Gravel and dirt crunched under the tires of Ben Huff’s Subaru as he gripped the steering wheel, dodging potholes and bracing himself for the 18-wheelers that roared past flinging rocks and gravel onto his windshield. Then there were the steep and curvy stretches, the icy and muddy ones, blizzards and blinding fog, hordes of mosquitoes and sub-zero temperatures. He drove for hours on end with no gas station, restaurant or motel in sight, no cell or radio reception, either.
It was all worth it to Huff. One of North America’s most rugged and isolated roads, the James W. Dalton Highway led him through some of the most stunning and remote Alaskan wilderness, a landscape where one is likely to see grizzlies, herds of caribou and the occasional lynx. Traveling north, the 414-mile mostly unpaved road starts in Livengood, 80 miles north of Fairbanks, then enters the Arctic Circle, crosses the Yukon River, heads into the Brooks Mountain Range, and stops in Deadhorse (population 25) at Prudhoe Bay in the North Slope Borough, smack at the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Along the way, there’s only one town. Midway in the Brooks Range, Coldfoot (population 10) is barely a truck stop, with one restaurant/bar and a few overnight accommodations. You’d better eat up, drink up, rest up and fill up here, and forget about that radio or cell phone once you leave, because for the next 214 miles there’s nothing but the wilderness, the pipeline and the road.
Still, even when Huff traveled solo, he rarely found himself completely alone for more than a couple of hours. Paralleling the highway on one side or the other runs a constant reminder of why it exists at all ”” the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, built between 1974 and 1977. About 250 semi-trucks a day barrel up and down what’s also known as the North Slope Haul Road (opened to the public in 1994), bringing supplies to the oil fields and workers in Deadhorse.
“The road marks a physical and psychological line between wilderness and resources extraction,” Huff, 44, tells me by phone from his home in Juneau. “Here’s this unbelievable access through an iconic, heartbreakingly beautiful landscape in some of the farthest reaches of wilderness still left in America, and the only reason for the road is what’s at the end of it. And what’s at the end isn’t pretty.” He’s talking about the rumbling oil trucks and modular, prefab buildings.
For the truckers, the Dalton Highway is merely a thoroughfare. For Huff it was an adventure. Over the course of five years, he drove it dozens of times, in part or in its entirety, and in all seasons. We travel with him through his photographs, mostly color. His 55 images take us from south to north in his first monograph: The Last Road North (Kehrer Verlag, 2015, introduction by Barry Lopez).
In spring 2013, Huff showed a hardcover maquette of this body of work to the publisher’s acquisitions editor, Alexa Becker, at Photolucida’s Portfolio Reviews Festival in Portland, Oregon. She sent a PDF of it to her team in Germany, and several months later, Huff signed the book contract. I also met him for the first time at that Photolucida event. What a refreshing view of Alaska he showed me. These were not your typical pictures of sweeping mountain vistas and the Northern Lights skipping across the sky. Instead, I saw an abandoned truck with a “HELP” note stuck to a cracked windshield; a blown-out tire; makeshift roadside crosses (the book’s only black-and-white photos); and exhausted travelers ”” the spectacular landscape a running backdrop, everything thrumming in muted hues.