Driving a semi functional vehicle is not something I’m really proud to be knowledgeable about, but sometimes it comes in handy.
One of the large passenger vans at our worksite had a bad torque converter. We were going to drive it two hours to Fairbanks (or as close as we could get).
The van backed up just fine, but when I shifted it into drive it would not budge.
After several attempts of revving the engine up quite high, shifting over and over into every gear, the van was still stationary.
On one final attempt, the van finally started to creep forward. I revved the engine just below its limit and it kept slowly creeping forward a bit faster.
“Go! Just GO!” Uke yelled at me from his nearby truck.
I pulled out onto the parks highway and struggled badly just to get the van up to 20mph. It shifted so harshly I thought it was trying to throw me out of the windshield as if to firmly state “Hey! Don’t drive me, I’m a box of shit!”
Eventually I made it up to 50mph and we were now headed out of The Canyon, and on our way towards Fairbanks.
My only task was to prevent the van from downshifting when climbing up and over hills. (and thus potentially knocking the torque converter further out of whack and bringing us to a depressing halt on the desolate highway.)
There were a few hairy moments, but despite the horribly worn brakes, complete lack of reasonable steering, numerous blinking warning lights, and the obvious transmission problem, I piloted the shitvan the entire 130 miles to Fairbanks….and so our real journey could finally begin.
The primary road around Fairbanks was completely closed for repaving in the direction we needed to travel. Uke’s phone GPS was not telling us this, and my phone was spinning the map around and trying to take us to Botswana or some shit.
We attempted to get on the road several times with failures, which included driving around barricades (accidentally) and the expected resulting profanities.
I finally found a bass-ackwards route around and through town involving some zig zags that finally led us to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
In addition to being a hiking expert (allegedly), Uke was also a bee-keeper, which I had learned more or less as we were pulling up to the large empty parking lot to meet a professor from which he was buying some bee keeping equipment…about ten minutes late thanks to the construction.
The Greatest McDonald’s Meal in Human History
After two and a half hours on the pre-journey road to Fairbanks, we were starving and knew that the long road ahead offered absolutely no opportunities of food or human contact.
So after a few quick chores were taken care of we looked for a place to eat, and after a few choices were declined, the consensus answer was a mandatory McDonald’s visit.
I had not been to a McDonald’s since 2014 that I could remember, but I’m pretty sure that even today a Double Cheeseburger in the rest of the United States was not $3.79..
20 McNuggets were $9.99 so I opted to purchase only 10….for which I was charged $8.19. I would have been very grateful for a complimentary reach around for this ordeal…..or you know paid the extra $1.79 for ten more nuggets for f**k sakes.
Outbound of Society
Uke and I spent a total of around $42 at this particular Fairbanks McDonald’s before we set off for the little traversed Dalton Highway and the mythological edge of the Earth.
As we headed away from Fairbanks, we passed through the small town of Fox and soon we lost all cell phone signals.
“Good bye pavement” we both said as we crested a hill and saw the paved road certainly cut to a dark brown dirt.
You could feel that we were essentially heading into an unknown landscape that a remarkably small number of people have ever seen…at least compared to so many other places on Earth.
After several miles of swerving and bouncing around in the dirt, the pavement resumed much to our surprise.
The road continued several miles well paved as we approached the community of “Livengood”.
What a fantastic name for a village of about 76 people located in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.
It occurred to me that we were not actually on The Dalton Highway yet, which is why the road was still paved.
We were on Alaskan Highway 2, and in just a few miles there was a fork where we would be dumped off onto The Dalton Highway, never to be heard from again.
The Dalton Highway
Alaska Highway 11, more commonly known as The Dalton Highway, splits off of Alaska Highway 2 and heads north towards the Arctic Ocean and what seems to be the edge of the world.
The Dalton Highway is 414 miles long, and it is an exceptionally lonely drive. There is only one stop for gas or any supplies along the entire route.
The stop is located in Coldfoot, about 175 miles north of the start of the highway.
The road rolled up and down over countless hills as we sailed through the dirt and gravel at 60 to 70 mph.
We were facing almost due north, and yet the Sun was directly in front of us. Staring back at our eyes from 93 million miles away….it released Coronal mass ejections which travelled far through space and pierced the Cornea of our eyeballs.
Trekking North into the Tundra
As we continued heading north throughout the so-called night, the Sun blazed with fury in nearly the same place. Sunglasses and visors did absolutely nothing to help our already melted eye sockets.
Dramatic recollection aside, the road in front of us was hardly visible at all beyond a few feet due to the unbelievably intense glare. This was especially troubling due to the fact that this was far from your average road….if it was even a road to begin with.
The forest of sitka spruce (pine trees) quickly began to disappear about an hour into our drive northwards on the Dalton Highway.
The surrounding terrain became a much more open arrangement of tundra and the associated small shrubs and brush. We could easily see for dozens if not over a hundred miles in all directions.
In addition, the condition of the road continued to worsen the further north we travelled.
Taking on Big Waves
Seemingly without warning, we were cast into the Arctic Ocean on a small fishing vessel. We were taking on big waves, and there was little we could do to control the rocking of the boat.
Except we obviously weren’t on any boat, we were still in Uke’s truck, which at this point felt more like a speedboat that had been inadvertently driven into a hurricane.
For the last two hours, Uke had been doing a phenomenal job of steering and skrrrrrrting around giant holes in the highway. We were making extraordinary time as well considering the suggested speed and condition of the alleged roadway.
Speaking of time, it quickly became a perplexing and unexplainable illusion as we drove through this vast empty landscape.
The sun remained in the same place in the sky for what seemed to be an eternity, and yet it did not seem as if time was really passing. The Sun simply stared back at us from the north, slowly and unnoticeably (to us) creeping slowly straight across the horizon.
I remembered checking the clock and seeing 10:41pm around what seemed like maybe 20 minutes ago…and suddenly it was after midnight.
*wwwwwAAAMPSHHHH* We found ourselves briefly airborne yet again. The road had large but completely unnoticeable areas of rolling waves, some of which rose and fell by ten feet or more in height over the span of just 50 or so feet down the road.
Despite the best efforts by the both of us to search for the sudden waves in the road, they struck completely without warning.
Zero Gravity in a Chevy Truck
With my body completely lifted out of the passenger seat by around 6 inches, items in the truck all around me flew as high as a foot off of their surfaces.
I looked over at Uke, his hands firmly on the steering wheel were the only physical objects in the car that did not get at least 1.7 seconds of zero gravity ‘hang time’ as we unexpectedly sailed between sections of the highway….like a cartoon car bouncing along hills into the distant sunset.
Located in the center console armrest of Uke’s truck were two cup holders.
Inside of these cupholders is where our two large cups of extremely hot McDonald’s tea had been located, up until this very moment.
The cups themselves were about four inches above the top of the cup holders at this time. They floated gracefully in the cab of truck, free from the bondage of gravity and the Earthly limitations of cupholders.
Desperately reaching forward while floating in mid air, I managed to get one hand on the tops of each of the airborne cups.
In what we perceived as exceptionally slow motion, I guided the cups back into the cupholders as we began to rapidly come back down into road surface with great force upon impact.
Somehow, still beyond our comprehension to this day, we were saved from having scalding hot tea dumped all over our crotches.
Time Stands Still
We continued speeding along up the Dalton Highway, still forced to stare directly into the blazing red sunlight which was still located just above the horizon line.
There had been absolutely no sign of human influence or existence upon the land since we met this barren highway.
There were certainly no homes or shops anywhere around, but furthermore there had not even been any billboards or road signs in around two hours.
There were no power lines or power poles in any direction. There weren’t even any “next gas in 115 miles” signs or any indications that this road was used by anyone at any point in time.
Contacting anyone for any reason was so far out of the question that we left our phones in airplane mode for the duration of the trip.
Speaking of phones, what time is it? 1:53AM!?
In what seemed like maybe 15 minutes of time, almost two hours had slipped by from right underneath our wheels.
The Sun remained seemingly still in its position along the northern horizon, still burning the ever living hell out of our eyes.
It was surreal, a dreamlike state, and one that completely destroyed our physiological equilibrium and understanding of time itself.
Crossing the Yukon River
Just before 2:00 am, we suddenly were cruising down a long and steep hill, and there appeared to be an open area with an incredible view of vistas ahead.
It was the Yukon River.
The incredible pink and orange sky, a simultaneous dawn and dusk at 1:55am…coupled with the mirror like Yukon River, the majestic mountains, and the complete isolation while crossing a rickety wooden bridge in a large truck…all resembled more of a movie scene than anything in real life.
The high of the trip, the unexplainable passage of several hours without a change in the sky and the mental exhaustion only made the moment that much more of an instant classic.
The Arctic Circle
As we continued north, Uke was killing the road that most only know from the show “Ice Road Truckers”.
The road was far from being icy at this time, as the Sun continued to slowly roll it’s way across the northern horizon directly in front of us.
Surfing north on the Dalton, we continued hitting road wave after road wave. The Alaskan Rollercoaster as some have referred to the highways here, the Dalton highway was so far the most extreme of all.
Looking ahead, I saw the first sign indicating we were approaching a roadside anything in at least the last 100 miles.
After a quick glance at the map, it was clear we were approaching the Arctic Circle.
On the Dalton Highway itself, there is almost no indication that you are crossing into the Arctic Circle. There is only a small sign far to the right of the road that reads “Arctic Circle” with an arrow pointing to the right into the picnic area.
Driving north on the highway, the pulloff (like most of the road itself) is a gravel driveway the enters into a larger gravel “rest area”.
Here we found the incredibly (not at all) famous and legendary sign indicating we were now inside of the Arctic Circle…..the land of eternal ice, Polar Bears, and general frozen hell.
Except that’s not what the Arctic Circle indicates at all. This is simply the line on the Earth where (from this point and northward) the Sun never rises in the midst of Winter, and never sets in the midst of Summer.
While attempting to take the photo in front of the sign, we encountered one of the only two hordes of mosquitoes that exist in the entire state of Alaska.
Of course, I had never attempted to use the self-timer feature on my phone prior to this moment. We had the phone balance on the corner of the hood and the antenna of the truck for over two entire minutes before we realized nothing was happening except we were being devoured by shitflies.
After finally getting a photo, we jumped back into the truck and peeled out of the little picnic area.
The windows were quickly rolled down to suck all of the straggling shitbugs out, something I’ve had to do countless times while storm chasing.
Out of Control Rollercoaster
Continuing north the mythical night began to grow into the early morning hours, yet we had no idea from a psychological standpoint.
The time was 2:37am. The sun continued to remain in nearly the same place directly over the northern horizon. I still cannot fully grasp how psychologically perturbing this situation was.
The flaming ball appeared to be just an inch above the horizon to our eyes. We were stuck staring into an eternal sunrise/sunset. Despite wearing sunglasses and attempting to utilize the sun visors, it was still virtually impossible to see the surface of the road even fifteen feet in front of us.
The inability to see the road led to the inevitability of hitting even more giant holes than what we were already hitting. The condition of the road seemed to grow even worse about 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
We were once again back to launching high into the air. There were many instances of everything in the truck, including our bodies, getting significant airtime and landing harshly back into place….or more commonly anywhere but where the items actually belonged.
Approaching the Brooks Range
Within about thirty miles of Coldfoot we began to notice another significant change in terrain.
For the last several hours, we had been rolling through a terrain that more resembled western North Dakota than a highly mountainous area.
The land was filled with rolling hills and some distant plateau, but devoid of trees and larger mountains. The ground was covered in a green tundra with scattered shrubs.
Now ahead in the distance we could see the beginning of the Brooks Range. The sun was hiding just behind the impending mountain range, providing a brilliant orange glow over the horizon ahead.
The time was now 3:30am. We drove through the entire ‘night’ without the Sun ever leaving our fixed gaze.
The mountains grew closer and closer. Thankfully we were finally approaching the city of Coldfoot at this time, because I’m not sure how much longer either one of us wanted to be awake.
The City of Coldfoot. I might be using that term a bit too loosely.
town truckstop of Coldfoot has an official census population of ten (10).
As we arrived into this small printed word on a huge map, we saw a couple of considerably small shedlike buildings built on the side of a very large gravel lot.
In this gravel lot there were about a dozen tents of all different sizes setup. There also appeared to be a small bathroom nearby for all of the campers.
Finally, there was a single gas pump with two sides that appeared to be at least 30 years old.
We circled around and looked for the Coldfoot airport and Gates of the Arctic visitor center.
Semblance of Society
There was a small airstrip and 3 airplanes parked by a tiny house like building, and several cars parked in a single row along the dirt road leading to the airstrip. This is where Coyote Air’s small lodge (6 cabins or so) was located adjacent to their very small flying operation.
Right around the corner was the National Park Visitor Center for Gates of the Arctic National Park. It was a surprisingly large and new looking building given the extraordinarily remote area that we were in.
Unfortunately, the visitor center (and it’s restrooms) did not open until 11:00am. It was 4:15am and the Sun was blazing into my eyes from the bright blue sky. The mythical night had passed and the Sun was now much higher in the northern sky.
Uke fell asleep almost immediately after parking his truck. I got out to stretch a bit in hopes time would immediately accelerate to 11:00 am so I could sprint into the bathroom….but I had no luck.
We completed our ten hour long journey through what many would consider nowhere, but was actually one of the most captivating experiences of my entire life.
The result? We were sitting in a gravel parking lot with nothing to do but sleep in the bright sunlight.
[PART TWO – GATES OF THE ARCTIC NATIONAL PARK – TO BE CONTINUED]