Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Baptism of an Arctic Warrior Part IV: The "Road" Back to Civilization

Oh you thought the tale was told? That the story was over? Wrong-o. 

This guy had a bad day.
We should have known when we saw this car right outside Deadhorse Camp that this trip wasn't going to be all fun and games and toenail painting on the way back to Fairbanks. We had barely survived the trip up with our two (technically three) flat tires, but we were confident that the mechanics at Deadhorse Camp had patched us up nicely.

Wrong-o again-o.

We left Prudhoe Bay at 1230 and barely two hours later we had a flat. We had one spare at this point; it was time for a decision: turn around and fix this tire at Prudhoe Bay (a four to six hour detour), or try to make it FIVE HOURS to Coldfoot without getting another flat? There's no cell service, and we had no other tire, so if this spare went down, we would be stuck on the road.

This is actually from Day 1 but you get the idea.

I'll take the blame for the decision. I cast the deciding vote. The smart thing to do was go back and fix the tire, obviously. But something stirred within me... an inkling of Fate, of Kismet, of Destiny. I could feel a pull towards the South.... maybe it was just my own bed calling. For whatever reason, I voted we push on like REAL adventurers. And push on we did. You will have to decide if I made the right call or not.

As we took some time to mull over our predicament, that tire change took a good 18 minutes, the slowest one by far. We took off, pretending to be optimistic about our chances. We passed a herd of Musk Ox and Caribou (or some other such horned animal), and pointed out some bow hunters stalking them alongside the highway. An hour or so down the road (if you can call it a road), Fortune smiled upon us: the Chinese tour group we had met at the Ocean was stopped at a construction crossing. Let me explain.

The "road" to Deadhorse Camp is under constant construction. At some points it's so narrow (due to said construction) that it becomes a single-lane road. At these points, a construction vehicle called a "Pilot Car" would guild one side of traffic through the narrow lane, dodging a maze of obstacles left behind by various vehicles, equipment, and laborers. Once to the other side, the Pilot Car would drop off its convoy, allowing them to continue them on their way. It would then turn around, pick up traffic flowing in the opposite direction, and lead them back through the maze to the starting point.

The Fates had aligned just so, allowing us to meet up with them at this construction stop as we all waited for the Pilot Car to come pick us up. At this stop we traded greetings and told them about our potential disaster-in-waiting. In a heartbeat, they offered to follow us, and if we lost another tire they would lend us one of their own spares -- their ONLY spare, in fact. What excellent Humans and true Samaritans.

We were very lucky to have them with us, because not another hour later, our final spare blew out. The Chinese were there to help, as they had promised to do. We went right to work; it was already 5:00 PM and we still had a good 8-10 hours to go. Even though we had to fish out the spare from our rescuers' SUV, we were still able to get rolling again in 15 minutes.

At some point we stopped for a quick break, and who should pass us but the California Bros that we dived into the Ocean with! We gave them a fist pump of victory as they screamed by us. That might have been the last time we ever saw them, but nope. We would meet again.

Some time later, the next tire went down only THREE MILES FROM COLDFOOT. If you remember, Coldfoot is the halfway point, complete with a restaurant (omg DINNER!) and a service station. Three miles. Three. Miles.

Americans, amirite?
Our Chinese Rescuers showed up once again, laughed at us, and then agreed to shuttle a couple of us to Coldfoot in order to fix one of our tires. Once fixed, we would ride back out with our tire to the vehicle, put the tire on, and then drive our vehicle the last three flippin miles back to Coldfoot.

The entire process of getting our vehicle to Coldfoot, and then patching ALL of our tires took quite some time. While we waited for tires to get fixed, the bow hunters we had seen on the road earlier pulled into Coldfoot. Turns out that they were some of my co-workers, which was perfect because they carried the message back to my boss that I would not be back to work in time for morning PT. What are the odds, right?

Our Chinese Rescuers were done travelling for the night and settled in at a hotel nearby for the night. We couldn't count on them to babysit us anymore. Luckily - and really, it was extremely lucky - we ran into none other than the California Bros taking a break from driving at Coldfoot. They were true Road Warriors, driving an SUV with a giant snorkel, two spare tires, an air compressor and a tire patch kit. I mean, the air compressor had a button on the DASH to operate it. That's real.

The Bros offered to take the Chinese's place as our babysitters. They even hooked us up with a RADIO that they had brought with them to keep in communication should anything else come up. Like I said, Road Warriors, the three of them.

We finally pulled out at 10:00 PM, with two spares in the trunk and seven hours of driving still ahead of us. Two and a half hours later, the next tire went flat. We changed it in about six minutes and continued. An hour after that one the next one followed suit. This one took barely five minutes to replace.

Seriously, you can't make this stuff up. We were approaching Nascar-standard tire changing time, but we were out of spares. This was it. Hopefully we could make the last couple hours.

Haha nope.

Not long after using our last spare, we hit beautiful, solid pavement. It was sexy. The paint was perfect, the roadway was wide and clear, and there were even guard rails to keep us from skydiving off of the cliffs in our vehicle. We were positive that we were in the clear. So positive, in fact, that we gave the California Bros their radio back so they could pull off and get some rest at a campsite. They agreed with our assessment and told us they'd follow us to the next turn off before hitting the sack.

But Happenstance had the last maniacal, villain-like laugh. On this beautiful, sexy road that I considered marrying, we lost yet another tire. How? I have no idea. I had stopped asking how and why. I had stopped caring about the dense cloud of mosquitoes feasting on my flesh as I helped change tires. I had stopped wondering what time were going to get back. It was approaching 5:00 AM and I was more zombie than man at this point. I hadn't slept much the night before on account of pre-game jitters, and I hadn't slept much in the car because Sir Billy Fix It kept dodging potholes rather forcefully with the intent of slamming my head into the window (it amused him and kept him awake, you see).

The Road Warriors were just about as tired of driving as you are of reading this, but they still hadn't found a turn off for camping. Consequently, they rolled up on us with sunken-in eyes and broken souls, shook their heads in disbelief, and whipped out the air compressor and tire plugs. My man the Taliban Saboteur did work and plugged that tire up right. I think we made his day, giving him a chance to use that nifty system; he made our year by getting us home.

After that final tire, we made it the last 90 or so miles back to Fairbanks with the California Bros' radio in our SUV and their support following behind. They weren't going to leave us now. These true American Heroes escorted us all the way into town to make sure we made it safely.

When you stop to think about it, it's pretty awesome that complete strangers would help us out like that for so long. Both the Chinese Tour Group and the California Bros escorted us for a total of about 15 hours. We had borrowed a spare and been repaired once by them. We had gotten two shuttle rides and kept the Bros up all night. That is true Humanity right there. I'm honored to have shared not only my Arctic Warrior Baptism with them, but the road back to civilization  as well.

Finally, 1000 miles and NINE FLAT TIRES later, we rolled into Fairbanks at 6:00 AM, just in time for me to make it to morning PT at 6:30 AM.

Ha, yeah right.

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