Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Deadhorse (a.k.a. Prudhoe Bay but I prefer Deadhorse for dramatic effect) is little more than a patch of gravel on the infinite tundra whose sole purpose is to feed the mouth of the Trans-Atlantic oil pipeline. Deadhorse is accessible by either the airstrip or a 414 mile dirt road. The airstrip is home to large rusty steel parts and an old cargo plane that sit hissing in the wind which blasts off the Arctic Ocean. The 414 dirt road endures a roaring and sporadic flow of truckers that service the massive steel oil machines of Deadhorse and the thousands of seasonal workers that live in camps there on the tundra.

The sun, of course, does not set here this time of year, and although my flight had taken place mostly in the dark, we flew over the Arctic Circle, over the top of the world, and back into the sun, so I was able to see a bit of the landscape before we landed. From the airplane window, tundra stretched away, perfectly flat and disappearing into an orangeish haze many miles in the distance. The North Slope of Alaska, which rises slowly inland to meet with the impressive Brooks Range, is technically a desert even though temperatures here drop to minus 80 in the winter. It receives very little precipitation, but the ground is frozen year round. Parts of the icy ground, which thaw in the warmth of summer, create small muddy pools which become trapped and stagnant on the surface, unable to trickle down through the ice and unable to evaporate away due to the weakness of the sun. As I flew in I could see hundreds of these small thermokarst lakes, the sun behind them, making them look silver, like thin pieces of melted aluminum spilled across the top of a table.

On the tarmac, the wind was cold and strong. I could see no mountains, no features whatsoever in any direction. Neither trees nor bushes grow this far north and the ground off of the runway was covered in an endless spongy grass which survives by weaving a dense mesh of roots firmly into the thin layer of unfrozen soil near the surface.

The terminal is essentially one room, divided arbitrarily into the 'secure' area and the general area by a half-hearted partition. I had made no hotel reservation, had no map, and no idea what I was going to do aside from the knowledge that there was a hotel somewhere near the airport. I asked the woman working at the baggage counter,

'Yea, there's one jus across the street.' she points.

'Just across the street?' I point also hoping to get some more specific directions.

'Yea jus across the street.'


Deadhorse is not a town in the way that we typically think of towns. It has a population of about 14, but there are thousands of workers there in the summer who live in large, self-sufficient trailer complexes. Because of this there is no grocery store, restaurant, or any of the other amenities one normally associates with a town. In fact, the word town evokes completely the wrong idea of Deadhorse. Deadhorse is really a sprawling industrial oil complex. All the buildings are made of stacked and joined double wide trailers with ribbed steel siding. Massive steel machines, steel parts, and steel pipes are everywhere. It seems that if it is not made of steel, it is not strong enough to survive on the north slope of Alaska.

I managed to find the hotel and secured a room. I went back to the airport and assembled my bike in the baggage area and then heaped all of my supplies on top of it to wheel it over to the hotel. One thing as common place in Deadhorse as big steel machinery are large gravel expanses. Such an expanse is the 'street' that the hotel was across.

As I made my way across the gravel big-rig sized parking lot, the cold wind persisted from the side and kept blowing my belongings off of the bike and sent them tumbling along the ground towards a small thermokarst at the west end of the parking lot. My bike did not have a kickstand at this point and was very difficult to balance under all the weight. I finally gained the entrance to the hotel, my person and belongings disheveled and hoped that I would be able to keep my stuff and my person on my bike when I set off in the morning.

I needed food and gasoline. I got a map from the large and less than cheery woman who was working the front desk and asked her where I could buy some supplies.

'Well they have sum fud here...' She made a mark on the map. 'n the gas station’s here.' she made another mark and handed me the piece of paper. It has no street names and no scale.

'And where are we?' I asked.

'Wur right here.'. Another mark.

'And how far is this? A couple miles?'

'Yea sum'n like at.' I could tell I was pushing the limits of her hospitality so I thanked her, took my map and left.

To the untrained eye (my own) it was very difficult at first to distinguish 'wide gravel street' from 'wide gravel area,' both of which Deadhorse has in great abundance. So following my blank map to destinations unknown in the middle of a vast industrial park, absent of any people aside from those who drove by looking down at me from dusty truck windows, was a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, a half hour later I stood outside an unmarked steel door set in the side of a large blue steel building. I looked at my map again and looked around for someone to verify that I was in the right place. A half mile away, a dusty pickup crawled along the gravel and I could hear some machinery clanking and a diesel engine gunning in the distance, but other than that it was silent. I climbed the short flight of steel stairs to the door and opened it.

Rows of metal shelves holding metal parts filled the room and receded to the far wall. A man with a moustache stood behind a counter to the right and stared at me.

'Uh... You sell any food?' I asked.

'You want upstairs.' He said.

I turned to look where he was pointing and noticed a flight of stairs to my left.

'Oh, thanks.'

Upstairs there was another counter behind which stood a girl of about 17. The rest of the room was filled with clothes racks containing heavy jackets, pants, hats, and gloves. A magazine rack stood against the far wall and some hand tools hung on a peg board near the back.

'Hello.' I said, giving the girl a friendly smile. 'Do you sell any food?'

She eyed me for a minute and then said 'Um not really. We got some over here. How much do you want?'

'About seven days worth.'

She looked at me puzzled and I explained what I was doing.

'You got a can of bear spray?' she asked.

'A little one.'

'You might want to get a big one.' she said indicating a large red canister in the display case beneath the counter.

'That's what the woman at the airport told me also' I said. 'She also told me about the couple that got eaten by a grizzly a few years ago.' and I told the girl about the two people who had been on a rafting trip and had been stalked by a bear and attacked in their camp and killed.

'... and they had a gun and bear spray and bear canisters for their food and everything. They did everything right but I guess they just got unlucky.'

'Uh... are you crazy?' asked the girl.

'That’s what the woman at the airport and the woman working at the hotel asked me. No. Well no I don't think so,’ I answered.

I went over to the aisle containing food and my heart sank. Here I was, the day before embarking on the most mentally and physically challenging endeavor of my life, and I was going to have to do it on beef jerky, Slim Jims, Snickers bars, and Tic Tacs.

'Where do people eat here?' I asked the girl.

'People eat in the camps, or at the hotel. There's a buffet. It's all you can eat.'

I grabbed several handfuls of Snickers and Nutrigrain bars, three 3/4 pound bags of beef jerky, and some Tic Tacs (I don't care how hungry you are, Slim Jims are just scary.) On the bottom shelf I found a large tub of roasted almonds.

'I’ll take the bear spray as well' I said.

I left the store and took several minutes stuffing the food into a bag on the back of my bike and then secured the bag with bits of nylon cord before setting off to find the gas station. I peddled into the wind, up the road which was black mud and gravel. Trucks passed every few minutes and I looked constantly over my shoulder to try and stay out of their way.

I saw a sign for the fuel station on the left and pulled off the road into the maze of industrial machinery. I found an empty small portable building with a pump on the side. A sign on the door said 'Temporary Pump' and had an arrow beneath it that pointed unhelpfully deeper into the maze of steel and gravel. Another sign around the side said 'Call for Gas' and had a phone number beneath it.

I looked around. It was still silent and still except for the distant sound of machinery and the hiss of the wind. I took out my phone and turned it on. A signal! I had a signal. I dialed the number and held the phone to my ear.

'Hello.' Came a tired sounding male voice.

'Yeah I'm here at the gas statio-'

'Gimme a minute' and then he hung up.

I stood waiting, not sure what to do. I checked the time. It was nearly nine at night. I hadn’t realized it was so late. Getting my luggage to the hotel and putting my bike together and finding the store had taken longer than I realized and since the sun was still up, it was as bright as it had been all day. A few minutes later, a man stomped out from an obscure corner of the steel maze wearing the Prudhoe Bay uniform: blue jeans, hat, sweatshirt and work boots.

'Hi thanks for coming out' I said. 'I just need a little bit...

It's for my camping stove.' I said holding up the fuel can.

'You'll want unleaded, I expect.' was his reply as he turned towards some large steel boxes nearby that I hadn't recognized were pumps. He went over to a loud diesel machine and switched it on. Then he went around behind the pumps and came back a minute later, grabbed the nozzle, and held out his hand for the canister. He was staring at my bike so I said,

'I'm going down to Fairbanks. Headed out tomorrow.'

The man was silent for a minute and continued looking at the bike then said,

'Are you crazy?' in a matter-of-fact kind of voice.

'Well maybe more than I know' I answered.

'You got bear spray?'

'Yeah, a big can of it.'

'Where you gonna carry it?' He asked.

'Right here.' I said quickly, pointing to my handlebar bag, the thought having just occurred to me.

'You got a gun?'

'No, no I don't.'

'You might want to get a gun' he said and turned his attention back to the pump, squirted a little into the bottle and handed it back to me.

'Thanks' I said.

'Don't worry about it. So are you stopping in Fairbanks or are you gonna keep on goin’?'

'I plan to ride all the way to Argentina, but I'm just thinking about Fairbanks today' I said storing the bottle in my bag.

'That's one hell of a trip' he said. 'Hell! Ridin’ to Fairbanks is one he'll of a trip. You goin’ alone?'

'Yeah, I am.'

'Hell of a trip' he said again looking from me to the bike.

'Yeah, well thanks again for the gas.' I said, swinging my leg over my bike not wanting to get caught up in a conversation.

'Oh of course. No problem. You be careful out there okay?'

'Will do sir.' I said and began to ride off across the gravel. I felt him watching me as I made it back to the street and turned the corner to head back to the hotel.

The bag of food I had taken such care to tie on properly kept slipping off the side of the bike as I rode and falling with a frustrating scraping noise against my tire and onto the gravel road. I made it back to the hotel a half hour later and maneuvered my bike up the short flight of stairs, through the double front doors, down the long and narrow hall that led to my door and into my cramped room which was messy with all of my unorganized gear for the following morning.

I needed more food. I had powdered supplements from my Dad, enough to last me until Fairbanks, but they were mainly for nutrition and wouldn't provide near the amount of energy I was going to require over the next nine days to Fairbanks. I wandered out of my room, down the hall and into the mess room where some leftovers from the buffet were set out for late night snackers. I grabbed a couple to-go boxes and filled them up with what was there: a large halibut steak, a couple baked potatoes, and a lot of rice. In the eating area I found some cup-of-noodles and hot chocolate mix. I grabbed four of each and headed back to my room feeling tired but knowing that there was still a lot to do in order to be ready for the morning.

The door bumped against my bike as I squeezed through it into my small messy room carrying the food. I cleared a spot on the bed and laid out all the food I had. It looked like enough. I thought it looked like enough but really had no idea.

I took the to-go box containing the rice and placed it on the floor under the heater in bathroom, spreading out the rice so that it would dry evenly. I dumped the container of almonds into a large Ziploc bag and then emptied the cups-of-noodles out of their styrofoam bowls and into the now empty almond container. I used my fuel cannister to smash the cylindrical bricks of noodles into little pieces which I poured into another Ziploc bag. I spent the next several hours organizing the rest of my food and equipment and making sure that everything was in working order.

Finally having cleared the bed and feeling very ready to crawl into it, I noticed that the expensive and very powerful taillight I had bought and affixed to the rear rack of my bike had fallen off. 'Oh no' I mumbled to myself 'It must have fallen off somewhere along the road back there. That's going to be just about impossible to find!' I sat debating whether or not to even try to find it. 'Well,' I thought, 'I promised everyone I'd be careful, and this is what being careful actually means.'

I put on my jacket and strapped into my shoes and maneuvered the bike awkwardly out the door of my room and out of the hotel. It was after midnight, but the sun was still high in the sky. I set off, riding along the same path I had taken earlier that day, looking for a flash of red or a bit of plastic that had been run over and pressed into the gravel and mud. I looked around the entrance to the store, and then searched carefully around the gas station. I looked along the path I had ridden earlier but was unable to find it. 'Well, hopefully those truckers keep their eyes on the road tomorrow' I thought, feeling somewhat anxious about not having it. I made it back to the hotel late and fell into bed and slept well. Tomorrow, I knew, would be very, very difficult.


  1. Each day- one at a time.
    At times I am sure it will be tough, but keep moving and stay positive. You will arrive at the end of each day - and there will be another tomorrow.

  2. Amazing! Great writing and a fabulously told account of the first part of your adventure...I am sitting on the edge of my seat to hear the rest, as I know everyone else will be too. Keep it up!!!!