The Long Year

When you have a goal– a massive, life goal– there is a before, and there is an after. People talk a lot about a sense of loss. Inigo Montoya after killing the six fingered man: “Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” I expected that feeling. I expected that before, and after, the kind that comes with such a huge achievement.

Except, maybe, when that achievement is sort of– half done. Not how you expected. And hey, that’s life, things don’t go as you expect. But this particular thing– finishing Iditarod on the front street of Nome– this is actually a doable achievement. It just happened not to be the one year I got to the start line.

So instead of a befuddled “after” sensation– instead, even, of a loss at what to do next– I have spent the last year simply and single-mindedly preparing.

With the understanding of what a thousand mile race is (sort of… after all, we only did 800), my motivation was not just a longing for the big dream, but a fire under my ass about how that dream would or would not manifest depending on what I did. And, a conflagration of ideas! Things to alter! Things I had to alter. Things it wouldn’t be reasonable to do again over 800+ miles.

As you know, my own health hit a weird wall. Again, I don’t necessarily need to go into all of the details, it’s not exactly pleasant reading. The stuff I’m juggling is not inherently dire, you could really think of it as “sucks to be on the upper half of your 30’s” stuff… But it does also happen to preclude me from mushing, in its weird specific manifestations. So, I made my choice, that’s not news. Thank GOD I did. As I (think I) said in the post where I explained my decision, the universe was throwing a lot of signs at me that were chorusing: HEY. SIT DOWN. STOP TRYING TO PUSH. THIS ISN’T THE TIME.

Trying to be okay with that was really hard. I’m stubborn. I want onward to feel like onward, not… Rest? Healing??? Healing, self-care, recuperation… Those are SUPER ANNOYING for a person who wants to move! move! move!

It’s good I listened when I did.

I have not shared much about our year since I withdrew. Part of it is that I’ve been sad. I know I made the right choice. I have no doubt about that. But I’m still sad. Little moments in life keep reminding me of the trail. Of the way being out there feels. Not just mushing, in general, but Iditarod. There’s something really special about it. Something that fits into my soul in this way I can’t shake. Like I had been missing a part of myself and then ope! There it was. I want to be out there. I yearn for it, the way the dogs do, I think.

So of course I’ve been sad. It’s hard to follow races when you can’t even stand on the runners of a sled.

And aside from sadness, I’ve been dealing with my own other mental health gymnastics. My demons like to trade off. Sometimes depression rules for years. Sometimes anxiety storms into the party and takes all of the attention. For months after Iditarod, I was centered and confident. I felt free. When I feel like that, I swear my mental health personal demons sit in the corner of my brain shin-dig, chuckling to themselves. Knowing that they are just taking a little break before one or the other or some new combo will take the mic again.

When fall hit and the sheer wall of What I Had To Do was just– clearly insurmountable… Anxiety and depression stepped in and said, let’s dance. And they did. Boyyy howdy.

Anxiety, this year, is probably the honest to god number one thing I have been battling. More than the health stuff. More than the logistical stuff. Anxiety is like my new bff. I don’t have an angel and a devil on my shoulders, I have anxiety draped over me like a living ruffled boa, both constricting and decorative and insidious.

I have been on a sled exactly once this year, for one mile.

This was as much as I could do. Partially because of the medical stuff– and that doesn’t help, or maybe you could say it does help, at least it helps the anxiety be more of a central player. It gives the anxiety a lot of power. But more than the physical breaking-down body thing, my anxiety itself has been… What’s the right word. It’s like a tidal wave. But on repeat. It holds me down like water with force can hold you down. You get your head over water, and another wave is coming again.

Anxiety of this type is a major component of my relationship to mushing, these days. By these days I mean, these past many years. Much of my therapy has been focused on reclaiming mushing for myself. It is terrible to have the thing you truly love most be the thing that makes you so overcome with anxiety and fear that you cannot move.

Iditarod reclaimed mushing for me. That is why it was so profound. Why it meant everything.

But in the space between doing the race and preparing to do the race again, anxiety snuck in. Yes, yes, it said, you kicked me out, or got away, but I’m back, baby!!!! And I have even more ammo to use against you, from that very same thing that let you escape!

People think that my anxiety about mushing is about mushing itself. Sometimes there’s a small amount of that. Losing my team, having some kind of crisis happen, that can sit with you in a particular way and make you afraid in a particular way.

My anxiety has nothing to do with that, really, though. My anxiety is a self-perpetuating machine. The thing I’m most anxious about is that my anxiety will prevent me from mushing.

I’m anxious about my anxiety.

Curse my brain.

It takes a specific set of conditions, patterns, and stubbornness– and energy and time and a reduction of other stressors– in order for me to overcome this anxiety to the point where I can move, actually, forward. Last year, I chipped and chipped and chipped away. I just hard-headed my way forward. Doing that is often self-destructive for me. It costs things. It costs sleep and care. It costs health. There’s no doubt that some of my health issue are related to the way I hammered myself into forward action, not just last year, but for 20 years before that. So far, that’s the only way I’ve known how to do it. I also know that it’s not really healthy for me. Yay perfectionism.

This year, when I got to that point where anxiety was peaked, and where it also had its new BFFs pain and health issues at hand, I stood down. I sat down, I guess. Not passively. Or, not in a negative passive way? But I intentionally (mostly) said, I am going to be still. I did not shove forward against the anxiety, and I did not run from it. I was still. I tried to listen to the universe. It sucked. I made the choice I made, with the ever-looming fear of failure realizing itself in full glory again, affirming the underlying anxiety about anxiety. But also with the calculated understanding that the pieces I had on my side of the chess board were winnowed down to a couple pawns and a cornered king. Not conceding the game, but backing off my attack. Trying to move a couple pieces to the end of the board. Who knows if I am even getting close to that kind of progress.

The whole point of this isn’t about that though. It’s about the thank-god-sat-down-part. Because the rest of the year has been an onslaught that I am barely coping with as is. I cannot begin to imagine how I would possibly deal with any of it if I was still training and planning to race. I think almost every single day, thank god I am not racing Iditarod. (And I also think almost every single day how much I long for the trail.)

Much of the ensuing sh*t show is not directly related to me, which is the other big reason I haven’t shared much about it. But it’s all affected me, certainly.

One of the persistent and exhausting things has been the snow. Mushers cheer for snow, pray for it, wish for it. And then there are times, on those rare occasions, when the snow is too much. So much. So much that you are simply and efficiently buried beneath it.

Fairbanks is not a high snow area. Or it didn’t use to be. It gets cold and stays cold: that’s why it works for mushing. Even if you can’t get on sleds, you can train on quads over many miles because things freeze up, vs lower south in AK or elsewhere, the new order is that everything thaws and it rains and you might be able to train on a quad but its in 10 mile circles on repeat.

Last spring, and this entire year, we’ve been just overwhelmed with snow. I can’t describe it. The plowed snow berms to either side of our driveway is twice as tall as our car. The walls of the yurt are just snow, in a circle. Our six foot fence in the back yard has a few inches of chain link poking up. Right after I withdrew from the race, we got this series of snow storms that had us in a perpetual state of digging. That was all we could do. Dig, move dog houses, dig. Dig out fences. Re-hang fences. Dig out cars. Dig off roofs of sheds and buildings. Everything was digging.

At this time, Samantha was training the team almost entirely on her own, because we were (of course) on sleds, and I could not mush on a sled. 1. My foot was messed up. (Found out a few weeks ago that as well as a neuroma, I have a fractured bone in the foot. Ah HA. But, alas, they really can’t do anything about it so I just have to adapt. Okay.) 2. Internal organ health issue that makes donning an entire mushing outfit for hours at a time fairly un-doable for me right now. 3. Anxiety. Knowing I COULD push through the pain, the health problems, the discomfort, etc. Knowing that doing so would make all of those things worse. Knowing how much shame I would feel if I did not push through. Rinse & repeat.

So Sam was head of the sled brigade. That meant training 27 dogs on her own. When I could, I would mush a team on the four wheeler ahead of her and she would mush behind on a sled.

(A huge hitch in the start of the season was that the second quad I had been able to acquire was Super Not Ready To Work. It needed to be fixed. I was in progress of doing that, but it was a huge learning curve for me; then things froze and it snowed. I’d also been working on an insulated shed where I could work on a quad like that, but again, weather, and I was more or less screwed. I had no time, no money, and now no warm area in which to work. Just before giving up Iditarod, I had to give up the stupid four wheeler project for next year, and the shed project. Both of which would have alleviated a huge number of issues that we’d been juggling and which ended up coming into play later. But, such was life.)

The last real training run I did was mid November. I went out on the four wheeler ahead of Sam, on a sled. My health, organ, discomfort games came into play, and it was one of the most painful runs I’ve done, on any mechanism. Including my own two feet. And, to make it even better, because on T my feet have grown (cool!), they now don’t fit into my normal boots (uh oh), and so were getting crushed even though I was sitting down, and at the end of the run I had an extremely difficult time walking (yikes bikes). I hadn’t even been standing on runners yet. So I knew that was not good.

Sam transitioned to being the full time musher. She was doing good. It was a lot of work. I felt myself fall behind, falling behind the bonding with the dogs. Behind in the trail and the miles. My goal at this point was to try to recover enough to get back on the sled in time for Iditarod. I tried to make an emergency appointment for my foot. The best the clinic could do was, of course, weeks out. I was running endless calculous to try to make the timing work out. Could I make it? Could I train on a sled for a month and be ready? I really didn’t think so. And even though Sam was doing an amazing job, one person training 27 dogs means that contingent of dogs is not going to get as much training as is ideal. It’s too many: it crosses the threshold. It’s three teams, ultimately.

A month after I stopped mushing, Sam went on a camping trip. It was something I set up for her and a fellow mushing buddy to have a nice night, amid a ton of hard work.

Sam had the Spot tracker on her, as always. The next morning, I was watching her progress back home. She’d been camping across the road (the Chena Hotsprings “high way”, a 2-lane, iced over roller coaster with 55 mph speed limits). The way we cross the road to where she was at is over the pavement. Road crossings are always scary. For this one, you parallel the road for a bit, which lets you watch for cars both ways. There’s decent visibility in either direction. You have the ability to brake before you’d get up on the pavement.

This day was after more snow. The roads had been plowed. The berms to either side were big. The time of day that Sam was coming home was that flat-light time of day. Sam had Aurora and Rey in lead. Good leaders, but not quite as veteran as some.

Probably because of the light and the confusing looking berm, things went really sideways. The dogs began the crossing, and then, as they were partway over, Rey and Aurora took a right. Likely they couldn’t see the trail in the berm. So they went to the next trail they saw: the road.

Because of the berm, Sam’s sled flipped onto its side. One of Sam’s gloves fell off. We often take gloves off in preparation for tricky navigation, because you have a better grip with bare hands. Maybe she was holding the glove with a finger, or maybe it just flew away. However it happened, the glove flew off behind her. It was -20 degrees. Because she is hard core, Sam hung on.

Dragging behind a sled is always awful.

Dragging behind a sled on pavement, on a highway, holding on with a hand you are watching turn white, is traumatic.

At home, I got a call from Sam’s phone. I have my phone set to let Sam’s number come through in any circumstance whatsoever. I know if she’s calling something is up. When I answered, Sam was sobbing. She couldn’t form a coherent thought, except that her phone was on 1% and was about to die. Someone in the background said, “Here.” The phone got handed off, and a middle-aged white lady spoke. A middle-aged white lady talking on the phone of someone who is supposed to be in the wilderness is a bad sign. The lady talked to Sam: “It’s okay, it’s okay honey.” Then she talked to me. “Hi Will. Your dogs are–“

The phone died.

I checked the spot tracker. Maybe I had already been pulling it up. Maybe I had started pulling it up when I got the call.

The tracker was near the road crossing. Not quite in it. But close.

I assumed my team had been hit by a car.

Spoiler: all the dogs in this story are 100% fine. Great even. If you follow ATAO, you probably know that already, because you would have seen updates about them in Buddy emails or on Twitter or wherever. Everyone is okay. But at the time, I did not know what was happening, except that it was not good.

Later, I’d go back to where I had been working and see the evidence of my reaction. You could follow the line of clothes. I must have just dropped trou and ran. You don’t want to wear cotton (unlined) carhartts in the woods in -20. I guess I found a pair of down pants. A sweater. Gloves. I didn’t know if I’d have to be running down the trail. Maybe the dogs weren’t hit, but maybe the team was lost. I didn’t know.

I got in the car and drove. I called a fellow musher (Ryne Olson) who owns a tour company a few miles from the road crossing. I told her something was up and to head towards the crossing with a machine. She was literally in the middle of a tour, but she jumped on a snow machine and went there. Wilderness code, mushing code. Also just a good friend.

I was about 7 miles from where the crossing was. As I sped that way in my completely frosted over truck, Sam’s number called again. This time a trooper answered. Also not a great sign.

“Your dogs are okay,” he said. (A thousand weights lifted off my shoulders. A thousand goodbyes I’d already been trying to understand how to say got pushed off for another day. I couldn’t stop thinking about Furiosa. I don’t know why her, but she kept popping up.) “But your handler is severely injured. We are waiting on EMS now.”

I told them I was coming.

When I got there, a team of fourteen extremely excited dogs was being held in the berm off the side of the road. Ryne was there, helping hold the team. So was a group of shell-shocked tourists. So were two troopers. Sam was in a patrol vehicle, being blocked in by one of the troopers. Not under arrest, just stubbornly refusing to leave the team til they literally made her. Her hand was frostbit; the troopers wouldn’t let me see. She was sobbing.

She had dragged behind the team for three miles down the highway. We determined later it must have been 12-15 minutes. That’s a long time to be helpless. On pavement and ice, snow hooks don’t do anything. The berms to each side of the road were too loose to catch with a hook or anything. The dogs were in hog heaven, flying. Sam tried to get them to turn down side roads a couple times, but the number one way you communicate with the dogs is with resistance, the brake. Brake means turn. There was no braking, there was no resistance.

A red truck came up behind Sam. Drove alongside her. Made eye contact with her as she screamed for help. And then drove on.

If I could find that human, I would not be kind to them. I would not be forgiving.

A tour bus came upon them next, driving the other way I think, towards them. The bus recognized immediately that this was an issue, and turned around. An SUV of tourists, meanwhile, came up from behind the team. I think Sam said that someone from one of these cars tried to catch the team on foot, which is laughable. When that didn’t work, the SUV went around and in front of the team. The stopped in the middle of the road and– Sam said like they had syncronized it on purpose– opened all four doors, trying to block the team’s way.

The dogs said, weird obstacle, and went around the doors on the right. Sam said, crap. Happy dogs drug the sled THROUGH the front passenger door, ripping it completely backwards against the car.

One of the tourists– a guy who actually lives here, the rest of the folks were visiting family– jumped onto the sideways sled with Sam, thinking he could slow it down or stop it. For a moment they were both riding the sled, no traction whatsoever. Later I offered him a real sled dog ride– He paled and said, no thanks. As in, never again, thanks.

Another of the group had managed to catch the leaders, which was the smartest move of all. The rest of the team didn’t care that the leaders were stopped, but they ended up in a confused ball.

Moments later, two trooper vehicles pulled up. This was totally by chance. They had been heading out to do “something with fish,” whatever that means. Luckily they were better dressed than the tourists and equipped to do first responder stuff for Sam.

At first the whole group kept trying to get Sam to get off the sled. By this point, the sled was upright and Sam was standing on the brake. None of the other people there understood how strong the dogs were or how ready they would be to take right back off if given the chance. Sam knew that and she wasn’t letting go, even though her hand was completely white. She’d gotten frostbite, bad.

She got the group to move the team off the road at least, but even standing in the deep snow of the berm, the team pointed towards the trail, it took four of the big burly guys to hold the dogs back.

When Ryne showed up, they were able to convince Sam to get into a vehicle and warm up.

It took teamwork and help from neighbors and good samaritans and a bunch of other things to get the team home safe. EMS came and looked at Sam. Ultimately she did not go to the ER, but had to watch her hand close. We all learned a lot about frostbite. (I learned that I’ve had a lot of frostbite, but I didn’t understand what it was fully.)

Sam couldn’t mush, at least not for some time. It was imperative that she not expose her hand to cold again in the next few months. Meanwhile the mercury dropped back to -40. So we had no mushers. I had already, just days before, withdrawn from Iditarod. I made the call. I listened to the universe. I canceled our whole season.

Sam was devastated. She’d been working so hard to make this year happen. To get her qualifiers at least.

It wasn’t in the cards.

What happened was awful; it was also so much better than it could have been. I am so grateful for the tenacity that Sam had shown. I am so, so grateful my dogs were not just alive, but all completely okay. It feels selfish, how grateful I am about that.

Calling the season sucked, but i t was the right thing.

The Copper Basin was next on our list of races, coming up in less than a week. There was no way Sam could run this, and I hadn’t been on a sled. That kind of a race isn’t one to do with literally zero sled hours under your belt for the year. I’m glad we missed it; the race sounded miserable. Also, Sofia the truck started having issues days before we would have left. We would have been screwed. The eventual quote from the dealer (where I went hoping the issues would be under warranty) was almost 2k, which I definitely didn’t have. I had them do the stuff I couldn’t do, and still walked away with a $1200 bill, that I, again, super couldn’t afford.

Because we weren’t fundraising for a race, per se, it became harder to raise even the amount we’d had last year, and it also became a lot harder to ask. Not to mention, a ton of other cursed mushing things were going on. It feels really stupid to ask for money “just to legit keep things going” while people are trying to save dogs who have been stomped by moose or hit by vehicles or any of the other ton of other horrible things that have happened this year. I did ask a couple times, and in those times, y’all pulled us through. I also borrowed. To pay for the truck, to pay for food, to pay for bills. Our electricity and heating oil bill, thanks to both the snow and the extreme dips of cold we kept getting, have been higher this year than they have ever been. The electricity bill this past two months have each been higher than the rent I’ve paid at most places I’ve lived.

A month after this issue, we lost a friend. The details of this are not really mine to share. It was a dog, but a dog who for a while was like my own, and who managed to snag a piece of my heart before I knew how to armor it off against such things. His passing was very difficult. It’s impossible to really describe the experience of that in any kind of adequate way, so I’ll leave it at that.

Last week, in a blatant move to take away all my health sympathy, Shawn developed a very sudden issue which meant that we had to spur of the moment drive down to Anchorage for them to get surgery. The surgery went relatively well, and it seems generally like everything was dealt with in as timely and positive-outcome a manner as you could hope, but it was extremely stressful and frankly scary. To make the drive down, we left at 1am on Thursday night. We drove nine hours through a massive snow storm. It was in the top three worst drives I’ve ever done. We made it to the morning appointment Shawn had to attend in person with about 10 minutes to spare.

Since we were in Anchorage, where many of my docs were, I scheduled some tests and things too. The nature of the surgery meant that we had to be down there for five days. I got to get poked and prodded and generally eviscerated in ways that I think will haunt me for a while. I argued and tried to convince docs about a possible thing that could help me, but which would be a stretch. I didn’t win, at least not yet. But I’m gonna have to fight to get this thing, and that’s exhausting.

Shawn had their surgery. The out of pocket cost was more than we had. I had to reduce costs on multiple fronts, over and over. I watched our bills coming due and tried to figure out how the hell I was going to juggle them. I put off medical bills of my own that I just can’t pay. Same plan as student loans, just hope I’ll be rich some day. (Being a dog musher is a very very very bad plan of how to be rich.)

We drove back overnight again, through the icy aftermath of the storm. We brought back old man Coby, who barks incessantly these days, in a voice that he’s losing.

Somehow I managed to get to the relative end of this story without making it sound like an end. Maybe because it’s the middle. I don’t know. I’m tired.

Shawn said I should share this stuff, in part to apologize. Last month we didn’t get our Buddy updates out. That stuff eats at me. I know I owe y’all content. Updates, pictures, some of the joy that we all need. We’re gathering it, it’s in process! It’ll be in your inboxes soon. We have some great updates for this year, even when the dogs aren’t in training. They get to do a lot more goofy things during their free play times. They’re doing tours now, too, with Sam. They’re having fun; they always do. I’ll share that fun with you too. Because it is important to me that I get to do that, for you, for you folks who just keep being there for us.

Shawn also said, “People like your transparency and realness about stuff that happens.” I said, “You’re right.” And I thought about it and just plainly realized, “I definitely haven’t been trying to hide anything, I just haven’t had any time to share stuff.”

And that’s true.

So here’s the update.

Somehow Iditarod is around the corner. I’m profoundly, wildly grateful I’m not there. And I’m deeply sad about it too.

I want to be there next year. It’s all I want. Even as all of the pressures, all of the stuff that just keeps raining down, and all of the damn anxiety are intrinsically tied to it, part and parcel. I don’t care. It’s what I love. I will be on the trail again.

Maybe sometimes onward isn’t rest or movement at all: it’s just re-affirming that it’s what you want, what you must be. Who you are.

So, here I am.


3 Responses

  1. Darlene Y.
    | Reply

    Well that was a rollercoaster of emotions to read. My heart goes out to all of you. Please take care of yourselves. I don’t interact much on Twitter anymore but I still love and support Atao. I wish for a better year for you all.

  2. Liz
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing. Sometimes bad news is hard to share because you are trying to settle, to process, and even support feels like one more thing, when you don’t have energy for all the things you already have.
    I have anxiety too and for me it’s the quiet times, the silence, when I can’t keep busy and I’m all too aware if the things I’m not doing that it hits the worst.
    I hope it gets better. I won’t give advice but I will just say this. I support you. You have people who love and are rooting for you. And those anxiety thoughts might convince you that you owe everyone something, but your health and sanity are what matter most. Take care of yourself. And I’m hoping everything gets better for you.

  3. Sarah Philips
    | Reply

    Rooting for you and supporting your efforts are easy decisions. Just because you aren’t bleeding on the outside doesn’t mean everything is fine on the inside. There are a lot of things on your plate, when it feels like to much, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

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