Quest Afterwards

It is curious, the way memory frames the whole experience. After all, it involves a trail, plotted from checkpoint to checkpoint, along a trajectory that should provide an easy narrative arrow around which to twine the tales of what happened along the way. But that’s never how it works. Instead, a nebula of images seem to pass through my vision, borne along like dander in the breeze. I’ll see the team charging up a steep slope & have to figure my way back to it being King Solomon’s Dome. Or a look I got from Abe after Eagle Summit that summed up everything a challenge can do for a dog’s confidence. Then, just as suddenly, Cutuk bursting the zipper off my sled bag, breaking my ski pole in two trying to get out of being carried into Scroggie Creek. One wind along the Yukon sounds different than another, & then there is the howling over the mountain tops, or the flapping of the tent tucked in the willows of 101. There’s Tex’s barks along the way to Trout Creek, or Piper’s outside of Dawson, or Kabob’s, impatient to pull the hook & run. It comes back to me already like an odd, displaced dream.

I did this race for a number of reasons, many of which I either can’t quite articulate or choose not to. I had an inkling it would be the last one for some time. A chance for our veterans to hit the trail again & show us how incredible they’ve become, & a chance for some of the young dogs to metabolize all of the challenges of the Quest into confidence & surety. A chance for me to see the sun dapple over the bluffs, or see the lights pulsing overhead. To curl up next to Jackson & Figment & feel their hot breath lulling me to sleep on the straw. A chance to step again into something that should be impossible, & to dissect it, run by run, mile by mile, & move forward in its transformation from a yawning unknown chasm of possibility into carved out runs & rests, a sort of scrimshaw writ across the vermicular white bone of the Yukon.

I could not be prouder of our dogs. We wanted a regulated, moderate race, & Solo & Dolly provided the pace to achieve just that. We wanted to embrace & revel in the difficulties the trail affords. Seeing Solo in single lead slashing across the mouth of the Kandik, finding scratch marks in the glare ice or the shale or rock, the wind lashing us all the while, was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Or seeing the look on Kristin & Nikki’s faces when Oryx & Dolly led us into Dawson, tails wagging, exuberant after a long push. Figment playing with his brother 700 miles into a race. Hank bright & lambent over every mile. What a fucking dog team.

& by now, it seems the focus of my race finds its pivot somewhere on the headwall of Eagle summit, 50 short feet from the tripod that tells you you’ve made it. I will tell you this: the thing that I love best about this race, in its every iteration & in its every instance of evidence, is the Spirit of the North. & in the company of those gentlemen & their dog teams, triumphing over absurd adversity, I found it trumpeted loud & clear. Spending 21 hours in Mile 101 in that company was an unexpected boon & solace. We were laughing together while we were still on the runners coming in. Over pounds of bacon & eggs, we recapitulated & shook our heads & rubbed our eyes & felt that amusement that comes after such a trial. I love that about the north—there is always, always the humor of humility. When you get your ass handed to you, you take it with a smile. The alternative does not move you forward an inch.

Rob, generally a taciturn sort, will tell you he doesn’t deserve accolades for leading us over the summit; he is full of shit. His will in the face of whiteout conditions was indefatigable. Jason had spent hours up there before us & tucked in to help & make the push with a dog team that was alert & bright & full of an incredible amount of energy given what they had gone through. While I spoke with him on that headwall, Rob up there somewhere seeking out the next trail marker, we of a sudden heard Deke calling up his lead dog Jasmine. We started in too—“Jazz! Jazz, here girl!” & there was that freight train of a team, never blinking an eye while pushing up the steepest slope in the Quest in a whiteout. These guys have extraordinary dogs & they drive them with empathy & positivity & love & respect. I know that you don’t get through that sort of circumstance without that element of connectivity & trust with your team & what I witnessed in each of them was an inspiring example of how to interact with your dogs. I couldn’t see a trail marker, but I could see full well the care those dogs had all received from their drivers.

When we all left 101, it was a bit like a band breaking up amicably. We all had to alter our thinking that we were just traveling the rest of the trail together. Of course we saw one another along the way. I had Rob behind me leaving Two Rivers & enjoyed thirty minutes of him whistling “Winter Wonderland” as we plodded along, my vocal harmonies doubtless falling off before he could hear them. This, the same man who, battered by gale-force winds, had turned upslope & hauled a dog team into a white void. The same whose expletives at least rivaled if not surpassed those of my wife. To then hear such a cheery & melodious tune was somehow demonstrative of how swiftly we ebb & flow.

The race showed me a great deal about what I want & what I do not. I’ve not yet slept enough to think lucidly about those realizations, but it’s a long trail, isn’t it? & in the meantime, there is that tapestry of images from the race constantly unfurling in my mind, a banner flapping in that strong wind, a comfort & an accomplishment How the ground we cover phantoms our feet, & how sometimes we can feel its reverberations echoing across time, & we are right back in each of those places, the bitter cold snapping at our ruff or the gentle sigh from the sleeping muzzle of a dog beside you on the straw, the roseate clouds scuffing into pending dark & the endless & infinitesimal wash of stars piercing through the sky. How I will always be somewhere on that trail, or it will always be somewhere in me, a vein meandering its way into a swelling heart.

 -AP