***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Ken Ilgunas
Escape from Prudhoe Bay
I can say this from experience: There’s nothing like washing spoon after spoon in the middle of the night in a silent kitchen at a working camp three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle that makes you think about the direction your life is headed in.
A year before I threw on a backpack and set off on a hike across North America, I found myself driving a mud-caked van full of bed linens to a working camp in Alaska called Deadhorse, where I was to assume the position of camp dishwasher.
It was a 250-mile ride up the gravel and dirt Dalton Highway that links the interior of the state to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields along the Arctic Ocean coast. It was late and dark, yet the storm clouds zipping from one end of the sky to the other still held within them a curious pink-red hue. Between the time lapse–like passage of the clouds and the deathly still tundra plain (where the wind has no trees to shake or leaves to scatter), I felt as if I were entering some disturbing, unworldly, goat-headed netherworld.
“This place is just weird,” said Liam, a cook in the passenger’s seat, looking up at the clouds.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I said.
Deadhorse houses about three thousand oil-field laborers who live at the work camp for a month at a time before they fly back to wherever’s home for a week or two. In Deadhorse, there are no churches, schools, families or anything that would make it resemble a normal American town. It is a cold, lifeless, cheerless (and nearly femaleless) place where nobody in his right mind would ever want to live—an assertion that would insult no one, as it is held most ardently by those who call themselves permanent residents.
I pulled into the Deadhorse Camp parking lot and carefully stepped out into fifty-mile-per-hour winds, placing my feet into the mud-gravel ground with all of my weight for fear that my handful of linens and I would capsize with the next heavy gust.
How I found myself in Deadhorse is worth a story of its own, but suffice it to say, I was desperate and needed money. I’d moved up to Alaska with the intention of turning a series of blog essays (from my web site, regrettably named The Spartan Student) into a book about a few years of my life during which I lived in a van so that I could afford grad school. But after a series of disappointments, I had to set my sights on the much more practical task of eking out a living.
Deadhorse Camp is a steely rectangular Halliburton housing unit that runs entirely on diesel fuel. I worked alongside four coworkers all my age, cooking and cleaning for about fifty oil-field workers who stayed at our camp. Oddly enough, three of us had college degrees in English—a degree that clearly did nothing to prepare us for the duties of succeeding in the professional world but did, however, empower us to have impassioned forty-five-minute conversations about whether the film Scream does or does not fit within the horror genre.
I was given one side of a red-and-white outdoor Travco trailer that was outfitted with giant skis so it could be dragged over the ice in winter. The manager encouragingly referred to it as my “writing studio,” but the desk, which had been glued to the wall decades before, fell off the moment I placed my laptop on it.
Coworkers shared the communal shower with the tourists and pipeline workers. Because, as we were told, water cost thirty-five cents a gallon, it was no surprise that the water flowed from the shower nozzle at an exasperating dribble. The water pressure being so slight, I had to stand directly beneath it. Whenever I turned to wash a different part of my body, I’d accidentally nudge the hot-cold dial, which was hyper sensitive, so much so that a millimeter adjustment to the left or right would send either a boiling, skin-melting trickle onto my shoulders or a polar, heart-stopping slush.
I didn’t mind my accommodations at all. In fact, I was plenty amused with the novelty of the camp and its eccentric drabness, but the work—the work!—was depressing. I’d come into the kitchen at six p.m. (the “dish shift”) and scrub the bottoms of burned soup pots, dip my hand into sink drains to pluck out handfuls of slippery vegetables, and cram heavy black industrial trash bags into polar bear–proof dumpsters. I’d set up the salad bar, slice the bread, arrange the dessert rack, fold used cardboard, and clean up the kitchen for the morning cook. There once was a time when I was a student, a park ranger, an adventurer. And now look at me. Dishwasher.
“It sounds like your inner Odysseus is lost at sea,” said Liam, Deadhorse’s thirty-year-old prize chef. I’d just let out a sigh for the third time in an hour while trying to use a wire brush to scrub dried specks of mashed potato off the rim of a large metal stirring bowl.
Oh, Liam. How I liked Liam! Every evening we’d work alongside each other. He’d cook, I’d clean, and we’d talk. Our conversations were the only thing I looked forward to. Liam was a few years older than I was. He was extremely well-read and the sort of person who knows all the names of Homer’s Greek characters and who could apply his erudition to everyday issues, like the way he assigned some of the few female Deadhorse oil-field laborers with personality-revealing names such as “Circe” and “Calypso.” Liam was one of those rare people you come across in life who you want to stuff into a sack and carry with you wherever you go.
My Deadhorse stay was supposed to last only a couple of weeks, but it would turn into a couple of months. Over the course of the summer, I’d gone from the glorified title of writer-in-residence, to tour guide, to dishwasher, as if I were on some cruel, Scrooge-like, time-traveling tour, visiting my jobs of yesteryear, each demanding less skill and responsibility than the last.
I cursed more. I told crass, tasteless jokes. I wore smelly, stained, soup-splattered shirts. I spent my nights drinking Pabst and watching TV series after TV series, and the beginnings of a paunch steadily strained the elastic in my black kitchen pants. I knew things were going from pathetic to thinking, Maybe Cymbalta is right for me? when I dropped a tray of turkey lunch meat onto the floor, and instead of cursing, I just stared at the meat sprawled across the linoleum in deadly silence.
“We need to get out,” Liam said. “We need to see the ocean.”
Our plan was to walk five miles to the Sagavanirktok (or Sag) River and paddle north three miles to the Arctic Ocean in lightweight inflatable kayaks called packrafts. We’d then paddle west for a few miles along the coast before heading back to Deadhorse, where we needed to be back in time for our kitchen shifts the next morning.
We put on dry suits, strapped light backpacks around our shoulders, and hiked out over the flat, firm, easy-on-the-feet tundra. The fall foliage was colored with squash yellows, apple reds, and pumpkin oranges. Most of the birds had migrated south, but there were vestiges of summer swarms of flying life: snowy owls, loons, floating gulls, flocks of geese, and a clatter of ravens. Off to the north—through Liam’s binoculars—we saw a golden eagle on the ground flapping its wings at a ghost-white arctic fox that was obnoxiously running laps around it.
We inflated the packrafts and let the Sag—swift and powerful at these northern latitudes—carry us to the Arctic Ocean. The ocean, though, wasn’t a mere couple of miles away as Liam thought it was. Behind every bend in the river, we expected to see the chilly gray expanse of the ocean, but the river continued to meander northward with no end in sight.
Our leisurely paddle downriver was brought to a halt when we caught sight of something big and white and round. Liam and I pulled over to the bank instinctively.
“Do you see that?” I asked.
He took out his binoculars.
“I don’t know what it is, but it’s big and it’s moving,” Liam said nervously.
We were unarmed except for a canister of bear spray, and we had no strategy for dealing with a polar bear except to (1) Wait for it to get within twenty feet so we could drizzle it with a puff of cayenne or (2) Drop everything and hopelessly scamper across the empty tundra, which, with each passing second, appeared to be the far more sensible option.
I frantically deflated my raft and sloppily strapped it to the outside of my pack with frozen hands covered in wet sand. The polar bear continued its swim toward us, my heart leaping every time I looked up and saw that it was getting closer. It was only a matter of seconds before we would have to drop everything and enthusiastically commit to our coldly Darwinian “whoever’s fastest wins” option number two, but the bear turned out to be nothing more than a drifting seagull leisurely floating down the Sag. (One’s depth perception, we learned, cannot be trusted on this flat, lunar, North Slope landscape.)
Okay, no polar bear, thank God, but we had other problems to deal with. For one, because of the rushed, slapdash nature of our adventure, we didn’t think to bring any sleeping bags or tents. And because we were so far north and well past the northern tree line, there was no wood to start a fire. And after looking at my GPS, I saw that we had a twelve-mile hike back to Deadhorse, which would actually be more like fifteen when you factor in all the ponds, lakes, and tundra bogs we’d have to walk around. And our biggest problem: we would have to walk through the vigilantly monitored, hyper-secure Prudhoe Bay oil field—the largest oil field in North America that, before drilling started in 1977, held twenty-five billion barrels of oil. Hiking through the oil field is strictly prohibited, and while we had no desire to break the law, there was no way we could get around Prudhoe Bay. We’d have to sneak through. We’d have to trespass.
We had walked a mile southwest, or what we thought was southwest, and when I looked down and picked up my pack that I’d set down a moment before, I wasn’t sure which direction we’d come from and which direction we were supposed to head. I did a 360. And then another 360. I was spinning.
The land around us was perfectly flat. The sky was an overcast gray. Everything, up and down, left and right, looked exactly the same. I frantically spun and spun and spun, seeking a hill, a distant building, or a blotch of sunshine behind the clouds that might bring some sense to this senselessly unvarying plains landscape. But there was nothing. I pulled out my GPS, and it gave a different directional reading each time I looked at it. Twisting in circles, my compass seemed to be just as disoriented as I was. The plains, which I’d thought to be the epitome of monotony and tranquility, turned out to be as mysterious and menacing as the core of a smoldering volcano.
Sit down, Ken, I told myself. Calm down.
But in addition to panic, I felt something else: the jolt of a raw encounter with an unforgiving wilderness, the exuberance of having a firsthand experience with the world, a wild gush of emotions that made me feel, though scared and panicky, overflowing with life.
I sat down and made myself eat a sandwich. My compass needle ceased its spinning, and I was finally able to locate the bland southwesterly direction we needed to head toward.
Hours passed. Night replaced day and a frosty mist clung to my facial hair. On the edge of a lake in front of us stood a giant bull caribou bearing a curled crown of antlers that were orbited by two batlike short-eared owls, both of which—after the caribou had regally trotted off and disappeared into the fog—came to inspect us, hovering silently above our heads like kites.
The distant horizon was speckled with the lights of oil camps and roadway lamps. In front of us was one such oil camp, a small metallic facility with about a dozen outdoor lights. We were all whispers now, wary of being caught and having to deal with the possibility of an interrogation, a fine for trespassing, or something worse. It was close to midnight, so we thought we could slip by undetected. As we neared the building, we saw some humanlike movement. A spotlight clicked on. Whoever was manning the light drew figure eights onto the tundra until he trained the spotlight directly on us.
“We’re screwed,” I whispered.
“Just stay still,” Liam said. “If they come near, just lie on the ground.”
“What? I don’t know, man. Maybe it would be better if we just gave in if they’ve already caught us.”
I was equal parts disturbed by and admiring of Liam’s composure. How was he not nervous? We stood still for minutes—two mannequins frozen in midstride whispering out of the corners of our mouths—until we decided that the guy with the spotlight was probably too far away to see us. We started hiking again, lengthening our strides and adding an alarmed briskness to our gaits. We reached an industrial road and placed our footsteps in sync with each other’s to reduce the volume of our boots’ crunch over the gravel. We ducked under a pipeline and continued on.
There were lights everywhere in all directions. White lights, orange lights, red lights, blinking lights, the lights of trucks prowling from facility to facility. They knew we were out there. Because of the depth perception problem, we couldn’t tell which lights were close and which were far away. The buzz of machines was everywhere: beeps, honks, and whirring engines that had us swiveling our heads every few moments.
Looking over the facilities, I thought that there was something disturbing about this place, this barren coastal plain. I’d felt it ever since I’d come up here and more so now that I was walking through the oil fields. The place made me think of the film Black Narcissus, set in the Himalayas in an old palace that a few well-meaning nuns were trying in vain to transform into a school. The wind from the mountains drove the nuns mad. It never stopped. It moved into their rooms, invading, molesting, reminding them, like a ghost, that this place is and always will be a place of kings and queens, jewels and perfumes, self-indulgence and debauchery, and that you can either accept that or die trying to change it.
That’s how I felt about Deadhorse. That we shouldn’t be there. That this place was meant to be still and silent, unbothered and undeveloped. The giant drills, the mud-spattered trucks, the rusty oil barrels, the big diesel-run complex. It bore a special brand of ugliness—the ugliness of a place existing in complete disharmony with its surroundings. The oil was finite and Deadhorse was temporary. We’ll make a mess of the area for a few decades then leave the corrugated mess to the cold and wind forever after. And we are not real inhabitants—just suckerfish along for the ride, desperately clinging to the belly of the great oil-filled beast.
The Inuit, who once lived along these shores, built homes from the earth, kayaks from skins, clothes from fur. They lived and died here for thousands of years, leaving not the slightest blemish on the land. Surely they didn’t view the coastal plain the way the oilman does. Here, the Inuit’s eye was probably drawn to caribou browsing amid a near-endless field of ripe cotton grass, the ecstatic leap of an ocean fish, the braided sinew of a perfectly crafted bow. I’m guessing, but everything they saw must have glistered brightly with the beauty of sustainability, which is the same thing as the beauty of belonging: They knew that this place was their home and would always be their home, that their livelihoods were in harmony with the land—a sensation unknown to most all of us. We, on the other hand, don’t belong up here. At least not in this way. A place like this could drive a man mad.
Atop a pingo—a mound of earth-covered ice—the silhouette of an arctic fox appeared. It tilted its head back and unleashed a cackling howl. I strode past it, keeping an eye on it, worried that its screams would draw the eyes of prowling oilmen. When I looked forward, I saw Liam pumping his arms, running as fast as he could over land he couldn’t see beneath him. I mimicked Liam’s sprint until I got to where he was and dived behind another pingo.
“Why are we running?” I whispered between breaths.
“There’s a truck following us with a spotlight,” he said. “You didn’t see it?”
We heard the growl of the truck just behind the pingo, slowly prowling past while sweeping the spotlight over the land.
This is it, I thought. All they have to do is get out and look over this pingo, and we’re caught.
In truth, if we were caught, we probably wouldn’t have received more than a slap on the wrist, but without thinking about it, I suppose we wanted to be scared, nervous, and panicky as we trespassed across forbidden lands. To those sound in spirit, this trip would likely have been considered unpleasant, but for those in existential despair, such unpleasantness can function as a restorative distraction, a resuscitating shock, a defibrillator charge to the soul.
The oilmen never spotted us, and we continued on through night and fog, around lakes, and across the other waist-high branch of the Sag until we staggered into Deadhorse Camp.
The trip was a disaster, but I thought: What would I do to have the life of the hiker? It was more than just a form of escape. On a hike, the days pass with the wind, the sun, the stars; movement is powered by a belly of food and water, not a noxious tankful of fossil fuels. On a hike, you’re less a job title and more a human being. Our commute, our shift, our shows: How quickly does the routine—masquerading as life—block from our view the grand vistas of possibility. A periodic hike not only stretches the limbs but also reminds us: Wow, there’s a big old world out there.
“This is the best experience I’ve had in a long time,” said Liam.
“I know,” I said. “Me. too.”
Invigorated by our hike, the kitchen conversations between Liam and me began to take on a tone of fanatical zeal. As the purposeless are wont to do, Liam and I continued to fantasize about grandeur, high adventure, true purpose. (At this moment, kitchen crews everywhere are plotting to take over the world.) Disgusted with what the oil industry had turned the Arctic coast into, we discussed putting a team of radical environmentalists together to commit acts of environmental terrorism. Liam would be the cook, I would be the letter-to-the-editor guy, and Liam “knew a guy” who might know a thing or two about explosives. These discussions would always begin in a spirit of whimsical and good-humored facetiousness, but would, by the end, take on an unsettling seriousness as we delved into the particulars: So do you or do you not know a guy?
The Keystone XL Pipeline had become a hot topic during our nightly discussions. We’d read that protestors were performing acts of civil disobedience to oppose the pipeline that, if approved, would transport 830,000 barrels of tar-sands oil every day across the continent and help expand the already expansive tar sands of northern Alberta.
There was something about being up in Deadhorse that made the idea of the 1,700-mile pipeline particularly upsetting. Here we were at ground zero of American oil development. We saw the industrial squalor, the depraved lifestyles, the sad, empty eyes of the workers. We felt the emptiness within ourselves. This place was an Ayn Rand wasteland, the epitome of our country’s wrongheaded conception of “progress.” The thought of creating more such places, more such jobs, and more such planet-warming greenhouse gases defied, in our eyes, all the tenets of good sense and reason.
We wondered: If we totally buy into the evidence and civilization-ending projections of global warming, what is our duty as citizens of this earth? Is donating to the Sierra Club enough? Is our responsibility fulfilled if we vote for the right politician and bike to work on sunny days? Or is something more required? Physical action? Violence? Terrorism? If the planet is, in fact, being slowly strangled to death, isn’t it our duty to do everything in our power to stop the perpetrators? What’s the most that one person can do?
“What if we hike the Keystone XL?” Liam asked out of the blue.
“You mean across country? Across private property? Across the whole continent?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just like we did in Prudhoe Bay.”
Liam’s idea was crazy but not an “I hope I won’t have to find a way to get accepted into a gang in federal prison for being a terrorist” kind of crazy. I felt a shock—a ground-trembling lightning bolt that coursed through me, leaving in its aftermath a flurry of jitters that bordered on the erotic. Some deep, inner part of me recognized the brilliance of Liam’s idea with a startling immediacy. I hadn’t begun to consciously rationalize why, but some farseeing part of me knew then and there that I was going to—no, had to—hike the Keystone XL.
Everything began to make sense. Being in Deadhorse. The nighttime hike out of Prudhoe Bay. This crazy period of my life could only end with a crazy conclusion. I dropped the mixing bowl into the sink, looked at Liam, and said—with what must have been almost frightening excitement—“We must
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