Dalton Highway Conversations

“Are you packing heat?”
I look up from fiddling with my pannier, perhaps with a look of, huh,didyousayheat?
“Are you packing HEAT?” now with his forefinger pulling an imaginary trigger, pantomime pistol brandished to the sky.
“No,” I chuckle, “I just use hope and pedal like crazy.”
He laughs but looks both genuinely disappointed and earnestly, honestly baffled.
“Oh man, I just got me a .44, can’t wait to go home to shoot it. I wanna get 23 caribou this year.”
“Where’s home?”
“A village that I get to by plane. I got three more weeks at this here job, but then I leave for the winter.”
“Is there a limit on the number of caribou you can get?”
“No, man! I’m pure native Alaskan right here, we can hunt what we want. This job don’t pay me enough to feed my family, you know? Last year I got a lot, this year more.”
“Cool, and then you reach the end of the season?”
“Yeah, like end of October.”
His cigarette, and likely his break, are over.
“Good luck,” he says “Man, I like them tires, like when I was a kid.”

*     *     *

“…Massachusetts,” to the where ya from? question.
The pilot car driver, burly with a beard and ballcap, driving us past construction: “Massachusetts? Huh.”
After a span, and after the joke about there being a “pretty girl” behind every tree of this treeless landscape, and as if it’s not a non-sequitur, he says: “I work in the oilfields in winter.  Did you know that if we drop some oil the amount the size of your thumbnail” — he holds up his thumb — “it has to be reported as an oil spill?”
Looking at him now, pretending that we’ve been talking about this for an amount of time that would make his contribution make sense.
“That’s right.  Three forms to fill out.”
I nod for him to go on.
“You people don’t hear this on the news, do you? You all think that an oil spill is like what’s going on in the Gulf, and then you read that we had 18,000 or whatever oil spills last year in Prudhoe and you people go crazy.  We report everything, we have to because of the environmentalists.  But that’s what going on.  Did you know that?”
I shake my head.
“Or piss on the ice. If a supervisor sees you, first time you get written up, next time it’s six months suspension, you’re gone. Do you chew?”
“Uh, no, mh mh.” He seems a bit startled by this, but hardly misses a beat.
“Well, if you did, same thing.  Or if you had some bad messican food or something and had diarrhea, you can’t go outside. But the bus driver in Denali, he can take a crap right in the bushes! You East Coast people don’t know this stuff.  No give and take, environmentalist just take.”
I say, “Well, that’s just ridiculous.  I mean, you can see why there have to be some rules, but what you’re saying is silly.”
“I agree with you.  There has to be compromise, people going half way so that we can do our jobs.”
At the end of the ride: “You seem alright, I’ve got no problem you being here.  Just do me a favor and tell people back East what’s really going on.” And then, as he helps unload the pickup truck, he smiles.  “Your bike’s light, not like the Europeans! I ask them, ‘what do you have in there, the kitchen sink?’ and they don’t even get it!”
Laughing, we shake hands.

*     *     *

Along the side of the road, a guy in camo, wearing a backpack, carrying a bow.  One of legions of hunters up here, to a one friendly, quiet, respectful.  Many wholly unselfconsciously ask for information about where the caribou are, hints on where they should relocate.  I offer this factually, to the degree that I can.  Over these days, their sense of stewardship has earned my respect.  I mention the unassuming, unsmug kindness of the people I’ve met in Alaska.
“Yeah, people are real independent up here.”

*     *     *

“There’s this guy in Fairbanks who brings me a van of Japanese tourists every week, I charge them $75 per person!  They all sleep up in the loft in my cabin.”
The cabin, looking at it now, is gorgeous — honey-colored logs, expansive windows, puffing chimney with strong implications of warmth — in a narrowing valley at the edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park.
“I teach ’em to hunt, well sometimes we just shoot the caribou off my front porch, or to drive a 4-wheeler, chop wood.  Today I taught them to use a hydraulic jack! They don’t know anything!  I teach them to roast wieners on the fire, they’ve never done that before and get a real kick out of it. I don’t have a phone or email, though, so if you want to get in touch with me, if you want to stay in the cabin some time, no problem, just call up the Six Robblee’s, it’s a trailer shop in Fairbanks, tell them you want to get a message to Todd, they know me. Then one of the drivers drops off a note at the end of my road here and I’ll call you.”

*     *     *

She’s introduced herself and chatted with firm lucid confidence, visibly tired from the end of a day supervising firefighting helicopter operations on the North Slope. “It’s your taxpayer dollars coming back to you,” she says as she passes along a half-full box of Merlot. “I’m getting flown out of here in a few minutes, and all my guys are gone.  You have it.”