Extreme Road Test - 2003 Hummer H2: Leg 1, Day 4
Deadhorse to Fairbanks, Alaska
Even after draping a blanket over the hotel room window, enough midnight light still crept through to give the room a late-afternoon glow. Hundreds of miles into the Arctic Circle, a night's sleep feels like a nap, with each bleary-eyed awakening failing to confirm that morning has arrived. The alarm toned at 8:15 am, and Kiwi bolted out to the lobby to negotiate passage to the Arctic Ocean. A tour bus was available, offering $40 transport for the 10-mile journey, but we needed to drive the HUMMER H2 to the water's edge to truly claim we made it to the end of the northern-most road.
More phone calls and discussion than would seem possible resulted in a last-minute greenlight for the Hummer. We followed the tour bus through the industrial village, as an ornithological group took photos of the occasional duck or whatever fowl happed to be resting within 100 yards of the road.
We eventually turned onto a lollipop-shaped road that jutted out into Prudhoe Bay, with a large, loose rock turnaround at the end. Told we could park anywhere, we powered the H2 down a slippery stone banking and drove into the ocean. Any rental car could have made it to the end of the road, but the Hummer clearly could go beyond.
After a good laugh over our parking space from the bird watchers, we set up the Canon video camera to chronicle Kiwi's numbing dip in the Arctic Ocean. A couple other brave fools went running in the water, screaming in terror and excitement, splashing down, then immediately returning to shore as quickly as their frozen limbs would permit.
At a chilling 38 Fahrenheit (not counting the noteworthy windchill factor), it was downright nippy outside even with insulating clothes. In Prudhoe Bay, stripping down to shorts takes determination and ice cubes for brains -- even in the summer. Kiwi zipped the legs off of his Columbia convertible pants and bravely ventured into the icy environs. The water was reportedly in the low 30s, ensuring scrawny Kiwi would surely be in and out in a flash.
With a ceremonial farewell captured on video, Kiwi ran through the shallow water, dove quickly, then made a few labored strokes. The brief swim was followed by a Kodak moment and a sprint to the warm sanctity of the H2. Never have heated seats been more welcomed.
On the way out of town, we met with a local Polar Bear Club representative to have an official membership certificate signed, adding yet another dubious award to Kiwi's office wall. Though feeling the equal of arctic exploring legend Sir Ernest Shackleton, Kiwi's fur-lined ego was insulted by the cartoonish polar bear graphic on the colorful form. It serves as a reminder of just how silly this side adventure was.
Like good Americans, we popped into the Prudhoe Bay general store on a souvenir hunt. Distorting spatial physics as would Dr. Who's Tartus, the small building housed a large emporium of arctic essentials, including toiletries and cold-weather gear. A well-stocked newsstand showed Motor Trend to be selling well, though the automotive magazines were overshadowed by a sizeable adult selection. With a couple tchotchkes and an obligatory "Alaska Survivor Arctic Challenge" door magnet, we headed for our last stop, the hotel restaurant for road chow.
Back on the Dalton Highway by early afternoon, we faced more than 500 miles of driving before our day's-end destination, Fairbanks. Despite being sprung with a heavy-duty suspension, the 33-inch-tired H2 rode commendably across the graded surface. It wasn't until a protracted rough, broken surface that the ride became somewhat jarring.
With the pipeline running parallel to the road, we made good time through the thawed tundra plains, ever wary for oncoming trucks. Fearless semi truck drivers would appear on the horizon, racing toward us trailing a gigantic dust plume. As opposing traffic draws near, it's necessary to slow down when entering the dusty, white-out conditions left behind. With an elevated road, any unexpected off-road excursion would be most unpleasant. Just in case, we tested OnStar, only to learn that we were on our own in the extreme north. Marking the halfway mark, Coldfoot provided an essential rest stop, with an opportunity to refuel and scrape the windshield clean. We again met Phillip, our German motorcyclist friend, looking worn-out from the tough, dirt-eating ride. Off-road ace Kiwi offered to drive the Paris-to-Dakar-issue BMW for a stint, allowing Phillip a much-appreciated break from the road and rock-flinging trucks.
As the miles ticked away, Phillip gradually sucked down pretzels, cookies, and drinks like a trainee for the annual Coney Island eating competition. In return, he offered colorful conversation that proved more than an even trade.
A brief stop to check on Kiwi Knievel turned into a protracted pit stop, as we saw that the Hummer's left rear tire had begun deflating. Consequently, we proceeded to swap it with one of the two spares on board. Considering the conditions of the roads we'd traveled, we were impressed it took this long for our first flat to occur, as we'd seen many other motorists changing tires along the way. As is too often the case, getting the jack and tools out proved to be a challenge. Located beneath the standard spare, we needed to fold the rear seat forward to access the equipment, yet even with a manual in hand, we were unable to pull off this seemingly simple task. Assault from the dreaded mosquitoes added frustration, and later left us with grotesque bumps about our face, neck, and hands. The screw-type scissor jack took about a thousand turns to raise the heavy Hummer, but it was surprisingly easy to elevate the massive vehicle. Fortunately, we were on flat, hard ground; otherwise we could have easily found ourselves short at full extension.
With a fresh tire installed and a repacked truck, we were back on the road, completing our day's mission. Just outside Fairbanks, we rolled into the very first gas station to slake the H2's thirst. Kiwi decided to pass on filling the BMW, learning his lesson a few miles later when the bike sputtered to a stop. Switching to the reserve tank got him rolling again, trailing a sizeable "I told ya so."
The late light made it easier to drive long into the night, with our bodies often arguing with the clock. The sun set at 1:57 am, only to appear again at 2:13, right when we were gobbling down more chow from Taco Bell. Looking like dirt-covered Mad Dog from the Orbit gum commercial, after 250 miles of fun Kiwi was glad to relinquish his two-wheeled ride for the night. Never had Kiwi's nose been so brown.
Weary, we motored to a nearby motel for a few hours of shut-eye before rising early to again write and send the daily update story for the MT Web site.