Just Passing Through
One of our big van expeditions during our first year in Alaska was driving the famous Dalton Highway to reach Dead Horse. This highway is mainly used by truckers driving supplies back and forth, maintenance workers caring for the massive pipeline, and the occasional tourist wanting to say they’ve driven that far north. We drove on this long highway in September, which is the beginning of winter for the frozen tundra.
Although I have plenty to write about for this trip, I want to tell you about one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. And if you live in Alaska, you experience A LOT of weirdness when you travel… But this one definitely takes the cake.
As I mentioned before, September was the beginning of winter out north so it was definitely cold. Our plan was to stop in the tiny town of Coldfoot for food and gas before pulling off the road to sleep for the night. It was dusk and the sun was quickly disappearing, which is why we were surprised to see lights up ahead at milepost 118.
We noticed a car parked in the middle of the road with its hazards on. Two semi trucks parked next to it on the other side of the road, so we pulled over to see what we could do to help. Luckily Alaskans ALWAYS pull over to help since the harsh environment can be life-threatening in the winter. Especially out in the middle of nowhere.
A friendly man stepped out of the truck and told us that he had pulled over to see why the car was stopped in the middle of the road. To his surprise, he found a woman wandering around in grass field nearby wearing only thin flip-flops, jeans, and a blouse. By the time he made it to her and helped guide her back to the truck, another trucker had pulled up behind him. Both men said that when they helped her into the truck she was shivering uncontrollably and had purple-tinted skin.
Now in a normal city with police officers and buildings nearby, a situation like this could be handled effortlessly. However, Kevin and I were the only people around for miles and both truckers needed to get back on the road ASAP to stay on schedule. We immediately knew that we needed to drive her to the nearest town of Coldfoot, which was still about 80 miles away. As if reading our minds, the trucker opened the truck’s door and smiled. “Alright, ma’am, these fine people are going to drive you to the nearest pump station. Okay?”
Silence. She seemed dazed and confused by his words. After a minute she nodded and scooted towards us.
We watched uncomfortably as she attempted to climb down the truck’s built-in steps. Her movements seemed unnaturally difficult, as if she’d never climbed in and out of a car before. Her grip on the side bar changed constantly like she didn’t quite know how to grab onto things and she went back and forth on her decision to either step down facing the truck or us.
When she finally figured out how to hold onto the bar properly and climb down while facing the truck, she didn’t know what to do with her feet. She’d first try to touch the step lightly with one foot and then quickly pull back and try it again with the other foot. This happened multiple times before she suddenly changed her mind about her direction and tried to face us again. At this point the trucker tried to help guide her down, but she didn’t respond to anything he said. When she finally made it down, she simply stared at us with blank eyes.
“This is Kevin and Kayla. They’re going to help you,” he said.
“I’m Kaye,” she whispered.
We shook hands and hello. As I led her to the van, the trucker pulled Kevin aside quietly.
“Hey, so that's the first time I've gotten her name. I asked her about four times before but she didn't say anything. I used to be an EMT so when I found her I thought she might be high. Now I think she's hypothermic. There's a pump station about 10 miles up. You can bring her there to get medical attention. It’s right after Gobblers Knob, you can't miss it.”
Kevin thanked him and headed back to the van. Meanwhile, I warned Kaye about Zuko’s loving nature and that he might try to lick her. I helped her climb into the van, wrapped her in a sleeping bag, and gave her a water bottle. She didn’t respond to me the entire time.
After five minutes of driving with our music playing quietly in the background, I decided to try to get her to talk.
“So… where are you from?” I asked.
“What brings you out here?”
“It’s a long story…” she murmured. She stared out the window absentmindedly, obviously not wanting to continue the conversation.
A few more minutes passed and we made it to the Gobbler’s Knob Viewpoint. Kevin asked if she needed to pee and she nodded, so we all got out of the van. While Zuko wandered around, Kevin and I waited for Kaye to finish up in the bathroom. What felt like five minutes passed so I walked up to the door to knock, but then I backed away because I heard gagging noises. Another five minutes passed before she finally emerged and we all piled back into the van.
We spent another 10 minutes in silence until we reached the pump station. Kevin and I couldn’t have been more relieved because our strange guest not only didn’t speak but also seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness. Plus she smelled like a dumpster.
The large pump station was protected by a high fence and lit up brightly. We parked outside the gate and stepped out of the van to see if anyone was in the office. Unfortunately no one was inside working. Probably because it was 11PM. We drove around the facility for a few minutes in search of another office but with no luck. Before giving up completely, we tried to honk our horn in the small chance that the noise would wake someone up. But our new van gave us a surprise… the horn didn’t work.
At this point we felt at a loss for what to do. The weird passenger in our car kept mumbling inaudibly and didn’t seem to know what was going on. We were still roughly 45 miles away from Coldfoot and felt uneasy with the thought of driving her all the way there. We were also concerned that she might need medical attention sooner rather than later. But with no answer from the pump station we decided to move on.
After driving a couple more miles, we spotted a maintenance building with its lights on. The sight felt like a miracle! On the slim chance someone might be awake, we drove up and knocked on the door.
A shirtless man answered after a few minutes. He looked extremely confused that two random travelers were knocking at 11:45PM. We told him about finding the car, Kaye’s strange behavior, and the possibility that she needed medical attention.
“Bring ‘er in,” he said. He ushered us inside and threw on a shirt.
Kevin and I happily ran back to the van to get her off our hands. She struggled getting out of the van’s seat, let alone attempting to step down to the ground. She also treated the steps to the building like climbing a mountain, so I offered to help. She only mumbled a response about being heavy.
When we finally got her inside, we guided her to a nearby couch while the man grabbed her a blanket. After she wrapped herself up the man asked where she was headed. “Just passing through…” she murmured.
His facial expression changed from confused to shocked and then suspicious, all within seconds. “On the Dalton?” he said incredulously. She nodded as if her response was perfectly normal, which made him shake his head in disbelief. “I can get you some gas, but I don't know if you should be driving...”
When he trailed off, we noticed that Kaye had started to tip to the side slightly in the chair. The guy shook his head again and got on the phone to call the EMTs from the pump station. We said our goodbyes quickly and headed back on the road.
I’m still not sure what happened to that woman to make her want to drive all the way out to the Dalton Highway. Was she trying to visit Dead Horse? Did she make a wrong turn? Did she confuse the Dalton with a different highway? I guess we'll never know.
Honestly I’m just happy she wasn’t a serial killer.