Once upon a time I used to live in the Brooks Mountain Range near the Gates of Artic National Park in Alaska. It is some good ways inside the Arctic Circle and one of northern most parts of the world. It is a land unto itself. It is the definition of wildness and wilderness. I stepped out of the van and I felt I was in the wild and that is what I wanted.
This journey started when I graduated from Warren Wilson College in May of 2009 and decided that I really wanted to see some wilderness. I had this deep, deep craving for wilderness. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it came from working for so many years with cultivated land and farming and I just wanted to experience the opposite end, the wild natural way the land is when humans don’t intervene. I wanted to believe that there was still land left in this world that was untouched by humans. I felt like I could find this way up north.
So, I went on line and I said, “Hmmmm what can I do up there?” So, I typed in some google searches, Work Extreme Alaska; Rural Alaska; Artic Alaska, and I came up with a company that basically operates a small tourist industry in the heart of the Gates of the Artic in a place called Coldfoot, Alaska. The company has two purposes. The first is wilderness tourism, where people can come up and safely enter the wilderness and then leave in a day. It is also has a 24-hour diner and a truck stop called Coldfoot to service the trucks that run from Fairbanks to the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. A four-hundred-mile trip.
The diner and tire shop are right on the ice road, about two hundred miles along the Dalton Highway. From October through March this road is completely covered in ice, solid blocks of ice. The trucks have special tires, special chains and well trained drivers. It is very, very dangerous to drive on in the winter but in the summer, it is gravel.
Coldfoot is where I lived and worked for about nine months. I became their first female tire mechanic. I got the job because I had a lot of farming and mechanical experience, working on and driving tractors and heavy equipment. I had originally applied for a job being waitress in the diner but when they interviewed me they said, “We actually have a different job in mind for you, we want you to our first ever female tire mechanic, a maintenance technician.”
I said, “What does a maintenance technician do?” They said, “Well, when the truck drivers come through and they need a tire change on their big eighteen-wheeler rig, you would be the one to change the tire. You also will drive the equipment around the compound, take care of the garbage, lawns and outdoor maintence.
I was like, “Sweet, this sounds like an outdoor job and I don’t want to be a waitress.” I would have done just about anything to get me up there. I lived in a three-season tent. It was like a canvas army tent with a wooden platform and inside there was a cot. I lived there from May through early November and I left right before Thanksgiving. It was cold by then
So, I became the first female tire mechanic and I have these pictures of me where you can barely see my head next to the truck. There is this huge truck and I have these jacks and I have jacked up the truck and I am under it and it is all full of oil and it is so heavy. I am under there thinking, “Wow, I am really glad my mom can’t see me right now. She would have a heart attack!”
I was able to spend all my free time out in the wilderness. I quickly found a hiking buddy named Sarah. You have to have a hiking buddy because up in the wilderness there is no one anywhere, no one will hear your call, scream, nothing. You are completely one hundred percent dependent on yourself when you go out there. It is just smart, if someone gets hurt or lost that other person can go for help. You just need some other person there to help you navigate the wilderness.
There are no hiking trails so the only way you can hike is to buy a topographical map of a region you want to hike in. This map is an up close, detailed map of the rivers, the elevation changes, the names of the different mountains, rock faces. A lot of the gold mines are on the map and it is the only way to get around. There is one road which runs through the mountain range and as soon as you get off that road you need this map to bushwhack your way through and figure out where you want to go. Hiking was however you wanted it to be, you just stepped off the road and it was wide open.
My hiking buddy and I hiked up a mountain which took us three days to reach the top. We each liked to be alone so we were perfect hiking buddies. At the top of the mountain we immediately dispersed to different parts of the mountain top to take it all in by ourselves.
Once there I was standing in the clouds and I could see these incredible expanses of clouds and past that were mountain ranges and past that there were more mountain ranges and past that there was sky and then there was nothing. No human made form, no human made sound, no human made anything. It was just me and my friend Sarah, the sky, the clouds, the mountains.
This wide-open wilderness was the most amazing part and it has stayed with me from the moment I experienced it and it stays with me daily. There is just this incredible feeling of insignificance. Really you are so small and so tiny, just a tiny breath of wind which is so fleeting in this vast, vast landscape that runs and works in its own tunes and rhythm. You realize that you have no purpose there other than to watch and see and observe. If you were to get snuffed out just like that, the wildness would just keep on going and no one would know the difference. It was a really incredible feeling to feel so small.
It sounds like a depressing thought but it isn’t at all. It is an exhilarating and a freeing feeling to not have to be important or have to do something important in your life. Instead, to make my life meaningful and important to me is enough. I felt so swallowed up by creation, I felt like I touched God.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.