Debbie Does Deadhorse
By Debbie Bernard
English 354, July 9, 2012
“Well, darlin’, a fairy tale beings with, ‘Once upon a time.’ But an oilfield story (pronounced O-field story) begins with, ‘Now, this ain’t no shit.’”
It was 1981. Ronald Reagan was in office and had cancelled all extensions to unemployment benefits. My fiancé Joseph and I were on unemployment for the only time in our lives, and were looking forward to “a long winter’s nap.” I was 29, he was 35. When the benefits were cancelled, we were more or less summoned to Fairbanks, Alaska, from our Bellingham home, by Joe’s sister Jean.
Jean and her husband Art lived in a house trailer off Peger and Davis Roads in Fairbanks with two fat little poodle mixes whose nasal incessant barking made it sound like they must have asthma.
Single wide trailer with two bedrooms and one bathroom. Shiny fake pine paneling and green shag carpet. Oh, and a “wanagon,” the Alaska name for a plywood room tacked on to the front porch that kept the excruciating cold of winter and the gloopy mud of spring breakup from entering the trailer.
Sharing their quarter-acre was a giant metal shop building that housed Art’s pride and joy, his 18-wheeler truck, a Peterbilt, or Cab Over Pete in the trucker vernacular. “Hey, how’s YOUR Peter Built?” the truckers would joke with each other at
The Sunset Strip, Fairbanks’ local trucker hangout. And they would laugh like nothing had ever been that funny before.
Joseph and I had come to Fairbanks, sponsored by Joe’s sister Jean, for a visit. “For God’s sake, Joey! Please don’t wear your pink and white belt here! And please don’t kiss in The Strip!” Jean would plead.
Art was Jean’s second husband. Both were old enough to be our parents.
He was explosively angry much of the time, and profane. He bellowed at Jean all day long, making us wonder if “verbal” was his only form of abuse.
His fingernails were always dirty with truck grease, which is why Jean had married him. Her first husband, Bill, the love of her life, had been obsessed with hand-washing. When he died, Jean actually listed as one of her pre-requisites for her next husband: dirty fingernails. Art drove their little pickup like a maniac around Fairbanks, driving way too fast, then slamming on the brakes at a stoplight, miraculously avoiding collisions. On ice. Which made us wonder how he maneuvered in his 18-wheeler.
We frankly feared him.
So when Art started talking about taking us up to Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse in his 18-wheeler, we were nervous. Remember that Art was the original Ice Road Trucker, 30 years before the History Channel romanticized these truckers. But Jean was insistent that we had to see it! The Great Alaska Pipeline! Jobs for the unemployed!
The Dalton Highway, the “Haul Road,” is a 500-mile gravel road that connects the Prudhoe Bay oilfields with Fairbanks. It is as far as you can go by road in North America. End of the road. Top of the world.
In fact, if you want to be in the Guinness Book for having traversed the longest road in the world, you have to either start or end in Deadhorse. The other end of your journey will be Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America.
The James W. Dalton Highway, once called the North Slope Haul Road, parallels the pipeline and is one of the most isolated roads in the United States. Despite the remoteness, the Dalton Highway carries a good amount of truck traffic, according to Wikipedia: about 160 trucks daily in the summer, plus large and small tour buses, and about 250 trucks daily in the winter.
The BBC featured this road on World’s Most Dangerous Roads.
Truckers have named parts of this road. The Bluffs. Oil Spill Hill. Oh Shit Corner. Beaver Slide.
“Sure, I’ll take ya, on two conditions,” Art grumbled. Smug, grudging. “”First, you can’t tell anybody I brought the both of ya at the same time.” Art owned his own truck, but the Weaver Brothers employed him. And they frowned upon passengers.
Especially more than one, since we would have to take turns riding in the sleeper. Which didn’t have a seatbelt.
“And,” he said, emphasizing the word by taking a noisy slurp on his ceramic coffee mug, which looked like he was drinking out of a woman’s tit, “if I tell you to jump out of the truck, ya gotta jump. No questions. No jabber. Just go, as far out as you can.”
He explained that if we were going over Atigun Pass, the highest of the three mountain ranges that we would be passing through, and that if the truck lost momentum, or the tires locked up in the ice and snow and started sliding backwards, there would be no stopping it and therefore our only chance to survive was to jump clear of the truck. Pronto.
We said: All righty, then. But we felt:
Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot. What The Fuck? In trucker vernacular, which uses the military alphabet on their CB radios.
The ride up was visually spectacular. We saw the snow-capped mountains in the distance, and suddenly, we were driving up the gravel road to the mountain summit. Joseph, Art and myself in the cab and sleeper. A load of 36 inch pipe, weighing tons, being pulled by us.
But emotionally it was a white-knuckle roller coaster ride. With the threat of “Jump!” hanging over us, we were nervous anyway. Art stopped for a flat tire. I had to pee. We were flat smack in the middle of flat country, with no mountains or hills anywhere. I picked the only private spot I could find: in between the two big tires on the front of Art’s truck.
I now know Alaskan women who can pee outdoors, discreetly and efficiently. I am not one of those women.
I was squatted down, hoping to pee on the gravel road between Art’s big tires, and not on my own pants, shoes or socks. At the critical moment, just as I was about to let ‘er rip, a giant SHUSH! emitted from Art’s truck. Novice that I was, I didn’t realize that these giant trucks emit such a noise a few minutes after they have stopped. So I thought the truck was starting to roll. With me, vulnerable, squatting in between its massive wheels.
Of course my pants were up and I was out of there in a split second. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
And Art was bellowing: “Joey! Bring me a five-inch extension!”
Joe had no idea what a “five-inch extension” was, or its reason for existence. But he knew that Art needed one RIGHT NOW. Unable to discern what that might be in Art’s giant red toolbox, Joe simply picked up the entire tool box, which had to weight 150 pounds, and ran it over to Art.
Finally, Joseph and I and a truckload of pipe were delivered into Deadhorse. We offloaded the pipe at Lynden Trucking in Deadhorse, then Art drove us through the guard shack and onto the Prudhoe Bay oilfield.
Prudhoe Bay is as flat as a pancake. North Dakota in summer. Mars in winter. It may not be the end of the world, but, you can see it from here.
So the gleaming, modern buildings that suddenly appeared on the gravel pads built on the flat tundra seemed amazing. It was like Art’s 18 Wheeler had fallen out of the hurricane of the Haul Road and landed in the Merry Old Land of Oz. The dreary black-and-white of the gravel roads gave way to glorious Technicolor!
Inside the gleaming structures, the oilfield camps were posh. Amenities finer than any five-star hotel. The dining rooms offered sumptuous offerings, several entrees, salad bars, dessert tables groaning with food.
Workout rooms with state-of-the-art treadmills that monitor your heart with an aligator clip on your ear! A second-story indoor walking track, scientifically banked so you walked one direction on Mondays, the opposite on Tuesdays, so you didn’t overdevelop muscles on one side of your legs. Who knew?
Indoor atriums full of green plants. Wouldn’t that be a fun job, tending to the indoor plants in this arctic wonderland?
“Spike Rooms” full of donuts, oozing with caramel frosting, soft ice cream machines with vats of hot fudge, hot dogs on a carousel, cases of four-ounce cans of juice, and pudding cups, all free for the taking. Which would explain the glittery trail that twinkled in Art’s truck headlights all the way up the Haul Road. Juice cans and the foil tops off pudding cups, discarded by truckers like Hansel and Gretel so they could find their way back to civilization.
So the Fairy Tale and the Oilfield Story blend into one. And “Once Upon a Time” morphs into, “Now, this ain’t no shit.”