Outside the window the frigid tundra stretched away to meet the horizon; vast, treeless and unnerving. I was the sole passenger on North America’s most northerly bus service, the Dalton Highway Express, as it bumped its way along Alaska’s notorious haul road towards the ominously named settlement of Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean. The only other traveller, a laconic Canadian, had disembarked several hours previously at a desolate truck stop called Coldfoot. Since then, the driver and I had been motoring north past the road’s last campground, its last outhouse and its last tree (a forlorn looking spruce with a “do not cut” sign). It was as if I was experiencing an extreme form of social distancing before Covid-19 made it de rigueur.
Extending 414 miles from Livengood just north of Fairbanks to the rugged Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Deadhorse, the Dalton Highway is America’s most northerly interconnecting road. It’s also, arguably, its most dangerous. Huge 18-wheel trucks hog the centre of the unpaved thoroughfare; arctic storms can reduce visibility to practically zero; and the weather can be deathly cold. In 1971, Cat Prospect Camp just south of Coldfoot recorded the US’ lowest-ever temperature, a bone-chilling -80F (-62C).