For armchair adventurers and readers who enjoy tales of perseverance and the Alaska wilderness, “8,000 Miles Across Alaska: A Runner’s Journeys on the Iditarod Trail,” is now available for purchase.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 11, “The Blow.”
The wind persisted as Tim traveled through the villages of Golovin and White Mountain, and on to the final seventy-seven-mile stretch to Nome. This segment was stark and treeless, utterly exposed to the north wind. Although he could almost smell the finish, Tim understood how vulnerable he was in this landscape. Darkness settled in, and Tim hoped night would bring a respite from the wind, as it often did. He put his head down and pressed through the howling tunnel. With almost nothing in the way of landscape features to offset the whiteout, he could no longer see the thickness of the blowing snow or gauge visibility. The storm obscured all of his senses; he smelled and tasted only the moistened ice of his face mask, heard only the ceaseless howl of the wind, felt only the hard shove from the north, and saw only a single dark shade of gray. It was almost impossible to perceive whether wind speeds or ground blizzards were worsening, but there were clues.
First, he began to trip himself with his trekking poles, which the wind blew sideways every time he lifted them out of the snow. Occasionally, a strong gust would slam into his body, forcing him to hunch to the ground to reduce his profile. Even with goggles and a face mask, wind pierced through the foam seals until Tim’s eyes burned, forcing him to hold up one of his mittened hands to shield the side of his face. With his headlight focused on the front of his feet, he studied the snow for signs of the trail. He felt like a detective scanning the scene of a crime for the most subtle details. Unless he stood within two feet of a trail marker, there was no way to see one through the storm. He was so close to the finish, just fifty more miles to Nome, walking straight into the jaws of an Arctic blow. It was as though the Iditarod Trail was putting up one last, great resistance — the lion at the end of a gladiator’s obstacle course. If Tim wanted to win, if he wanted to survive, he would have to fight.
“Cookie, stay with me!” Tim screamed to his sled. “We are going to make it, but we have to work together!” Cookie was tracking hard to the left, tugging on Tim’s body with a force almost stronger than his ability to resist, as though his sled was consciously trying to drag him out to sea. It was after 3 a.m., but adrenaline surged through Tim’s blood and drove him to march as hard as he could. Then, in a heart-stopping instant, everything went dark. Tim was pressed into a wall — invisible, and yet so solid that he couldn’t step forward. He was the proverbial unstoppable force against an immovable object, pushing desperately in place as wind raged in his face. He braced himself against the backward-shoving wall and reached up to remove his headlamp, thinking its batteries had died in the storm. But as he held the light in his mitten, the beam was still shining. “That’s odd,” he thought. When he pulled the light back onto his head, the beam went dark again. The ground blizzard was so thick that blowing snow blocked the headlight beam. Not even light could penetrate this black hole of a storm.
Tim couldn’t move forward, so he would have to retreat. He couldn’t pause any longer; his core temperature was already dropping, and his fingers were going numb. As he turned away, his headlight once again cast a beam into the blowing snow, reflecting off a trail marker just a few feet away. The stake was ninety degrees from where Tim knew it should be; now he had no idea which direction was correct. Was he moving forward or backward on the trail? Uncertainty gripped him, but he had to make a decision now. There was no time to think.
As Tim stumbled toward the trail marker, he realized that the wind was again grabbing his sled, which was now pulling his body to the right. Confusion swirled through the blizzard. He had to act, but he had to figure this out, first. He tucked his trekking poles under his arm and removed an outer mitten, unzipping his parka just enough to reach into the chest pocket, pull out his GPS device and turn it on. In slow motion, the liquid crystal screen flickered to life and showed traces of an arrow pointing to Nome. With his head down, he picked a direction and marched, keeping his eyes on the screen until the line moved one hundredth of a mile in the right direction. Within a few minutes, he caught sight of another trail marker. As he puzzled over his disorientation amid the snow wall, he realized that his sled must be acting like the tail of a kite, pulling his body straight into the wind without Tim even realizing he had made a ninety-degree turn. He hadn’t been able to move forward because it was not humanly possible to walk directly into the wind. The force of the blizzard was so strong that not even visible light could escape through the blasting snow. Even walking with the wind at his side, just staying upright demanded all of Tim’s strength.
He thought he must be about five miles from the next safety cabin. The crosswind roared, but Tim understood now that it was within his physical ability to fight it. If he met another unmovable wall, he now knew to turn ninety degrees to his left. He worked his way up and down a series of low-lying hills. With no sight lines, he could only guess his location. At the summits of each hill the wind swirled, collecting snow in circular drifts that camouflaged the trail without an apparent orientation. Tim continued to search for feedback that the wind wasn’t moving his body out of line again — a frozen edge from a dogsled runner or even stained ice from dog feces was good enough. Trail markers were cause for celebration.
As he descended, the hillsides created a funnel that once again directed the wind with nearly immovable force, right at his side. At one point, he made the brief mistake of turning to face it. A gust ripped his goggles right off his head, and in an instant they disappeared into the gray expanse. Now he was blind, but he could not panic. Turning away from the wind, Tim pulled his balaclava up to the bottom of his eyelids, closed the draw strings of his hood below his eyebrows, and shifted his neck gaiter up over his eyes. With his right mitten against his face to seal out wind, he could see through the small slit in his clothing, but was limited to looking down and to the left.
After a half mile of squinting toward the flickering beam of white light at his feet, his headlight finally picked up reflectors from the safety cabin. He fell through the doorway, exhausted. There were things he needed: fire to melt snow for water, driftwood to build a fire, some dinner, and a place to hang his clothing to dry. But for minutes, he just sat on a cold bench and stared blankly at the plywood graffiti-stained wall. The appearance of the darkened shelter had calmed the last of his adrenaline, and his energy was extinguished. Eventually he roused himself to gather snow and make stew, then crawled into his sleeping bag.
The paperback is out now. Half Past Done readers can receive a special release discount of 20 percent off. Visit the store at https://www.createspace.com/4921662 and enter the discount code YZ6WW6AH to receive 20 percent off the retail price of $16.95.
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