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  • Ken Ilgunas

Deadhorse, my new home

Whenever I’d tell one of my Coldfoot coworkers that I was heading up to Deadhorse for a couple of weeks, their first response was maniacal laughter followed by–when they observed my steely glare and were reminded of their imprudence–heartfelt expressions of earnest sympathy. Because of its distance from the mountains, civilization, and the female gender, Deadhorse is generally looked upon as a step down from the comforts and conveniences of Coldfoot.

“Deadhorse is like someone took a shit and forgot to flush,” one of them opined.

Two nights ago, I drove a van full of linens up to Deadhorse, where I’ll be living for the next couple weeks. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, one of the workers up here quit, so the manager (who also runs Coldfoot Camp) needed a guy to fill in to clean rooms and wash dishes.

The Dalton Highway, at these latitudes, can be quite rough. In certain sections, the road is like a washboard, with parallel grooved lines every foot apart that rattle the van so much you can’t help but drive the rest of the way with a headache and a grossly uncomfortable erection. When I advanced north through the Brooks Mountain Range and onto the flat coastal plain, I watched, terrified, as the clouds moved in an east-to-west, end-of-times fashion. The pinkish-red storm clouds seemed to blow across the sky just feet above the van, moving at blistering, unearthly tornado-like speeds, which just looked so, so, very, very weird because everything on the ground remained perfectly still (probably because there’s nothing on the ground but rocks, low shrubs, and six-inch hight cotton grass). “This place is just weird,” said Steve, another coworker from Coldfoot who drove up with me. My thoughts exactly.

Here’s my new home. This unit was just brought in, as were several more, so they could house the employees up here who work in the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, as well as the few tourists who come up here and need a place to stay.

Here’s the inside of my room. The heater unleashes odors of sauteed battery acid, and the room smells of nicotine and formaldehyde. I actually don’t know what formaldehyde smells like, but it has has that chemically sterile flesh-burning odor to it, which the word brings to mind. (Note: The guest rooms at Deadhorse are actually quite nice, so, noble traveler, please don’t let my hardly-objective descriptions stop you from visiting.)

The camp manager offered me two rooms. With the first, the view offered nothing more than a wall of orange aluminum siding. But with the unit I chose (to which he refers, hopefully, as my “writing studio”), I can see a bit of the landscape. The Dalton Highway–which you can’t quite see–is just a stone’s throw from my place. Everything up here in the coastal plain is so flat and there are so few geographic features, the view in all directions appear to be the same.

“Is that the ocean?” I asked while looking out my window to one of my coworkers.

“Ken, that’s east,” she said.


In ways, the room is a step up from my cabin in Coldfoot. I have electricity, heat, a closet, and I now have, amazingly, a stable internet connection permitting me access to YouTube and Pandora for the first time in months, which are modern conveniences that I have “done without” just fine, but they are warmly re-embraced nonetheless.

This carbon monoxide detector chirped anxiously every few seconds. Because I figured it was a greater risk to my sanity than the monoxide was to my health, I dismantled it.

After feeling grimy from the long drive, I took a shower yesterday evening. (Coworkers share the communal shower with the tourists and pipeline workers.) The water here, I’ve been told, costs 35 cents a gallon. So it’s no surprise that the water leaves the shower nozzle at an exasperating dribble; the pressure being so slight, I must stand directly beneath it. Whenever I turned to wash a different part of my body, I’d accidently nudge the hot-cold dial, which, for whatever reason, is hyper-sensitive, so much that a millimeter adjustment to the right or left would send boiled, skin-melting water onto my shoulders, or a polar, heart-stopping frosty slush.

Some more views. Here’s Deadhorse Camp, where I’ll be working.


It seems that my homes are getting gradually smaller and smaller in weirder and weirder places. But maybe it’s just that sometimes progress points in funny directions.


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