IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 9:
In which we encounter the sea, the sandman and the frozen soap.
UNALAKLEET, Alaska — Night has fallen. The cold winds howl. The villagers stand like statues atop giant snow drifts. In heavy coats and seal-skin hats, they gaze silently out toward the frozen water, like proud pioneers.
And I stand beside them, my knees shaking like Jell-O.
We are one big, happy family here at the End of the World, the Bering Sea, next stop Siberia. It is the last place anyone would come to visit. But tonight we look for a headlight in the wilderness. Tonight, someone is coming to visit. I hope. Or else I’m totally lost.
“There!” one of them yells, pointing into the darkness.
“Right there. See it?”
The villagers begin to buzz. The children squeal and slide down the snow drifts. Is that a headlight? Is that a dog team?
“Is it Susan?”
“It must be Susan.”
“HERE SHE COMES!”
Church bells ring. Windows open. Mothers and children dart out of homes and converge on the narrow snow path, their feet sliding as they run. In a twisted way, it is like a scene from an MGM musical, this entire town, in the middle of nowhere, ready to burst into song.
It is the Night of the Dogs, the night the Iditarod drops in from the darkness. We are in the 10th day of the Last Great Race on Earth. The mushers are dizzy and exhausted — their dogs dropping, their sleds breaking — but they push on. And each evening, when they show up, some village like this comes to life, most of them places that won’t have a night like this the rest of the year. Hunting villages, fishing villages. The frozen outposts of the Lonely Country.
“Hoooeee! I may stay open for hours!” howls Ray Caudill, cook at the Unalakleet Lodge, a coffee and sandwich place that doesn’t see this much action in a month. He eyes the crowd — sponsors, journalists, townspeople — then dumps another basket of French fries into the grease. “Business keeps up like this, I may not close all night.”
“What time do you normally close?” I ask.
“About 3 in the afternoon.”
Suddenly, the first musher arrives from the darkness. It is Susan Butcher.
(Of course it is Susan Butcher. She will win this race again, if you ask me, mostly because she owns it, which I’ll soon explain.) As her dogs trot into town like Roman soldiers back from the wars, she is mobbed by the townspeople. They surround her. They want to touch her.
“IS THERE A CHECKER HERE?” she yells, like Mick Jagger yelling from inside his fan club. Someone rushes in with a clipboard. A little girl tries to tug Butcher’s leg. An old man yells, “Give her room! Give her room!”
The winds are howling. The village has gone nuts. It is the Night of the Dogs, and more will be here soon.
Me, I’m just trying to find a shower. And I will do anything. I will beg. I will pay. I will sign on as sports columnist with the Unalakleet News
— a lifetime contract — if only they provide some hot water. After three days of sleeping wherever there’s an empty spot on the floor — and that includes a bingo hall one night and a school gymnasium the next — after three days of bumping along in sleds being dragged by snowmobile, three days of eating candy bars and Fig Newtons, three days of stepping — oops . . . aww, damn it! — in doggie droppings, only to find at the end of the day that the only bathroom has but a sink and cold water, well, I don’t normally resort to this, but I do find myself yelling: “Calgon, take me away!”
It doesn’t work.
So I begin my own Iditarod: The quest for hot water. I crawl around the buildings; I sniff like a dog; I search for a trail, seeking markers such as
“Men’s Room.” Finally, in the back of the town gymnasium, I discover . . . a shower! OK, so it has no door. And no curtain. And the faucets are loose. And the floor tile is broken. And it smells funny, like raw eggs. So it’s a shower Attila the Hun might look at and say, “Nah, I’ll wait.”
But I cannot wait because I smell like a raccoon. And so, while villagers clamor outside, I strip off my 43 layers of clothing and step gingerly under the water.
And I grab the shampoo.
And I squeeze.
And it is frozen solid.
In fact, everything is frozen solid: the shampoo, the conditioner, even the soap breaks apart in my hands. Also, I forgot, I did not pack a towel. So I basically let the water run for a few minutes, then step out, more wet than clean, and dry myself with a T-shirt.
And in bursts my trusty pilot, Old Jim Okonek, the combat veteran, and his eyes light up. “All right!” he says. “A shower, huh? This is first-class!”
I am beginning to wonder about him.
Back to the race, which is a battle near the front: Butcher, followed by a half-dozen challengers, each hoping to destroy her dynasty. They will chase her the final 250 miles, down the homestretch, along the Bering Sea, through tiny Eskimo villages and miles of blinding white landscape. Their enemies, at this point, are not just Butcher’s superdogs but their own desperate need for sleep.
Which, after waking up this morning between two snoring pilots, is something I can understand.
“I gotta find a place to lie down,” says a bleary-eyed musher named Mike Madden, who was in 17th place when he stumbled into our little gym early Tuesday morning. If he was coming here to sleep he had to be desperate. “I’ve been out there all night, so tired that I tied myself to the sled then stuck my head between the handlebars. I did it so my headlamp would point forward and make the dogs think I was awake — and then I dozed off. I’m really beat.”
He waddles toward a mattress and falls in.
They are all just as weary, these mushers. But the winners will not sleep, not more than an hour here and there. They will find a way to fight the drowsiness; they will stab it away like Zorro. Never mind that they have been pushing through the Alaskan landscape for a week and a half, through mountains and trees and the mighty Yukon River. Never mind that their bodies are exhausted, their minds dopey, their dogs panting and sore. Never mind that they will soon suffer hallucinations from lack of rest, mirages of buildings and sticks and monsters. Never mind. They are within 250 miles of Nome, the finish line.
You snooze, you lose.
By morning the snow is blowing wild and furious, and the village has turned blizzard-white. “Too dangerous to fly,” says Old Jim, shaking his head. A dozen mushers have already been here and gone. The village has settled back to its lonely routine. Tonight it will be some other town that lights up, ablaze with the annual Iditarod madness. And then the dogs will be off to the next stop, leaving a trail of memories — and plenty of yellow snow. Thanks for dropping by, fellas.
But let me tell you something that breaks this whole race apart. I am sitting in the bowels of the gym Monday, staring at my sleeping bag, dreaming of a Westin Hotel, king size bed, and I notice a woman a few bunks over. She says hello. Her name is Donna King, wife of musher Jeff King, who led this race for a while. Donna has been here, sleeping on a mattress, for three days now, waiting for a glimpse of her husband. I ask whether she will get to spend any time with him when he stops.
“We’re not allowed,” she says. “Spouses are only supposed to say hello and good-bye, basically.”
I laugh. “Nah, come on. I’ve seen Susan Butcher’s husband hanging around her for hours.”
Donna King rolls her eyes. “Things are a little different for Susan.”
And after checking around, I find out she’s wrong. Things are not a little different for Susan; they are a lot different. Major league different. All sorts of advantages, such as better accommodations, more sleds, her own airplanes circling overhead. Suddenly, as the mushers head down the homestretch of the Last Great Race on Earth, I begin to wonder whether this is even a fair fight.
So I set out in search of the race marshal. And I am walking in this blizzard — why? because I’m an idiot — and a snowmobile pulls up and the driver waves.
“Have you been on the trail yet?” he asks.
“The trail? Of course not. We can’t fly.”
He grins. “Do you want to ride with me out there? See what it’s like first-hand?”
An intelligent man would laugh. An intelligent man would say, you don’t take a snowmobile out on the frozen water. An intelligent man would say, “No, thank you, I prefer to live a healthy and productive life.”
I of course say, “Sure. Why not?”
Because, as I said, I’m an idiot.
And off we go, into the storm. . . . TOMORROW: Who’s fooling whom?