As you read this there are dozens of men and women and hundreds of dogs crossing a very cold Alaska: more than a thousand miles of it. It’s called the Iditarod by everyone who doesn’t drive a team in it. For those who have, it’s the Idiot Road.
There are deadly serious mushers in that race who are after that prize money, and a few of them will get it. But there are also the taildraggers. They know they won’t win. What they want to do, really, is finish this most difficult of all races. And more than that … to find out exactly what’s inside them.
Thirty-nine years ago this week, that was me.
I had seven dogs. The minimum that year. And I had to borrow two to make the minimum. Most teams were in the 12 to 16 dog range. This translates to putting a VW bug in the Indy 500. Forget any prize money.
The front runners have snow machines half a day ahead of them, packing trail. With packed trail, those teams can average something like 80 miles a day. Without packed trail, you’re lucky to get five miles, on snowshoes. And all it takes to turn a packed trail into snowshoe time is half an hour of wind.
There have always been “recreational mushers,” like I was back then. I lived 12 miles from a road in those days, and for six months each year, the dogs got us back and forth to the village. They were basic transportation and basic family.
But this race, this monumental journey from Anchorage to Nome, makes a person want to hook up the dogs and head out.
I wasn’t able to finish the race that year, 1973, because of an injury, and while I was on the trail, everyone passed me. And I guess it’s because of that that each March I say a little prayer for all the mushers and all the dogs, but especially for the recreational mushers, for the tail-draggers. They’ll be out in the cold and the lonely longer than the winners, looking to find that certain personal something.
Packed trail and fresh dogs, people. It’s a very long way to Nome.
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