Bearss Blog: The solitude of the trail
John Muir once said, “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”
In many ways, this is Iditarod. There are no TVs muffling the sounds of life, traffic to contend with on the commute to work, no bills or mortgages to worry about, and no calendar of events to manage.
For some, this silence may sound boring, lonely and unappealing.
For those who travel these trails, Iditarod is far from silent. For 11 days, one hour, 40 minutes and 10 seconds, Iditarod was my zen. I have never felt so relaxed and so alive as I did for those days I spent with my canine friends and mushing family.
The gentle rocking of the sled calms the soul and frees the senses. Ears are soothed by the subtle shhhhh of the sled runners slipping over the snow, the rhythmic panting, the jingling dog tags and the pattering of feet. Eyes are treated to ever-changing scenery, ravens swooping in and out over the trail like aerial trail guides, foxes and whiskey jacks darting in for morsels left behind by snacking teams.
It’s all enough to lull a musher to sleep. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t happen. Two to four hours of restless sleep per day after days of strenuous work in freezing temperature, it is not unreasonable to be tempted to rest your eyes for a second or two on the trail. It is a complete state of calm that I’ll openly admit to succumbing.
In this state of relaxation and heightened sense, a musher-- even with eyes closed-- can feel through the handlebars of the sled everything going on with the team. When a dog squats to pee, bends down to grab a mouthful of snow or sees a moose on the horizon, that information will be transmitted up the gangline into the handlebars like the vibrations of a tin can telephone. Mushers become so in tune with their team they become extensions of their own limbs. By the way a dog is running and their body language, a musher can read their complete medical chart. Without the aid of a GPS, many mushers can even tell you their approximate speed based on the gait of individual dogs.
In these many ways, there is no silence on the trail. The sounds are just different from the everyday sounds of the city. Like the scrolling CNN ticker tape, there is a constant flow of information being processed. Though these are the sounds that allow us to be more in touch with ourselves and our dogs.
There is not time to be lonely-- no time to be bored along this race trail. Around each bend, new challenges arise to redirect the mind. Broken bolts, ripped snow pants, a frozen drinker hose, a melted cooler, a cracked stanchion. The list of maladies is never-ending. Rarely are there “magic carpet rides” where everything goes off without even the slightest hitch. As mushers are experiencing this year, Mother Nature rarely allows for a perfect run.
It is because of these exploits I believe Iditarod can be such a transformational event for mushers-- especially for the rookie class. The movement of the sled along the trail really becomes an extended metaphor for life. We experience such calm. Life is pared down to the essentials carried by the sled. We become more in touch with our real self. We learn to overcome unexpected challenges. We learn to trust and take care of our closest family and friends (the dogs). Don’t obsess with mistakes, forget about what happened on the last section of trail. Once the sled has passed that section, there’s no real chance to turn around. Just learn from what happened and keep mushing forward. Don’t look too far forward into the future.
This is a 1000-mile race. That is too overwhelming to tackle all at once. Chunk it up into manageable goals, just worry about getting to that next checkpoint. Finally, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Run your own race the way you trained all season long. The only thing that matters is contained within your 50-foot section of trail (you, your dogs and your sled). Everything else is superfluous.
One-thousand miles-- 11 days, one hour, 40 minutes and 10 seconds-- 16 of my best friends led me along the adventure of a lifetime. I started the race as a young adult and walked away matured and ready to really live my life. I look forward to hearing the stories of this year's rookie class to see if they’ve been transformed by their sojourn along the silence of the trail.
Bryan Bearss trained Iditarod race teams full time from 2003 to 2009 and raced the Iditarod in 2006 and 2015. He is currently an elementary school teacher and marathon canoe racer.
Opinions expressed are those of the author and not of KTVA 11 News.
Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.
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