Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Am I a musher?

The dogs and I returned to the farm in Ohio late Monday evening. It was warm - 47 degrees when we pulled in - and things looked barren and different, yet familiar and for that, comforting. The giant oak in the front yard stood naked against the late December sky. When I pulled out of here two months ago, the leaves were still on the trees.

The last two months have been a blur of "cabin-time." Days run together; I can't decipher one from the next. "Cabin time" seems to seal me off from "real time." Life in the eastern U.P. feels different than life anywhere else. It's as if the little community of Deer Park/Newberry is a dark hole, insulated from the rest of the world, like some Faulknerian hamlet.

I used to think I wanted to live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After being there for not quite two months straight, now I'm not so sure. The area along the Lake Superior shores near Grand Marais must see the least amount of sunlight of any place on the planet at this time of the year. Combine that with the isolation, the longing for my children, as well as the lack of nearly any kind of employment, I know I could not ever live there permanently.

Oh Thoreau, going to the woods to live deliberately is good...for awhile. After a couple months, though, I craved things like...dare I say... Stabucks®, a television, a Target®. Oh, and a cell signal.

Life is difficult, but it seems more difficult there, in the isolated area between Newberry and Grand Marais. Things take longer: driving to town and back is a 50 mile round trip and takes half a day. If it's snowing, it takes longer. Days are dark. The silence is deafening.

There is more drama in a place the size of a shoe box than anyone could ever imagine. I've heard stories about poached bears, family feuds, love affairs and scandalous encounters enough to create the label Days of Our Lives, the Deer Park Edition.

There are so many Catch-22s in this sport. In order to train dogs effectively for races like those I run, one must live far away from populated areas in order to have adequate trail access and so as to not aggravate the neighbors.

However, caring for dogs and operating a kennel is expensive, and jobs aren't plentiful in remote areas with adequate trail access.

Likewise, in order to afford this sport, one must have a good job; however, it's near impossible to train the dogs the way one needs to train and maintain a normal 40 hour work week.

I digress.

Coming back to the farm and to my kiddos after two months away has been an overwhelming, emotional experience. I am at a crossroads, and I don't know what the future holds for me or this sport. It seems mushers and mushing are a dying breed. It's just not practical - and seems downright silly if you think about it - to spend so much money and time training a bunch of dogs to pull a sled for hundreds of miles simply for one or two...maybe three races a year. So much is sacrificed. For the first time ever, I'm left wondering if it's all worth it.

Friday, December 14, 2012


I came to this 16 x 20 cabin to find peace and perspective during a tumultuous time of many changes in my life. I came to simplify: work on my book, focus on my dogs and get perspective.

Over the last ten days, I've found just about the opposite. In that time, I've found heartache.

My heart aches for my children. Being away from them for the last two months has been difficult. There have been other struggles, but the distance from my kiddos combined with the consistent gray days in the eastern UP have dampened my spirit and made just about everything difficult.

I have considered folding on the season and selling out of dogs completely, but I am hanging by a thread, trying hard not to make any rash decisions and "stay the course."

I leave for Ohio this weekend, and will be so happy to see my girls.

How do women strike a balance between doing what we live to do, but being mothers as well? It is a struggle that I don't pretend to know the answer to. I've been criticized by some for my decision to come here, and those criticisms have been difficult to hear.

No one can possibly know the things that brought me here or understand why I have done the things I have done. I don't know what the future holds, but I will be relieved to be home for Christmas with my family.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


I blink, and it's December.

Days have become a blur of routine: thawing meat for the dogs, feeding, scooping, miles behind my team, repeat.

Ever since I started preparing to move here, I've felt such a strong urge to rid myself of "stuff." Though all I packed to come to this quaint, 16x20 cabin in the northwoods fit in a 5x8 Uhaul trailer, I find I am still compelled to lighten my load even more. There are so few things that mean much to me anymore, and I find myself full of gratitude for the simple things I have. Friday brought a cord of kiln-dried hardwood, some propane, and some groceries. And I am gracious.

It occurs to me that this is the quintessential antithesis of December in America.

If I am honest, I haven't been thinking too much of Christmas. Except when I have to drive to town for groceries or other supplies. Then the Christmas music assaults my senses.

Perhaps the intended purpose of Christmas music is to remind us, as we stroll down aisles with shopping carts, to buy stuff.

But Christmas music reminds me of home.

Home isn't necessarily a place on a map for me.

Home is a place in my heart where the people I love reside. Some of those people live in Ohio. Some of those people live in Michigan. Some of those people live in other places altogether.

It was January when my grandmother died.

She had spent her last birthday, which also happened to be Christmas, in the hospital. She was dying. We all knew it.

I went to see her one snowy day in December. She lay in that hospital bed, small, frail, full of angles and hollow spaces where once there were curves and life. Her skin was like paper.

I watched her breathe: shallowly, slowly, half expecting the next breath not to come. But after long pause, the course draw of her inhale made its way back.

Her eyes fluttered lightly in sleep. What did she dream about, there at the end of her life? On the threshold of death, did she dream of my grandfather? Did she dream of driving? She never had driven in life. Was she haunted on her death bed by the dreams unfulfilled in life?

Snow fell as we drove to the cemetery near her house. Her pale blue casket was suspended above the open grave, and we gathered around it that January day. My sisters, aunts, uncles, parents and cousins had all turned out for the ceremony. I watched my aunt sob as the pastor said The Lord's Prayer, the skin on her hands like paper.

Days flow. Life is a blur. Suddenly we're dreaming of the things we never did, the things we never took the time - or the chances - to do. Like being honest with our loved ones. Like being honest with ourselves.

Don't wait. Things don't matter. What lives in our hearts - those things that make us swoon and sob and smile - those things matter.

The poet Ryokan said,

"We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices."

How will you spend your days? Will you leave a trace?