As Dan Szczesny says good-bye to Alaska, he remembers the vast land with the small details that make it unlike anyplace else on earth.
Tundra road: Along the Dalton Highway, there is a pull-off and a sign marking our entry into the Arctic Circle. It took us all morning to get here on a tour bus driven by a chipper, chatty local who informed us only upon our return that it was her first solo drive along the famed Ice Road. Yes, the Ice Road Truckers ice road. The road is dirt and hilly, but really, it doesn’t seem nearly as awful as it’s made out to be on that show. But then again, I just sat there in a plush seat, sipping soda.
Rolling out the red carpet: At the Arctic Circle sign, our tour guide rolls out a red carpet with a dotted line down the middle. We all walk down that carpet, over the dotted line and into the Arctic Circle. Everybody poses in a variety of ways. It’s cute, but somehow I want this to be more, I don’t know, epic. The tundra up here is beautiful, but stepping off a bus and walking across a rolled out carpet doesn’t feel like we earned this. I’m used to pain being involved in accomplishment.
In the shadow of the pipeline: The Ice Road was built as a feeder road for the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System, finished in 1974. But up here, just call it the pipeline. The pipeline casts its shadow over Alaska. It is ingrained in the consciousness and in the landscape of this magnificent place as deeply as though it were a mountain range. It is a stop for tourists, it provides access for hunters and hikers, it has created towns and roads where they otherwise would not exist. Alaskans appear proud and embarrassed at once over this 800-mile modern masterpiece. We stop along the Ice Road and everyone on the bus gets off and walks 50 yards to where the pipeline shoots by overhead and we take pictures. Then we all just mill about, waving away mosquitoes. After all, it’s only a pipeline.
The Yukon awaits: Meena and I stroll along the Yukon River, about an hour south of the Arctic Circle. Along with the pipeline, an enormous bridge crosses at this junction, this truck stop where bikers and tourists and truckers mingle in the Yukon River Camp. They sell lunch here, egg salad sandwiches and chips and warm Pepsi. They also sell T-shirts and hats and patches and key chains, and rightfully so. This is my favorite place along the Dalton Highway — remote, wild, a melting pot at the end of the Earth. A woman sells bone jewelry from a corrugated shack just outside the camp. She lives up river and boats down here every day to meet Dalton Highway travelers. In the parking lot are dozens of pickups and SUVs, hunters, fishermen, explorers, all of them someplace remote now. Like us, except we have the tour bus.
Thai warmth: Tucked in a corner parking lot at the edge of town is Gloy’s Thai Food trailer. A cardboard sign announces Veggie and Tofu Dishes and Curry. We turn our backs on the Valdez fish fries and crab bakes and bars. It’s cold. A raw mist hangs over town and we need something to warm our bellies. It seems amazing that Gloy’s Thai Food would be here, in this place, at the edge of glaciers. There are no seats and it’s too cold to eat outside anyway. So we sit in our car and watch the lights of Valdez shimmer in the rain and eat our drunken noodles, which are indeed fresh and spicy. Next time, I think, the next time I’m here I’m going to find Gloy and thank her for giving this moment to me.
Ghosts of the igloo: Not far from Denali National Park, on an otherwise pristine stretch of road, we come across Igloo City. Or rather, the crumbling, beautiful remains of what was once imagined to be Igloo City. In the 1970s, Igloo City was meant to be a hotel, recreation center, gas station and rest stop. It was mostly built before regulators swooped in and shut it down over code violations. After that, Igloo City was abandoned, and the Alaskan wilderness has slowly been taking it back. I walk a full circuit around the ghostly white shell, designed apparently as a tribute to the Inuit culture. In the back, away from the road, someone has spray painted “I luv you this big!” across the dilapidated structure. We’re not used to ruins of this sort out here. It seems unlikely the igloo will be able to stand very many more Alaskan winters.
Finding peace: The day before we are to leave Alaska, though a series of odd circumstances, we find ourselves south of Anchorage, sitting by a remote lake, eating noodles. A brisk wind blows over the lake, which is surrounded by mountains. I don’t know the name of the lake or the mountains. We sit with our backs propped up against a piece of drift wood, slurping spicy Ramen. There’s not much left to say. We’re tired, our bones ache and our clothes are dirty. As it should be. Then, one last amazing thing. A bright red bush plane suddenly swoops out of the clouds and lands on the water right in front of us. The pilot coasts casually along the water for a bit, eases up on the throttle, and the plane gently pushes up against the shore 20 feet away. The pilot jumps out, walks up on shore and heads to the port-a-potty in the parking lot. A few minutes later, he’s back in the plane after nodding our way with a smile, and off he goes. We watch in wonder as the plane lifts off, heads back around a mountain and is gone, the buzz of the engine drifting away until all we hear again is the splash of wind-pulled water against the shore.