Overnight, ground blizzards swirled and mushers continued to stack up at the Shaktoolik checkpoint. As morning approached, there were 21 teams holed up in around the small armory. Some had been there for more than 24 hours — the kind of layover even mid-pack mushers aren't known to take — and still no one was moving north into the wind. One of the school teachers took her kids to visit the checkpoint, and described a scene of hundreds of dogs on the ice, and mushers crammed into every corner of the building. The stench, she said, was unbearable.
As for me, I'd developed a bad case of the kennel cough. It started with persistent hacking and developed into a full-blown riot, doubled over in pain as gobs of mucus ripped through my lungs. I was concerned I was developing bronchitis, but I didn't feel too bad otherwise. Maybe this was the price of heavy breathing in the wind. Rumor also had it that lots of mushers were sick as well. It was unlikely I caught anything from one of them, but I took comfort in the idea that I wasn't alone in my misery.
My body was not prepared for this effort either. Near mile five — which came nearly four hours after I started — I completely lost the trail. I'd followed a single teams' tracks that were rapidly disappearing in the wind, and came to a slough with drifts up to my thighs rippling across glare ice. There wasn't a single Iditarod stake in sight. After some bashing around, I found no signs of dog tracks, and scanning a 360-degree angle brought no stake sightings. Damn it. The wind was still blowing straight out of the north and I needed to go north, but even walking on the remnants of the trail base required an effort that was near my physical limit. Off trail, I stepped into drifts that swallowed my legs above my knees, and the sandy snow was so heavy that I could scarcely lift them out again. At one point both of the bike's wheels became so mired that I even as I lifted and tugged, it wouldn't budge. I felt truly, genuinely stuck — as though I really were trapped in quicksand. As though this was the way I'd die out here, and they'd find my frozen body upright and buried to the waist in a snow dune.
I often talk about my desire to become physically stronger, and promise to do the work necessary to get there, but I fall off the wagon quickly. I envy people who enjoy lifting weights and strength training, because all I want to do is be outside, moving through the world, and can't abide the indoor torture or even stopping long enough to do a few pushups. But I do understand the benefits. And out here, on the shoreline of the Norton Sound, I experienced a scenario where lack of strength could become life-threatening. If I ever attempt to take a bicycle along this trail again, I vow to come more prepared — both physically and mentally.
In the legend of Sisyphus, the gods condemned Sisyphus to the eternal task of rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll back to the bottom and have to start all over again. The lesson being that there is no more terrible punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
"At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational," Albert Camus wrote. "He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."
I hadn't yet reached the cabin by 7 p.m. — the time Beat and I had agreed to talk via sat phone. I turned on my phone and there was a text message from him. I read through it but didn't quite understand at first — only that Beat was returning to Anchorage, immediately.
A few minutes later, we'd connected by phone, and the message became more real. Steve had received news of an unexpected tragedy while the two of them approached the tiny Yukon River village of Koyukuk. Steve need to return to California as quickly as possible, and Beat would accompany him and remain with him until he left Anchorage. They've been friends for ten years, and they'd been through much together in their journey on the Iditarod Trail. At first Steve encouraged Beat to continue onto Nome, but Beat couldn't imagine this.
"It would just feel so hollow at this point."
"Hello, North Wind," I said, aloud. My voice came out as a gruff squeak, and I sputtered through another bout of kennel cough before I got any more words out. "We meet again."
"I block a tiny stream of The North Wind for a few moments, watch my warm breath turn to a cloud and dissipate, and I call this my life. There's joy in this realization. If life is a goggle-clad figure steeling herself against a sea of cold space, then it's more beautiful and valuable than I ever imagined."
Here, at the top of Little Mountain, the North Wind still reigned. I'd fought it so long and so hard to reach this point, and this was going to be as far as I'd get. I knew as soon as I spoke with Beat that we needed to reunite, as soon as possible. I admitted I was too battered to leave that night, but that I'd eat, rest, and I'd make my way back to Unalakleet and a flight to Anchorage as soon as physically possible.
So I stood facing the wind, letting it suck the warmth out of my body, scanning the bewildering expanse of ice, and the Bering Sea coast beyond. "Why?" I coughed aloud to the North Wind, without any specific extension to that question. "Why?" The North Wind only howled and blew effortlessly around my body, draining the last of my energy, and with it the shuttering grief.
I shrugged. "Sometimes these adventures don't work out. Maybe next year."
"Live to the point of tears" — Albert Camus.