Post #166: Pipedreams

August 24, 2022


After we left Denali National Park and were back on the highway the next morning, I happened to glance in the rear-view mirror.  

Denali, finally, in all her glory

The entire giant mountain had suddenly broken completely free of the clouds and was shimmering white in the sun, a good 75 miles away. We quickly pulled over and admired the spectacular view that Denali would let us see only as we were leaving.


About 125 miles to the north, Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska with a population of 32,700, felt like a no-frills city compared to much larger Anchorage (population 287,170). Fairbanks had all the necessary stores but much of the population was from the Air Force base there and the town itself is quite small. Upon arrival we stopped for a late breakfast/early lunch at a well-reviewed restaurant. It was surprisingly crowded and noisy for 11:15 am on a random Wednesday, but the food was decent and, at least for Alaska, it was not terribly overpriced.


Thankfully, Fairbanks had an AutoZone auto parts store, which I wanted to be near when I started working on the truck. Safeway and Costco were conveniently located in the same strip mall. I found a relatively dry spot and we took a lot of stuff out of the truck so we could partially slide back the 4×8 sheet of plywood that supports our mattress to access tools stored underneath. Susan went in search of groceries while I donned my cheap raincoat to keep my clothes at least a little cleaner while I crawled under the truck to replace the rear wheel speed sensor. It was a miserable job as everything was stuck and my hands were cold but after two hours I finally got in installed. We reassembled the back of the truck hoping that the part fixed the problem of no anti-lock brakes, stability and traction controls. It had been diagnosed in Homer a few days before but they didn’t have the part, so on our way through Anchorage, I had picked one up.


The moment of truth: I started the truck and the dashboard indicators went away. Yay! Then we headed out toward Costco for cheap gas and the &@*^# lights came back on. Damn! Dirty and discouraged, I crawled back under the truck and disconnected the new sensor, which disabled the whole system, but which would also allow us to keep going without the stupid computer trying to activate the brakes to slow the truck every few minutes. I was really disappointed, knowing the most challenging road lay ahead but I comforted myself in the fact that I drove cars for decades before electronic controls and antilock brakes and never needed them. I’d simply have to fix the truck when we got home.

The pipeline was way more interersting to see than we'd even expected
800 miles, $8 billion, two years to build

It rained lightly as we headed out of town, southeast from Fairbanks back toward Canada. Just out of town we made a short detour to the north to check out the Trans Alaska Pipeline (TAP). 

There was a spot that provides easy access to check out a few miles of the pipeline along with displays that explained how the pipeline was designed and constructed and how it works. The TAP, we learned, was built between 1975 and 1977 at a cost of $8 billion and stretches 800 miles from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline crosses three mountain ranges, more than 500 rivers and streams, and three major earthquake faults.

Multiple colorful displays explained the history and engineering involved in building the TAP
"Pigs", like this one, travel through the pipeline to clean it and monitor its condition
This older pig scraped the inside of the pipeline

Because of the permafrost, about half of the pipeline is above ground and many sections are elevated using a system of 124,000 chiller pipes that remove heat to keep the ground underneath frozen and stable year-round (the temperature of the oil inside the pipeline is about 100F). Other sections of the pipeline are insulated and buried to accommodate over 550 caribou, moose and other wildlife crossing areas, to allow for 44 vehicle crossings, and to avoid avalanches. The forward-thinking engineers built the pipeline in a zigzag pattern that allows for expansion and contraction to help keep the pipeline stable through temperature changes and allows for lateral and vertical movement during earthquakes. A major breach along the pipeline would be an environmental catastrophe and so far there have been a total of 18 leaks in the past. Recently, due to climate change, at least one section of permafrost under the pipeline has begun to thaw, threatening the stability of the pipeline.

Candy cane light poles lined the roads into town
We wondered how many children send Santa letters at this address
Of course, McDonald's got in on the candy cane act

After leaving the TAP, we headed southeast, back toward Canada. We made one more stop in the late afternoon at the North Pole. Yep, North Pole, Alaska is an actual (tiny) town southeast of Fairbanks. 

We hope the staff is paid overtime during the Christmas rush
Outside the North Pole post office

The town even has its own post office. We’d bought postcards in Denali National Park to send to our grandchildren and we definitely wanted them to show a postmark from the North Pole! We told the kids we’d put in a good word for them with Santa.

Back in the truck, it was suggested that it was past time for me to get a shower. Susan found us a log cabin Airbnb for a night, located about 100 miles from Fairbanks near Middle-of-Nowhere, Alaska (aka, Delta Junction, pop. 970). It was a great choice. There was a grill outside so we were able to grill some salmon Susan had just bought. 

Our small, cozy AirBnB cabin near Delta Junction, AK

After dinner, we both took long hot showers–our first since leaving Homer, AK four days earlier. Our cabin even had a small washer and dryer, which was a bonus as our sheets were due for cleaning. 

A way-too-steep-to-meet-code staircase led to the loft where we slept
View from our bed

It was a small cabin but new and big enough to stretch out in and the loft upstairs had a comfy bed. We both avoided drinking too much water before bed, as we were concerned about navigating the ridiculously steep stairs to get down to the bathroom during the night.

2 Responses

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing beautiful photos, educating us and explaining challenges great and small. Enjoying your blog.

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