The Red Lantern
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, "The Weight Of The World." Today, we're talking to people who, for one reason or another, are carrying a little extra burden. Now, a few weeks ago, my dear friend Petrina (ph), she told me come out because rumor had it that Jeff Greenwald was going to tell a story for his birthday. And if you don't know, Jeff Greenwald is a longtime Snapper. He's been with the show from day one, so I was excited. So imagine - a small little place in Berkeley, Calif., folding chairs, a bunch of storytellers get up to do their thing before, finally, Jeff Greenwald walks to the front of the room.
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JEFF GREENWALD: I want to tell you a story about something that happened when I turned 50. On my 50th birthday, I got a call from the guy who had been my best friend for a long time - still really close friends. His name is Brian Patrick O'Donoghue, and he called me up when I turned 50, and he said, I have an idea - why don't you come up here and go dog sledding with me for your 50th birthday? But Brian - you know, to be invited to go dog sledding by Brian was something extraordinary. He has a really rare distinction. He has run both the Iditarod, which is an 1,150-mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome and the Yukon Quest, which is a thousand-mile dog sled race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. And he won the Red Lantern Award in both races. Does anyone here know what the Red Lantern Award is? It's for the person who finishes last.
GREENWALD: And the key word in that phrase is finishes. Everyone before you has already finished, maybe a week earlier, and everyone behind you has quit. And you are the last one they keep this lantern going for. He took it in both races.
GREENWALD: So yeah, I knew that there might be some peril involved, but I was very interested in this dog sled idea, and I went up there. And I went to Fairbanks and visited the cabin that he and his wife, Kate Ripley, had built from scratch. And he had a whole yard full of dogs. And he picked out 10 of them - five for him and five for me. And we put them in the dog carrier in the back of his pickup truck. And we put two big dog sledding sleds on top of those. And we drove out about 60 miles north of Fairbanks to the White Mountains of Alaska - beautiful national park area. And they have these wonderful BLM cabins out there. And you dog sled from one cabin to the next, and you spend the night at these really rustic cabins where there's a wood stove. There's wood. There's all these things left over from people who've passed through, like Jiffy Pop and journals and decks of cards, and there's these amazing toilet seats. It gets to be, like, 50 degrees below zero out there, and they've designed these toilet seats out of this high-tech NASA material that stays warm no matter how cold out it gets.
GREENWALD: And before we - so we got to the parking lot. We let the dogs out. We took the sleds down from the roof. And here's the thing with dog sledding. You have to connect the dogs to the sleds by this astounding web of strings and ropes and harnesses. It's unbelievable. Every string is a different color. They all hook onto a different part of the harness. The dogs are attached to each other and to the sled and to the central runner. I watch Brian hooking up the dogs to the sled. And I was just shaking my head going, I don't know how you do that. I can't even imagine 'cause I'm zoning out, and to me, it's like string theory. It's like a million strings and five dogs, and I have no idea how it's all put together. So there are two brakes on a dog sled. There's the drag brake, which you use under your foot to slow you down if the sled is going too fast 'cause you don't want it to speed up and go so fast it runs over the dogs on a downhill. And then there's the claw brake, which just kind of digs into the snow and holds the sled in place because the dogs are rambunctious. They live to pull these sleds, and they want to pull the sleds.
And as soon as they're hooked up to our sleds, they start jumping and bouncing and flying in the air. And we've got the claw brake in and the drag brake. We're standing - I'm standing on the drag brake and Brian says, OK, watch me and then do the same. Get off the drag brake and pull the claw at the same time and hold the hell on and whatever happens - if the sled - if you're falling off, hold on to the sled. Do not let the sled go. Whatever you do, don't let the sled go. And he pulls up the claw brake and he is off like a shot down this groomed trail through the White Mountains, just taking off in a cloud of snow with the dogs just galloping ahead and barking. And I'm there all alone with the dogs and they're yapping and they're jumping and they're licking in every direction and I'm going oh, my God. What to do? And I'm standing on the drag brake and at the same time I jump off the drag brake, pull the claw brake out and the dogs go ahead like a shot. And they go running as fast as they can for about 50 feet and then they start stopping. And they're just turning around and looking at me.
GREENWALD: And Brian's saying you have to talk to them. You have to encourage them while you go. And I'm wearing this huge heavy jacket, this Carhart suit that's just covering me from head to toe; this snout of this furry mask that's out to here so that you have this pocket of warm air by your face. And I start screaming at the dogs. You know, go, go, good dog, good dog. Go Adigan (ph); go Milo (ph); go Woody (ph); go Fig (ph); go, go, go.
Go on. Go on Abby (ph); go Fig; go Milo, go - and as soon as you stop calling the dogs' name they start to slow down. So for, like, hours it's this constant, throat-rending just endless, like, call and response of go Adigan, good dog Fig, go Woody, good dog Abby, go Milo, go Fig, good dog Adigan, go Adigan, go Fig, good dog Milo, good dog Woody, go, go Fig, go Abby, go Adigan, go Milo, go. Keep going.
GREENWALD: And in this way, they continue plodding along at what feels like a hundred miles an hour. It's actually about 15 miles an hour. And we got to our first stop, which is this cabin called Colorado Creek, out there, and it's absolutely gorgeous. And we made a fire and we brothed (ph) - brothed - broth is a verb in Alaska. We brothed the dogs. We - we fed them this broth. Do any of you understand how much snow it takes to make a quart of water? You would think that maybe four quart pans of snow would translate to a quart of water. It's more like four million.
GREENWALD: And we have to do this for each one of the dogs, so by the time we're done, it's, like, 3 in the morning, and we each eat a PowerBar and we go to sleep. And Brian makes some chicken broth for us to have in the morning, which is key because it's the only thing that'll give us the energy to keep going to our next BLM shack, which is going to be called Wolf Run. So the next morning, we're up. Brian's up with the sun. We get the dogs all harnessed up again. I just stand there and watch him because I can't come near that string. And he's got the thermoses of chicken broth, and he's got the dogs ready. And we get back on the sleds and we're off to Wolf Run. And we're just going, galloping through the snow and it's starting to feel natural. And nobody had really told me how just plain beautiful it was to be out in the Alaskan wilderness with the sun low in the sky, even in March, and the hills just covered with bare trees and just this white, endless version carpet of snow. Just shushing along on the trail, mushing, and just, you know, constantly bantering, yelling at the dogs. Milo, Adigan, Woody, Fig and Rick - just one word after another, just getting hoarse just trying to sound like this. Go Fig; go Adigan, go Milo; go Adigan; go Fig. But they got the point, you know, they were with me on this.
GREENWALD: And we were out in this open plain and we'd gone about 45 minutes or an hour from the shack and Brian yelled I'm going to slow down. Pass me a pitcher of the - pass me a thermos of the broth. I need it. And I look down and I say you've got the broth. And he says, no, no, no, you've got the broth. And I say no, you've got the broth. And he says we need the broth. You don't bring it. And I said it was on the table. Didn't you take it? And he says no, we have to go back for it. And I say, we can't go - how can we go back? It's an hour-and-a-half. He says I'm not leaving those thermoses behind. You forgot it. I got to go back and get it. And I say well, what should I do? He said continue on to Wolf Creek and I'll meet you there. And he turns his dogs around expertly - having run two of the biggest dog sled races in the world - and he gallops around and goes.
And as soon as my dogs see his dogs turning, they start to turn, and they don't just turn. They start jumping over each other like jumping beans. And they're jumping on each other then they're rolling in the snow. Then they're humping each other. Then they're doing this wonderful sort of little Russian dance where one's going under and one's going over and the other one's going through. And it's almost like they were square dancing, you know, in the snow. And while this is happening, the rope is being braided into some crazy macrame and I'm starting to tear my hair out. I yell out, Brian, stop. You have to help me. I can't go anywhere. I can't go anywhere. The string's all tied up. And Brian says, you got to deal with it, man. I'll be back in about four hours. And I threw in my claw brake and I just stood there and the dogs were just completely going wild. And I looked at the sun and I was already cold just from having stopped a minute and sort of let my hands off the sled. And I thought to myself I'm going to die here in Alaska. I'm going to freeze to death. They're going to find my frozen body lying there. There may be some sperm left...
GREENWALD: ...But my body is going to be frozen solid.
GREENWALD: And after about a half hour of standing there wringing my hands, I got off and I started to systematically think about how to do this. And I took the dogs one at a time and walked them about 20 feet from the sled and staked them in with some stakes we had an our little emergency kits. And then I came back and I started studying the string, and one by one I took the strings out and I tried to figure out how would you put this together. And I attached a string to one dog and I attached it to the next dog then to another dog in the sled. I got it all wrong and I had to take them off and do it again. And after about an hour-and-a-half, I thought I had the dogs hooked up, more or less correctly. And I got on the sled with trembling knees and I reached behind me and grabbed the claw brake and I pulled it out and off they went, smooth as silk, straight ahead.
Two hours later, Brian came running up to Colorado Creek Canyon, and he saw me sitting there with the dogs. I had taken them all off. The sled was anchored in. The dogs were all tied to a tree. And he rode up, just nodded his head and he got off his sled, and he walked to the cabin, and he said I'm proud of you, man. And I don't know why this guy's praise of me was sort of the most important thing. Just later that night, you know, me and Brian, the guy with two Red Lantern Awards, walked out to a hill outside the cabin. And it was just a - it was about 50 feet above the cabin and we looked down on the cabin and there are the Northern Lights were shimmering up above us. And I just started talking to Brian about my life as a freelancer and a writer and how tough things were, you know, to make ends meet these days and this and that. And I just - he's just nodding and nodding.
And when I was done talking and spewing all this out, he just continued to look up at the Aurora and he said, you know - he said in the end, when you're out there on the snow and your kid's waiting for you at home and the dogs are tired and you've run out of food, you know, and you just know you can't make it, he said there's every reason in the world to quit except for one. And I said what's that reason? And he said you're not a quitter. And I took his word's to heart and we walked back down to the cabins and I looked at the dogs. They were all just lying there on their beds of straw in the snow. Frost was already forming on their fur. And their breath was steaming into the 35 degree below night air. And I just looked at those dogs lying there, sleeping, and I made a realization that I've never forgotten to this day. I would never have been pulled there by cats.
GREENWALD: Thank you.
WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Jeff Greenwald, and thanks as well to the "That Really Happened" show at The Monkey House in Berkeley. Jeff Greenwald - he's the author of several books, most recently "Snake Lake." You can get them all on his website jeffgreenwald.com. We'll have a link as well on snapjudgment.org.
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WASHINGTON: When SNAP JUDGMENT returns - a message from the last day. And in just a moment, when SNAP JUDGMENT "The Weight Of The World" episode continues, stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.