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It's the left rear tire—a heavily treaded, 10-inch-wide Goodyear Tracker AT, fine off-the-road rubber for our Ford Bronco, but a sucker for this highway's sharp teeth. The gaps in the tread are wide enough to allow the bigger pieces of shale in. We pull over on a wide spot in the road. There are not very many of these, the road being, for the most part, shoulderless, having been built up six feet on a steep berm above the surrounding tundra.
As Marco and I change the tire we notice a plume of dust rising fast on the hilly horizon. It's a tanker truck, at speed. "Let's get this bastard lugged down!" The wrench spins like an airplane propeller, and we take off just as the truck tops the ridge behind us, the driver not backing off a bit, though we can see him looking at us through the flash of his windscreen. We pour down through a chain of sweeping esses into a valley drained by the Blackstone River, and as we climb up the far side the truck falls far behind. We begin to relax and settle back into the steady, sub-40 pace. I notice that one of my knuckles is red and black—a nick from a tire lug. We top a gentle rise, and on the left as we start down a straightaway, we see a small car lying on its back in the tundra, its front wheels still turning, catching the light. A pretty blonde young woman stands beside the car, her blue eyes wide with shock, her mouth limp. A tall man is moving behind the car, a yellow Fiat 128. "We're all right," says the woman in a monotone as I stop the truck. "It just happened."
The car reeks of gasoline; the pale fluid is still gushing down into the overturned body of the Fiat, and we help the young couple drag their gear out of harm's way, first making sure that the ignition switch is off. Boxes of food, sleeping bags, a tent, air mattresses, bottled water, warm beer, fishing tackle—we stack it all at the road's edge. Blackflies swarm around us in a nipping cloud, buzzing our eyes, our ears, our noses. Marco points to the raw black groove in the tundra cut by the couple's car as it did its half-somersault off the road; the moss and lichen are peeled back as neatly as the skin on my knuckle was when I hit the tire lug.
"Blackfly like fresh dirt," he says. "Maybe they come to the cool."
By now two other cars have stopped, and together with their occupants, we push the litle Fiat back onto its wheels. At least the gasoline has stopped flowing. I hear the guttural roar of the tanker truck coming up on us and run back up on the rise to flag it down. Maybe the crew can radio for help.
"Sorry, pal," says the truck driver once he has stopped. "We're in a blind spot here—no radio contact until we get to Mile 90, up the road a piece. Anyway, it would cost them $400 to get towed out of here."
We check out the car's engine and it seems to be undamaged, although the top of the car is six inches lower than it was a few minutes ago and the windshield has popped out and shattered.
The blonde woman's name is Karin Runge. She and her companion, Hans Peter Boehme, are visitors from Germany. They have driven the Fiat all the way from Vancouver—2,770 miles—without incident. "And now this happens," says Karin dully. "The car is ganz kaput." She was driving when it happened. The left front tire blew; the car lurched to the left, carrying the left side of the front end over the steep berm. Leverage did the rest, as neatly as a judo master.
"Just wait until the gas dries out," the truck driver says. "You've got food and water and it's a nice day. If you can't get her started, I'll be back through this evening and give you a lift back to Dawson." In the North, people take care of one another. If you see anyone stopped on a road, you stop and ask if they are all right. It works both ways.
From the accident scene the road begins a slow, steady climb into the Ogilvies, a beautifully engineered stretch that rises only 30 feet to the mile and needs no switchbacks. The mountains, small by Western standards—only 4,000 feet at their tallest—begin to shoulder in. It's dry, wind-sculpted sheep country with eerie erosion pillars called hoodoos sprouting from the mountainsides. We stop to pick some low-bush cranberries and blueberries and take a beer break. Looking up at one ridge ragged with hoodoos, Marco says, "Like a ruined castle." It would come as no great surprise to see a mail-clad monster rise from behind the shattered towers.