the rest of Alex’s media events. Then he put his head in his hands. “This is a fucking disaster,” he said. It was a huge letdown, and could have cast a negative pall over the whole tour. But it didn’t. It turned out to be a crystal ball for the rest of the trip.
While Curtis got back on the phone and tried to come up with Plan B, Alex did what he does best. Letting the rest of us worry about the details, he stepped out of the truck onto the grease-stained pavement of the New Jersey truck stop. There were already a few truckers milling around, checking out the rig and Alex’s huge likeness on the side. They’d been murmuring to each other: “Is that Alex’s truck? Is he here?” When Alex emerged, they – and then just about everyone else at the truck stop – swarmed him. It was a scene that would be repeated everywhere we stopped for the next two months.
Sometimes it would take a few minutes for someone to muster the jam to ask, “Are you that ice-road trucker?” But once a few cell phone pictures had been taken and a few hands had been shaken, the crowds would form. Sometimes there would be three or four people, sometimes hundreds. At the Lombardi Truck Stop, even in the middle of the night, dozens of onlookers gathered. Truckers don’t run on the same clock as the rest of us; unable to sleep after litres of energy drinks, they were happy to crawl out of their lonely sleeper-cabs and hang out with Alex. And Alex seemed happy to hang out with them, to do his job.
Alex is a god among truckers – one of the world’s only big-rig celebrities. Many drivers thank him for giving their profession credibility. And many others think what he does, ice-road trucking, is so treacherous that only drivers of huge character and valour would attempt it. The latter is a conundrum for Alex to deal with. A big part of his fame is premised on the show, and the show is built on the notion that ice-road truckers risk their lives on a daily basis. But truth be told, ice-road trucking isn’t all that dangerous. Over and over, I watched Alex stickhandle his way through conversations where fans fixated on how perilous his job is. In the end, he would say the most dangerous thing about ice-road trucking is boredom and the need to concentrate. He’d also turn his admiration towards his fans, the truckers who brave our equally dangerous highways to make sure we have all the bread, milk, cigarettes and fuel we need.
A day after the hang-up in New Jersey, Curtis and Alex sat in the back of the truck prepping for the long list of rescheduled New York media interviews. We’d opted to hire a pilot service, which is a couple of guys with emergency-type pickup trucks who know the city back to front and can help with navigation and permitting to get in and out of downtown. In a glorious moment, the Red Giant rolled into Times Square, lit up like a casino and surrounded by people gawking, pointing and even cheering for Alex. High on this success, Curtis then tried to ready his dad, the talent, for a day of national media exposure.
Alex figured he’d make fun of himself. “I’ll say we’re a bunch of dummies who don’t know what we’re doing – yet. Ha ha ha ha ha,” he said. Curtis begged him to give the previous day’s challenges a more positive spin, but Alex kept teasing. “Well,” he said, “we don’t know what we’re doing, do we?” Exhausted, Curtis gave up the play-fight.
After New York, we established a routine. At the end of each day, because there wasn’t enough space in the sleeper cab, Jay and I would check into a motel. After long days in Ohio, or Wyoming, or Nevada, we would unload the camera gear, pile it in our discount room, and crack a beer. Most nights we invited Alex to join us, and he often did. Jay would log video footage, I’d download photos and update the blog, we’d both take turns doing laundry: our own and Alex’s. Alex had just one duty, and that was to be Alex, the star. All the other tasks of running the tour fell to the rest of us – a group we came to call Team Alex.
When Alex didn’t join us at a hotel, he’d sleep (as I suspect he has a thousand times) in the truck. But the truck was a crowded place. Team Alex wasn’t just me and Jay and Curtis. There was also Bryan and Randy. The Red Giant, you see, is a promotional machine, and it comes with a driver, Bryan Dax. He and the Red Giant are out of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Alex, being Canadian, isn’t allowed to drive in the U.S. except under his Ice Road Truckers work visa. For the same reason, he can’t sell his own T-shirts, coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, posters, DVDs, hats or books. So Bryan’s brother-in-law Randy, from Tampa, Florida, came on tour as the merchandise guy.
It always seemed like a pain for Alex to explain to people that he didn’t, and couldn’t, drive the Red Giant. It took a few seconds for his fans to process that Alex wasn’t trucking through America himself, and that his trailer wasn’t full of freight. No, he was being chauffeured around on a publicity tour, selling books and collectibles. At truck stops, people would gather at the driver-side only to find him coming around from the passenger side to explain that someone else drove the truck. The ice-road trucker rode shotgun. That transition from hauling payloads to hauling for publicity is a significant leap. There are plenty of times he longs for the relative simplicity of his old life, before Hollywood came calling.
Yet being a TV legend is easy for Alex. He said, over and over, “I’ve always been a celebrity – it’s just taken everyone else until now to realize it.” And it’s true. Having read his book and heard his stories hundreds of times, I can see how he’s been honing his character and amassing haywire tales his whole life. He has deeply held political views, he subscribes to conspiracy theories, he’s old-school religious, he’s got a wild sense of humour and he never stops saying what’s on his mind. All to say, he’s built for reality TV and the fame that comes with it.
On the King of the Road Tour, we didn’t just cross the U.S. once – we zigzagged all over it, from east to west to north to south and back again. New York to L.A. was a bit of a blur, but it was in L.A. that the trip seemed to hit a groove. It was also where we were introduced to Alex’s fame machine. He’s got a slick PR duo, a sage entertainment lawyer and a hard-nosed Hollywood agent banging down doors. I’d hoped to interview his people in L.A. to show that Alex is a diamond in the rough, an honest, blue-collar guy swimming with sharks. But as it turns out, Alex knows what he’s doing. In fact, I suspect he’s a pretty high-maintenance client, since he’s got so many ideas and bits of advice about what he thinks they should be doing on his behalf.
One night, feeling bad about leaving the big guy all alone at a Best Western in Hollywood, Jay and I invited Alex to join us at a hipster bar in Venice Beach where we were meeting up with a few friends who live and work in L.A. Alex doused himself with cologne and put on his Wild Bill buckskin jacket, his black Stetson and a pair of moccasins. He was dressed to impress. As we headed into one of the most notoriously hip neighbourhoods on the continent, I wondered how Alex, his outfit and his redneck philosophy would go over. And as we sat in funky furniture and sipped pricey cocktails, I watched out of the corner of my eye as Alex played Alex. At one point, he was doing conversational battle with a woman who works as a media producer in L.A. I heard his tone soften as he switched from talking about Catholic family values to listening to the woman’s advice on how he should brand himself in a multimedia world. That night in Venice Beach, Alex proved his ability to connect with just about anybody. By the time we left the bar, Jay and I were forgettable, while the man who looked like a player from a travelling wild west show was swarmed by adorers.
The heart of America is where Alex’s faith won him the most followers. At Iowa 80, which claims to be the largest truck stop in the world, a woman waited in line for over an hour to tell Alex she prays for him daily. Then she ran back to her pick-up to get a gift and got back in line. When she arrived at the front a second time, she gave Alex her prayer book. She said it was a token of her gratitude for his Christian role-modeling.
Everywhere Alex goes, people fall for him. Passing through Utah, the Red Giant started smoking. An air compressor had quit and we were stranded on the side of the interstate in front of an American mega-prison. As always, though, we attracted fans. Other truckers pulled over to see if they could help, inmates sidled up to the fence to gawk, and a few guards even climbed over to our side to pal around with Alex. In the end, it was a couple of young welders who’d pulled up in their work truck and offered tools and parts to repair the rig. When they were done, one of them had to hop a fence to get back to his truck. Alex got down on all fours so the 250-pound man could climb on over. Alex didn’t sell any books or T-shirts to these guys, but in accord with his philosophy on celebrity, he made a few new fans, one at a time.
As much as he signed copies of his book during the tour, he signed Yellowknife and Northwest Territories travel and information brochures. In New York and Las Vegas and then again in Dallas, we’d load up on cases of brochures mailed to us from Yellowknife. Alex would sign each one, thousands of them, and invite every recipient to visit his hometown. Alex is truly the unofficial ambassador of the North. But as all members of Team Alex know, there’s a risk involved every time Alex gets talking. Call it his greatest gift and his greatest liability: Alex always says what’s on his mind.
Indeed, the most grueling thing about hanging around with Alex is that he loves uncomfortable situations. He seems to believe that there is some rich fruit that comes from making people slightly ill at ease. One afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska, we had the good fortune to host an event just outside the football stadium. The Cornhuskers were playing Missouri. Thousands of people walked by the truck on their way to the game. Plenty of them were fans of Alex. One group of attractive young women with faces painted Cornhusker red and white stopped by to have their shirts signed. As they walked away, he bellowed at them, “Don’t use your private parts as toys!” It was part joke, and was certainly rooted in his Catholic ethic of chastity. But it was out of context, and the girls, laughing hysterically, asked, “Did that really just happen?” Oh, it did. And it happened often.
The tour finished NEAR Big Red’s hometown, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. We’d spent 54 days together. We’d peered into the Grand Canyon (holding hands), we’d shot up a hillside with machine guns in New Mexico (don’t ask), and we’d eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner together every single day. We’d said good morning each morning and good night every night. We’d been to church together in Chicago, debated politics in Texas and talked about the people we missed everywhere. Together, we flew back to Yellowknife. And at the baggage carousel we said an unceremonious goodbye.
A day later, when the CBC North radio interview about our trip wrapped up, Alex and I sat in his pickup truck in the alley behind my house. After two months of riding in a truck together through 24 states and over 23,000 kilometres, I should have been eager to say adios, hop out, and head inside the house for supper. But I wasn’t. After the road trip of a lifetime, hearing Alex’s jokes, stories and advice over and over, I was happy to sit there in his truck one last time and hear it all again.