"A Spearfish Lake Story"
The pair of big SD-40s idled noisily on the track in the cold spring darkness, right next to the Spearfish Lake Café, which was now closed for the night. Josh climbed up the steps to the front apron, Tiffany right behind him. They met Walt and Leo at the cab door. "How are they running?" Josh asked.
"Like a sewing machine," Walt answered. "We got held up a bit at Walsenberg, waiting for the mixed to head down to Kremmling. You’re gonna have to work on that a bit."
"There’s bound to be some bugs," Josh commented. "That’s the one we’re going to have to keep an eye on, though."
"Well, you kids have a good evening," Walt said. "See you tomorrow, or maybe Wednesday."
"Take it easy," Josh replied, getting into the engineer’s seat as Walt and Leo climbed down off the engine and headed for the pickup truck that Josh and Tiffany had taken out to meet them.
"They’re off," she reported.
"Well, might as well get this show on the road," Josh said, giving a quick yank on the whistle cord. "There," he said, reaching for the throttle and cracking it open a notch. "Summer is officially started." The train, known as "Keyhole" since they’d taken over crewing it, began to gather speed. It was the first run of the season for Josh – and Tiffany. While she probably wouldn’t be crewing on it that much, Josh would be out there at least four days a week and sometimes five, for probably seven months, and maybe more. He’d told Tiffany that he’d once figured out that he spent at least twice the time each year in the seat of an SD-40 than he did on a dogsled.
Tiffany settled into the crew seat. Two summers, she’d ridden the trains for the full season, usually crewing with Josh but sometimes not. Actually, it was a pretty decent deal, she thought, especially if you were the brakeman on the rock trains. She’d be paid for ten hours work, and would actually do very little in those ten hours – not much more than half an hour of actual work, which made a nice chance to get out of the cab and work out the kinks. The rest of the time, at least while she and Josh were running nights, she would be there to be sure that he’d stay awake. Sometimes, he’d let her run the engines for a while, just to take a break to walk around the cab or hit the head. Outside of the noise level, which was a lot louder than the pickup, they’d have plenty of time together to talk about the dogs, or the store, or anything else they could think of. A month of it wasn’t all that bad, but it got awful old over the course of the summer. When they’d started the store, she’d given up the full-time braking, and it had been a relief to be shed of what really was rather boring after she’d done it for a while. "Well, here we are," she said, rather loudly, so Josh could hear her. "Seems strange to do a crew change out here."
"Makes sense," Josh said. "It saves a lot of dinking around back in the yard. The quicker we can do the handoff, the more slack we get for turnaround. They’re not actually working on the track down near Blair yet, but we might as well get the bugs out before they get started."
Over the weekend, Josh had explained the new operating concept to her, and even demonstrated it on the computer. Simply put, Keyhole, the night pit run, had to run up to Kremmling in the evening, down to Camden in the small hours, and be back past Blair before seven in the morning, which got them back to Spearfish Lake about eight. The day crew, or "Beepit" made the same run to Big Pit, and couldn’t go south of Blair before five in the evening, so a start around ten in the morning fit pretty well, and got them back to Spearfish Lake about eight in the evening if everything went well. But, Keyhole was the only train running on the C&SL at night. If they handed it over out on the main as soon as Beepit got back, that meant more time that the maintenance crew could work on the engines between their return and the point where Beepit had to start.
The mixed freight was the tricky part. It ran days, in roughly the same time frame as Beepit. The idea was for it to leave Spearfish Lake enough ahead of the rock train that it could get its switching done at Hoselton, Warsaw and Walsenberg, and be heading down to the exchange point south of Kremmling before Beepit caught up with it. Beepit would exchange its empties for loads, and be headed back, now with the mixed following somewhere behind them. But, the mixed didn’t have to go as far south as Beepit; it left the southbounds for Camden at Meeker, where John Penny and the Camden turn would pick them up the next day, then headed back north, now ahead of Beepit. It would be tied up for the night in Spearfish Lake when Beepit hit town and changed into Keyhole again.
It had gone reasonably well for the first day, except for the fact that the mixed hadn’t been quite done in Walsenberg when Beepit had showed up. Josh had already talked to Chris about it. It had been a fairly heavy switching day, but not exceptional, so they thought they might try starting the mixed a little earlier than they had today, just to see what would happen.
"Yeah," Tiffany agreed. "That’s what practice runs are for, after all."
The train loped along easily pulling its string of empties, soon reaching the maximum speed allowed for this stretch, and Josh throttled back to keep the speed under control. He reached for the whistle cord and beeped two longs, a short and a long for the crossing on the road they lived on. For years it had been known as Busted Axle Road since the county didn’t do a real good job of grading it. More recently, it had been known to some as Dog Town Road, because of Mark’s, her father’s, and their own kennels located along it, but the Busted Axle Road name seemed to be coming back after her father and Mark had scaled back their kennels.
She could remember when she’d been a little girl, hearing the train whistle at the crossing not far down the road from her house, wondering where it was headed, what it would be like to be on it. Well, she’d learned – tonight, it was heading to Kremmling Pit and then Camden, and they wouldn’t be home till the light of day. It’d been last September since she’d done one of these runs, but the cab was familiar, and she’d long since lost the excitement and the strangeness of being there.
There had always been a strange juxtaposition between the dogs and the railroad, mostly because of Josh working for the C&SL for so long. Even the name, Run-8 Kennels, didn’t derive from the number of dogs in a team, but from the wide-open position of a diesel railroad engine. Their logo was a pair of running dogs, superimposed against a silhouette of a SD-40, taken from a photo of one of the two engines she was sitting in this cool April evening. The route here was especially familiar, since it was frequently used in the winter for dog training – making sure no trains were expected, of course – and was part of the route of the Warsaw Run, the 100-mile dogsled race run out of Spearfish Lake each winter. She had won the Run twice – well, three times, if you counted the first one, which was special. She’d been only ten years old, and had finished the race for her father after he and Mark had both fallen sick out on the trail, beating out Josh, driving Mark’s team, by a dog’s nose. Josh had won it three times in his own right, before they’d quit running it because now they were always in Alaska when it was held.
Now that Keyhole was cruising, the engines weren’t working as hard, and it was easier to talk. There was something she needed to say, and she considered several ways of approaching the subject, before finally deciding that the direct approach was best. "I’ve been thinking about it, and I think you should run the A-Team next year," she blurted out.
"What makes you say that?" Josh asked, keeping his eyes on the track in front, his voice still loud to talk over the residual sound of the engines.
"There’s a lot of reasons," she said. "The biggest thing is that it’s not been fair to you to run the B-Team all these years, and even the C-Team this year. You haven’t said much, but I can tell how much you missed being in the race at all this year. You should have a shot at the best team, if for no more reason than your having to take a pass on it entirely this year."
"We did it that way this year for a number of good reasons, not even including Phil," he replied. "We’d been wanting to take a look at the Quest, after all. Phil just made a good excuse."
"It’s still not fair to you," she said, loud enough to make sure he could hear her. "It makes you look like a second-rate musher, and you’re not. The only way you’re not every bit as good as I am is that you haven’t had the experience of running closer to the top near the end of the race, and you deserve the chance to prove it."
"We’ve always let you have the A-Team because we’ve always thought it would bring more sponsorship," he said. "That’s still a valid consideration."
"I don’t think it’s as much of a consideration anymore," she said. "After all, I could just have a bad year. We wouldn’t have to tell anyone which team is which. Sometimes, we barely know ourselves. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind running the B-Team back in the pack for once. As far as that goes, I’m not sure I even want to run the race again."
"The Topkok thing?" he asked.
"That’s a big part of it," she admitted, being more honest with herself than she thought she was being. Sometimes, she’d admit something to Josh she barely dared admit to herself. "But maybe I need to make a run back there to get my confidence back, where I don’t have to feel like I have to take a dangerous risk for the sake of a place."
"You can take just as much of a risk running for thirtieth as you can running for first," he said.
"It’s not the same thing," she protested. "There’s not as much pressure if you’re just trying to finish in good shape, as opposed to trying to win it, or be in the top ten." She took a deep breath and said something that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago, but had become more and more of a reality. "Besides, it might be a good way for me to tone down my profile in the race, and raise yours. You know, sooner or later, I’m going to have to give it up."
"Yeah, I realize that," he said, surprising her. "I think that’s part of why I wanted to run the Quest this year, to see how I’d feel being away from the big race. I mean, every year, we talk about hanging it up, and every year, we give it another shot, and we can never quite seem to break into the top ranks, like Swingley, Buser and King. Frankly, I’m not even sure Rick is in the top rank, any more. I keep thinking maybe we should quit while we’re ahead, and stop beating our heads against the wall."
"I’ve thought about that, too," she agreed. "But the time issue is just getting worse and worse. I shouldn’t even be out here, tonight. I mean, I’m going to be up all night, grab a few hours’ sleep, and then go down to the store and relieve you so you can get a few hours’ sleep, so we can both be out here again tomorrow night. I really don’t mind doing this once in a while, but even a month of it is going to be a long time. The store should have better attention than that. But, you needed me, and, of course, we can always use the money."
Josh didn’t answer right away; the 919 crossing was coming up, and he yanked on the whistle cord, blowing two longs, a short and a long; the noise of the air horn cancelled all opportunity of talking until the lead unit was through the crossing.
"I agree, the time issue is getting out of hand," he said. "We’re getting pulled too many ways. If you assess it realistically, the race is the major drain. It takes more of our time than everything else we do, and it’s the least rewarding thing we do financially. We’ve always approached it with the intention of covering our expenses, and if we have a little left over, fine. Right here is still the main source of our income, and it only being a part of the year just gives us the chance to spend the rest of the year with the race. If we were to give up the race, then we’d have time for the other things."
"The store is doing pretty well," Tiffany agreed. "It would be doing a lot better if we could spend more time with it. The same thing with the trips. I mean, we started doing both to try and help us cover the expenses of the race, while we lived off of your job. We really haven’t needed the extra work to cover the costs of the race anymore, but we’ve stayed with them since they’ll be there after we quit racing."
"Which leads us back to the sponsorship issue. I mean, it’s clear to me that if we ever lose the sponsorships, we’d have to quit."
"No question," she said, shaking her head in the darkness. "It’s just that I hate having to go back to Jennifer each year."
Jennifer Evachevski and Blake Walworth’s Jenny Easton Productions had been their main sponsor from the beginning. It went back to the first year they’d run the race, when they were trying to raise enough money for both of them to make their first run, and were happy to accept twenty-dollar donations and hundred-dollar sponsorships in order to finance it. They were getting down to the wire and were still far from having enough, when Jennifer called them over to the house and wrote a nice check. They had been uncomfortable about taking it – Jennifer was a friend, and had been Tiffany’s babysitter when she was very little. But, Jennifer explained, and had continued to explain over the years that, first, it was either them or the IRS, and second, she did get public relations value out of it.
And, she’d sponsored them every year since, at a higher level than the first year. Phil and Brandy were driving a two-year-old, long-box diesel quad-cab pickup down the Alaska Highway this year because two years earlier Jennifer had said she thought it looked a little cheesy for a fifteen-year old, rusted-out pickup with over 300,000 miles on it to be displaying the Jenny Easton Productions logo. Josh and Tiffany had protested mightily, until they woke up one morning to find the new truck in their yard, with the keys in the ignition and a note on the steering wheel saying, I meant it – J.
Jenny Easton Productions wasn’t their only sponsor, although the rest were small-bore by comparison. Their second year, they’d picked up a sponsorship from B&M Dog Food, a regional producer located down near Camden. B&M didn’t pay cash, but provided most of their dog food. Considering that they went through between 100 and 300 pounds of dog food a day depending on the season and the number of dogs on the lot, getting fifty-pound bags of dog food in semi-trailer-sized lots delivered as needed, all free, was no small chunk of change. In more recent years, B&M had provided a "Trail Blend" with a dogsledding logo on the sack. Josh and Tiffany had a little input into the design of the blend, and, if caught in a private moment, would say that it really wasn’t that bad of a dog food. They used it as much as they could, almost exclusively for summer maintenance for the adult dogs, as a partial ration during training, and even as emergency rations on the Iditarod itself.
But, realistically, continued support from Jennifer was the only reason they’d been able to go on as long as they had at the level they had, and had made the annual decision to attempt the race the following year a rather automatic one. They hated being dependent on one sponsor, no matter how good of a friend she was, and they hated the possibility that the sponsorship might come in the way of their friendship.
"I talked to Jennifer at Phil’s finish party," Josh reported. "She didn’t come right out and say it, but I got the message that we’re good for another year. We need to work up some plans and a budget, and then sit down with her and work out how much."
"That’s good to know," Tiffany said. "In a way, I almost wish it wasn’t always there. It would be easier to give up the race when we need to. But the time issue is going to force us to do something before too much longer. Maybe this year, maybe next year. I’ll definitely have to quit when we decide to start having kids. We can still put that off for a few years, but I don’t want to drag it out until the last minute. If Susan Butcher can’t manage to be an Iditarod mom, I don’t see how I can." Susan Butcher had won the Iditarod three times, before giving it up to start a family. "And, she let it go too long. I don’t see how we should push that issue more than another five years or so."
"I’ve always figured that," Josh’s voice came from the darkness on the far side of the cab. "That’s part of the reason that I’ve never squirmed too much about you running the A-Team. I’ve always known there’ll be a time when you won’t be running. But, as busy as we’re getting to be, getting you pregnant would pretty well end the chance of my running the race again, too. There’ll be just too much else to do, stuff that you’re doing now that I’ll have to do."
"We’re going to have to get out of the trailer when that happens," Tiffany said firmly. "In fact, I wouldn’t mind being out of it, now, but there’s definitely not room there for us and small children as well." The trailer she and Josh lived in had been intended as a temporary bachelor pad, close to the dog yard; Josh had always intended to build a house on the lot, but there had never been enough time for him to build it, along with everything else.
"There’s not enough time to build it myself, but I was talking with Randy Clark over breakfast down at the café one day last fall," Josh related. "Just for the fun of it, I asked him what he could build us for a hundred grand, and he came up with a pretty good house. We could probably afford that, especially if we quit racing and devote more time to the store and the tours. But, even then, there’s a time issue. I don’t even know how we’d find the time to buy new furniture and move. Someday, we’re just going to have to bite that bullet and do it."
They rode on in silence for a minute, with Tiffany dreaming of what it would be like to live in a decent house again, rather than the cramped, decaying trailer that had once been such a big adventure to her when she had first moved across the road from her parents’ home and married Josh. "It’s all such a time issue," she said. "I mean, we can carry on like this for a while, but we can’t do it forever. We’re going to have to cut back somewhere, and as much as I hate to say it, the race is the logical place to cut. I don’t want to, since so much of what we are involves the race. What would our lives be like if we didn’t have that to look forward to?"
"We’re going to have to find out sometime," Josh said. "We can cut back on the race a little, if we have to. We can cut back to one team, maybe, but I don’t think we have a chance of getting up to the level of Buser and Swingley with just one team. We need the second team for training and evaluation too bad. And, if it’s just the two of us, there’s not much we can do to cut back on the amount of time we put into it. I will say this much – if we can’t plan to put at least one of us in contention for the top, I can’t see any point in continuing with the race. If we can get a decent dog handler, well, maybe we still could, and one of us could sit it out. But, I agree, we can maybe get by another year, maybe two, but sooner or later, we’ve got to cut back on where we’re putting our time."
"I don’t ever want to be without at least a few dogs," she said flatly. "But, if we’re not running the race, we can cut way back."
"Yeah, we’d need to keep some dogs around, for the tours, if nothing else. But, keeping, oh, twenty or thirty dogs is a hell of a lot simpler than keeping well over a hundred. Maybe we could even do the Warsaw Run again. It’d be fun to just get out and play around in a beer run like that again, and not have to be so damn serious."
"It would be fun," she agreed. "We wouldn’t even have to have two teams. We had, what, fifty or sixty dogs the last year we did the Run? Of course, a lot of them were yearlings, and we were getting set up to do the race for the first time.
"We wouldn’t need that many," he agreed.
"Well, it’s nothing we have to decide tonight," she said finally. "In fact, it’s nothing we can decide tonight. There’s too many angles that we need to think about, and some of them don’t involve the race at all. We don’t have to get the entry fee to Shelly until, what? The middle of June?"
"About then," Josh said. The first forty mushers to file their entries went into a pool to draw for the first forty starting spots; any after that had to start later than the fortieth position. Later starters faced a rougher trail and the need to make more passes, so the serious mushers all tried to get in the first pool. Entries were taken starting the morning of July 1, and tradition had it that hand-carried entries were processed before mailed entries. As a result, for the last four years, Shelly Goodlock had spent the early morning hours of July 1 outside the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla, two entry applications and fees in her hand. It was another of the little favors she did for them that they appreciated a lot. "We can get refunds on the entry fees up till the first of the year," he continued. "But we really need to be making our minds up pretty well by about mid-August. Once the weather breaks, we’ll want to get started on training, and the closer to the race we get, the harder it will be to quit. And, if we do decide to cut back, fall is the best time to be peddling some dogs."
They kept talking about it, picking away at this angle or that angle, as the train ran on through the night. She’d often made the run up the grade to Warsaw on a dog team, the miles were familiar. There weren’t any crossings as they went through the pine barrens, and then dipped down into the Spearfish River valley. The train crossed the high trestle over the Spearfish River without notice, but getting a dog team across that bridge during the Warsaw Run was always a hassle. Most dogs didn’t like the high trestle, and the racers had to descend the valley on a tricky patch of sidehill trail to cross a low bridge across the river, then climb back up to the rail grade.
By the time they neared Hoselton, the subject had gotten back around to dog handlers, or what they could do without one. "I wish we knew about Phil, whether he’d like to run again," Tiffany said. "It would simplify the two-teams issue, real easy. But, the last I knew, he hadn’t made his mind up, either."
"That would help," Josh agreed. He reached up to blow for the Hoselton crossing, the first one in a while, and once again, conversation had to momentarily cease. Tiffany wasn’t paying much attention, thinking about the whole problem, until she heard Josh yell, "Oh, shit!"
She looked up, to see a car’s taillights flash past just in front of them as they were entering the crossing, "Oh God!" she yelled, expecting to hear a crash, her heart pounding. She twisted her head, just in time to see the car’s taillights out her side window.
"Son of a bitch," Josh breathed. "Son of a bitch. Did we miss him?"
"Yeah," she finally managed to report, "Just."
"I’ve never hit anyone," he said, obviously trying to get himself back under control. "But I’ve never come that goddamn close, either. Son of a bitch."
"Damn fool," she agreed.
"People think that I can stop this son of a bitch on a dime," he said. "Even light like this, it’d take me half a mile, if I big-holed everything. The son of a bitch was that close to dead, and I’ll bet he doesn’t even know it."
There wasn’t anything she could say to reply. She could hear him breathing heavily clear across the engine. But, then, she was breathing heavily, too. Not that there was any real risk of their being hurt; the front of an SD could turn a car and its passengers to scrap metal and peopleburger without scratching the paint on the engines.
In time, he got his voice under control a little. "Tiff, let that be a lesson to you," he said slowly.
"I know better than to race trains to crossings," she said. She’d have been a little insulted at the supposition if her heart hadn’t still been pounding.
"Not that," he said. "You don’t have to be at Topkok to make a dangerous, stupid, snap decision that could kill you for no good reason at all. You can make one of those anywhere."