Like most things, the idea of driving to the Arctic Ocean is far bigger and fuzzier than its reality. Even after successfully covering over 5,000 miles, that last 491 somehow rendered nauseating and impossible. I extended my stay in Fairbanks a day, wondered if anyone would remember that I’d claimed I was going to touch the waters of the Arctic—and if they did, what would happen if I bailed—and started looking at various southerly destinations from Fairbanks. Much like the Canadian border three weeks prior, something about the psychic inertia of pounding out unpaved miles on the Dalton Highway felt unfathomable and terrible, even though it was a non-point-source dream that I had spent many months putting into action.
The lingering cold that teamed up with sleep deprivation and rapid travel undoubtedly egged on that self-doubt. It begged for comfort, for sloth, for compromise. Finally, I drank two coffees and plotted a course in my Milepost atlas and filled my ice chest with yogurt and guacamole. And just like that, we drove north out of Fairbanks.
* * *
The first five miles of the journey are bewildering. For moments, the sub-arctic micropolis appears like most American cities, with a smattering of big-box retailers and auto supply stores clinging to the outskirts of town and its cheaper real estate. Then, two miles later, as if someone flipped a switch, the woods take over. There is no subtle fizzle, no suburbs or exburbs, no real sign that one is leaving civilization and heading to what is likely the wildest place accessible by road in the United States. The road heaves and hos, winds through off-camber turns and black spruce trees and over increasingly wrinkled terrain, until quite quickly there is no cell signal and no sign of humanity save for the ribbon of pavement and the occasional abandoned pickup truck whose driver is somewhere in the woods hunting moose or caribou. For 87 miles, Alaska 2 bobs and weaves and teases that the Dalton Highway is still some miles away from beginning. And then, it starts. Immediately, the road surface deteriorates further, the lane markers disappear, signage becomes even less frequent. There are no turns or options from here until the end of the road in Deadhorse, the oil encampment clinging to the northerly edge of the continent some 414 miles away.
A stop at the Dalton Highway sign is as normal and anticlimactic an occasion as a stop at a roadside sign welcoming visitors to Colorful Colorado or The Lone Star State, places where there’s a line on a map but none in the sand. Aside from the punishingly thick mud that seemed to be everywhere and on everything, there was nothing extraordinary about the beginning of the Road to the End of the World. I found this comforting, the type of simultaneous competing reality that makes every moment of our lives both the most magnificent and mundane yet. My cartographic reality was preposterous, yet my temporal experience was quite prosaic. As usual, Hank and I tip-toed and pranced through the muck, snapped a few photos, and strolled around in aimless circles, absorbing the cool air and blissful silence. Milepost 0 stood sentinel beside the muddy road. I let the fact that somewhere around thirty hours of concerted existing separated me from the faraway dot on a map that captured my imagination and pulled me here with the same magnetism that creates the northern lights. It was overwhelming and obvious at the same time. “Load up!” I hollered at Hank, the same way I might in Zilker Park or Portlands Oregon and Maine, or in my parents’ driveway. He sat by my feet and wagged his tail instead. “Not in the mud, buddy! Load up!” And he did, and I climbed in after him, the soles of my shoes looking like I’d just run through fresh concrete intended for a smooth new sidewalk. We roared off down the sloppy road, and finally the Land Cruiser came into its own. Humming along at forty to fifty miles an hour on the harshest surfaces in the highway system, faraway from tools or garages, the truck swelled with placating bravado. We were home.
The Dalton Highway, like most things in Alaska, lulls you into a false sense of security and relativity with its metered progress through immeasurable terrain. One mile after another, it rolls onward through woods and hills not altogether unfamiliar, if a bit more varied in fall color and intensity than most we’re familiar with. It’s not until you notice milepost 60 that it becomes evident your sense of scale has been completely skewed, that what felt a mere jaunt through the woods was actually nearly two hours of driving in a modern machine. Crossing the Yukon River on the 2,295-foot-long, wood-surfaced E.L. Patton Bridge further drives this point home. The river is as large as the Mississippi, and seems to move faster and more connivingly. The low summer sun slings shadows and shimmers across it and creates an arresting image as you drive across the noisy wooden planks.
On the north side of the bridge, the Alaska Pipeline comes into close and plain view, and one can appreciate its scale, too. It appears relatively small from out the window of a car whirring down the road, but in person, it dwarfs and humbles the human who was just thinking: “that thing doesn’t seem big enough for all that oil.” There is a boat ramp on the opposite side of the highway, and a surprisingly full parking lot for a spot on the map so far removed from all others. Folks pile into large center-console boats, pistols strapped to hips and knee-high galoshes covering their jeans, and embark on trips even further into the Alaskan interior. Men, women, and children all toss duffels over the gunwales and regard Hank and I with the courteous indifference that characterizes the Alaskan bush. Help is available if needed, but otherwise respectful silence is the lingua franca.
I watched the still waters run deep and swift through the expansive terrain while Hank sniffed at old fish bones and traces of bear piss and wondered where the people loading up the pair of boats were from and where they were headed. I walked uphill towards the truck, and Hank trotted past a pair of dogs that were leashed solemnly, walking alongside a trio of brightly-clothed women. I gave the friendly laugh-nod that all dog owners give to another as their pups get playful ahead of them, and we loaded up the truck for the many hours of driving yet to come.
We hummed and bucked onward down the road towards the unknown, towards a few vague creeks on the map marked with a fish icon, towards the unknown enclave of Coldfoot Camp and a sleeping quarters I’d tenuously reserved by phone that morning. Alaska makes you feel small in many ways. Its physical scale is imposing beyond comprehension, but it also sleights you on other planes. There is virtually no connectivity outside of the major city centers along the coast and Fairbanks, no way to grow one’s ego to global scale through the magic of the internet. You cannot self-publish or self-aggrandize, cannot watch YouTube tutorials to execute otherwise confounding tasks, cannot book a bed in a roadside safety encampment with the antisocial comfort of a confirmation email. You nod to people who seem to materialize and vanish in the timbered ether, wave to most every of the sparing oncoming trucks that share this remote and otherworldly transportation artery with you. Most Alaskans consider Fairbanks hilariously far north, yet on the Dalton, you wave to drivers who have ventured many hundreds of miles beyond the city that offers “The Northermost Thai Food in the World.”
In a literal sense, existence occurs at the same rate regardless of where you are. You breathe and blink and observe the world around you as it comes, whether you’re in Bangkok or Dallas or the Brooks Range. But as we ignore the measurables, it becomes clear that not all moments unfurl equally. Perhaps because our relative scale to the planet changes based on how large we can swell our spheres of influence with the internet or even through charismatic conversation. Skyscrapers make us feel small beneath our own collective accomplishment; Alaska makes life feel as fleeting for an Einstein as it does for an Arctic Ground Squirrel. Of course, Arctic Ground Squirrels are also admirably adept at survival in conditions that would kill a well-prepared man in a day, so perhaps life is rich in meaning for them by virtue of living it.
* * *
On the Dalton, you don’t so much drive as you hold on, and abandoning Google Maps is less a philosophical protest than a reality of connectivity and unpredictability. On a good day, you can cover forty miles an hour. On a bad one, you might have to turn around. On this day, we spent most all of it cruising from Fairbanks towards Coldfoot, the lone dot on the map between Alaska’s interior hub and the oil encampment of Deadhorse perched on the Arctic Ocean. In keeping with philosophy and obeying the road’s violent suggestiveness, we stopped often and shuffled around through the tundra, scrambling up rock formations and staring up at the pipeline, pausing for rainbows and fruitlessly tossing flies into most every creek we crossed.
The eerily long late-summer days were a welcome blessing when we pulled into Coldfoot Camp at an hour that would’ve meant pitch darkness most anywhere south of the Arctic Circle. The barracks were situated to the east side of the sprawling cleared area, while the bar and gas station were on the west. I parked and walked in, hoping that my phone call had indeed earned a set of keys to one of the rooms here. The buildings were originally intended as a working camp for building the Dalton Highway, and little has changed since. Still, travelers from all corners of the world swarm here to resupply and grab a night’s sleep sheltered from the biting Arctic cold and the prowling wildlife that outnumbers humans by factors of thousands. I was handed a room key and told the buffet was just winding down but that I could hop on it before they began cleaning up. I walked over and found gorgeous roasted broccoli, quinoa stuffed peppers, homemade biscuits, and maple pumpkin bars. Cognitive dissonance reached a triumphant crescendo in that buffet line, as I contemplated the months it had taken me to reach this point on the map and tried to reconcile it with the feast that laid before me. Not one to ask too many questions, I piled two plates full of the most appealing food I’d seen in a long time and settled into a Seventies-chic cafeteria chair to drink a beer and read and laugh at the non-functioning WiFi that cost $4.95 per hour. The girl who handed me my keys was also the bartender, and she was holding court serving homesteaders and truckers four dollar Budweisers and slinging six dollar IPAs to the lonesome tourists who were here for geographic novelty more than anything else.
She carried herself with the characteristic confidence of all people who live on the Northern Frontier, juggling duties and conversations nonchalantly and making everyone want to buy one more round using nothing but a smile and a one-liner. She spoke of high school football rivalries in Boulder, Colorado with an Inuit man who had ostensibly lived down there at some point, and she smirked at my book choice while I drank my beer and read in the routine I came to refer to as “vigorous relaxation.” When traveling in these parts, drinking a beer and reading after a long day of driving and exploring the outdoors is a welcome treat, but the amount of tension in your shoulders takes a while to dissipate. And so, you swig and turn pages with a certain alacrity and eat in large, unruly bites after spending the day nibbling on trail mix.
I talked to the men at the bar, who had strangely thorough knowledge of the random B-list movie playing on the television in the corner. In many ways, they seemed more pop-cultured than me, either because or in spite of their status as bona fide frontiersmen. In between canned laughs, they traded tales of hunting mishaps, of caribou that weren’t actually dead or field dressing with knives far too small for the job.
I returned to the truck and smuggled Hank down the labyrinthine corridors of the old barracks, trying to discern the inconsistent numbering strategy while wondering what Coldfoot Camp’s official policy on dogs was. Out of timid desperation, I didn’t bother asking. There were no alternatives. We laid on the skinny cot and enjoyed the spartan trimmings of the room. I was torn between going to sleep and setting an alarm for the Northern Lights or simply fighting to stay awake until it was time for the unpredictable show. I told Hank to be on his best behavior and left the room to grab my toothbrush out of the truck, and I was greeted by a large group of Indian tourists who were huddled on the front steps of the barracks, feasting on curries in Styrofoam bowls and drinking Bushmills whiskey out of Dixie cups and chain smoking foreign-smelling cigarettes. Were it not for the amazing meal I’d eaten earlier, I would have coveted them sinfully for their impromptu smorgasbord.
“Are y’all staying out here for the Lights?”
“Oh, yes. They are very good up here.”
We got to talking a bit. I’d noticed a crew of Jeep Cherokees parked here that I had seen in Denali National Park nearly a week prior. They belonged to the group. The gentleman holding the handle of whiskey and another one with a fancy camera quickly introduced themselves as the ring leaders and explained that they ran an all-inclusive “overland adventure business” that brought wealthy Indian people to the coldest and farthest-flung reaches of the planet.
Through a thick accent and thicker drags from cigarettes, they explained, “In India, nobody wants to go on vacation to hot places. It is very hot where we live. So the most exotic and coveted vacations are the cold ones. We basically just go on a road trip year-round, shuttling people to the places we like to travel to.”
A lone American had lurked on the edge of the group, and he finally stepped in and introduced himself. “My name is Matt, I’m in charge of wrangling all these crazy folks.” And indeed, through some arrangement which was lost on me, the two ringleaders hired Matt to assist them with logistics in Alaska and to be a translator of sorts. He also had a Dixie cup and a cigarette. He tried to sneak in a few explanatory statements, but did little to clarify the situation. Still, he brought some hilarity to the situation by way of trying to sing along to the Bollywood music they were playing on an iPhone, which he apparently heard dozens of times per day in the Jeep. One by one, the tour participants finished their curry and whiskey and headed towards bed, content from previous nights’ Northern Lights sightings. Finally, it was down to the two ringleaders, Matt from Michigan, and myself. I checked my phone, and it was 1:30 AM. Silently and without drama, bands of light began to creep across the horizon, as if unfurling from the North and billowing over the mountain range ahead of us. I was transfixed, even as the three of them assured me that this was a relatively mild showing. I snapped a few photos and then resumed staring at the otherworldly glow, pining after a sip or two of whiskey which was never offered and cursing the clouds that seemed to roll in right as the Lights intensified.
“You know, looking at the Northern Lights, you can totally understand why ancient people believed there was a God,” Matt said to me.
I couldn’t decide which part of his statement I agreed with least, so I nodded and directed my attention towards the two gentleman who were discussing their 6:30 AM alarm clocks as they poured another round of whiskey and zipped the camera back into its case. My phone indicated 2:24 AM, and I needed to be up by 8 if I wanted to enjoy the second half of the Dalton and leave any time for the inevitable unknowns. Somewhere in the area I’d call a soul, I was stirring at the sight of the Lights and at my current place in space and time. In Matt’s brain, a series of 1s and 0s and magnetic fields offered him an explanation, if not a meaning. And if either of us walked a half mile in any direction from where we were standing at that moment, words and explanations wouldn’t do us any good.