Okay. I’ll tell a little story.
This story happened when I was 19, and I had just started working as a dogsled guide in Alaska.
I was spending the summer with 200 sled dogs and about a dozen people in a tent city on top of a glacier.
If you’ve read my book you know all about the glacier, but hear me out.
Eight times a day, helicopters brought cruise ship tourists from Juneau. I’d take families for hourlong dogsled rides, one after another. I liked the work, because I’ve always loved sharing this sport with people. The dogs were happy running and everyone got swept up in the joy.
But privately, I was envious of the tourists, too. Hour after hour, they were transformed by the experience. They’d look at the endless glacier, the sharp mountains, and see magic. They’d FEEL magic.
The truth is, I was sad that summer. I knew there was magic but I couldn’t feel it. I was in the most beautiful place on earth, somewhere powerful and holy, but when I looked out at the ice I just felt lonely.
We had some interesting tourists. There was a king from a small European country who gave out business cards. When we got back to Juneau and googled the country, it turned out that it didn’t exist.
There were families with little kids who practically burst with excitement when the dogs licked their faces.
But my favorite was when I had older couples. Folks who had retired and were spending their free time on adventures. I heard the words “bucket list” a lot.
Normally I’d bring three people at a time on my tour. So they were already pretty private. But one day I got a solo traveler. She was an older woman who came alone.
Friends, she was So Delighted by the dogsled ride. She loved the dogs and the sled and the sky and the turquoise lakes that appeared and disappeared on the glacier at random. She loved her cruise so far. She loved all of Alaska. Her happiness was contagious.
She was warm, too. Asking me about my life, what I did in the winters. She put her hand on my cheek like I was her grandchild. And when she got in the sled, she put her arms up like she was on a roller coaster.
She told me that she and her husband had always wanted to come to Alaska together.
In fact, they took the same cruise last year and couldn’t wait for the dogsled ride. But on the day of their tour, it was too stormy for the helicopters to fly, and the trip was cancelled.
A few months later, her husband died.
“But he’s here with me now,” she told me, smiling.
She had come to Alaska to go dogsledding for both of them.
We kept mushing. It was a sunny day, and I stopped frequently so the dogs could roll in the snow and cool off.
One of the dogs’ booties was getting loose, so I walked up to the team to fix it. When I left the sled, I noticed the woman looking at me funny.
She was sort of craning her neck to watch me, and reaching into her coat at the same time. I pretended I couldn’t see her and focused on petting the dog. Something was up.
Quick as a flash, glancing around, she pulled a baggie from her pocket and poured it into a dip in the snow beside the trail, burying the contents with one hand. Then, just as quickly, she folded her hands back in her lap.
I didn’t know what to do, so I acted like nothing had happened. I walked back to the sled casually and we chatted for the rest of the ride—it seemed like that was what she wanted. When she gave me a hug at the end, I hugged her back for a long time.
But at the same time I was just thinking OH MY GOSH THERE ARE HUMAN REMAINS ON MY TRAIL.
I had several more tours that day, and each time we passed the dark patch of snow, I tried to be cool.
That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag, listening to my tentmates’ breathing and the rattle of the dogs’ collar tags outside, I thought how nice it was that the woman had made it here. I felt lucky to have been her guide.
And then I had a horrible realization.
At dawn the next morning, just like every morning, a team of mushers would go out with shovels and snowmobiles to clean the trails. We scooped up all the dog poop (and any other crud) and squashed it into metal barrels that we hid behind the tents.
Then the barrels were flown to the Juneau Sewage Treatment Center.
This guy’s resting place wasn’t going to be the beautiful patch of glacier where his wife had so lovingly left him.
It was—oh my god—going to be the sewage plant.
And I was the only one who would ever know.
Just kidding. It was obviously not the end. Because clearly this knowledge (and this man) were going to HAUNT ME FOREVER if I didn’t somehow solve the problem even though I was a teenager and lost and sad and scared of ghosts and had never been in this situation before?????!??!
Very quietly, so as not to wake my tentmates, I crept out of my sleeping bag. My pants were hanging from a clothesline to dry and I pulled them down in slow motion. Slipped on my boots, put on my coat, unzipped the tent as slowly as I could.
I don’t think I breathed until I was standing outside in the snow.
It was night, but it never got dark up there, not really. The whole glacier turned silver in the darkness. I could see every shadow, and the silver mountains against the sky.
I got on a snowmobile and drove out to my trail and I didn’t stop until I reached the patch of buried ashes in the moonlight.
I had forgotten gloves.
Okay. That was okay. I started digging into the snow with my hands.
The ashes had melted into a grayish snow, and I started scooping it up by the handful and packing it together into a snowball. I kept digging and packing until all the ashes were gone and the ball in my hands was about the size of a basketball.
My fingers were freezing and I held the ball to my chest, because what now?
In the distance, I could see the little tents and dog houses that made up glacier camp. But it all seemed very far away. Everything around me was just ice and snow.
Our dogsled trails were concentric loops, and my trail was the outermost one. Obviously I couldn’t put the ashes-snowball anywhere on the trail. And if I walked back toward camp, I’d end up on another musher’s trail.
So there was only one option: I had to walk out. Away from the trails, away from camp—into an area where we were forbidden to go, because it might have hidden crevasses.
At this point I was feeling companionable with the snowball. Here we are. It’s you and me.
I took a step off the trail, and another. The snow held. We kept walking.
After a while, I came to a little hill in the snow. It overlooked the tongue of the glacier, and in every other direction, mountains. They were rocky and bare, but in late summer they turned green with moss.
If I put the ashes here, they would slowly melt into the glacier, flow downhill over the years, calve into the sea. It seemed right.
I put down the snowball. It looked like the bottom of a snowman.
But I didn’t know how to leave.
Was it over? Did I just go? I was crying and I hadn’t even realized it. I was so alone but I wasn’t alone and this man was alone but he wasn’t alone either, and now I had to leave him, and I would be the last human to say goodbye to him, and how did I do that, how could I try?
I got down on my knees and put my hands on the snow and, because I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what to say, I started whispering the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
And then something happened that you’ll just have to believe, because nobody saw it, nobody else was there, and I was the only person who knew. It could be a coincidence, of course. It can always be a coincidence.
But as soon as I started whispering the prayer, I heard it. Two miles away, two hundred sled dogs were howling. Together.
While I whispered, they sang.
And when I said amen, the howls shrank to a single voice, one lingering song, and then the world went back to silence.
And that, friends, is the end.
You can follow @BlairBraverman.
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