IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 8: No rooms, no beds, no waiting.
KALTAG, Alaska — I’m going to be honest here: When it comes to sleeping, my first choice is rarely the floor. It is even more rarely the floor of an Alaskan bingo hall. And it is almost never the floor of an Alaskan bingo hall in the middle of a tiny village where the only heat comes from a huge metal drum converted into a stove, which needs new logs every few hours.
Unless the alternative is freezing to death.
Which it pretty much was.
And I have no one to blame but myself. After all, nobody made me come back here, to the frozen tundra, just to see which dogs were still chugging in the Last Great Race on Earth, the Iditarod. But here I was Sunday night, landing on a snow- packed airstrip in some dot on the map in the Alaskan bush. And I turn to Old Jim Okonek, my trusty pilot — who once flew Playboy photographers and their models onto Mt. McKinley for a spread called “The Women of Alaska,” then managed to get his plane in the picture, which he figures is “pretty good publicity, huh?” — and I say to him, seeing as the sun is going down,
“Hey, Jim, where do we sleep tonight?”
And he says, “Wherever we can.”
And I remember the sleeping bags.
And I say, God help us, this guy’s not joking.
Now, let me explain how you find a place to sleep in a village that just recently got running water: First you walk from the plane into town, which is about a half-mile of snow drifts. Then you come upon a dozen barking dogs, who look like they would chew you from your boots up. And then — hooray! — you see an Indian boy, and you smile and say, “Hello. Do you know where the Iditarod checkpoint is?”
And he runs away.
So we’re making progress, huh? Pick your spot — then bag it
And, eventually, you find the checkpoint, which is nothing more than a red house belonging to a local resident. And you go inside. And you see the other reporters, photographers and race officials who beat you to it and are already sacked out in the bedrooms. So you find the hostess, a woman named Violet, who is clutching a baby to her chest, and you say, “Pardon me, do you know any place we could sleep tonight?”
And she looks around her house, which is now a mess of bags, equipment, coffee cups, dirty dishes, wet towels and wet clothes, and she points to a space on the living room floor, near the baby’s blanket, and she says, “You can sleep there, I guess.”
And you say, “God bless you.”
But wait. Someone comes up with a better idea. The locals are having bingo night at the Community Hall, which is about 40 snow steps away. When they are done, you are told, you can sleep there, since the building already will be warmed up.
“Great,” Jim says.
“Great?” you say.
And then you sit around that living room, trading war stories for three hours, waiting for bingo to finish. (At one point, Susan Butcher’s husband, David Monson, shows up, ahead of his wife, who is still out there in the frozen darkness, mushing for a fifth championship, and he sees you and asks that very important Iditarod question: “How are the Pistons doing?” But more on that later.)
And then, after what seems like only, oh, four days, it is 11:30. And you pick up your sleeping bags and walk out in the cold — and when I say cold, I don’t mean someone-left-the- window-open cold, I mean, “Look, that guy just turned to ice” cold — and you crunch in snow until you reach the door.
And you chuckle and say, “Come on, this isn’t really a bingo hall, right?”
And you hear a voice from inside. “G-47? . . .”
Bingo. Dogs get hot food; I get candy bars
I should mention here that Iditarod mushers don’t get — or expect — better treatment. They, too, sleep on couches or floors or in empty school halls. Hell, some of them sleep in their sleds. For 12 days. But those people have an excuse. They’re nuts.
Me? Well, as a sports writer, I have developed a personal ranking system of places to sleep on the road. In descending order, it goes like this: 1) Ritz-Carlton; 2) Marriott; 3) Days Inn; 4) my cousin’s house; 5) the couch; 6) stay home.
And then — maybe — the floor of a bingo hall.
But in we go. The locals are just packing up. They fold the chairs and tables. They unplug the machine with the little bingo balls. They point to the massive barrel-type stove and say, “Don’t forget to keep throwing logs inside.”
I walk up to the thing. It is warm, so warm. I hold my hands out, I wiggle my fingers. Warm, so warm. So I put my palms on its hot metal exterior.
And I melt my gloves.
So now I have no gloves. I do have the sleeping bag. And some candy bars. And I guess, if I get restless, I can turn on the ball machine and play bingo.
I shut my eyes. Life on the road in the Iditarod. Somewhere in the darkness the dogs are sleeping on beds of straw and eating hot food.
“This is great, huh?” Jim says, as he pulls himself into his bag.
“Rrrrrufff!” I say. NEXT: The frozen sea.