FAIRBANKS — There was the time when his tractor-trailer started sliding down the Dalton Highway after going over 4,643-foot Atigun Pass, the steepest hill on the road system in Alaska.
“As soon as I came around a corner there was a (plow) coming up the hill throwing snow everywhere,” Taylor said. “I hit that snow and had no more traction.”
The wheels locked up and the truck — with a trailer attached — started sliding down the steep hill. Taylor managed to ride it out and keep his Kenworth on the road by “just staying busy and trying to keep her straight.”
There was the time last fall when a grizzly bear came charging out onto the road in front of his truck just past the Jim River.
“I slammed on my brakes and he disappeared,” Taylor said. “I didn’t know if I had him pinned under the bumper or what. I didn’t feel (the truck) hit anything so I just sat there and waited. I was scared to get out of the truck.
“Finally I saw him running up the road and I knew it was OK,” Taylor said.
Just last week, it took Taylor and another driver working together five hours to make it the last 60 miles to Prudhoe Bay in a blizzard.
Such is life for a Dalton Highway trucker, but Taylor is no ordinary Dalton Highway trucker.
Taylor, 64, recently passed the 3 million mile mark without an accident as a driver for Carlile Transportation Systems in Fairbanks. That equates to an average of approximately 130,500 miles or 130 trips to Prudhoe Bay and back each year for the past 23 years.
“It’s an absolutely amazing accomplishment to make it 3 million miles up and down that road without an accident,” said Lane Keator, terminal manager for Carlile in Fairbanks.
The 414-mile Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road, is one of the roughest, most-remote roads in the world, following the trans-Alaska oil pipeline through the Brooks Range to Prudhoe Bay.
Racking up 3 million miles without an accident is no big deal to Taylor, who isn’t one to make a big deal about anything. Taylor said he’s just doing his job.
“I know one guy who drives for Lynden (Transport) who is over 4 million miles (without an accident). He’s been driving up there for over 35 years,” Taylor said last week as he prepped his Kenworth 900 for a trip to Prudhoe Bay.
“I just take my time,” he said. “If I get tired, I pull over and sleep. I don’t try to push it.”
Taylor is a military transplant in Alaska. He came up with the U.S. Air Force in 1964 and never left. After getting out of the Air Force, Taylor spent 14 years loading cargo for Wien Air Alaska before the airline closed in 1985.
Taylor, who had a commercial driver’s license, was sitting at home watching soap operas with his wife, Phyllis, when he noticed an ad for truck drivers at Carlile in 1987. He’s been with the company since.
Taylor likes the autonomy that comes with driving a truck up and down the Haul Road.
“It’s about the closest you can get to working for yourself,” he said. “You don’t have people looking over your shoulder all the time.
“I leave here today and I’m expected to be in Prudhoe Bay tomorrow sometime,” Taylor said.
Taylor makes two or three round trips to Prudhoe Bay each week. Each trip is 1,000 miles and takes approximately 34 hours — 12 hours driving each way and another 10 hours of rest time, which is required by law. A satellite beacon on top of Taylor’s truck tracks his movements.
Taylor racked up the 3 million miles in six different Kenworth tractors, the latest of which is a 2005 Kenworth W900 with almost 600,000 miles on it.
“It’s getting old and tired,” Taylor said.
Blizzards are the worst hazard truckers have to deal with on the Haul Road, Taylor said. If it’s snowing and blowing, it’s hard to see the edges of the road, even with the help of reflective delineators placed every 75 feet on the worst sections of road. Taylor uses yellow-tinted glasses to help him see the road.
“They cut the snow’s glare,” he said.
Sometimes the visibility is so bad Taylor has to stop and wait for storms to pass.
“I’ve sat for two days at a time in pullouts,” Taylor said of waiting out storms. “When it gets like that, you try to get together with some other guys.”
But Taylor prefers to travel solo when possible.
“When you travel in groups you sometimes pick the speed up more than you should,” he said. “You end up talking back and forth, not watching what you’re doing.”
Taylor also makes a point of leaving Fairbanks later in the afternoon, around 3-4 p.m., because most south-bound trucks are closer to Fairbanks then, which means less traffic the further north he goes.
Taylor “is a guy who really cares about what he’s doing and takes every precaution,” Keator said. “He’s a guy who will come in and put his coveralls on and make sure everything is tied down on the trailer and pop the hood on his truck even though the mechanics said it’s good to go.”
Last Thursday, for example, Taylor noticed a leaking oil hose as he was preparing for a trip north.
“He keeps himself out of bad situations,” Keator said. “Even though it’s a little thing like that in the yard, it can turn into a big thing 200 miles up the road, especially if it’s 20 or 30 below.”
The prettiest — and scariest — section of road for Taylor is from Coldfoot, at Mile 175, to Pump Station 4, at Mile 269, which takes truckers through treacherous Atigun Pass at 244 Mile.
“It’s beautiful country,” Taylor said.
Driving up and down the Dalton Highway never gets boring, even when you’re doing it 130 times per year, he said.
“There’s always something different to see,” said Taylor, who regularly sees grizzly bears, black bears, moose, caribou and wolves.
The Dalton Highway is a better road now than it was 10 or 20 years ago, Taylor said. The state Department of Transportation has chip sealed much of the road since it was opened to the public in 1994, he said.
“There used to be rocks like this sticking out of the road,” Taylor said, holding his hands apart in the size of a softball. “The last five years they’ve done a lot of work on the road.”