I am exhausted, exhilarated, and brain dead. In other words, a typical ending to another day in Alaska.
Have I mentioned how early it gets light here? Even though the days will keep getting longer for another two months, I am experiencing a lot of daylight. I woke up at 4:45 a.m. this morning, and light was already showing on the horizon. I tend to go to bed around 10:00 or so, and it is most definitely still light outside then. Thank goodness for the blackout curtains that most motels have. Still, I’m getting by on five-six hours of sleep per day. I might have to take a day off the road and just rest sometime later this week.
No rest today, though. I drove 550 miles, and 350 of those were incredibly challenging, as they were on the Dalton Highway, sometimes called “Haul Road,” sometimes called “The Loneliest Highway in America.” Having just driven it, I see how it earned those last two monikers.
The Dalton Highway starts about 80 miles north of Fairbanks, then goes due north for 400+ miles, if you want to drive all of it. I did not. I couldn’t think of a single reason to drive all the way to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. That would have meant a 500 mile drive today, and then turning around and driving back over those same 500 treacherous miles tomorrow. Half that was more than good enough for me.
The Dalton Highway was built to transport necessary goods for the Trans-Alaska pipeline in the mid-seventies. Since it was built for semi traffic, they didn’t put a lot of thought into the finer things – like pavement, or gas stations. There are only three signs of civilization on the entire 400+ mile road, and I use the term civilization very loosely: All three of those towns have less than 25 people who live there.
The road itself is mostly comprised of hard pack gravel and looks like this:
And then it looks pretty much exactly like this for another 400 miles. The only real change is that there is a lot of drops and rises in elevation as you go up and over various hills and valleys. I averaged about 35 mph on both legs of the journey. The combination of loose gravel, corners, hills, and eighteen wheelers make for some pretty treacherous driving.
Because the weather has been nice the road is very dry. So, when you meet a semi barreling down on you, it’s got a huge rooster tail of dust, rocks, and dirt for a few hundred yards behind it, essentially blinding you for four or five seconds. I quickly learned to scope out the road ahead of me for curves and the like when I saw a semi coming.
So why did I drive it? Like Edmund Hillary: because it was there. It’s a famous road for all the wrong reasons, and I love a good road trip, so off I went. Also, it gave me the chance to cross the Arctic Circle for the one and only time in my life:
It was a little bit chilly, too. I can walk around in 20 degree temperatures in a t-shirt for five to ten minutes, and it doesn’t bother me, but it was colder than that, because as soon as I stepped out of the car, I was reaching for my jacket.
And, of course, there was some stunning scenery. I crossed any number of frozen rivers again today. I promised myself I would remember the name of this river, and then immediately forgot it:
I didn’t feel so bad about forgetting the name of that river, though, when I saw this signpost a few miles later:
Man, talk about giving up! Make a little effort here, guys!
I left on the drive about 6:30 a.m., so I made it to Coldfoot in the early afternoon. I’ll be honest. Coldfoot ain’t much of a town. In any other circumstance, you’d drive right by it without a glance. Since it’s the first sign of humanity in about 200 miles, though, it looks like an oasis. A muddy oasis. Mud has to be the state substance of Alaska, because everywhere, everywhere I’ve been is muddy.
When I first pulled into Coldfoot, I thought maybe I’d taken a wrong turn, because there didn’t seem to be any there there. A few industrial looking buildings, a few mobile homes, and a non-descript building with a gas pump out front. There’s no sign, but I recognized it as the Trucker’s Cafe. I had a BLT that was pretty good, and reasonable, considering it was the only food for several hundred miles.
Me being me, I talked to my waitress while she was taking my order. I asked her if she ever got a little stir crazy, living in such a small town, (Pop: 20) and being so far from anywhere. She didn’t say anything, but just nodded very seriously until she made me a little nervous. She said she hadn’t been out of Coldfoot since the beginning of the year. I spent 45 minutes in Coldfoot and was ready to leave, so I felt for her.
Gas wasn’t as bad as I’d feared it might be:
What was I gonna do, wait and see if I could find a better price somewhere down the road?
I had read about the Coldfoot cemetery, and I desperately wanted to check it out. I figured I’d never get another chance to see a cemetery north of the Arctic Circle. This is what I found:
The entire cemetery was buried under about four feet of snow. I had some boots with me, but I didn’t want to go tromping around someone else’s cemetery, not knowing where I was walking, so I had to leave without investigating it.
Having accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish on the day – cross the Arctic Circle, drive the Dalton Highway, have lunch at the Trucker’s Cafe – I turned around and headed back south to Fairbanks again.
All the way up and down, I had two constant companions. One was the Trans-Alaska pipeline itself, which runs parallel to the road all the way:
The other is the North Spruce tree. There are hundreds of thousands of these trees along the road, at least until you hit tundra (which means literally, “treeless upland”) somewhere north of Coldfoot.
Okay, they’re probably not anyone’s idea of a perfect Christmas tree, but consider the conditions they have to grow in – extreme cold, virtually no daylight for months at a time, snow, frost, and ice – I think they do pretty well for themselves.
Here’s one more scenery shot before I sign off for the day:
Man, I love this place.
So, whither to tomorrow? I have no idea! That’s just how I roll. Wherever/whatever it is, I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow night, God willing, and the creek don’t rise.
Cheers, and safe travels!