Friday, April 27, 2007

Running with Ivy (travel essay)

by Zinta Aistars

And why not 3 o'clock in the morning? I can do this. For a chance to spend even a short time in the U.P. – the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – I'll not only get up early, very early, I'd be willing to skip a night. But 3 a.m. will do, and so I fall out of bed and move in the general direction of the coffeemaker, where the previous evening I wisely ground the coffee beans, prepared the filter, poured the water. Push button. Go. Off to the showers, cold will do.

Mary pulls up in the driveway a little after 4 a.m. Hannah, her eager German Shepherd-Husky mix, swipes a wet tongue across my cheek in greeting as soon as I get myself seated in the car, bag tossed into the trunk. We are on a mission. Sure, Mary's loosened a few screws, maybe even misplaced one or two, but that's why I adore this woman. However mad the passion, she follows it through to its logical, or illogical, end. This is all about following the call of the gut, far less about the faulty wisdoms of the head. We are two midlife women on a threshold of leaving one life behind and forming another. Children raised, relationships survived, jobs transformed into careers, we seek new adventure.

In this case, it's not only a call of the gut, but also the call of the wild. Since her last trip to Marquette, the largest city in the U.P., some weeks ago to watch a dogsled race, the U.P. 200, Mary has been afflicted with mushing fever. Outside, spring has sprung, grass is green, and the golden daffodils are already showing wilt – but Mary can think of little else than dogs harnessed to a sled, racing through crisp, white snow. Since her return, she's been networking and researching, and the fever shows no sign of abating.

"Oh, I can't wait to see Ivy," she hums in anticipation, the old white Oldsmobile humming in unison with its driver on 131 heading north. Far north. We have a 460-mile trip ahead of us. And 460 miles back again the next day. Our enticement, Ivy, is an eight-year-old sled dog that currently belongs to Ed and Tasha Stielstra in McMillan, a tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-it town in the U.P. The Stielstras raise and train some 100 dogs in McMillan the greener part of the year, but head up to Juneau, Alaska the whiter part of the year, where they run the Iditarod. The Iditarod, also known as The Last Great Race on Earth, is a dogsled race covering 1,150 snowy miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Only the hardiest dogs and humans cross the finish line. Both Ed and Tasha have run the race, and will run it again. And again. They have made a life of dog-sledding. Mary has seen Ivy only on the Web site the Stielstras keep with ongoing journals of their many trails.

Mary is not planning on running the Iditarod. Although by now I know that any fine adventure is open to negotiation with my friend. Which is precisely why I am in the passenger seat this still dark as pitch morning. Over the past few years, I seem to have lost touch with my own adventurous and impulsive side. Life has been getting too cozy for comfort. Or too uncozy for its lack of spark. I miss the spontaneous Z that I used to be… and going north always seems to bring the best part of me back to the surface.

And we're off. Kalamazoo is far behind us; Grand Rapids, too, is a faint glimmer of city lights in the rearview mirror. A little north of GR, trees thicken on both sides of the highway. The dark of the night sky is transformed into a subtle shade of cobalt blue. Michigan's larger cities are mostly clustered on the lower half of the state, as if heavy with cement and humanity, too weighty to float like cream to the top. Clearing the latitude line that pierces Grand Rapids and Lansing, the capital, to our east, and just below the middle of the state, we begin to feel the welcome relief of nature. The farther north, the more untouched.

Hannah flops on the backseat and naps, occasionally lifting her head to peer over the seat at us, at the still dark and starry sky outside, then resumes her nap. We stop twice for coffee. And then – it's light. The cobalt blue has paled, paled, to become robin's egg blue, and I can feel my heart pattering a little faster at the prospect of the day ahead. Soon after 131 turns into a two-lane 31, then joins Interstate 75, we see it: Big Mac. No matter how many times I make that turn, see the sight of that immense Mackinac Bridge curving slightly over the place where Lake Michigan flows into Lake Huron, I have to draw my breath, deep, and feel my heart patter faster still within me.

Home. Yes, that's exactly how it feels. Crossing the bridge, spanning five miles from the Lower Peninsula to the Upper, it's as if we enter a different kind of place entirely. Towns and interstate exits are replaced by forests that cover endless miles and acres. Cultivated land is replaced by craggy rock. All that weighs us down falls away behind us. All that is man-made and "civilized" drifts away. Concerns, problems, stress, obligations, duty, worries, aches and pains, all melt away. Even my cell phone blips and shuts down. I feel free.

I have been coming to the U.P since I was a small girl. My father used to bring the family north to paint every summer. All the way across the width of the U.P. to the Keweenaw Peninsula, the small stretch of land that juts up into Lake Superior at the northwestern corner, he drove us to its northernmost tip, to the town of Copper Harbor. Setting his easel up in the rocks of the beach, he was lost in his work for the day. On the canvas appeared the blue wash of the water, the hardy pines resisting the lake winds, the weathered houses tucked between. While he painted, Mother stretched her legs out into the sun and read a novel. My sister and I each wandered in our own direction. There were times that I sketched with my pencil in a notebook, weak imitations of my father's artistic mastery. Yet end of day, looking over my shoulder, or picking me up to lean against his, he looked with utmost seriousness at my drawings of boats and the pier and patted my head. Well done, he always said, very well done, Zinti. And even if I didn't quite believe him, I beamed.

Over time, I have returned again and again, even if years, sometimes far too many, have come between. At one transitional point in my life, I needed a place to reinvent myself – and so I moved to the Keweenaw and set up a household: my two small children, myself, and a man I loved beyond sanity, whose wife I would become in a small church on the Portage Canal in Houghton, just at the bottom of the Keweenaw Peninsula. My memories of this corner of the U.P. remain some of the best of my entire life, a gleam of bright light in the near half-century now behind me.

Crossing the bridge, I try to recall why I ever left. But so much is… water beneath the bridge. I am not returning to go back. There is no going back. I am returning, I realize, to reinvent myself yet again. Mary knows: I dream of retiring to the U.P. someday – a writer living in the woods in a log cabin, weaving words and watching cobalt skies turn robin's egg blue, walking the rocky shores of Lake Superior, pondering plotlines of epic poems and grandiose novels yet to be birthed.

For Mary, crossing the bridge makes her knuckles on the steering wheel go white. Bridges spell fear to her. Crossing high expanses, deep roiling water beneath, high winds tossing her from side to side make her tremble. But Mary is a woman after my own heart: having identified a fear, she is determined to face it and walk through the fire to the other side. In this case, by driving across the Big Mac. What's on the other side is just too good to miss. What's on the other side of any bridge is too good to miss.

The enticement is irresistible. Marquette is home to her son, attending university, and at present, it is home to Ivy, the sled dog Mary is waiting in ever growing anticipation to meet.

Near halfway across the peninsula, my eyes catch on shadowy movement to the left side of the road. Could it be? I catch my breath and reach over to grasp Mary's arm. Wolf, I whisper. Cautiously, Mary stops and puts the car into reverse. Slowly, wincing at every grating of gravel beneath the wheels, we pull back to where the wolf stands, pondering us, the safety of woods to her other side, the tease of curiosity, hers perhaps equal to ours. We sit and watch. She stands still and watches. Hannah lifts her head in the backseat, then rises to all fours, is still, very still, and watches.

And then, smooth as silk, gray melts into trees, and she is gone.

We breathe, breathe deep with gratitude and blessing and wonder, and drive on.

"A good omen," I say, and Mary nods emphatically.

About fifteen miles later, we find McMillan, passing the county road only once, then making the turn north again, another eight miles, until we see a large blue paw print on a piece of plywood nailed to a tree. The road is pitted dirt, and there are no houses anywhere, only the occasional deer camp. But a turn in, left, more blue paw prints guiding our winding way, the Oldsmobile lurching through potholes, and we enter a camp resonating with the chorus of barks and bays and howls of sled dogs – Nature's Kennel, where nearly one hundred dogs are born and bred to race.

Both Tasha and Ed greet us, along with other staff who have time only to nod and wave. Tasha is petite, blonde hair cropped boy-short, and her skin color even in spring healthy from sun and winter wind. Her small frame is strong and quick, her smile equally quick, and she leads us through rows upon rows of tethered dogs alongside their plastic "barrels" serving as doghouses – towards Ivy. The yapping of dogs is friendly, inviting; eyes follow us with interest. Are we here to harness and race? Tasha calls out to one, then another, seeming to know the names of all, even though we surely pass more than fifty dogs. The animals are surprisingly small, lean and muscled, ranging around 40 to 50 pounds. Colors vary. Only their eyes strike me as different than the usual domestic dog. Wisdom of the trail? Endurance breeds intelligence? But when we reach Ivy, her head ducks with sudden shyness, or perhaps a show of respect towards her owner and trainer. When she looks up at Mary's outstretched hand, we see that her eyes are one colored brown, the other a wintry blue, as if she has always had one eye on winter fun. She is unsure of us; it will take time to gain her trust. Ivy, like all sled dogs, is an animal of the wild, of the trail, and she is not accustomed to human bustle, or wheeled traffic, or the insides of houses crowded together. She knows when to lead, but also when to obey. She follows closely at Tasha's side as we go back through the rows of dogs and plastic barrels.

It is not just Mary's approval Ivy will need to return home with us to Kalamazoo. There is also Hannah. The two dogs must get along, and eventually, they must be able to pull a sled side-by-side. I note the warmth rising in Mary's eyes; her heart is already won. But Hannah? Car door open, Hannah leaps out into the open, head switching left to right to take in the sight of so many peers, but when she approaches Ivy for a sniff, a firm growl greets her. Ivy's lip curls up, exposing white teeth, and Hannah immediately steps back, head bowed.

"I believe we have a new alpha in the household," Mary grins.

The two dogs ride in the back the rest of the way to Marquette, another hour and a half down the road, and Ivy is lying across the backseat in an easy sprawl, while Hannah is now huddled uncomfortably on the car floor behind the driver's seat. The two are not speaking. Hannah wouldn't dare. Ivy doesn't care. Every time I turn in my seat to glance back at her, her two-colored eyes meet mine in a steady gaze. I have my own chow pup at home, my heart is taken, I tell myself, but something about Ivy's sure gaze… I reach a hand back and softly graze her head with two fingers, and she lets me.

My previous home in the Keweenaw is still two hours further down this road, but the sight of Marquette already makes my heart hum with recognition. U.P. cities are not marked by skyscrapers, but by old mining towns as seed: stone buildings, saloons and churches in town, mining houses surrounding, plain and sturdy, surviving many decades of harsh winters. This is copper country, where miners emigrated from the Scandinavian countries, who knew how to withstand, even relish the cold. The ground is riddled with old mines, a latticework of tunnels hidden beneath our feet. And although the mining is now down to a bare minimum, more for tourist attraction than industry, the mettle of the inhabitants of this northern country is unchanged. It is what I so love here: the spirit of independence and individualism, hardiness and wisdom won by experience. Priorities have shifted. Politics and fashion trends, the whimsy of more "civilized" places, seem to have faded in the distance for the fluff that they are.

When Mary and I decide to stop and park the Oldsmobile under the shade of tall pines and let the dogs have their first run along the rocky shores of Lake Superior, it is as if I can feel layers upon layers open up about me, thick hides fall away, old aches diminish, wounds shrivel and mend.

Mary puts a harness on Ivy, who bows her head instinctively for the accustomed gear. Hannah runs loose, knows enough to stay near. Out of the car, Hannah bounds like a deer. Joy ripples through her every muscle. She leaps and twirls and dances. I can't help but smile at the sight of her. This is how an animal shows pleasure in being alive. This is what so many of us have forgotten. I shed another layer.

We head towards the water. Ivy is well-mannered, but an electric current of excitement runs through her. New terrain. Fresh air from across the water. Seagulls screaming overhead. When the four of us, two women, two dogs, stand at the shore, a reverential silence falls about us. Yes. Oh, yes. This is what life was meant to be. This, this pine and sea scent, this fresh wind slapping my hair across my face and back again, this copper-red sand and shale rock beneath my feet, this grace.

"Ladies," Mary finally says – to all four of us. "Let's walk." And we do, for long hours, along the shore and along a forest trail, always tight along the water, and the layers continue to fall away behind us, a littering of what no longer serves us. The two dogs forget themselves, and nose in the same scented spot in the sand, and a sure camaraderie is on its way to being formed. Ivy's pleasure in the walk is restrained and contained, while Hannah brims exuberance. They will be a good team of youth and experience, vim and wisdom.

When I lag behind, stopping from time to time to gaze out at the waves, or to investigate more closely a pool of water among the rocks, Ivy circles back and checks on me. A cool nose touches the back of my hand. Two-colored eyes check mine for intent. All is well? Yes? Shall we move on?

We move on. I bend over to pick up a wave-washed stone and slip it into my pocket. Whatever trails each one of us has run, we are here now, and new trails await.

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