Alaska's haul road

| November 01, 2006

“Look at that thing,” he scoffs when spotting a pickup with three gasoline containers strapped to the roof. “We call that a Molotov Cocktail. When they go off the road, boom! Just like in the movies.”

Among the few signs on the Haul Road are the new Scenic Byway signs, which show a blooming fireweed.

The plants not only dot the roadsides, but they thrive in large swaths recovering from Alaska’s many wildfires. In the distance, they add purple shades to the mountains’ green quilt. Up close, they cluster in thick patches of stunning pink, punctuated by thin burnt spruce trunks that look like giant thorns.

Spears repeatedly says the state should instead spend money on signs warning of curves, grades and other dangers. Or putting in many more reflectors to mark the road edges that often disappear in snow drifts or snow storms, leaving drivers an undefined field of white to navigate.

“Signs with a picture of a flower on it – come on!” Spears says. “This isn’t California.”

Roundish, talkative and gray-bearded, Spears wouldn’t have much of a stretch to pass for a kindred jolly old soul who lives at the North Pole. (Not to be confused with North Pole, Alaska, a touristy, Santa-drenched town 13 miles from Fairbanks.)

With no vision of trading his current job for hauling toys on a reindeer sled, Spears hopes to retire in a few years and return to his family’s 325-acre farm in Illinois.

“I came to the state in ’74 and started driving in ’79,” says Spears, 56, a Marine veteran of Vietnam. He’s chowing down on a big breakfast at the Hilltop Truckstop, between Fairbanks and the Haul Road. “I drove a company truck ’til 1983, when I bought my first truck. Wrecked it in ’92.”

Taking his 1979 Kenworth on the Haul Road, which was even more punishing back then, was quickly wearing it out. Not to mention the wear due to fellow truckers’ interest in the artwork inside the hood of three sexy women.

“I think I wore out a set of hood hinges,” Spears says. “It was a hot set-up.”

When a fellow trucker helps you out of a jam – pulling you back onto the road, for example – Haul Road etiquette dictates more than a slap on the back. One response is to buy a $20 meal credit in the name of your guardian angel next time you stop at the Hilltop, and post the ticket by others on the wall.

Hilltop waitress Susie Brooks knows the drivers’ names and how to make them smile. One April Fools’ Day she put toilet lid seats on the chairs at the long drivers’ table and bedpans at each place setting. Some days she leaves a plate of cookies she’s baked.

This morning, there’s another surprise: Carlile driver Barry Walker’s pancake order arrives not as a stack on a plate, but as one pancake covering the serving tray.

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