The Yukon Quest and the Iditarod have consumed my attention lately. Some of my earliest memories revolve around fledgling mushing aspirations. In fact, my mother tells me that my favorite breakfast as an infant was mush. I have never acted on those primeval instincts in a professional capacity, but I have done a lot of dribbling…er…dabbling.
I distinctly remember my first attempt at mushing. It was when I was a seven-year-old tyke living in the State of New York. Back then, my only companion was my beloved poodle, Suzette. As you can suppose, Suzette played a prominent role as a Beta tester in my maiden mush.
Now Suzette wasn’t one of those ankle biting yappy things that smell of perfume and wear ribbons around their necks. She was a very intelligent and faithful friend. She was actually embarrassed to be a poodle, so I didn’t hold it against her. She fulfilled many roles in my imagination drenched childhood—predatory mountain lion, circus elephant, T-rex, St. Bernard with a keg of chocolate milk on its collar, Winnie the Pooh, longhorn steer, packet of airdropped supplies for the French Resistance, etc. The part that will always be seared into my memory, however, was her stint as Balto.
Portville, New York that summer in the early 70s wasn’t exactly the North Slope, so it was necessary for my imagination to work overtime to transform my backyard into blizzard-choked muskeg. Come to think of it, Suzette didn’t look much like a Siberian Husky team, either–but I never was one to let minutia like that get in the way of creative playing.
When my muse breathed inspiration into my heart that afternoon, I knew that the fate of millions rested in my dimpled hands. The hysteria vaccine needed to get from the garage to the swing set, or Captain Hook would gobble up little Red Riding Hood and Gotham City would fall to ravaging hordes of bloodthirsty Apaches.
Only one intrepid soul dared smirk into the bared fangs of that god-forsaken gauntlet of a trail, where the freeze-dried bodies of men and dogs fell, fell, eternally fell between the bottomless blue walls of glacial crevasses, and Frostbite prowled with whetted blade. Only one weather-bitten sourdough had the nerve to harness his team with a sneer on his lip and a gleam in his eye. It was I, but I needed to get it done before Mommy called me in for my p&j sandwich and nap.
I lovingly broke out my Lightning Flyer dogsled. Every musher knows that the best dog harnesses are hand tied from your Dad’s lawnmower pull cord which has been carefully harvested using your Mommy’s favorite German sewing scissors. In a few moments the harness was expertly tied to the handle of my dogsled. Now came the almost sacred moment of communion between a musher and his lead dog—the moment for which each of them was born.
“Here, Suzette! Come here, girl!”
Suzette hung her head and tried to slink behind a burdock bush. It was her way of being humble whenever I invited her star in one of my epic adventures. When I reassured her that she had nothing but honor, prestige and Alpo advertising contracts awaiting her, she demurely allowed me to drag her to the sled. She was eager to have her name inscribed in the doggie hall of fame beside Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin, but was too classy to show it. For the benefit of any paparazzi or spying fans, she made a convincing show of whining and digging her claws into the ground as, both hands gripping her collar, I escorted her toward fame and glory.
With a few deft loops around the neck of Balto, I had her harnessed. I tied it off with an original and bewilderingly complex knot, conceived in the genius of the moment. Balto’s eyes were accusatory as she resignedly lay down.
“No, Balto! Mush!” I sang out. “The vaccine must be delivered.”
Balto gave a strange chuckle and pawed at the harness around her curly mane, no doubt admiring its fit and peerless design. I climbed into the dogsled and held onto the wooden slatted sideboards, anticipating the pending rush of wind in my face, when Balto lunged into the traces. “Mush!” I cried, “Mush!”
I have since learned that the correct command is “Hike”. This probably explains why Balto was so confused. She tried to crawl back into the sled with me. I guess she thought I was mentioning breakfast. She licked my face, assuming that the “mush” must be smeared where she usually found it.
I was getting frustrated. I pushed Balto out of the sled and disembarked after her. Seizing her harness, I tugged encouragingly. “Come on. Mush!” I pleaded. Balto started to make raspy sounds in her throat, anticipating the thrill of the chase. Jerking the harness out of my grip, she finally began to pull. The only problem was that she was in reverse. She was backing away from the sled, shaking her head and straining against the harness. The raspy noises got louder.
I knew Balto was gifted, and she could probably run for miles backwards, but I thought backing all the way to Nome was tempting fate a little too much. I didn’t fancy spending eternity freeze-dried and falling. Besides, if we reached the grateful and cheering throngs at our destination, I was afraid if Balto was running tail-first, the folks in Nome would think we were escaping with the vaccine instead of arriving with it and would lynch us.
I tried another tack. I ran a few feet ahead of the sled and hunkered down. “Come,” I ordered. Balto turned toward me, attempted to obey, staggered a couple of steps, gurgled and collapsed. The raspy noises were gone. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t making any noise at all. She wasn’t even moving. I shook her. “Suzette?”
What an actress! I hadn’t thought of this plot twist. It was brilliant! The vaccine had frozen and burst, infecting my entire team. Talk about pathos and drama! I followed her cue. Clutching my throat, I staggered around, as if I too had been overcome by the dread hysteria epidemic. Dramatically, I expired, collapsing onto the cold form of my devoted lead dog. In my death throes, my convulsing fingers entertwined themselves in Balto’s harness. I felt the monstrous knot loosen just as I shuddered out my last breath. Even in death we were one—man and dog lying in a frozen embrace as the Arctic wind mercifully hid us beneath a shroud of snow…
Then, for some reason, my faithful lead dog reverted to her lupine heritage. I felt a sting in the seat of my pants as she sunk her fangs into my overalls. She wriggled out from under me so fast that my head smacked the ground. I sat up and rubbed my head. My lower lip began to tremble, and my eyes pooled up with indignant tears.
Suzette’s yap told me in no uncertain terms that she had no intention of going to Nome, or anywhere else for that matter. It was one of those moments of disillusionment that every child must struggle with as the reality of life hits him. I sniffed the air, and it almost seemed that I could smell perfume. Was that a ribbon I saw, beginning to materialize around her neck?
It has been many years now, and Suzette has gone off to sign Alpo contracts in the sky, but when March rolls around, I still feel the mush flowing in my veins. I occasionally find myself gazing off past the clouds and murmuring, “Mush, Balto, Mush!”