We’re on a 7000-mile expedition, including the completion of the ALCAN 5000 rally and our own plan to penetrate the Arctic in the two places that a wheeled vehicle can in North America. During winter.
The ALCAN 5000 is a terrifically challenging endurance adventure that requires not only high mileages at low temperatures, but a number of exacting time-speed-distance (TSD) trials that require you to be at the right spot along the road at exactly the prescribed time. Even a second early or late attracts a penalty. That’s difficult enough when you’re getting to work; it’s particularly hard on an icy 11-percent grade in northern Canada.
In order to be competitive in this TSD work, you have to calibrate your odometer to be as accurate as possible. To put that into context, most OEM odometers are a few percentage points high in order to accommodate variances and not encourage even a little bit of optimism in your speedometer. That error is way too large to be competitive on this event.
The top teams run a custom electronic odometer that can be fine-tuned to read to three decimal places. As in: “it’s just down the road 11.526 miles.” Our “seat of the pants” class doesn’t allow these automotive mainframes, but we are allowed to use GPS. However, what we’ve found (through 3,300 miles of testing) is that even the fancy-spec GPS reads 0.55 percent too long. That may not seem like much, but it’s enough for us to have to run a “correction factor” on our mileages during the TSDs.
We do, and we’ve been extremely competitive, winning our “SOP” class by a large margin yesterday. But that insane focus on tiny distances provides a stark contrast to the immense distances just on the other side of the windshield. We’re cutting up the vast North American wilderness into sections less than a car length long.
Brad Lovell, off-road racer extraordinaire and one of my teammates on this expedition, is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and grew up roaming around the mountains. One of the things he’s noted is the different feeling he gets from the mountains up here. In Colorado, if you summit that peak or go over that pass yonder, there’s probably a town or a road on the other side. Up here, there’s only another summit, and maybe another pass.
It means that there’s a feeling of infinity as you look at the horizon. And our slicing up the distances into feet at a time seems particularly amusing.
Beauty in Barren Places
A long road trip or expedition has many effects on the people involved. Fatigue, wonder, tension, a certain odor, and a whole playlist of self-referential jokes all develop as the trip progresses.
Our expedition is no different. Four thousand miles into 7,000 at high latitudes during winter keeps you in the vehicle a lot, and the dangers of the route keep you highly focused most of the time. We’re passing the hump in the middle, with road-weariness setting in. And of course a lot of jokes that are now too complex to explain and probably wouldn’t be funny if explained at all. The usual.
But the other thing that happens, eventually, is that the constant movement and change begins to scour away things that were hanging on you before the trip began. It’s cleansing and it helps you distinguish between important and unimportant things.
Today our team pressed on to Coldfoot, Alaska, 40 miles above the Arctic Circle, a fueling location for the truckers on the Dalton Highway, itself privately built to service Prudhoe Bay oilfield needs. And if you attempt this road you must make sure (ironically, as you follow the pipeline) that you are fully fueled in Fairbanks and are carrying fuel also.
On this road, you go through some very difficult places. As the trees become smaller and you roll over the windblown peaks, you wonder if anything can live here. The permafrost prevents building into the ground, and the cold is prohibitive for any kind of normal life. The abandoned work camps for the people who built the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline are a haunting reminder that any human presence here is temporary, including yours. You pass Prospect Creek, now a pump station for the pipeline, that boasts the lowest recorded temperature in the United States: -80F.
It wasn’t quite that cold today, but it was cold enough to remind you that you’re a pretty fragile unit. And as you pass over some of the higher altitudes from the tree-covered subarctic into the tundra, you find scraggly trees clinging to life in the shallow ground, weighed down by rime ice six inches long. It’s a scene out of a Dr. Seuss book. Or an apocalyptic film.
But then you stop, bundle up, and brave the elements. Between the trees are hundreds, if not thousands, of animal tracks, a testament to the caribou, wolves, and muskoxen that are able to inhabit the place. And if you touch the trees in an attempt to take the dry, powdery rime ice in your hand, it floats away like dust. Despite its visual impact, you’re unable to get a hold of it, just as you’re unable to get a hold of this land at all.
Getting back in the Jeep and on the road again, you realize you can inject yourself into this landscape, but it will close up beautifully behind you. If you’re lucky, it will scour the trivial things away as you pass through.