Thirty-two men died building the 4-foot-diameter, 800-mile-long steel tube winding like an impassive snake past my driver’s door window and into the horizon. Given where the serpent lives, though, it could’ve easily slayed more. This is Alaska, more than twice the size of Texas yet home to barely 725,000 hardy residents, most of whom consider winter temperatures of 20 degrees below zero a “thaw.” Yet despite a landscape often frequented by more bears than humans, one plagued by some of the harshest weather on the planet, in 1977 brilliant engineers and heroic contractors completed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which defies Mother Nature and belief to transport mankind’s “other” lifeblood across the entirety of the state—from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, to the ice-free southern seaport of Valdez.
For me, the pipeline is primarily a signpost. I’ve come to drive the infamous service road carved and scraped into its shadow: the James W. Dalton Highway, 414 miles of almost completely unpopulated, mostly unpaved two-lane running between Fairbanks and Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay. Remote, frequented by hurtling big rigs, and often buried by snow and ice in winter, the Dalton has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous roads. I’m here in late summer, but still the locals are full of warnings. Drivers crash or die here all the time.
My ride is a 2014 Toyota 4Runner Limited, the fully optioned, leather-lined cream puff of the line, but the tires are better-suited to Beverly Hills than a fearsome byway. Before leaving Fairbanks, therefore, I swap the standard issues for a set of burly Toyo Open Country meats, which not only promise infinitely more protection from the road’s myriad perils, but also totally look the business.
Soon, about an hour north of Fairbanks, the asphalt gives way to dirt and the Dalton begins. You don’t embark on this journey without serious preparation: Service stops are virtually non-existent (bring extra gas), and in bad weather a mere blown tire can quickly turn into an Arctic survival event. That said, I’m surprised at how good the road is so far. The unpaved stuff is well groomed, and—who knew?—there’s actually quite a bit of pavement, though it’s far worse than the dirt. Also, I’ve discovered a welcome byproduct to the Dalton’s isolated character: The views in every direction are unspoiled by so much as a telephone pole (frequent appearances by the pipeline notwithstanding), and the road is often mine and mine alone.
Several hours later I mark a major milestone on my journey—a spot farther north than I’ve ever been, even in Iceland. A handsome sign informs me I’ve just crossed the Arctic Circle. Fortunately, there is no kiosk selling Polar Burgers or “I Joined The Inside Circle!” T-shirts. Not that I have the site to myself. A busload of tourists from India are taking turns kneeling before the sign on a prayer rug. After getting here all the way from there, I suppose a few invocations of thanks are entirely appropriate.
Fifty-five miles later I reach my destination for the night: Coldfoot Camp, a few industrial buildings and a series of large, interconnected trailers that serve as a hotel. You’ll pay $200 a night for a bed, but despite the muddy, potholed parking lot and the bare-bones accommodations, after hundreds of miles cut off from humanity you’ll welcome this place like a Four Seasons—for here is good food, that precious liquid gold called fuel, a private shower in your room. And if you stay up past dark, and that’s after midnight in early September, Coldfoot might even treat you to the otherworldly magic show of the aurora borealis, the northern lights. And then you’ll go to sleep hypnotized by the fireworks of a solar wind.
The next morning, not long after leaving Coldfoot, I make two new sightings. First, a thick icing of snow falling across the highway and the surrounding mountains. And then, hustling down the road directly in front of me, a small brown bear. He doesn’t hang around for long before breaking for the brush, but just by making an appearance he’s quickly elevated the thrill of today’s drive.
The next patch of civilization lies 250 miles north. No service stops, no Cracker Barrels, not even so much as a vegetable stand. If you want a hot lunch out here, you break out the propane stove and the boil-in-bag meals. Will you care that it’s not four-star dining? No, you will not. You’ll cherish every bite. Because simply being amid this natural palace is to live like a king.
My drive is blessed with unusually fine weather; most of the time, the sun is shining and the temperature hovers in the high 30s. Even when it’s not snowing or well below zero, though, the Dalton can easily bite you. Rounding a bend, I come upon the horrifying sight of an overturned car. I slam on the brakes and run to the vehicle, but it quickly becomes clear that the wreck has been here a few days. Who knows what happened to the occupants; it looks bad. But given the road’s broken surfaces and almost complete lack of guardrails, even a moment’s inattention can land you in serious trouble. The Dalton is narrow, and the oncoming big rigs often slide by without much room to spare. Accelerating past a slow-moving truck is risky, too—you get to deal with clouds of dust, flying rocks, and a looming ditch just inches away. Add rain and mud, and the stakes rise further. Call it a miracle if your windshield survives unscathed.
Late in the day, suddenly my cellphone comes alive as I reach the Dalton’s terminus: Prudhoe Bay, this desolate region’s version of Oz. All around me stand oil rigs, work trucks of every size and description, and huge corrugated buildings to house the thousands of men and women who travel here to toil in the area’s oil fields. It’s a mud-covered mess right now, but this is Prudhoe at its best. In a few months, temperatures of 60 degrees below zero will be common.
Some might view this Arctic outpost as unworthy of serving as the destination for a difficult journey—an uninspired, even ugly colony boasting nothing but rough work and rougher workers. But to my mind, Prudhoe Bay stands as proudly as will a future base on the moon—a city that shouldn’t exist because of its impossibly challenging environment, but one that does through sheer human ingenuity, force of will, and resources simply staggering in their magnitude. Leave politics aside for a moment. Prudhoe, the Dalton, and the pipeline are pyramids of a modern age. And that alone merits the long, challenging drive to explore them.