The Daunting Dalton

I have anxiety. Even worse, I have “anticipatory” anxiety. I was the kid who feared going down the big-kid slide. The kid who cried and said I couldn’t do it. But once I mustered the courage, I would get up at the bottom and with a tear-streaked face and sweaty palms I would realize that I was not only still alive, but the ride was actually fun.

“Let’s do it again!” I would squeal.

That pretty much sums up my Dalton Highway experience.

If you’ve ever seen the TV show Ice Road Truckers, then you’re familiar with the infamous “Haul Road” that runs approximately five hundred miles one way from Livengood Alaska to Deadhorse/ Prudhoe Bay. In order to do the Pan-American Highway in its entirety we would have to get to Prudhoe Bay.

When I read in my revered Milepost guidebook that the roads were rough and unpaved, I imagined potholes that could swallow a Volkswagen Beetle and rocks the size of bowling balls littering our path with obstacles. When I read that the highway was a haul road for truckers and anyone who traveled the Dalton would want to bring a spare tire on a rim, ten gallons of extra fuel and should anticipate replacing a cracked windshield once back in Fairbanks, I imagined trucks speeding by showering my beautiful bus with a barrage of gravel bullets. When I read that Atigun Pass was a 12% grade for 5 miles, I had no imagination for that steep a grade, but I knew that the chances of us plummeting to our deaths at those heights were pretty good.

My heart pounded as our wheels rolled onto the Dalton Highway, and worst-case scenarios slammed through my brain. We had our spare, we had our fuel, we had resigned ourselves to a new windshield and maybe some paint touch ups upon our return. We were as ready as we would ever be.

The first few miles were slow, dusty and rattled Tomás to his core, but overall, not as bad as I had expected. The first day we drove for only three and a half hours and covered a mere fifty-seven miles. As we settled in at the mighty Yukon River my jaw began to unclench, and I was able to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings and even made a light dinner before we settled in for the night not knowing what the next day would bring.

The following day we awoke to smoky skies from nearby wildfires, had some coffee, fueled up at Yukon camp from a single hose at an above-ground diesel tank, and started off for Coldfoot. I silently wondered if I, myself might get cold feet at Coldfoot and want nothing more than return to the paved roads of Fairbanks, but I kept that fear to myself.

It wasn’t long before my fears were replaced with awe at the raw beauty of the vast boreal forest. Made up of mostly Spruce trees, the forest landscape was broken only by periodic peeks of the Alaskan pipeline. At one point we noticed a gate had been left open on one of the access roads to the pipeline. Being the rebels that we are (well, Kevin is the rebel, I am simply a cohort) we drove down it and were able to drive completely underneath the mammoth pipeline. The manmade structure is as beautiful as it is off putting in the Alaskan wilderness. As we continued down the Dalton, we noticed every other gate had been securely closed and locked. I wonder if we would still be up there if the ranger had realized his mistake and returned and locked the gate while we were inside.

After a visit to the Arctic Circle and a climb up Finger Rock, we made our way to Coldfoot where we fueled up and visited their well organized and informative visitor’s center and watched a brief film on the terrain and wildlife we were about to encounter.  It was at our camp for the night as I sprayed myself will mosquito repellent that I first asked myself if I was nerdy enough to wear the mosquito head net I had seen at the Visitors Center, decided I was not. A decision I would soon regret (if you have not read my blog Alaska’s State Bird, read it to find out why).

Day three: Atigun Pass day. The day I had dreaded. 12% grade? Five miles? Anticipatory anxiety kicked into high gear. With the Milepost guidebook in my lap at all times, I watched for the milepost markers along the way. I read about each passing marker and shared with Kevin what river we were paralleling, what animals to be on the lookout for and any history I could find about the area where we were. All the while knowing that each tidbit of information was bringing us one mile closer to the pass. Eventually there it was, one mile marker further to begin our ascent.

We were about a quarter of the way up the south side of the pass when a grader came over the crest. As if the road wasn’t narrow enough before, the truck was grading the opposite side of the road creating a huge berm of gravel and dirt that forced us closer and closer to the edge. I could have reached out and touched the guardrail had I not been frozen in fear. It was with great relief that the five miles we had been told about included both the ascent and descent. I can tell you with certainty that five miles is a long time to hold your breath. As we reached flat ground once again on the other side, I was keenly aware that we would have to do it again on the return trip.

Shortly before the pass the terrain changed completely. At mile marker 179, a sign indicated where the last Spruce tree had once stood before vandals cut it down. From that point on the landscape became more and more sparce. We were in the Alaskan tundra. On the north side of the pass the Brooks Mountain range could be seen in the distance. Devoid of any growth save for moss, lichen and grasses growing on the permafrost, the nearby hills appeared to be the furry green backs of giant, ancient muskox slumbering next to the baron mountains. The pipeline, clearly visible now, cut across the landscape like scars left from a stitched-up wound. As far as the eye could see, the metal serpent sliced the scenery.

Our last day before we reached Prudhoe Bay found me relaxed and enjoying the flat well-maintained gravel roads punctuated by stretches of pavement. The last 60 miles or so was all new pavement which meant no frost heaves (yet) and smooth sailing on in to Deadhorse.

We had made it! We had arrived at the start of the Pan-American Highway! I fought the urge to kiss the ground. The daunting Dalton had not gotten the better of us. And with the proverbial tear-stained face and sweaty palms I realized that I was not only still alive, but the ride was fun.

“Let’s take a dip in the Arctic Ocean and then do it again,” I squealed.




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