Drive the Dalton Highway: Two Days to the Top of the World
Nobody attempts to drive the Dalton Highway for fun. We are no exception. In order to begin the adventure of driving 495 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse one has to have a clear purpose in mind.
Most people want to drive the Dalton Highway to visit the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay. Some people want to drive one of the most treacherous highways in the world just to say they did it. Still for others, such as us, there is the sense that something special takes place at the end of the world that cannot take place anywhere else. There is something mystical in going where few go. Something spiritual in looking out into the great beyond.
For us, our destiny awaited us in Prudhoe Bay.
Why Drive The Dalton Highway
We are on a mission to drive from Alaska to Argentina. It’s something we can’t truly explain to people. But we feel a deep calling in our spirits to attempt this journey. As such, we wanted to begin at the beginning (or the end, if you start in Argentina).
For the past two years we have been dreaming about Prudhoe Bay. We have been fortunate enough to put enough money aside to begin our journey. And for the last three months we have slowly worked our way toward Alaska from Florida.
At every turn or change in plans we always kept Prudhoe Bay at heart. And at some point, whenever we felt we had it in us, we knew we would have to drive the Dalton Highway in order to reach the top of the world.
For us, reaching the top of the world meant a new beginning. It meant we could begin our life of trying to reach Argentina. Our previous three months were just “practice” for this new life. We grew accustomed to living in tiny spaces and fixing things that broke. We learned the courtesies of the road and how to RV across North America. Extenuating circumstances also taught us humility as we learned how to live based on needs rather than wants.
Most importantly, we connected with individuals who showed us how our purpose in travel is not to arrive in some new destination. Rather it is for us to form relationships with other human beings along the waythat we would not otherwise form. Our journey has been one of human closeness, giving and love.
But if you are going to drive the Dalton Highway you have to know why you are doing it. It is a brutal road and it can break you and the things you take with you.
Beginning Our Journey
(10 AM Thursday July 5, 2018 – “0” Hours)
We started to drive the Dalton Highway with optimism in our hearts. While it took two hours of driving the Elliot Highway from Fairbanks, our enthusiasm soared as we approached the start of the highway. We posed for our photo by the sign and looked ahead at the dirt road with little doubt we could be persuaded to turn back.
This, of course, changed a few miles into the drive. We had driven many dirt roads in our previous time on the road. In our longest stretch, around 20 miles of BLM land in northern Colorado, we bounced around enough our camper actually shifted on the truck bed. In another run through the Arizona desert outside of Sedona the dirt roads jiggled our battery connections loose and we nearly fried our inverter.
Dirt roads are notorious trip-killers. So to drive the Dalton Highway was to put more value in achieving it than in the loss we could incur.
About halfway through the drive, in a small “town” of Coldfoot, I was on edge about continuing. I had this strange sense that something bad was going to happen to us. So I was over cautious and hyper-aware of everything as we drove.
This awareness, however, could not keep the potholes and large rocks from our path. Regardless of how cautious I drove, the highway seemed content to slowly beat my confidence down. As much as I felt I was becoming one with the truck in such attentive driving, I feel the highway was going to win.
At one point I looked at Lindsay and asked her if she wanted to continue.
Of course, she said. She knew the cost of carrying on. But in her heart she also knew the value of the victory. We were driving toward our destiny. No plan as large as that of driving from Alaska to Argentina could be cheated by a few hundred miles out of fear or a bad feeling.
So we pushed on.
A Drive Beyond Expectations
When you drive the Dalton Highway you experience some of the most incredible scenery you can imagine. I didn’t study the highway much before we left. Like most of our trip, I left my expectations in a closet back in our hometown. From previous travel to famous places like Paris, Machu Picchu and Tokyo I had learned to tame my expectations.
Nothing is ever as you expect it will be. It is always better, or worse, depending on your mindset.
So I knew nothing of the forest in which we began the drive. Nor did I understand the tundra and the permafrost where we would end it. I did, to some degree, understand the mountain pass we climbed and the beauty of the valleys on either side. We had spent a fair amount of time in various regions of the Rocky Mountains. Their splendor never surprised me. It was always incredible.
But when you drive the Dalton Highway it is easy to get lost in your own world out there. The road is desolate. While it is known for the “Ice Road Truckers,” the fact of the matter is that the trucks are few and far between. Even the tourists who start the Dalton Highway tend to fade away once you reach the Arctic Circle. Most of them seem interested in snapping their photo and turning back to safer places.
So you end up mostly alone, with only your company in tow. For us it was Lindsay and myself plus Everest, our Australian Cattle Dog.
Passing the Point of No Return
(6 PM Thursday July 5, 2018 – 8 hrs)
Once we left Coldfoot I became set on reaching Deadhorse in one drive. The road was rough and was taking its toll on my physically and emotionally. I had the constant worry that awareness forces upon you when you so diligently look out for bad things. I was never in the military. But I expect to some degree it is a similar feeling going on patrol in enemy territory. Everything must be amplified. Every bit of your senses become tuned to the slightest change around you.
I noticed the rocks as they grew larger in front of me. The potholes became like mines I was desperate avoid. Even the slew of rabbits on the side of the road became subtle enemies as they chanced a quick race in front of me. Anything could prove disastrous even among such beauty. The only things that I truly enjoyed were the subtle uphill climbs that we made. I think I enjoyed them because they were always slower and felt less dangerous.
But on the backside of every climb was the descent. And sometimes those felt like we were falling from a plane with six tons worth of steel strapped to us!
I was so set on reaching Deadhorse that time stood still. This helped, of course, because the sun never set once we got north of the Arctic Circle. It just sort of hovered in the west, buried beneath a blanket of clouds that scattered the light in a dull and eerie, yet remarkably beautiful manner. In photography they call the hour after sunrise or before sunset the “Golden Hour” because of the definition and color that landscapes achieve when the sun is not too far overhead.
Every moment of this drive was the Golden Hour. As tense on the wheel as I was, the beauty was amplified. Everything was amplified.
And so we drove through the beauty and through the night.
Arrival At the End of the Dalton Highway
(1 AM Friday July 6, 2018 – 15 Hours)
We arrived in Deadhorse just after 1 AM. It was still light, of course, but the place was a ghost town. Large industrial machinery used in the mining of oil littered the sides of the highway. Buildings with big oil names on them stood caddy corner to each other at every turn. This was an oil town, not a resort town. And that is another reason why you need to know the reason why you want to drive the Dalton Highway.
Nobody will drive the Dalton Highway because they want to vacation in Deadhorse. The town is adequately named to discourage one from sauntering into it with the false impression that there is joy to be had there. Oil crews fly in every two weeks. They work hellish jobs on repeat for two weeks and fly out. There are no restaurants. No bars. You can’t even buy alcohol in town. There is one reason and one reason only to be in Deadhorse: oil.
And were it not for oil perhaps we would not have it in our heads to drive there in the first place. The town of Deadhorse exists where no town should. In fact, the structures and buildings are either built on stilts or on carefully refrigerated foundations because if they get too warm they will melt the permafrost and sink into the land.
There are no permanent residents. Its an oil lease for oil companies paying oil workers to mine oil. When all the oil is extracted every piece of machinery and building will be hauled back out along the Dalton Highway. The town will return to the emptiness that it was, vast tundra nestled up to the Arctic Ocean.
Two Days to the Top of the World
(9 AM Friday July 6 – 23 Hours)
We were able to drive the Dalton Highway in its entirety in fifteen hours. If we had not stopped several times early on, just because, then we might have done it in twelve or thirteen hours. But rarely did we ever remain at the speed limit, which was 50 miles per hour for most of the highway.
We slept in an open drive by the side of the river three miles from the end of the highway. By the time we wound down from the drive it was close to 2 AM. I was awake by 9 AM, forced by my curiosity and the proximity of my destiny to explore the riverside. Everest and I walked. And we spent time sitting and pondering the flow of water which was headed north ten more miles to Prudhoe Bay. It all came from somewhere. It would all go somewhere. Just like us.
Only it was likely to return, some day, through some weather system that cycles it through the region. This was a one-time visit for us. So this day had the most profound sense for me from the very beginning.
We made friends with another camper who also had an Australian Cattle Dog. Our pups became fast friends, as did we, as we shared travel stories and dreams. On the road it happens that you meet people so similar, yet different, from you that you become fast friends. You cut through the fat most people present back “home.” Everyone is on the road for some reason, and many reasons are so close that you just feel connected from the start.
Everything, of course, is amplified at the top of the world. So for our new friend, one day was not enough to take in the profundity of the experience of having made the drive of the Dalton Highway. He had camped for three days, not wanting to waste a moment in turning back so soon in what, for him, was a similar mission to travel south through the Americas.
I ended that conversation inspired to make the most of this journey north along the Dalton Highway. But I also left convinced that I had to take a dip in the Arctic Ocean later that afternoon to truly feel alive in the moment.
The Cost of Destiny
(3 PM Friday July 6, 2018 – 29 Hours)
As we parted ways with our friend and his pup we gathered our things to meet our tour to the Arctic Ocean. The last ten miles of land are swallowed up by the oil lease and, as such, you can only access the Arctic Ocean by tour. We’re not the tour-going people. It’s not in our budget, in most cases, and not our personalities. But this is different. This was fulfilling our dream or reaching the Arctic. It was here where we felt we would stand with our feet in the ocean, turn south, and face our future.
Meeting your destiny is worth $138. I’d pay that price every single time.
And we did just that. By 4 PM we stood in the Arctic Ocean and took a photo of ourselves facing south. The whole world was ahead of us, literally and metaphorically, and we were filled with a sense of excitement and expectation that anything and everything was possible.
Although I could not stand in that water forever, I did want to remain in this optimistic state for as long as I could. It’s not every day that you come face to face with your destiny. It’s not every day that you fulfill a dream.
This day was our day.
And so after I foolishly submerged myself in the Arctic Ocean (twice, the camera was not rolling properly the first time!) we packed up for the day, returned to the tour bus and began the first ten miles of many thousands more ahead of us to the south.
A Fateful Decision to Leave
(5:30 PM Friday July 6, 31.5 Hours)
Somewhere between the Arctic Ocean and returning to our truck we decided that it was time to return to Fairbanks. We were able to successfully drive the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse and step into our destiny along the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Now we were ready to finish the drive and return to Fairbanks triumphant and confident in our new life.
Between 5:30 and 7:30 PM Lindsay cooked dinner while the dog explored the riverbank and I checked all of our systems on the truck and camper. All of the rattling around can cause damage of all sorts. So, among other things, I made the fateful decision to inflate our tires to full capacity.
Most times when you drive offload or along dirt roads such as the Dalton Highway it is advisable to “air down” the tires. This provides a smoother ride and keeps things from “popping” the tires like a balloon.
However, because of the weight of our truck and camper we were advised to remain at maximum air pressure at all times. I checked the air before we began our journey to Deadhorse and we were around 5-6 PSI away from maximum for each tire. So we were subtly “aired down.” But I thought it best to inflate to maximum pressure for the return trip. Maybe we were fortunate that nothing bad happened on the way there.
On The Way Out Of Town
(7:30 PM Friday July 6, 2018 – 33.5 Hours)
On our way out of town we came across a herd of several hundred caribou. We stopped for photos, thinking we had all the time in the night to drive. Our goal was to simply drive a few hours and pull over whenever we were ready for bed. Although we drove the entire Dalton Highway in one shot on the way up to Deadhorse it was our intention to take our time returning to Fairbanks. The weather was turning in Deadhorse and it was not amiable for staying. But we could take our time in the leaving.
Or so we thought.
At mile 55 of 495 I noticed that the steering wheel had too much play in it. I mentioned that perhaps we would want to have the alignment checked when we returned. A brief moment later we heard the sound of something dragging behind us. I checked in the side view mirrors and noticed that the mud flap behind the driver side rear tire was dragging on the ground. This could only mean we lost air in either our air bag suspension or in a tire, or both.
I pulled over at the first place where I could safely keep up out of traffic. Trucks were few and far between at this hour. But when they passed, they did so at notoriously fast speeds that would amplify our danger if we were on the highway itself. As soon as I jumped out of the driver seat I heard the heart-stabbing sound of air racing from the rear tire. I watched in horror as the camper began to sag toward the ground as a captain might watch his beloved ship sink.
Lindsay quickly jumped into action and we unloaded the truck to locate the jack. I was able to quickly position the jack beneath the rear axle and slowly apply enough pressure to keep the truck from leaning any more. Our greatest fear in this was that while we fumbled to change the tire the weight of the camper would bend either the rim or the axle and we’d be stranded on the Dalton Highway.
The Blow Out
I had tested our jack on each tire before we left on our trip. Clearly I hoped to never use it. But I was able to verify that it had the integrity and strength to lift each wheel enough off the ground to change the tire. However, in practice I had done this with 4 fully inflated tires. In the reality of one deflated tire it was very difficult to get the leverage for the bottle jack to lift the entire weight of the truck camper.
As I struggled trying to twist the lever to raise the jack Lindsay popped her head under the bed and said somebody was stopping. Would I want help, she asked?
Of course! I had learned early on in our journey to set all pride aside. As we were on a mission to help others, we have learned it is equally important to be able to accept help from others. I needed help. Or else we’d be there all night trying to fix it.
I knew I could put the spare tire on. I just didn’t like the idea of how long it would take. Plus everything I have ever fixed on our truck or camper has taken me two times. I always forget something simple and have to go back and redo it. I didn’t want that to be the case for this tire. We were too far away from help to make another mistake. A tow this far on the Dalton Highway would cost a fortune.
Help From A New Friend
The stranger, turned friend, offered his help in changing the tire. As it turned out, not only did he have expertise in handling emergency situations as a former sheriffs deputy, but also he was an experienced “overlander.” Overlanders take their vehicles into difficult places and, as such, are always prepared for the worst.
We could not have asked for a better person to stop and offer help.
It took two hours before we were back on the road. However we did manage to raise the truck with the help of a farm jack and our own bottle jack. Our spare was not the greatest. But we knew it would be enough to help us limp back toward Fairbanks. My goal was to go as fast as reasonable in order to get as close as possible to Fairbanks should we experience another blow out.
They say you should have 2 spares when you drive the Dalton Highway.
We only had one. And since we were using it, we needed it to work.
So I presented to Lindsay the idea that I simply drive through the night back to Fairbanks. With 440 miles to go, at 30 miles per hour it would take almost 15 hours to complete the trip. But I just couldn’t imagine another breakdown. I felt it was worth the chance.
A Return to the Highway
(9:30 PM Friday July 6, 2018 – 35.5 Hours)
We started to drive the Dalton Highway again at 9:30 PM. At this point I had been awake for 12 hours. Before the blow out we planned to drive 3-4 hours and go to bed sometime around 11:30 PM. But now that we were on the course for Fairbanks I would have to muster up the energy to see the drive through.
Something happens in a man when he realizes he has a noble task in front of him. He either rises to the occasion with some kind of supernatural strength or he ducks away from it with a handful of excuses. I’m sure we could have driven back over the course of several days. But for me the noble thing to do was to get my small family back to Fairbanks safely. If that meant driving all night, I’d find the will to push through the night.
Renewed Strength Through the Night
As Lindsay slept off and on and Everest remained passed out on my thigh I pushed on through the night. I saw the sun rise, as much as it does when it never sets, and new light brought a new sense of energy. The dull, dreamlike state of the drive through the midnight sun gave way to a sharp, crispness as the sun hovered just above the tree line.
The remaining of the morning went for us as follows:
1:35 AM – The mountains came into view from the north as we passed into the valley. This was by far my favorite part of the drive, though I did not look forward to having to make the climb up Atigan Pass.
2:30 AM – We were 155 miles into the trip and nearly to Atigan Pass. We stopped to fly our drone here. Though I would almost regret spending that 30 minutes stopped rather than continuing to drive.
3 AM – We were almost to the top of Atigan Pass. However the transmission was working hard to climb the steep grade from the north and we had to pull over a few hundred yards from the top to let the transmission cool.
5 AM – We reached Coldfoot to top off with fuel and coffee. Here again, as I had on Thursday, I decided that I had it in me to push on rather than stop.
6:30 AM – We passed the Arctic Circle. While it was a big deal on the drive north and worthy of a photo stop, I had no intentions of stopping any longer than it took to refill my coffee.
9:30 AM – We passed the end of the Dalton Highway. Again, a photo-worthy stop on the way up was only worth a “farewell and good riddance” grumble as we made our way onto the Elliot Highway.
(11:30 AM Saturday July 7, 2018 – 47.5 Hours)
We cruised into Fairbanks at 11:30AM on Saturday. As exhausted as I was, the new burst of energy hours before gave me a restlessness that prevented sleep. Instead I took the time to check all of our systems in the truck and camper to ensure that nothing important had rattled off over the previous 1,000 miles.
I also stunk from three days without a shower. So as frugal as we are with our water and propane, we turned on the hot water heater and each managed a military shower. That was enough to put me over the top in fatigue and finally I felt my body let go of the rigidity by which it had stayed aware for the previous 17 hours of driving.
Reflections On Our New Life
In all, we managed to drive the Dalton Highway up to Deadhorse and back in less than 48 hours. While others have likely done this before, I think e get credit for doing it without a set plan. Had I known we were going to have a blow out and push on through the night then I would have spent the early part of the day sleeping. However, as everything is life is 20-20 in hindsight we cannot go back and change the way things went.
I have since found myself thinking a lot about that rock in the road that caused us so much inconvenience. It has become a compulsive thought as I look back on all of the 12,000+ miles of our journey thus far and the 36+ years of life behind me.
Could I have in any way prevented that rock from puncturing our tire?
What if I had taken an extra minute to eat my dinner?
Would things have gone differently if we had not stopped to take photos of the caribou?
How would things have changed if we had stayed for another night in Deadhorse?
What if a truck had passed in front of me and knocked the rock to the side of the road?
Would there have been another rock in the road that I was destined to strike?
Life happens pretty fast to us on the road. On the highway our life passes one mile per minute. Every detail matters when life passes so fast. And I think, were it not for that rock, I would have missed something important in the future for which I now have a greater perspective to find.
The Start of Something New
Ever since we took our feet out of the Arctic Ocean, dried them and placed them back inside the warmth of our boots we have begun our new life. We’re headed south, slower now than we were before. There is something to say for new beginnings. There is a refreshing feeling, a sense that the burden of the past can be left behind in the pursuit of the new dream.
As we completed our drive of the Dalton Highway I can say there is no going back for us. I can’t imagine a scenario in which we would ever have to return to Deadhorse, or the Arctic Ocean. It is part of our story, part of our history now. But that history only propels us further south on our mission to reach Argentina.
We should all celebrate the birth of something new. Whether that of a child brought into existence or of a dream that pushes to the forefront of one’s mind and heart. We are on to something here. We are pursuing our dream to drive from Alaska to Argentina and this new life for us compels us to seek the freedom of the road in the face of uncertainty.
We’re headed to Argentina, at the bottom of the world, and I believe it will take far longer than we can even imagine. But I believe we will reach the End of the World one day. And perhaps then, as in at Prudhoe Bay, we will turn and face a new direction and begin a new life…