THE DOORS CAME OFF IN FAIRBANKS. It made the Jeep feel more like a motorcycle, which was nice, because we had a bike with us on the trip. It also made the truck feel simpler and ported in from the Forties, when the first Jeeps were built. Everyone loves Forties Jeeps. They’re doorless and cheeky and embody a kind of midcentury optimism. If that doesn’t sound like fun, you probably grabbed this magazine by accident while reaching for a copy of Somnambulant Nose Picker.
(This story originally appeared in the September issue of R&T.)
George Mallory said he climbed Everest because it was there. I unbolted the doors from a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon because I was driving to the Arctic Ocean and back with three friends. More than 1000 miles of wilderness. The trip swallowed four different climate zones and a mountain range where most of the peaks haven’t been named or climbed. A frivolous exposure that seemed to demand more of the same. Five minutes with a Wrangler door hinge and the factory toolkit, you get wind up your shorts. So our Jeep was there, as Mallory would have said, and then its sides were not.
Alaska is one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states. It contains eight national parks but fewer humans than Indianapolis, and a host of places where practical machines are king. Jeeps fill parking lots. Fifty-year-old snowcats see daily use. A cargo airline based in Fairbanks still flies DC-6s and Curtiss-Wright C-46s—wartime workhorses that remain in use because they’re the best answer to a problem, able to drop into short fields while carrying enough diesel to light a village.
And there are roads. One, the Dalton Highway, is the only American route across the Arctic Circle. The Dalton starts in a forest 80 miles north of Fairbanks, then runs 416 miles to Deadhorse, near the Arctic Ocean. It passes through a largely human-free area that the New York Times called “the size of 50 Yellowstones.” The region can see caribou herds thousands of animals deep.
The Dalton is mostly gravel or chip seal, with a smattering of pavement. It was built in 1974 to service the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and to supply the Prudhoe Bay oil field that feeds the pipe. South of Deadhorse, the road holds little more than two gas stations and a location where, for 17 consecutive days in 1989, the mercury never crested 60 degrees below zero. Which is why you head there in summer. The best time is early June, before the rains or road construction. So that’s when we went.
We left the doors at Gene’s Chrysler in Fairbanks, the only Jeep dealer in town. They had offered to help in advance, despite not knowing me from Adam. The people I spoke with there—Lane Nichols and his son Logan, in sales, and Robert Clemons, in service—were friendly and genuine, as if no one had told them how car dealers behave in the rest of the world. Clemons made me a cup of coffee strong enough to peel paint and laughed when I mentioned the Dalton. Then his face shifted.
“Do not,” he said, suddenly serious, “get close to bears.”
I put the coffee down. “Wait. In what world do I see a wild bear and not immediately run where the bear is...not?”
“Some people walk toward them,” he said. “I saw one a while back. I thought he was coming over, but then a herd of caribou came over the hill, and he took off after."
In that moment, I realized I had never seen a wild herd of anything. “We can’t keep these things in stock,” Logan Nichols said, as I climbed back into the Jeep. “Mostly four-doors. More storage, seats up, than a two-door, seats down. You guys got bug dope for the trip? Get the deep-woods stuff with DEET. Big mosquitoes.”
He said this with raised eyebrows, as if enormous bugs were a uniquely Alaskan dessert. I found myself wondering if the state’s natives end up viewing its extremes as a kind of smiling, elective insanity. Then I stopped at a store and bought several cans of bug spray. On the way out of town, my mind wandered, picturing herds of Jeeps thundering over tundra. Then a bear running in from offstage, to bite one in half.
It occurred to me that love for machinery and places often comes in quick tide. Also that bug dope might be a mild intoxicant, and I had probably sprayed a bit too much on my face. And then I thought for a while about bears driving Jeeps in herds, happy as I’d been in years, and it didn’t matter why.
PEOPLE CAME WITH, AS I SAID. The Jeep also held my friends Michael Chaffee and Dave Burnett. Chaffee I met years ago through track-day friends, living in the Midwest. Burnett is one of R&T’s photographers and based in New York. Both like strange trips into the middle of nowhere, so I asked if they wanted to join me on Earth’s hat. And then there was my friend Zack Courts, who works for Cycle World. He brought a 123-hp BMW R1200 GS and wrote about the trip for CW.
This was more intentional symmetry, because that GS is spiritual kin to the Wrangler: an ancient template (BMW has been making shaft-driven, two-cylinder bikes since 1923), dirt-focused (GS stands for Gelände/Strasse, or “off-road/road”), wildly popular, sold on the fantasy of adventure. Like the Jeep, a GS can bury itself in the woods without flinching, but you mostly see them on calm pavement.
Which the Dalton is definitely not. Its start, off Alaska’s Highway 2, is marked by an abrupt transition from asphalt to crushed gravel. We parked off the road to take pictures of the various highway signs. One read “Heavy Industrial Traffic. Proceed with Caution.” Another guaranteed the presence of road damage. A third noted the speed limit—50 mph—and that it applied for the next 416 miles.
As I read that last sign, a twin-trailer semi tore past. A blinding wake of tan dust ballooned behind it, hanging in the air. After a few seconds, what felt like half the cloud settled on my clothes and face, sueding my skin.
That cloud would be ever-present in the days that followed. Trucks are the majority of Dalton traffic and the road’s inarguable king, supplying Deadhorse with everything from condoms to car parts. The Dalton’s two fuel stations, in the settlements of Coldfoot Camp and Yukon River Camp, boast parking areas large enough to let a two-trailer rig turn around with ease, dedicated truck-service garages. A number of locals told me how the Dalton’s semis have been known to run people off the road due to sheer momentum—we noticed some doing 90 mph on straight sections, making headway to climb steeper grades. They pass so quickly, you rarely see the driver’s face.
Courts dismounted the BMW, brushing off his jacket, smiling at the signs. “Basically,” he said, “they’re all saying, ‘Here’s a thing that might kill you. Is that okay?’”
I wondered if the Jeep would care. Big Dana axles and fat off-road tires get you thinking that you can drive over anything. The Wrangler was completely redesigned for 2018, but not so you’d notice. The new truck, known within Chrysler as JL, offers multiple jumps over the outgoing (JK) version: a nicer interior, a newly smoothened V-6, an optional turbo four. The shifter for the standard six-speed manual no longer dances in gear like an old tractor’s—boo, hiss! It was charming—but the new electrohydraulic power steering feels almost identical to the old engine-driven setup. Soft springing solid axles mean the thing still bounces around like a Fifties pickup and changes lanes with the wind.
Which is, and always has been, proper. If Chrysler is ever dumb enough to fix that, the rig will be more adult but less of a barn-party hoot. Good Jeeps are likable for the same reason people like hammers—a simple tool that progress hasn’t managed to screw up.
The land felt special and big but not spectacular. Then we hit the Yukon River. The Dalton bridges the water there, a steep downhill carrying both highway and pipeline. Like the pipe, the bridge wasn’t pretty or ugly, just present. The sort of thing that hulks onto the land and gets you pondering stuff like geologic time and how we laid tracks into a wilderness in order to burn oil, so we could get to another wilderness to burn more oil by pulling oil from the ground. Which would then be turned into gasoline and burned while you or I wait in line at a racetrack or a McDonald’s or whatever, wondering why the oil-swallowing traffic in front can’t move any faster. Thinking about it for more than a few seconds made my head hurt.
We stopped in Coldfoot for the night, just 250 miles from Fairbanks. Coldfoot is where that 60-below run happened in the Eighties. The airport, essentially half the town, held a Sixties Piper Super Cub on its ramp, a rifle case on each wing strut. The truck stop across the highway doubles as Coldfoot’s only hotel. The walls were unpainted chipboard, thin enough to transmit the sound of the guy in the next room as he got to know his dinner. A display on the wall of the stop’s café announced that the Dalton had been carved from permafrost in just five months. The pipeline, an 800-mile endeavor, was whipped up from 1974 to 1977, after oil was discovered on the North Slope.
For no reason whatsoever, I suddenly remembered how it took the city of Seattle four months to fix a pothole on the street in front of my house.
After dinner, Courts opened a laptop and found Coldfoot’s Wi-Fi.
“There’s a disclaimer,” he said. “This little pop-up window that says service is by satellite and won’t be any good. If you have any problems, no refunds, don’t ask. It costs five dollars.”
I chuckled. I hadn’t thought to look. Over the past day, something about the surroundings had dropped my blood pressure enough that I started checking my phone out of habit, just to confirm the lack of service. Then I’d toss the phone back in my bag and stare at another mountain. They were long and sloping, with irregular craggy bits. Like the hills had been pushed around solely to look better, some giant hand adjusting the feng shui.
Sunlight blasting through the window woke me at four the next morning. It had been almost as bright the night before, at 11:30, when we finished dinner. Alaska, land of the midnight sun. As we packed the Jeep, Chaffee called out in joy, pointing at the hotel roof.
“The satellite dishes!” he said. I squinted at one, bleary. There was something unplaceably odd about it.
“They’re aimed at the south trees. The equator. Almost down. Where all the satellites are.” There was a bit of awe in his voice.
Another laugh. For the first time on the trip, Alaska just seemed deeply improbable, as if it had been purpose-built to remind people of scale. The near-permanent sun. The fact that you can drive to Coldfoot from New York or Miami, easy as buying the gas, but who does? All these unsubtle reminders of being at the top of the planet, most of what humanity has ever loved or fought over thousands of miles south.
DEADHORSE AND PRUDHOE
NOT 60 BELOW, BUT CLOSE ENOUGH. It was 29 Fahrenheit and getting colder, deep in the tundra, with the Jeep making a 50-mph crosswind as it moved, frigid blasts slam-buffeting through the door holes. They mixed with the land’s natural and deafening gusts, the tundra so flat for so long that the air could legitimately have blown in from Russia. I brought winter clothing good to the low 20s but didn’t plan for the doorless wind. Chaffee wore two hats and three coats and spent hours hunched for warmth. Burnett sat up straight and said happy words about the view but wore a face best described as “prison camp.”
We had been free of the mountains for hours. Past the rolling foothills, where the ground levels and tears toward the ocean. The road sat on the land like a railroad bed. I stepped off it once, a tentative foot squishing onto a carpet of muted green scrub. My boot sunk to the ankle. The tundra seemed so fragile and undisturbed that the step felt quietly ignorant. Puddles sat every few feet, the water clear as new glass. They held tiny plant tendrils, submerged and waving, like living green shoelaces.
It felt alien, not least because the temperature dropped by the minute. The clouds of mosquitoes had stopped at least two climate zones ago. Boreal forest to arctic mountains to mossy plains to frozen tundra. Coldfoot to Deadhorse on the Dalton is 240 miles, the longest stretch of unserviced road on the continent. Save the occasional pipeline pump station, there were no side roads or buildings.
The absence of humans was mesmerizing. Even the mountains had been a crazy brand of empty. A small sign just before the 4739-foot Atigun Pass, the Dalton’s highest point, told how the timberline rises near the equator. In Colorado, it’s around 12,000 feet; at Atigun, 2550. And so the peaks were both short and treeless, which made them look scale, small enough to eat. Another sign held that the fattest trees in sight, trunks maybe 10 inches thick, were more than 200 years old. That far north, days warm enough for photosynthesis are so rare that plants don’t waste much energy making wood. So the trees are Dr. Seuss scraggly, pom-pom branches.
After Atigun, the road beelined through a long and narrow valley. The mountains widened at the end, framig the road as it seemed to shotgun into sky. That was the beginning of the plains. Rolling and green, ankle-high grass, dotted with melt streams. We stopped, as in so many other places, to gape. Chaffee upended his palms. “It’s like the gods got done with creation and just dumped all the leftover scenery here.”
It took maybe 100 miles for the plains to calm into a morose and cloud-covered expanse of tundra. Both regions were so featureless that you could watch multiple weather fronts rise and burn out in the distance without nearing any of them. A low fog settled as we closed on the ocean, the air turning a bright and diffused pink.
Until that point on the trip, I hadn’t seen a bear. Amazingly, I wouldn’t see another all the way back to Fairbanks. But one was enough—thick golden coat, loafing in long steps, a picture-perfect bear and the only moving thing visible outside the Jeep, 50 yards away as we drove past. I yelled at him, impotently, half mad from the cold. (“BEAR!” Raised head, then more loafing.) A few miles later, three baby caribou splashed across the tundra, knee-high and fluffy as rabbits. They ran from the Jeep immediately and were still running when they disappeared into the fog.
Deadhorse emerged from the weather a block at a time. The town is almost entirely oil company, a joint venture between the brands that lease the Prudhoe field from the state. Some 2000 people work there when the pumps are on, generally in two-week stints, living in corporate housing because Deadhorse contains no private land. Most of the buildings, short and huddled in clumps, appeared to have been assembled from prefab parts. A hotel several stories tall sat on a huge trailer. The drills were jacketed, oil rigs inside walls and a ceiling. Everything sat on a gravel pad, a foot or more above the tundra. And it all reeked of winter. Even the pumps at the gas station we visited (Tesoro, $5.19/gallon for regular) had their own dedicated huts. An entire town, capsulized.
A block or two in, Burnett piped up from the back seat. “If you’ve ever wondered what the first Mars colony will look like, this is it.”
“The expense,” I wondered out loud, “of hauling all this up here . . . the effort . . . it’s just staggering.” Chaffee raised his eyebrows. “Says a lot about the margins of pulling crude from the ground, doesn’t it?”
The Jeep drew double takes. The truck’s fat tires had sprayed Dalton muck everywhere—the seat sides, our pant legs, the inside of the hardtop and rear window. It made the truck look fossilized, as if it had been dredged from a lake.
The filth reminded me of dirt bikes and made me stare a little too long at the GS. Over dinner, I asked Courts about the BMW. For a motorcycle, he said, the GS is as complex as the Jeep is simple—adaptive suspension, linked brakes (both wheels slowed from a single brake lever), traction control, adjustable chassis modes. Perfect for off-road trips, because it’s comfortable, rugged, and fast. More focused than a car, but then, most bikes are. I’ve always loved the dichotomy—motorcycles are rarely used for practical transportation, leaving them free to chase excellence at one job. So a track special can live without a stereo or a comfortable seat, a dirt bike doesn’t have to be distance-comfy, and so on.
The biggest difference, we decided, is that there are almost no bikes like a Prius, where fun gets thrown out the window for practicality. The revelation prompted a rambling discussion about brands we love and the character we design in, versus glorious accidents of purpose like that Forties Jeep.
There are no public roads to the ocean in Deadhorse, so one of the town’s public camps operates a regular beach shuttle. We boarded early the next morning. The shore was gravelly and rough, the water frozen the same white as the sky. Not knowing what else to do, I dipped my hand in a pool of melt and drank it. It was breathtakingly cold and tasted elemental.
Chaffee stared at the horizon for a moment. Then he knelt down and chipped off a piece of ice, pulling a small bottle and cup from his bag. As the rest of us watched, he poured himself a bourbon.
Courts raised an eyebrow.
“I did not come all the way to Alaska,” Chaffee mock-sniffed, “to not have ice in my drink.”
My insides did a little dance, thrilled to be alive and in the middle of nowhere with people who understood unnecessary gestures.
I took a sip when he offered, because how often are you in Deadhorse and drinking ocean whiskey? For that matter, how often do we get a machine as resolved in itself as a Wrangler? The traditional knock is that products like this are an affectation. A piece of fantasy superfluous to modern life. But if you aim them right, they can help relens the world a bit. They somehow manage to feel both needed and freeing without being blatant about it. And that, as with Alaska, is almost entirely why you sign up.