IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 11:

In which we learn absolutely nothing, except that someone night be dead out there. NOME, Alaska — And the winner is . . .

Nobody?

“Have you heard anything?” someone asked in the confused race headquarters on Front Street, where this grueling Iditarod dogsled race was supposed to have ended already — and I was supposed to be heading back to Planet Earth. “What’s the latest?”

“I heard Susan turned around,” someone answered. “She went back to White Mountain! And so did Martin Buser. They couldn’t handle the storm. But Rick Swenson is still out there. He’s gonna kill himself!”

“He’s not gonna kill himself; he’s just lost,” interrupted someone else.
“And so is Joe Runyan. But I heard Martin Buser is winning.”

“Buser’s not winning; he’s going backward,” someone else said. “And Runyan turned around, too. But I heard Swenson has a secret cabin he’s hiding in.”

“A secret cabin? Really?”

Rumors flew. Rumors bounced. Where was everybody? Where was anybody? Suddenly, the Last Great Race on Earth was the Biggest Mystery in Alaska. Front Street in Nome, normally a wild celebration at this point, was nearly empty, the finish banner hanging from two telephone poles, swaying in the wind. The whole town, it seemed, was inside the wood-paneled community center, bumping into one another, trying to get some news. It looked like Republican headquarters on election night. “What’s the latest? What’s the latest? . . .

Here was the latest: After 1,086 miles of unforgiving wilderness, frozen rivers and black trees and snow drifts so high you could rent them for condos, after 11 days of weather shifts, snowstorms and sunspots and raw ice that left the dogs’ paws bleeding in the snow, after lead changes and strategy backfires and sleeping bag nights on the icy frontier with only God as company — after all that, all the Iditarod can be, suddenly, the mushers were stuck. A storm had blown up during the final leg of the race, forcing Butcher, who had had a comfortable lead, to turn her dogs around after six terrible hours and seek shelter at the previous checkpoint, along with Runyan and Tim Osmar.

Swenson, however, Butcher’s arch-rival — of whom one musher reportedly said, ‘He’s gonna win this year or kill himself” — was more stubborn. He pushed on into the blinding snow, hoping to find the trail, to find a miracle, to win this race one more time.

And no one had heard from him since.

“His dogs can handle this,” someone insisted. “He knows what he’s doing.”

“It’s not safe; no one should be out there!” said someone else.

“It’s his best chance. It’s his only chance.”

“Have you heard anything?”

I found the coffee pot and filled another styrofoam cup. So this is what it had come down to after all those miles of Alaskan wilderness; sitting in a community center, listening to radio reports. My trusty pilot, Jim Okonek, who had flown me from one lonely village to another, criss-crossing Alaska. He took one look at the frosty white skies this time and shook his head. “No way we can go in this,” he said. And Jim used to fly through bullets.

No way to fly. But could they mush? And if so, who was winning? Did we have . . . an upset? The night before, we had been at the White Mountain Hunting and Fishing Lodge, just 77 miles from the finish line. There we ran into Charlie Butcher, Susan’s father, who was smiling, in a jovial mood. And why not? His daughter, at that point, was about as sure a bet as Tyson vs. Douglas. Michael Douglas.

“Congratulations,” Butcher said, hugging his son-in-law, David Monson, who had just come in from the trail.

“Well, we’re not across the finish line, yet,” Monson said, a little sheepishly.

You got that right, David. And in this race, if you’re not across the finish, you’re nowhere. In just one moonless night, Susan Butcher, the defending champ, had gone from hunted to hunter. She was behind. She could lose! At White Mountain, where she sat, resting her dogs, she had smugly told reporters, “If Rick can make it through that weather, well, more power to him. But when I last saw him, he didn’t have very high hopes.” Maybe not. But he was still out there in all his macho swagger, battling that blinding storm. And you can bet every leather jacket and tattooed arm in Alaska was pulling for him to get to that finish line and show the women of this state that the men weren’t dead yet.

“They found him! He’s moving!” someone said.

“He survived the storm. He’s 40 miles away!”

“Nobody’s confirmed that.”

“What’s happening?”

I swallowed another swig of coffee and held a radio to my ear. What was the last sporting event I’d covered that I couldn’t see the finish? There was the America’s Cup Final in Australia, but I missed that because I became nauseated on the boat. There was that NFL playoff game a few years ago, between Chicago and Philadelphia, where the fog got so thick you couldn’t see the field. But even then we knew they were out there somewhere.

But this? Swenson could be on the trail, he could be in Siberia, he could be dead. Who knew? The planes couldn’t fly, the snowmobiles couldn’t run, and you can bet your butt nobody was walking out there. Not with the temperature at 20 below zero, the wind at 30 miles per hour, and the snow such a maddening swirl all you could see was white, white, white. Nuh- uh. For now, this was Swenson’s dogs vs. the Wilderness. And the game was being played on nature’s home court. No tickets. No TV. Whatever happened down the stretch, we would not see it. We would only hear about it later.

Which, I figure, is just about the way Swenson would like it. Win the race, tell the story for the rest of his life. Hot damn, the guy becomes a legend! Let’s face it. He had played his hand here; he was going for the gusto. With weary dogs and a blizzard in his face, he either pushed on, found Nome — or he packed it in and kept right on driving back to Two Rivers, his home town. After all, he wasn’t just trying to win this race. He was trying to beat Wonder Woman. The Swenson-Butcher rivalry is big stuff, the second thing you learn here in Alaska. (The first is to buy polypropylene underwear.) He was the king until Butcher came along, having won four Iditarods, but he has been winless ever since, while Butcher has captured the crown four times herself. The T-shirts came out: “ALASKA — WHERE MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN WIN THE IDITAROD.”

And the more he denied it, the more obvious it was that Butcher’s success was driving Swenson batty. Once friends, they became bitter competitors. At one point during this race, Swenson told a reporter, “If she weren’t a woman, I’d punch her lights out.”

Now he had the chance. Win this Iditarod — especially this way, with a good old fashioned spit-in-the-face-of-death homestretch — and he’d be a hero in Alaska forever. The men in the bars would talk about him all winter, how he braved the wilderness while “the girl” sat back in White Mountain, waiting for better weather. It is foolish, crude, and sexist, of course. But then, we aren’t exactly in San Francisco here.

“Someone saw him from a snowmobile!”

“He’s 32 miles from Nome!”

“Who said that?”

“I don’t know.”

I turned off the radio. I went for the coffee pot. I thought of Butcher, nervously squirming in White Mountain. I thought of Runyan and Osmar, looking at the sky and wondering whether they should have plugged away. I thought of Swenson out there, mushing those dogs, and wondered whether he had a radio with him, whether he was hearing what we were hearing. And whether, in some weird, twisted moment, he wasn’t smiling through that blizzard.

I filled another cup, found a seat, and sighed. What the heck? A few more hours in the Lonely Country wouldn’t kill anybody.

Would it? . . .

TOMORROW: The End, for sure.

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