I just returned from checking out my friend Kim's set at Folk Fest. Kim is a Type-A lawyer who lives in Anchorage. She's carved out this idyllic Alaska lifestyle for herself, though, residing on the outskirts of the city in a sod-roof cabin that has two big spruce trees growing out of the roof. Her nearest neighbors are sled dogs. She ice climbs. And she's an avid old-time fiddler.
As I watched her saw frantically at her violin tonight, I was flooded with the memories of the last time I saw her, on Feb. 23, the night before the Iditarod Invitational. The top picture is from that night. I realized that I never told my story of the night before the race. It was a bewildering tornado of a Saturday that couldn't have been a more perfect setup for the sensory overload of the next six days. The night of the 1,000 dumplings.
We stayed in Kim's cabin, all 500 square feet of it, during the nights leading up to the race. On Saturday night, she had planned a huge Vietnamese New Year party, and had coaxed (conned?) three of her friends into making 1,000 pork dumplings for the celebration. "It has to be 1,000!" she barked. "Bad luck for a whole year otherwise!" They crammed into her tiny kitchen and set to work first thing in the morning. Geoff packed his sled. I wrenched my bike. Kim pounded cocktails before 10 a.m. One friend drove to every grocery store in a 10-mile radius and cleaned all of south Anchorage out of leeks. Geoff and I went to our pre-race meeting. When we returned around 5 p.m., starchy steam clung to the windows. Dirty bowls and plastic grocery bags were strewn everywhere. Delirious laughter peeled out from the slave-driven team. They were up to about 500 dumplings.
"Don't you dare try to tell me why I'm driven to plan these huge parties," Kim told her psychologist friend. I looked up from my bike packing. "It's probably the same reason why Geoff and I doing this race tomorrow," I said. The psychologist friend nodded without a hint of irony.
I think there were about 700 or 800 dumplings by the time people started showing up. I was already eating them right off the platters, forcing the only available means of precious calories down my throat as the stink of leeks and sesame oil gurgled in my gut. By the time I remembered I needed to change my bike tubes, the tiny cabin was shoulder-to-shoulder with people: 60, 70, 80 people devouring dumplings, guzzling flower-garnished cocktails, playing fiddles, asking me why I was in Anchorage (and peppering me with the ensuing thousand questions.) My pre-race anxiety coursed through my blood like magma. The chaos rattled me to the core. I slipped outside to a dark corner near the sled dog cages. The temperature was about 10 degrees. The rims burned my skin and my headlamp flickered. As I ran my stiff fingers through the motions, I tried to tell myself this was good practice for the trail. But all I really wanted to do was scream, and smash my bike, and sprint all the way home to Utah.
The worst part was I couldn't leave. We had made plans to spend the night at the house of another friend in Palmer, but first we had to pick him up at the airport at 10:30 p.m. So I had to burn away the evening as the crowd became louder, and drunker, and larger, pumping old-time music into the cold air through a haze of dumpling steam and cigarette smoke. I wedged back into the crush of people to warm my frozen hands. Kim's psychologist friend was still steaming dumplings in the kitchen, 12 full hours after she started chopping cabbage. I asked her if she had reached 1,000. She shook her head and laughed faintly. Her eyes were hollow, with flecks of tears on the outer edges. Her cheeks were sunken and she pressed her lips as she smiled. I recognized that look, those eyes - the face of a broken-down endurance racer. "It's OK to cry," I said, sincerely. I could feel my own eyes misting up. "It's OK to cry."
Kim was deeply immersed in her music when we whisked away to Palmer and the cold dawn of the first day of the Iditarod Invitational. I never had a chance then to thank her for letting us stay at her house, or for unintentionally helping me put my own life in perspective when I needed it most.