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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Stories in Place: A Room With No View

(This pandemic has put a cramp in our camp, so I thought I'd start a series of short stories from our travels. You know, those kinds of stories that go around the campfire after a day of exploring, and may get repeated more than once over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy telling them. Pull up a camp chair and grab a beverage. Let's Story in Place together.)

We pulled into the parking lot at the end of the Dalton Highway, 500 miles and two days after leaving Fairbanks. We had passed a forest fire, crossed over the Arctic Circle, avoided flying gravel from passing oil field trucks, survived hoards of thirsty mosquitoes and managed to get to Deadhorse with all tires intact and gas to spare. Success!

We had read that this particular parking lot was a good place (re: only place) to camp in this oil town on Prudhoe Bay. It wasn't pretty; a bare gravel lot surrounded by those temporary buildings that can be hauled in on the back of trucks, low flat roofed and looking as beat as we felt after 300+ miles of gravel washboard road. We'd seen worse.

We walked around and checked out the facilities. There were none. Hmmmm. Having camped in middle-of-nowhere places before, it had never been a problem. We don't have "facilities" in our camper, but we are equipped with hand trowels and TP kit that do quite nicely in those cases. Problem was, we'd never had to deal with camping in the middle of a populated area without a tree or bush within 100 miles. Not to mention the 24 hour daylight wiping out any chance for cover-of-darkness activity. This was going to take a little finesse.

We walked over to what served as a bulletin board for the area: a small piece of plywood nailed to the side of a building. A cartoon polar bear was posted with a warning:

Large female polar bear with cub has been raiding campers in this area! 
Please secure all food and do not leave dishes, garbage or any scented item in an accessible area. Please heed this warning, polar bears have been known to kill humans.

"I'm not really feeling this Mark." 

Our camper has soft sides once it's popped up, easily reached by a standing adult polar bear and easily breached by those 12" polar bear claws. We could theoretically pull out the bench seat and sleep on that, avoiding popping the top and exposing ourselves as prey. It would be tight but would avoid those paw swipes that would haunt our dreams all night. 

It just so happened we had researched a place we could stay once we made it here, a place with actual walls and beds: The Arctic Caribou Inn. Sounds rustic and quaint, doesn't it? We thought so. And we just happened to be a few steps from the entrance, so we decided to check it out.

The double door entrance was deeply recessed between two buildings, the better to shelter it from what I imagine is the relentless cold wind. The front office was a half wall with a plexiglass window running from countertop to ceiling. The guy reclining in the desk chair looked up and smiled. 

"Do you have any rooms for tonight? We just came in from Fairbanks and thought we'd check." The desk clerk laughed "Oh yeah, the place is pretty empty at the moment. How many nights?" 
We signed up for one night, and after making arrangements for a tour of the oil fields later that day, paid for one of the most expensive (to that date) hotel rooms we'd ever rented: $120.00. This was in 2004, and we very rarely stayed in hotels (why, when you can camp?).

So, for $120.00 we got: two twin beds, one of which is roughly level with the floor, that was also roughly level. Brown indoor/outdoor carpet blanketing a small room, large enough for the aforementioned beds and two small dressers. The bathroom had a small enough step up from room level that it caused you to miss the fact that it was there and trip headlong into the shower. The shower itself was just large enough to close the door behind you once you entered, but god help you if you dropped the soap.

We threw our bags on one of the beds, and they promptly rolled off to the floor. Wedging them on the bed again,  we sat down and realized there was a serious sag on one side. Some negotiation was going to be necessary to decide who was going to be sleeping in that one. We flipped on the small TV on top of the dresser, a wonder after 3 weeks on the road with nothing but the radio to keep us company. The satellite service picked up a few channels clearly, and a whole lot of static on the rest of the dial. The view from the one small window looked out at another room ten feet across a small alley.

We walked down the corridor to get our bearings, and take in the amenities. A narrow hallway connected the portable units with that brown indoor/outdoor carpet tying everything together. The carpet was ripped in spots, but repaired neatly with duct tape. There was a leak in the ceiling in the middle of the hall, which dripped with cheery regularity into a 5 gallon bucket. A common room had an ancient coffeepot and those tube like cereal dispensers lined up on the counter. They offered meals three times a day with a set menu, which was posted on a coffee stained flyer on the door.

Another couple walked out of their room as we passed by. Tight smiles and shrugged shoulders were exchanged, as we silently acknowledged our shared situation. Really though, we weren't going to be picky about it. This was the only place within 600 miles that didn't include grizzly and polar bear room service. And it was an Inn after all. Quaint, in an oilfield worker barracks kind of way.

That night, after a tour of the oil fields that (in part) made our 9,000 mile road trip possible, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of a twin bed eating PBJs and Fritos with a chocolate milk chaser, watching Seinfeld reruns in a room on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Dinner never tasted so good.

1 comment:

  1. Aah, the joys of being in the middle of nowhere. Seen too many videos of what a bear can do to a truck/car. Best to be inside especially when you've been given a heads up.