Thursday, December 22, 2011

December 22

The manufacture of all dreams goes forward unabated still, in spite of the long silence. We are back from the Sheep Mountain 150, in which Kristin ran happy, healthy dogs through 150 miles of winding, altitude-laden, blizzard-touched trails down off the Glenn. I was her handler, along with Jess O, which meant helping get everything prepared, dropping dogs the night prior, axing meat into snacks, lining out the team, laying underneath the stars with K after her first run, watching the dogs while she slept inside, standing on the break at the appropriate times & generally worrying a bunch while she was on trail. I suppose that what it really meant was getting to witness something absolutely beautiful & awesome & ridiculously wonderful, which was K fulfilling a dream. & like any good dream, it meandered from stunned terror to mild confidence to intransigent doubt & again to a kind of joy that I think could rightly be called incandescent, or exuberant at the very least. It was a wild kind of dog joy when she crossed the finish line anyway, for all of us. I’m not sure I’ve been prouder of anyone. & then add in my pride at the dogs & Jeff’s victory & the general happy cohesion of our team of folks & you have a picture perfect beginning to a sled dog racing career. I am simply amazed with Knight & those dogs.

Hard to cull other strands from beneath that flame, brightly as it still shines. The rest is good, is lovely, is wintery & hushed. It was solstice yesterday & no sun licked the snow—just the same grey smudge we usually see in those few hours of pseudo-light. The dogs all laze in the cabin, or bite at each other’s necks playfully, or look bewildered at our pups when they are brought in for hour-long stretches. We bought a dog sled, some harnesses, some old mushing gear from a Cantwellian who has retired from it entirely. We’re thinking of building another, a smaller one so I can harness up the pups & kick around my home trails. We look at cabin costs for the property. We look at other races, think of what it would be like to run them, dog or foot or both. & always, that compass seems to point to places seemingly unattainable—places upon which, over & again, our lives find steady anchorage.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

October 25

October this year already appareled in white, after weeks upon weeks of peaking autumnal pyrotechnics. We are finally installed in the new cabin at Skeeter Creek, with thirty-seven dogs of the highest caliber outside our back window. I went out with Kristin a few days ago during ATV training around the Inter-tie, & it was nothing short of amazing to see these dogs work—heads steady, gaits set on smooth repeat, focus palpable in each of them. Twelve miles an hour & one or two among them still in a steady trot, which is ludicrous. & Kristin is back in the throes of dog ecstasy again, looking anxiously at the clouds as if to will them into rupturing forth in billows of snow. It’s a wonderful thing.

I went around the Inter-tie two days ago in the same speed as the dogs, which was curious & informative, since it means I’m apparently running quite a bit faster than I thought. I have officially signed up for the Little Susitna 50K down in Big Lake this February, to be run along snowy trails beside bikers & skiers & heartier souls trekking a full 100 miles as well. I’m laying out training tables for myself now, calibrating my running for winter, nerding out on all things distance-related.

& otherwise with winter comes winter community again. The summer’s relentless pace & exhausting activity tend to drag you away from seeing your closest friends in any environment not also populated by seemingly dozens of strangers. So the restfulness & settling & comfort of quieter visits is something we look forward to throughout the summer & fall. It’s hard to describe—something like a collective hunkering down against the cold, a kind of lovely, aggregate reconnect.

& in the woods the winter has begun its work, which is a fine thing. The tracks in snow along the trails tell you what company you keep, the bears have mostly hit the high country for their good sleep, & it’s too early for the peeling whine of snowmachines, so the space is empty & still & hushed. In that peculiar Alaskan way, it is entirely your own & at the same time entirely apathetic to your presence, & in that odd space I find perhaps the most distinctly compelling version of meaning-making. Something about humility & awe, I’m sure, in equal measure, but something that fills me full to brimming.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September 22

There are two things lodged in my mind now between other thoughts-- the first is the Eliot line about the "negative wisdom of humility," & the second is 5:13:57, my finishing time in the Equinox Marathon up in Fairbanks last week. Its completion means the world to me, & there is, as I anticipated, a renewed sense of self in me now. But very clearly buttressing that is a renewed sense of where I erred, where I didn't offer ample respect to the endeavor, where I thought my ego might possibly fill in where my training was lacking. & so I imagine it was my ego, coupled with the thrill of a race & the odd presence of other people at all during a run (I never run with others & rarely if ever see runners on these mountains), pushing me to a quick start. At the nine-mile mark my time was at a respectable-but-ludicrously-fast-&-in-no-way-tenable-for-me 65 minutes. I came out gunning with 7:22 miles, hanging with the first quarter of runners for some reason. & then after mile nine, it started to fade in me, my legs firmed up & had no spring, & the hills undid me. I'm usually not deterred by hills-- if anything, I crave them & seek them out & prefer them to flatland any day of the week. I don't guess I have much option in that regard around here, so it's just as well. But I had used up so much of my energy on the first nine I had very little to apply to the grade of Esther Dome. & then come mile sixteen or so I pulled my groin, so the slowing down turned into a fairly comical search for a functional gait that might allow me to keep going. By mile twenty it was clear to me that running wasn't really going to happen, so I sort of shuffled along with a hobbled limp, with my knees kind of buckling & then my ankle chiming in for good measure. By the time I crossed the finish line I was a sort of sideways, broken gyroscope flown off track & scuttling to a very slow end, the accruing discomfort & awkwardness of the gait & the fatigue of the distance very clearly on display.
But goddamn it, crossing that line felt truly fucking wonderful. Really, I am recognizing more & more that there is something absolutely ineffable about running-- which is I suspect why I like it. A kind of communion you have wherein nothing is in evidence upon its completion. It is a purely phenomenal endeavor & its presence never translates into ample recounting. & so capping that with a distance goal like a marathon, pushing myself toward some slightly more distant line & then literally crossing it, no matter how slowly (11:59 miles), speaks to something in me that I wasn't sure I possessed, something I can't name, but something I am absolutely proud & overjoyed to discover.
& in the meantime, I recognize the need for a much higher weekly base mileage before the next push. Now that I know I can do it, it's a matter of doing it better-prepared, with an eye on tightening goals & broadening my distances.
So, between now & February 18, I have quite a few miles to run before the Little Susitna 50K. & goddamn if I won't respect that process fully & humbly.
Also, as a sidenote, the six of you reading this have all been incredibly supportive & generous about it, & that gives me a ridiculous amount of pride & happiness & gratitude, so thank you very sincerely.

Friday, September 9, 2011

September 9

As of tomorrow morning, I will be counting down seven days to the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, wherein I will at long last consummate my long-standing courtship with long distance running. Each morning now I glance out the window at the thermometer & past where it hangs to take in the distant tableau of mountains either bathed in alpenglow or cloaked completely in roiling grey cloud. Each day in running I feel for anomalies in my feet, I survey the trails for jutting roots, I yell my hey bears the louder the closer I get to the date of the race & the more berry-dense shits I see scattered along the way. & in spite of my chosen terrain, I’ve been incredibly fortunate thusfar— tripping & falling three or four times with no lasting issues (a comical shitshow with all three dogs attached), seeing a couple bears with no negative consequence, trying new shoes with no resulting hot spots. So I feel this odd cautious optimism. Last time I tried to this I was hamstrung with peroneal tendonitis, but then last time I tried to do this I was probably hamstrung with a great deal more as well. It doesn’t seem, anymore, such a distant dream, lodged ever on some horizon beyond my grasping. But then nothing that I want does, which is maybe the point. So strange, after all these years, to see budding in me some belief in my own abilities again. I haven’t really said it out loud to anyone but Kristin, but finishing this marathon will mean more to me than I will even begin to intimate, & I suspect that it will take root in some internal flourish to which I won’t necessarily lend voice. It seems fitting that it should crescendo as quietly as it builds, & shape what it will with that selfsame care. But it will be a kind of wellspring in me for some time after.

The other half of it, beyond the personal satisfactions I derive from it & from alpine running in general, is that once achieved, I can begin to understand training for longer distances. Next year the goal will include several races that my schedule prohibited this time around, & among them there will assuredly be a much longer course. But as we get nearer our understanding of & fraternity with sled dogs, I want to get closer to empathizing with their distances as well. I’m curious about where those two kinds of training can overlap, & what advantage there might be in that. If nothing else, some day I can slip off the runners in a race & join in the effort myself, for as many miles as may be necessary. I don’t generally like asking of others what I’m incapable of myself, & so I’d like it to be with dogs.

It’s interesting to me to find some kind of categorical correlative for what I’ve done out of a very simple drive all this time. Maybe we know better than we think we do after all.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

September 3

The fledgling signs of winter’s approach now over the painted hills & mountains, snow line down lower along Healy Ridge & down south over Panorama. & all the fireweed gone red. Running twenty miles yesterday, the leaves underfoot along the trail vermillion & crimson & gashing gold, rain-slick or lazing unhurried from white bough to black dirt. & a few days ago, running on a sheep trail on top of Sugarloaf, a gargantuan hyperphagic griz sauntering about in the berry patches just below, so that to reroute I had to sidehill a steep scree-field for a mile. & here it is September, already. The moose in rut, temperatures to thirty overnight, the autumnal crispness attending the mornings or carried in the breeze. & the colors in this place pyrotechnic & endlessly beautiful again.

On the property we’ve been stalled by busy-ness & marathon training. I hauled the concrete piers out a few days ago in five trips totaling somewhere around 700 pounds. Didn’t get them up the hill yet, but at least in the meantime, they’re out of the truck & on our land. These next days off I hope to get the platform started & get the batter boards up for the main cabin site. Got to beat freeze-up. But until then I like seeing how seasons can rotate around one steadfast plan or two, like a time-lapse video almost. It seems to put idea & practice both in conversation with other elements, to subject them to something closer to natural fact (which is an especially effective antidote to tangential thinking). Like all of this arises out of an agreement between ourselves & the land & the plans, each of the three serving an organic function in moving forward. I’ve come to kindly depend on that conversation.

In the meantime, Kristin is out along a ridgeline at Moonlight Creek on a fifty mile patrol, in the middle of all of that variegated splendor. The dogs & I stick closer to home, & on walks they’ll weave in & out of the willows & collect yellow & red leaves on their heads & backs unawares & look up smiling & then pull harder, thinking about the snow to come. Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

August 8

Ready for post holes.

Monday, July 25, 2011

July 25

Maximus rests under the feathered shade of a spruce bough with his paws tucked under his body & his chestnut eyes following each swing of the mattock. Intermittently, we hear the rising sound of Wils & Moose crashing through the willows, seeing the bush-tops jerk in rapid succession before they both burst out onto the clearing with great wide smiles, tongues wagging & eyes bright. I’ll pull at the tundra, around the swath I’ve axed out, & use the pick to pull the heavy duff & soil to the brush pile. & look over & see Kristin cursing a root buried deep under the top-layer while she brings the pulaski down over & again. & look past her to see Healy ridge off to the south, dusted with vestigial snow from the cold snap last week, bathed in a uniformly crisp light. Past it, the ridgelines we finally found up past Sugarloaf, a kind of alpine running paradise. To the East, Dora & Jumbo & Walker Domes, & the endless strip of tundra yawning out past Ferry. & to the west, accessible from our property, the mushing trail heading off Stampede & out along the northern boundary of the park as long as you please.

We are realizing after several days’ worth of clearing with hand tools that we are just beginning to have a taste of the extraordinary amount of work we have ahead of us. Clear & pull back sod & duff, & tamp & level, & dig through permafrost for the posts, & construct batting boards & string the whole site & square it, & haul the concrete out a half mile with no motorized assistance over bog tundra. Get our post & pier set-up in by fall, with an adjacent clearing for a walltent platform, & build said platform so we have a warming hut come winter (& ideally, we’d use green-cut logs halved on the property for that purpose). & then haul timber by snowmachine or dogteam over the snow so as to protect the fragile ground. Stockpile every item we can from the Gransfors Bruks catalogue, learn all that we can about woodworking & cabin building, watch Dick Proenneke documentary repeatedly, find ourselves an Alaskan sawmill attachment for the chainsaw, & then come spring, well, go build ourselves a handhewn cabin with our own hands. This, friends & family, is what it looks like to literally materialize & construct your most enduring & beloved dream. I go to bed at night kissing the blisters on my hands.

& it’s no secret in the meantime that my carpentry skills are at absolute best completely suspect, if not altogether absent entirely. Studying poems seems an odd preparation for building a cabin off the grid, but then, maybe there’s something to the shared process of deliberate construction, of slow navigation, that will reveal itself in time. Being me, I don’t think I can hope to avoid metaphorizing the building of this place. But praxis for metaphor is a salve, & renders it meaningful in a way it usually isn’t. You can’t argue with the notch-fit of a log about its metaphysics, really, if you want to be warm come first snowfall. But you can extrapolate all that you wish once you’re safely installed under its shelter. I don’t know. Maybe this is a caution that as this progresses, I’ll likely be rambling tangentially about the days’ work, but in any case, that work will have been done, & slowly, bit by bit, we’ll have something extraordinary to show for it. Hell, it’s already one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen.

Monday, June 27, 2011

June 27

I’ve run up the game trail on Antler Creek before, through the brush & along the scree falling off the ridge, up toward the point where you have to cross-hill to attain the saddle that lets you get to the peak, but I’d turned around before crossing over to see the other side. Earlier this week, ground-pounding for a search & rescue that ended favorably, I finally eased over the cusp & saw a great swath of unbroken tundra spreading easy & rolling toward Savage River. & just south of it, the complete opposite: an interconnected network of narrow ridges that gave out on a steep bowl criss-crossed with sheep trails winding down to the headwaters of Dry Creek, tucked in where the sun can’t find ample purchase to melt off the mazarine shelves of ice lingering on well past their season. & though I’d hiked up at a brisk pace under grave enough auspices, I still marveled at it & couldn’t help but eye routes for longer runs. It’s astonishing to me how this landscape opens up, how you think yourself adequately acquainted with a place & then of a sudden you take one more step & in so doing unveil endless miles you could never have imagined. A topo line a scant millimeter from its parallel on the map opens into a granite tor jutting out of the alpine tundra with shale & basalt flaking off & marmots jutting out of sunken holes & wind-weathered boulders carpeted over in sphagnum moss & endless sky & cloud.

& it would seem that my life entire works this way. Look at a map & walk among its vermicular lines, & then lift your eyes to an unfathomable vastness & richness. Come out of hermitage & open yourself to love & then suddenly you step over its known cusp & there it is, bountiful & giving & greater in reach than you knew possible, & beautifully unadorned, blessedly free of any dissembling, easy, even. & so with the rest—where there was the blind embrace of uncertainty, there is now a sure foot in a place I can’t imagine leaving for any considerable length of time. Where one life’s goal sputtered & grew quiet, another stepped into its place from the wildest corners of my childhood imaginings. Those dimly adumbrated yearnings rise like a sliding note to find union with the life I am living, day in & day out. It’s just plain lovely is all, & it makes me say the same things over & again, I know, but really, their repetition sounds pitch perfect to me.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Gates of the Arctic

More will come on this, but in the enduring absence of text, those few curious among you can see some things here:

Saturday, April 30, 2011

April 30

Spring break-up now, the snow soft & thinning into a rhizomatic patchwork of puddle & brown runnel, & the tundra scrub peaking through the black dirt, tired & distended with water. & then come those waning hours of darkness, the stars become fugitive already, the windows covered over in the hope of some small night’s sleep. The bears already roaming at every altitude, the throngs of people already doing the same, & that perfect quiet of our winter opening again unto life & busyness & externality in all of its incarnations. It starts like that, a little bird-call, isolated that way, & then turns to the madrigal & the chorus & then that becomes the familiar ringing in your ear summerlong.
There is that attendant hesitation to participate, that part of me that doesn’t want to loosen my grasp on winter & all of its insular comforts. But we are animals, after all, & hibernation gives way to the pulse of things around us. & once the rotten snow recedes, I will have the dirt underfoot on runs, & that sweet, fecund smell of newly budding flora, & that strange familiar feeling of warm wind on my skin. & the dogs will forage & explore & tangle about one another as we go, & test the blueberries the season through until they are ripe (yes, our dogs have developed an absurd addiction to blueberry picking). & all around us, that enduring, thrumming sense of life & wakefulness, even while we try after sleeping, such that to lie with my eyes closed for a little while, with K’s hand on my chest, is as good as sleep.

You feel the life of things with a kind of wild desperation here, advertently or not; it tendrils & finds root room in you & clamors & tremors & takes hold of you until autumn has swept it over & it gives up the ghost again. The season is fully alive, itself constantly hyperphagic, ravenous in its unending appetite. I have never before encountered that particular sense of being predicated by living in a place with such sharply contrasted seasons—it’s difficult to describe the kinetic, lambent energy that seems to appertain in summer, & how boldly & relentlessly it declares itself at all hours compared to the slow whisper of our beloved winter. Plenty of folks prefer one to the other; I think I prefer to take the whole year as a discrete, book-ended unit, to think of it as a day itself in which we go about our diurnal patterns, wakeful under the light, hunkered down under the canopy of stars. It seems to make better sense up here.

& so to rise, wakeful, & step into it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

April 16

I think I could live a dozen lifetimes & not scratch the surface of what I want to do in this state. Looking over pictures of Bering Land Bridge & Kobuk Valley has spurred in me a new yearning to head north & west, toward those unfathomable sweeps of tundra valley & those rolling, languid rivers. & all of it, all of it unpeopled. I see the patchwork of vermillion & blazing gold, the heavy cerulean sky with its spires of slow cloud, the maars at Devil Mountain, & I want to start walking. Or I see the undulating hills that conjure to my thinking a hugely amplified facsimile of western Iowa, covered entire in thick, wind-driven snow, back-dropped by looming ranges in the distance, & I want to harness a dog team & mush into it instead. & the more I think about the purpose of preserving wilderness (the more I talk to Kristin about it & the more I steal an education in it from her), the more I think a place like Kobuk or BELA would feel like home. & the more the road winding through the park here comes to seem a kind of open scar across the landscape (a scar that pays my salary, but still). As a species we’ve done a fairly astonishing job of fucking up everything we’ve touched, most of it quite literally beyond recognition. We are compelled, it seems, by the precarious semblance of balance that Reason provides; in it we procure all the necessary justifications, & from those we cull our delusions. We end up caring vehemently about things the absolute meaninglessness of which we are well aware. We are buttressed this way, fortified by a kind of gestural architecture that we take to be solid when it is composed of air. (& by we, I mean me). & I don’t intend this as echo to some well-rehearsed manifesto or something, not in the least. & lord knows I love me some Netflix & Starbucks & a hundred other creature comforts besides. But I guess from time to time in accounting for myself I wonder after those cultural entanglements, or the excuses I furnish when confronted with disparities well within my ability to alleviate. I think it peculiar that I have always married perception with evaluation, if even inadvertently—as if there is some hierarchy underwriting things, calling one way of living better than the next, calling one profession more sensible than the other, when in fact the significance of what we do seems entirely self-generated. If it matters to the doer, than it irrefutably matters, period.

The thing I’ve been attuned to in me lately, to my utter, childish delight, is where that meaning finds purchase. Where wanting something & getting it instills an enduring, deep satisfaction predicated on the patient appraisal leading up to it & the humility in its face to give it the gratitude it merits. In other words, very deliberately making my choices based only on what I want viscerally, what I yearn after, rather than what I can simply justify wanting. & then sharing that richly abiding desire with another. It’s something, seeing how much more rewarding & accommodating my life can be when I steer it toward its underlying passions. & it’s endlessly curious to me that when I was a kid, when I was fucking ten years old, I was so clearly keyed into it, wanting after the life that I am building now, dreaming of some unattainable vision of the far-off wilds of Alaska, a then-unimaginable landscape yawning magnificently all around me. & in that dream I was always outdoors, doing the chores that survival requires in places farther afield, or retiring to the cabin to sit in a rocking chair & read & smoke Cavendish tobacco from a corncob pipe. & in the dreaming I could feel the textures of that life, the carving firn wind dropping down the valley, that deeply intoned smell rising off a river in the morning, the grain of the wooden maul handle as it slid down to split a round of birch, the swishing tail of my dog nearby. & absent the Cavendish, here I am. Now that I’ve dreamt a bit & found it so enormously gratifying, I think I’ll look at the sand dunes up in Kobuk, or the lazy arm of the Noatak, or the granite tors jutting out above Serpentine & see what else I can fathom, knowing it somehow curiously, thankfully within my reach.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

April 9

It’s a swift work time does, & then there’s our inclination toward epochism hanging over it, begging its taxonomies. Call it an ocean when it’s a multitude of wave & current. Call it a river when it’s eddies & silt & braided channels & fluxing limns of shore. I think of the last decade that way, thinking it through its recognizable consistencies, as if they speak to some breed of continuity, or as if they need to. Somehow that sense that we tame the past in the discovery of its patterns, that we stitch a quilt of its disparate parts & are somehow contented to pull it over us in sleep. It’s an odd inclination, tamping things down when at their base there’s really only disparity. (Even comparison actively calls attention to fundamental separation, even as it yokes together). It makes you wonder.

This morning, it makes me wonder at how we revise experience, & how those revisions alter over time. What clings to them, what falls away, & what within us finds ground to speak again. I awakened thinking for some reason about walking down the dirt road in Salem to the old graveyard, canopied in by weeping willows & black oaks, unkempt, its grasses high & swaying with that motion particular to flora in abandoned places, with that same susurration amplified by virtue of being the only discernible sound. It was after my brother’s divorce, after my grandmother’s death. I remember how the tombstones fell into worse & worse repair the further back you walk, tilting over slumped ground, heaved over, weather-worn, with fine tendrils of black fractures snaking through the slate grey. In the rear, there were only bricks, tiny slabs half-swallowed by moss & lichen, the letters of the names taken entire by wind & rain, or, stranger still, barely intimated on the pale surfaces, as if the tombstones themselves were already haunted by the spectered syllables of names. & I remember the crumbled black walnuts scattered around. Thinking I had a friend who made ink out of them once. Thinking this is what we do, this is how we celebrate the life in us, by coming to its precipice & looking over its edge, wandering quiet among its dilapidating grubstakes. & my brother, alone, his back to the rest of us, along the western edge of the plot. That attendant silence. & the thing that strikes me in the recollection is the pure sensory wonder of it, the song of wind-rustled willows, the humidity in the air, the smell of fertile soil in the nostrils. That, & the way my heart swelled in me, swells in me still, with simple, ineffable love, for my family, for that place, for that breath in me. A kind of mellow, leaden exultation, that. & my compulsion, in remembrance, is toward exegetic comprehension, predictable narrative, comfort & order. & it spurs me to wonder if the act of recollection isn’t almost always purposive, teleological in some way; if there isn’t some kindred feeling or sense or sympathy that we don’t want to cull each time we remember. Which in turn makes me wonder how we negotiate phenomena atavistically, or if we can, really, in an entirely honest way. Honest, sure, but if recollection always performs some violence on memory, then aren’t we altering our past every time we conjure it up, & aren’t we constantly reshaping our sense of our own narratives? & if so, aren’t we always already fluxing, too, ourselves?

That’s no revelation, I know, but even the most banal things cast a spark time to time. It’s interesting, too, to be actively shaping a course for things, to be implementing goals, building intently, & all of it under an auspice of love & positivity, all of it active rather than reactive, all of it ex nihilo instead of shaped from some pile of ash or ember. I’ve not shared that, truly, in the past, that sense of untainted, graspable dreaming. & what one discovers in sharing these things is that a fundamental openness to phenomena can in fact be coeval with an intention. Hope, fragile thing, is not so ruinous as I once thought it to be. Under that cover of over-arching linearity, the sheer wonder of our daily-ness.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

March 12

I reckon it’s likely a function of age, of arriving at a certain point in the trajectory when you do some accounting & take the measure of the currents running around you, the loose ends you’ve ignored, the errant sinuous goals & projects left undone, the gravid light of newer dreams just beginning to blossom. & so I weigh these things against each other, let my grip loosen around some, clutch others the tighter for it, let the entire thing shift how it wants to, how I want it to. & lately, the object is to open a space wherein my actual desires can take root & flourish, where I can cultivate them & work towards them in tangible ways, make them my goals, & adhere to the plans that will bring those goals to fruition. All to say those goals seem to be solidifying these days, around a few specific things, or persons, or dogs.

It’s odd, my enthusiasm for life has worn a curious garb these many years. It seems to me I’ve used certain goals to justify the absence of others, plugged in academic ends to free me of the responsibility of determining what else my heart was after. In school, goals are readymade & overt, & it doesn’t behoove one to stray & wander, but stray & wander I have, & now those goals seem less important to me. I have been in Alaska for two years, & now I will finish my degree, & then, a few years down the line, I will run the Iditarod. One of these means a great deal more to me than the other, & I bet it’s not too terribly difficult to discern which.

Here’s the thing: I have a visceral connection to my life up here that I’ve not felt before. Maybe studying theory wrestles that away from you, & leaves you always stuck in an unbroken circle of hermeneutics that promises no respite from the preoccupations of thought. Maybe not. Either way, what I sieved through my head I now don’t sieve at all, & I feel the effect of that keenly. That kind of devotion to thinking acts as an accidental devotion to a certain kind of distance by default, it seems—I found myself constantly reconstituting experience as it was occurring, shaping it into a narrative, extrapolating from it, representing rather than engaging with what was presented. Thought during those peak academic years was a kind of buffer that hedged me against everything else, including, likely, that looming question of what else I might want to do with myself. I don’t guess that’s particular to me—that’s how careers are constructed, as I understand it, wrought of a single-mindedness & devotion to purpose that is predicated on exclusion to some degree. But of a sudden now I’m getting to a point where I’d like to just go ahead & do what I love to do for a living. I just have to patiently figure out how best to achieve that. & what it is. I loved teaching, but I have to say, its best moments were always the ones wherein the organization collapsed & I found myself just having a passionate conversation with my students on equal footing. I don’t imagine I could ever take myself seriously as an expert in anything anymore, & that would present a formidable hurdle if I were to suddenly rekindle any academic spark. Conversely, everything that I do & love here requires familiarity & humility in equal measure. You don’t go outside when it’s forty below without preparing yourself, but neither do you go outside when it’s forty below with the intention of conquering the winter. You are always at the mercy of what is external to you, & it seems so far that the best moments here interweave openness to the prevailing ambiguities of circumstance with conscientious preparation. & I am fortunate to have an incredibly competent & humble teacher in these matters, who I also happen to love dearly, & with whom I share all of these passions, every single one. Move away from all that you know, work in a fish processing operation & then go be homeless for a little & bathe in a river, & then head to over six million acres of wilderness, endure a slowly collapsing engagement, live with a troll & then on the other side of a dark winter, lo & behold, you find quite by chance someone who loves all the things you love & dislikes all the things you dislike, who happens to be wonderful & happens to love you back. After all that reducing, all of that stripping bare, all of that self-reckoning, to turn & find these newfound enthusiasms mirrored & augmented so beautifully? Jesus Christ, how could I go back to a city & teach business & technical writing?

So, there’s some future-wrangling going on here, some sounding the depths, some loose plans being shifted around & put into place. & here is the absolute best part: there is no compromise involved whatsoever, nor settling, nor resignation. It seems a fine & ongoing addition of dream on to dream, over & again. How it will take shape I’m not entirely certain, but I’m not too terribly impatient about that. Drafting up possibilities that are in fact possible in spite of how extraordinary they seem is quite enough for the time being.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

February 26

Ree Nancarrow gave a slide show presentation last night about life in Denali over the last forty-five years. When she came to the country, there were no actual roads, & local travel required a good dog team or an airplane or a great deal of patience with the ongoing tendency of Alaska to brutalize an automobile. Her cabin was built by hand, as were all of the outlying structures on the property. When the snow fell heavy decades ago, her husband built a bridge over it. When they decided to dig a basement, he did it by hand, with a shovel & a wheelbarrow. In permafrost. & when they ordered groceries, initially the order was placed through mail to Seattle. In the absence of an electric grid, they built their own generator. & in the absence of a well, they melted snow enough to water themselves & their dogs every day. At that time, the entire Denali fleet consisted of seven trucks, one snowgo & twenty-eight dogs. Rangers (the two of them that were here) spent the entire winter with the dogs along the boundaries, building & repairing & patrolling around the cabins that dot the trail, spaced one day’s journey by dog team from one another.

Right now, Kristin is hunkered down outside of one of those cabins, in an arctic oven because the freight-hauler & concessionaire are inside the small space (an arctic oven, for reference, is a tent with a tiny woodstove in it). She & Jess have been breaking trail through three new feet of snow, windblown & iced over, out ahead of hitched-up teams on snowshoes, for almost a week now, during two separate storms involving said three feet of snow, fifty mile per hour gusts & subsequent white-out conditions. Safe to say that I love a bad-ass. But also safe to say that in spite of that weather, I’m absolutely certain that she is loving every minute of it. She is enacting a familiar dream, building around that atavistic vision of how we ought to lead our lives. Here I am in front of four computer monitors, bathed in white light, while she’s out there tackling a grueling project in the sub-arctic winter. & I’m jealous.

I think of all of the half-finished projects I have left in my personal wake, things I meant to do, things I finished half-assed, things I dreamt up & promptly forgot. & often, probably the majority of the time, that’s just fine. I’ve done plenty of things without a full investment that have turned out commendably by some standards, & I’ve derived no small satisfaction from seeing some of my more notably indolent efforts met with praise & satisfaction. But lately I am thinking that I have no further use for smug self-satisfaction & vague compromise. I am thinking that after years in academia, years of wandering around, years of trial & error, I finally followed an old dream & moved myself up to fucking Alaska, & I have carved out an incredibly fecund & meaningful & joyous existence here so far, & there is no part of me that wants to leave it at that. Which is to say I am thinking about the Nancarrows, & I am thinking about how to relate to your sense of place, & how to make it mean such that you feel the blood in your veins. & I am thinking about dog teams & wilderness & quiet. & I am thinking about how best in years to come to flesh out the dream that I came here to pursue. & I like this line of thought.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

February 6

Woke up thinking about Thales, who famously fell into a pit as he was walking with his eyes upturned to the stars. Last night the auroras were snaking & fluxing, a limn of purple along the bottom of the green band, & then those vertical tears that shimmer & fade above the long arc below. To the south, meanwhile, the Milky Way like a bucket of soap water cast out over asphalt, the stars bright punctures in the ever-dark sky. It’s been some time since I stood slack-jawed staring at the firmament.

Driving home last night, we passed the metal sculpture of a team of dogs that lines the top of a gateway just next to my pull-out, silhouetted black against the surging green behind. It’s a structure like you see at the beginning of ranch roads, two huge spruce posts & one cross-beam, & in this case, it signifies passage into the Kingdom (all the land once or presently owned by now retired musher Jeff King). There was some small tug in me though, seeing it, knowing that everything in that tableau said home & home & home. The black spruce tops in relief, the swirling colors, the deep swatch of stars, & even the shapes of the dogs & the sled. As each new entry here seems to betray, I am caught off-guard almost daily by the richness & beauty of my surroundings. It plays, I know, like a tired old record you’ve heard too often, but I can’t say that it will stop any time soon. I wouldn’t will it so, anyway.

& dogs. It is Super Bowl Sunday, & I find myself captivated instead by the standings in the Yukon Quest. Maybe it’s that miniscule intimation of empathy, of knowing in some fraction of a way what it’s like to be on the runners. My time as a middle school football player for the esteemed Johnston Dragons was short-lived, to be sure, & absent any success (my one stand-out memory is being plowed over by an opposing team’s running back & finding myself unable to either breathe or get up of my own volition afterward). But my time as a musher is beginning, growing exponentially by the day. & though I’ve not run the team in almost two weeks now (which is sort of killing me), every day finds some new education, most of it second-hand, talking to Kristin about her trips & what she’s learned. & every day finds me thinking about the trail, rehearsing the next run. It would seem that there are only people who don’t really care about sled dogs & then people who are rabidly, voraciously, passionately fanatical. So it goes.

Thales maybe eschewed what was underfoot for what was overhead. I suppose I’ll have both, if it’s all the same.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

January 30

I had two strange memories flood over me this week while I thought to notice myself rooting down here. The first was the recollection of seeing the Dick Proenneke PBS special for the first time years ago, its images interspersed with a lulling quiet. I recalled specifically two things: the fact that he fashioned his own tools & tool handles on site (recalled mostly because that takes a committed bad-ass), & the sound of his oars in the glass-smooth water of the lake. Resourcefulness lending itself to recreation, that sort of thing. & then the second memory involves meeting some random friend of a contemptible peer at DU who was visiting & discussing plans to make a film featuring Alaska. At the time, I was reading a history of the state & so came to the conversation academically. Which, really, is entirely implausible. The guy, it turned out, was every bit as much an insufferable ass as his friend, but what strikes me now is the absence of the senses from that brief conversation. His fingernails were clean, for instance, & his framing for his project was theoretical & constellated around things that had nothing to do with place at all. I was thrilled that he had simply been to the state before, but it’s curious in retrospect to think now of what I’ve done since then. How all of these small cues seemed to point me here. Passing a man in the dog park at Chatfield who wore a Salty Dog sweatshirt. Seeing a drunk at a bar on Broadway with a Humpy’s hat. Reading histories of places I never thought I’d see, or watching rapt the simple process of planning a felled spruce on some special I stumbled upon on public television. How all of my academic thinking was geared towards making complex, obscuring, yoking into relation all of these disparate threads in some futile stand against entropy. & then how so many of the things I tend to here require a simplifying eye. & then there’s my fingernails.

All to say I guess that I still can’t fathom of leaving this place. I think about it every now & again, if only because that’s how I learned to be in the world, itinerant. I try to think of any place in the world that calls more clearly, & I permit myself to absolve those tangible restrictions that would hold me here tp aid my thinking (if money were no issue, if the dogs could come with us, etc.). & in no case do I find a place more akin to my present self, or kinder to my present heart, or more consistently capable of conjuring awe than my home here, & my love here, & my self here.

A few days ago, I reread a kind of journal I kept during the dissolution of my engagement. K had read it on accident & her comments had a kind of hesitation in them, so I wanted to revisit it to find what might spur such a thing. & after reading through the exhausted chronology, through the pity & the deference & the grappling after meaning, I came upon a later bit from a few months into my relationship with K. It wondered yet if I would be able to fully love again, if my heart would allow for it, if in fact I even had the desire to do so. The prognosis was not positive. As I wrote it, Willa was on her way north to us, my family was staging their visit last June, & the season was well underway. From the first, I was enchanted by K, so it’s so odd now, from this distance, to read that cold sterility of tone & to know it for the feeble gesture at self-preservation that it was. Of course I was terrified, marred, unwilling to admit of Possibility, even when it literally stood before me, patient & wonderful.

& so I think of what time can do to us, & how we can end up after some circuitous wandering in the place we always wanted to be. & how warring & fractious fear can be, & how willfully we would reign over even those traits in us that elude reason. & how there is such grace in being, in being where one simply is. & how we can commit to our hesitations as if they were fact, when they too come to dissolve & fade from us & leave us with the first terms of enduring wonder in their absence. How I can have such a full heart, after all, & cannot now imagine it otherwise. I know it reads a little better when one explicates it & draws it out & shows the evidence, but in the end, all of this just to say that I love it here, & I love Kristin, & I love our dogs, & my life is generally surprisingly wonderful. & so, here I am.

Friday, January 21, 2011

January 21

Odd how standing in the cabin, feeling the sun pour down over me for the first time in months, there awake the quietest intimations of spring already. It is twenty-seven below, with a dusting of new snow, but in that bath of light there is a kind of stirring. Your eyes note the chickadee instead of the raven or the magpie. You note that the gloaming comes later & lingers a bit past the late afternoon before the moon crests above the range blood-orange or silver-white. & all at once, I clutch the more tightly to the winter & lean into the thought of warmth. So many miles yet to mush, & at the same time, I feel a bodily need for sunlight again. Before the winter came, we all told ourselves that in its frigid months we would have time to slow down, reacquaint ourselves with ourselves, work on projects & the like. & now, halfway through it, I am no less busy, only more quietly so. My busy-ness does not involve hundreds of calls & blips & beeps at work, & when I recreate, it doesn’t involve throngs of wondering tourists. It is that muted tone of the winter landscape, that broad brush of real isolation. The panting of the dogs or the soft crunch of the snow underfoot. The wind’s stubborn song uninterrupted by passing buses or planes or the sounds of neighbors outside. Only that precious silence in which you stand as the sole & only fortunate audience time to time, your ear attuned & your eyes closed against a gale, thinking over & again, how lucky.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

January 16

So much of the park I’ve seen in the last ten days, on the back of a snowgo or from the runners of the dogsled. Out in the gloaming mornings on the tundra before the trail narrows in to the Sushana, with the sky a muted pink & the Alaska Range stirring into focus, the great cleft wedge of the mountain rising gargantuan from the dark. The yawning cornices windblown & hanging delicate over the rolling hills above the river. The tussocks with spiny copper-wire willows bare & twisting under. The river-ice of the East Fork River, a quarter mile across it seemed, steaming over sinkholes, stepping over fissures or giving in to overflow & slush. The sound the ice makes, those quiet, travelling strings of cracking that spread vermicular underfoot in sudden spells of lightning terror. Seeing your sled slide parallel beside you when it ought to be pulled behind. & then the warmth of the wood stove, the pots boiling down the snow, the dogs curled with noses under tails, the auroras gentle in their sway & the sky so vast & clear & cold one can scarcely hope to describe it.

On the overland trail from East fork to Sushana, along the northern boundary, there is a swath of tundra so wide it conjures the feel of a massive caldera, the ridges distinct off in the distance, the mountain seeming so close in its formidable vertical rise. & in that vast valley a herd of caribou out along a drainage, a single male bucking in a swath of snow. A ribbon of spruce where the roots will find purchase against the winds. & knowing, knowing that you are the only human out there. Fucking extraordinary, beyond all measure. One simply cannot imagine that scope, the way we can’t grasp infinity or the like. It is perhaps the most beautiful place I have ever been.

Four days of snowmachining, then back to work for three, then two days of running a seven-dog team out to Sanctuary Cabin & back. I think myself irrevocably changed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

January 4

A new year, & with it, the strange effects of the Chinook casting warm temperatures & gale-force winds & clouds roiling in violent torsion through the sky. Each day now a little longer, measurable for us by the line of the sun on the ridge to the north of the cabin, which each day gets closer to draping over the valley on Stampede. Not yet, not yet, but closer.

Tomorrow I join the kennels folks & a ranger & head out from Stampede to the Lower Toklat, with night stops at Sushana & East Fork along the way. If you look at a map, you’ll see that after the Tek we still have a ways to go. That thumb in the park boundary gives way to a gaping landscape, the topography of which pushes us down to the East fork before ridging over to the Toklat. North of the Wyoming Hills. A part of the park I’ve never seen in any season. I’ll be starting out on snowgo, alternating from time to time with the three mushers I hope, taking the teams along a circuitous route that isn’t often traveled. I’ll of course hope for my favorite among the sled dogs, Lava & Aurora. The trail is in to Sushana, past the site of McCandless’s bus, but beyond that we’ll be navigating & breaking trail that hasn’t been put in for some time, in snow that saw forty degree days & 50 mph gusts, drifted & now settling, dense & wet, to ice over. & then overnighting in tiny patrol cabins with five of us.

I recall writing last year about the gentleman who trekked in to Wonder Lake by himself. Imagining what it must be like to experience that vastness so unpeopled & empty & quiet. & every time Kristin returns from her patrols, it is that same feeling that stirs in me—not jealousy, but a wonder begging after empathy, a keen & palpable desire to feel that largeness of the world, that smallness of the self, & to know that you found your way across dozens of miles of Alaskan wilderness in the winter to feel just such a thing. I am always amazed at what K can do, how well-acquainted she is with wilderness & its demands, & after so many years of dedicated passion, I suppose it makes sense. That she returns every time rejuvenated & awed & so fully herself is nothing short of beautiful. & it’s odd this time to be the one heading out, leaving her with the dogs here, in familiar country, in our familiar routines. She’s earned the backcountry, time & time again, & I do sometimes feel like a tourist in it, but then I remember that I was asked to do this patrol because I can offer mushing experience that no other ranger in our division has, & though I know that to be a fledgling, inchoate thing, I still can’t quite articulate the kind of pride it conjures in me. Not strictly pride in the sense of self-aggrandizement, but in the sense that I am keenly aware of how lucky I am to have that experience, of how extraordinary it is. That association with the dogs, with their fraternity, is rather something for which I am enduringly grateful. It is an association that betters me in countless ways.

To the Toklat then.