The alarm clock came jarringly early, and with the first digitized chime came the realization that it was freezing inside our narrow room. I’d left the window cracked so as to enjoy the crisp Arctic air, and over the course of the night, it slinked its way into the room like the Northern Lights unfurling across the night sky a few hours prior. Hank groaned a deep, profound groan and did his usual morning flop, which entails a quick roll onto his back and an enormous front-arm stretch, followed by a huffing sigh and a quick return to slumber whilst his head is entirely upside down and his lips droop, revealing his impressively white teeth. I wanted to do the same, but I also wanted to see everything I could between Coldfoot and Deadhorse. I knew that covering the 240 miles that remained between us and the Arctic Ocean would take an entire day, so I somberly rose and forced Hank to do the same. I dutifully went through the morning motions and quickly packed my camera and toothbrush back into my backpack. Then, I wrapped Hank in the same wool blanket I’d used to smuggle him in and rushed for the door. Once outside, I let him frolic while the cold air and morning sunshine shocked my senses to alertness. After he had his requisite morning romp, I fed him in the truck and headed inside to grab some grub of my own. The breakfast buffet couldn’t hold a candle to that glorious dinner, nor could my appetite justify its price tag, so I ate with a solemn bitterness at the money spent and the meager plate and tried to remind myself that there is no price tag on the physical manifestation of inviting space and experience into your life.
Perhaps I should have eaten yogurt and granola that morning, though I was a bit uncertain about the shelf life of my heat-cycled Chobani and a bit too dedicated to the full Coldfoot Camp experience. After I finished breakfast, I returned to the truck to let Hank out for a longer walk in the woods before what was sure to be too many hours in the car. It didn’t take long for him to sniff out a dog to chase, and I quickly recognized the dog from the parking lot beside the Yukon River where we’d stopped yesterday. I followed Hank following the dog, and we soon came upon a group of three women and one more dog sitting on the ground drinking coffee and whiskey eating an enviably gourmet breakfast straight off the camping stove. I did my darndest to call Hank off all the low-hanging fruit spread across the picnic blanket, to no real avail. One of the ladies endearingly and authoritatively pushed him away, which he took more seriously than my distant admonition, and he resumed chasing his energetic playmate around the clearing. I walked over and was offered a cup of spiked coffee, which was accepted as I formally introduced myself. We’d leapfrogged all along the Dalton yesterday, and finally crossed paths at rest in Coldfoot. The group was here for Labor Day weekend, which I was surprised to hear, largely because I’d lost touch with things like American holidays after so much time in places where (holi)days are but whispers into a timeless abyss. And, if not that, so much time in Canada where American holidays are simply bemusing footnotes.
At any rate, I learned that they’d driven up from Anchorage to spend the long weekend camping above the Arctic Circle, a novelty that’s not lost on even Alaskan residents, even if they were all relatively recent transplants, which seems to be a theme in Alaska. There were two Megs and a Bernice, and they tag-teamed with probing questions and no-holds-barred jokes, which is an imminently likeable combo. They mentioned that they were planning to hike after breakfast and invited me, which was a tempting and schedule-shattering proposition that I promptly accepted. Coffee, whiskey, dogs, and inviting women make a strong argument; the prospect of hiking in the backcountry with a bit less grizzly trepidation makes an even stronger one. It was settled, then. They walked across the highway to inquire about decent directions to walk off into the woods at the one other business in the area, while I went and donned my hiking boots and returned my room key.
We reconvened shortly after and I followed their well-loved Subaru wagon a few miles down the road to a non-descript pullout. The dogs were ecstatic and I was glad to be in full-surrender mode with a trio of dogs and a trio of fellow noisemakers to make the tundra feel a whole lot less foreboding. They pointed to a ridge in the distance and said we were going to eat lunch up there. I nodded and buckled my fanny pack and off we went, following a faint, overgrown hunting trail that quickly fizzled at a raging alpine stream. We removed our boots, rolled up our pants, and waded through it. The water was shockingly cold and the rocks savagely sharp, yet we all made quick work of it with brave faces and the bravado required for a backcountry hike in Alaska. Then the blind bushwacking began. The dogs found this to be a jolly game, while we spread around the trees and tromped through the soggy mosses and tried to find a path of least resistance in a landscape of most resistance. This continued for a while, and we came across unholy amounts of moose droppings and little sign of a trail. We crossed the stream again, followed a faint hint of a path, then crossed the stream again, before running into a veritable wall of shrubbery while knee-deep in moss. Faced with another stream crossing, I opted to leave my boots laced and make an ambitious leap across the narrowest section of water I could find. Anyone familiar with this type of activity knows the strange cement-boot sensation your brain sends through your body as you contemplate a jump you almost certainly can’t land, and I felt it as I tried to jump and was met with failure to launch. Bernice waded ebulliently downstream from me, while Meg One looked on with optimism and a smirk. I sent it, which prompted Hank to do the same at that exact moment, which led to a dog between my legs in mid-air, while my camera swung wildly around my torso on its shoulder strap. In short, what was already a longshot was now doomed spectacularly. I landed feet-first in knee-deep water with a terrible splash that caught half my shirt and all of Hank. I then tromped out and laughed it off, but was faced with the very sobering reality that surviving in Alaska has only gotten marginally easier since the first foolhardy explorers began seeking gold sometime two centuries ago.
After the soggy stream crossing, we all laughed to keep from crying a bit and continued trying to find the alleged four-wheeler path that might make passage easier. No such path appeared, so we tried backtracking. At this point, we were each spread about twenty yards apart, eyeing different options while the dogs hopped like bunnies through the deep, soggy ground cover. At one point, Meg Two was ahead of me while the others trailed behind. The dogs were well down the way, and a fresh and imposingly large pile of droppings sat in the middle of the game trail we were following. In Alaska, one becomes acutely aware of the shit on the ground, because it is often a matter of life or death. And, in this case, the shit on the ground stunk of grizzly. I walked onward a bit after taking an exaggerated step over it. Meg Two had paused to look in every direction, while Meg One and Bernice caught up to us a few moments later.
“What do you think, John?” The question was posed to me while we all stood in a clearing the size of a small room. There was no sound at all when we ceased to speak.
“I think I just saw fresh bear shit.”
“Oh, yeah, I saw that, too.”
“I thought that was one of the dogs.”
“I don’t think that could even come out of any of these dogs.”
“Let’s go down to the river and eat lunch down there.”
The final ten minutes of the hike were nerve-wracking. The recent scat offered no hint of which direction it came from, and we were clearly following a trail trodden by critters as we sought the highway. We skipped along making lots of noise and insisting that the dogs stay a bit closer than before, and I have never been so glad to see my reliable, sometimes-frustrating old truck waiting for me. The girls wanted to go see the old mining town of Wiseman, which still boasts a year-round population of around a dozen, and I was glad to be on the Dalton again and out of the terrible, beautiful woods. Tangible fear is such a gift in an age of intellectual fear and in my own life of neurotic anxieties. It feels positively surmountable and almost enjoyable, and somehow in the presence of perfect strangers and even better canines, I felt entirely at-ease. We loaded up and followed one dirt road to another, did a lap of the town which had an incomprehensible amount of people (say, fifteen) out and about, then stopped where the road got rougher. I mentioned I’d seen a lovely glacial gravel bar down by the river that would be the perfect place to picnic, and so I led the way down to the most beautiful place I’ve ever eaten a hot meal.
The ladies prepared gourmet grilled cheeses with all manner of toppings and cheese options and my favorite sliced bread. I made coffee in every container I could find and contributed guacamole to the cause, and we toasted to the good life from a place that would make you laugh if you could see its dot on the map. As we wrapped up the second round of sandwiches and a carton of strawberries for dessert, thick, puffy grey clouds rolled in rapidly. I was forced to admit that it was likely snowing to our north and that I still had many hours left to drive, even if I was in perhaps the one place on my entire trip where the Land Cruiser might be faster than the average vehicle. We all washed our cooking utensils and sporks in the frigid and rushing river and the dogs bid their final goodbyes while we hugged and exchanged numbers for those unknown times when paths might cross again. Really, it was just goodbye. And just like that, Hank and I hopped into the Cruiser and crunched along the gravel bar before splatting and wooshing down the soggy surface of the Dalton Highway.
Every mile seemed to contain the richness of a lifetime. This far north, every living thing is more extreme, every mountain more severe, every mundane thing meaningful by way of latitude. In the span of a day, we’d gone from summer in Fairbanks to fall in the Arctic to winter in the windshield approaching us at forty five miles an hour. We climbed towards the Brook Range and watched the white mountaintops come into focus until our own surroundings were white, then hummed and strained up Ataguin Pass, which had been closed a few days prior due to the first blizzard of the season. At the top, it was easy to forget that we were a mere two days into September, or that there was such a thing as warmth. The air was frigid, the snow enveloping, and the isolation so total as to render alternatives fuzzy in the untouchable depths of the memory bank. With every passing second, one hurtles further from every positive remembrance in time and in space. Somehow the hurts and heartbreaks seem to defy relativity and cling just a little bit closer.
And as soon as I pointed the truck downhill, we were officially on ‘the North Slope,’ the massive region of Northern Alaska where the continent points downward toward the Arctic, where the north faces of mountains seem to accumulate more snow most every year, and, most symbolically, where the region’s name is almost synonymous with the oil operations in Deadhorse. Though we still had over a hundred miles to go, I felt somehow much closer than I had minutes prior. A few lonesome plows appeared through the flurries of snow, moving to and fro in a hauntingly mechanistic way, fighting a futile battle with the elements to keep the Dalton passable to those trucks which deliver pre-packaged rations to the various camps perched at land’s end.
In spite of the piercingly cold air, the Land Cruiser’s engine temperature climbed steadily on the arduous slog straight up Ataguin Pass, so I stopped it in the heart of an area sternly labeled: AVALANCHE AREA DO NOT STOP and popped the hood so heat could escape. I tiptoed through the thick, frosty slop and hid around the back side of the truck, staring up at the slope of the mountain where it faded into the fog and snow. One of the most bemusing elements of traveling to the ends of the earth is that everything takes on a hilarious air of melodrama. A roadside pit stop to pee and cool off the old iron block engine is not just a trucker’s footnote but instead an opportunity to pee on the top of the world, both by altitude and latitude. The mountains of the Brooks Range may not be the tallest on earth, but combined with their northerly location, they sure are some of the fiercest. Measurements become somewhat irrelevant with no way and no one to compare with. So, at that moment, there was nothing more to life than the simple act of peeing on top of the wold, in a spot that I used to stare at on the globe my grandfather gifted me when Eastern Europe was still plastered U.S.S.R. and marvel at its impossible perch near the North Pole.
I stood there in a long sleeve T-shirt and blue jeans, exposed in all the most vulnerable ways to the elements, and felt a certain type of ridiculous freedom that men often chase their entire lives. One would never explicitly state that they aspire to something as trite as peeing atop Atiguin Pass, but that may be part of the problem. You can drive to the end of the earth to prove something, to physically distance yourself from something else, to occupy mind and body in the most literal of senses. You can amass sums of money that might purchase anything with a price tag, even those which aren’t listed for sale. You can put your hope in the acceptance and approval of others, and perhaps even gain it with the right wardrobe and acting. But such things are fleeting and ultimately unfulfilling. Being scared shitless of a shitting grizzly bear and peeing as the frigid air filled my lungs are the moments when it becomes clear that the trappings of life are not things, not even grandiose postcard-worthy experiences, but the little moments when feeling takes over. When being a human is singular and priceless, when you can wake up weeks later in a plummeting darkness or face a lingering malaise that WebMD might convince you is rare and fatal and shrug and say, “Well, at least I did that.”