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A Pipeline Runs Through It

A week spent tracing the contours of Alaska's petroleum highway

by William L. Fox

Published in the March/April 2011 issue of Orion magazine




IT’S A GRAY LATE AFTERNOON on the North Slope of Alaska, and from a thousand feet up in the air the sea is a flat slate, the land a lacework of lakes, round glacial kettles, and riverine meanders, the atmosphere a fug of cloud and blur, a mistscape that alternately reveals and conceals what lies below us. Enormous spikes of flaming gas flare up from tall stacks on the horizon, and the sucking end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline multiplies below us like a mechanical hydra, its fangs buried in permafrost. It’s beautiful and awful, the end and beginning of the world.

The chartered Cessna dips and banks, seeking an optimum altitude above the low clouds that for days have frustrated us from getting up out of Deadhorse and over the Prudhoe Bay oil fields at the beginning of one of the great anthropic lines of the planet—the eight-hundred-mile pipeline that starts here and ends in Valdez, where we’d begun our trip seven days ago.

The low sun reflects off the pools and ponds and scraps of water below us, feeder lines from more than three thousand separate wells coalescing at the shoreline south of us into the singular pipeline we’d come to follow. We’ve taken the right front door off the plane so Matt can photograph the flares and facilities below us. Jennilie sits behind him, shoved as close to the opening as she can. I sit in the rear left corner of the plane behind the pilot, watching everyone. The air roaring in through the door is below freezing.

OUR TRIP HAD STARTED sixteen months before, when I’d let myself in the back door to the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles. CLUI is a nonprofit organization that documents human land usage and its effects, starting most notably with industrial and military infrastructure in the American West, and then expanding across the country to sites such as the Mississippi River Delta. Its founding director, Matt Coolidge, and I have a history of travel together, one time mapping the dry lakes of the West, another time tracing the industrial infrastructure of the Hudson River. Matt’s criteria for interesting sites are those where the impact of humans on land is layered in both time and space. The CLUI library and website that he and others have built up from field trip photos and research materials are among the most extensive resources in North America on what he calls anthrogeomorphology, a neologism he coined to mean human effects on the surface of the Earth. This time Matt was laying out plans for an upcoming exhibition on the oil infrastructure of the continent.

He nodded and hunched his shoulders when I gestured at a long horizontal booklet. “It’s the atlas of the Alaska Pipeline,” he said. I flipped through the floppy pages with the black line of the pipeline running through each one. I found myself unable to let go of the photocopied pages.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline cuts a geomorphological cross section on an almost continental scale with every circumstance for anthropic intervention in landscape encountered along the way. It wasn’t just the bridges, roads, tunnels, man camps, pump stations, and interpretive signage—as well as the other facilities attracted by the Haul Road paralleling the pipeline—that opened up the interior to the military. It was also that the pipeline is uniquely aboveground for half its length. Because the oil comes out of the ground at 180 degrees Fahrenheit and is still at 120 degrees when it enters the pipe, the line would catastrophically melt the permafrost underlying much of its route if it were buried, causing the pipeline to sag and rupture. 

Matt disappeared into his office, coming back with a steel cutout of the state of Alaska mounted to another piece of the same metal, a gently curved arc that served as a base, and put it into my hands. “This is a piece of the pipeline.” Heavy, dense, cold steel as dark as teak. I picked up the weighty souvenir, looked at the atlas, and like that, it was settled. 

WE BEGAN THE DRIVE north in Valdez, that small port on the Pacific Ocean made famous by the Exxon Valdez running aground not far offshore. Joining us was Jennilie Brewster, an artist who had recently been studying and making art about large energy infrastructure projects, including the Black Thunder Coal Mine in Wyoming. Valdez is mostly an unpretentious fishing port of limited dimensions, although a decent espresso can be found there. Ironically, it was the oil spill in 1989 that caused the last real boom here, as a rush of workers arrived to clean up as much of the black gunk threatening the fishing as could be managed. Now the town, its commercial fishing limited by the slow recovery of some species as well as by external economic factors, is relatively quiet.

Matt piloted our rental Subaru around the streets as if it were a go-cart, weaving left and right to position his window so he could snap photos of the local attractions without leaving the car; there was a lot of human construction to document from there to Deadhorse, eight hundred miles to the north. CLUI depends on the lines in the landscape for much of its work. Highways, fences, transmission lines, fiber-optic cables—any infrastructure that transfers power, be it in goods or information or money, is of importance when tracing the outlines of human transformation of land into landscape. Our course, if mapped, would look more like a series of spiraling loops than a straight line, Matt forever detouring to see what’s to either side of the pipeline. 

The next morning we piled our gear into the Subaru, and I settled into the front passenger seat with a notebook, a copy of the pipeline atlas, a road map, and The Milepost, a supremely useful mile-by-mile guide to every road in the state. We would keep track of our progress not so much by the road mileages in the guidebook, but by those in the atlas that counted down our approach to the start of the pipeline, starting at Mile 800 at the terminal and ending at Mile 0 in Deadhorse. 

We drove out of Valdez under a still-overcast sky and headed for the Chugach Mountains, where the pipeline descends its steepest pitch. The approach winds through the narrow Keystone Canyon at the rear of the valley, then heads up Thompson Pass. The pipeline—underground here—and power lines follow parallel routes, visible only by the clear-cut corridor. While the pipeline climbs straight up under its right-of-way in the forest, mere automobiles must ascend switchbacks through pocket alpine meadows so green they hurt your eyes. The elevation sign at the top of the pass reads 2,678 feet. It’s not the modest altitude, however, but the elevation gain that’s stunning, straight up from sea level to alpine meadows above treeline. Workers had to rappel down the slopes to weld pipeline sections going into Valdez.

Once over the pass we quickly descended to the valley floor of the Tiekel River, the highway and pipeline roughly in parallel, and at Mile 735 met the first—or last—of the twelve pump stations. It was closed and put on standby in 2002, when the volume of oil being sent through the pipeline began to decline. Now only five stations are working, the oil in the pipeline having dropped from a peak delivery of 2.1 million barrels per day to only 700,000. Part of the pressure to open more land for drilling on the North Slope comes from the fact that the pipeline won’t stay usable if it doesn’t keep a minimum amount of oil flowing through it. Corrosion will begin to attack the pipeline from the inside all along its length, a problem the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the international consortium of oil companies that built the pipeline, doesn’t want to face.

Back on the Richardson Highway toward Fairbanks, we made a side trip to the copper mining ruins at Kennicott, which now sits in the heart of the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest park in the federal system. The Kennicott mines started operation in 1911, and before closing after twenty-seven years the trains and river steamers had carried out $207 million of copper. Mining in Alaska has historically been physically constituted by long lines of transportation crossing land and water. The industrial extraction of resources leaves behind ruins, which then become another kind of attraction, a scenic extraction reached by the same routes in reverse. The pipeline is nothing new in that sense, just a more singular line of transport.

Which led me to wonder what the pipeline would be a century hence. The design life span of the line was originally for thirty years, and it was renewed for another thirty in 2007, the theory being if you replaced corroded sections on a regular basis, it could last forever—assuming there’s enough oil in the ground to keep it full enough to maintain its integrity. All mines, be they copper or oil, run out eventually. Would the pipeline become an industrial ruin, a tourist attraction, or simply a road that takes you as far north in the hemisphere as you can drive?

EARLY THE FOLLOWING MORNING we drove back out the McCarthy Road to the Richardson, then onto Glennallen, suffering a flat along the way. We were anxious to get to the main highway where we’d finally be able to see the pipeline aboveground, and not just the cleared path of its buried passage a half-mile off the road. But once out of the mountains, the highway ran smoothly north, and at Mile 709.7 we found an unsigned driveway to our left that led into a small parking lot and a small outdoor interpretive center. A tour bus from the Princess cruise line pulled in behind us carrying thirty tourists on their way from Valdez to Fairbanks. The buses stop there twice weekly at the height of the summer season, as this is the first place the public can easily drive up to the pipeline. We tagged along to hear the tour guide’s spiel, all of us amazed that in the post-9/11 days we could just walk up to the pipeline and put our hands on it.

If the Great Walls of China are massive works of antiquity that from afar look like a zipper upon the earth, and Australia’s Dog Fence is a set of wires threaded through the narratives of a country, then the Trans-Alaska Pipeline looks like an alien artifact worming through the planet. You look straight at it, turn your head left and right to see how far it goes, and it makes very little sense at first. It might as well be a flying saucer; it’s just too big, too weird, too resistant to opinion. It does, however, invite wonder. People stood under the four-and-a-half-foot-wide tube, their heads tilted back to look at the structure that was elevated several feet above their heads, while the guide rattled off statistics. It was a warm sunny day, thunderstorms towering in the distance toward Valdez, and under the pipeline bloomed hundreds of yellow, orange, and blue wildflowers. When I put my hand on the galvanized steel it was cool, silent, massive, and without a hint of the millions of gallons of oil traveling inside.

I took notes on the graffiti written in ink on the pipeline, mostly names and dates, while Matt chatted up tourists and the guide, and Jennilie went up the hillside to see what she could see. After looking at the pipeline from above she said, “The line is so big it’s a man-made horizon. It’s so godlike.” Like I said, wonder.

We made it almost to Glennallen before the spare went, and we changed it for the tire we’d had patched earlier in the day, limping into town to buy a new tire and get the spare fixed. Outside town we detoured briefly onto the Glenn Highway that comes in from Anchorage, and where the pipeline comes out of the ground at Mile 684. First we turned left and approached Pump Station 11—which serves as a spill response center and security station. As Matt stuck his camera out of the window, a disembodied voice from a speaker startled us. “Can I help you?” Matt replied, “Just looking around,” and that seemed to satisfy the guard watching us through a video camera. Matt snapped his photos of the fence and signs, and we drove across the road to the grassy verge next to the pipeline. This was one of only three spots along the pipeline’s entire length where it has to be buried in permafrost to go under the road, allow animal migrations, and avoid avalanches. In these isolated instances, the pipeline is actively refrigerated by circulating brine through pipes underneath it, which carries away heat and keeps the ground frozen.

Matt was busy with his camera, Jennilie walked up as far as she could before a fence barred her way, and I took notes on the numbers chalked on each rust-colored vertical support member, seventy-eight thousand of which are deployed every few yards along 420 miles of the pipeline to lift it above the ground and permafrost. The line is annotated its entire length with handwritten references to mileage, the densest and most visible calibration of such a distance on the planet. Highways and freeways, even some farm roads, carry mileage designations, but none of them is marked every few yards. As we got back into the car and as I resettled back in amongst the atlases and maps, I realized that a certain numerical relentlessness had penetrated the vehicle. We were constantly checking numbers in the books along with highway signs and nomenclature written, printed, and painted on the pipeline. 

We made our way back to the Richardson and by four p.m. were in the lower reaches of the Alaska Range, its highest point Denali. The 20,320-foot-high peak, the tallest in North America, was more than a hundred miles west of us and invisible, yet our knowledge of its presence would be a cardinal landmark for two days. The pipeline ran above and below the road to our right, and at Mile 599 dove beneath Phelan Creek, then re-emerged to climb the steep hill opposite. It was like watching a magic trick, something as large as the pipeline disappearing under the river only to rise again on the other side.

We climbed Isabel Pass, a modest 3,280 feet, and on the other side both pipeline and road crossed the Denali Fault. A set of interpretive signs informed us that the sleds and their supports were built there to take an 8.5 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale, the pipeline able to travel up to twenty-two feet horizontally and five feet vertically. Thirty-foot-long beams resting on railroad crossties in the ground supported the cradles. Six years earlier the fault loosed a 7.5 magnitude quake here, and the pipeline survived seven feet of horizontal motion and two and a half feet of rise and fall.

We made our obligatory stop at Pump Station 10 (Mile 585) and a little on down the road we passed the U.S. Army’s Black Rapids Training Site, which the pipeline passes through underground, and found that a secondary pipe had joined the picture, a “military products pipeline” bringing fuel from Fairbanks to the base. The adopt-a-highway sign for that stretch of the highway proclaimed Boeing the local sponsor. We were coming up to Delta Junction, where a World War II strategic air base had been built in 1941. Today the site hosts everything from small arms practice to twenty sixty-five-foot-long Interceptor missiles in underground silos—the only site in the country where they are deployed.

Civilization started winding itself around the approximate route of the Richardson Highway with the arrival of the gold prospectors in 1897, who trekked from Valdez to the Klondike gold fields along the Yukon River. The military wasn’t far behind. In 1899 the U.S. Army pushed a route over Thompson Pass and turned it into a five-foot-wide pack trail with a telegraph line. The discovery of copper spurred further growth, and in 1910 the Richardson was improved again by the Army into a wagon road. In 1913 military personnel were able to drive a truck the 366 miles from Valdez to Fairbanks, but the road wasn’t paved until 1957. The pipeline then had its own multiplier effect on the road, jacking up business exponentially at spots such as Glennallen, but also allowing the military-industrial complex greatly increased access to remote sites for testing everything from missiles to high atmospheric communications systems. The military and its contractors are by definition concerned with the efficient conversion of terrain into territory, and they appropriate existing lines whenever possible for transportation and the allocation of operations.

At Mile 548 we pulled up to the gate of Pump Station 9, the first one we’d passed in actual operation. It pumps oil all of the 251 miles to Valdez, including over Thompson Pass, which gives some indication of the power of the two impellers inside the pumps. It was six-thirty p.m., and 105 miles to Fairbanks. Shortly thereafter we crossed the Delta River and Denali came into view in the distance. If the pipeline is the great line that crosses the interior of Alaska, then Denali is the most notable point, the pivot around which your attention rotates. Big peaks do that, anchor our vision in the landscape, and I would find myself constantly checking to see whether or not it was visible as we drove the pipeline. 

By the time we arrived in Fairbanks we’d grown used to seeing military spaces alternating with oil facilities, but it was still a surprise to see the extent of Eielson Air Force Base just south of Fairbanks. With sixty-thousand-plus square miles of airspace, the largest aerial range in North America, it hosts the Red Flag events—military flight exercises that require immense flight lines over relatively unoccupied land. Signs prohibiting stopping, parking, and photographing presented a challenge to the CLUI honor system of documenting every facility of note along any given route of interest. 

We’d driven half the pipeline in two days. North of Fairbanks the line we were following would become a more austere one. We would cross the Yukon River and the Brooks Range, the two greatest east-to-west lines in this corner of the continent, and the population per square mile would drop precipitously. The dense military presence would vanish, the road turn to dirt and gravel, and the trees give out. It would be just the road and the pipeline.

ON TUESDAY, AUGUST 12TH, we picked up the rental car in which we’d make the round trip from Fairbanks to Deadhorse and back. The Haul Road, or as it’s known in guidebooks, the Dalton Highway, is mostly unpaved and during summer sees hundreds of trucks each day traveling as fast as they can. As a result, the vehicle we got from the only place in Fairbanks that rents cars for the trip was an already beat-up Ford Taurus. Clearly the idea of the rental company was not just to send out beaters that are cheap to replace, but also to avoid tempting anyone into thinking they can drive off-road.

Thirteen miles out of Fairbanks at Mile 450 we stopped at Alyeska’s one and only visitors center. If you’re a tourist who has arrived in Anchorage and then flown to Fairbanks, this is the first place you can get to via car or bus where you can touch the pipeline. And there were hundreds of people doing exactly that—four bus loads’ worth.

Later in the morning we stopped to photograph the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “Permafrost Tunnel Facility Cold Regions Research & Engineering Facility.” When we approached the gate, we met another talking fence. “Can I help you?” When Matt asked if they offered tours, he got a distinctly military “negative” in response. “Alaska is full of fences,” Jennilie mulled. 

Back on the Elliot Highway we found a small turnoff to the left at Mile 433 where a series of trenches had been completed in 2002, and which will be monitored until 2012 to gauge the effect a gas pipeline would have on the permafrost. The oil fields at Prudhoe Bay produce copious amounts of natural gas as a byproduct, most of which is either pumped back into the ground or flared off in tall flames visible for miles. Natural gas is in high and growing demand in the lower 48, so a plan has been made to build another pipeline, this one almost twice as long as the Trans-Alaska.

Climbing up the western end of the White Mountains we listened to truckers on their CB radios discuss building their houses in Fairbanks and elsewhere, and the real estate prices they were seeing drop. The previous year had been a time of unprecedented price increases for land and housing around the world, as well as for consumption of petrochemical products, and Alaska had been booming. With the price of gas falling unexpectedly, things were beginning to cool. Talk of a housing bubble bursting was literally in the air around us, even on the Haul Road. And the truckers were dead keen to see the gas pipeline built to spark another boom.

Just past the settlement of Livengood we joined with the Dalton Highway, which promptly devolved into a wide and bumpy dirt road. The scenery was also beginning to change. The pipeline was mostly aboveground and visible, coursing alongside us across shallow valleys and rolling hills covered with boreal forest, the spruce trees not much taller than a person. We pulled off at a viewpoint and looked out over hundreds of thousands of acres of forest burned in wildfires, destroyed by bark beetles, and dying from drought. Alaska is warming and the effects are manifest everywhere. Buildings in Fairbanks are sinking as the permafrost melts, fishing villages on the coastlines are having to be moved farther inland as the seas rise, and the forests, stressed as they are, continue to creep northward. Four bicyclists passed us heading south, prime pedaling season already waning. Over one pass a semi was pushing another, more heavily laden one up the hill, like two diesel dinosaurs. 

If the pipeline and its corridor constitute the line that splits Alaska into east and west, then the Yukon River is the line that splits the state at right angles to the pipeline. The Yukon is a 2,000-mile-long behemoth that flows for 600 miles in the Yukon before crossing the border into Alaska where it flows for another 1,400. It drains 330,000 square miles, and its basin takes up a third of the state. North of the river the state is almost completely roadless, except for the Dalton Highway, which crosses the Yukon at the E. L. Patton Bridge at Yukon Crossing.

The bridge is half a mile long, a steel structure with wooden planking, and it slopes downward several degrees, which causes no end of consternation for truck drivers when it ices up. The pipeline is carried alongside it in a wire cage. We stopped in the middle. It was as clear an intersection of nature and culture as can be imagined. No subsidiary roads exist on the sides, nor do any other structures bridge the river; there’s just the two mighty lines, one natural and one built, intersecting at right angles. Five miles down the road we stopped at the infamous Hot Spot for what were billed as the best burgers on the Haul Road. Truckers call ahead to order them, stopping just long enough to collect their food and to use the bear-proof bathroom. Back on the road, we passed a Ford Excursion with red and white markings: DENALI: THE ALASKA GAS PIPELINE. “Scouts,” said Matt.

Mile 347. We passed a bar lifted above the road, which is lowered to keep trucks away from the landing pattern when Alyeska planes need to use the airstrip a few yards away. The road slowly climbed, and because the treeline was at only two thousand feet, the pipeline became visible for miles, a straight metal ruler punctuated with right-angle expansion bends. From atop small rises we could see how the pipeline would proceed in as direct and economical a course as possible, the road in counterpoint making giant S-bends across it to take into account topography that rose and fell. The landscape continued to change, the spruces stunted and replaced by tundra and granite boulders. Low green shrubs were surrounded by russet ground cover, and the grasses were already a sere brown. The tundra was in fall color: reds, oranges, and a deep autumnal gold interspersed with large swaths of brilliantly pink fireweed. A large turnout awaited us at the Finger Rock overlook, Mile 310, and we climbed to the top of the highest tor. The isolated granite pinnacles, exposed by slow Arctic erosion over millennia, were hoary sentinels clothed in lichens. The afternoon brought low clouds and a brisk wind, and we huddled atop the cold rocks. It felt like we were at last getting north.

Back into the spruce forest at Mile 294, we parked at the large sign announcing that we were standing on the Arctic Circle, latitude 66º 33´ N. The inevitable tourist buses from the cruise ships were on hand, disgorging tourists happy to have their photographs taken next to the sign. Crossing the Arctic Circle on a bus is like crossing the equator on a ship: a geographical fact that is mostly invisible, but a way of marking your progress around what is otherwise an inconceivably large globe. The people having their pictures taken weren’t just collecting an abstract geographical trophy, an honor badge of tourism, but were manifesting the deeply human urge to place ourselves in relationship to the entire orb upon which we spin. 

At six p.m. and Mile 274 we passed Pump Station 5, which wasn’t actually a pumping station, but a “drain down” to slow the oil flowing down after its descent from the highest point on the route, Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. A helicopter flew overhead, inspecting the pipeline. After the stories we’d heard about Alyeska tracking the movement of people who show too much interest in the pipeline, it remained difficult not to be just the slightest bit paranoid.

After dinner in the truck stop at Coldfoot, the only major stop between Fairbanks and Deadhorse for 240 miles, we continued toward the foothills of the Brooks Range, which were lit with orange alpenglow, a phenomenon which might last for only a few minutes on the peaks of the lower 48, but which glowed above us for an hour as we crossed the middle fork of Koyukuk River and turned left into the old mining camp of Wiseman, Mile 226. The handsome frontier town was set back in stands of large evergreens and birches, well-preserved log cabins fronted by lawns and food caches perched up high on sturdy poles. The town has a year-round population of twenty people, which doubles with visitors during the summer. We checked into our cabin, which featured a lynx pelt hanging on a nail in the small living room and skulls of animals hung in corner niches. At ten o’clock I walked out to the nearby stream—which had been channeled between high rock banks either for mining or flood control at one point—and perched on a rock bench to admire the view. The mountains still held some light, the mosquitoes were mild, and my only concern was a possible visit from a bear. I enjoyed the solitude, knowing that the next day we would enter the industrial hive of Deadhorse.

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THE NEXT MORNING WE CROSSED the vigorously flowing river, beneath which the pipeline traveled. The deciduous trees around us were changing color already, and when we reached Mile 220 with its remote valve, we saw the “Link-Up” sign where highway crews met to complete the road in 1974.

The daily helicopter went overhead, and to our right stood Sukakpak Mountain. At 4,459 feet it wasn’t a large peak, but its steep, dark-gray limestone and marble face rose more than three thousand feet above the road. It also marked the traditional boundary between the territories of the Inupiaq Eskimos and the more southerly Athabascan peoples. Unlike a sign to mark the crossing of a celestial boundary, such as the Arctic Circle, this was an actual landmark standing above a transition in physical terrain. South of the Brooks Range, it’s all glaciated landforms, rolling hills and mountains, and a biotic assemblage that includes important food sources such as moose. North of the range, you’re on a coastal plain where caribou and musk ox roam. Everything changes at the Brooks Range, from foodways to material culture.

At Mile 180, we entered the North Slope Borough, the largest such regional unit in the world at eighty-nine thousand square miles. Its only real town is Barrow, four thousand people living in the northernmost settlement on the continent. The borough’s total population is about 6,800 people, almost three-quarters of whom are Native or of Native blood. The borough line runs east to west, as does the Brooks Range, and extends from the Yukon Territory in Canada to the western shore at the Bering Sea. These enormous left-to-right lines on the land are crossed at right angles by the pipeline. This simple fact reminded me how persistently we insist on making lines across the land that run counter to the nature of the world and the unimpeded flow of water and people, goods and ideas.

Nearby is a sign that reads: FARTHEST NORTH SPRUCE TREE ON THE ALASKA PIPELINE. DO NOT CUT. The Milepost, usually a paragon of accuracy, stated that this is the “last tree” on the northbound route, but fifty feet to the north a younger tree was growing. As the globe cools or warms, the northern treelines move in response, the individual trees points on a line that can be drawn around the world, a line that can be plotted in time as well as in space. Fossil fuels are composed of dead trees and other vegetation that converted solar energy into matter millions of years ago, thus storing it. When we bring up coal and gas and oil from underneath the ground, we are bringing sunshine from the past to the present. In that sense, the pipeline is a straw from the present drawing energy from the past. The result is too much heat, and both spruce trees and lice extending their ranges northward each year.

Eighty percent of human perception is based on what we see, and the fundament of human vision is boundary contrast, the line between light and dark shaping every object in our minds. We see lines everywhere, even if they don’t exist, our mind assembling random points along lines in an attempt to order everything around us. The condition is called pareidolia, and it’s what led Percival Lowell to claim the existence of canals on Mars as he was peering through his telescope in the 1890s. But sometimes the aggregation of points in nature do form very real lines that help us understand the mechanisms of complex systems such as climate, yet another narrative, another storyline, whether it is an isotherm—a line of equal temperature stretching around the planet—or a graph showing how we’re altering the energy balance of the present.

The pipeline had been mostly underground through this stretch, surfacing just often enough to remind us that it was still there as we approached the Atigun Pass, which at 4,643 feet would be the literal high point of the trip. It’s the only place where a road crosses the seven-hundred-mile-long Brooks Range, and a place of legendary difficulty for everyone from truck drivers to bush pilots. Before starting up the pass we noted an avalanche gun mount at the bottom where crews shoot down looming snow cornices high above during the winter. Here the pipeline was in an eight-mile concrete box to protect it from avalanches, and toward the top went back underground. 

At Mile 152 we passed one of the half-dozen check valves on that side of the pass—valves designed to make sure the oil flowed only up the pass, and not backward toward Deadhorse—then seven miles later stopped to photograph Pump Station 4, the highest of all the pumps. On the other side, the road gently declined onto the North Slope, the pipeline now exposed above the tundra for miles. 

Barry Lopez once told me that where you should look for animals on the tundra is where the mountains cast shadow lines. The animals can hide in the shadow, but they hunt and forage near the light and warmth. That’s why raptors hang out at the margins where forests abut fields, all part of the “edge effect,” that tendency for increased biodiversity at the boundary lines. When we came out of the shadows of the mountains, we were near the Toolik Field Station, an Arctic observatory where scientists study three of Alaska’s primary physiographic provinces: the mountains, tundra, and coastal plain. Station researchers have been studying plots of carefully gridded ground within this junction for more than three decades, and as a result they are uniquely positioned to observe the changes wrought by global warming upon an indicator location—one of those places that give us early warning of what will eventually happen in the more temperate zones. 

And it was, truly, sunnier and warmer here on the edge of the shadows, as Barry had noted when here years ago. The panoramic view of the Brooks Range, which stretched off east and west, glaciers hidden high in its cirques, was compelling, one of those scenes where your mind takes off walking on its own to imagine what could be seen atop this peak, down at that pass, high on that ice field. The view from the Toolik area has stopped photographers in their tracks for years.

After lunch we passed a small herd of musk ox, munching contentedly a few yards west of the road. Pump Station 3 at Mile 104 was definitely in use. The pumps are powered by jet turbine engines that sound like the runway at your local airport. To look at a pump station is to realize that the real line involved here is the 9 million barrels of black crude oil inside the pipeline, like the lead in a pencil. At 1:05 p.m. we saw two caribou in the distance. We continued to descend, our ears popping, as we rolled past a former Alyeska construction camp on the Sagavanirktok River. Not far past the camp, we came over a hill and at last the coastal plain stretched out before us, the largest thing visible on its surface the pipeline. 

At Mile 67, the “Sag” River Overlook offered us a small polygonal wooden deck with plaques facing roughly east, south, and west over the rolling coastal plain. As the land got flatter, the water wandered at will, not taking a straight line at all. British anthropologist Tim Ingold writes in Lines: A Short History that we associate straight lines with “mind against matter, with rational thought as against sensory perception, with intellect as against intuition, with science as against traditional knowledge, with male as against female, with civilization as against primitiveness and—on the most general level—with culture as against nature.” We couldn’t have picked a better spot to illustrate his point, the pipeline a rational structure in engineering terms, the braided rivers ordered by the organic imperative of geology.

We mistakenly conflate a mental construct such as a line with a measure of control over the planet, as if the line were more than a temporary description of our relationship to that body in space. Not only are lines impermanent upon the Earth, they are hardly fixed in our minds. A line of thought is less a ruled measurement than a complexly braided meander that changes to accommodate every experience. Which explains, in part, why we started out driving the pipeline with an adversarial point of view, but then became accustomed to it, and by the time we began to approach the end of the line, we had grown fond of it.

Pump Station 2 at Mile 56 was quiet, although the national and state flags were flying and vehicles were parked inside the gate. Snow poles showed up on the roadsides, a sign of blizzard country. The pipeline went underground, the fog came in, and the country turned to lace, half ground, half water. 

As we pulled into Deadhorse—less a town than a zone of occupation between the National Petroleum Reserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—it was so windy that the lakes around us had whitecaps and the car was doused with spray. “We’re at the end of the world and it looks like a gravel pit,” observed Matt. The highway, which now felt more like a crude street, passed the airport on the left and began to branch off, fraying in different directions. Tundra trucks sat in the equipment yards belonging to various companies, their enormous flat bodies atop huge soft tires as wide as a pickup body, designed to distribute weight over a large area and thus minimize damage to the ground.

We drove until stopped by the gates that defined where individual service companies—Halliburton, Schlumberger, and Peak among them—divvied up their slice of the largest oil field in North America. Flare-offs from the oil derricks pierced the fog in an apocalyptic glow. The town was completely ad hoc: corrugated metal bolted foursquare to posts on concrete pads, everything floating on gravel pads atop the permafrost. Everything except for the very largest buildings was on wheels, rollers, skids, or sleds.

After checking in at the Arctic Caribou Inn, a residential facility for workers that offers rooms to tourists, we wandered back out. Deadhorse has virtually no permanent population, just six thousand workers at any one time in town on two-week shifts. There are no private homes, children, or schools. It’s more like McMurdo Station in the Antarctic than anywhere else I’ve been. 

The next morning we did what tourists here do most regularly—booked ourselves on an excursion to the Arctic Ocean. Outside it was socked in, thirty-six degrees, and drizzling. Fourteen of us piled into a vehicle for the slow drive through town and out onto the British Petroleum property. The Prudhoe Field is forty miles long by fifteen wide, and we would just touch the edge of it. Small white flowers were growing in clumps everywhere—“arctic cotton”—but the grass was already turning brown and snow would arrive in four or five weeks. 

When we reached the shoreline of the Beaufort Sea, we put on hats and gloves to cope with the bitter wind and walked a few hundred yards along a man-made gravel spit that was originally planned to be part of a dock. Prudhoe Bay sees only a foot and a half of tidal rise and fall, and it was out as far as it would go that morning. Gray sky, gray sea, gray air. A gas flare burned dimly off to our left in the fog. As we stood at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, the driver suggested that we each might want to pick up a rounded stone with a circle on it for luck and long life. I chose, instead, a piece of rusted metal.

SO THERE WE WERE, seven days after leaving Valdez, having spent two days waiting for the clouds to lift. At 4:25 our pilot told us to head out onto the tarmac, and we assumed our seats in the Cessna. Now we’re flying at the ceiling of visibility, six hundred feet above the deck, right on the edge of what regulations deem safe. Endlessly patterned ground, repeating as a fractal at many scales, stretches out between the drilling pads. Little polygons, polygonal groups of polygons, entire counties of geometry. We fly right at the cloud layer, dipping in and out of them. The amount of pipe running from the individual camps—the islands of gravel in tundra and shallow ocean for each drilling and pumping operation—is staggering. It’s an enormous vascular system of silver lines running in parallel zigzags across the landscape, all heading into a single point of departure. The camps are so far apart that they have their own airstrips, and they stretch out across the ocean as far as we can see.

By five-thirty the clouds are lowering, the fog line blowing back over town, and we bank back toward the airstrip. In the lowering light I can see the pipeline running back south, shining. “The pipeline is kind of a comforting presence, isn’t it,” Jennilie says the next day as we leave Deadhorse. “Once we know the whole line . . . ”

Living with the pipeline for a week has reordered our senses around it, our notions of what the landscape looks like and our place within it. Driving back south, it’s almost as if we have a hand out the car and resting atop the silver thread, a banister we trail back down the continent. Lines, because they are such a fundamental unit within our perceptual neurology, command allegiance. The pipeline, the Dog Fence, the Walls of China are all fixed in place, at least for a little while, but lines in nature seldom are. They move around, whether they are coastlines, the isotherms of equal temperatures around the world, the front lines of ice in glaciers and permafrost. Yet our anthropic lines have profound effects on those less visible but much larger lines upon the Earth. A human line is always a barrier of some kind to the natural movements of other species, slowing the spread of genes on either side of the Great Walls and the Dog Fence, as well as the migrations of herds. Above and beyond that, the pipeline is abetting the movement of energy through time, from underground to aboveground, and literally fueling climate change, moving the isotherms.

A line seems so simple, but make a mark and you reorder the world around it. 

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William L. Fox's essay is adapted from his current book project All Along the Line, which explores how the world's largest human-made lines both connect and divide us to and from one another and nature. He works in Reno, Nevada.

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