The Deadhorse Hotel is little more than a 1970s trailer park surrounded by Alaskan permafrost and gas companies hellbent on drilling through it. There’s only one road into town, the Dalton Highway, a 400-mile stretch of the most dangerous pavement in America. By the time travelers like Roy and I get off the tour bus and arrive at the Deadhorse Hotel, we’re ready for some rest, some relaxation, some goddamned privacy.
Roy deposits our bags on a luggage rack that looks older than the trailer we’re in. He palms one of the impossibly small cots lined with paisley bed sheets. It’s rubbery, stiff.
The place screams prehistoric warship cabin with a hint of mothballs.
“Hungry?” Roy asks.
“Starved,” I say.
We find our way to the cafeteria through a maze of double-wides clicked together like Lincoln logs. There’s not much to choose from. I grab an egg salad sandwich in Saran wrap that smells like something that was in the mail for too long, and say a prayer that the toilet in our room works just fine, and then, goddamnit, I remember that the bathrooms here are communal. Roy joins me at a table with some sad, wilty salad, what I’m guessing is the greenest food he could find.
“Why the hell don’t they have aojiru green juice? Or at least some kombucha? Something I can digest.”
“Don’t they give a damn about my gut health?”
“I’m sure the people of the North Slope care very much—”
“I’ll starve up here!”
The family at the table next to us raises their brows at Roy’s semantics. I recognize them from the tour bus. One of those minted families that got off their ten-day Alaskan cruise and thought, what the hell, why not go see some oil-rigged place with a funny name like Deadhorse while we’re up here anyway. While we’re only 400 miles away.
I flash the family an empathetic smile. Best I can manage.
“Roy,” I whisper. “People are staring.”
There’s a yellowed paper sign over a door that says ‘more seating outside’ with an arrow. I yank Roy and we move dinner outside to a plastic bistro table.
It’s summer in Deadhorse, Alaska, so it’s a manageable temperature, forty degrees fahrenheit. For three months, the sun doesn’t set on Exxon-Mobil and Chevron and all the men and women who drill for oil. You can smell sulfur from the rigs, desperation from the men and women who work them. It’s a dry town, the tour guide on the bus had said, no families, not much life. Just the neverending wheel of oil and tourists and oil that brings more tourists.
“What do you think it’s like to work here?” I ask Roy.
“Hard,” he says.
“The tour guide says they have TVs with every streaming service. Even a movie theatre in one of the trailers.”
“The guide also said when it’s winter, you gotta have your car hooked up to a power strip so it doesn’t turn off. The engine’ll freeze if you do.”
“Let’s go home.”
“We gotta see him.”
“I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Roy, listen to me, damnit. You are going to finish that salad. You are going to consume every last goddamned tomato as if it’s arbory green juice—”
“Aojiru,” Roy mutters.
“Aojiru. Fine. Whatever. And then we will go to bed and wake up in the morning and hope to God this place has coffee. We are going to see him, just like we promised.”
The next morning, after managing sleep in the grandmotherly hell that is our room, waking up too early because the lacy grommet curtains don’t do a damn thing about the twenty-four hours of daylight they get up here in June, we rejoice when we discover that the Deadhorse Hotel does indeed have coffee. Filtered as hell and not black enough for my liking, but coffee nonetheless.
The other tourist families are back in the cafeteria, chin-deep in box mix waffles and prepackaged muffins that I’m guessing came in on a supply truck a week ago. They’re probably getting ready for their tour of the oil rigs today, to end with a stop at the Arctic Ocean so they can stick their finger in the below-freezing water and yell, “look at me, I’ve been in the northernmost ocean, honey take my picture for Facebook, wait, let’s get a family picture, oh miss can you take one please.”
Roy traces the rim of a styrofoam cup of orange juice that definitely has more sugar in it than he’s had in the last five years. I sip my coffee. It goes down sour, biting.
The cafeteria empties out and we follow the other tourists outside, to the little town of Deadhorse that’s no more than a cluster of double-wides on a gravel lot. The last tree is hundreds of miles away; not much can grow up here. The Deadhorse Hotel put out a couple of fake plants and there’s even a tree-shaped wooden cutout propped up a mile down the road that says ‘Deadhorse National Forest’, but this place isn’t built for life. Even if BP and Shell try their damndest to.
The tour bus picks up all the fanny-packed families and then it’s just Roy and me, hand in hand outside the Deadhorse Hotel.
“Thanks for being here,” Roy says.
“Anything for you.”
“Even two days stuck in a bus of nosy tourists? Even my bitching about how there’s no green juice north of the Arctic Circle?”
“I’m still here, aren’t I?” I squeeze his fingers in mine.
A Ford F450 rolls towards Deadhorse from the rigging sites, a quarter of a mile away and coming closer.
“Think that’s him?” I ask.
Roy nods. “It’s him.”
The Ford comes to a stop in front of the Deadhorse Hotel. The driver keeps it running even after shifting it into park. Habit, probably, from the frigid winters.
The driver opens the car door and I think he’s going to say, “Roy, is that really you, I can’t believe it, it’s been five years, I know the divorce was messy, but God, I miss you, son.”
They have the same floppy ears, the same brown-orange stubble. The same smile that’s taller than it is wide. It’s painfully obvious they’re family.
“Roy,” the driver says, taking off his Exxon baseball cap.
“Dad,” Roy says, and runs to his father’s arms.
Kristen Chapman lives in the woods outside Philadelphia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in adoxography, makarelle, and five minute lit. Find her on twitter @kristentyping.