Thursday, August 28, 2008

Alaska, Part 1: Yukon? Oh.

In the northern hinterlands of Alaska (even hinterlandier than the rest of Alaska), the Dalton Highway stretches 414 miles from just above the town of Livengood (and its neighbor, Manly Hot Springs) past the Arctic Circle into the far reaches of Deadhorse. This road, originally built in 1974 alongside the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, lacks the staples of traditional highways, such as pavement, lane lines, or "services" (read: gas stations, hospitals, civilization) within a 200-mile radius. Instead, it offers an inconsistent surface—dirt, gravel, active airstrip—pocked with potholes and a right-of-way policy best summarized as "smoosh, or be smooshed."

This is not a location I would normally wish upon myself or others.

However, as past years indicate, my vacations very rarely include normality, wishfulness, or concern for others. But this time round I had for travel mates two brilliant (they got us through Alaska), tolerant (without killing me) soon-to-be lawyers: Jarrod, my best friend's boyfriend, and Bryant, his roommate. Although they come from very different backgrounds (Bryant: Wisconsin, organic whole-wheat pancakes; Jarrod: Tennessee, shotguns), their parents used a similar naming method: pick a standard name, then add or swap letters until your child hates you. My parents, despite some near-disasters ("Vladimir Edwards," anyone?) settled on a sensible "Greg," even if baristas suffix it with an indeterminate number of "g's."

For some time, Jarrod had wanted to drive as far north as possible and, barring a prohibitively metric trip to Canada, the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse seemed the optimal way of achieving that. He and Bryant began preparations after law school ended (Bar, schmar), and, upon discovering that expenses come to less when divided by 3 (and upon Megan vouching/lying about my good character), I was invited along. We booked our tickets and were off to Anchorage!

The town of Anchorage has three airports. This is unexpected, as the town has three people (60% of Alaska's population). We arrived to the Ted Stevens Airport, where the d├ęcor consists entirely of taxidermed animals: fish, polar bears, moose—they're not picky; if you can kill it, they can stuff it. To facilitate this carnage, Alaska provides no shortage of weapons, ranging from the Inuit's traditional ulu knives (like normal knives, but palindromic) to American shotguns which one-upped (and million-downed) the Inuits. The surfeit of weapons and inconsistency of sunlight (in summer, it's sunny until 11 pm; in winter, it's sunny in May) led Jarrod to ponder Alaska's suicide rate. Alaskans keep cheery, however, by visiting stores like "Once in a Blue Moose" where, as the name suggests, all the merchandise puns on animal names ("Things I Otter Do," "Things I Moose't Do," "Things I'd Beaver Do," etc). Pass the ulu already.

In Anchorage, a friendly-friendly taxi driver took us to the Go North! rental car agency, whose title agreed with our intentions. There, we met Evelyn, a friendly-friendly rental car agent. (Everyone in Alaska is friendly-friendly; you never know when you're going to be attacked by a polar bear and, as such, must keep every potential rescuer on your good side.) Evelyn provided us with "Tok," a Jeep Grand Something sporting jury-rigged wheels, a cavalcade of ever-glowing warning lights ("Tires!," "Four-Wheel Drive!," "Brakes!"), and an unforgiving security system that beeped at its passengers for the slightest infraction involving headlights (beep), keys (BEEP), or unfastened seatbelts (AOOOOOOOOOGA). More applicable to my situation, Tok's backseat (Megan had warned my companions about my driving skills) offered copious space, most of which would be occupied by Jarrod's anti-bear artillery (a shotgun with bullets the size of Rhode Island) and our other please-don't-kill-us-Alaska equipment (spare tires, tire sealant, full-body mosquito suits, Bryant's avocado collection). Thus equipped, we began the long drive to and along the Dalton.

When you're driving 300 miles a day on a gravel road, you spend a lot of time in the car. It follows that, when the standard avenues of entertainment (radio, conversation) become unavailable (out of range, being male), you have to craft your own. We settled on a game called "Look for Animals." Simple enough, right? At this point, I remind you that my travel companions were lawyers. As such, they assigned different point values to different animals, prorated these points based on the manner and location in which the aforementioned animals were sighted, and added a host of provisos, including but not limited to the archipelago effect (for animals within 100 feet of one another), a herding rider (for herds of non-herding animals), and a mauling clause (if you're killed by the animal you sight, you may be granted extra points; this is reviewed on a case-by-case basis). Were Bryant and Jarrod fellow theatre majors, I suspect the rules would have been: (i) Look for animals, and (ii) disparage the well-made play.

For me, however, the rules proved irrelevant, as I happen to be the suckiest animal spotter on earth. (This is, I suppose, a continuation of my childhood inability to locate Waldo.) Bryant and Jarrod would notice white specks on mountain tops or black shadows in the woods and instantly and inevitably identify them as Dall sheep, muskoxen, caribou, or whatever they happened to be. I, on the other hand, didn't notice the family of moose that strolled in front of our car. Throughout the week, Bryant and Jarrod's scores zoomed into the middle hundreds, whereas mine stayed in the low zeroes. Jarrod eventually took pity and tried to give some of his points to me with varying degrees of subtlety: "Oh, look, a caribou. I bet Greg saw it before me. Didn't you, Greg?"

At this point, I dedicated my life to the destruction of caribou.

Continued >>

 Where's my reality show?

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