Award-winning writer describes his North Slope experience in new book

By PHILIP CAPUTOAugust 17, 2013 

Editor's note: In his latest book, "The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean" (Henry Holt, $28), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Philip Caputo chronicles a cross-continental road trip from the Florida Keys to the end of the Dalton Highway on Alaska's Arctic Coast. In the following excerpt, reprinted with the permission of the publisher, he describes his arrival in Deadhorse, traveling with Leslie Ware, his wife, and his dogs.

The coastal plain is called the "North Slope," though there is no slope anywhere. The utterly treeless, shrubless flatness stretched out to infinity, fractured into a mosaic of irregular squares and rectangles and wedges by seasonal freezes and thaws. The only relief from the horizontal was cone-shaped hills called pingos, spaced miles apart, and the occasional low, ice-cored mounds pushed to the surface by permafrost. Here and there, thaw lakes glittered like shards of broken glass.

Always there was the pipeline, snaking over the tundra on its vertical supports, sometimes vanishing underground. Curiously, it did not mar the natural landscape but somehow seemed to be part of it. Even the warehouse-like pump stations blended in; the sheer scale of Arctic Alaska dwarfed anything humans could build.

Off to our right, parallel to the road, the Sagavanirktok River rushed toward Prudhoe Bay, its glaciated waters the color of liquid cement. The river is commonly called "the Sag," as its full name (an Eskimo word meaning "strong current") trips up the most agile tongue. The Franklin Bluffs, a sandstone escarpment resembling the Dakota Badlands, walled the Sag's eastern bank. Peregrine falcons nest in the bluffs. We saw a northern goshawk gliding over the tundra, but no falcons. Not that we looked all that hard. We were bone-tired after nearly ten hours on the Dalton. At last we came to the end of it, the end of all roads in America, Milepost 414, and entered Deadhorse. We'd made it from Key West in seventy-nine days. The reading on Fred's trip odometer: 8,314.


Deadhorse is the strangest and ugliest town in the country, so unabashedly, unapologetically ugly that it's fascinating. It's not really a town at all. It has its own post office and zip code, but there is no municipal government, no fire department or police department, no houses, parks, sidewalks, churches, schools, cemeteries, or bars, and no citizens, unless you count the four people listed as permanent residents. The rest of the population, which averages six thousand, is temporary, rotating in and out on two- to three-week stints. All are employed by the oil companies or any one of the two hundred contractors operating in the Prudhoe Bay field -- engineers and technicians, fire-control experts, mechanics, welders, electricians, roughnecks, pipe fitters, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, pilots, cooks, dishwashers -- and they live in sprawling dormitories or in hotels that look no more like hotels than Deadhorse looks like a town.

There isn't a structure or an object made of anything but metal: steel sided warehouses and welding shops, nests and stacks of drill pipes, yards filled with shipping containers. In place of, say, cathedral spires, drill rigs dominate the skyline. As for vegetation, you're as likely to find a blade of grass on the moon as in Deadhorse, where the word plant is used only in its industrial context: the manifold plant, the compressor plant, the seawater treatment plant, the seawater injection plant. Such is the unsightliness of the architecture that one hotel attempts to make a virtue of it: "Overnight in camp-style rooms consistent with the industrial heritage of the region," reads its ad in The Milepost. Translation: your room looks like a dumpster with a window.

But even a dumpster was preferable to spending a cold, miserable night in the truck. We drove around, looking for a place to stay. It was hard to see anything. A thick fog billowed in from off the bay. Like gigantic torches, tall stacks burned off waste gases from the wells, the orange flares eerie in the gloom. I felt as if we were on the set of a sci-fi movie, an outpost on some forsaken planet, Deep Space Station Nine.

We couldn't find a room, not at Deadhorse Camp or SourdoughCamp or the Arctic Caribou Inn. The clerk at the last place suggested we try a new hotel, the Aurora.

This massive building -- it had 378 rooms -- stood on the bleak shore of a thaw lake, Lake Colleen. In keeping with the prevailing aesthetic, it looked as if it had been constructed of about a thousand semitrailers stacked three stories high; but its yellow paint was cheerful, in comparison with everything else. Dozens of grimy pickups lined the parking lot, nose to nose at rails with electrical hookups to keep engines from freezing in the winter.

The Aurora had a room! With free laundry and three squares a day, it would cost us $275. After crossing the Atigun Pass and blowing a tire and five days without a shower, we would have shelled out twice that. And we did, booking two nights. (There was another reason for the extravagance. For security reasons, access to the Arctic Ocean -- our ultimate goal -- was restricted to commercial tours, and we'd reserved two seats on one leaving the next day.)

Because the Aurora was not a pet-friendly establishment, the dogs couldn't share in our happiness with staying there. They seemed a little bewildered as I walked them along the sooty, gravelly shore of Lake Colleen. Noses to the ground, they tried to pick up a recognizable scent and failed. Nor could they see much in the fog, and what they could see was unfamiliar to their field-dog eyes. Sage squatted, peed, and looked at me as if to ask, "What is this place you've brought us to?"

"Hey! Are those English setters?"

The voice belonged to a young, dark-haired guy at the wheel of a pickup, with British Petroleum's sunburst logo on its door panel. I confirmed the accuracy of his identification.

"We don't see many dogs up here."

"And I can see why. Not a dog-friendly kind of place."

"Not real people-friendly, either. But I like it well enough. Two weeks on, two off . Leaves me a lot of time to hunt and fish. You hunt those setters?"

I said that I did, and we talked bird dogs for a while.

"So what do you do for BP?"

"Dusty," he said, giving me his name. "I'm an AFG technician. Automated Fire and Gas. Systems that monitor natural gas migrating into a wellhead and shut everything down. Otherwise, you get a catastrophic explosion."

"You mean like what happened to that Deep Water Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico?"

"Yeah. Like that. We're upgrading the systems right now."

"Sounds like a good idea."

"Oh, yeah. Good lookin' dogs you've got. Don't let 'em off lead around here."

"Don't intend to. All these trucks and machinery."

"Bears. I was thinking about the bears. We get grizzlies walk right through camp like they own the place. Maybe they do. They were here before us, anyway."

I thanked Dusty for the tip and, keeping my eyes peeled for a hulking quadruped in the fog, took Sage and Sky to the truck. I gave them each a good-night treat, then went up to our room, where Leslie had been helping plan a report on mislabeled fish and doing laundry. Clean clothes. Clean, crisp, white sheets. A hot shower.


On a perfect summer's morning in Deadhorse -- cold and dismal like the day before -- we breakfasted in the Aurora's cavernous dining hall. It was packed with workers in the standard uniform: coveralls, work boots, baseball caps. Leslie liked Deadhorse, the organized busyness of it, people focused entirely on their jobs. The atmosphere, she said, reminded her of a big general hospital on one of those TV medical dramas, which I found an odd comparison. "Maybe I'll stay here, find a job."

"You don't know anything about the oil business," I said, sensibly. "What could you do?"

She surveyed the tables, filled with men.

"Prostitution," she said.

I was going to suggest that at fifty-seven, even a well-preserved fifty-seven, she might have trouble finding a clientele, but thought better of it.

"Uh, maybe you'd do better as a madam?"

"OK. Madam sounds good."

"I'll recruit the girls," I said. "And I'll want fifty percent of what you take in."

She forked her scrambled eggs, thinking things over. "Oh, no. You're not going to be my john."

"Sweetie, I think you mean pimp. A john is the customer."

She laughed. "Guess I'd better get the terminology down right. Maybe I could wash dishes."

The issue of her future employment settled, we drove to the offices of Tatgaani Tours in the Arctic Caribou Inn. There, we and a handful of other pilgrims were held captive in a small room, required to watch a twenty-minute propaganda film produced by British Petroleum. We were model prisoners. No one remarked that after the Deep Water Horizon disaster it would take more than a movie to get BP off the log upon which it was a four-letter word beginning with s. After serving our sentence, Branden Goulet, our guide and minder, herded us outside and into a minibus for the trip to the Arctic Ocean.

 

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