Not many miles north of Fairbanks, the edge of the Alaskan frontier town gives way to an open expanse of wilderness. At its furthest reach, just beyond its fringes, one still comes across Fox, originally the site of a mining camp, a small settlement on the banks of Fox Creek. It consists of a collection of homes, a general store/gas station, and a spring that provides potable water, claimed by locals to be the best water source in the interior. It can be driven through in the blink of an eye. Somewhat unexpectantly, it houses several well acclaimed eateries – the Howling Dog Saloon, the Silver Gulch Brewery, the Turtle Club – popular with Fairbanksans and locals alike. Beyond these, however, the road twists off into a vast, mostly uninhabitated hinterland.
It is that emptiness of space that draws Nick and me to drive on. The temperature has, for the first time this year, dropped below zero. It is a Sunday afternoon excursion, spurred on by a little time on our hands and a desire for deep vistas. The last snowfall has left the north facing hills frosted in white. Spruces and birch trees line the road in different shades of grey. The road has crusted over with ice and crunches beneath our snow tires.
We come to the Hilltop Truck Stop, famous, we heard, for its homemade pies. We stop and park next to three trailer-tractors, enormous trucks, idling for now, until their drivers commence the fifteen-hour drive up the North Slope Haul Road, as they call it. Inside, the truck stop resembles most in Alaska: a counter selling chocolate covered raisins and beef jerky, Alaskan souvenirs, a flyer advertising laundry and shower facilities at Haystack Mountain. Wooden tables and chairs with red plastic seats accommodate a handful of customers, sandwiches and coffee mugs before them. Behind a vitrine, the pies: Strawberry-Rhubarb, Coconut, Apple, Banana, Fatman. Nick asks for a piece of each, to take home.
The door opens, letting in a truck driver and a gust of frosty air. He approaches the diner counter, smiles at the woman behind it. Acquainted, they fall into conversation. He looks tired, long journey behind him, after delivering supplies to oil field workers in Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic coast.
I pause to think of it for a moment. We had not planned a lengthy drive today, but still considered packing into the trunk of our car extra jackets, boots, flashlights, mittens. What precautions would he have had to take, to embark on a drive that would take him the length of one of the most remote and isolated highways in the world. A journey that would take him some four hundred miles north, with no gas stations, restaurants, rest stops, hotels or cell phone reception. Only a gravel road winding north, potholed, heaved by extreme freezing and thawing, through unpopulated treeless alpine tundra, across the Arctic Circle, up and over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. He had probably encountered snowdrifts, or a blizzard, as he drove on, white-knuckled, gripping the steering wheel of his rig. He would squint beyond the windshield wipers, paralleling the trans-Alaska oil pipeline alongside, his only companion for hours. He would think about reaching Coldfoot, a tiny settlement midpoint, and be reminded of the fact that it got its name, when travelers, approaching the oncoming winter, got “cold feet” and turned back around. Should he be encouraged by the notion that his destination was named Deadhorse?
Yet he covers the distance, over and over, for reasons of his own. For a paycheck, most likely. Or, perhaps, to drive, unencumbered, into a world without edges. To cross the wide Yukon River and to think of its bearing as a major trail river of the north. To see tors of granite, jutting rock formations caused by weather erosion over years, on an alpine tundra. To encounter a herd of caribou as they slowly make their way across the road. To find oneself on a line that traces the Arctic circle, where the sun stays above the horizon for a day on the summer solstice, bathing its surroundings in light. Or to return to a truck stop, just shy of home, where the smile of a woman behind the counter tells him it was worth the journey.