It could be because all of your preparation was done in the company of dogs alone. Or that the only sounds informing those untold hours were the whirring of gales through heavy-hung spruce boughs, the wind in its own crescendos & lulls. The rhythmic breathing of the dogs, their footfall when the edge of the booties crisp in the cold. How you get to know the temperature by the sound the snow makes underfoot. Around you, for months, a brutally unsentimental landscape yawning off for miles, shrugging its beauty aside, indifferent to its grandeur. You are a fingernail knicking the surface of something endless. You do not matter.
But out there for all those miles you are making meaning nonetheless. Some among the field begin training with the goal of winning, others with the goal of just getting to the start line. Watch the interactions between the mushers afterward & you’ll see that among them, it doesn’t matter, not really. Conversation doesn’t center on what the prize money will afford anyone, but around that relentless wind on the Yukon, or if the wolves were on the far bank of the Stewart. If you heard about the run a competitor had over Rosebud, or how someone else had a young leader up front for hundreds of miles. If you saw the auroras the other night while camped under some arching copse trail-side, or ran into the gauntlet of blue-grey overflow outside of 101, or if the trail was diveted & pocked endlessly by a herd of caribou on Birch Creek. If you were one of those very few who could describe the details of that wild trail. Or feel again the sun reflected off the granitic bluffs, the fine fright crawling up your spine at the sloping russet overflow patch at the bottom of the Black Hills. That shudder of relief rounding a bend to see a light in the distance & how the dogs’ ears twitch forward in unison. If your fingers were chapped & cracking & sad vestigial things run through with pink ointment & emu oil & abraded a thousand times or more with the Velcro of booty after booty. Or, in the end, how your dogs are doing, who wants to keep going for another thousand miles, who shone & why & in what conditions, who you’ll breed now that you’ve seen them cover all those miles & metabolize all of those challenges. Dogs & trail. It is a privileged conversation.
It seems extraordinary that you could spend years of your life & a truly horrific amount of your money & energy so that in the end you can have a patch handed to you on a hot black stage somewhere. But that patch is emblematic of something endlessly meaningful, key to a club the halls of which you inhabit for the rest of time. It is not vaunted or holy or sanctimonious. It isn’t evaluative of character & it does not carry judgment or sentence. Really, all it means is you accomplished one thing: going those 1,000 miles. But now you carry that trail map inside you & the rivers of it are your veins & their sloughs your arteries & the limitless broad expanses are your lungs & its every detail your every cell & the footfall of the dogs is a rhythm heard with your heart. That patch on the back of that coat means something. It is the cover of a book the lexicon of which is only translated to those who step foot to runner for this race, this year. The rest is tenebrous guesswork, empathy enfeebled, the suggestion of likeness, ramblings-on of an armchair musher.
I can pretend to know the feeling shared among these mushers, & to some degree I can, but really, their accomplishment is unique to this year, & there is a reason each patch heralds the year of its earning. & so to all of these mushers & all of their dogs, I say congratulations on a feat that is truly ineffable, the experience of which will thrum inside you without words & without need for words. To all of the volunteers & vets, judges & handlers, trail breakers & fans, thank you for caring about the scope & beauty & elemental drama that unfurls on the white ribbon of this trail. It is enduringly meaningful to those who run it, & now, from this distance, I see, too, how enduringly meaningful it is to those of us who don’t.
The Official 2020 Yukon Quest Armchair Musher is Yukon Quest veteran Andy Pace, 2016 & 2019 finisher. You can follow Andy, along with YQ veteran Kristin Knight Pace and their family on Instagram at @heymoosekennel.