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It was past midnight when Lainey entered the checkpoint. Despite the hour, several people loitered at the tables in the room, nursing coffee and eyeing the statistics board by the volunteer tables. Signs indicated where the boiler room, showers and sleeping room were located. The thought of a shower intrigued Lainey almost as much as the thought of Scotch laying naked in her bed. Snorting at how far she had fallen, she retrieved hot water for her dogs.
Back outside, her face no longer burning from the heat of the gym, she trudged back to her team. The wind was brisk and she realized upon her arrival that she would still need to break out the cookers. Her hot water had already cooled considerably, making it too cold to thaw the meat for her team.
Grumbling, she forced herself through the process. Her dogs did not even move an ear at the familiar sounds and smells of dinner. She grinned ruefully at them, wishing she could simply drop into their straw and sleep as well.
The first batch went into their cooler, and she started another. Opening her cooler, she saw her last two thawed juice packs. As much as she wanted to chuck them into a snow bank, she forced herself to drink them. Why had she ever thought these juices tasted good? After days and days of nothing else, she vowed to never drink the stuff again.
When the second batch of food finished cooking, she fed her team. She was reluctant to disturb their sleep, but they needed the nourishment to keep warm. At each one, she prodded and petted until they were awake enough to eat. Only Samson and Aegis refused, giving her bleary looks. As much as she wanted to, Lainey did not push the issue. Both of them were wheel dogs and had an extra amount of work to do during a run. Hopefully they would eat when they woke later.
She collected their bowls and ate a delicious meal of meatloaf and fried potatoes. It was the first decent meal she had had since the last checkpoint, and it was heavenly. She polished off another slice of pizza and three banana breads, as well.
Sated and becoming more groggy as time passed, she trudged back to the checkpoint with her wet gear and sleeping bag. Soon her things hung in the overly warm boiler room and she bedded down in the sleeping area.
She shut the damned thing off and peered closely at the numerals. Crap. It was time to get up. It took a monstrous effort of will to drag herself out of the sleeping bag, but she succeeded. Gathering her things and collecting two more pots of water, she staggered out into the cold morning and toward her dogs.
The break had done them a world of good, just as the veterinarian had said. Only Aegis remained sluggish and distant. Samson eagerly demolished his breakfast, as did the rest of them, and inhaled his second watering. Sholo was somewhat subdued, but he seemed to have gotten over whatever moodiness had transpired against him on the trail. Their lifted spirits eased Lainey's trepidations and she gave them all extra lovings.
According to the ratings inside the checkpoint, she was doing fairly well. She currently led the rookies at nineteenth place, an almost unheard of lead for someone with so little training and experience. She was sure the only reason Roman Spencer was not in the lead was because of whatever befell him on the trail to Ruby. Of course, she still had two hundred seventy-five miles to go before Nome. Anything could happen between here and there.
Scotch sat at sixth place and en route to White Mountain. It looked like she was riding in a pack of eight mushers, veterans all, with barely five or ten minutes difference between their times out of Golovin. Once at White Mountain, she would take her second mandatory eight hour break and then make the push for Nome.
She sent a silent cheer to her favorite musher.
Food and caffeine had revived her, too, and she unloaded her food drop into her sled. Discarded items went into shipping envelopes for return to the kennel, perishables to the donations pile near the checkpoint, and trash to its designated section of the parking area. Lainey frisked with the dogs, getting them excited for the next leg of the journey. If they could keep up this pace, she could be in Nome as early as two days from now.
Aegis refused to be cheered from her inactivity. While even Sholo wagged his tail, she sprawled on her share of straw. Lainey fussed over the dog, her mood rapidly sinking. With much coaxing, she finally got Aegis to stand, but the dog grunted with the effort and sat as soon as Lainey stepped away. A careful massage of her shoulder caused a slight whimper and Lainey understood the problem. Whatever damage was done to the muscle, the cold wind had made it worse.
With a sigh, she disconnected Aegis from the tug line and attached a drop cable to her collar. They would all miss her sweet demeanor, but running her into the ground would not them closer to Nome. It was with heavy heart that Lainey gave the dog and the necessary paperwork over to the checkpoint volunteers.
Lainey mushed her team to the trail to check out.
"Watch out. The wind's are pretty bad," the checker said, offering her his clipboard to sign.
"Yeah?" she asked, glancing at Sholo who was back in the lead. His ears were back, but he remained on his feet, pulling the team into line with Trace.
"Yup. Wind chill's pretty low, too. It was minus twelve at midnight."
Lainey had gotten in just before midnight and she shivered in memory. "Thanks for the heads up."
"You bet! Hang in there, you're almost done."
"Ready? Let's go."
The team started at a walk but made it less than twenty feet before Sholo sat down.
Lainey sighed. "Sholo, ready." He stood. "Let's go."
Another twenty feet, and he stopped again.
She slumped. Obviously he had not gotten over his aversion to the wind blowing up his snout.
Lainey set her snow hook and walked up the trail to her leader. She could tell he knew of her disappointment by the way he lowered to his belly by the time she reached him. "It's okay, boy, it's not your fault. You've done a great job until now." She scratched behind his ears and released him from the tug line. On her way back to the checkpoint, she stopped at the sled for a dropped dog cable.
As the sun began to brighten the gray skies, she and her team followed the trail to Shaktoolik minus two dogs instead of one.
With a fresh leader in front, the team picked up speed again. They traveled at an easy gait - not too fast and not tediously slow. Montana swaggered next to Trace, occasionally looking over his shoulder at his team mates as if to say, "Look at me! I'm running this show now!" Lainey thought Trace showed remarkable restraint regarding his new partner's expanding ego. She hoped Montana could make it the rest of the way in that position. These two were her last leaders and Montana had never been in front for longer than a few hours. None of the other dogs had the aptitude, that special talent needed to keep the team on the proper trail.
Markers guided the team further inland on an ascent. She dug out her notes for this section, swearing as she realized she had not done so before leaving Unalakleet. Not mentally preparing for what they lay ahead of them was as stupid as falling asleep on the trail. Muttering under her breath she found the proper passage and read along. Three hills to climb before they passed over the Blueberry Hills, and the third was one of the most difficult in the second half of this race. She wondered what the first one was. Had she already passed it without knowing? Would this be as anti climatic as the Farewell Burn?
They only rose to about three hundred feet before following an easy descent back to sea level. Knowing Scotch's idea of serious trail issues, Lainey doubted that had been one of the three hills mentioned. The trail took them closer to the coast and through a fishing camp huddled against the brisk wind. There they crossed a creek with some overflow and turned back inland.
A steep incline loomed before the team, and Lainey reckoned this was the true first of the three hills. Despite the sheer slope, it was only another three hundred foot in height. Her dogs took it at a run and easily reached the top with her pushing from behind.
The wind buffeted them as they remained on the ridge for a mile or more. Then they dropped back onto the coastal side and past another creek. A little further on, the trail turned into a sheltered valley where stunted trees grew. Protected from the wind, Lainey sighed in relief, having not realized how tense she had been until its absence. Her face tingled with false warmth, but she did not remove her mask. Being out of the wind chill was nice, but the temperature was still at or just below zero.
Lainey was almost to the halfway point of this leg. It was only about forty miles long, a vacation compared to the trip to Unalakleet. She called her team to a halt and snacked them. Better to do it now while they were leeward.
The next climb was almost as steep as the last, and twice the distance. Her dogs did her proud, clambering to the top with little trouble. Again they dropped down the other side, losing all the altitude they had gained to skate past another frozen creek. Lainey was beginning to get irritated. It would be far easier to deal with the wind on the coast than this constant up and down. If that was the second hill, she still had the mother of all hills in front of her.
The third loomed before her and she began the ascent. The climb was steady but uneven. In various areas of the lower half it seemed near vertical; in others the gradual slant gave her and the team a breather. Trees scattered here and there where the wind was less, but the higher they went, the fewer pockets of calm were available.
In a spot bare of vegetation, the incline dramatically steepened. When Lainey's feet hit the trail to help get the sled up, she sank ankle deep in drifted snow.
"Crap!" She urged the dogs on until they slogged through the mess, and she realized that Montana and Trace were chest deep in some places.
Once they were through the worst of it and they found a somewhat level place to halt, Lainey put on her snow shoes and worked her way up the line. She gave each dog attention, encouragement, and a chunk of moose liver before finally taking the lead. Since drifts only threatened the trail in the bald spots, it meant going slower over the protected snow pack, but she would rather be in the lead than have to run up and down the line the next couple of hours. It was time to break trail to the summit of this damned hill.
There were two more steep climbs, both badly drifted. Lainey was glad she had made the decision to be in front. In some cases, the snow might have buried her smaller team dogs. For every step they took, she took three, stomping back and forth across the trail to make it firm. Despite the wind chill, she felt sweat beading on her forehead from the exertion. Not wanting to court hypothermia on top of her fatigue, she shed her parka and tied the arms of it around her waist.
When they crested what appeared to be the summit, Lainey's elation was dashed. The trail dropped into a steep ravine and rose again beyond. "God damn it!" she yelled. "Does this thing never end?"
She turned to look at her dogs, Trace and Montana flinching away from her anger, and she slumped.
"Sorry, guys," she apologized, easing forward to calm them. "It's not you I'm mad at." She petted and scratched, studying the rest of the team. They all sat where they stopped, conserving energy. At least they did not appear demoralized like Sholo had been before she dropped him.
"All right. Ready?"
Pleased with her attention, her leaders stood and chivvied their mates into position. The others stood up and shook themselves off.
Lainey led them down into the short ravine. She had to run to keep ahead of the dogs, an awkward shuffle since she wore snow shoes. Her wheel dogs had a sled riding their asses, and the team needed to stay far enough ahead to keep them from being run over.
On the other side, the last bit of trail shot skyward and she tried to retain their speed as they climbed. That was impossible, of course, but they got several feet along before being forced to slow again.
At the summit, Lainey laughed aloud. They made it! The ever present wind plucked at her clothes, forcing her parka to billow from her waist. As much as she wanted to stop to congratulate her team and maybe get a photograph of the spectacular view, she knew they needed to get down.
"The worst is over, guys," she said, walking back toward the sled. "A little further along and you'll be chowing down on lunch."
She put her parka back on and stashed her snow shoes. There would still be bits of trail that were over blown, but it was all downhill from here. "Let's go!"
The descent was fast and icy, a dangerous combination. Trees lined the trail in several places, and Lainey had to stand on the brake and pad to keep from over running her dogs or losing control of the sled. The trail curved back and forth on top of it, creating a constant threat of tipping over or running into what trees were there. They hit the bottom hard and climbed a hundred foot ridge almost before they lost any speed.
On the other side of the ridge was the coast, the trail paralleling snow covered dunes. Somewhat level and with a fresh leader, her team picked up some speed. In a few places Lainey saw where other mushers had climbed out of the slough to ride on top of the dunes. The marked trail was visibly blown over in some places, and she decided to follow her predecessors' more experienced lead, directing Trace and Montana to climb onto the crest of the dune.
Here the ride was smoother, but the wind was a constant irritant. According to her notes, it actually had less force than what it would be in a few hours. Apparently, the wind had a tendency to die down just after dawn and pick up in the late afternoons. Lainey dug out her watch. It was coming up on noon now. Without even trying she had chosen the perfect time to travel this way. She certainly hoped it would not pick up too much. Sometimes the gusts were so bad, mushers could not leave out of the next checkpoint.
In the distance, she saw buildings and grinned. Almost there! As her team neared the abandoned town of Shaktoolik, she sluggishly estimated her time on the trail. It had been four, maybe four and a half hours since they left Unalakleet. The next section of trail was to Koyuk, about sixty miles away. After the exhausting twelve hour stretch she had run the day before, she did not think it would be a good idea to forge past this checkpoint regardless of the threat of being forced to remain longer than planned. At the very least, the dogs needed a full meal in their bellies and a short nap. Lainey could only hope the winds would not gust too strongly in the afternoon.
She studied her team, searching for failing moods and energy levels. They all ran steady and strong. Montana still swaggered and Chibee loped along, snatching mouthfuls of snow to quench his thirst. All in all, they looked damned good, and Lainey felt tears stinging her eyes as her fatigue released control of her emotions. She laughed aloud at her maudlin feelings. Who needed to get drunk with liquor? Exhaustion created the same sensations, it appeared, hallucinations included.
They passed the old town and more buildings became visible ahead. New Shaktoolik beckoned.
Cold water was available, and she set about cooking up the next batch of food for her team and herself. She thawed the buttered rolls from Galena, fondly remembering Harris and the others who had donated butter and oil to her. It had lasted a lot longer than she had expected and was a welcome additive with this frigid wind. As much as she had wanted to get more, she had left Unalakleet before the stores opened. With some regret, she cut the last stick of donated butter into the dog chow along with the additives she had in her food drop. She still had a half gallon of cooking oil, but that would only last her another couple of stops.
As much as she wanted to sleep, Lainey forced herself to stand and move around. Sleeping now might mean the difference of three or four places and the Rookie of the Year award. She was afraid she might not hear her alarm when it was time to move on, sleeping in was not an option. With nothing constructive to do while the dogs rested, she stepped into the armory checkpoint to look over the standings.
Scotch was still out on the trail with most of the top veterans. Georgio Spencer was already in White Mountain and it was anybody's guess who else would arrive next. Jon Waters, Drew Owens and Dave Creavey were all in the same pack. Scotch was not the only woman in the sweet spot, either. Alice Westin, a ten year veteran, was right up there with the rest. Lainey wondered if any of them were getting nervous at Scotch's proximity to first place. As it was, even if she came in behind all of them, she would still place higher than she ever had.
She turned with a smile. "Yeah?"
A volunteer smiled at her. "Thought that was you. I saw you had checked in," she said, nodding at the board. "I've got something for you."
Lainey's expression was amused curiosity. Certainly Harris and his cronies could not send butter and oil all the way over here, would they?
The volunteer pulled a crinkled envelope out of her pocket. "Scotch told me to give this to you when you came in. I'm glad you decided to lay over or I would have missed you!"
"Thanks." Lainey took the envelope with a grin. She paused long enough to grab a cup of coffee from an urn and sat at a rickety table to open her treasure.
You've made it this far! You can finish, I know it!
The trip to Koyuk is going to be the worst - flat, straight, and boring as hell. Don't let it get you down. Don't stop. It's less than fifty miles but I guarantee it'll feel like a hundred fifty. Put on your iPod and keep yourself entertained, but don't get complacent. Keep alert and watch for the trail signs.
I dare you to make it to Nome. Double dog dare you.
I'll be waiting,
Sniffling, Lainey glanced around self consciously, but no one else appeared to notice her minor outburst. She reread the note three times before putting it back into its envelope and tucking it into her bib pocket. Had Scotch written it after arriving here or before she even started the race? There was that note that Howry had given her at the starting line -- Lainey blinked.
She was supposed to have read that one at her first eight hour break and had completely forgotten it! Word from Scotch, even old and outdated word, was better than none. Lainey grabbed her parka and hastened outside to her sled.
The dogs slept on, hardly rousing at her arrival. She opened her personal bag and rooted through the munchies and camera gear to find a crumpled and slightly smudged envelope. Grinning, Lainey sank down to the sled and opened her letter.
If you waited to read this like Don told you, you've reached the Yukon. Congratulations! You've made it past the worst obstacles the first part of the race has thrown at you.
The next bit gets tricky. The trail isn't the danger now, you are. It's so easy to fall into the traps here. You can exhaust your dogs as you try to beat other mushers, getting caught up in the 'race.' Or you can allow the lack of sleep and the poor diet to bring you down until you wallow in emotional trauma or even make yourself sick.
Be aware of the reality of the situation. As much fun as it is to kick some musher's ass on a sprint, it isn't worth exhausting the dogs. The Iditarod started as a medical emergency run, but it's all about the dogs now.
As for the depression, I want you to know that no matter what you think or feel about yourself, I love you.
As for the depression, I want you to know that no matter what you think or feel about yourself, I love you. I know I could have chosen a better way to tell you, but we've been busy getting everything prepared for the race and there's been no time to really talk about our situation. I had planned on telling you when you got to Nome, but watching you sleep has inspired me to get out of bed and write this.Lainey sniffled and sobbed, not entirely certain which emotion was the strongest. Surprise, of course. The last thing she expected was a love letter from Scotch. Not that the blonde was unromantic, but she focused mainly on the kennel and its operations. She and Lainey had spent many nights at the cabin, curled in front of the fireplace, talking about all sorts of things and this subject had never come up.
I have no idea what our future holds, Lainey, but I do know I want one with you. Maybe I'm putting too much pressure on you; I mean, you've traveled the world. Surely that's more fun than hanging out in Alaska with a bunch of smelly dogs. But no matter what you decide, I'll support you, okay?
Well, now I'm getting emotional. I think it's time to close.
Keep going, Lainey. I know you can make it to Nome. You've survived so much . . . what's a thousand mile dog sled race, huh?
Relief rolled over her like a warm fuzzy blanket, relaxing Lainey from a tension she had not known she carried. Since Howry's discovery of her true feelings for Scotch, Lainey had spent a lot of time attempting to fight off the reality. She had never loved anyone before, but she had seen friends and acquaintances fall and fall hard. Not many made it out the other side intact, especially when the object of their affections did not share them. Lainey's biggest worry was that Scotch would want a fling and nothing more, urging her to leave for the next gig with nary a thought beyond a fun lay. Yet now Lainey discovered that Scotch felt the same way as she.
The plans Lainey had dreamed up on the trail suddenly loomed in her mind. Even as she had schemed there was always the concern that Scotch would laugh in her face. But now? Now it seemed that her idea of having Scotch along with her for future freelance gigs seemed plausible. Maybe she could have the best of both worlds.
Her tears were ice upon her cheeks, and she wiped them away, forcing herself to stand. The note went back into its envelope and joined the one already in her bib coverall pocket. Snuffling, she dug out her toilet paper and blew her nose, depositing the wadded mess into a small trash bag in her sled.
Lainey turned to see a musher hovering over his sled. She could not remember his name, but knew he was a rookie like herself. He had started far back in the pack; he must be good or he would not have made it so far, so fast.
"Bad news?" he asked, obviously referring to the letter she had tucked away.
"Good news," she said, her smile somewhat tremulous.
"Good for you." He nodded. "How long you staying?"
Her competitive edge raced to the fore and she tried to recall if he had been there when she checked in earlier. Glancing casually at her watch, she realized he had just come in. It had been two and a half hours and she had less than two to go before she wanted to leave. "I'm thinking of staying for a full seven hours," she lied. "We took the Kaltag to Unalakleet in one lump and the dogs still really need the rest."
He nodded again, eyeing her in speculation. "Sounds like a plan. I hear the next stretch is boring as hell."
"Me, too." Lainey said her good byes and headed back toward the checkpoint. She needed to stay awake long enough for him to fall asleep. From here on out, every musher would begin to think of the Iditarod as a race, not an endurance run. No more working or running together. Getting to Nome before everyone else was the goal.
Smiling, she stepped into the armory, pressing the letters against her chest.
Getting to Nome was definitely the goal.
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