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August on the Haul Road by Mary Ann Thomas | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

August 22, 2016      

August on the Haul Road by Mary Ann Thomas

Anchorage raises my blood pressure. As I pull out of my apartment complex, I swing the car into 50 mph traffic and within seconds slow to a halt. Red lights, four lane city streets, and two left turn lanes at every light mean I’m constantly starting and stopping and changing lanes. I’m new here and I drive on high alert, leaning forward and into the steering wheel, moving my whole body with each turn. I am on my way out of this sprawling, unkempt, barely industrial city overrun by military men, pickup trucks, and pavement.
      I’m headed north.
      I pass viewpoints of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, but don’t see anything. Denali tops off at over 22,000 feet and has erratic weather patterns. It can be a sunny day below the mountain, but the clouds higher up shield it from view. I drive past the entrance to the national park and across the Nenana River Canyon with golden walls towering on either side of the road. I continue into Interior Alaska, defined as the area between the Alaska Range and Brooks Range. The car crawls on these sluggish roads—the speed limit is often 55 mph. Even when I think I’m driving seventy for hundreds of miles, the ups and downs and curves keep me from moving fast. They simply aren’t built for speeding.
      By evening, I’ve driven about 350 miles. I reach Fairbanks, the largest northern city, and stop at the Morris Thompson Visitor’s Center. The parking lot can easily hold hundreds of cars. Inside, I pick up brochures on the Dalton Highway. The Dalton, also known as the Haul Road, will guide me north.
      The sun sets late these days. It’s August—well past summer solstice—but I haven’t seen night since I came to Alaska. It’s about 100 miles to the Haul Road. I follow signs along windy, narrow, paved roadways. They lead me up, ascending a pass, only to fall down the other side. I feel like a marble, sliding down a long rollercoaster track, trying to work up the momentum to get past the next incline.
      I’m here? I think, as I approach the start of the Haul Road. It’s packed so well, it almost feels smooth. A truck hauling two silver oil containers, each the size of a semi on its own, comes towards me. I pull the car all the way over and slow down to a stop. Gravel flies from underneath the truck wheels and showers my car in rocks. It’s not as smooth as I think.
      After 60 miles of pulling over for trucks and constantly checking my gas to calm my fear of running out, I make it to the Mile 60 campground. I pull into a large parking lot. An RV sits to the far right and a truck with a pop-up trailer parked to the far left. I pause for a minute at the edge of the lot. I pull out my brochure, which describes this campground as a large gravel parking lot with no water. This is it.
      I drive up between the two camps. I watch the campers watch me, the only person of color and the only woman around. To the right, a dad throws a football to his pre-pubescent son as he glances at me warily. Within a few minutes, he packs his son into the RV, perhaps having read my solo-brown-woman body as a threat. To the left, two middle-aged men sit in camp chairs near a fire and wave politely. It’s 45 degrees now and I wish I’d thought to bring firewood. There are some trees here, but most of the forest litter is twigs. I’m jealous of the fire, but don’t want to talk to anyone. I wave and walk straight for the outhouse. I anticipate the wall of shit-smell to hit me in the face as I open the door, but I get nothing. Actually, all the smells seem gone. No more aroma of forest, no more faint, sweet spruce. The cold eliminates the floating particles of smell.
      When I get back to the car, I pack a bowl and take a hit. Weed is legal in Alaska, but I don’t particularly want to smoke in front a bunch of strange men. I get high alone in the car. I look at myself in the driver’s side mirror. I am a different person: with my jaw clenched, the skin of my cheeks falls slack from my tense bones; the circles under my eyes have darkened, my brow strains with attention. I smile at myself. I try to laugh, but with no one to hear it I don’t trust the sound. I get out of the car, fumble around with all of the car doors open, and grab my camp stove and dinner.
      At the picnic table, I set up canned chili for dinner. My 25-year old self is aware of how I must look: a brown stranger in an almost-empty land, black skinny jeans and fashionable, impractical boots, a black hoodie that covers my short hair, avoiding conversation with the few other humans who surround me. Am I supposed to talk to people? Is this a social situation? They probably think I’m the serial killer among them. What’s a lone woman with Jersey plates doing in Alaska to begin with? And what’s she doing driving further north alone? I imagine them triple locking their mobile homes. I dream of a day when I won’t be so self-conscious when I’m hiking, camping, biking, living alone. When I say, “Fuck it, I do what I want,” and truly don’t care what those gazing on my small, fragile body think.
      But this far north, these thoughts are transient and distractions from them come easily: soon, I watch dusk fall. It’s almost midnight and the sun refuses to set. It traces itself across an unending horizon. I watch the earth rotate, giving me new angles from which to watch the sun with each inch it turns. It spins symmetrically on its tilted axis, allowing for 24-hour sunshine on summer solstice and requiring 24-hour darkness in winter. I never felt the slanted turning of the earth like I do here. It’s not the eternal sun that chooses to move and manage our days, but fickle, ever-changing earth whose motion dictates our waking hours.
      In the morning, I wait until everyone else has left before I make breakfast and get on my way. The brochure tells me that a café sits at the bottom of a gravel driveway behind the campground. I pull up to it for coffee. Not a single car in the parking lot. A huge road sign tells me I’m sixty miles to the Arctic Circle and 120 to Coldfoot. I enter the trailer, the only building with an open door. No one is here. On one side, hard-backed diner booths line the wall, in McDonald’s red and yellow. The bright colors shock my eyes after perpetually grey skies, mud road, and black spruce. The other side holds a breakfast spread: individually packed cereal boxes, bruised fruit, and metal containers that may have once held eggs and bacon. No one is around. I see the coffee at the far end of the quasi-diner and tentatively walk towards it. An open basket of money sits on the breakfast table with a sign that explains the honor system and prices. Anyone could choose to take it all.
      The coffee pot is empty. I open the filter compartment to start another pot and, miraculously, a fresh filter and ground coffee are already sitting there, ready to use. They’ve prepared it for me so I can make myself a pot, take a cup, and fill my thermos. Thanks, guys. I throw a five in the basket and look around. The fridge is bursting with lettuce, tomatoes, and buns. But where is everybody?
      I ask myself the question but am thankful I don’t have to interact with anyone or justify my solo-brown-woman dressed in head-to-toe black existence. I start to smile, thankful for the coffee, thankful for the solitude, thankful for the honor system. “This!” I say aloud and laugh. “This is fucking awesome!” Of course the honor system works. If anyone stole the money, the owners would know where to find them: somewhere along the Haul Road. I fill up my cup with the disgustingly weak, but deeply satisfying, coffee, and drive off.
      Soon, I enter the Arctic Circle.
      I reach Coldfoot. An irrelevant town aside from its importance as the only place pumping gas midway on the Haul Road. I stop at the visitor’s center. The National Park Service encourages humans to conserve this landscape. The tundra is fragile, the signs say. Tips include: wear low-tread shoes; limit groups to four people; in a group, individuals should hike across the landscape rather than in a line; do not build fires except on gravel bars. But what about the trails the government created? The Haul Road I now travel, built in 154 days to chase oil, so fondly referred to as black gold. The Alaska Pipeline, another trail, a constant companion running not-quite parallel to the road, a straight silver metal line that marks the US conquest of this northern land. This pipeline, whose maintenance requires 18-wheel trucks and pickups to rumble north, forever altering the quiet calm of this northern corridor. Each road is millions of tire treads, tons of gravel trail.
      I continue driving, recognizing my own role as tourist here. By the end of the day, if there is such a thing up here, I’ve crossed the Continental Divide of the Brooks Range and camp at Galbraith Lake Campground. Dense cloud cover shields the enormous Galbraith Lake itself.
      I walk around the perimeter of the campground. The trees disappeared miles ago, replaced by dwarf shrubs and lichen. It’s fall here. Bear berries carpet the earth. Their green leaves are changing to maroon and the scattered shrubs are gradually becoming yellow. These seemingly lifeless boney mountains sit painted in color. I go back to the car to avoid the wet fog outside and spend the remaining daytime hours considering my plan. I’ll probably turn around tomorrow. There’s no reason to continue to Deadhorse. If the idea is vast autumn Arctic tundra as far as the eye can see, I get it.
      I convince myself that I’m not going to go further—until the next day, when whispers of furthernorth furthernorth furthernorth invade my head and my car directs itself to a place I never thought I needed to go.
      Now that I’ve crossed the Brooks Range, no mountains loom above me here. Driving through miles of tundra heading north almost feels like being in a plane, at cruising height. I watch the horizon, but it’s eerily close. If I can just get half a mile from the road, I think I’ll touch the moment where the sky and earth meet.
      The last 60 miles of this road bump and rock and shake me, and I mentally prepare myself for cracks in my windshield and a flat I don’t know how to change. I finally make it to Deadhorse, questioning whether I’ve blinked in the last 3 hours of driving. I pull up to the general store where a sign displays a map of the Dalton Highway and a logo for Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay. I walk into the first floor and am greeted by a hardware section, by men staring unsmiling at me across narrow aisles, by florescent lights on wooden shelves displaying black auto parts. I go upstairs and find a few women in this touristy section, but they too refuse to smile at me. They make small talk among themselves. I search the shelves for edible food that doesn’t remind me of ramen or chili or tuna, and I find only candy and chips. Fuck this. I abruptly leave, wanting to slam the door and break some shit. So fucking anti-climactic. I can’t even pay someone for decent food. Deadhorse feels like isolation.
      Outside, I sit in the car and eat a tuna wrap. I find the gas station in town after circling unpaved roads, mud flying up with every turn. It’s not gravel here, just straight up mud, as if the billions of dollars generated from the oil industry still can’t justify pavement on permafrost. I stare at the people in pickups, each truck covered in a thick layer of grime, almost covering the “Halliburton” logos. I am at the beginning point of the Alaska Pipeline, the great industrial structure powering the grand concept of the American Oil Industry, of Reducing Reliance on Foreign Fuel, of an Alaskan Economy.
      I fill my gas tank, where prices hit $5.50/gallon. I run into a group of three motorcyclists who I briefly met at the Arctic Circle sign. They agree: “This place is weird. We’re gonna get some food and get out of here. This is not a place to linger.”
      In traveling alone, I seek out my instincts and let them guide me. I’ve felt shaky since I got here, my body so out of place among oil workers and those who support the industry. My ego gets in the way, though, and yells, “You came all the way here! Go find something! What are you going to tell people about Deadhorse?” The words of these strangers validate me and give me the confidence to drive back south, through the crappy road and thick fog, despite not talking to anyone, buying a meal, or “experiencing” Deadhorse. Maybe Deadhorse is not a place I want to experience.
      I drive down to where I started the day and camp at Galbraith Lake again. In the morning, I stop for my first hitchhiker.
      Igor, an older Russian man with a 4-foot tall pack barely covered by a black garbage bag, claims he hitchhiked from Ushuaia, the southernmost point of the Americas, and hasn’t been back to Russia in three years. He provides few details and doesn’t have a neatly prepared script to provide when talking small. I welcome the company since I haven’t spoken to anyone in days, but can’t relate to him much. He asks for a list of camping spots in New York State, even digging through his bag for a pen and paper, which feels irrelevant as we jerk up and down this northern Alaskan road. His travels have taken him far enough, and maybe mine have taken me far enough, we didn’t know how to communicate politely.
      Heading south, we cross the Brooks Range on an unpainted surface while a wall of white fog blocks my vision. I use the rock face curving on the right as a guide. The car careens over the mountain pass road with an abrupt thousand-foot drop and I truly believe that this is the most dangerous road I’ve ever been on.
      On the other side of the pass, a slight girl with a pack looming a foot above her head waves us down with both hands. I pull over, at least to say hello, in the frigid, 36 degree, pouring rain, and she barks, “Where are you going?”
      “Fairbanks.”
      “Please take me!” she yells. “I need to get out of this.” Her voice cracks and her eyes are wide, desperate, afraid of being left behind. Her face crinkles, her body drenched in rain, and her garbage bag, too, doesn’t quite cover her pack.
      “Well, I gotta rearrange some things in here…” I say noncommittally.
      “Pull over up there and I’ll meet you.” She sees my sympathy. I can’t easily drive away, cruelly leaving a young woman in the freezing rain to the will of truck drivers and man camp dwellers.
      I pull over. We load her things, water pouring out of them, and she gets in the car. She peels the soaked layers off her now shivering body. She thanks me as she describes her morning realization that she can’t defeat 60 mph winds and rain and hypothermia in order to backpack Atigun Pass. “I stopped shivering. I woke up this morning and realized I stopped shivering so I knew I had to get down to the road and get warm,” she tells us. After we cranked the heat for half an hour, she explained how she got here. Backpacking since the age of four. A dad who trusted her to set her own limits. Her easy laughter and bravado fills the car with excitement as she warms up. She runs through her thoughts as she hiked down from the mountain this morning, the mountain she’d intended to conquer. It takes a unique confidence to know one’s limits. Her ability to learn from this failed attempt at solo backpacking, and her vulnerability as she admitted her mistakes while simultaneously planning her next trip, leaves me wondering whether I know my own limits.
      I drop the hitchhikers off in Fairbanks and continue driving onwards to Anchorage. The hum of the car’s engine keeps me awake and wanting more mountains, more windy roads, more silent valleys, and more open tundra as I gradually make my way towards the small sprawling city I now live in. I never want the car to stop, I never want the sun to set.
      I arrive with my car covered, roof to tire, in mud. A thick crust coats my license plates, keeping me anonymous and invincible. As I unload the car, filling my echoing apartment with a little extra cushioning, my skin relaxes. Leaving has allowed me to return to this place and fall into some kind of familiarity. It takes five days alone shaking up and down bumpy, windy Arctic roads for me to consider this lonesome place home.

Mary Ann Thomas HeadshotAbout the author:

Mary Ann Thomas is a New Jersey-born-and-raised queer South Asian traveler. She has been published in Brown Girl Magazine, is a VONA/Voices fellow and writes about her adventures as a travel professional and long-distance bike tourist.

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