Recently, a very disturbing thing has occurred within the mushing community.
I might preface this post by saying, when I say "community," I mean this in a very real sense. Mushers are a tight knit group; some of my best friends are hundreds of miles away. We communicate on a regular basis with one another, share tips, do favors, exchange "stuff."
Recently, 34 year old Melanie Gould, six-time Iditarod veteran, musher, massage therapist, baker and musician suddenly vanished on May 31, 2011.
|Melanie Gould, Iditarod veteran, is missing|
In some ways, I feel like it's not my place to write about Melanie's disappearance. I don't know her, and she is from a place that is 3,000 miles from my home.
But, for one, Melanie could be anywhere in the country at this point, so it seems relevant to distribute her picture and information about her as much as possible.
On May 30th, Melanie clocked out of her work place like any other day around 5:30. There was no evidence that anything was amiss. When she didn't show up for work for two consecutive days, a search began for Melanie. Friends began to get concerned. They were even more concerned when they found Melanie's dogs were left without food at her residence, her cell phone found on the counter of her home, illustrating no evidence that she had intended to be gone for long.
And yet, she had been gone for days.
Her truck was found on June 4 about 18 miles east of Cantwell, Alaska, a tiny town situated at the junction of the Denali highway.
Don't be fooled by the term "highway" in Denali Highway. This stretch of road is mostly gravel and not well traveled. Rustic in the highest form of the word.
Troopers reported that Melanie's truck was parked off the main highway "at the end of an old mining road that narrowed down to a four-wheeler path." Search dogs were called out, but eerily, the dogs turned up no sign of Gould's scent beyond her truck. It's as if Gould literally vanished into thin air.
As of yesterday, not even two weeks from the musher's mysterious disappearance, troopers officially halted the search for Gould citing trooper safety and no further clues as their reason.
Several friends and I have shared emails about Melanie's disturbing disappearance. Invariably a common theme runs throughout those correspondence. "It could have been me."
I've tried to process what this means. Clearly people are concerned about Melanie for more reasons than how it affects them.
I can only speak for myself, frame what Melanie's disappearance means to me, why I find it so disturbing.
Melanie lives for things that I think many mushers, including myself, live for. While I don't know her, I can tell from reading about her, seeing photos of her and learning about her that I would relate to her. She lives for solitude and simplicity, the beauty that can only come from a strong bond with animals and a connection to nature.
She's always described as hearty. The Alaska Dispatch quotes her friend, Amanda Randles, as saying, "Her toughness as a musher can’t be underestimated." People remark on a facebook page set up specifically for Melanie about how tough she is.
And while certainly this is undeniable, it seems to me the Dispatch forgot one key thing: Melanie is still only human.
I recall a person who, just last year, asked me obnoxiously, "why do you always have to be so tough?" Dumbfounded by this statement, I replied that I am not tough at all; in fact, many who truly know me have said I am too sensitive.
There is a common misconception that because mushers can weather through the harshest conditions, muddle through pain and cold and sleep deprivation, that we are tough.
Tenacity of spirit and a high tolerance for and patience with extreme weather and erratic sleep patterns does not make us invulnerable.
And coming full circle, I'm reminded of just what I find so disturbing about Melanie Gould's disappearance. How can someone survive some of the most challenging trails and grueling mountains of the Iditarod trail not once, not twice, but six times and yet, potentially fall victim to her own demise? How can someone with so much survival savvy disappear?
Because no one is immune or tough enough to avoid their own humanness. We all have the ability to disappear from life at any moment. Melanie is a reminder that, as my friends have said, if it can happen to her with all of her stamina and prowess, it can certainly happen to anyone.
Having said that, Melanie (and really any Iditarod musher) is tough as nails. I pray daily that her "toughness" helps her to triumph over whatever adversity she faces. I think of her - this woman I don't even know - every night when I go to sleep and I think of her when I open my eyes. I pray for her and for her family and friends to have the strength to come out on top.
Here is a candle, Melanie.
Granted, it is a virtual candle, but the beauty of that is it will never go out, never die down. I leave it here, lit for you on this blog, until you are safely returned to your pack.
Now more than ever, I write this with "mush love."