It’s a place—once a town but no longer, a trail, a race and for the real devotees, a way of life. The “mushers” may come from many places and follow many professions but somehow this strange sport and custom of driving a sled over the frozen northlands behind a pack of dogs grabs certain folks and changes them forever. It becomes much more than a hobby or avocation. It’s their passion, perhaps the real focus, purpose and direction of their lives.
I have to admit that were I twenty years younger, I would very likely be looking for a way to stay in Alaska and seeking a mentor to help me learn and train and be able someday to do this myself. Yes, I’d like to follow my team across a thousand miles of wilderness through cold and snow and blizzards to finally pass beneath the burled arch in Nome that marks the end. Just to prove something to myself and get that sense of supreme achievement. Anyone who finishes is a champion, time notwithstanding. The last one through gets the “Red Lantern” award, but this is an award, not a booby prize or a sneer. Just to finish is a rare accomplishment.
Yesterday I toured the Iditarod Trail Committee headquarters and saw the bronze statue of the late Joe Redington and his dogs. I snapped a “selfie” in front of the sign proclaiming the place for what it is. I watched a video titled Why Do They Run? I got a little teary eyed in places. That’s how powerful this all can be. I felt an eerie sense of walking on sacred ground. True, probably few of the great names in the past have been there but some have. And there I was…
To run this race requires a fierce determination, sacrifice and struggle and dogged, unflagging persistence. It cannot be done in a day; not the preparation or the race itself. Although modern technology and the commercialization of the event have made it a bit more civilized, maybe slightly safer than it was back in 1973 when the first formal race was run, there are still stretches where you are all alone out there with nature. You could die and not be found for some time. Although you have to be the driver, you also have to trust and believe in your team. You and they are all a team and as multi-race veteran and three time second place runner Aliy Zirkle says, you are the seventeenth dog, the weakest one.
I grew up riding and training horses and mules to serve as cowponies and to carry me and others into and back out of some of the rougher and more remote parts of Arizona. At the time it was much less developed and civilized land than it is today. From that experience I understand a bit of this bond of human and animal and the trust and synthesis that develops. I had mules make their way off dangerous mountains and canyons where a misstep could plunge us down a steep, rocky slope or even off a sheer cliff. Maybe it was dark or raining or bitter wind. I trusted that animal to be sure footed and careful, I too watched but he or she made the way. So in part I can identify with the incredible connection these mushers have with their dogs. I saw a poster today that read, “God made dogs so mushers could have heroes.” That feels very authentic.
Not too many folks these days get to experience this kind of thing. City life may let us have a pampered pet—most too fat and under exercised, just as we are. We and they may have a bond but it is not the same. The mutual dependence is not there, at least the life-or-death kind. This is part of what makes the race and others similar so unique and so special.
Alaska may be called the last frontier. Like other places to include my beloved southwest high desert, it has grown and become urbanized and artificial in places. Anchorage could be any city anywhere this time of year. Wasilla is much the same. But you drive a few miles beyond that and you are perhaps not quite back in the gold rush milieu but not so different. The weather is one big factor, the rugged mountains and so on. Parts of some of the western and mountain states in the lower forty-eight retain areas of this but Alaska is so big, so remote and still essentially new.
It simply has a different ethos, a different atmosphere. You love it or hate it. I admit the desert rat in me and the solar powered spirit within would suffer from the weather but were it not for that, I’d migrate. I really would. I’m still basically a frontier person, independent and misfitting in a city environment.
So I am drawn to Iditarod, all of its definitions and aspects. That’s why I want to write about it. There may well be more than one book before I am done. And yes, when I go home on August 18, I truly believe that I will be back.