“Wait,” says Rachel. “This is it?”
We are straddling our bikes in the parking lot of the Deadhorse Camp, a hotel in the Keys to Freeze destination town of Deadhorse, Alaska. A red logo with the black bust of a mare is mounted atop the two-story, double-wide trailer that is our hotel. There are trucks covered in mud parked out front but there is no one outside. The wind whips through the parking lot and stirs up gravel dust. It is thirty-five degrees, and sunny — on August 6. Keys to Freeze is over.
After 8,000 miles and six months, through fourteen states, one province, and one territory, from the flats through valleys and mountain passes and in the rain, sleet, snow, ice and wind — always wind — the bike tour that we’ve lived, breathed and experienced at ten miles an hour on average, atop our trusted two-wheeled self-propelled machines, is over.
I look around and sigh, underwhelmed. One doesn’t go to Deadhorse for the social scene.
* * *
It had been a long eight days on the Dalton Highway.
Built in 1974 to aid in the construction and maintenance of the Alaskan Pipeline, the Dalton is a 414-mile, partly paved, though mostly gravel road. This is the only road leading to and from Deadhorse, the northernmost point reachable by road in the United States.
Opened to the public in 1994 the highway is a challenge for both motorists and bicyclists. There is one stop for gas at Coldfoot, in the middle of the Dalton. Besides Coldfoot there’s nothing but wide-open wilderness and all the possibilities of breakdown on the gravel and potholed highway, which boasts grades as steep as 18 percent. It’s not recommended to drive the Dalton without four-wheel drive or spare gas, food and water. To drive the Dalton is to take an adventurous leap and hope for the best. Cycling this highway is a whole different beast.
From the beginning of our tour — all the way back in Key West, Florida — we figured that the Dalton would be our most difficult stretch of road. But I don’t think any of us were expecting what the highway hammered our way. In the final 500 miles between Fairbanks and Deadhorse we battled heavy thunderstorms, thick mud on the gravel road, raging wildfires, testy truck drivers, vicious headwinds, and a wintery storm that put three inches of snow and ice on the frozen ground around us.
For an hour one day Tyler and I huddled under a tarp atop a ridgeline as a storm raged over and past us. To pass the time we played twenty questions.
“What do you mean, he’s technically alive but not exactly living?” Tyler asked. It was his fourteenth question, but not a yes-or-no. So I ignored it, and the storm raged on.
The answer, of course, was Dracula.
Another day it took twelve hours to bike forty miles up and over a mountain pass and into thirty-mile-per-hour headwinds that pushed our bikes into the soft shoulder or over the heavily pocked chipped gravel as we watched a dark storm build in the valley ahead.
For two days we rode through wildfire smoke so thick you could cut through it with a knife. It rained these two days and steam mixed with smoke.
We ate the same four ingredients for dinner — rice, beans, peas, and corn — and the same one ingredient — oatmeal — for breakfast. For lunch we had three scintillating options: bagels with peanut butter and jelly, bagels with peanut butter, or bagels with jelly. One long afternoon I became separated from the group and spent an hour sulking on the side of the road, spreading a jar of apricot jelly across three everything bagels. I haven’t been able to look at Smucker’s since.
One night we camped at milepost 276. The next morning we were to bike past the Dalton milepost 303 where there had been an aggressive grizzly bear on the highway. According to stammering tourists in beat-up Subarus, the agitated bear approached vehicles that had stopped to take pictures.
Going to bed that night tensions were high. We thought about hitchhiking past milepost 303, or riding past the bear in a pack of five hollering cyclists, or asking a truck to slow down to ten miles per hour and be our shield. I slept very little.
The next morning a heavy fog hung low in our valley. With the poor visibility no drivers would stop so we might ask about the bear. They drove by, and our fears mounted.
But the bear turned out to be the least of our worries. Ten miles before 303 we were slammed by an ice storm. Quickly our road was covered in a sheet of slick ice. Brady, Rachel, and I took shelter in a water pump shed off the highway. (These sheds, strategically located next to the variety of small rivers running across the Dalton, are used by water trucks to spray down the gravel highway in order to give oil trucks better traction on the road.)
Tyler and Meredith had to huddle under a tarp to fight off hypothermia. That was when Brady and Rachel’s dads, David and Doug, found Tyler and Meredith shivering off the side of highway. The two dads had rented a truck to visit Keys to Freeze on the Dalton. If not for this providence, who knows what might have happened to our group. The road angels of Keys to Freeze always found us in our worst moment.
Seemingly a week’s worth of experiences happened each day on the Dalton. The road had never been so difficult. We felt the 24 wheeled trucks vibrating the highway a full minute before we saw them, when all we could manage was six miles an hour through the thick, plasma mud. We went to bed cold and wet and tired and woke up cold and wet and tired. These are my memories of the Dalton, the emotions I carried those eight days while following the Alaskan Pipeline up to the Arctic Ocean.
What we didn’t realize before the Dalton was the intimate relationship we would have with the pipeline. I’d imagined us seeing glimpses of it from afar every few days, a giant mountain-worm rising from the frozen earth in a glory of flashing metal before burrowing itself back into the ground. But no. There was the pipeline, right next to us, a hundred feet off the highway, running parallel to our tracks. It was the silent sentinel, the constant reminder of why the Dalton and Deadhorse exists.
* * *
Deadhorse is a city founded solely because of the proximal, profitable oil fields. It is a city of stacked doublewides. The roads are a series of connecting, raised mud platforms leading either into or out of the oil patches. Every hotel — or “camp,” as some are called — has enough beds to host both workers and travelers.
At any given time Deadhorse has a population of 4,000. Yet nobody lives here. All workers are seasonal or temporary. This includes the oil patch workers, maintenance crews, hotel staff and cooks.
I wondered what would happen to Deadhorse and the highway if the oil ever dries up? Both would likely crumble and succumb to time on earth. It’s hard to imagine that the tourism industry in Deadhorse alone is profitable enough to afford maintenance on the most expensive highway in America.
The reason tourists drive to Deadhorse is to see the Arctic Ocean. To do this they must pay $59 to take an “Arctic Ocean Tour.” This involves an eight-mile bus ride through the restricted oilfields to the mouth of Prudhoe Bay. Here lies a gravel beach littered with rusted metal scraps and oil drums where one might dip their toe in the 40-degree water, or stand still and simply look at the placid waters.
Some choose to run in and fully immerse in the water.
* * *
“Oh. Well that’s not so cold,” says Tyler. He’s dripping wet, the salt water falling off his shoulders in large drops. We’re all wet, having run in and tackled each other into the ocean. We are standing in a circle, arms slung over each other. Our heads touch in the middle. Meredith films from the beach, smiling as we stand in the knee-deep waters.
I feel these hands on my back, the weight of Rachel and Tyler and Brady as we press together one last time collectively as Keys to Freeze. I look into their faces and see the memories that we’ve created and shared — the warm flat days of Florida, the windy brown ones of Texas, the national parks of Utah. Riding up the west coast and into the great white north of British Columbia and finally into Alaska. The days we’ve ridden until dark, the mornings we’ve woke in the dark to ride through rain and cold. The people we’ve met and places we’ve seen together, always together, always sharing the road with this goal — our goal — of arriving in Deadhorse together.
We did it. Keys to Freeze is over. The miles, the smiles, the trials of the road.
I am weeping while writing this. I miss my teammates, miss setting up our tents in a tight circle so that we could talk to each other at night. I miss the hard days that we shared, the music we shared, the meals we shared under the fading light of another day in the sun. It’s over. And our paths lead different ways. It’s over. Brady is leaving for Germany. Rachel is in Florida. Tyler and I are hours apart in North Carolina. My best friends are far away now. It makes me sad, but I can’t be upset.
We have the road. We made the road. And now our road has ended.
And that’s okay.
I remember an African proverb in these moments: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
* * *
Find out where they started, what they endured, who they met and how they got here. Read more Keys to Freeze adventures on Narratively.
Brady Lawrence is a filmmaker and endurance athlete from Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a co-founder of Keys to Freeze and is proud to have found a way to carry all of his film gear on his bike.
Meredith Meeks is a filmmaker and outdoor enthusiast based out of Boulder, Colorado. When not filming for Elephant Journal, she can be found exploring in the mountains with her camera and ready to jump on the next adventure!
Reese Wells is a writer and adventure cyclist from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a co-founder of Keys to Freeze and is excited to continue sharing stories from the road. reesewells.com