The first thing to know about Barrow, Alaska, the airport is named after a plane crash. In 1935, American comedian Will Rogers and aviator Wiley Post’s plane nosedived into a river outside the city. Both men are dead. Flying is still the only way to access Barrow. Rogers might have found that funny.
This story originally appeared in Volume 10 of Road & Track.
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I land at Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport to find my phone bricked. Zero bars. COVID protocols have discontinued the hotel shuttle. Appalled, I pull one pair of insulated gloves into another, zip my down jacket up to my throat, and set off to hail a ride.
Outside, late-model pickup trucks idle, unattended. A Honda CR-V sits 50 yards upwind, “Polar Cab” on its doors. I gasp against the cold and rush. This is where I meet Sidthisak Kaybounthome, pizza delivery man from the Arctic Outpost.
“Kyle? I was looking for you!” he says. “Call me Sid. Easier to pronounce for you.
He smiles. Finding Sid feels like a small miracle in a miraculous city. Utqiagvik is the town’s native name and, as of 2016, the official name, but everyone I meet still calls it Barrow. One of the most remote settlements on the planet, it is 3,000 miles north of Los Angeles, closer to Tokyo than Washington, D.C.
There are mind-boggling obstacles to pizza delivery here. Temperatures hover at 15 below in January. Ice covers all surfaces – roads, stop signs, power lines – as if a celestial shaper had had fun with flocking. There are no paved roads, only gravel piled on the permafrost. The sun does not rise above the horizon for two months in a row.
Then there are the polar bears. “Sometimes I have to go around them,” Sid said, his face impassive.
We stop at the east coast take-out pizzeria, wrap several pies in heat bags, then head out into the arctic cold. Our first stop is a makeshift box of a building with portholes for the windows, painted white with sleet.
“You also have to be careful of the dogs. They are worse than bears,” remarks Sid. Dogs? “Yes. If I don’t call ahead, sometimes they forget to bring the dogs. They attack you.
Sid crawls around in a heavy down jacket, snow pants, and boots, but no gloves. He waits an excruciating 60 seconds before the door opens just enough to receive a box of pizza.
In addition to pizzas, Sid shuttles travelers and carries groceries. Each trip costs $6. More than a dozen drivers are the lifeblood of the city. During the winter, just warming up your car can be a lot more expensive (and colder) than paying for delivery.
Robert Terzioski of A&D Automotive says every vehicle in Barrow needs a heavy-duty winterizer: two block heaters, a new battery every year. An A&D technician demonstrates how they braze power steering fittings to prevent breakage in cold weather. Ignition keys are prized here; push-button starters have proven to be fragile in the cold.
Garage labor costs about $160 an hour in town, and there is a huge backlog. A&D seems to have around 100 cars lined up, with the queue growing every day. Sid’s friend, a fellow traveler, waited three months for a store to take back his car.
So people stay holed up inside and let the delivery drivers drive. Rather than compete, Sid and his colleagues form a network, organized on shortwave radios that scream like a chorus of jungle birds. A mix of Thai and Lao pours in with a few English idioms sprinkled in: “Polar Cab 7456”, then a string of Thai, followed by a round of laughter. A “10-4” or a crisp “Roger that”, and Sid moves on to the next delivery. There is no dispatcher – that duty falls to anyone who is not delivering pizza or anyone at the moment. Sid admits there isn’t much logic to it; you just fall into a rhythm with a dozen other riders or you can’t hack it. It smells of jazz.
Sid never slows down that night, but I take a break to meet Suphamat Yeesaeng, known as “Bunn”, owner of East Coast Pizzeria. (There’s a second pizzeria in this town of just over 4,000 people, proof that capitalism has its own antifreeze.)
Bunn immigrated to the United States from Thailand, started a business importing Southeast Asian specialty foods, and then owned a salon in Anchorage. COVID shut it down, so a friend helped her find work in Barrow. When East Coast owner, the enigmatic Mario Reyes, died of complications from COVID last October, Bunn took over the pizzeria.
I ask her what she learned about Barrow after living here for six months in difficult times. “People are grateful for everything here. They understand if you don’t have all the ingredients because all products have to be flown in. Or if the pizza isn’t hot. They are just grateful to have food,” she says.
“Also, never turn off your car, even if you’re filling up with gas,” she laughs. “You see cars idling everywhere, all day. Never turn them off.
The next sunless morning, I sit in the lobby of the Top of the World hotel, waiting for Sid to take me to the airport. A cast of local characters step in, stomp their boots, and spark conversations. An exuberant young man, chest swollen with exertion, explains that they constantly push snow away from stop signs, by hand, daily. Sisyphus groaned at the thought. The young man disappears into the cold, smiling. Back to work.
A woman enters, a beautiful beige parka draped over her shoulders. She points to the wolf and wolverine furs that line her hood and explains the coat’s embroidery, an interwoven design that identifies and celebrates her family’s Indigenous heritage. His mother sewed it by hand.
Every person I meet has a triumph to share, a fragment of this place that makes them smile. The city breeds its own insects to process organic waste; the tap water is some of the best in the United States; there is a resident writer who survived the Holocaust and thrives here in the cold. A thousand more.
This trip was designed as a chuckle: even in one of the darkest and most inhospitable places on earth, people are delivering pizza. We’ll send Kinard north to shiver his pebbles. But I came away with a story of human resilience in a place where opportunity lures some and heritage proudly roots others. Every minute in Barrow shattered an idea I had of the Arctic and the people who live there. Above all, I learned that what it takes to survive a night in Barrow is kindness, not harshness. A few hot pizzas don’t hurt either.