Alaska’s big haul: the Dalton Highway

The pavement ends 70 miles north of Fairbanks. From there, it’s 414 miles of gravel, ice and blowing snow to Deadhorse, where what’s left of the North American continent lies down along the rough peaks of the Arctic ice pack.

It has been called the greatest road trip in the world.

John Taylor has driven it 2,990 times, give or take a few.

Alaska’s ‘haul road’: An article in Thursday’s Section A about the Dalton Highway in Alaska identified a truck driver who regularly drives the highway as John Thomas. His name is John Taylor.

He’s driven it at speed, with his big, 475-horsepower Kenworth straining the limit. He’s driven it at 5 mph, when the snow was blowing so thick he had to crack open the door to see the edge of the road. He’s driven it sideways, sliding on a slippery stretch of Atigun Pass after encountering a snowplow.

“Up the road here, you’ll see where they’ve got these reflective posts every 50, 75 feet. Some of the blizzards, you can’t even find ‘em,” said Taylor, 64, who’s earned the distinction of having driven 3 million miles on Alaska’s notorious Dalton Highway without an accident.

The highway -- better known as the “haul road” by those who make their living ferrying unwieldy cargoes of fuel, oil rig equipment, cars, groceries and heavy machinery up to the North Slope oil fields -- has linked Prudhoe Bay with points south since 1974.

Like everything else in Alaska, it was built really big and really fast when somebody was in a hurry to make money. All 414 miles were graded and sown with gravel in just 154 days, opening a gold rush trail to America’s biggest oil field.

The 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline started construction at the same time, following the highway for the full 486 miles to Fairbanks, and then continuing south to Valdez.

For the first two decades, the haul road was the exclusive province of professional truckers, who gave its distinct stretches names like Beaver Slide and Avalanche Alley.

They coined the name Roller Coaster for the terrifying downhill grade at Mile 75 (covered at the moment, like the rest of the highway, with a thick layer of ice topped with dry snow), that veers immediately into an equally unnerving climb.

“The first time I drove up here, I’d never been up here before. It was fall time and all foggy. I got up to the edge of this thing and just stopped and looked down there, and wondered just where this thing went to,” Taylor said.

Taylor doesn’t fit the brawny model of the “ice road trucker” made famous on the History Channel television series. He wears a neat gray work shirt and an old Adidas baseball cap. He lives in a 32-by-40-foot log cabin he built himself outside Fairbanks for his wife and five daughters.

His conversation, as the 14-hour drive commences, inclines toward the “yes” and “no” at first, until the road itself starts dredging up tales, a different one for every couple of miles: the massive fire that snaked across the forest and shrouded the highway in smoke and ash; the trigger-happy miner with a shotgun who closed down the road for two days; the 100 mph gusts of snow that stranded him 24 miles outside Deadhorse for 18 hours. He prayed that the snow wouldn’t choke the air intakes and leave him to freeze.

On this trip -- clear blue and 12 degrees leaving Fairbanks -- Taylor was carrying a relatively light load of two pickup trucks bound for ConocoPhillips’ North Slope facility -- heavy enough to load the drive tires, light enough not to get all squirrelly going up the icy inclines.

At Mile 6 of the Elliott Highway, which feeds into the Dalton, he stopped to load up with $1,200 worth of diesel and a breakfast of fried eggs and potatoes at the Hilltop truck stop, the last fuel station anywhere on the road until Mile 175, at Coldfoot. Then, he settled into the tedious, up-and-down section of the highway that lies between the pavement’s end at Livengood and the Yukon River.

The truck sidled into an easy cruise as an enormous Arctic hare loped down the edge of the road just ahead, and Taylor leaned on the horn. “In the evening, you can see lynx along here,” he said. By summer, there will be eagles and moose, foxes and Dall sheep, wolverines and caribou, along with the occasional grizzly bear.

“Saw a moose in here one time, it was lying there. The wolves had come in and bit the back of his leg and his hindquarters, and then they went back up in the hills and sat there, waiting for him to bleed out. The wolves up in here are really big,” he said.

Then there was the time he had to wait for a musk ox giving birth in the middle of the road.

“All of a sudden she starts charging toward the truck, spun around, and out comes a little calf -- she dropped him right there in the road. I sat there for another 15 minutes. The little guy would get up and try to walk, fall down, get up again. As soon as he could walk pretty decently, they wandered back off the road.”

The long hours of boredom in fine weather are spent listening to George Jones and ‘70s pop rock on his iPod, or cassette tape audio books of suspense-thriller authors like John Grisham. Taylor has no interest in unnecessary innovations like compact discs (whose inventors obviously never bumped their way up the haul road) or cellphones (which go silent past Mile 28 anyway.)

The truck rumbled on, over the wide, still expanse of the frozen Yukon River, and presently, the Roller Coaster loomed up ahead -- a grade Taylor said, that for all its notoriety, isn’t nearly as bad as the 12% stretches farther up the road.

He switched on the “Jake” brake and fed in some retarder on the flywheel for extra braking -- letting the engine’s compression and oil pressure slow the truck’s progress down the slick slope. He shifted into 6th overdrive for the throaty climb up the other side.

At Mile 115 came the Arctic Circle, where the short, spindly spruce trees finally begin to peter out and the landscape starts looking like Pluto.

The truck topped a steep slope, and on the other side of a wide plain, the Brooks Range rose in empty white splendor.

The road ahead is the reason his wife won’t make the journey with him. Atigun Pass rises nearly 4,800 feet, the Continental Divide on the other side of which all rivers flow into the Arctic Ocean.

North of the pass is an equally teeth-clenching grade known as the Ice Cut, a steep, third-gear climb with drop-offs on both sides of the road and, for good measure, a sharp turn at the top.

Two weeks earlier, Taylor had come up the grade in the middle of the night, only to find another trucker stopped part way up with his brakes set. The guy hadn’t been able to make it up the snowy slope without spinning out.

He tried again while Taylor waited, and again. No luck. After the third failed attempt, Taylor pulled around him, dropped his own trailer off at the top of the hill and came back down again to drive the other guy’s rig up.

“By then, the oil and bearings, everything’s getting stiff [with the cold]. I tried it, didn’t make it, so I backed up about a mile and just took off, to where I could get some speed coming up. I got up there and it started spinning again, so I dropped to third gear and got real light on the throttle, and I’m just chewing away and finally got up over the top.”

“I’d got up there at 1 a.m., and finally got over at 4.”

The last stretch to Deadhorse is flat enough, but that, Taylor said, just gives the wind a good place to blow.

“One time we were coming out of Deadhorse on this stretch, there were like eight of us. We got 24 miles out and it started to drift. We had to pull over. One of the guys, his wife was heading to go to the hospital the next day to have a baby, and he was just, ‘Why don’t we just chain up to each other? We gotta get out of here.’ The other guys were just, ‘Cool it, we ain’t gonna get out of here.’ ”

They waited 18 hours before state transportation crews shoveled enough snow away to see the outlines of the road.

Just after 10:30 p.m., he pulled into Deadhorse. It’s 32 below, and a parade of orange sodium-vapor lights cast a creepy glow on the snow and clouds of steam rising from the sprawling industrial site. Taylor pulled into Carlile Transportation’s yard and unhitched the trailer.

He parked the truck and prepared to crawl into the back of the cab for eight hours of sleep. With two runs a week up to the Slope, he spends a lot of time sleeping in the back of that cab; sometimes it feels more like home than his cabin, to tell the truth.

“When I dream, sometimes I dream about driving. Kind of like I’m driving into bad situations, where I can’t get out of. Why, I don’t know. Like I’m driving into a small town, small streets where you shouldn’t be, but you can’t get back out of there, because you’re too long, and you’re too big,” he said.

“And then I wake up, and I think, ‘Why in the hell don’t you dream about nice-looking ladies, or fishing? Why do you gotta dream about a stupid truck?’ ”

Breakfast is in eight hours, all you can eat at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. Then the road back south.