It all started in Willow on the first Sunday in March. More than a thousand dogs pulling 67 humans on sleds left to traverse an iconic landscape of mountains, frozen rivers and seas.
Along they way they stopped in small towns and camped along the trail. They fed their dogs and slept and fell asleep at the wheel or daydreamed about things more real than not along the long and windy journey.
They battled for position, they coaxed sick and disheartened teams into glory-making runs. They played mind games on themselves and on other mushers.
They commemorate a way of life long gone by. It is snow machines that make the trails for the dogs now, the dogs that once carried the serum and the miners, the supplies and eventually the racers across the vast openness untouched by sound or machine.
I watched from the sidelines. Sometimes the nosebleeds. But I watched this race up close, close enough to see the frost-covered faces, the tears and the touches of insanity that come with sleep deprivation and communing so long with non-speaking companions.
Along the way you start to feel their suffering in sympathy or simply the weariness of covering a race that sleeps in shifts, never all at once.
When you can’t be with them at the checkpoints, you envision them out on a cold river or facing a blowing fury along the coast. You check on their progress every 15 minutes when you have Internet fast enough to allow you to do so.
As the population of Nome grows, the bars fill with patrons eager to celebrate an ending not written yet, and as the heroes of the race pad along in booties, the excitement builds like the growing daylight in March.
Safety becomes a byword for close, as almost no one can comprehend how long it will take a musher to get from that checkpoint to Nome.
Nome begins to gather. People in seal skins and beaver furs line Front Street. Children bundled up like bouncy balls bobble around the icy streets.
Then the siren sounds, and the waiting begins in earnest.
Some Iditarod volunteer banters in the background as people begin to crane their necks down the street.
Eventually Nome’s finest turn their flashing lights on, and you know that behind them there is a team of dogs that has just pulled a sled and its human up the ramp from the sea ice and onto Front Street.
The dogs seem to know they’ve reached the end of the trail. They look for the spot that some of them have seen in years past. It’s the place where they know they will not have to run anymore, at least until the inborn urge rises again.
The musher hangs on for dear life. From a thousand miles of wilderness with voiceless companions to a street lined with a thousand people. It can be overwhelming.
Then there is the Burled Arch and the meaty hand of Mark Nordman. Your wife and child or your sister, brothers, fathers, mothers and tears and joy and laughter await.
From nothing to everything in the length of a city street.
It is the end of the trail.