Dogsled Racing

04.26.13

Following the Great Iditarod

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If you read nothing else today, let it be Brian Phillips' essay on following the Iditarod, Alaska's great dogsled race.

All of a sudden I felt … but I don’t want to overstate it; it wasn’t despair or anything, just melancholy, just an extreme forlornness.

It hit me that what I really felt — I realize how weird this is to write — was loneliness for history. Alaska has its own past: the murdering flaming wreck of the Russian colonies, the gold insanity, the deep-time traditions of the tribes. But it doesn’t saturate the landscape.

In the Lower 48, you carry around a sense that the human environment has been molded by people who went before — this battle on this hill and so on.

There’s a texture that you, too, are part of, even when it’s bloody or frightening, a texture within which your life can assume some kind of meaning. And that, as Bernard’s theory of tax policy and generations of writers have discovered, can be its own nightmare, but in remote Alaska, the nightmare is: It’s not there.

It’s hard to explain, though this felt absence is an obvious part of both the allure and the terror of the frontier. There are no pre-written meanings. A fella can do just about anything he’s big enough to do. And one strong gust of wind could blow the whole edifice of human habitation away.