I was midway along the Highway of Death when the source of the road’s nickname became clear. Route 63 connects Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, to the province’s remote Northeast and the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray. For the first two hours, I passed through farmland before entering the vast boreal forest that blankets northern Canada in bog and evergreens. Scenic and serene — except for the heavy truck traffic and forest of warning signs by the road: LOGS MAY SWING INTO YOUR LANE, DISTRACTED DRIVING LAW IN EFFECT, THINK AND DRIVE.

Drivers didn’t seem distracted; they seemed suicidal. Pickups leapfrogged the log trucks and oil tankers, swerving back into the right lane a second before oncoming trucks swooshed past. Or they darted onto the right shoulder to pass bloated tractor-trailers marked OVERSIZE LOAD. Road crews were busy widening the narrow highway, which only added to the dust, jumpiness, and mayhem. Four crosses appeared by the highway, a memorial to travelers who didn’t make it. I turned off at a lonely outpost called Wandering River, which offered the last gas and food for 125 miles.

Randy Falenda was a long-haired trucker who had worked in U.S. and Canadian oilfields for thirty years. But nothing compared to his past five trucking along the Highway of Death. “I’ve almost killed or been killed on this road a dozen times,” he said.

Today he was hauling two tanks loaded with propane and natural gas. “The minute anyone crashes into me, it’s poof.” This didn’t slow drivers fleeing Fort McMurray on their days off, or speeding back in time for their next shift. Nor were they deterred by moose or ice or blowing snow. “Half the drivers out there are high as kites, in a hurry to get nowhere,” he said.

I followed Falenda outside to his thirty-two-wheeler, and wished him safe travels. He climbed into the truck’s cab and shouted back, “Have fun in Fort McCrack.”

At sunset I reached Fort McMurray, though it was hard to tell where exactly the town began or ended. Originally a fur trading post, nestled in a river valley, the town now seemed a shapeless sprawl of trailer parks, half-built housing blocks, and heavy equipment yards strung along the highway. The center, if you could call it that, was a low-rise downtown that appeared to have been bypassed by the recent construction boom. My hotel, the two-star Nomad, stood across the street from a drug-testing clinic and the Salvation Army, where men lined up in the cold in hopes of a bed.

At check-in, I learned that the first snow had fallen the previous night — two weeks before Halloween. Fort McMurray lies at a latitude more northerly than Moscow. Winter temperatures average minus two degrees Fahrenheit and can dip to minus sixty. The only way to drive from here to the more northerly settlement of Fort Chipewyan is by an “ice road” across frozen lakes and bogs.

Fort McMurray might have remained a frigid and forgotten outpost if not for the curious phenomenon recorded by early explorers and fur traders, such as Alexander Mackenzie. In the 1780s, he described deep black pools bubbling on the surface — “bitumenous fountains,” he called them — and veins of the same substance running through the sandy banks of the Athabasca River. Natives, he wrote, mixed the bitumen with tree resin to “gum” or seal their canoes.

More than two centuries later, this black pitch is fueling an energy boom so explosive that it has the potential to reshape the global economy and environment. Alberta’s bitumen holds the third-largest oil reserve in the world — more than in Iraq or Iran, and enough to power North America for decades. And it’s all in friendly Canada! A land better known until now for its strategic reserve of maple syrup.

To boosters, this bonanza represents a steady stream of “ethical oil” from Canada rather than “conflict oil” from less friendly and stable suppliers in the Middle East and elsewhere. To detractors, this same oil spells the end of the planet. Bitumen isn’t oil you can suck from a well, as if with a straw. It’s a dense goop, like melted asphalt, that has to be ripped or propelled from the earth and heavily processed, using immense amounts of energy and water. As a result, bitumen oil generates much more greenhouse gas than conventional fuels — up to 23 percent more, depending on the study. As the NASA scientist James Hansen famously warned in 2012, exploiting Alberta’s vast pool of dirty oil would be “game over for the climate.”

Alberta’s bitumen is also landlocked, far from heavy-crude refineries and shipping ports, so Canadians want to build a pipeline to deliver Alberta’s oil directly to the Texas Gulf Coast. Environmentalists have waged a fierce campaign to halt the project. Because TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline must cross the border, it is subject to U.S. State Department review and presidential approval. After five years of lobbying and protest, the bout over the pipeline has entered its final round, with a decision expected early in 2014.

I’d followed this controversy from afar and wanted to see what was at stake on the ground, for the people and places along the Keystone XL route. But before embarking on that journey, I needed to see something else. A pipeline is ultimately an industrial catheter; to grasp its significance, I had to understand the substance that flowed through it. So I began by trekking to the wild new energy frontier that might free North America from oil despots — or hook it on gunk that could fry the planet.

Fort McCrack.

Tony Horwitz’s new ebook — BOOM, Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever. A Long, Strange Journey Along the Keystone XL Pipeline — was published by Byliner Originals in cooperation with The Global Mail. It is available here and here.