The days grow shorter here in Alaska. Oh, sure, there is still more daylight this time of year, this far north, compared to home. But, the days are indeed growing shorter. I can tell, if for no other reason, than my last week of vacation for the year seems to be flying past at an alarming rate. My last trip here was over two weeks long, and not long enough. With just over a week for this trip, I feel I have barely been here and I’m already preparing myself mentally for the trip home and the long duration without visiting, without Alaska, without my Sweetie.
Yesterday we wiled away the day running errands and attending to things before today’s “road trip”. The absolute highlight of the day yesterday was a long awaited and oft attempted tasting adventure at HooDoo Brewery in Fairbanks. This brewery has been around a few years and has been gaining experience, favor, followers and a crowd. We rolled up before they opened, again. We’ve done this before. We’ve rolled up on the day they were closed, we’ve rolled up before they’ve opened. We have never caught anyone home. On our first attempt yesterday, we were only a little early, so we found another quick errand to run and returned to find the “open” sign illuminated and the parking lot jammed. I was excited. Completely. It is safe to say that I love beer as much as wine and nearly as much as Oreos.
HooDoo offers a great sampler deal, with a generous pour of each of their brews. The darker the samples, the happier I became. Like all things I ingest, I begin with what I’m pretty sure will be my least favorite and work towards what I’m sure will be my favorite. I do this with food, I do this with wine, I do this with beer. Ironically, there is color-coding involved in each, pretty much, the darker, the better. I begin with a Pinot Noir and end with a Merlot. I begin with the vegetables and end with the steak. I begin with the IPA and end with the stout. The brews were all good, but the stout stole my heart. So then I had a whole pint.
Our road trip; a “pilot car” run from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. I’ll explain for those not in the know. I know few will ever admit to watching Ice Road Truckers. I don’t either. But, there are, indeed, truckers, not the ones on the show, mind you, but real truckers, who transport pipe, equipment and structures of various shapes and sizes, mostly huge, to the oil fields in and around Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. As the loads are all “oversized”, they require pilot “cars”, usually pick up trucks, with banners, a yellow flashing light, a flag for directing traffic and a driver who knows what he, or she, is doing. My man has been piloting trucks up the Dalton Highway for more of his life than not. In the million mile Ford, which, by the way, is legend on “the haul road”.
The purpose of the pilot cars is to guide the driver and the oversized load safely up the road, to communicate between the truck driver and the other pilot cars what’s ahead, what’s passing from behind. The pilot car drivers are also responsible for communicating, and at times, directing other drivers on the road to keep them safe and out of the path of the large load in corners and over bridges and other crossings. They act as a guide, as a facilitator.
In life, what pilots you safely through the turns and crossings you must navigate? Have you defined your mission, your purpose, your goals, your roles and your guiding principles? Like a pilot car driver and the trucker with the oversize load that trusts him, our roles, goals and guiding principles, based on our values, are what guide us through life, no matter what lies up ahead.
I’ve accompanied my man to Prudhoe Bay before, in early March, well before summer. The landscape was white, the road was ice and we saw an Artic fox, muskox, ptarmigan and the aurora borealis. It was a little chilly, sure, but nothing my guy’s big, warm parka and fifteen layers of my chic clothes from Uniqlo, H&M, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Buckle, Love Culture and a pair of Ugg boots couldn’t ward off. It was awesome. I have pictures. Roughly one thousand.
I’ve wanted to return. I’d hoped to return, crossing Atigun Pass, in the summer, when the wildflowers were out. But there weren’t any trips when I was here during wildflower season. Another summer, perhaps. The flowers are amazing. This, I know, because last year, someone very special, stopped several times on his way home from Prudhoe Bay and picked wildflowers. For me. A week later, I received a surprise, an envelope with a cardboard card, cut out from a Honey Bunches of Oats cereal box, with dozens of different wildflowers carefully adhered to it. Sigh. I know, right? Even dried, the flowers were breathtaking and I really want to see them in living color.
I have also wanted to see the fall colors over the pass. In fall, the tundra looks like it has been set ablaze, changing from a million shades of lush green to yellow, gold, orange, red and burgundy. We didn’t score a trip all the way to Prudhoe until it was too late to go, but we did get the trip to Coldfoot, about half way up the “haul road” to Prudhoe. Coldfoot is south of Atigun Pass, but still, there was plenty of vibrant hued tundra to enjoy.
When piloting, and when a passenger in a pilot car, the trip up, the actual piloting, is very different than the trip back. All business on the way up. Of course. That’s what it’s all about, getting the truck and it’s shipment to it’s destination without delay, without danger and without disaster. This trip, unlike most, was with an “independent” trucker, an “owner/operator”. Most of the trips north my man makes are as a contractor with one of several companies that routinely move big stuff from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. So we were to meet a driver, headed to Fairbanks from Anchorage, hauling a Caterpillar D9, a large, correction, a very large tractor. The load was wide, fourteen feet wide, to be precise, and because of it’s width, would require two pilot cars to guide it safely to it’s destination a few miles north of Coldfoot. One pilot car would be in front, the other in back. I’m sure you’ve seen such things even in the part of the world you live in. On the Dalton Highway, it is more the norm than un-piloted loads. Passenger cars are both a rarity and a nuisance, as I surmise.
We’d hoped for an early start and even headed into Fairbanks at an impressively early hour. But, when noon came and went and we hadn’t heard from the driver, we called. He was still a few hours from Fairbanks and would need to shuffle the load and fuel up once he arrived. Our early morning departure was becoming a late afternoon and then a later afternoon departure. A trip to Coldfoot, about 250 miles from Fairbanks, if begun in the morning, depending on the load, could be delivered by afternoon and everyone could be home, in their own bed, in time to enjoy most of the following day. That was our hope. But, it was not to be.
We managed to fill our day in town getting stuff done. Thankfully, there was plenty of stuff to be done. Errands and such. We ate Philly Cheesesteaks and fries at the Food Factory, for lunch, because there aren’t any drive-thru’s on the haul road. You pack a sandwich or two and go. There is food in Prudhoe Bay, and truck stop food in Coldfoot. There is also truck stop food at Hilltop, about twenty miles past Fairbanks, sort of the last bastion of necessities before heading further north. How are Philly cheesesteaks different than truck stop food? Well, it’s more of a quality question, I suppose. Get your Philly cheesesteak in town, not a truck stop, while both are unhealthy, the truck stop variety is likely to take an additional year or two off your life, I’m pretty sure.
We met the driver and the second pilot car at about 5:45 PM. Well past morning, to say the least. The driver told the pilots that since he was an owner/operator and paid for his own brakes, we’d be taking the downhills slow. We already knew the uphills would be slow. We headed out just after “curfew”. Oversize loads are forbidden from traveling through Fairbanks during “commute” time, between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. I think their commute traffic is adorable, but, I guess I get it.
Our driver, which requires explaining, I suppose; when you are piloting some trucker up the haul road, as I gather, you sort of adopt him or her as yours for the duration. They become “my driver” or “our driver” depending on the number of pilot cars involved. Anyhoo. Our driver hadn’t eaten all day, so, we stopped at Hilltop for sustenance. This is a truck stop. Terrified of the exponential lethality of truck stop food, and, really, not all that hungry, I had a salad. My man had potato salad, ate half, and thrust the remainder in front of me. I ate it, taking my projected life expectancy down to 111. Ok, so I shoot high. Why not? Then if I die at 101 everyone will say I died an “untimely death”.
At 7:45 PM we depart Hilltop and begin our long, mostly uphill journey into the evening. As I mentioned, the trip up is all business. That means, for me, an unlikely passenger, unless there are northern lights or grizzly bears, I’m probably going to sleep. And I do. Our driver was true to his word, he was moving slower downhill than up. A little backstory is required. Many truckers drive this road day in and day out. They know every pebble, every turn, every nuance. Corners have names. Hills have names. There is a community here. The truckers and pilot car drivers all know one another and chit chat on the radios to one another. Yes, there are multiple radios; one is on an agreed upon channel to chat with your driver and other pilots, then there’s the “road channel” that everyone has turned on to communicate with one another. And, so, the pilot car drivers report upcoming vehicles to their driver on the agreed upon channel, then report the upcoming oversize load to other drivers on the road channel. It is all very impressively complicated and I think there must be some advance degree of study to manage all of this. I don’t know. I only went to college for eleven years, it’s beyond me. Moral; these guys know the road. “Our driver” does not. He has driven the haul road a few times a year, not a few times a week. He is taking it slower than his wide load and brake pads require because he doesn’t know the road. We are in the front, and my man is warning our driver of nuances in the road, to be helpful, and, hopefully, the give him the faith and confidence to speed up, maybe just a little.
I sleep. I wake. I sleep. I wake. I sleep. I wake. I eat a half a sandwich I packed. I sleep. I wake. I get out and pee. I sleep. I wake. And this is how my night goes. Two hundred fifty extremely slow miles. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a girl, on the haul road, and have to pee? Especially when you’re being followed by a big truck hauling a big tractor, being followed by another pickup truck, all occupied by men. I mean, I’ve been the only female on a ten-day backpacking trip with seventeen boys and men, and peeing was a challenge, but it wasn’t an Olympic sport, like peeing on the haul road being followed by trucks full of men. We made it to the top of a hill, several minutes ahead of our driver, so we thought, in order to be able to warn our driver, and the oncoming traffic, of the other party, respectively. I jumped out of the million mile Ford, pulled down my jeans and squatted by the right, front, tire. The road was just a soupy mud, so what I added really mattered little. I was about 7/8 done with my duty when headlights crested the hill behind me. It was growing dark and I’m pretty sure my silhouette was pretty apparent. I heard an exclamation from within the truck and in a split second, I finished, became air born and partially pulled up my jeans, mid air, while opening the truck door. I landed on the seat, bare butt, pants sagging like a middle school delinquent. As I launched myself from a crouch on muddy earth, into flight, into the truck, streams of mud followed me, clinging to my jeans from the knee down. I’m glad there was no video of my endeavor, and at the same time, kind of disappointed there wasn’t. It had to be spectacular, especially in slow motion instant replay mode.
We left town before 6:00 PM. We made it to Coldfoot at 5:30 AM. And we slept in the sleeper. Both of us. Synchronized rolling over went very well, we’re on about the same schedule, our old bones begin to ache at about the same time, which is cool. I guess.
We are awakened by a very loud pickup truck pulling up next to us in a rather obvious and engine revving sort of manner. I am, at first, annoyed, but I think it was the first “alarm clock”. Shortly after the noisy truck pulled up, there was a knock on the window from the other pilot car (noisy truck) driver. The snooze alarm just went off. I get it. The engine revving was just a “courtesy” to make sure we were awake, or dressed, or whatever, for the approach to the drivers’ window. Not many girlfriends accompany pilot car drivers. I get it. We slither out of the sleeper, fully clothed, and right into our respective seats, the truck is started and we drive across the lot to the restaurant at Coldfoot. I pee in captivity and grab three coffees for the tow of us. We meet our driver and are on our way to drop the D9 at it’s final destination a few miles up the road. A slow but safe trip.
It’s the trip home I look forward to with ample time to pull over and take pictures. My guy will never understand my desire to take so many pictures, he shakes his head when I complain that my MacBook is overloaded because of the forty thousand photos I have in iPhoto. But, still, he offers to pull over every time I lift my iPhone for another shot.
Aside from pictures, we have the rifle with us, just in case a large, male moose should cross our path somewhere south of the Yukon River. Bow hunting is allowed north of the Yukon and rifles to the south, so we’ll keep our eyes opened to the south. We also take advantage of a side road here and there to cut some firewood. There is no excuse for coming home with an empty truck bed, if not moose, then, certainly we can take down a standing dead tree or two! There are a few cords of wood cut, split and stacked in front of the house, but a couple more are in order, shortly, for winter. While he makes short order of a few trees, I pick berries. We are hunter/gatherers on our way south on the Dalton Highway. We see lots of moose hunters, and, still, no moose. There is chatter on the radio, not far away, of a cow and calf that crossed the road in front of a trucker, but no bull followed. While it may be moose season according to the calendar, it isn’t moose season according to the moose. Too warm, still. The bulls will chase the cows when it’s cooler. So I’m told.
We arrive at home, sandwiches eaten and the truck bed full of something useful for the winter. But not a moose. The trip was long, but a success. Our driver and his D9 reached Coldfoot safely with assistance from his two pilot cars, helping him manage the curves and crossings safely. Just like our values, roles, goals and guiding principles help us navigate through the turns and crossings life will certainly take.
Now that we’re home, it is time to upload photos from my iPhone to iPhoto. I’m excited. Every time I look at these pictures it will be almost like reliving the trip, again! A picture, a thousand words, a million memories!