View from Out West: Mobility mortality — Vehicles stop’n’no go off the road system in Alaska

Photos courtesy of Clark Fair. Vehicles shipped into rural communities off the road system in Alaska don’t often make it back out, like these cars interred in Dillingham.

Photos courtesy of Clark Fair. Vehicles shipped into rural communities off the road system in Alaska don’t often make it back out, like these cars interred in Dillingham.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

Mainly because of remoteness and expense, Dillingham is a place where vehicles come to die.

One local mechanic, noting the high cost of purchasing a vehicle and barging or flying it into town, recently estimated that fewer than 5 percent of the cars and trucks that arrive here ever leave.

The rest remain, apparently forever, some of them on life support, others in scattered, unmarked graves.

Some of these vehicles — when their drivers tire of them or desire more dependable rides—are sold, often at whatever exorbitant cost the market can bear — by word of mouth, grocery store bulletin-board flyers, or via the Dillingham Trading Post, and then are resold — and resold and resold. Like zombies of the automotive world, they rise repeatedly from the dead, their sometimes battered, rusting hulks latching onto new hosts, who attempt to squeeze out of them the last vestiges of energy and motion.

cf junker cars that saltwater's a bitch 1aOther elapsed vehicles can be found lying where they perished, their engines sputtering final, convulsive, asthmatic breaths, their wheels spinning just long enough to reach a convenient ditch.

And still others are abandoned in front yards or backyards all along the meager local road system. Some of these yards, with cemetery precision, are lined with the fallen — cars and trucks and vans — and usually boats and shipping containers — as if the owners were scrap dealers laying out their wares for public display.

In these yards, over multiple hard winters, vehicles unite with environment. Old rubber tires fracture and release air until the steel wheels draw earthward and sink inexorably into the soil. Lichens attach themselves to undercarriages and make an unhurried but deliberate migration onto body panels, doors and fenders. The elemental quartet of sun and wind and rain and frost fade and discolor, then blister and peel paint from hoods and roofs, allowing the greater incursion of rust.

Vandals smash out windows and headlights. Leaves and other windblown debris plummet into interiors, and moss grows in sagging upholstery eager to release its springs. In these crumbling environs, nimble spiders roam. Wasps build gray paper nests. Beetles burrow. Small birds flitter by for stray seeds or an occasional bug.

cf junker cars Love Your Mother 2Saplings spiral through openings to seek the sky. Grass and fireweed, willows and alders, envelop vehicles in tangled, clumsy embraces.

A few of these vehicles are hauled to distant gravel pits, such as the first turnout on Snake Lake Road, where they become the objects of target practice, side panels riddled with bullet holes a la “The Godfather” or “Bonnie and Clyde.” (In Soldotna or Kenai area gravel pits, such vehicles occasionally fall victim to powerful homemade explosives — Molotov cocktails, for instance, or a plastic milk jug sloshing with gasoline, hurled into a smoldering auto interior. It’s not uncommon to spy vehicular skeletons, charred by flames, cheered by revelers.)

The problem so many vehicle owners face in Dillingham — besides the difficulty and expense involved in maintenance and replacement parts — is the high cost of proper disposal. Residents here pay thousands of dollars to barge or air-freight cars and trucks into Dillingham. For many, then, it makes more sense to sell or give them away, to abandon them or simply drive them into the trees behind their houses, rather than fork over thousands more to send them somewhere they can be disposed of properly. As a consequence, the city dump is laden with vehicles in mangled, disorderly piles, crumbling rust and leaking fluids — as unrecyclable in Bristol Bay as the large appliances and piles of scrap metal with which they are entombed.

cf junker cars tidal casulty 5And I believe that this “car-tastrophe” is just as dire in other remote Alaska communities, especially in those with enough roads to warrant large modes of transportation. It costs so much to deliver cars and trucks to such destinations in the first place that it makes more economic — albeit not environmental — sense to simply pile them somewhere and allow nature to take its course.

On the other hand, it must be said that many vehicles in Southwest Alaska — snowmachines and four-wheelers included — live very full lives before toppling into the grave. Arctic Cats and Ski-Dos from the early 1990s are given a spit shine and a tuneup before being decked out with For Sale signs. Dented ’80s-era pickups — rear windows constructed of Visqueen and duct tape, engine hoses held in place with baling wire, beds still encrusted with years of firewood detritus — occasionally appear as online “bargains,” to be snapped up by area newbies or by desperate locals hoping to avoid purchasing anything off a showroom floor.

cf junker cars simple elegance 1The sheer volume of old vehicles here also creates a spare parts market. Junk to an Anchorage resident may be treasure to a Dillinghammer. Need a carburetor for a ’73 Volkswagen van? No problem, if you know the right people and are willing to pay the price. Like crypt robbers of the past, sextons of the automobile graveyards will wander with spades and lanterns drawn in search of the part necessary to keep your transportation in motion for at least another day.

cf junker cars tidal casulty 1That said, a massive cleanup of our deceased vehicles would be great, at least along the coastlines, where a tugboat could guide an immense scow into ports of call so it could be loaded, via giant cranes, with heaps of jumbled relics and barged to Seattle for recycling.

Our old rides could take one last ride, supplying some Washington State entrepreneur with scrap metal and hundreds of Dillinghammers with more room for another generation or two of clunkers.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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