(Title essay from my memoir, originally published in The MacGuffin)

sled dog team pulling a sled

Four months after moving in to the run-down mobile home, I still hadn’t gotten used to the popping pinion in the woodburner, the sinking floor underneath that woodburner, or the whistling winds that sometimes pushed the battered old trailer to the brink of impending flight. In a strange way, these things that threatened our world actually brought Nick and I closer. We were in this struggle together, I often reminded myself—the young couple starting a fresh new life. Things would get better. And our bond would be stronger for all that we’d gone through. We’d look back on these times with fond memories. The fact that were starting at the extreme bottom made it all the more romantic, I thought. The trailer was just a starting point. A decidedly unfortunate starting point.

But for all the frights, frustrations, and inconveniences that loomed over us in the makeshift living quarters, there was one paramount saving grace that even I couldn’t deny—a grace that transcended anything built by human hands. And all Nick or I had to do to access that grace was walk outside. Across the street from our less-than-regal mobile home was a majestic wilderness. In addition to having unobstructed views of the second highest peak in Utah—Mount Timpanogos—we lived on Soldier Hollow road. By that time, Soldier Hollow had already been designated as the venue for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games biathlon event. Between our trailer and the Soldier Hollow future Olympic venue was a right-hand turn that lead to the most scenic drive of my life. I can’t count the number of times that fall we drove up the road that led to Cascade Springs, continuing through the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway to witness the shock of flaming colors as we wound through the switchback crack of a road nestled in the towering folds of deciduous-blanketed Wasatch mountains. But Cascade Springs road was impassable in winter. And that made it a perfectly acceptable, though treacherously steep, sled dog training track.

The first time Nick took me on a dog-sled ride I almost chickened out before he even had all the dogs hooked up to the sled. It was ten o’clock at night. The moonlight radiated off the snow, illuminating the world around us in a mystical glow. The dogs went crazy.

Nick’s handmade wooden racing sled was approximately six feet in length, crafted with long, slender strips of White Ash that Nick had glued and clamped to the perfect specifications before securing each with hand-tied knots of the strongest fishing line he could find. With a forward thrusting brush bow that mirrored the curve of the upright drive bow, this sled was as graceful as it was sleek. In the center of the sled, sitting delicately atop the six-foot long runners, was the basket—traditionally built to hold supplies, untraditionally built to hold me. Nick had lined the sled with thick blankets, topped with a sleeping bag, which he unzipped in preparation for our quick takeoff. He would drive, standing up at the back of the sled. I would ride, all snug inside the blankets in the cargo basket.

Nick set the claw brake and, for extra security, dug the snow hook deep into the snow behind the sled before instructing me on how it was all going to happen. He would hook the two leaders up first, Drizzle and Simba. I was to stand up front with them, holding the line between them and making sure they didn’t get tangled as he hooked up the other dogs, one by one.

Got it, I thought, no problem. I took my position at the front of the lines, only then noticing how long the lines actually were. The lead dogs, I realized, would be a good twenty feet from the front of the sled. As I was considering the implications of such long lines, Nick came running toward me with a frantic Drizzle beside him. He had to hold her up by the chain so that her two front feet didn’t touch the ground. Otherwise, he would have had no chance of keeping a hold on this dog that was bred to run. Even with Nick’s restraints, Drizzle plunged forward on her hind legs in giant leaps, and I realized that if her two front feet were to make contact with the ground, that dog would be gone in a flash to anywhere. I was beginning to get nervous.

Once Drizzle was hooked up to the line, she plunged forward in a frenzy, jerking the sled off its runners behind her.

“Hold her!” Nick yelled, as he ran like crazy back to get another dog. I tried my best to hold Drizzle by the shoulders and convince her to contain her mania. Next came Simba, our gentle black giant whose only previous mission in life seemed to be that of sweetly pining for as much attention as he could get. I wasn’t worried about Simba, until I saw the look in his wildly possessed eyes. Somehow, the Simba that Nick attached to the line next to Drizzle seemed to be inhabited by the spirit of a dog I hadn’t yet met. One that I probably wouldn’t have cared to, given a choice. While Drizzle had only partially accommodated my firm directive of settling down, Simba would have none of it. The sixty-pound wad of muscle lunged forward with all his might, and out of his throat came blood-curdling sounds that didn’t seem natural. A cross between a howling bellow and an agonized wail launched with every thrusting lunge. The little wooden sled dangled on the end of the flailing lines, and my blankets went asunder in the jumble.

“HOLD HIM!” Nick shouted as he approached the next set of lines with Lefty. By that time, I was as frantic as the dogs were, yelling back at them and forcing my arms between the two leaders as they barked and screeched and yowled in my ears. The mind-numbing ruckus only got worse as more dogs took their places in line.

I have one job, I told myself, to keep the leaders untangled and steady. At one point I thought Lefty and Whitey seemed to be on the opposite sides of where they’d started. Nick must have noticed at the same time and came forward to untangle them. As I watched Nick fling little Lefty over the line and back into position, I saw Swede jump straight up in the air and land on Mufasa. Both dogs started jumping, and lines twisted everywhere. Nick continued up and down the line of dogs, fixing the tangles and adjusting positions. The dogs seemed determined to raise the dead with their heart-pumping uproar.

I have one job, I kept telling myself. My breath was now coming in short gasps. My heart felt like a hummingbird’s, ready to explode. One job, I thought.

“Come on, come on, get in the sled!” Nick shouted from the helm. I released my hold on Simba and ran like crazy, jumping into the sled and falling clumsily into the cushion of blankets just as the hook came loose.

“HAaaaa-Ayyyyke!” Nick shouted.

Whoooshhhh! We were off like an arrow into the night, and absolute silence echoed in my ears.

Shhhhhhhh, Shhhhhhhhh, Shhhhhhhhh . . . Nick’s delicate wooden sled glided over the snow like a ballerina on her stage.

“Wow,” I whispered.

“Cover up,” Nick said, reaching down to pull the sleeping bag around me. I adjusted my position after having fallen so haphazardly into the sled. I pulled my hat over my ears and snuggled down into the blankets, drinking in the silent beauty of the winter night. As the dogs slowed to pace, a light snow began to fall.

“What do you think?” Nick eventually asked. He couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

“Unreal,” I said.

“Yeah,” he replied.

The ride lasted for about an hour. We went part of the way up Cascade Springs road before turning around for the descent. It was a hairy turnaround in the middle of the night on a narrow road, but by that time, a kind of absurd tranquility had infiltrated my body and soul and we could probably have launched right over the side of that mountain before anything shook me up again. The dogs seemed to have found their balance as well, never again fidgeting or making a sound after the initial disarray. This was a team in harmony, I realized, not caring that I had no earthly idea as to how it had all come together.

The next day I was still in a daze from the dog-sledding experience. I made us a big brunch of fried potatoes, toast, and eggs—mine over-easy and Nick’s sunny-side up, the way he liked them. We sat at the table in contented silence.

“Hey,” I said, finally shattering our morning reverie as something popped into my head from the night before. “You never said ‘Mush.’”

“Huh?” Nick looked up from dipping his toast into the sunny part of his egg.

“Mush,” I repeated. “You’re supposed to say mush when you mush dogs. You never said it.”

“Nobody says mush,” he informed me. “The dogs wouldn’t even know what to do. You may as well say banana,” he smiled.

“What?” I couldn’t believe it. “Then why is it called dog mushing?”

“I have no idea,” he said. “I’ve never heard anyone say mush in all the years I’ve run dogs. The word is completely meaningless,” he said, and he pushed his plate away, the whites of his eggs still completely intact with the indentation of a perfect round circle where the sun used to be.


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4 Responses to “Mush”

  1. Wade says:

    Wow. Excellent, Tara!

  2. Gigi says:

    Loved it, Tara!!

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