The Bearded Ones

Driving down the north side of Ataguin Pass—known colloquially as “The North Slope,” a geographic happenstance that causes oil to pool up deep beneath Prudhoe Bay in quantities that outweigh the crushing reality of life in the Arctic Circle—I soaked in the surreal sights and even less believable cartographic situation. The tundra was buried beneath two-day-old snow, tall summer grasses now brown and flickering in the breeze. It seemed to go on forever in every direction, interrupted only by imposing the imposing east-west mountain range and the cold haze to the north. The sun skated across the sky slowly, casting a blinding pastel light across the landscape.

Up here, purpose is singular. The caribou hunters that line the shoulder of the Dalton further south thin out until they vanish altogether. The pipeline makes far less effort to blend in and protective gates and fences disappear. For want of alternatives, you just drive. The road is both better than it needs to be and abysmal all at once. Time moves differently, miles seem to expand and contract in relation to their surroundings and the happenings therein. And, finally, man is entirely robbed of the illusion of control. Wandering more than twenty yards from the car means surrendering entirely to elements and denizens of the Arctic. Getting more than one flat tire or running out of gas can leave a driver so stranded that there is quite literally no hope but the timing and benevolence of strangers.

We have made sense of most everything. Tragedies without motive unsettle us—until we finally manage to overlay a believable hypothesis upon them and move on to the next inexplicable distraction. Formerly uninhabitable climates now play host to sprawling urban areas from Las Vegas to Virginia and we scarcely bat an eye at the existential threats of generations prior. And further insulation from real danger only makes us more prone to dangers of the mind, to faulty inner monologues and false sense of security that render us crippled by indecision and self-loathing and existential stalemates. Once death by mosquito becomes a sensational headline and not a regular occurrence, we find ourselves grappling for meaning and zooming in on molecules until there is nothing left to wonder at, no sense of smallness nor urgency. We avert our eyes when things become “too real,” we despair at trivial hurdles, and our minds fill with to-do lists and theoretical slights and lose touch with our souls.

A funny thing happens when you walk through the slushy snow north of the Arctic Circle until your socks are soaked and your car is a speck on the shoulder of the road beneath you. For brief moments of immediate discomfort, you can hold your own mistakes and all the affronts of a lifetime in one hand and a snowball in the other and watch your dog prance through the snow in blissful ignorance of the fact that he’s not in the first place he saw snow (North Carolina), but instead is some six thousand miles from there. You can throw a snowball for him to catch and giggle like the idealized memory of your ten-year-old self as he chomps on it and shakes his head out of confusion and brain freeze. And without even moving the other hand, you can throw those regrets and slights away, too. You can create a moment that your future self will look back on wistfully, a memory that will be washed of the painful baggage that may linger in the dark corners of your mind. In this fleeting, soggy experience, you can find enough richness in discomfort that those flickering, suicidal vignettes of years past will be easier to defeat should they ever rear their ugly heads again.

Joyous discomfort is ammunition against insidious agony. It can seem impossible to smile or laugh after a season of despair, and the future can feel both devastating and guaranteed when neither of those things are true. And so, as much as I laugh at myself for turning an expensive, self-indulgent road trip into some sort of meritous journey, I am forced to accept that we are not the arbiters of merit or difficulty in a world in which everything is both seemingly tamed and simultaneously out-of-control. What strength does darkness have when you’ve mastered the art of smiling in a rickety old truck as you bounce your way down a road to nowhere, how can heartbreak triumph when you’ve let yourself surrender to a simple dream that could always come true if you only will let it? An old truck and a dog was a version of medicine that I denied myself until I couldn’t any longer, and its taste is sweet even as I now can see the drawbacks of relying on a twenty-eight-year-old leaf-sprung behemoth for all my transportation needs.

The final 100 miles to the Arctic Ocean are especially desolate, even by Alaskan standards. I became quite accustomed to the rhythm of waving to an oncoming truck every half hour or so, edging as far to the right as possible to make room on the not-quite-two-lane surface and to avoid being pelted by flying gravel or slushy mud chunks. And I leaned even more into my theory that man adapts to desolation far easier than to dense civilization, that our minds long for a more natural cadence and a more intimate relationship to soul. Some weeks later, while sitting at two red lights in a row in downtown Bozeman, Montana, I laughed at how frustrated and overwhelmed I was by the morning rush hour in a town that most humans would pejoratively label quaint.

Not everyone, and perhaps almost no one, needs to see the Arctic Ocean to internalize the power of a few small changes over the course of a lifetime. But I am an especially slow and stubborn learner, and I must be made feel so small as to nearly disappear in order to be truly humbled. So, as we passed the countless thousands of slushy ponds and snowy tundra plains, I could feel my mind expanding and my ego shrinking. We all fancy ourselves humbler, smarter, and more open-minded than we really are. Only in these rare moments, when “Wow” fails to suffice and our crystallized intelligence cannot make sense of anything our minds are faced with.

At one point, I stopped and just walked the Dalton with Hank for a few minutes, as the wind alternated between silent and audible and the sloppy, thick gravel slurry splattered with each step. Trying to progress along the vast road by foot was especially humbling. It drove home just how out of our element we were, two Texans—and really, two living creatures not native to the Arctic—walking a road under nearly-constant maintenance through a landscape that constantly threatens to reclaim any affronts on its sovereignty. The air pleasantly hovered around forty degrees, and the sun began its three-hour dip below the horizon. The sunset striations appeared in muted hues in every direction, and as we continued northward, I was transfixed by the eerie quality of light near the top of the world.

Less than fifty miles south of Deadhorse, we were stopped by a flagman for a work crew. There were no other cars in front of me or behind me, and the flagger approached to explain the thirty to forty minute delay. Then he leaned casually on my door and asked where we came from, and as usual, Hank leapt into my lap and demanded to be the center of this conversation and all proceedings during our construction delay. The flagger was happy to oblige, and seemed relatively unimpressed by our trip from Texas.

“In June I was working back at the bridge over Nichols Creek, two guys on motorcycles came through and asked after oil filters. Of course they were way out of luck, but I did what I had to do, gave them a ride to our camp, we fed ‘em and helped them figure out how to get a part shipped and driven up near where we were, the one of them went to pick it up while the other guy hung out with us. It was a fun couple of days! He turned out to be the guy who wrote that book about riding a motorcycle in some crazy amount of countries, have you read it?”

I, of course, had not.

“Anyway, he sent me a signed copy for helping him out, I still have it.”
“And you’re almost done up here?”
“Oh, let’s see,” he looked at his watch and then behind him at the setting sun. “Yeah, after we let you through, we’ll probably wind down for the night.”
“What about for the season?”
“Oh, yeah, two more weeks. I bought me a little place down in Puerto Rico last year, and I think this winter I’m moving down there for good. You know I signed on to the road crews over thirty years ago?”

Aside from the distant mechanical whooshing of pneumatics and diesel engines, the silence scoring his pensive soliloquy was moving. The fact that I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my truck, stopped by a road crew on the Dalton Highway less than two hours from the Arctic Ocean was also moving, but quickly faded into the background behind the human immediacy of his retirement plans.

He then told me about two hapless hunters who’d sped up a few hours earlier, asking after caribou before being pointed eastward, where one stood cunningly just beneath the pipeline. There are few directions you can’t shoot in Alaska, but towards the Trans Alaska Pipeline is certainly one of them. They waited for the caribou to move, and he wisely didn’t until they gave up and roared southward, in search of a different roadside trophy kill.

Finally, the pilot car arrived. The woman driving said over the radio, “You didn’t tell me there was someone waiting!”

The flag man looked at me sheepishly and offered a convivial salute-wave, and just like that, I fired up the truck and followed the starkly industrial heavy duty Dodge Ram with blinking yellow lights on top through the three-mile-long section where crews were working frenetically to augment the ever-eroding embankment that hoists the Dalton up and away from the shifting, slushy tundra below.

Some thirty minutes later, with light slowly fading as the clock neared ten PM, I spotted a lone highway service vehicle pulled to the edge of the road surface. Just ahead of it, a couple of massive, furry creatures stood in the middle of the road, while another dozen watched from the sidelines. I inched closer and put the Cruiser in park, and admired with gripping fascination the muskoxen that stared back at me with a hilarious nonchalance. This was yet another moment where the silence and stillness belied the intensity of emotions at hand. We can live our entire lives seeking only comfort and safety and crossing items off of checklists that have been handed to us. Or we can drive a kidney-bruising road that fizzles and dead ends at a place with “dead” in the name, and step in bear shit and stare at muskoxen, overwhelmed by the possibilities of the world. The best part about this encounter was the silence, the equal transfixion of the Arctic highway crew who ostensibly sees things like this often, the tiny, meaningless, infinitely significant wonder at the matted beasts with thick horns. There were no lights or sounds to indicate when we should feel emotion, no rules or fences to prevent me from sprinting into the middle of the herd to whatever fate that may lead, truly nothing at all to encourage or inhibit me from acting. Hank sat alert, twitching and grumbling, staring at the strange beasts and reacting quite differently than he had to bears or than he ever does to the more familiar cows of Texas.

It was an encounter that falls flat in the retelling. Most people sort of scrunch their faces in noncommittal acknowledgment when I talk about muskoxen, and even my best photos do little to move them, especially when there are bears or eagles to describe. It takes a bit of work and threatens the status quo to find wonderment in an unheralded beast of the Arctic, especially when its imposingness, its existential threat, or its patriotism are unclear. So much human conditioning has us longing for polar bears and ignoring North America’s only ox species, has us dreaming California dreams and shunning the countless interior states with their varied and subtle beauty and stunning cultural patchwork. And, as usual, I longed to conquer the useless, to lose my breath at unknown ungulates, to know what it means to be independently whimsied by every mind-numbing mile. I have lost hope more than once while writing promotional material for nuclear temperature sensors, interviewing subject matter experts for smart projectors to ensure they hit ten million dollars in sales while I clear less than 60 grand, I have nearly bought houses and lost opportunities for picture-perfect marriages. I have been hit by a car and certain I was dying. I have sat in the crowd and been wowed, I have sat in the crowd and wanted to leave. And I have smiled a small, silent smile at the large free-roaming beasts of the Arctic, I have looked at Hank and egged him on in my best dog voice, “What kind of dogs are those, Hankie?! What do you see????”

The Inuktitut name for muskox is umingmak, which means “the bearded one.” We call them muskoxen because of a distinctive musk that the males emit to attract mates. These are both exceptionally accurate, if insufficient, names for such creatures, which were hunted to extinction in Alaska sometime after Americans began rushing there at the turn of the 20th Century. They have since been successfully reintroduced from Canadian stock and today they roam the tundra oblivious to their nationalities or the Arctic border that is not so much patrolled as assumed. To stare at these creatures in their native habitat is to be somewhere that humans do not belong and could not survive without a great deal of innovation and willpower. I am a horribly slow and stubborn learner, and so I had to go to a spot a mere three miles from the end of the Dalton Highway to watch muskoxen block traffic in order to internalize some subtle concept about optimism and appreciation of the beauty of life. If there is one quality that I’ve been told I possess which I’m finally starting to truly believe, it’s that I still get as excited as a child about lizards and automobiles and carnivorous plants and, as it turns out, muskoxen. I think this is my number one greatest survival skill, because it gives me the upper hand over any number of existential crises, chemical imbalances, and structural damages that may otherwise rob me of much desire to proceed. I took a few more pictures and sat in my truck just as the highway workers sat in theirs, and watched reverentially as the beasts took their time stepping aside.