In 2000, I stood on the runners of a sled dog team for the first time. I had wanted to since I was seven, maybe before that, but definitely since we moved to Alaska. Dogs and cold and adventure. I longed for it.
In 2001, I ran my first sled dog race. I was incredibly blessed to learn the sport from one of the people who was best at it in the world. How often can you say you know someone who is the best in the entire world at what they do? Martin Buser was my mentor, and is constantly my teacher, even just in retrospect. His family, who my parents call our extended family here, took in this busy high school freshman and took the time to teach her the ropes, and feed her, and be such good people to her. I can never thank them enough. Happy Trails Kennel was… This home in a way that was all the way down to the bone, to the history of me. I belonged there, not just there, but with the dogs, on the trail, doing this crazy, strange thing that is mushing. There was a night, scooping poop, that I looked up at the stars and the way they glared back at me, I knew that this, right then, was actually heaven. I was in the most incredible peace, the most incredible rightness.
I was so lucky to get to run 10 of those athletes in the Jr. Iditarod. It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was hard. It was cold. It was grueling. I won’t say I loved every minute of it. It was really, really difficult. On the way back, on the home stretch, exhausted (because I did not heed advice to sleep at the checkpoint), and feeling disgruntled (because I had delusions of winning dancing in my head), two things happened. A huge paradigm shift.
I realized that soon the hard part would be done. And that soon my year of mushing— which then I thought might be my only year of mushing— would be over. Most of all, I realized that I would be somewhere warm. Discomfort over soon, good. The end of this thing I loved, not as good. Bittersweet. I understood that in order to get through this hard part, I had only to think about the way time works. That you blink and you are suddenly looking back on something, that you are through it, or that it’s over.
And I realized, too, that my grumpy, competitive attitude was getting my dogs down. I have never, ever seen this so apparent as on that race. I had a team of yearlings who I had been working with all year. Except for one veteran (who endured us with grace), it was all of our first race. I got into my head that we needed to be the BEST. That we needed to GO FASTER. DO BETTER. And, of course, no one was having fun. We took a break on the trail and I thought about this. And it occurred to me to wonder why I was there. Well, to have fun, right? And I laughed. What was I even doing? I wasn’t having fun. The dogs weren’t having fun. This was ridiculous. So I shook my head, and I shook away all of the unnecessary pressure, and I looked at those dogs and realized (again) that I might never get the chance to do this again. And I was overwhelmed with gratitude to be exactly where I was, cold and uncomfortable and in the middle of nowhere on a snowy trail. I told those dogs how amazing they were, and they looked at me like, “Did you say fun? Oh yeah… This IS fun!!! This is our favorite thing in the world!!!” And we all got up together and finished that race smiling huge; and I have never, ever since then let my dogs see anything other than enjoyment on the trail, if I can help it. I’ve been through some rough races, but I’m proud to say that my dogs have always wagged their tails and smiled at the end of it, and we’ve been happy the whole way.
I don’t know why this is so easy to do on the trail. Maybe it was just that one moment, that formative moment, where I realized that my attitude literally fueled us forward. Why can’t that translate to life more fluidly?
2001 was also the year I became depressed. There were many factors— My body chemistry was drastically altering, I entered high school, I put enormous pressure on myself to excel. Instead of giving myself a break, I pushed harder. My life was on a schedule. I had benchmarks I needed to meet. If I could dream it I could achieve it.
But I couldn’t, not always, and I began to break. I hid my depression successfully for three years. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I became more and more self-destructive. My senior year of high school, I became such a danger to myself that it became rapidly apparent to my peers and the adults in my life, and I started my first round of therapy.
I went to college. I saw more therapists. I was on meds. I struggled. I ended up in the hospital twice, in a white room with no sharp objects and a man down the hall who told me he was Jesus. I got new meds. I stopped taking the meds. I continued to self-destruct.
Depression wasn’t— isn’t— something that looks like it will end. For some people it doesn’t. What happens, or at least what happened for me, is that you learn to… Cope. You learn to manage.
I am lucky in that my depression has subsided a lot since my early twenties. Now the demon comes in the form of anxiety, panic attacks that render me newly unable to breathe, or cyclical thought patterns that are irrational and incorrigible.
Remember mushing? Remember looking up at the stars and knowing that then, right then, I was in heaven?
I had to go back to it.
In high school, I got to mush with the Darnells’ Happy Howls Kennel for three more years. I raced two more Jr.’s, and my first “adult” race. It was all just as hard, just as instructive, just as perfectly zen on those nights when the northern lights screamed out, just as cold and miserable and harsh, and just as tough to get through, and as wonderful on the other side.
In college, I couldn’t mush for four years. The winter after I graduated, I stayed in the Twin Cities, but when the racing season rolled around, I was charged, I was fired up, I didn’t know why I was there when I could be in Alaska, and mushing.
In 2009/2010, I went back. I signed on as a handler for the Seavey’s. I received a mushing education I’d never experienced. In high school, I had mushed after school and on weekends. At the Seavey’s, there were no weekends. I worked massive hours day after day. I had 48 hours off the entire season, for Christmas— a rarity for handlers. I mushed, and mushed. I ran my first mid distance race, the Copper Basin 300.
I still struggled with depression. My co-handler, Sam, was studying to be a psychiatrist, so he was interested in my struggle, and talked to me a lot.
By this time, I had eschewed therapy and meds. I am not prescribing this practice: I was bucking things. I was okay, but not good.
I made it through. I have always made it through, sometimes by a hair. There have been ups and downs, some more extreme than others. And through it all, I keep going back to the dogs.
Here is why I mush.
Though it can be the toughest, most miserable thing you’ve done; though it requires your wakefulness for hours, days, months; though it is cold and unforgiving; though you will be hurt, and dirty, and beat down; though you can only endure all of these things:
It is now.
It is now in such a merciless way. Sometimes, it is now in a way that is eternal, that is transcendent. Sometimes, it is now in a way that makes you question all of the choices that got to the now. Sometimes, it is now in pain, and discomfort, and loss.
Most of all, it is a now that demands your presence.
I have discovered that it is difficult to feel the caving weight of depression when your toes are about to freeze off, your lead dogs have cut loose from your team, and there is a moose blocking the trail. You may feel and entire slew of other emotions at this, like overwhelming terror! But you cannot dwell, you cannot circle the endless, pointless questions that are the little pallbearers of depression and anxiety. You have to DO something. NOW.
And so you do. Over, and over again, you do, in the now.
For your reward, you get the most spectacular vistas, scenes people couldn’t dream of if they tried. Mountainscapes under starlight. The tiny dots of headlights across tundra as wide as the horizon. Sunrises that mean hope. All of it Now.
And in that now, there is something else. There is the truth about time. How it flows by so fast. How although it’s all now, it’s all changing, too. And soon enough, no matter what discomfort, it will have gone by. This, too, shall pass… No truer words were said.
When I can’t be in the now, the way mushing lets me be: when the anxiety swallows me up, and depression still threatens on the edges, I think of this. It will pass. I know it will because there have been those moments of now. It is a thousand times harder to believe the dark thoughts, the heavy ones, will pass you by, too, if you wait, than it is to believe that the cold will end. Cold and nature and mountains seem like nothing against those thoughts.
But it all passes. It all changes. I can get through it. You can too.
I get on the runners not because I love the mountains and snow and skies, although I do. I get on the runners because I need to. Because I need to get up against that now, and be there. And because of the dogs. The dogs are the ones who take me there. The dogs are the ones who know. The dogs, who are my people, who are more than my people, who are my guys. They look at me and they KNOW this secret. They’ve known it the whole time. Be NOW they say.