Travel

Driving Alaska’s Dalton Highway

A caribou wanders around Deadhorse at the end of the Dalton Highway.
A caribou wanders around Deadhorse at the end of the Dalton Highway. ASSOCIATED PRESS

On the Dalton Highway, most conversations concern the Dalton Highway. Although there aren’t many people on the road, they inevitably talk about the road. My first conversation, during a three-day drive along the isolated freeway in Alaska, was with a man named Steven Duffy who was working as a waiter at the Yukon River Camp, a lonesome rest stop marooned among the fir trees four hours north of Fairbanks.

I had stopped for lunch and encountered Duffy — the first fellow human I had seen all day — while still becoming accustomed to the highway’s various perils. Those, I had found, included fog, fatigue, flat tires, facing traffic, passing traffic, potholes, gravel, grizzly bears, rain, snow, sleep-inducing silence, sudden engine failure, an abruptly shattered windshield and running out of gas.

“So how’s the road?” Duffy asked as I walked in, getting, in the spirit of the Dalton, straight to the heart of things. He was a big man with a beard and burly shoulders, and as he handed me a menu, it came with some advice. I should probably take it easy on the hills, he said, and be sure to clear my wheel wells out from time to time. It was also important to pay scrupulous attention to my mirrors and to always — always — drive slowly through the mud.

“This isn’t Anchorage,” he warned. “It’s the middle of freaking nowhere.” After he took my order — grilled cheese and a coffee — Duffy added, although it hardly needed saying, “It’s remote out here.”

The James W. Dalton Highway, which slices through the wildest and northernmost portions of Alaska, is nothing if not remote. Chiefly made of loose-packed dirt and gravel, it shudders over 414 miles from the flyspeck town of Livengood (population 13) to the grim industrial oil fields that mar the frigid shores of Prudhoe Bay.

414 miles Length of the Dalton Highway

Along its length, its spine-snapping roadbed cuts through boreal forests, across the Arctic Circle, up and down the passes of the Brooks Range and deep into the reaches of a misty coastal plain.

NO SERVICES

The highway boasts, if that is actually the word, the longest stretch of unserviced road on the North American continent. For 240 miles, from Coldfoot to Deadhorse, there are no gas stations, no flush toilets, no auto body shops, no restaurants, no medical facilities, no hotels, no motels, no state police posts, no cellphone service, no Internet connections, no radio reception — nothing at all but the thoroughfare itself.

In addition to these numerous privations, there is also no good reason for a nonprofessional driver to drive the Dalton Highway. Hewed from the permafrost in 1974, it originally served as an access road for construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which itself was built from 1975 to 1977, after oil was discovered on Alaska’s North Slope.

Today the Dalton is primarily a haul road for the speeding eighteen-wheelers transporting everything from applesauce to Therma-steel panels to the oil-field workers living in the scarcities of Deadhorse. In winter, the climate can be brutal: The coldest temperature ever measured in the United States — minus 82 degrees — was said to have been recorded on the highway in 1971.

Built in 1974, the James W. Dalton Highway originally served as an access road for construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, after oil was discovered on Alaska’s North Slope.

And even in the clemency of summer, when temperatures can rise to 65 degrees, the casual traveler is confronted by trucks that have a tendency to fling stones at your windows and, with the right of way, aggressively threaten to run you off the road.

I rented a custom-rigged RAV 4 with triple-tread tires and a CB radio, filled the tank to capacity, checked the brakes and oil, and then the next morning drove due north from Fairbanks toward the Dalton. All that I had with me was a bag of clothes, some water, cheese and trail mix, and a vague belief that if I was alone, it might as well be very alone, and on the road.

After lunch in Yukon River I turned on my radio. The experiment failed. The little digital numbers churned four times through the FM dial then finally caught on 88.3, a contemporary Christian station out of Fairbanks. For half-a-minute, I was treated to a tune called Trust in Jesus, then all trace of human voice was gone.

The Dalton’s emptiness is practically a mandate to merge with the landscape, and the landscape I was passing through was striking. Fields of fireweed burned near the shoulder, an incendiary carpeting of lavender. Red and yellow wildflowers popped like flaming sparklers amid the purple, and hovering above them was a white wisp of cirrus cloud. In the distance there were hills, the near hills green and vibrant, the far hills gray and faded, like memories of themselves. And through these hills went the road: a long, brown, dull, unfurling tongue.

‘GREASY GRUEL’

Whenever you get romantic about the beauty of the Dalton, the highway has a habit of kicking you in the back. Lost in a reverie about how Tolkienesque it seems, you might pass through a valley choked with blinding fog or skid across a sudden patch of washboard, that angry rutted surface that — chukka-chukka-chukka — buckets you up and down.

In summer, the road is often treated with calcium chloride, a chemical compound that helps to keep the dust down, but that quickly turns into a greasy gruel when wet. Especially south of Coldfoot, there are several daunting hills with grades of up to 9 percent and unnerving names like the Roller Coaster. While not as perilous as the winding mountain route through Atigun Pass further north, they tend to slow you down — sometimes to 20 mph or less.

I finally made peace with the oddest aspect of the Dalton’s scenic backdrop: the pipeline. For mile after mile, it blandly snaked beside me, following the highway like an endless ugly suture made of steel.

Al Feuer

It was not far from the Arctic Circle, while descending one of these hills, that I finally made peace with the oddest aspect of the Dalton’s scenic backdrop: the pipeline. For mile after mile, it had blandly snaked beside me, following the highway like an endless ugly suture made of steel.

Beyond the road itself, the pipeline is the Dalton’s most intrusive man-made structure – both its bane and raison d’être. There is something profoundly unnatural about the way its metal segments march across the countryside. And something mocking, too: Even though hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day pass through the pipeline, the tube itself passes through a wilderness with only three places to fill your car with gas.

NOT REALLY A TOWN

The town of Coldfoot is not in fact a town. Technically, it is a “census-designated place.” But really, it is no more than a truck stop with a post office.

All of Coldfoot could likely be contained within a football field: the Old West-looking restaurant, the pair of busy gas pumps, the sprawling muddy parking lot and the odoriferous rooms at Coldfoot Camp, which rent — for $200 a night — inside a trailer.

I got to Coldfoot seven hours after setting out from Fairbanks, blissfully on one of the highway’s rare paved sections. It was 3 p.m. and after checking in I took a nap. When I woke up, I found a dead mouse in a trap outside my door and a shirtless man in the common room talking to a television set. By now it was six but still as bright as noon outside. In Coldfoot, in August, the sun barely sets.

Crossing the lot, I made my way past a fleet of filthy pickups toward the bar. If Coldfoot has a claim to fame, aside from being the world’s most northern truck stop, it may be that it’s the only place on the Dalton where you can legally buy a drink.

Founded in the 19th century as the Slate Creek mining camp, Coldfoot got its present name in 1900 when travelers on a nearby river got cold feet as winter came on and wisely turned around. These days the rest stop, which is midway on the highway, serves as a fuel depot for the truckers making barrel runs to Deadhorse. When I was there, it was also a base for hunters and a small brigade of construction workers working on the pipeline.

Coldfoot got its present name in 1900 when travelers on a nearby river got cold feet as winter came on and wisely turned around.

Al Feuer

The only person at the bar when I arrived was a hulking man who was demolishing some chili from the all-you-can-eat buffet ($21.95). But by the time I loaded up on the hotline’s green beans, cabbage and chicken puttanesca, the place was filled with pipeline workers, including one named Mark.

NO ALASKANS

Mark, who kept his last name to himself so as not to annoy his employer, had for years been a medic in Portland, Oregon. But recently he burned out on the job and found his way to the Dalton in the desperate hopeful manner of a Jack London character. In my three days on the highway, I never met an actual Alaskan: I met Floridians, Virginians, a woman from Connecticut and a guy from British Columbia traveling on a Harley with his dog riding shotgun in a sidecar.

In the Dalton’s nagging solitude, human bonds form quickly. And soon enough Mark and I were discussing our jobs, our loves, our politics and, naturally, the road. The washboard was the worst, he said – “It’ll run you into a ditch” – although he granted that the potholes weren’t much better.

It was around that point that one of Mark’s colleagues leaned in with a comment.

“Oh, hell no!” he exclaimed, having heard that I was headed up to Deadhorse. “You do not want to be on that part of the road.”

Then, sipping his drink, he seemed to soften. “I guess you’ll be all right,” he said. “Probably.”

I woke the next morning at 5 a.m. Since I was traveling to Deadhorse and rain was in the forecast, I wanted to start early. It was 44 degrees outside, but at least for now the sun was throwing shredded orange daylight over the mountains.

As I set out, the road got bad, then better, then bad again, until I came to Atigun Pass, where it began to rain and the highway turned into Campbell’s Chunky soup. Climbing to 4,739 feet on slimy switchbacks with semis both in front of and behind me was a far more potent stimulant than Coldfoot’s tepid coffee.

But descending from the pass I reached a vacant plain, the jaundiced sun obscured behind a leaden bank of fog, and in all that emptiness, with the highway jostling hypnotically beneath me, I suddenly forgot that I was on my own. If loneliness is the state of being aware of your aloneness, then solitude is different: To be solitary is to be inside yourself with no need for escape — a separateness without the human ache of isolation.

Deadhorse may rank as the most horrific place on planet Earth … a wasteland of oil tanks, acetylene fires, heavy-machine repair shops and spill-abatement companies,

Al Feuer

It was with these thoughts that I finally got to Deadhorse, which may rank as the most horrific place on planet Earth. The town, if you can call it that, is the apotheosis of petrochemical dismalness: a wasteland of oil tanks, acetylene fires, heavy-machine repair shops and spill-abatement companies that is drenched in freezing rain and pocked with muddy puddles, and where everyone I encountered wondered what in the world I was doing there at all.

In between arriving and filling my car with gas, I had seen enough of Deadhorse. I had planned to spend the night there, but after getting in at noon, and with 10 more hours of sunless daylight pending, I ate a hasty lunch, turned around and drove another six hours back to Coldfoot.

The following day, as I returned to Fairbanks, I passed the Yukon River Camp. Feeling solitarily sociable, I stopped in on a whim to see if Steven Duffy was around.

He was not. He had apparently gone to Fairbanks himself to use the Internet for his fantasy football draft, but the waitress who took care of me amply filled his shoes.

I bought some coffee and she handed me my change. Then she asked, “So how’s the road?”

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