"A Spearfish Lake Story"
Phil Wine had never believed he could be so tired.
Oh, he’d read about it, and he’d heard Josh and Tiffany talking about it time and again, and they’d even warned him about it, but he’d never quite believed the stories. But now, he knew that not only were they all true, but it was even worse than the stories. He hadn’t had any serious sleep since his eight-hour required stop at Kaltag, and that had been days ago. There had been snatches here and there since, but nothing worthwhile. Even the required four-hour stop at White Mountain hadn’t helped much – he still only had gotten a couple hours there. His sleep tank was way below empty; he was only running on determination and nervous energy.
He’d been hallucinating from the lack of sleep, and he knew it. On his way across Norton Sound to Elim, he’d been convinced that the dogs were taking him down a sand beach, with palm trees to one side and girls in bikinis working on their tan. And, that had been at night. He saw strange lights, strange sounds; even what he thought was real was only a figment of his overloaded, overtired sensory apparatus.
Songs kept going through his mind, mangled songs that he couldn’t get shed of. Joan Baez singing The Night They Kicked Old Dixie’s Ass must have gone through his head ten thousand times. Once he’d gotten past the last checkpoint before Nome, another song went through his mind, time after time: Hobo Jim, singing the last verse of the Iditarod Trail Song.
Well, I just pulled out of Safety, I’m on the trail and all alone, I’m doin’ fine and pickin’ up time and runnin’ on in to Nome.
Somewhere in his exhaustion, Phil reflected that if there was any one song that had to run endlessly through his mind at that particular moment, there couldn’t be a better one to pick. The trail had been harder than he had imagined, but he was doing fine, he was picking up time, and, most importantly, he was in fact running on into Nome.
And, it had been tough. Tiffany had warned him that she most likely wouldn’t be any help to him in the race, since they probably wouldn’t be running together very much. He had seen her a couple times at checkpoints crossing the Alaska Range, back around Rainy Lake and like that, and they had both taken their twenty-fours at McGrath, where they had been able to compare notes a little, mostly to just assure each other that they were doing fine. He’d been pretty much on his own, otherwise. Tiffany had started behind him, slowly caught up with him, passed him, and the last he knew, at White Mountain, had pulled out about a six-hour lead. Their dog teams had seemed pretty level in quality to him. She’d probably picked up at least part of that distance by their being a little faster, but a big chunk of it had come from the fact that experience and practice had made her just a little more efficient at checkpoints and rest stops. That meant that she could cut them a little bit tighter, and gain time on him that way. And, of course, she’d been over the trail several times before, so she knew some of the little surprises that had confused him. He’d actually been doing pretty well, he thought, to only be running a few hours behind her. He’d been running seventeenth when he left White Mountain, and the next musher behind him had been a good three hours back, so if he didn’t screw up in the next few miles because he was so tired, it looked like that was how it was going to end.
Leaving White Mountain, he’d been worried about the blowholes at the Topkok Funnel, where the wind could whistle down the valley at sometimes a hundred miles an hour. He’d managed to leave White Mountain well before dawn, usually considered the best time to leave, and hit the worst of Topkok just at daybreak, usually the time the fierce winds and blowing snow were their calmest. It hadn’t gotten too bad until he’d gotten down toward the Bonanza Ferry bridge, which was about the end of the blowhole section, and there he’d been able to go marker to marker. The poor guy who was three hours behind him was going to be facing a bitch of a time, he knew.
His dogs had kept the trail without a lot of help from him. They were good dogs, too. He’d thought the team he’d run in the first long-distance race he’d run seven years ago were pretty good, but these were better yet. Of course, Switchstand had carried that team, too, but his leaders on this trip, Smoky and Irving, were almost as good. Switchstand had been their sire, and while they didn’t have quite the blazing speed of their father, they were at least as smart and disciplined. They’d been over the trail with Josh last year, too, which helped. Josh had turned down the chance to take them on the Quest in favor of old Alco and Jimmy. Those dogs had done the Iditarod five times, last year mostly running in swing behind Smoky and Irving, giving the younger dogs a break from the stress of being up front at times, too. There were some other good leaders out there in front of him, as well. That was another big change from a few years ago, when they hadn’t been entirely sure that Switchstand could stay on point for a hundred miler, but he’d been the only leader available that seemed smart enough to do the race. Well, he had been, and he’d done two hundred milers and three hundred milers and even the five hundred miles of the Beargrease once, but Josh had never quite dared to take him down this trail, since he just couldn’t run in team. At least Smoky and Irving didn’t have that problem.
Phil knew that he was woolgathering, trying to stay awake as the last few miles slipped past down the still sometimes-golden sands of the beach east of Nome. Soon the Fort Davis roadhouse slipped past, a couple miles from the finish, the start of the mad dash that Josh and Tiffany had done the first time they ran the race. Somewhere, he found a little more strength to stay awake. It wouldn’t be long, now. Finally, the trail climbed up off the beach and onto Front Street, which was fairly clear of snow. The asphalt ground at the runners, but with the arch in sight, who cared? There’d be plenty of time to put new plastic on them. There was a small crowd gathered around the finish line.
There was no need for a wild sprint to the finish, like Josh and Tiffany had done their first year. The dogs were going all right, and there was no reason to hurry them as they trotted toward the end of the thousand forty nine miles from Anchorage that he’d dreamed about doing for so long, while stuck in so many other places on the face of the globe.
With what seemed the last of his fading energy, he gave Smoky and Irving a final "whoa." They had been good dogs – all of them had been good dogs. Although some guy no one had ever heard of before came out of the woodwork to run thirteenth and win the Rookie of the Year honors, Phil was not dissatisfied with seventeenth. He wouldn’t have been dissatisfied with twenty-seventh or forty-seventh, or even sixty-seventh. Finishing the race by itself had been all the goal and more he’d ever sought. But still, somewhere in the back of his mind, there was a little satisfaction in finishing better than either Josh or Tiffany had done in their rookie run five years before.
The team slid to a stop with the lead dogs not far past the old burled arch that had welcomed so many mushers to Nome. Volunteer handlers came out to grab the team and steady it, although Phil doubted that there was enough energy left in his wonderful dogs to give them anything to worry about. Some photos were taken of him finishing, and he was shaking the hand of the finish line checker when a strange woman erupted from the crowd, threw her arms around him, and planted a long, deep kiss on his dirty, bearded lips.
He knew he had to be hallucinating again. The woman seemed like Brandy, tasted like Brandy, but he knew it couldn’t be her.
Only slowly did he realize that he wasn’t hallucinating at all.
Tears were in his eyes when he finally managed to say, "What are you doing here?"
She smiled, but still held on to him tightly as she said, "Welcoming you to Nome."
Slowly, reluctantly, Phil began to be aware that he was awake. His head ached, his bladder ached, and in his semi-wakefulness, he automatically let go of an enormous fart that had to have been building up for hours. Then, he came to with a start: he’d slept too long, he had to get the dogs fed and get back out on the trail. How many places had he lost? Or, wait! Did he have to get back out on the trail? He had the memory of what must have been a dream – he’d finished the Iditarod, and Brandy had been waiting for him at the finish line. That settled it; it must have been a dream. Brandy was in Bolivia.
He opened his eyes a little, to discover that he was in a hotel room somewhere, in bed somewhere. He had no idea of how he’d gotten here – everything since that dream of crossing the finish line was a total blank. But no matter, he had to get moving, but his stiff, aching body was moving even more slowly than his mind. He reached out to roll back the covers and touched something soft and warm. Someone that was soft and warm, he realized. And naked. What in hell . . .
"Ah, the dead have arisen," a familiar voice said.
It was her!
"I thought you were a dream," he said, taking hold of her to make sure she was really real. "I thought you were in Bolivia."
"I’m not," she smiled.
"But . . . " It was all too confusing.
"It’s a long story, and now isn’t the time," she said. "Look, Tiffany was up for a few hours last night, and we went out and checked on the dogs and fed them. They were doing fine, but just as zonked as you’ve been since yesterday afternoon. We probably ought to be thinking about feeding them after it gets light, but we’ve got a little while, yet."
"Where are we? I don’t remember coming here."
"We’re in a hotel room in Nome," she replied with a smile. "In fact, we’re in the same room, the same bed, that Tiffany and Josh were in after they finished the first time. When Tiffany found that out, she said that there were a couple things I should say to you."
"What?" He was still struggling with the concept of reality.
"‘Go take a shower. You smell like a goat.’"
"Yeah, but what did she say?"
"That’s what she said to tell you – ‘Go take a shower, you smell like a goat.’ That’s what she told Josh when he woke up in this bed five years ago." She smiled. "She was pretty wasted, and went right back to bed after we talked, or I don’t think she would have told me the other thing she told Josh that I’m supposed to tell you."
"Huh?" It was still very confusing. "What’s that?"
"She told Josh, ‘When you come back, make a woman out of me. I’m not getting out of this bed a virgin.’" Brandy smiled serenely, and continued, "You made a woman out of me a long time ago, but we can pretend if we have to. And, you do smell like a goat. Go take a shower. It’ll help you wake up."
The last thing she said was the first thing that made complete sense to Phil. His bones hurt him to move, he’d been sleeping like the dead for so long. There was a lot here that he wasn’t figuring out, but maybe taking a shower and waking up a little would help him to make some sense out of it.
Brandy watched him get up and head for the bathroom. He was in his long johns; he’d been so wasted that she’d needed help from a couple of people across the hall to get him undressed the afternoon before. He hadn’t been a lot of help getting the dogs out of their harnesses and staked out on a tie line in the dog lot a block up the street from the finish. But, she’d helped do it at home on occasion, and there were plenty of knowledgeable hands to help. Phil wasn’t the first totally exhausted musher to stumble onto the dog lot. Not even the first this year.
She heard the toilet flush, and the shower come on. Well, she thought, he hadn’t been the only one who hadn’t been thinking clearly in the last few days. Shelly had given her a hug, and then she and the Learjet pilot had gotten back on the plane and headed back to Anchorage. She stood there in the wind on the airport until they were just a white dot in the distance before she realized several things: first, that it was colder than Pluto at aphelion; second, that she hadn’t bothered to find a place to stay, and what with the race the town had to be pretty well booked up; and finally, that it was still at least five days before the first racers were due in. She could have taken her time, rather than going from Bolivia to Alaska as quickly as her obsession could push her. But, she was here, and she might not have been if she hadn’t been so obsessed.
Dealing with the first problem had been at least partly alleviated by going into the airport terminal building and arranging for a ride into town. A little surprisingly, the second problem fell almost as easily – she’d remembered that there were reservations for Phil at the hotel a few days ahead, and it didn’t take much talking to get into the room that was being held for him.
The five-day wait proposed to be the killer, though, but it had gone surprisingly easily. There was a finish line headquarters in the Board of Trade Saloon, where new updates from the trail were continuously posted, and a considerable amount of news, as well, so she was able to keep a pretty good idea of how Phil and Tiffany were doing. But, she hadn’t had to sit around waiting for a new update to be posted all the time, because there were enough other things to keep her occupied. There really wasn’t much to Nome – it made Spearfish Lake look like Decatur – but there were some special events going on for Iditarod Week that helped to pass the time. She poked into some of the stores, and one of them was an eclectic music and variety store that was owned by the guy who checked the racers in at the finish line arch, Leo Rasmussen. Leo was a talker, and had a million stories, and a number of people were hanging around the store listening to some of them. She spent hours standing on the edge of the crowd smiling and laughing. Letterman wouldn’t have been as much fun. And, as the racers got closer, the excitement in Nome built. Places like the Board of Trade became something of an ongoing party, one that put her in mind of what gold rush days must have been like in this town a century before.
The day before Phil finished she’d stood in the crowd on Front Street and watched Doug Swingley’s victorious team trot under the finishing arch, just an hour over nine days out of Anchorage. She’d hung around the Board of Trade all day, going out in the streets to welcome other Iditarod finishers as they arrived, but had gone to bed before Buser and Swenson and Seavey arrived in the wee small hours.
Then, early the next morning, she’d heard the siren sound to announce a finishing musher, and left her breakfast in the warmth of the Board of Trade to welcome Tiffany to Nome in her second top-ten finish. Tiffany had been just as surprised as Phil to see her there, but despite being up all night, she wasn’t quite as wasted. She hadn’t managed to stay awake and wait for Phil to finish, though, and Brandy didn’t blame her. Tiffany had gotten up several hours afterwards, and the two of them fed the dogs and had a good dinner themselves. Then, Tiffany had gone back to bed and was probably still sleeping.
In five days, she really hadn’t done anything, but they were fun and went quickly. Best of all, at the end of them Bolivia seemed as far away as it really was. The five days had been exactly the sort of unwinding that she’d needed. She hadn’t made any headway on the problem of what she was going to do when they got home, hadn’t really even thought about it, just acknowledged that it was there and would have to be dealt with in the future. Right at the moment, it didn’t seem important, because Phil came back from the shower and didn’t smell like a goat anymore.
After they got up, they went to feed the dogs and check on them, then went to breakfast themselves. It took a little while to get a seat in the now-crowded Board of Trade, but Iditarod finishers – and their girlfriends – drew a little extra water. The place was a hubbub of mushers and fans and relatives, and full of dogsledding stories and tales of the trail. There could be no more exciting place to be, right at the moment.
Phil was ravenous. He hadn’t eaten anything in two days, and then not much. It really hadn’t struck him how hungry he was until he looked at the breakfast menu, and everything on it looked good. He still wasn’t up for anything complicated. He just took one look at the menu and told the waitress, "Oh, hell, just bring me one of everything. No, make that two of everything!"
"One Iditarod finisher breakfast coming up," she smiled. She’d done this before, too. "You just want me to keep it coming until you explode, right?"
"Works for me," he said, leaning back and handing her the menu.
Brandy turned her attention back across the table. "So, what was it like, Phil?"
"It’s all sort of a blur," he said. "I’m going to be a while sorting everything out. It was a lot harder than I’d imagined. But, it was a lot more intense, a lot more basic, a lot more, oh hell, I don’t have the words for it right now."
"Are you thinking about doing it again?"
"I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish, everything I’d dreamed about all those years. It was just about perfect. I’m not sure I want to wreck that perfection by trying it again. It’s all too soon."
"I think I understand," she said. "Sometimes you need some time to put things into perspective. I’ve learned that the past few days."
"Which leads me back to the question of what you’re doing here. I thought you were in Bolivia. I still can’t quite believe that you’re here, and this must be a dream."
"It’s not a dream," she told him gently. "I was sitting down there in Bolivia, thinking about how much I hated the place and how burned out I was getting. I started to understand what it was like for you when you quit Hadley-Monroe. I kept thinking about you up here, and how much this meant to you and how I ought to be here. Then, I realized I belonged up here with you, not in the ass end of Bolivia. So, I came."
"I’m glad you did," he said. "That was the one thing that bothered me, how much I’d like to be sharing the experience with you. That’s why it’s been hard for me to realize that you really are here."
"That’s it exactly," she replied. "I wanted to be sharing it with you, too. We’ve missed sharing a lot of things that we should have shared, and I couldn’t believe how callous and stupid and selfish I was being to be letting you experience your big dream without me."
"Thanks, Brandy," he said. "I appreciate it. You don’t know what your being here means to me. Are you going to stay for the musher’s banquet, or head right back?"
"I guess I didn’t make it clear," she replied with a smile. "I told Front Range to jam it. I’m not going back. Ever. Troy Moorehead asked me to think about going back to Bolivia, to at least think about finishing up the site there. Well, I was sitting here having a beer the other night, and I honestly did think about it. For maybe thirty seconds. And, I broke down laughing. When I get back to Spearfish Lake, I may not ever go as far away as Warsaw again."
He shook his head. "You’d go nuts without anything to do. We’ve talked about it before. I’d go nuts, too."
"Oh, I’ll find something to do. I don’t know what, just yet. But, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it. That’s something else that Tiffany and I talked about last night that I haven’t had a chance to fill you in on yet."
"Do you remember five years ago, when Tiffany and Josh drove home with the dogs after their first time up here? They spent four thousand miles talking about their future, what they were going to do, whether they were going to run this thing again, how they were going to manage it if they did. Their outfitting business came out of that, the store, a lot of other things."
"So, what does that have to do with us?"
"If it worked for them, it could work for us. I told Tiffany I’d pay for her flight back home from Anchorage. You and I are going to drive the dog truck back down the Alaska Highway. Somewhere in there, you can tell me the whole story of doing the trail, and I can tell you more about my story, too. And, maybe somewhere, we can figure out what comes next."
"There’s going to be fifty-four dogs in the truck and on the trailer. That’s going to be a lot of work, to feed and rest and drop them."
"So, you get to teach me to be a dog handler," she smiled. "I don’t mind. Hell, I may even become Josh and Tiffany’s dog handler. Feeding dogs and cleaning up dog shit has to beat Bolivia, any day."
"It does beat laser die cutters," he agreed.
"Beats it hollow," she smiled.
"That’s one question settled," he replied, an enigmatic smile crossing his face. "But, there’s another one."
"What?" He was thinking something; she could tell.
"I hate to keep following in Josh and Tiffany’s footsteps, but there’s something else they did up here that we should do, too," he said.
"I don’t follow you," she replied with a frown.
"Somewhere up here, there’s a place called Rasmussen’s Music Store," he said.
"I know where it is," she replied. "I was in there a couple days ago."
"Well, that’s where Josh bought Tiffany her engagement ring."
When the waitress came to the booth with her arms stacked high with food, she found them with their arms around each other in a deep kiss. She had a hard time getting their attention.