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  • The afternoon started with a flight from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, one of the world's great truck stops. It's 175 miles north of Fairbanks and, for truckers and other oil workers heading to Prudhoe Bay at the end of the Dalton Highway, the last place to stop for gas, rest or, perhaps, gossip.
  • The day trip I had signed on for used Coldfoot as the turnaround. Fly up. Drive back down the Dalton Highway. The flight took an hour. When we flew over the Arctic Circle, the pilot showed us the coordinates on the instrument panel.

    The way back to Fairbanks would take more time. Speed is not an option on the Dalton. After landing in Coldfoot, we shot photos, used the restrooms, and bought some coffee. (Terrible coffee but, really, stopping at a truck stop without buying coffee just isn't right.) Then, Aaron, our guide, herded us all into a beige van. It was time to start the drive down the Dalton Highway. It would take 10 or 11 hours , eight of them driving, and there were places to stop: the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center; the Arctic Circle sign; the Yukon River; a section of the Trans Alaska Pipeline; and Joy, Alaska's Trading Post.

    Before we drove off, he started hinting that a little something special would happen at the Arctic Circle sign, 60 miles south.
  • A short time into the drive, two of the couples made it clear that they were going to dominate the conversation--and it was going to be a very long boring conversation. The rest of us shut down. They dropped into talking about their kids, grandkids, problems with their houses, daily this and that. A lot of it was very "my son the doctor!" The van started to feel very small. I looked out the window, shot photos, and tried to keep from falling off my perch at the end of the bench seat. I travel by myself all the time, happy to sit in my own thoughts or, really, talk to just about anybody. But there was no doing either. The conversation overwhelmed the van.

    Aaron did his best to throw in commentary about the highway, about the day's plan, about his mysterious plan for our Arctic Circle visit but...if he stopped for a second, the Louds would reclaim the space.

    A few hours later, we pulled into the Arctic Circle parking lot.

    We all stepped out of the van and looked at the sign.
  • Aaron opened the back of the van and unloaded a rolled up something or other and a musical instrument case. A minute later, he was ready. He unfurled a red carpet in front of the sign and assembled a slide trombone. Playing as exuberantly as the head of a high school marching band, Aaron serenaded each of us as we danced, tumbled, or, in fine Bangles style, walked like an Egyptian across the Arctic Circle.

    It sure gave the Louds something new to talk about for the rest of the day. Or, at least, a while.

    (All photos by Jenna Schnuer.)
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