Cars and trucks, such as they exist here, are simple and relatively few. That is my assessment after traveling through this gargantuan, rugged, beautiful state for two weeks.
This came as a surprise to me -- perhaps because I've been a captive of television commercials, the kind showing drivers of supposedly tough off-road pickups and sport-utility vehicles doing stupid things such as speeding along narrow mountain roads or conquering rocky terrain.
Maybe I've just been a sucker for the Lower 48 Attitude, the arrogant presupposition, prevalent on the U.S. mainland, that man is superior to nature and that some men are superior to everything and everyone. It is the kind of arrogance that led William Dickey, a gold-prospecting miner, in 1896 to ignore native custom and tradition and change the name of nearby Mount Denali to Mount McKinley in favor of the Republican presidential candidate that year.
McKinley won that race. As a result, Mount Denali officially lost the name given to it by Alaska's Athabascan Indians in spiritual praise of nature, as opposed to shambling worship of man. "Denali," in recognition of the highest peak in North America, means "The High One" or "The Great One."
Alaskan natives and longtime residents seem to know that they are only tiny, vulnerable parts of nature instead of almighty beings in control of it. Maybe that's why they tend to keep things simple in terms of cars and trucks -- basic, sturdy rides such as Chevrolet Silverado or Ford F-150 pickup trucks, often with four-wheel drive; or surprisingly simple front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive sedans such as Dodge Neon and Subaru Legacy models. They are what is needed to get from one point to another in a state only 30 percent served by roads -- many of them two-lane and single-lane asphalt strips, and others covered by gravel or made of dirt.
I was thinking about all of this in conjunction with this week's test vehicle, a decidedly silly 500-horsepower affair -- the 2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10 pickup truck. I drove the thing in the District of Columbia and environs, where it made no sense at all, it being equipped with an 8.3-liter Viper V-10 engine that propels its 5,000-pound body from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 5.2 seconds.
It reputedly is the fastest factory-made pickup truck to come to market; and I suppose that means something to somebody somewhere. But it seems more meaningless, more downright dumb in the shadows of Mount Denali than it did back home on the streets of the District and Northern Virginia, where the high-decibel roar of its big engine frightened fellow drivers and annoyed neighbors.
Up here, the Dodge Ram SRT-10 would be an outlaw, unwelcome in the Denali National Park and Preserve -- thus officially named as part of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, although "McKinley" remains the federally preferred name for the mountain.
Peace and quiet reign supreme in Denali. Loud, man-made noises frighten Dall ewes, grizzly bears and other wildlife. And anyone goofy enough to take a high-speed run around one of the park's many narrow, high-rise, guardrail-free roads in a Dodge Ram SRT-10, or anything else, is likely to wind up a tragic, albeit temporary part of the landscape.
Nature has a way of erasing man's follies, including one caused by a hard-to-handle, difficult-to-shift, too-fast two-door, two-passenger, six-speed manual pickup truck with a winged cargo bed (the rear wing having been attached to help reduce wind drag and improve handling at racetrack speeds) that primarily is designed to haul tail, egos and thrills.
Dodge Ram SRT-10 patrons argue that it is boneheaded to even think of that pickup as a serious or practical truck, and they are right about that. There is nothing practical, or environmentally or socially redeeming about it. In fairness, executives at DaimlerChrysler AG, parent company of the Chrysler Group and its Dodge division, make no pretense to the contrary.
The Dodge Ram SRT-10 pickup is a toy, an expensive, big-time getaway vehicle that is far more muscle car than it is truck. It's not built for people who want to contemplate the meaning of mountains. Nor is it made for those preparing to face the beauty and brutality of the harshest of winters. The Dodge Ram SRT-10 doesn't ask you to face anything. It's built for escape.