DEADHORSE, ALASKA — They looked like bison on a bad-hair day.
The herd of primeval-looking beasts -- 800-pound musk oxen -- shuffled aimlessly just a hundred feet from where we stood on Alaska's James B. Dalton Highway. With their shaggy coats and curved horns, they looked fierce but were reassuring signs of life on a highway that had few.
But my friend Mike Weight and I liked it that way.
If you want to get away from it all, the Dalton is the road to take.
Check out any map of North America, and you'll see a lone, skinny line extending from Fairbanks in north-central Alaska more than 400 miles north to Deadhorse and the Beaufort Sea. Only the Dalton breaks up the north's vast emptiness for hundreds of miles in any direction.
If you believe some accounts, only confirmed masochists bother to run it, given the road's mostly unpaved state, its lack of services, the hyper-aggressive truck drivers who travel it and the hordes of monster mosquitoes that inhabit it. You're practically guaranteed a cracked windshield and flat tires.
It also helps to be a little crazy to drive this road, and we were just the guys to do it.
The road would take us into an ancient landscape, alongside one of the engineering marvels of our time, and prove that we could handle travel in one of the remotest parts of the U.S.
We flew into Fairbanks last July ready for a four-day run on the Dalton. The silver Ford F-350 V-8 quad-cab diesel we rented seemed huge. Its long bed seemed to stretch all the way back to Anchorage, and I felt as though I needed a parachute whenever I got out of the cab. But it was the right set of wheels for our adventure.
The relatively expansive -- and paved -- Elliot Highway connects Fairbanks to the Dalton. On a tip, we stopped for breakfast a few miles outside the city at the Hilltop Truck Stop, the last real restaurant for more than 100 miles.
A few miles past the hamlet of Livengood and a moose lounging on the highway's shoulder, we turned right onto Alaska Route 11 -- the Dalton -- and headed north.
It immediately became clear why some fear the Dalton. For the first 30 miles or so, the unpaved washboard surface gave our truck a pounding, except when the flagmen on the summer regrading crews stopped us.
But it was a beautiful day, and within an hour we had the road to ourselves, except for occasional pipeline maintenance crews and big-rig drivers. (They laid to rest one of the Dalton's myths: The truck drivers couldn't have been friendlier, usually waving as they slowed to let us pass.)
SPLENDOR IN SOLITUDE
The Dalton's isolation was impressive. The first 100 miles or so up to the Arctic Circle undulated through sparse spruce and birch forests, the patchwork of green and burned spruces interwoven with spectacular lavender-hued expanses of fireweed, flourishing in a fire-scarred landscape.
But it's really the lack of population that makes this such a lonely road. Not a mailbox in sight.
Our one constant companion was the massive Trans Alaska Pipeline System, balanced on finned metal stilts when above ground.
In the 1970s, the pipeline was an engineering marvel when the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. built it in a little more than two years on the North Slope's jittery permafrost. It moves up to 2 million barrels of oil a day from Prudhoe Bay, 800 miles south to Valdez.
I had expected it to be a visual blight on the wild landscape, but as I watched it snake through the boreal forest and over and under mile after mile of the tundra, I made my peace with it.
Alyeska also built the Dalton in just five months in 1974. The state of Alaska took over ownership of the "Haul Road," as it is often called, in 1978, then opened it to everyone in 1994. Few take on the entire route.
The 2,229-foot-long Yukon River Bridge at Mile 56 separates many of the day-trippers from the adventurers. Some may drive 60 miles farther to the photo-op at the Arctic Circle. Both stops have restrooms, picnic facilities, interpretive displays and camping or other accommodations.
Nobody was on duty when we stopped at the Yukon Bridge visitor center, but posted on the door was a notice warning of "dangerous" and "bold" wolves prowling the area.
Welcome to the wilderness -- almost.
At Mile 60, the Hot Spot is an unlikely tourist trap featuring fast food and souvenirs in makeshift trailers. It's hard to pass up, only because no other commercial properties exist for about 100 miles.
From the Hot Spot, the Dalton leads due north, scaling long grades that give way to spectacular views of broad valleys. One of the best was at the Finger Mountain Bureau of Land Management Wayside at Mile 98, where some imposing tors, or eroded granite pinnacles, rose from the tundra.