Posts Tagged ‘Alaska’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 15, 2012

The Ides of February

Just past Valentine’s Day, and we’re still relishing mild temperatures, sometimes in the thirties. We now have eight hours and some odd minutes of daylight and it’s beginning to feel like spring; n fact, we were warmer than Orlando over the weekend. After the long weeks of below twenty below weather—with a string of days where it hit fifty below in the lower spots in the Interior—we’re all a bit giddy and, groundhog of not, ready for spring.

I just read an entry I wrote last year at this time, though, and the temperatures had dipped to thirty below again. I am forewarned.

It’s a time of year when we are all a bit groundhoggish, sticking our figurative noses up out of our hibernation of spirit to test the air and see if we can really hope for warmer days—even summer—ahead. Last weekend a group of us came out of hibernation to gather at a the Four Winds Foundation for a day of writing and sharing, guided by poet, and my long-time mentor, John Morgan. I don’t usually go to these retreats, but I went because John and my friend Jean Anderson, who writes marvelous stories of the inner life, were going to be there. It was delightful and comforting to be in their presence, to be writing after this season of not much writing, and to be hearing the work of other writers, some of whom I didn’t know. At the first prompt, I wrote three drafts of poems, then continued to write several more, some of which I’ll keep. It was a good start to the weekend which ended with an afternoon of intense corral cleaning, making up for weeks of neglect when it was just too cold at thirty below to grip a rake and shovel.

I’m feeling my energy returning, but it will take a while—sticking with my dance schedule and starting riding lessons again—for my sluggish body to shed the deep lethargy it’s sunk into this winter. As I talk to people around campus, I hear the same story—a sleepy inertia bordering, for some, on depression, set in during the time between Thanksgiving when we had the first bout of deep cold, and, well about a week ago when the cold broke. This may have something to do with the lack of entries here, come to think about it.

Mattie and Sam made it through the cold well, with their thick coats and the warm quilted blankets I’ve collected for them over the years. We went through a bit of hay, but mostly I supplemented their night feeding with brome pellets soaked in warm water to add to their hay intake. They are still on a bit of lay off till my schedule settles down and the light lingers a bit longer in the evening. By next week I should be able to get home and still have enough light to groom and longe them in the afternoon.

Today, as I pulled into the driveway, I heard what sounded like gunshots, but was really someone shooting off rocket fireworks nearby. Sam and Mattie began trotting around their sides of the corral; I could see the colored sparks rise and fall in the air above the corral. Even after the noise stopped, the horses kept trotting, cantering, generally larking around as if the noise were merely a convenient excuse for a bit of play.

We’re all ready for the spark of an excuse; spring is somewhere at the end of another month or two (or three) of winter, but we can feel the first nudgings of it now.

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The View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 6, 2012

The New Year

I had great plans for the winter break.

After the mad scramble to pull Christmas together—cutting the spruce tree from beside the horse trailer, baking three types of pie and marinating and roasting a fresh ham, decorating the tree, and wrapping then opening presents—we had a delightful dinner and sat around playing Apples to Apples till midnight Christmas night.

My plan was to spend the daylight part of each day, between 11:30 and 3, working with the horses, a reminder to them and to me that we had a partnership, that they weren’t just going feral for the rest of the winter.  But, instead, a mass of cold air descended on the Interior and we hunkered down under 30 to 40 below temperatures, stoking the woodstove, eating leftover pie, watching movies, and sleeping a lot.  Out in the corral, Mattie and Sam hung out in their run-in shed, snug in their heavyweight blankets and fresh shavings.  We brought them extra hay during the day, and I added brome pellets soaked in warm water to their usual dinner of soaked beet pellets and supplements.

My great plans melted into a dozy, slow time, interrupted by visits with friends and the occasional fiddling with cars to be sure they kept running.  When we ventured to town, everything seemed quiet except the coffee shop, filled with the people who hadn’t left town for the holidays, all a bit overheated from their layers of clothes, and talking rapidly from the caffeine.   Saturday night, New Year’s Eve, we went to the University fireworks display and stood in the 35 below air, watching the sparks boom and spray above our heads.  In the deep cold, the sound is magnified by the density of the air and the loud rocket bursts tingled our cheeks—all that was exposed—and vibrated the snow beneath us.  We stood, but some well-bundled folks lay back against a snow berm and watched the fireworks blossom in the dark sky above them.  Later, standing around a bonfire, we set off fire balloons or fire lanterns, and I thought of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Armadillo,” which has the lines:

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars —
planets, that is — the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars…

Something in this dark, cold time keeps turning my mind back to old familiar poems.  Later, when a fine light snow fell through the cold, drifting onto the horses’ blankets, and catching the porch light, speckling the night, I thought of Frost’s “Desert Places,” which starts with the lines “Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast, ” and ends with

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars–on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

 I’m not usually one who makes a list of New Year resolutions.  As usual, I’ll make an effort to get back to my dance classes and winter indoor riding—what passes for an exercise routine—to work off the after effects of two weeks of pie eating.  And, in the weeks to come, as the afternoon lengthens and we have the promise of above zero temperatures, I’ll make the usual plans to get Mattie and Sam fit for summer riding.  The first day of class for the semester is still two weeks away, but I’ve taken on a new responsibility in my department—my resolution there is not to let it overpower the things I love about my life—and to do what I can to solve problems along the way.  And, for the most part, to keep that part of my life out of these posts—which are, after all, about the things that sustain me—horses, poetry, dance, gardening, and the things of the psyche.

Today it warmed up a bit.  It was only 10 below when I fed the horses tonight and we all—me, the horses, the poodle—felt a bit lighter-spirited because of it.  The forecast is for 40 below by the weekend, so I’m keeping the horses’ blankets on for now, keeping the fire going in the stove, getting a little more hunkering down done.   We’ve turned the year.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

November 12, 2011

On Not Writing

Sitting at the kitchen counter, listening to Wha’dya Know on a lazy Saturday morning.  A month has gone by quickly since my last post here, and I’ve been contemplating what has stopped me from writing recently.  I know other writers who participate in National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo—every November, but, for me, November is the month when I finally accept that summer is over and our briefly glorious fall has passed.  A slump month, though this one has been eventful, so far.

Today the sky is flat gray with clouds that stretch down to the Alaska Range, a pale outline, a faintly jagged edge above a slatey line of foothills.  There are chores to do—raking manure, grooming and longing horses, but I’m here with the laptop, drinking coffee, writing at last.

Two Sundays ago, I was washing dishes when a glass, which probably had a hairline fracture that I didn’t notice, broke out a semicircle at the rim, and, when I reached into the dishwater to pick up the glass beside it, sliced open the back of my thumb.  I’ve learned about the emergency services in town, some advances in skin care (such as the pork rind-type substance that sealed the wound and started the healing process), and the power of luck.

Last Saturday, for my birthday, we went to Mark Taylor’s house where he gave us a house concert on his new baby grand.  We sat in his cabin in a room filled with music as the light faded through the birches behind him.  He stopped from time to time to explain what he was playing or to start over, and he talked to us about why he had stopped playing in public and how playing for a small audience (there were four of us) suited the purpose the music was written for.  He dedicated one piece to our friend Joe Enzweiler.

After Joe’s memorial, a strangely cheery event in which friends from all phases of his life in Fairbanks recounted stories, read poems, and played music, I haven’t felt like writing.  Perhaps it’s been that I’ve been busy.  Every weekend has had some Saturday event and, when I can, I’ve been riding at Colleen’s indoor arena on Sundays—at least as long as it’s above 10 below.  But not writing goes beyond grief or busy-ness.  I’ve always had long periods of not writing, sometimes lasting up to a year, when the part of my brain that writes goes fallow.  I have to admit that the world around me seems flatter then; I can look at the sky or the flutter of birds or Mattie trotting in the corral and these things are just what they are, not alive with words.  I love to see these things, but something is different during these times.

This wordless time leads me to contemplate what prompts me to write in the first place.  I think writers write for a variety of reasons: to explain ideas, to gain recognition, to record the life they know—but, for some, there is another reason, a compulsion, a need to frame experience in words, just as a painter frames experience in color and line or a musician in sound and tempo.  In part, I’m reflecting on Joe’s life and poems, which I’ve been reading for over thirty years, and thinking of what drove him to write—the pressure of imagination in his life.  For Joe’s poems always had a moment in them that took my breath away, lines like “the frozen blue you never lost, your halted clock tower eyes.”  When I first met Joe in a writer’s workshop—we were both in our twenties—I would wonder where such turns of phrase came from, as if there were a thesaurus or a trick of mind that could lead me to such phrases of my own.  I came to learn, as our writing friendship grew over the years, that Joe lived his life in multiple tracks—the concrete real world of cutting wood and carpentry and physics, and the invented world of possibilities that ran alongside it.  The invented world, the imaginative transformation of the real world, compelled him, always.

I finally came to realize that my impulse to write was not exactly like Joe’s, that there is no template for writing, but that the desire to channel experience through words is something writers have in common.  When I was a teenager, I believed that if I searched the language, I could find the exact words to translate any experience to the page.  I remember watching a sunset, entranced by the red and orange and the deepening of dusk light, trying out words that could capture the moment in their sound and shape and order.  Much later, I came to accept that words only suggest experience; they are charged with association, but can’t recreate the thing itself.  But they open the writer and reader to the possibility of shared evocative experience.

So, not writing may be, in part, experience exhaustion—in part because the activity of real life uses up some of the energy that words take on in times of contemplation.  Or it may be a gathering up of images for a time when they break loose on the page again.  In any case, now there are words on this blog.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

September 21, 2011

Looking back at last year’s blog entries, I see that I have slacked off quite a bit on writing here.  Tonight, recovering from a sore throat that ended with laryngitis, I’ve got a bit of unencumbered time.  Normally, I’d be in adult ballet class, sweating away, but my voice is still gone, my throat still a bit sore, and I decided to stay home.

The leaves have passed the peak gold—I think the best day was Sunday, when Alayne Blickle of Horses for Clean Water was here for a workshop organized by my horse club, University Equestrian Network, with the help of Interior Horse Council, Interior Horsemen’s Association, the UAF Office of Sustainability, the UAF Alumni Association, and Camp LiWa, where the workshop was held.  I’m adding their links so all seven of my readers can check them out.  It was a gratifying collaboration.   Alayne had lots to offer us: ideas for dealing with run-off, ideas for incorporating native plants into a horse property, solutions to manure and mud issues, barn and facility design.  She had the impressive ability to listen to our complaints and excuses about our situations without sounding critical—there are limits to what we can do depending on budget, time, availability of help, but I think we all came away seeing that our horses can be a part of a larger network of growing things.  Here at Mattie’s Pillow, I sometimes look at Mattie and Sam as manure producers—a valuable commodity among my gardening friends.  I can’t always keep enough manure here for my greenhouse and raised beds—especially once spring rolls around.

I took Alayne to see several horse properties while she was here and the blue sky and gold leaves set off the day and the good conversation.  I look forward to following up on the ideas she inspired.

The summer’s riding is pretty much over, though the days are nice enough for trail rides—if only I weren’t sick or so busy at the beginning of the semester.  I’m looking forward to groundwork again this winter, polishing up those areas that have gotten rusty in the rush of summer’s saddle up and go pace.  Sam is looking better now than he did a few weeks ago, now that I’m adding Vitamin E to his diet.  I’ll still have him tested for Cushings—and I’m reading up on all that will involve for him and for me.  It would be nice if his shaggy patchy coat this year could be attributed to a vitamin deficiency, but it hardly seems likely with the fancy supplement he gets (Platinum) and the fact that he’s done so well on it till now.  We’ll see.  An older horse has special nutritional needs, and at the last tooth floating, it seemed like he might not ever be rid of his wave—he’s getting short in the tooth, which is what horses get after getting long in the tooth, since they have a finite length of tooth that grows out and grinds down over a lifetime.

So, I’m shifting the way I think of Sam.  He will probably not ever go back to his youthful glory, but he needs to have a job or purpose for these later years.  He’s too much of a scaredy cat for much trail riding, and he continues to be the trickster in all things.  I may try teaching him actual tricks, now that I have a better understanding of what that takes.  Perhaps learning more about clicker training this winter will help.

As for Mattie, she had a good summer’s training at the Intro A, B, C level.  She’s 15 now, and gradually developing a twist in her stifle at the walk that may be a problem down the road.   She’s mellowed out lots, though still has her ears-back style.  Ground work is in order for her, too, this winter.  I’ll try to take her out on the road a few times before the dust settles and we are in full winter.  It all goes by so fast.

The moon is half full, now, fuzzy behind some low clouds.  A neighbor’s dog has adopted us—she was up on the deck with Jeter when I came home this afternoon, her creamy Lab head peeking below the deck benches beside his curly chocolate head.  She’s young and goofy—I put out a sign on the road and called the shelter to leave my number.  I expect someone is looking for her, but we walked her around the neighborhood, and she doesn’t seem to have a clue where she belongs.  The leaves are spinning down from the trees—there’s gold above and gold below.  It’s a dizzy time, full of smells and motion, brilliant light and deepening darkness.  We’re teetering on the edge of the season.

Poetry Challenge 68

May 10, 2011

Pasque flowers

We’re still in a holding pattern for spring.  Every day, the sun heats the air enough that we can go out and about without our jackets, but in the shadows, a chill still radiates from the frozen ground.  Gardeners are restless.  A friend described his impatience to get on with the matters of summer by digging a fence post hole, and found that he could only dig a few inches down before hitting frozen dirt.  The garden looks bedraggled in its fall mulch or the bleached stalks of the last broccoli I couldn’t bear to cut down before last fall’s snows.

In the midst of all this brown and our impatience with it, I looked up on the steep bank above my house and saw that my pasque flowers were blooming, always the first sign that spring will come.   They are a perennial, shaped a bit like a fuzzy crocus, purple with yellow centers, there against the brown dirt of the cutbank.  They will last a week or so, then the rest of the greening up will start in earnest.

I have a fondness for purple flowers–the pasque flower, the irises that will follow–and I’m a sucker for purple garden vegetables: purple broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, carrots.   Write a poem about a color that has meaning for you–that repeats itself in your life or in your dreams.

Post it in comments and I’ll post it here.  And maybe,  now that finals are coming to an end, I’ll post one, too.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 17, 2011

The Cruelest Month

The days are warmer now—in the 40s (Fahrenheit) but in the teens at night.  In the corral, the snow is melting and compacting to hardpack ice, and gradually all the manure we didn’t manage to collect throughout the winter—first the ice storm, a series of deep snowstorms, several flus, and other distractions—is emerging in ragged brown mounds through the ice.  Sam looks pretty ragged, too.  His gloriously long teddy bear coat is coming out in clumps and hangs from his belly in a ratty profile.  I was afraid that there was no horse beneath all that hair, but after much work with the shedding blade, his fine short summer coat is emerging and with it his aging athlete’s muscle definition.

As Eliot says, “April is the cruelest month”—for there have been a string of deaths that have emptied out my reserve of grief.  The most recent, yesterday, was my long-time poet friend, Joe Enzweiler.  Joe has been struggling with brain cancer for the past two years—who knows how long the tumors had actually been there, but by the time they were diagnosed, he was on a slow slide off the slippery slope of the planet.

Joe trained as a physicist, but always wrote poetry and, when I met him, he was one of the brilliant young men in a writers’ workshop that also included Dan O’Neill, Linda Schandelmeier, Jean Anderson, Patricia Monaghan, Gerald Cable, Elyse Guttenberg, and me.  Joe was the one whose poems always seemed to contain a vocabulary that flew off the page to somewhere unexpected.   He was tall and wiry with an unruly tangle of blonde hair and an elusive quality—he would leave town for his brother’s farm in Kentucky nearly every year, so that he seemed to have the Cheshire quality of appearing and disappearing.

He managed to make a life for himself in a cabin he built among birch trees on Old Cat Trail.  He had electricity, but no running water, and he heated with wood.  One of the ways he meditated on the nature of this world and generated poems was to head out to his woods with a Swede saw and cut small trees—thinning out his patch of forest—which he stacked in a mosaic pattern under his porch.  He also stacked rocks, and had a years’-long project building a fieldstone wall through his brother’s Kentucky property.

Joe believed writers should write, no more, no less.  Because he had his land and could do carpentry work in the summer, most of his time was spent just writing—or running, or reading, or cutting wood, or engaging us in long conversations that drifted along as if there were no other demands on either person’s life.  Talking to Joe could make you feel that work was an indulgence, a distraction.  The true work was the written word.

Joe and I had a years’-long habit of getting together for Poetry Thursdays.  It started when he needed help navigating a computer version of one of his books—what to do about margins, fonts, etc.  It evolved into sometimes his reading aloud new drafts of his developing memoir, or my reading him new poems or horse essays.  He took the manuscript of my book and chapbook and gave me useful suggestions on poem order, sections, and the paring away of words.

Every Christmas, we would go to Joe’s place to thin out a spruce from “Joe’s Tree Farm.”  We would stop for tea first, then head out in a rush to find a tree before the waning light left us.

Now, he has left us.  “So many,” Eliot says, “I had not known death had undone so many.”  But Eliot’s words still live—and so will Joe’s.  And he was right: writing (or art or whatever we can create out of our own uniqueness) is the true work.  The rest is distraction.

Dancing in the North

March 25, 2011

Spring Gala White on White

Tomorrow night, the North Star Ballet dancers will perform in their annual Spring Gala—a little early this year.  They will be performing Snow White—a ballet set to a composite of music, retelling the story in a way that allows the Senior Company dancers to take on more roles.  There’s a cat, complete with tail, who leaps about, bossing the dwarves around.  And there’s Snow White, herself, and the wicked stepmother Queen.  I’ll go Sunday to see the final performance—tomorrow is the John Haines memorial—but I’ll really be waiting for the second half of the show.

It’s not a bait and switch, exactly, but it has always seemed to me that Norman does the choreography that really engages and stretches him and the dancers in the second half of the Spring Gala.  While the story ballet in the first half lures in the parents with kids who want to dance, the second half demonstrates just how technically developed and with how much range the North Star dancers are.

This year, the company is doing John Luther Adams’ “Dream of White on White”—a ballet in unitards to Adams’ geography-inspired music, spare, luminous, with chime-like tones inspired by the Aeolian harp which make tones as the wind blows through it.  As the dancers move, the lighting changes—the ballet provides a chance for Kade Mandelowitz to use washes of colored light as integral to the play of sound and motion.

I have seen this piece several times before, but when I heard the first notes through the thin studio walls one night as I was doing plies in Adult Ballet, I felt happy with anticipation.  The next week, as I was changing and the girls were in the dressing room preparing for rehearsal, I asked them how they liked it.

“It’s interesting,” they said.  One even said it was cool.  These are ballet girls, used to dance that imitates flight, that defies gravity, poised and tall on the small square-inch toe of a pointe shoe.  Often, ballet trained dancers don’t adjust to the earth-hugging Modern style, but these kids do.  They go at it with all the precision of a ballet dancer—and the dance reflects their ability and their connection with the place they live.  They are all Alaskan kids, after all.

There are other pieces in the second half, including the technical, fast-moving Tarantella.  At the end of Sunday’s performance, the kids will gather behind the curtain and hug each other and cry.  Their parents and friends will take photos of them, clustered together, mascara streaking below their eyes, clutching roses and carnations.

There are a few seniors graduating and moving on, but coming along behind them are a larger group of younger dancers, mid training, with lots of North Star performances ahead of them.  They may get teary-eyed, too, not knowing why, but I do.  They have the chance to dance to the work of a living composer, moving to choreography set just for them.  It’s an opportunity so rare that they won’t fully understand it till years later.

But those of us watching will.

Come watch these dancers and hear John’s music tomorrow, March 26 at 2 or 8pm or Sunday, March 27 at 2pm.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 8, 2011

Still thinking of John Haines.  The days are brighter now.  The morning sun glows through the glass southeast wall as I sit with my back, warm, to it, grading a few more papers and sipping coffee with honey.  In the late afternoon, returning from classes, meetings, e-mail, I head down the straight east-west course of Chena Pump Road, built, so a railroad friend tells me, along the old railbed of the Tanana Valley Railroad. The sun is high enough around five o’clock to flare in my eyes, driving straight into it, and the ice still thick on the road from last November’s three-day ice storm shines in a mirror of the sun’s glare.

 

Sunday night, coming home around seven from a gathering, I noticed that the light in the sky was soft pale blue, a bit yellow toward the hills where the sun had set an hour before.   This is a tender light, silvery in texture, that lingers longer as the days edge toward spring and summer.  This is a light that passes quickly in places closer to the equator, but that those of us who live here relish—it’s a light that is soft as a slow exhale into spring.

 

I thought of John that night as I drove through that light along a four-lane highway past a cluster of box stores, most less than five years old, none more than ten years old.  John hated such things, though he liked his comforts when they were offered to him—a good meal, someone’s car to drive, an apartment with running water.   For the twenty minutes it took me to drive home, I watched the sky darken, imagining how he might have seen it.  The light, a complex mix of pastel blues, pinks, yellows, spread ahead of me to the west.  The spruces along the ridgeline as I drove closer made a dark jagged line like teeth or fur against the palest light.  The slim fingernail of moon hung low and slipped gradually toward the western hills. For the sixty some years John lived in the Interior, he had seen these things, or sights like them—but had seen them without fast roads or chain stores, even after they were built.  To him, the development of recent years was a temporary phase, while the land was—is—enduring.

 

It occurred to me, on that drive, that I had let the vision in John’s poems–the spare images of the north, its wildness, its curmudgeonly truths, its tenderness toward the fellowship of others in this difficult place—dim in my own passage through winter and summer.  After all, I live in—or pretty near—town.  I spend my days in a large institution surrounded by people and infernal computers.  I’m keeping this blog, if erratically.  John was a typewriter man, the manual kind with all the satisfaction that pounding on the keys could bring.  I think that, in recent years, he may have learned to write on a computer, but I know that he didn’t hesitate to share his distrust of modern technology, even while he made use of it.

 

John was a complex, difficult man, but now, with him a week gone, I find him in the spikes of spruce, the bite of cold in the morning, the gleam of March sun on snow.  By the south window, chickadees and redpolls dart up to the bird feeder.  The cat sits watching, tipping her head toward them as they swoop up and away.  I see the gray topline of the Alaska Range, irregular along the south horizon.  The valley and the flats stretch white, cross-hatched with darker spruce, all hundred fifty miles to the foothills of those peaks.  Out there, a musher may be following a trail John or someone he knew once followed.  The dogs rush on, panting, eager to lick at the wind they make.  The musher holds the sled and runs and rides behind.  The sky arcs over, darkening, with a hint of aurora, the ghosts of ancestors.  There’s John Haines.

John Haines

March 3, 2011

I just got word that John Haines died today–or the day that just ended.  An article on the Fairbanks Daily News Miner’s website says he took a fall in December and never really recovered.  He died with friends around him here in Fairbanks.

Here’s a link to some of John’s poems.

I used to see John at events and in the hallway at the university.  Once John started going profoundly deaf, he became cranky, convinced that he wasn’t getting his due as a poet.  I believe he wasn’t, in part because he made it difficult for those who wanted to get to know him and for those who wanted to be his poetic peers.  But he appreciated a few things–good whiskey, good conversation, someone to set the mike levels properly for a reading, a bonfire now and again, attentive students, and friendships that stretched back to the more rugged days before the oil pipeline.

He had a melodious voice–almost too much so, since his audiences could become lulled by it in a warm room on a winter night.  His deafness dulled the edges of that voice so that his consonants disappeared and a sort of bass rumble took over.  When I organized readings for the Fairbanks Arts Association years ago, I would have him come in and read a bit about a half hour before the reading started, so I could adjust the sound levels on his voice, bumping up the treble to catch the consonants and lowering the bass.  Every time I did this, people would say it was the best Haines reading they had heard.  I don’t know if there are any recordings of his readings around, but he had friends in the music world–most notably John Luther Adams–so I imagine something of his voice remains behind.

Volumes of poems and essays do, and many students carry on the work of putting down the essence of the land and capturing in it the essence of human experience in the North and in the wider world.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 16, 2011

Quest Finish

Still cold in the Interior.  The temperatures here on the ridge hovered around twenty below all day, slightly warmer than yesterday, but still cold to be out on the Chena River moving at a blazing five miles an hour behind a team of tired dogs.  As I went about my day of meetings and classes, phone calls and e-mails, part of my mind was always on the progress of mushers on the Quest trail.

At the end of the day, I logged back into the Quest site to discover that there was a new leader, Dallas Seavey, a twenty-three-year-old rookie who planned on using the Quest as a training race for the Iditarod.   Rookies usually run this tough race a few years before they end up in the top four, but  Seavey isn’t a real rookie.  His father, Mitch, has been running long-distance dogs for years, and he is following the family tradition.   His bio says he’s been training dogs his whole life and this flawless run shows it.

But this race has been like a novel with its interwoven threads of drama.  I keep thinking of Jack London, a writer too often overlooked in the American literary canon, perhaps because his work–at least the Northern stories–seems so romanticized.  The relationships between men and dogs in White Fang and Call of the Wild seemed romantic to me before I lived in Alaska in their suggestion of  deep attachment between human and dog, yet that attachment is what a long race like the Quest is all about.  There’s also the race between mushers and their ultimate enemy, the cold.   Even the strongest musher can become slow-moving and slow-witted if some accident of the trail leaves him or her chilled.  Ghatt’s plunge into overflow, Neff’s delay by a blizzard at the most daunting summit of the trail, these are the accidents of the North, the luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We follow the Quest because it reminds us of our own fragile peace with the cold and dark of winter.  The race comes at the first return of light in February, when we start to consider the return of spring.  But winter hasn’t let go yet, as the temperatures of the last few days show.  I drove home today in dimming afternoon.  Behind me to the east, towards Canada and the path the mushers were on, the sky was slaty blue, darkening quickly.  Ahead of me, to the west there was a watery pale light lingering over the ridge.  I had plans of building a fire in the stove, feeding Mattie and Sam, eating a bit, then heading down to the river to see the first place winner come gliding in toward the finish.

But luck has its own ways.  The house was cold and it took me a while to realize that we were out of fuel oil and needed to make a run back to town for a gas can full to tide us over till the truck can come out tomorrow.  On the way down the hill, we saw what looked like a house fire on the flats–floodlights and smoke and flashing red and blue lights.  Like the mushers, we need to pay attention to what’s around us, to the details of survival that keep us going.

We came home and got the boiler going again.  The window in the woodstove is flickering with birch flames; the house is heating slowly.  Phoebe, the cat, is curled under my arm as I type, one paw resting on the laptop, purring slowly.  The remaining mushers on the trail will continue to come in over the next few days, including the handful of women on the trail, who I’ll write more about tomorrow.

Till then, congratulations to Dallas and to Sebastien, who followed him in short order.  Congratulations and a scratch on the ears for all good dogs who pay attention to the trail and lead us on.


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