The finish line gets you.
Have you ever run a race in which the only one failing was you? Whether you won or lost, it wasn't anyone's success or fault but yours? I've always been one to like individual sports over team sports because of that reason: I can only blame myself. The truth is, I'm good at beating myself up--they say that the game is won or lost in the locker room. You believe, or you don't. It's your mind that does the work.
Maybe that's true or maybe it's not, but in the case of the Iditarod, which began this past Monday at the ceremonial starting line in Anchorage, Alaska, the most important players are the dogs, and the factors of winning or losing can also determine life or death. Moose attacks, bad terrain, exhaustion: though veterinarians and volunteers are stationed at every checkpoint from Anchorage/Fairbanks to Nome, the truth of the Alaskan wilderness is a brutal one. Sometimes mother nature is there to be seen. not won.
Reading Gary Paulsen's memoir, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod (Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1994), schooled me on the route and realities of the Iditarod dogsled race that this year ran from Fairbanks, Alaska, to the coastal finish line in Nome. The race finds its history in the historic sledding trails that traveled from eastern/middle Alaska to the west, to transport supplies and medicines to isolated towns and villages (take the 1925 diphtheria epidemic, for example, in which the famous Siberian Husky, Balto, led the final leg of the run into Nome).
Paulsen''s account in Winterdance is memorable for its honesty and candor. The book is a tribute to the bond between man and his dog(s), but it widens the typical understanding of that bond: that is, sled dogs, running dogs, are different. These dogs that have been bred down from wolves, they carry a different fire. They don't always lick, and often they bite (it's well that they should, too. In the Alaskan wilderness, survival is often dependent on self-defense, food scavenging and knowing who's predator).
In a memorable section of the book, Paulsen tells the story of one of his first night runs, in which he teamed up his dogs and set off from his cabin in Minnesota to see what it felt like to, well, let the dogs see. What he discovered, unfortunately, was the annoying truth that skunks, our black and white demon-friends, are nocturnal. In the course of one night, Paulsen and his team met six skunks, and five of them sprayed Paulsen--sometimes with a direct hit to the face.
You can imagine his wife, back home waiting at the cabin, was little inclined to let him into bed that night. Instead she sent him to the kennel--you're sleeping with the dogs, she said.
This was the kennel. I had never slept here before. When they were in kennel--where each dog was on a chain and had its own house--I always went to the house and they went to their houses and we all slept until the next time we would see each other. This time I didn't go away and it altered the way they saw me, felt about me, thought of me and my actions, and changed the way I thought as well--started me thinking right. Started me thinking in terms of dog and not human. It was a clear night; stars splattered across the sky in the brightness that can only come from the cold taking the humidity out of the air. Brilliant spots of light that seemed just over head high. I considered where to sleep. The dogs whimpered a bit and while it became clear that I wasn't going to feed or pet them they settled and sat and watched me. They were, to the last dog, putrid. Luckily it didn't get to me because I reeked as well--I honestly didn't think I would ever be able to smell anything other than skunk again--and I moved through them looking for a place to put the bag down. I settled next to Devil. [...] Devil was sitting directly in front of me, staring at me. "Hi." It was serendipity, a silliness, but he jumped like I'd screamed at him. And his tail wagged. It was the first time I'd seen his tail wag since he'd come to us, and I smiled. (89-90).
Paulsen is the well-known author of YA books including Hatchet, Dogsong and Woodsong. Until I discovered this memoir, Winterdance, on my parents' bookshelf back home, I didn't know he'd ever written Creative Nonfiction. I was pleased with the book and recommend it to anyone--not just because it provides a wealth of information about the Iditarod, but because it's an insight into the abilities of humans to persevere and push on. Sometimes, we can truly do so much more than we've ever believed possible. Sometimes we just have to try.
Enough sappy encouragement. Pick up the book. This year's Iditarod will be continuing a little while longer. You can check on the status, weather, and musher standings at Iditarod.com.
Next week's book is Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir (Harper Collins, 2015).