Alaska Life

Road flair: This Seward Highway flagger is adding style to stop-and-go signals

Patrick Deacon stood in the middle of the Seward Highway, stop sign in hand, and watched the bore tide roll across the mudflats of Turnagain Arm on Monday afternoon. It was a momentary traffic respite during a long shift on a years-long construction job.

“It’s a beautiful view,” said Deacon, a flagger at the rockfall mitigation work zone near the McHugh Creek Trailhead. “I love it.”

For the northbound drivers, all eyes are on Deacon himself.

Deacon, dressed in neon workwear, uses unique traffic control motions that are both clearly communicated signals and stylistic interpretations for his commands to stop or proceed. He’s hard not to notice, as he tick-tocks his left hand rhythmically on his right side, motioning cars into the open lane.

“I remember the first time I saw it,” said AnEva Kimble, his supervisor at Tlingit Traffic Control Professionals. “I was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh. What is he doing?’ ”

“It almost looks like a robot dance kind of thing that he does. He does, like, a lunge sort of, and then pulls his hand up,” Kimble said. “When he stops traffic, it looks like he had done a jumping jack, but didn’t finish it.”

His boss wasn’t concerned. His signals to drivers seemed clear. And besides, the drivers seemed to love it. People smiled. Others honked. Some hooted appreciation from their window as they passed.

“My cheeks hurt from smiling so hard,” Kimble recalled.

A year and a half later, Deacon has become a fixture along Turnagain Arm. He’s aware that his routine has attracted attention, but he’s otherwise unconcerned with notoriety. He pays no attention to social media or online comments, he said, though people post pictures of him in a 23,000-member Facebook group for Seward Highway drivers.

“Maybe it’s just something different,” he said. “It’s just a bunch of happy, smiley faces. I love it. It definitely brings my spirits up on a rainy, windy day.”

He’s one member of a two-flagger crew assigned to direct traffic at the Seward Highway project, an assignment he’s had since the project began last year.

The ongoing three-year project aims to mitigate rockfall from the Chugach Mountain cliffs from Mile 104 to Mile 114 along Turnagain Arm, according to Department of Transportation information officer Shannon McCarthy. Hi-Tech Rockfall Construction, which is bolting rocks and installing catchment systems, subcontracted with Tlingit Traffic Control.

Deacon said a typical workweek is 10-12 hours a day for six days. While his motions serve to increase his visibility for drivers, they also are a good way to stay moving on cold and damp days.

“When I first started, it did get a little tiring, but you just get used to it,” he said.

He’s been pleasantly surprised that people get a kick out of his exaggerated signals. People wave and take pictures every day. A tour company once gave him a sweater. “I get a lot of snacks too,” he said. Doughnuts, cookies, chocolate bars. “A lot of snacks.”

“Having fans in general just, like, blows my mind,” he said Monday. Several cars gave a light honk as they passed.

On his phone he showed a photo of a greeting card one passerby gave him in May. “You are a unicorn in a sea of jackasses,” was the message printed inside. Below it was an unsigned, handwritten note.

“Just wanted to give you a shout out for cheering so many people up. You literally have changed my mood in .5 seconds,” it reads. “I have group therapy for PTSD and mentioned you at a session, and three other people, including the therapist, commented on how you gave their day a spark. Thank you for being fabulous.”

Deacon said he keeps that card by his bed.

In his off time, Deacon said he spends time with his mom, grandpa and siblings who live in Anchorage. He began building a home in Grayling, an Athabaskan village on the Yukon River where he lived for a few years, and he’d like to return to finish it. There, he likes to hunt for agate and amethyst as he walks the waterline, he said. One day he may return to live there year-round.

For now, he’s sticking with his role in the roadway. Kimble said Deacon takes his job seriously and never seems to be putting on a show no matter how much attention he draws.

“He doesn’t spice it up, just because of all of that,” Kimble said. “He’s just still out here doing the same thing that he would’ve been doing whether anybody noticed or not.”

It’s a welcome change from the norm. Kimble said people can be angry about being stopped by construction. Some give flaggers the middle finger. Deacon seems to have changed that dynamic.

“It’s just kind of a joy to be around,” she said.