Friday, September 12, 2008

Alaska, Part 3: The End of the Pipeline

The last stretch of the Dalton Highway is a journey to the end of the world. The tundra extends for hundreds of permafrosted miles in every direction, the equilibrium broken only by the occasional musk ox skeleton (I can spot them when they're dead), white cliffs (not Dover), and the return of BlackBerry reception (not T-Mobile). Finally, the highway plunges into an eerie fog through which Deadhorse gradually comes into focus, a coven of warehouses silhouetted by krieg lights and the never-setting sun. (There are places in Alaska where the sun doesn't set for sixty days in summer and, conversely, doesn't rise for sixty days in winter, topping the biblical plague by a factor of 20. Even so, there are places in New York where any sense of light or hope is permanently absent, e.g. Brooklyn, Mamma Mia.)

At 10:00 pm, we arrived to Deadhorse Camp (a lodge designed more for oil workers than tourists, even if those tourists are 2/3 useful to society and 1/3 musical theatre writers), and found it entirely deserted. We soon learned the oil industry's most nefarious secret: its hours. Oil workers go to bed at 8:00 pm and wake up at 4:00 am, one of their few similarities to my grandparents. Catering to the oil workers' hours, breakfast at Deadhorse Camp ends at 7:00 am, which did not endear the oil industry to me. Spill oil in oceans, do exploratory drilling in baby seals, but do not make me wake up before 7:00 am.

Deadhorse Camp operates on the honor system. Some examples:
  • The doors don't have locks. If someone were to steal your belongings, where could they run, and wouldn't they be too sleep-deprived to run anyway?
  • You leave your shoes at the main entrance, lest you tread evidence of your work, be it oil slick or moose carcass. You have to trust your fellow lodgers not to steal your shoes, but, given the size of my feet (proportional to my height, empathy) and my untestosteronely sneakers, the danger was slight.
  • The entire lodge is on sled-like runners, so there's an assumption you won't rent a dogsled team and abscond with the camp.
Despite all the trust floating around, my shampoo was stolen. I'm not pointing fingers at Jarrod (who was the last to use it), but aren't most crimes committed by those closest to us?

Since supplies are so limited in Deadhorse (lack of resources, excess of people, lack of polar bears to eat those people), demand drives prices to obscene levels. Gas is almost $7/a gallon (despite there being oil, oil everywhere), and, sadly, it's more economical to eat gas than oatmeal, omelets, or bag lunches. (Postcards are a good deal, but they're a bit starchy.) To meet the needs of oil workers, the General Store carries a large number of goods, all dedicated to Deadhorse's extreme winter temperatures (heavy coats, caps, coveralls) and its gender imbalance (pornography). The trust implicit in Deadhorse does not extend to its pornography collection. There are conspicuous cameras with equally conspicuous signs (all-caps, militant impact font), and the materials are shrink-wrapped to protect them from unauthorized readers or spilled liquids, both applicable dangers. I availed myself of more savory, less surveilled materials, such as Alaska's two major newspapers, each of which had a front-page story about bears.

Excepting insanity, there's only one reason tourists go to Deadhorse: to see the Arctic Ocean. Since oil companies own all the coastal land and don't trust the general public (who might target a heavily guarded refinery, rather than 800 miles of unprotected pipeline), you have to pay the companies to take a "tour" to the ocean. This is a "tour" in the sense that one might tour North Vietnam. It's carefully scripted ("look at this, don't look at that"), and why bother with education where propaganda is so much simpler?

The "tour" starts at the Arctic Caribou Inn (a fancier hotel which permits both shoes and locks) with a video that extols the benefits of Alaska, mostly by comparing it to Rhode Island. ("Alaska is 200 times bigger than Rhode Island. / Alaska has 400 times as many resources as Rhode Island. / Die, Rhode Island, die.") Once it's won the trust of the Alaska-loving/Rhode-Island-hating contingent, the film switches into an oil industry panegyric. With underscore lifted from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the announcer discusses all the products oil makes possible:

"Because of oil, we have medicine! (Cut to aspirin bottle.) Transportation! (Cut to airplane.) Children's toys! (Cut to power drill.)"

Using vintage graphics and timpani, the video argues that oil drilling doesn't harm the environment because the rig's footprint is so small compared to the oil reservoir it sits on. (By this logic, Rhode Island doesn't hurt the United States.) The video's calculations also don't include the footprint necessary to support the rig, such as the entirety of Deadhorse (population: 10,000 + porn).

Once the video is over (and IDs are checked—the security is more intense here than at the Ted Stevens Airport), the narrated bus tour begins. The driver, whose talking points mirror the video's, drives you across the oil fields and points out the sights, most of which use the Halliburton logo and an Ikea color scheme (Hällibürtøn?). In lengthy narrative, the driver draws your attention to such safety features as lane lines ("used so trucks going in opposite directions don't crash") and bonfires ("to burn excess natural gas"—it's okay, fire has a small footprint). He also provided technical descriptions of wildlife ("The tundra goose is the largest kind of tundra goose") and harrowing warnings ("Beware! A polar bear was spotted somewhere in the Arctic Ocean at some point in time!").

During this, Jarrod found entertainment (or rather, entertainment found him) in the form of the only other people on the tour, a Tennessean couple who happened to live near Jarrod's hometown. (All signs suggest Deadhorse is a step up from Clarksville.) Despite Jarrod's best efforts, the Tennessee bond proved unbreakable, even after we arrived at the Arctic Ocean. While Bryant and I frolicked (well, Bryant frolicked, I limped—by that point in the trip, my Doc Martins had effectively conquered my Dr. Scholls), Jarrod did his best to extricate himself from the Tennesseans, leaving me with no choice but to call Megan before he did. (Now, if you were Megan, who would you date: the shampoo-stealing no-caller who cares about strangers more than his own girlfriend, or me?) But, Tennesseans or not, we had finally arrived at our destination.

For the purpose of this narrative, I wish there was something inherently climactic about the Arctic Ocean, specifically something that involved our guide being eaten by polar bears (I hear they're the most polar of polar bears), and I wouldn't complain if Angela Lansbury factored in there somehow. The ocean itself, however, is a cold, grey monotony uninterrupted even by waves. (Think Chekhov translated into ocean form. Hopefully, this is better than Chekhov translated into English.) Lonely Planet, to whom I generally defer, calls Deadhorse and the Arctic Ocean a "spectacular anticlimax."

I must disagree, though. Even though the Arctic Ocean isn't climactic in itself, it's certainly climactic in the experience of getting there. I got to travel to the top of the world, see something most people never will, and spend an incredible vacation with two incredible people and a bear spray can that didn't kill me.
All in all, a week well spent.

 The Arctic Ocean is not the one with penguins.  Crap.

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