Every year I mush, I learn something. I learn a lot of things. I have mushed for fifteen years, and this year is no different. I have learned things about dogs, techniques about mushing, about feeding, about pacing. I have learned things about myself. And I have learned things about where I am in the world and what I am doing, on this journey to Iditarod.
When I started this journey… Well, I should say when I started this leg of the journey. I started the whole journey at least fifteen years ago, when I asked Martin Buser if he thought I could run Jr. Iditarod and he called and signed me up right there. Or maybe I started it when I saw my first sled dog and fell in love. Or maybe I started it before we moved to Alaska, and I knew then I would mush. Anyway, the whole journey started a long time ago, but this leg, the final leg, began in September when I sat down with Scott and made my proposal:
I will help you train your dogs for this year’s Iditarod, working for you two weeks on and two weeks off according to your job’s schedule, if I can run Iditarod with these dogs and your help next year. And we shook on it, and it began.
And it’s been a hell of a year. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s been a glorious training season, a group of dogs with strength in their spines and smiles on their faces. This small group has been happy the whole way, growing in their own confidence and ability, and I’ve been growing with them, and floored by them and what they can do.
And in all of that, I have learned a really, really important thing. It comes in some parts.
First, after I run Iditarod, it will be time for me to be done mushing, at least for a little while. The Being Done with Mushing stems from several factors.
The arrangement with my own job is one that I doubt I could find anywhere else, and generous on my boss’s part. When I had the conversation with him, when I asked him if this could work, I told him not to say yes right away, because he’s the kind of guy who wants us all to succeed, wants us all to pursue adventure, and wants us all to reach for bigger things, and we’ll make work work. But I knew that this would be tough on the company and tough on me in the course of my learning. I’m just one year into a job, a technical job, for which I have no formal training, and for which I’ve been on an insane learning curve. (I’m doing well with it, but I also know I can do better.) The nature of our company is such that the winter is the toughest time. So I knew, I knew all of this going in and asking for the impossible… And of course my boss, generous to a fault, said yes anyway. I’m so grateful. And, too, I’m painfully aware that it is a strain on the company, a strain on my own technical learning and ergo my job success, and a strain, of course, on my pocketbook.
I have claimed to strive for financial stability for many years, but this time I’m serious. As a 32 year old woman, after I finish Iditarod, I need to stop messing around. I need to have some kind of base on which to build my life, and the base needs to be not stories, not memories (though those are well and good), but, sadly, money. It’s the way society works. Mushing is not good for that. I am, in the position of basically being a handler, barely scratching the surface of the cost of this. RDR absorbs all the real costs this season. (Next season for my Iditarod I have an insane amount of money to raise but more on that later.) If nothing else, what it certainly means is that any money I make goes to gear, gas to get out to Willow, or supplies for races. Saving, even in this season (or any handling season so far) is a joke. Handling is a financial step back, running Iditarod will be something else entirely. I’ve been living check-to-check since I graduated college, and it’s getting really old. I need a steady job (where I can dedicate my time and effort) and a pastime that doesn’t absorb just absorb money, at least for a few years, so I can do that mythical thing I’ve heard about: SAVE. Time to be boring and responsible. …After Iditarod.
Also, I have some other things in my heart that I want, need, strive to do. The last year and a half I have pushed myself as an athlete, and I’m really happy with that part of my life. I want to do more. I want to accomplish some personal physical goals. I want to embark on some other adventures (initially those will ideally be more cost-effective ones, like backpacking in Hatcher Pass for the price of some Mountain House, or going canoeing with my father). One of my all time favorite bits of music is in the Disney Beauty and the Beast where Belle sings, “I want adventure in the great wide, somewhere… I want it more than I can tell.” (I’m probably misquoting a little, tell me if I’m wrong!) I’ve claimed that tiny mantra since I was a kid. That’s what I’ve wanted– Adventure! Stories I could tell as an old woman, unbelievable tales. I have some! I have many. And mushing makes them, no doubt. But there are other adventures out there! Backpacking, hikes, water travel like sailing and kayaking and canoeing. These are things I want to participate in. Anything with un-mechanical travel across the wilderness, that’s what appeals to me. That’s my vein of gold, my church. Mushing is so huge to me, such an imporant facet. But there are other things, and mushing does two things– it costs a lot, and it takes time. Everything comes at a price: that’s the price of mushing. It’s not a sport, it’s a fully-dedicated lifestyle. I’ve dedicated time to that for many years. And I’m ready, after I accomplish the thing I started out to do at the very beginning– run Iditarod– I’m ready to let it rest for a while. (I’m no fool, I know the siren call of dogs and mushing through quiet snow, I know I’ll be back, I won’t stay away forever.)
And that brings me to the other, maybe most important part of the Thing I Learned This Winter.
I started my little blog– and asked Scott what he felt about me calling it this– and called it “ATAO Kennel.”
That was conceited, and misguided.
I have wanted, or thought I wanted, a kennel, a group of my own dogs, for a long time. That was the only way I envisioned running Iditarod. I’ve worked for people so long, and have not been able to have my own trial and error with a group of dogs. Every year I’ve handled, I’ve yearned to try some things out I certainly couldn’t for the simple reason that these are not my dogs. And I wanted to know if I could successfully race a group of dogs who were mine, my team, my guys. Raised by me, brought up. I thought it was what I wanted.
But everything comes at a price, and quite frankly, despite many oportunities, I haven’t been willing to pay that price. I haven’t been willing to give up the time, I haven’t been willing or able to save the money. (That’s a big one, since I keep starting from negetive numbers, I never get close to investing in what a kennel woudl take.) I haven’t been willing to relocate, or strain my relationship. I haven’t been willing to give up summers to work that would make sense for mushing, and winters to the season. I have wanted all of the things, a kennel of my own AND a life outside of that, and that’s like wanting to be a monk but also maybe going out on the town, carousing with the general populace, and also having a job as a bookie. I think some people do it, but to me, obviously, the cost has been too high.
ATAO has been the name of my fictious kennel in my mind for a long time. It has rung true. When I bought Hooch, I thought that was the beginning of that kennel. But every year I have put off puppies, or buying property where I could mush, or throwing myself headlong into what it takes.
I have stigmatized this a great deal. In mushing, I’m surrounded by people who have done just that, and who continue to urge and encourage me to do the same. Who dedicated every minute of their lives to their dogs. God, it’s all I’ve wanted to be. But it isn’t, either. They are like heros, greek demi-gods, crazy. All-in.
I don’t want to be all-in. Another thing I learned this year, about myself? That’s okay. I have thought that since I am not a kennel owner, since I haven’t given myself over to that final piece, I am not worth my salt, in the end. That’s something I’ve really struggled with. I have measured my worth against what I’m willing to sacrifice for this sport. That is how things are measured, here.
Let’s not get things wrong, though. I’ve worked my ass off, for a lot of people, for a lot of years, to get to do what I’m doing. I’m not a team-renter. I’ve given the literal blood, sweat, and tears. Being a handler is an often unsung, harsh job. I’m respected for that, I think. I’m respected as a handler.
What I learned is that I may never be a musher, the way that a person who builds their team up from the ground is a musher. The way that every day of every year, not just during the season, the dogs come very first. I have had breaks. Vacations from that world. Time where I haven’t had to think of any dogs at all! (Which is totally weird, and I don’t particularly like that, it’s good to have some dogs in one’s world.) And god damn it, I have come to terms, or I am struggling hard to come to terms, with the fact that that’s okay.
I may never own a kennel. I may never be that kind of a musher. I will get to say I ran Iditarod, and I will be so proud of it that I promise I’ll glow when I tell the stories, but I may never be that thing.
Because I want other things in my life, because there are more adventures on the horizon, adventures that can include some kind of adulting and responsibility, because financially it’s 100% ridiculous for me to even try to start a kennel– I am breathing deep and letting that be okay.
And meanwhile, it is profoundly conceited for me to call ATAO a kennel.
That is wrong. I have seen every year (and how do I forget every year after?) the work it takes to be a kennel. The staggering amounts of money. The fact that everything you make or do pours into the dogs and is scooped out on the other end. The love, the love that comes from raising this group from their first day to their last. The incredible work and time and effort.
Here is my blood, sweat, and tears. Here is a dog companion with whom I’ve worked for several seasons and who I’ve come to love more than I imagined. Here is my winter. For that, for fifteen years of that, I think Iditarod is fair. A kennel, the pride that is a kennel: that’s not mine to claim.
Finally, coupled with my realization that Iditarod will be an endcap to mushing for me, for a while, and that I am not a kennel, is the third realization that after I am done with that, Hooch and I have many more adventures to do. Last summer hiking, backpacking, adventuring with that dog, I fell in love with her not as a sled dog, not as an incredible leader, but as a total goof, a huntress of marmots, a runner, flat out, fast as you can, runner. She’s a good girl, and she’s my girl, and I won’t trade her for anything. But I didn’t plan on her being my house pet, my backpacking companion. I planned on her being the matriarch of my kennel. And then we went backpacking, and then this year and my annoyingly adult grappling with reality, and then I realized that that dog is in my life not just to (hopefully) lead me in Iditarod, but to be my buddy in her retirement. To keep me running and hiking and playing. To be my adventure companion.
Hooch and I, we are ATAO. I’ve claimed that from the first. When I got Hooch, we became ATAO. Her and I. Buddies on the trail. I love that crazy dog. And after Iditarod is done, after mushing is done… Our adventures are far from being done.
I want ATAO to go on after Iditarod.
And since it’s not a kennel, not fair to call it that, I have realized, finally, what ATAO is. ATAO is about that word, that mantra that Belle sang about, that ultimate thing that makes the stories and the memories.
ATAO is adventure.
So I’m re-organizing, here. I’ve sat back and thought a lot about it. And now I know, with a little more certainty, who I am, who we are, and what ATAO is.
This website will change, soon, to what it should be called. (Tech wizardry in hand, you should be able to come along and not even notice.) This is ATAO Adventure. Right now, ATAO Adventure is focused on our first big goal: to run Iditarod in 2017. And then? Who knows.
I am not a kennel. I am not a musher in that way. But I am something, and it is not without its merits. Hooch and I are a team, an adventuring team, a team who can see parts of the world some might not even imagine. We’ll be carrying on after the rest of our canine friends have helped us to Nome. We have many more adventures we will do.
Thank you for following us this far.
And welcome to ATAO Adventure.