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The Last Time It Happened That Way

By Erica Watson

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The road is a myth laid down over mountains and rivers, and like any myth, it takes a certain suspension of disbelief to accept.

 
The Denali Park Road was built with traveler experience in mind more than practicality. It was built for settler culture’s love of vistas, for gasps, for showing photos later and pointing out the steep drop and the long fall.

The route was a matter of contention: Why blast through mountains to snake a road along its side when a perfectly good glacial valley lay below, level gravel just waiting to be traversed by heavy equipment? But early park planners were adamant, and Horace Albright, then director of the National Park Service, would describe the final route in 1931 as “one of the most scenic highways in the National Park system.”

“Scenic” is different than “beautiful;” beauty simply occurs, and a scene is contemplated, framed, and maintained. This road is studied and analyzed and fretted over. It is a myth laid down over mountains and rivers, and like any myth, it takes a certain suspension of disbelief to accept. 

Polychrome Pass is one of the most dramatic stretches, where the road is carved into rust- and gold-colored volcanic rock, making a narrow shelf, or an open wound, blasted and smoothed into the mountainside. The National Park Service architects and directors in the 1920s chose the route carefully and deliberately, assuring themselves and each other that the work and money would be worth it for the view. Landscape architect Thomas Vint wrote in 1929, “The location should be made according to the best standards in order that as far as we can foresee we will have but one road scar in the park.”

This pass demands near-constant attention: gravel hauled up from the Toklat River smoothed into its cracks and dips. Yellow and white equipment zigzags across the river, loaders piling rocks in dump truck beds. Half a million people a year can’t get this kind of wilderness vista without a steady seasonal parade of diesel engines and steel blades.

Once, when I was visiting my partner Craig at Toklat Road Camp where he spends summer workweeks away from our home near the park entrance, the only woman on the road crew told me about her ongoing efforts to save a mew gull nest from her less vigilant coworkers. “Damn hippie birdbrain,” they called her, but they too avoided the nest, maybe because deep down they were birdbrains too, or they were scared of women, or both. Maybe those boys all knew she was a better driver than they were, fewer slips in the mud into the ditch and fewer gulls dive-bombing her head when she gets out of the truck mid-river bar to piss in the gravel, or to subtly relocate the GPS unit that tells the geologists where to tell the road crew to mine from. If the river doesn’t replenish the gravel, the drivers are told to leave it alone; and if the gull’s nest was made to look like a scraped out hole left dry, it made hatching just a bit more likely.

Those gulls made it. The river keeps pouring silty gray-brown water, gravel, and stone out of the mountains, and the glaciers keep receding. In the fall, when temperatures drop, the water starts to run clear, and you can look down into the flowing channels as easily as those the river has abandoned for an easier course.
 

The Alaska Range
The Alaska Range viewed from Polychrome Pass.
Photo by Erica Watson.

 
 
Nothing remains intentionally untrammeled without an equal and opposite. When the eastern paved park road section needs repairs, materials and labor come from the gravel pit adjacent to our neighborhood near the park entrance. Up early each morning for summer bakery work, I’d hear the roar of the mobile asphalt plant stationed in the pit for the season, and once morning dark settled in again late in the season, the fiery glow emanated out of the pit across the neighborhood. Lodge guests asked about it, concerned. “Oh, that’s just wilderness maintenance,” I said, in my learning-not-to-give-a-fuck years. They didn’t know what to say after that.

I spent an August evening watching the machine turn loads of gravel into smoking black asphalt, and a steady parade of side-dump trucks carried them out of the pit, onto the highway, and into the park, where this nightly reeking and roaring residential terror would be smoothed into the mechanism for visitors’ panoramic vistas east of Polychrome Pass. The gravel pit had been recently expanded, the edge carved out and raw, and I sat swinging my legs where tundra dropped off into the abyss, which serves as a sledding hill or informal shooting range when not feeding the industrial machine. Some of the biggest blueberries I found that summer grew at its edge, and as I watched trucks roll in and out I moved slowly along the rim, popping the berries in my mouth until my stomach turned, maybe from too many berries, maybe from breathing the black smoke.

A story about the park might start with a journey, logistics spun into allure by nearly a century of recreation managers, but after enough trips east and west, it becomes a story about gravel.

Half a million people a year can’t get this kind of wilderness vista without a steady seasonal parade of diesel engines and steel blades.

Heavy equipment gave Craig his path into the National Park Service. After years working as a mechanic to fund a biology education, he was faced with a choice between low-paying, short-lived biology surveys or year-round work with benefits fixing road equipment at Denali. He went with the latter, doing heavy equipment repairs from the Toklat Road Camp in summer, and the headquarters auto shop at the park entrance in winter. Summer months, he says he’s got the best view one can have from under a dump truck. He ends each day coated in grease, welding dust in his hair, and in summer, changes clothes at 5:30 and heads into the mountains as long as daylight will allow. He can fix anything, I tell people, but would rather talk about wildflowers.
 
These are contradictions only to those with the luxury of imagining ourselves out of the equation. I’ve tried and failed to be a cheerleader for the pure abstraction of wilderness, but I always find myself drawn back to the in-between areas. If mine is a love story, it is as much about diesel engines and welding dust as the delicate bobbing petals of mountain avens above treeline or the way the mountains and valleys seem to roll on forever from a ridgeline barely wide enough to stand side by side.

Polychrome Pass in spring
Bicycling the Denali Park Road over Polychrome Pass in spring.
Photo by Erica Watson.

 
 
My Toklat visits often fall in the in-between seasons, after the tour buses stop running but before all the work is done. Mid-September, after summer gigs wrap up and snow dusts the mountains, I head west against the flow of light traffic. My role, to the extent I have one, is largely domestic: to clean, cook, and pack while Craig puts the auto shop and generators to sleep and teaches countless seasonal employees how to put chains on their Subaru tires. I bring hiking boots and a stack of books and try to stay out of the way.

The final exodus of the season includes most of the equipment used all summer to rearrange river rock into a road. One year, the scheduled departure coincided with the first real snow of the fall—heavy, wet snow that had barely turned from rain by midmorning—when the first to leave ended up walking the road ahead of their trucks and driving slowly in their own footprints. Those of us remaining in the west end of the park would form a convoy behind the only snow-clearing vehicle still on this end, a grader intended for other uses but ideal in that it was here.

I rolled my eyes a bit at the self-importance of the scurrying men making plans; the way I saw it, once you start calling yourself a “convoy,” you’re already taking yourself too seriously. What we were was a line of eight vehicles snaked along the road, work trucks and personal cars loaded with a summer’s worth of belongings, and me, along for the ride, mostly, but given purpose by driving Craig’s Subaru back home so he could drive the shop truck. After a final scurry of last-minute mishaps—a parking brake frozen in place, a final pot of coffee before shutting down the generator, another cup of antifreeze down the drain—I found my place at the end of the line, eventually followed by two more pickups, Craig at the end. I settled in for a long, slow ride, scrolling through my iPod at five-minute intervals for a playlist that fit the situation: nostalgic, energizing, familiar: We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep / when we come to it.

When our line of vehicles stopped moving at Polychrome Pass, the driver of the truck behind me said Craig had turned around to close a forgotten window in camp. We sat, idling. More snow fell. After several minutes not moving, the grader operator marched past to the driver behind me, slicing his hand across his throat as he passed. The grader was stuck on a sharp corner ahead. The operator had felt the rear wheel slip, and his correction flung the weight of the machine outward, towards the cliff-side. The front wheel slipped downward, and his telling suggested that he’d briefly said his final prayers, and then the wheel stopped, resting on the shelf accumulated from the previous week’s load of river gravel dumped and smoothed into this perpetually slumping inside curve. The machine sat diagonal across the road. He was not going to try again. No one blamed him.

Men started important-looking pacing, because it’s hard to feel important when your only real task is to sit in a truck and wait and pacing becomes the only option. Craig’s position at the end of the “convoy” gave him freedom the rest of us didn’t have, and after returning from closing the forgotten window he turned around again to the hill’s summit for a radio signal. The only other woman among us, a firefighter I’d never met before, made coffee while crouched in front of her crew’s truck, just ahead of me in line, shielding the stove against the wind sweeping up from the valley below.

Someone declared himself Incident Commander and announced that we were in “survival mode.” I gestured towards my back seat at the contents of a fridge just packed into a cooler and the piles of bedding folded into the back seat. “I’ll do my best to make it through with all this food and bedding,” I said. Someone else played Angry Birds on an iPad. To each their own survival strategy. I joined these two and the woman who’d made coffee in the backseat of the diesel fire truck with its engine running, dug my knitting out of a bag, and settled in.

Kathleen Dean Moore says, “Domesticity is the central pleasure of the wilderness experience.”

Some time passed before Craig informed us over the radio that he was digging his truck out of avalanche debris near where he’d turned to get a radio signal. Several of us shoveled a turnaround space, flinging snow into the wind and off the cliff or into each other’s faces, and three people piled into the last truck to turn around and help dig Craig out. When they returned, Craig was giddy with adrenaline from his own variation on survival mode.  His coveralls were so wet that when he took them off, they stood up without him as they froze in the back of the truck. He squeezed in to the back seat of the fire truck next to me, laughing at the adventure. 

“You should make him a sandwich,” the firefighter whispered to me, as if I were failing in my role as a convoy wife. “He knows where the food is,” I hissed back, but then doubted my sense of scale: maybe sandwich making was, in fact, my only contribution. I made the damn sandwich, loaded with the end-of-summer remnants from Craig’s fridge that I could dig out of the cooler in the Subaru. And we all sat in the fire truck for what would become a ten-hour wait for someone to plow us out from the east end of the park.

Donner Party jokes wear off after about five hours.

As darkness settled in, blowing snow swallowed the valley below us.
 

Vehicles on Polychrome Pass in the snow
Vehicles follow a grader up Polychrome Pass in a snowstorm.
Photo by Erica Watson.

 
 
That slumping turn where the grader wheel slipped and stopped seems intent on shedding the road like an old skin. Each spring, the road surface slides down the hillside five, then 11, then 14 feet as the land beneath it thaws, and in more recent years, the thawing isn’t limited to spring. Layers of gravel and canvas and more gravel are piled into the shifting edge, like Band-Aids plastered on skin over a broken bone. Basalt rocks tumble down from above; biking those curves in spring demands more faith in gravel than in gravity, and offers good reason to question that faith. One year, after record-breaking heat followed by weeks of heavy summer rain, mud and rocks flowed across the road on these curves and elsewhere, and crews worked with heavy equipment and shovels to clear the debris. Maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s just one abnormality after another all year long. Either way it’s a lot of work.

In Lima, Peru, in 2002, artist Francis Alÿs orchestrated and filmed a collective action titled Cuando la fe mueve montañas, or When Faith Moves Mountains. Five-hundred volunteers with shovels moved a sand dune on the outskirts of the city about ten centimeters from its original location. The volunteers, mostly students from Lima, wore white shirts and moved together in a line from one side of the dune, over the crest, to the other, moving one shovelful of sand each in front of them. Alÿs comments in the film that “[t]he people who took part felt totally involved, and the fact that it took on such a huge dimension means that it will generate one story after another.” The project’s motto was “Maximum effort, minimal result.”

Reinforcement or realignment of a melting mountain is more about denial than engineering.

The National Park Service is again considering its options:
 
A reroute is a diversion from what’s considered normal, a deflection, a step aside or backwards. It would be a second scar, an admittance that gravity and warmth have won over government-curated grandeur.
 
Reinforcement or realignment of a melting mountain is more about denial than engineering. Bridges and tunnels fail regardless of climate.
 
And to admit that we cannot go as far as we once could is the kind of narrative Americans hate. A shortened road is a premature death. We all have a story and we all want to replicate it, again and again: Remember the time, right here, when something terrible could have happened but didn’t? The time we rounded the bend and thought we might not make it, but we did? The tire almost too far into the shoulder, the rock that just missed? Go real slow. Watch the edges.
 
The edges are moving.
 
Go faster now, to keep up.
 
And STOP.
 
Maybe that was the last time it happened that way.
 

NPS historian Erik K. Johnson’s 2019 report, The ‘High Line’ Road, provided much of the historical information referenced here.

 

 

Erica WatsonErica Watson lives and writes on the boundary of Denali National Park, Alaska, and works for a small environmental advocacy organization. Her writing about roads and gravel has appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Denali Climate  Anthology, Anchorage Daily News, and in other publications on other topics. Read more at ericarobinwatson.com

Header photo of Denali Road showing previous gravel road surfaces in dark lines below the most recent fill, by Erica Watson.

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