The hardest parts on the longest trails

Loretta heaved and her eyes bulged and she just stared at the floor. Her whole body stiffened and her mouth closed. She groaned, and then relaxed, panting again. I sat on the floor next to her, rubbing her soft ears and running my hand down her back. When I took my hand away she flattened her ears and asked for me to stay with her, leaning slightly forward toward me, brown eyes locked into mine. Nobody had told her about this, about labor and birth. She didn’t have appointments with midwives, or the opportunity to ask questions, or any kind of scan that could tell her there may be a problem in there. She just felt the contractions rippling through her body and knew she had to lie down and knew she had to push. After about an hour, a little tiny tail emerged, limp and motionless. She took a break and then pushed again and a smooth, gleaming sac appeared, but wasn’t all the way out of her yet. With a final push she yelped as her first pup slid from the womb. For a moment there was stillness. Andy and I looked at each other and looked at her. Would she know what to do? Should we rip the sack open like we had seen the other mothers do in years past? Loretta has never done this before. Should we intervene? And then she saw it, the pup in the sac, and her eyes grew wide with focus and she dove toward it, ripping the sac open and licking, licking life right into that pup. He gasped for breath and cried while she cleaned away all the blood and fluid. She found the umbilical cord and gnawed at it with her teeth until he was free, and then he tumbled toward her blindly. His eyes won’t be opening for two weeks, but he crawled toward her warmth and within minutes had latched onto a teat and began quenching a thirst he somehow knew had to be quenched. All of those things happened without a word of instruction. Some innate knowing within both of them guiding all of their movements. Loretta knew nothing but the age-old instincts that had lain dormant within her until this moment. She put those instincts to use five more times, each pup emerging into the world with greater ease than the last. I had never worried about any births before that one. The birth of Loretta’s litter was the sixth we had witnessed at our kennel. But it was the first we had witnessed since we got the news. Unlike Loretta and the rest of our mom dogs, we do have monthly appointments with midwives and doctors. We do receive scans that can tell us there may be a problem in there, and a week ago we discovered that there is indeed a problem. The umbilical cord that carries nutrients and oxygen and blood to our baby didn’t form correctly. Where they would normally be covered in a protective sleeve of jelly, the umbilical vessels instead branched outside of their protective covering and attached themselves to the side of the placenta and not the center. They are exposed and rigid instead of covered and flexible. They are highly susceptible to rupture, and that rupture would mean a lifeline being cut off. How do you prevent that? What precautions can you take? How did this happen? When would it happen, if it was going to? All questions to which nobody seems to know the answer. Instead we carry that heavy knowledge with us every day and wonder, and wait.

The people who give us the best advice tell us it’s going to be a lot like a dog race. It’s a long trail, first of all, nine months. That’s the better part of a year. And every day sees new growth – sometimes painful, like my lower back struggling with all this new weight; sometimes frustrating, like my lungs not being able to take in the same amount of air they could have the last time I climbed a mountain; sometimes wonderful, like the baby kicking and punching and doing backflips. And sometimes inexplicable, like those times my mind wanders down into the darkest depths of the possibilities associated with this condition, and then she shakes me awake with the hardest kick yet. Like she knows somehow, innately, to be reassuring.

Marilynne Robinson wrote “An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breath, tighten her belly. For months its whole life would be all dreams and no waking. The steps in the road, the thought of [death], then the dread sinks away for a while, and how is a child to know why?”

And every time, with that reassuring kick…does she know why?

Aside from it being a long trail, it’s riddled with uncertainty. Remember how we used to find uncertainty thrilling? It left us breathless and terrified and alive. It forced us into scenarios – well, we forced ourselves, pushed ourselves forward, into scenarios – that we never could have imagined. How could I have ever known what it was like to run a wild, 15-dog team over dirt and rocks and roots for 70 miles? Nothing could have prepared me for that in the 2016 Iditarod and my heart was in my throat guessing how it might go, and there’s only one way to find out how that’s going to go and it means you just fucking GO. You Move Forward. Even if the fear drags your heart down into your feet as though a big weight is attached to it. Even if you feel your heart plummeting. What are you going to do, quit? Turn around?

It’s too overwhelming to look at the trail as a whole. One thousand miles is more than a brain can truly comprehend in one sitting. And so you take it, not even one day at a time but one run at a time. One six-hour increment. Yes, you had a six-hour hell ride through the Burn. But that’s over now. You don’t know yet about that six-hour magic carpet ride you’ll have at sunrise sprinting across Norton Sound. About the dance party you’ll have in the middle of the sea ice with one of your best human friends and all of your best dog friends. You don’t know about the foxes who will run alongside your team at daybreak, or that that particular color blue even existed in the world when you cross the ice of Golovin Bay.

My sister said, You have the power to choose what to believe. You can choose to believe the worst or you can choose to believe the best. And that it’s a brave choice to be positive. And that we are brave people.

There is no telling what is going to happen over the next four months. Nobody can tell us the answer for sure, and no amount of divining or crying or fury is going to be worth the energy expended. People intuitively want to tell us, It’ll be fine. If she’s anything like you, she’ll be stronger than this thing. But nobody knows if it will be fine. And it doesn’t matter how strong our little girl is, what happens has nothing to do with her and nothing to do with me. It is simply out of our control. It feels like we’re walking across a minefield and we’ll be lucky to reach the other side unharmed. The only thing we do have control over is how we choose to carry on. We have no choice but to move forward, but we do have a choice in how we move forward.

Andy said it’s like that last, sapping run into Dawson. It’s fraught. You wonder how you got here. You don’t know if you’ll be able to keep going forward, but you can’t stay here on top of this lonely mountain with the wind howling through your wet clothes. But people pick you up, you see. You don’t have to do it alone. They come by and shine their light on you. They lead you into the next checkpoint, or maybe even into the next half-dozen checkpoints. Your friends and family scream in frustration at the same points along the trail as you do. They cry when you do. They laugh when you do. They struggle alongside you. And even if the finish line isn’t where you thought it was going to be, and you didn’t come in the top ten like you thought you would, you cross it all the same and you do it with these people by your side.

I think with a lot of mushers, times of struggle force us to look inward. We find the strength to overcome such hardships – such unbelievable, stupid, awe-inspiring, head-busting hardships – from within. The world starts spinning and one thing leads to another and before we know it, we’re in some fucked up situation that is complicated beyond reckoning. And the first thing we do is take a breath and say, OK, how am I going to fix this? First, I need to secure my sled. Second, I need to straighten and secure the gangline. Third, I need to untangle the dogs. We systematically work through the problem until it is solved, no matter how long it takes to solve it, and we do it alone. We find a solution and we keep moving forward. That’s easy enough to do in a physical situation. But what about the mental ones? What about the ones having to do with an umbilical cord buried deep in your insides that you can’t systematically stop and fix? Suddenly the world is a dark and awful place. Everything about it is negative. It’s stupid and what’s the point? Why did I even sign up for this? Why did we knowingly put ourselves through this, if this is a thing that can happen? You look within and try to dig up some jewel of positivity, try to mine it from your hungry, tired, freezing cold soul. What helps more though, is that kick you get from someone else. Sometimes it’s the dogs, looking back at you with their ears perked up and then turning forward in the harness, ready to go. We’re fine, they say. Look at us, we’re doing great. Can we please get moving down the trail? You imbecile? And sometimes it’s the people you have chosen to surround yourself with. The very best people on earth. These people will give you a hug, share their food with you, trade advice and dog snacks and jokes, tell you they, too, could use a pick-me-up. Let’s travel this next section together, they’ll say. Let’s mush with our headlamps off and follow the northern lights. Let’s race each other down Front Street. Ready? Go!