They looked like bison on a bad-hair day.
The herd of primeval-looking beasts -- 800-pound musk oxen -- shuffled aimlessly just a hundred feet from where we stood on Alaska's James B. Dalton Highway. With their shaggy coats and curved horns, they looked fierce but were reassuring signs of life on a highway that had few.
But my friend Mike Weight and I liked it that way.
If you want to get away from it all, the Dalton is the road to take.
Check out any map of North America, and you'll see a lone, skinny line extending from Fairbanks in north-central Alaska more than 400 miles north to Deadhorse and the Beaufort Sea. Only the Dalton breaks up the north's vast emptiness for hundreds of miles in any direction.
If you believe some accounts, only confirmed masochists bother to run it, given the road's mostly unpaved state, its lack of services, the hyper-aggressive truck drivers who travel it and the hordes of monster mosquitoes that inhabit it. You're practically guaranteed a cracked windshield and flat tires.
It also helps to be a little crazy to drive this road, and we were just the guys to do it.
The road would take us into an ancient landscape, alongside one of the engineering marvels of our time, and prove that we could handle travel in one of the remotest parts of the U.S.
We flew into Fairbanks last July ready for a four-day run on the Dalton. The silver Ford F-350 V-8 quad-cab diesel we rented seemed huge. Its long bed seemed to stretch all the way back to Anchorage, and I felt as though I needed a parachute whenever I got out of the cab. But it was the right set of wheels for our adventure.
The relatively expansive -- and paved -- Elliot Highway connects Fairbanks to the Dalton. On a tip, we stopped for breakfast a few miles outside the city at the Hilltop Truck Stop, the last real restaurant for more than 100 miles.
A few miles past the hamlet of Livengood and a moose lounging on the highway's shoulder, we turned right onto Alaska Route 11 -- the Dalton -- and headed north.
It immediately became clear why some fear the Dalton. For the first 30 miles or so, the unpaved washboard surface gave our truck a pounding, except when the flagmen on the summer regrading crews stopped us.
But it was a beautiful day, and within an hour we had the road to ourselves, except for occasional pipeline maintenance crews and big-rig drivers. (They laid to rest one of the Dalton's myths: The truck drivers couldn't have been friendlier, usually waving as they slowed to let us pass.)
SPLENDOR IN SOLITUDE
The Dalton's isolation was impressive. The first 100 miles or so up to the Arctic Circle undulated through sparse spruce and birch forests, the patchwork of green and burned spruces interwoven with spectacular lavender-hued expanses of fireweed, flourishing in a fire-scarred landscape.
But it's really the lack of population that makes this such a lonely road. Not a mailbox in sight.
Our one constant companion was the massive Trans Alaska Pipeline System, balanced on finned metal stilts when above ground.
In the 1970s, the pipeline was an engineering marvel when the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. built it in a little more than two years on the North Slope's jittery permafrost. It moves up to 2 million barrels of oil a day from Prudhoe Bay, 800 miles south to Valdez.
I had expected it to be a visual blight on the wild landscape, but as I watched it snake through the boreal forest and over and under mile after mile of the tundra, I made my peace with it.
Alyeska also built the Dalton in just five months in 1974. The state of Alaska took over ownership of the "Haul Road," as it is often called, in 1978, then opened it to everyone in 1994. Few take on the entire route.
The 2,229-foot-long Yukon River Bridge at Mile 56 separates many of the day-trippers from the adventurers. Some may drive 60 miles farther to the photo-op at the Arctic Circle. Both stops have restrooms, picnic facilities, interpretive displays and camping or other accommodations.
Nobody was on duty when we stopped at the Yukon Bridge visitor center, but posted on the door was a notice warning of "dangerous" and "bold" wolves prowling the area.
Welcome to the wilderness -- almost.
At Mile 60, the Hot Spot is an unlikely tourist trap featuring fast food and souvenirs in makeshift trailers. It's hard to pass up, only because no other commercial properties exist for about 100 miles.
From the Hot Spot, the Dalton leads due north, scaling long grades that give way to spectacular views of broad valleys. One of the best was at the Finger Mountain Bureau of Land Management Wayside at Mile 98, where some imposing tors, or eroded granite pinnacles, rose from the tundra.
This northern topography is as much molded by what's beneath it -- subterranean ice -- as above. Nothing substantial can grow in ground like this. Trees are mostly sparse and stunted for a couple of hundred miles before they disappear, though taller trees -- spruce, larch, aspen, birch, poplar and tamarack -- can take root in the areas free of permafrost, usually on warmer south slopes. In a few places the earth was buckled, exposing the ice only inches below. It was a strange sight on a 70-degree summer day.
OASIS IN THE WASTELAND
Tourists can't traverse the Dalton without posing in front of the marker for latitude N 66, 33', which marks the Arctic Circle and the place where the sun does not set on the solstices.
A young guy riding a BMW motorcycle heaped high with gear took our photos there and asked us to reciprocate. Dave was on his way to Prudhoe Bay. As often happens among travelers who meet in remote places, our paths would cross again.
Half an hour later, in fact. He was stalled on the roadside, out of gas. We offered a lift, but he had packed a spare tank and figured to make it 50 more miles to the only service station between there and Prudhoe Bay.
That's where we were headed.
Coldfoot Camp is the kind of place you'd happily blow by on most road trips. It has a few crucial fuel pumps, a saloon and restaurant and a motel that resembles a jumble of cargo containers. But it's the only civilization for more than 200 miles in either direction, so it's a year-round oasis for truckers and tourists.
Coldfoot's activities are limited: eating, drinking, talking with fellow travelers and sleeping in the inn's surprisingly comfortable rooms.
In the saloon, we overheard animated truckers talk about weather, road conditions, welding and bumper jacks. Our new buddy Biker Dave strolled in not long afterward. Turns out he was a Los Angeles law student who had ridden 6,000 miles on the way to the Arctic. That earned him a beer and our undying admiration.
Mike and I tried a short walk but smacked into our first wave of monster mosquitoes. We hid out instead in the new Bureau of Land Management Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, which provided a little distraction with information, maps and exhibits.
SIGNS OF (WILD) LIFE
Getting an early start the next day on the remaining 240 miles wasn't hard considering the sun had never set.
Just 10 miles north of Coldfoot, we crossed the Koyukuk River and detoured three miles to Wiseman, population 29, a historic mining town, which has a post office, airstrip, museum and tourist accommodations. It was early, and the museum was closed. We didn't see a soul among the old houses but were intrigued by the sign that advertised wolf hides for sale.
So far we hadn't seen much wildlife, save some moose and assorted little critters, but suddenly Mike, a veteran hunter, yelled, "Bear!," and I screeched to a halt. His keen eyes had spotted a huge grizzly grazing about 200 yards east of the road. We photographed it until it disappeared into a stand of trees.
By now all that remained between us and the North Slope was the Brooks Range, with many 7,000-foot peaks.
At Mile 235, we passed a sign announcing the "Last Spruce Tree," sadly girdled and killed by some itinerant jerk. Our grief was assuaged, however, by the discovery of a sapling 20 feet away. Life finds a way.
As we tackled the steep, spectacular climb to the Chandalar Shelf summit, snow began to fall and this, mixed with fog, made the haul to the 4,800-foot Atigun Pass treacherous. I could not imagine doing this in winter.
The Dalton crosses the Atigun River at Mile 270 and provides tantalizing views across the North Slope tundra to Atigun Gorge stretching east three miles toward the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Close but unreachable, because neither park has road access.
Here, the Dalton had deteriorated into a multitude of rain-filled potholes, traveling through spectacular, stark country, where mountains give way to 100 miles of flat tundra.
The amount of activity this far north -- pipeline pumping stations, Alaska highway maintenance facilities, even a University of Alaska research facility at Toolik Lake -- is surprising, but services for adventurers like us were absent.
Just past mile 298, we noticed what looked like a flying saucer resting way out on the tundra. It was a pingo, a large hill, up to a quarter-mile across and several hundred feet tall, composed of soil and vegetation pushed up by frozen standing water atop the impermeable permafrost layer.
Then, about 30 miles from Prudhoe Bay, we spotted some brown lumps to the east. It was the herd of about 20 musk oxen, an uncommon sight even in these parts.
The closer we got to the end of the road, the more animals we saw, including huge caribou and a red fox practically in the shadow of the oil wells.
For most tourists, the Dalton ends at Deadhorse, a dreary collection of metal buildings with all the charm of a shantytown, 4,000 temporary oil-rig workers, mostly on two-week shifts, and hundreds of wells on the shore of the Beaufort Sea.
It's not a place to linger, but it does have quite a few comforts: a couple of ugly but adequate hotels, hearty food (but no alcohol), satellite TV and cellphone service, plus an airport. Despite all that, it's still wild: We were warned that grizzlies occasionally patrolled the hotel parking lot.
The real end of the road -- the Beaufort Sea -- is several miles from Deadhorse, and the only way there is by a tour bus ride through the oil fields. About a dozen tourists were on our bus, all dutifully listening to the driver's memorized commentary as we cleared several security checkpoints on the way to the shore.
The wells were smaller and less obtrusive than I had expected, and I didn't see any overt evidence of pollution. But this corner of the Arctic isn't exactly pristine.
The driver let us out on a rocky spit poking into the Beaufort Sea. Mike and I walked to the edge, took off our shoes, and waded into the clear, cold water.
We had made it to the end of the most northerly highway in North America -- longitude 70 degrees, 25 minutes -- and were feeling pretty proud of ourselves. Then I reminded Mike of a road in Norway that climbs to more than 71 degrees north.
He asked, "When can we get started?"