Sunday, August 31, 2008

The End of the Road


We did it. We hitch-hiked back to mile 74 of the Dalton with a new bike frame and a repaired brake and resumed where we left off.

We rode the road over hill and dale and the next hill and the next dale and on and on until Coldfoot, the last settlement/lodge/truckstop and midway between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. We picked up a box of food (mainly spaghetti and sardines) that we had mailed to ourselves there. The remaining 249 miles were strictly on our own.

The road was flatter and the weather drier for two days after Coldfoot until the climb up to the Chandalar Shelf. This was a stiff two mile incline which ended in a bizarrely beautiful wide treeless valley (There is a tree marked "The last spruce" at the foot of the climb) full of exotic brightly colored low-lying taiga plants. Some were dwarf willow and dwarf birch which had turned gold and orange with the mid-August onset of autumn. Others were some strange mint-like plant with blood red leaves. It stretched on in surreal vastness forever.

A few miles on we came to the foot of the Atigun Pass. This was five miles of continuous 12% grade, the steepest anywhere in Alaska. Seen from a distance it appeared as a diagonal line scratched into a mountain side in the Brooks Range. The pass was dark, cold, gloomy, with a fierce north wind, but we were elated anyway. My recollection was that the rest of the road was a nearly level 175 mile cakewalk into Prudhoe Bay.

My recollection was wrong. The next 125 miles were strongly rolling foothills on relatively soft gravel and dirt which required a lot of effort. Only the last 50 miles of tundra was level but by then the road had worsened and the north wind off the ocean had become strong and persistent.

The lands north of the Brooks Range are called the North Slope and are an Arctic Desert with only three or four inches of precipitation a year. Even so there are lots of ponds and streams in the tundra. This seemed paradoxical until it occurred to me that because of the low temperatures evaporation is very slow. When the freeze comes, evaporation stops. And because of the permafrost the water does not sink down into the earth. So it stays on the surface.

Also on the tundra were a family of muskoxen. They are astonishing animals. We were impressed with them. They seemed less impressed with us.

Eventually we persisted to Prudhoe Bay / Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay is the bay on the coast. Deadhorse is the "town" there.) From the unpeopled vastnesses upon vastnesses of the north we were plunged into a strange place, a settlement that is an oilfield, a company town, an industrial site, and seems to have only workers and no middle or upper class people at all. It has substantially no permanent population because the workers are rotated though there are generally six thousand people there at all times. It has no houses. Indeed, it has no real buildings because there is no way to lay foundations on the tundra. Unlike the rest of Alaska, the heavy work is done in the winter when the ground and the sea are frozen hard and heavy machinery can be used without bogging down.

Very much unlike the rest of Alaska there is prohibition of both alcohol and firearms. In the rest of Alaska, guns do not kill people, people do. Where there is big corporate money involved, as on the oilfield, such nonsense is of no interest.

We were much annoyed that we could not bicycle to the Arctic Ocean. The oil companies are unwilling to have people wandering around their oilfield unescorted. So we had to take a shuttle bus tour and got to take pictures of each other on the gravel beach and wade.

Then came finding a way back to Fairbanks. We had hoped to hitch-hike or, failing that, to take a shuttle bus. To our dismay, there was almost no traffic on the road. What little there was were truck company drivers forbidden to take riders. We found that the bus service had stopped for the season the week before. After eight hours beside the all-too-silent road we finally got a ride with the same truck driver who had picked us up when we had hitch-hiked from mile 74 with a broken bicycle frame and stuck brake. Ol' John is an angel in a Kenworth.

The next morning we were in Fairbanks.


  1. Congratulations!!! Sounds like a great trip. I'll have to go with you next time you make that journey. Or maybe not. At my age, I can just manage to ride my bike in the park. I'll leave the long distant biking to you young whippersnappers.

    While you're up in Alaska, stop by the state house and say hi to Gov. Sara Palin. She is HOT! A Tina Fay look-a-like. And I hear she likes to hang with older men.

  2. Anonymous9:11 AM

    Welcome home. Are we going to have you for awile or is it a "Where next?"

  3. Re Governor Palin - feh!

    I claim precedence in despising her weeks before McCain made her a national figure of disdain. More about her shortly.

    To Anonymous -
    How can I know whether you've got me at all when I don't know who you are? I am, of course, as easily had as anyone....

  4. To Harvey --
    Thank you for the congratufulifications. It has literally been a long hard road.

  5. Anonymous2:58 PM

    Wow! That sounds like quite a journey. Appreciate the travel prose, very well done, thanks!

  6. Anonymous9:31 PM

    Who am I? Ah, sweet mysteries of life....