In Delta Junction, one winter pastime is tossing your coffee into the air, then watching it freeze in pale-brown crystalline sheets on the way down. Temperatures in the interior of the state, here at the last stop on the Alaska Highway, often sink to 50 below. Weather isn’t small talk 2,350 miles north of Denver; it’s life and death. You plug your car into an outlet when you park so it doesn’t freeze (“plug-ins” are found at every supermarket and motel), and “ice fog” produced by frigid temperatures and engine exhaust damps out what little light there is in winter. (Night falls around two in the afternoon in December.) “It’s another world up here,” said a Delta Junction resident from Topeka, Kansas. “What’s the hardest thing?” I asked her. “The dark,” she said mournfully. “The dark.”
Delta Junction (pop. 840) is, of course, linked to the rest of the world by the Internet and TV; parents take their kids for ice-hockey practice and to the movies up in Fairbanks, 96 miles away. Like all Alaskans they try to go “outside” every winter—to Hawaii. But there is also a real connection with, and pride in, a more primeval existence, in the unspeakable cold, in an untamed place where hunters and trappers are the stuff of myth, where most people a generation back or less came to get away from the world, a place with a fierce libertarian spirit—the less government the better.
“One of the things Delta does not want (and had for only two years) is a police force. We generally don’t lock our front doors,” said Pete Hallgren, the town administrator. There are state troopers, though. Sometimes when there’s roadkill they call up Hallgren, and he and the other men pack up their knives, go over to the highway, and butcher the meat. “Up to our waists in meat,” he said. Among Alaskans, especially those up in the north, hunting is known as “getting your meat.”
This is the other Alaska. Not the Alaska of summer cruises, stylish fishing camps, or the urban pleasures of Anchorage, where nearly half the state’s population of 635,000 lives. In the deep interior and the north, the state is awesome, terrifying, thrilling—especially in the winter, when green curtains of the northern lights shimmer across the iced night sky and the great dogsled races—the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest—are held. It is also the Alaska of hard-times towns that exist on a boom-bust cycle—gold, oil, the military—towns like Chicken and Fox and Nightmute (featured in the film Insomnia).
It is the Alaska Jack London made legend a hundred years ago in The Call of the Wild. Self-sufficiency is prized; guns are a way of life. I asked Vicky Naegele, a mild-mannered reporter who covers Delta Junction for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, if she owns guns. “I always take my forty-five when I go blueberry picking,” she said. In the time it took her to add that she does it in case she meets a bear, I had an image of her shooting the blueberries off the bushes.
I went to Alaska last December with a colleague to work on a BBC documentary about the U.S. Missile Defense System, which under Ronald Reagan was dubbed Star Wars. By 2004, it is alleged, the first weapons will be in the ground at Fort Greely, outside Delta Junction. I also went because I wanted to see northern Alaska in winter. Most places have a season that is quintessentially theirs; Alaska’s is winter: extreme, raw, wild, still America’s last frontier. On the trip west from New York, Kris, a flight attendant with Alaska Air for 29 years, remembered how it was back when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was going up. “We were ‘stews’ then,” said the handsome blonde Kris, a heavy gold bracelet on her wrist. “We wore hot pants, chain belts, black stockings, boots, and little hats. And the guys who were working the oil pipeline, they had money falling out of their pockets, they would tip us a hundred bucks. It was always a party,” she added.
Prince William Sound came into view on the final leg to Fairbanks. The plane window was filled with glacial mountains stacked to infinity; Alaska as big as a sixth of the whole United States, as forbidding and beautiful as Siberia’s steppes. In the last slanting light of the day, as we made our way from Fairbanks to Delta Junction, only a browsing moose broke the monochrome landscape as it picked its way through the white birch glistening with frost. Then an enormous crescent moon came up bright yellow and seemingly hung on an invisible ribbon over the mountains at the edge of our horizon. NO LOADED GUNS IN THE STORE, PLEASE,” read a sign in the general store at Delta Junction. At a gas station, a man with a beard and a few teeth was sucking a red lollipop and looking philosophically into the night. I asked him where Kelly’s Country Inn was. “Just past the Texaco,” he said amiably.
After dinner at the Buffalo Center Diner (for a while Delta Junction had been called Buffalo Center after a herd of bison imported in 1927), I spent the night at Kelly’s, where the radiator was nearly rusted through, the pink towels frayed to the thread; but the room was warm, the flowered sheets clean. All night you could hear the trucks roaring by. Next morning there was reindeer sausage and eggs at the diner, where I eavesdropped on locals holding a prayer breakfast at the next table. This is a religious part of the country. The Christmas poster on the wall read: JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON. “Well, He turned water into wine, didn’t He?” one of the men said. For a few hours a day the frozen sun struggles into view before slumping behind the mountains, where it seems to hibernate.
It was almost ten. The first smudge of light showed beyond the strip mall, the churches, the tidy suburban houses that were lighted up for Christmas. Suddenly the Alaska Range revealed itself, drifting into sight in a surreal pink glow. At the Clearwater Lodge, a restaurant in the woods outside town where the owner, Pam Ellis, serves good pepper steaks, I met the daughter of Mary Hansen, one of Delta’s original settlers. “Mom came to Alaska in ’28, to Delta in ’39 and started a roadhouse,” said Irene Mead. “She was a miner, a trapper, and she kept her own sled dogs. She died recently at age ninety-seven.” Others remembered how they’d lived in tents, played penny-ante poker on Saturday night and done Bible study in the same place the next morning. “I came in 1955,” said Norm Cosgrove. “We had no electricity, no conveniences.” Cosgrove talked about the economy. “A boom when they built Fort Greely,” he said. “Another when the pipeline came in. Now we’re looking at a third boom with the missile defense, and this is going to bust one of these days.” I asked how he felt about the missiles. “I would rather get a chance to shoot them guys out of the air than not get the chance,” he added.
Everyone said this was the warmest December in 77 years; the temperature rarely dropped much below zero (by early January it was 30 below), but at the missile site an 80-mile-an-hour wind blew in from Canada and shoved the wind chill down as it rattled the metal plates over gravel pits being readied for the weapons. Most of the construction workers had gone home for the winter; we shivered alongside our military guides. At the edge of the site a chain-link fence with barbed wire was the only thing breaking the tundra. To quote Captain Scott when he reached the South Pole in 1912, “Great God, this is an awful place.” The stands of white birch, the ice and snow, the military presence, the insularity of the people, the churches. Most of all this Alaska reminded me of the Russian heartlands. And there are Russians here. Some are Pentecostals who fled from the Soviet Union. Others are Old Believers—the zealous fundamentalist Russian Orthodox who live out in the woods and raise eight or ten children in each family. Locals have an uneasy relationship with these Russians. Superficially, they seem tolerant. But there are accusations: The Russians get big government handouts, the Russians build swimming pools out of sight of the road. The paranoia reminded me, of course, of Russia itself. “I’m against all the immigrants coming because we can’t talk to them, they don’t want to obey the laws, they don’t want to learn English.
They’re hard to handle in the schools, and they’re killing off the moose along the road. This bothers me,” Norm Cosgrove said. “I like my wildlife.” All Alaska was, in fact, Russian until 1867, when Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, bought it for $7.2 million—about two cents an acre. The Russians, like the Spaniards and Danish, the English and Americans, had come for the sea otters and other furs and in search of the Northwest Passage, a trade route from the North Pacific into the North Atlantic. And then, when the sea otters were gone, with Russia broke from its adventures during the Crimean War, it relinquished its hold on Alaska. Americans thought the purchase was insane—they called it Seward’s Folly, Seward’s Icebox. Barely anyone was interested until the first big gold rush took shape in 1880, when Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discovered gold on the site of present-day Juneau, the state capital. By 1912 Alaska had territorial status; in 1959 it became a state, eight months before Hawaii.
Then, a decade later, came the oil. On the road up to Fairbanks from Delta Junction, and north from Fairbanks, you can see the exposed artery of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline as it uncoils over the bleached landscape on its 800-mile journey south from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. (The U.S. government looks at the North Slope and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge these days and sees MORE OIL.) Wherever you go, you are aware of the pipeline, the urgency with which it snakes across the countryside, providing 20 percent of the country’s oil and 80 percent of the state’s revenues. Eight miles north of Fairbanks you can get up close to it. It looks utterly vulnerable, just a metal pipe four feet in diameter, nothing more. But in the north of the state the pipeline is the essential fact of life.
At Fairbanks Airport, I met a pipeline worker waiting to catch the regular charter for Prudhoe Bay; his schedule was one week on, one off. The 51st state, Prudhoe has been called. Fairbanks started as a gold town in the early 20th century; up the Old Steese Highway in summer you can visit a real gold dredge that was operated from 1928 to 1959. It experienced boom times when the Alaska Highway was clawed out of the wilderness in 1942. (Used for strategic purposes during World War II, Alaska is now littered with military bases.) Fairbanks was remade by the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the building of the pipeline from 1975 to 1977. Jammed with workers flush with cash, it was a raucous, high-living city. (As was Delta Junction, where there were five nightclubs and, according to the locals, prostitutes working out of Winnebagos.) I checked into the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge, a huge hotel on the banks of the Chena River catering to tourists off cruise ships in summer and spectators at the dog races in winter, races that have become the province of the rich adventure traveler looking for something recherché. (Some say the Yukon Quest between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in February is even tougher than the Iditarod, between Anchorage and Nome.)
In March there are the Ice Art Championships. The room was big and comfortable; empty, the hotel was fine, but I’m not sure how it would be in the summer with 300 people off a cruise ship. Still, it’s the best in town; the service was friendly, the bartender a local happy to pass on advice about sightseeing and life in Fairbanks. The food was drab, the fish and chips soggy, the steak overcooked. But you don’t come to Alaska in the winter for the food. Leave a message at the front desk of the Princess and someone will wake you up in the middle of the night if the northern lights appear. Flat and sprawling, Fairbanks, Alaska’s second city, is a university town of about 30,000 (80,000 if you count the North Star Borough). In the summer people use it as a base for hiking, canoe trips, kayak expeditions. It has a multiplex and Thai food and cappuccino; it has pizza at Gambardella’s, caesar salad at the Dog Sled Saloon, James Bond at the movies. In the decrepit old downtown you can buy gold-nugget earrings and carved jade and get a whiff of the place before it was safe, suburban, and geared to tourists.
GOVERNOR GOES OUTSIDE FOR A WEEK was a headline that caught my eye in the Fairbanks News-Miner. Alaska, I had realized, is self-obsessed, insular. John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, published a quarter of a century ago, still feels relevant when McPhee calls Alaska “the most provincial place in America. . . .The conversation,” he writes, “is Alaska. Alaskans, by and large, seem to know little and to say less about what is going on outside. They talk about their land, their bears, their fish, their rivers.” Alaska has its own rituals, even its own vocabulary: cache (for grocery store; originally a wood box on stilts to keep food from the bears), kayak, tundra, mukluks (soft winter boots).
The central irony of Alaska is that in spite of its almost obsessive devotion to its myth as the last frontier, in spite of its libertarian attitudes (and no taxes), the state lives off big business, off big oil (every citizen receives a dividend of some $1,500 a year), and off the government. Alaska is America’s military encampment, the country’s gas station. The government runs the state ferry and train systems; the government owns much of the land; Alaska, you could say, though you wouldn’t say it out loud, is practically socialist. Not that you’d know it. For a while the state had a liberal bent. It voted Democratic. Then came the oil and with it outsiders, many from the Bible Belt South. In hock to big business, it turned Republican, conservative, fundamentalist. “I’m one of the two Democrats around Delta Junction,” said Bob, a guy I met at the Buffalo Bar before I left for Fairbanks. “I was opposed to the Vietnam War, and my kids suffered for it.”
Before I left Alaska I was determined to see the far north. I wanted to see the coast, Barrow and Kotzebue and Prudhoe Bay, where at the winter solstice the sun never rises.Where the Arctic Ocean, the only thing between the coast and the North Pole, is frozen ten months of the year. There’s plenty of what they call “flightseeing” out of Fairbanks, plenty of tours, but the season doesn’t begin until January. No one visits Alaska in December. There were no tours at all. I figured I’d drive. At first the road north was beautiful, rolling farm country like Virginia, only covered in frost. Past Fox with its Howling Dog Saloon (shut), past exurban houses, then into wilderness. I was making for the Dalton Highway, the 400-mile-long road to the north coast. I was sure that at Livengood, where the highway starts, I could fill up the tank and buy supplies. Hours later it was almost dark.
The few cafés and gas stations on the road were closed. Then I saw the sign for the turnoff to Livengood—no services. I reached for the guidebook, which informed me that once you’re on the unpaved Dalton Highway there are almost no service stations, your rental is not insured, your cell phone won’t work. Break down, and they’ll find your white bones in the spring. A naïve outsider, I peered through the window at a world stark, white, unbroken except for the pipeline and some abandoned cars in ice shrouds. They reminded me of the way frogs in very cold climates not only hibernate but also entomb themselves in ice, seemingly lifeless, all systems suspended, waiting to revive with the thaw. Up here in the north the vista is so immense, your mind falls off the map thinking about it. I turned the car around. The drive had been one of the most exotic and one of the most exciting things I’d ever done; I could almost think of myself as a pioneer. I’d be back, I was hooked. But for now it was time to go back to Fairbanks.
Time to go back outside.