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relflections on the dalton highway

The thing that I found fascinating about the Dalton Highway is the sense of community that exists on the 414 mile ribbon of mud, gravel and occasional asphalt that traverses the arctic tundra and mountains north of Fairbanks.

There are very few permanent residents on this road. The main settlements are work camps – mostly to serve the pipeline and maintain the road – which house workers, who are generally based in Fairbanks and Anchorage and often much further afield. Like all life on the tundra, most activity takes place during the short summer. Places like Coldfoot have a winter population of a mere 12 people.

Truck drivers are constantly mobile, but extremely important, members of this community. Their importance is not surprising given that the community centres on the road which, in turn, exists for, and runs parallel, to the oil pipeline.

Most members of this community are transient – the truck drivers, for example, might work on the Dalton for only a season or two before moving on to other things. However, in a testament to the strength of the ties, I saw, prominently displayed in all the places where truckies stop, a sign asking for donations to help ‘Dirty Shirt’ Joe, a truck driver who had fallen on hard times through ill-health.

The community is tight-knit but open enough to accommodate this constant flux of seasonal workers and other temporary members. I had no doubt of my honoury membership for the time that I was travelling down the Dalton Highway. As a cyclist, one is viewed with considerable amusement but also a reasonable amount of respect. The truck drivers – despite jokes about cyclists as speed humps – behave impeccably, swinging out to the opposite side of the road and slowing down to a crawl so as not to spit gravel and raise choking clouds of dust. They respond amicably to a smile and a wave and when the need arose a truckie didn’t hesitate to carry a package for me down the highway to Fairbanks.

Most people are in contact via radio on the road and so often when I stopped to speak to someone they would tell me that they knew I was coming. Messages can be ferried up and down the highway merely by asking someone to pass it on. People stop to give a weary cyclist gifts of food – crackers and smoked salmon spread, fresh fruit and vegetables, chocolate, a US army ration pack, trail mix, a fried chicken dinner.

Everybody I met was curious about where I came from and where I was going.

The Atigun Pass in the rain.

Heading up the Atigun Pass in the rain.

Half way up the Atigun Pass looking down.

Half way up the Atigun Pass looking down.

The end (from my perspective, having started at the northern end) of the Dalton Highway.

The end (from my perspective, having started at the northern end) of the Dalton Highway. I had the strangest desire to do it all again when I reached this point.

One of the most curious and sad sights I saw on the Dalton Highway was man living in his car with all his - CDs, tools, baseball hat, guns - belongings spread out on the bonnet for sale.

One of the most curious and sad sights I saw on the Dalton Highway was a man, originally from Cuba, living in his car at Milepost X with all his belongings - CDs, tools, baseball hat, guns - spread out on the bonnet for sale.

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