Monday, June 13, 2011

Heading to the Arctic Circle

Allen is outside the motorhome taking pictures alongside the Dalton Highway, the Haul Road, the one made famous by The Discovery Channel because of how dangerous it is. Because it's nearly 500 miles of unpaved, winding, narrow road, full of sharp, tire-flattening gravel, vertical drop-offs and concrete-like mud. Manic 18-wheelers possess this road because they service the prize at the end: Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean.

Our goal is less lofty. We want to stand on the Arctic Circle (about 115 miles in), then turn around and head back to Fairbanks and pavement.

Despite the danger, we find this dramatic road beautiful. That's why Allen braves the mosquitoes to take pictures. Mile after mile, turn after turn, we see panoramic vistas of endless mountain chains; clouds so low, we look down on them; and here and there we see the sun dance on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It snakes aboveground through the countryside, secretive in places, commanding in others.

We're loving this daring adventure. Five miles in. Seven. Then 10 miles in on our 115-mile journey, the road narrows. The shoulders drop off into nothing. At one point, the soft gravel grabs our right front tire and pulls us in, like a goblin hungry for rubber. We wrestle free, shake off the mounting fear, and travel on, avoiding the shoulder, which, obviously, dissolves under the weight of our motorhome.

Eleven miles. Twelve. Maybe 20. We tire, because of the doddering pace. Because of the mud slapping our sides. Of the spitting gravel and ominous drop-offs. And gremlins lurking in soft shoulders.

And we're hungry. The dogs have to eat, too, and go for a walk. So we stop in a turnout, offside of the road. And so do all the mosquitoes of Mudville. Allen runs the dogs out into the swarm, then back in. Safe.

As we eat, two 18-wheelers splatter past. And we notice they zoom straight up the middle of that unforvgiving nightmare of a road. No room for us to stay safe. We'd have been pushed to the side, onto that shoulder. Goners. Muddy, gravel encrusted goners.

So as we continue to eat, we look toward the hills up ahead, and consider our goal, the Arctic Circle that lies just on the other side. And decide to wave. It's OK. We wave at the mountains that can see the Arctic Circle on the other side. Good enough for us.

We finish our meal, then head back toward Fairbanks. And on the way, we see an amazing sunset (well, the sun never really sets here; it just rests on the horizon), the end of a rainbow (well, they do say there's gold in these hills), and we get to use our mosquito nets (over our heads) to walk the dogs again.

And we get to stay safe, out of the way of those 18-wheel road hogs, who are paid well to drive this dangerous road.

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