Ads via The Deck

The Travel Desk

Credit: Roman Valerevich

Twilight on the Tundra

How do you see what mushers see? You mush. An adventure on the Beringia, a dog sled race stretching over Russia’s easternmost tundra. If in the process you see more than you ever expected—more of humanity, more of yourself—then thank the people of 685 miles of snow.

How do you see what the mushers see? You mush. Turn in an application to the Beringia, a dog sled race stretching over Russia’s easternmost tundra. In 1991, the Beringia was awarded a Guinness Word Record for longest mushing trail ever. This year it covers 685 miles. Buy, borrow, or build a sled. Breed, beg for, or steal your dogs. These dogs are sometimes vicious. Their snouts carry pink-hooked scars. Shout at your team. Break up a fight and tear your hands open. In the beginning of March, make your way to the village of Esso, at the heart of the remote Kamchatka peninsula, nearly 5,000 miles from Moscow. Meet your competitors; lower your head so organizers can drape a yellow jersey over your shoulders; stand on a stage next to Kamchatka’s governor; smile, wave; check your dogs’ harnesses one last time and lift the toothed snow anchor that had been holding your sled in place; mush.

If you’re not a musher, you can still make it across those 685 miles of snow. You just have to figure out how. Here’s my advice: Live in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Kamchatka’s capital, Petropavlovsk is a slowly shrinking settlement of 175,000 people supported by commercial fishing, summer tourism, and the military-industrial complex. Learn to love life there. Compose newspaper articles about the peninsula. Discover that you’re the only journalist around who’s working in the English language. Figure out where the Beringia headquarters is, show up every day, make coffee for the three men who organize the race, and wash their mugs. Be patient. One morning you’ll find you’re in the right place at, finally, the right time—the race leader says you can accompany them as a writer.

Get a backpack, ski goggles, and sleeping bag rated to -25 degrees. Assemble a first aid kit. Wear constantly a bone talisman in the shape of a dog.

Get to Esso.

 

This year’s race featured 16 mushers. I joined them, their helpers, race organizers, and volunteers at a hollow blue lodge that, as preparation for the start drew on, became packed by dogs, sleds, and snowmobiles. Men smoked pipes out the second-floor windows and left empty bottles under their beds. They spoke a coarse dialect.

Russian is a rich, beautiful language that tugs at its students—I’ve studied it for seven years—but this Russian was not what I’d encountered before in textbooks or poetry collections. If all this time I’ve been using the thin yellow fluid that lamp wicks are lit from, then this was linguistic crude oil and jet fuel. It moved many times faster. It licked flames against the walls. This was history, profanity, suggestion, and threat. For the first time in ages I found myself entirely adrift in conversations.

Imagine the desert. White dunes, white peaks, white sun, white sky. Imagine a frozen ocean. This was the tundra.

A brown-eyed husky puppy named Beringia ambled after us down the lodge hallway. One musher scooped it up. “Berry, Berry,” she cooed, then turned to me—”What does that word mean again?” she asked in Russian.

Yagoda,” I said.

She pressed her nose to its snout. “My little berry,” she murmured. “Moya malenkaya yagoda. Berry, Berry, Beringia.”

Meanwhile, I tried to catch up with a specialized vocabulary: upryazhka, narta, shkura, ostol. Team, sled, pelt, the metal-tipped pole traditionally used as a brake. The mushers were talking about vaccinations. Now about micro-chipping their dogs. They kept arguing. One man fainted in the veterinarian’s office. Someone had to apply to the governor for special permission to participate. The race’s press secretary was making frantic phone calls. Mushers ground their cigarettes out into the snow.

Then, just when it seemed unbearable, in a clamor of shouts and barks and cheers, the bearded judge checked his watch. He signaled 16 times for the staggered start. The sleds were off.

The race had begun.

Imagine the desert. White dunes, white peaks, white sun, white sky.

Imagine a frozen ocean. This was the tundra.

Credit: Roman Valerevich

I’d never seen such emptiness in my life. I couldn’t stop staring around. It was far below freezing, and in my thermal underwear, fleece layer, double snow suit, double face masks, fur hat, and shearling mittens, my skin prickled as gently as it once did when I sat on summer afternoons in air-conditioned movie theaters. Let’s be clear—I had no qualifications for such a trip, which took nearly three weeks and covered a mostly unpopulated wilderness. My talents extended only as far as selecting the finest pens at any given drugstore and analyzing the works of 20th-century American fiction writers. I’d never gone camping in the cold. I don’t go to the gym. People in Petropavlovsk, when hearing about my plans to travel with the Beringia, had pursed their lips and come at me with soft voices. “Do you know it’s very difficult?” they asked. “Do you understand?” It seemed to me that I did. I’d never gutted a fish, peeled potatoes with a knife, or ridden on a snowmobile, but soon I’d learn.

Sitting on the back of a snowmobile was a roaring, swooping, unsteady motion I came to love. We sat on reindeer pelts culled from the herds that climb Kamchatka’s peaks, and under my legs, the fur bristled and bunched. My thighs ached and spine compressed. The snowmobile drivers drove maskless into the wind; sometimes they smoked cigarettes, then exhaled the smell of fire over their shoulders. Frost formed on the lines of their cheeks. I gripped the plastic handles at my hips. The first time a snowmobile driver slid off the track, I wasn’t paying attention, and discovered myself flying nose-first into him as four feet of snow fluffed up against us both. “What were you thinking back there?” he said lightly. I had been staring at the mountains, I had been staring at the snow. I lifted my gloved hands and lumbered off our machine. He rocked his weight, planted both feet against one pitted sidebar, arced his body back to twist the handles as far right as they’d go, and drove the snowmobile free. It surfaced like a dolphin. Metal, cargo, and ice followed in its path.

Riding in a tank was snug. It was very, very snug. Four of us folded into the compartment in front, which was accessed by two holes in the roof, and three more crawled through the back hatch to rest in blackness on oil barrels and cardboard boxes. Looking at the smooth metal walls around me gave me visions of my own death. I shut my eyes. The tank driver stared out a six-inch-high window at smudgy white and worked levers, knobs, buttons. Gauges by his knees spun out readings in Cyrillic. A few hours in, I fell asleep. Eventually one passenger nudged me and offered bubble gum, and then the whole tank smelled like gasoline and strawberries.

There must always, always be boiling water, for dishes and thermoses and endless cups of black tea, and when there wasn’t any ready the mushers jammed up against the cement stove and started growling.

Walking through the tundra was an experiment in flatness. I thought that hill was close, but walked and found it grew no closer while the little cabin where we’d set up camp was suddenly and terribly far away. Stepped too hard and dropped to my hip in unpacked snow. Around the tiny cabin, figures rose up in motion. After 58 miles, the long-anticipated mushers, one by one, were finishing for the day.

We boiled water.

We boiled water. We went to the river with plastic barrels, chipped off clean snow into kettles, and boiled more water.

The mushers were hungry, exhausted, and wonderful. They got short with the volunteers. There must always, always be boiling water, for dishes and thermoses and endless cups of black tea, and when there wasn’t any ready the mushers jammed up against the cement stove and started growling. We all shared soup. The mushers ate first. They swallowed condensed milk by the spoonful, then poured water into the emptied cans and drank the dregs. They licked up gritty honey. Using the knives they kept on their belts, they lifted balls of caviar and shaved off frozen meat. Their mouths closed around the blades. No one was cut.

Inside the cabin got so warm that the air burst into steam every time someone opened the door. I sat on a bench with my knees tucked against my chest. Around me, they talked about old adventures. The snowmobile that fell into the river, remember? The team that got lost for four days in a blizzard? The fish they’d caught, the animals shot. Outside sounded only like what it was—120 worn-out dogs. The closest one called out, aaaoooouuu. “I have to record that,” a filmmaker in the group said. Aaaaooooouuuu.

All their voices rose up at once.

Credit: Roman Valerevich

A musher went out in the soft white morning. The day’s start was in an hour and it was barely snowing. Her team, kept close by chain and twine to a cluster of little trees, barked as she rummaged through her sled. Taking out a plastic tub full of fat used for milking cows, she worked this yellow cream into the pads of the dogs’ paws, because without such a layer, snow melts against their feet, freezes, and make a case of ice that slowly fills with blood. “Give me your little paw,” she murmured. “Give me your little paw, my sweet boy.” The dogs sniffed my palms and whined. She Velcroed booties to their lotioned feet.

The dogs were beautiful. They were all related, no matter the team. Their eyes were the colors of nuts or clouds or paper.

Untangling their chains from frozen branches, the musher led her dogs one by one to the sled. Each was slipped into a hand-tooled harness with the animal’s name stitched inside: Max, Propeller, Greek, Bruce Lee. She lined them up and let them go.

I watched her sled grow small against the tundra. In two minutes, another musher started. The morning’s snow was settling. The shrubs around our cabin emptied of dogs. Beringia banners and flags hung loose in the bare landscape. When the last team left, I wanted to run 40 miles after them. Instead I went back to camp to kneel on the ground and scrub pots.

At every start, harnessed dogs lunged, over and over, toward the unwound trail before snapping back against their lines. A good team of huskies wants to run. A perfect team frightens its owner. Crouching against one cabin wall, a snowmobile driver who mushed and won the Beringia years before told the story of the ideal animals he’d bred—at the start of his final race, his dogs started howling to move. Rough, blond, dressed in dark red camouflage, the driver stared forward and remembered this. Seven men held his sled back while they all waited for the judge’s signal. The dogs were in a frenzy, straining against their ropes, clawing the snow and screaming. Anchors and brakes and his will were useless. He’d felt their strength ripple backward and knew he was no longer in control.

Looking straight ahead at no one, he said, “I gave them away after that.” His mouth tightened. “They would have killed me.”

One morning in a village, as the judge made notes on his clipboard and the mushers bent over their sled handles, a tiny drunk woman started tugging at my jacket. “Hee hee hee,” she said, showing me her toothless gums. “Hee hee hee.” She didn’t say much else—just pulled at me, shouted the wrong names at the racers, wondered out loud what was going on, hee-hee’d some more. Then she wandered away. Approaching the line of mushers, she held out her hands to a team of dogs, and they leaped against her with their teeth bared. They snarled and swarmed. She lay in the snow under their mouths and paws while everyone around us screamed. For the first time, she was silent.

After two weeks of cold, the snowmobilers’ faces began to blister. The edges of their nostrils cracked open. When we arrived in the next village, townspeople were drifting the packed snow, trailing the sharp smell of alcohol from their open mouths.

These dogs have been bred to stay wild. They slept each night on a fistful of hay in the open snow. They ate boiled reindeer meat. They turned on the weak. During one dinner, while everyone was scraping their bowls, shouting at each other, slipping sugar cubes under their tongues, one team fought in the dark. The race’s veterinarian took me to that spot the next day. I lifted my camera to take a picture. “Don’t,” she said. “Who needs to see this?” We both looked in silence at the place, a tamped circle of ice covered in blood.

One day hit -39 degrees. Cracking open a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, I found a layer of rippled ice beneath its shell. The vet’s aerosol antibiotics stopped spraying. She tucked the cans between the bars of a radiator to thaw. Face lotion turned to sherbet. My contact lenses froze to their case. I followed one musher outside to help harness his team, and we found that the carabiners attaching dogs’ collars to their leashes had become bound by ice overnight. We crouched, put the metal loops in our mouths, and huffed hot breath to undo them. After he left, I went back to the school where we’d made camp, and found in the warmth tears tracking down my cheeks—the frost that had cased over my eyelashes was melting.

A snowmobile driver, letting his machine idle, shouted over his shoulder, “Are you freezing?” Tucked on the bench behind, I gave him the thumbs up. Swaddled in my layers, I was a warm little cabbage. He revved the engine and we were off again. After two weeks of cold, the snowmobilers’ faces began to blister. The edges of their nostrils cracked open. They bled. When we arrived in the next village, townspeople were drifting the packed snow, trailing the sharp smell of alcohol from their open mouths.

Overnights in the tundra were marathons of black tea and conversation. Overnights in villages were holidays—people staged concerts, schoolchildren recited poems, bards broke out their accordions. An indigenous dance troupe followed the race one week, performing nightly in kindergartens and community theaters. I ended up tracking their routines like the plot of a well-loved book. First, they beat shallow drums, leaped, and cawed. The dancing women wore long leather dresses trimmed with fur. Straps and beads hung from their hair. The one man with them kept a permanent smile. Their second dance imitated birds’ mating season: a clucking couple, elbows tucked at their hips, bobbed their heads toward each other. Children in the audience laughed at the noise. Finally three young women held hands, hummed, and bent their knees so they swayed together like low tide. They leaned around each other, they sang. Sometimes I pressed my hands to my cheeks as I watched because it was so, so beautiful.

Villages had no phone lines, streetlights, cars, running water. Round-faced women prepared soup for the race participants in empty community kitchens. I stood over a tub of stewed meat and ladled out portions. Taking their bowls from my hands, mushers looked into my eyes and said, “Thank you,” and it seemed to me that I was cheating to take gratitude for meals I didn’t prepare while these women continued to slice carrots and salt potatoes behind me. It felt wrong. Every afternoon, it felt wrong to bundle again onto a snowmobile bench and blast away for pale new horizons while these women would remain. We were leaving behind people who were buried alive.

Of course that’s not true. Don’t think that. Thank the kind people, be gentle with the drunk ones, help unload the Beringia’s boxes of humanitarian aid, don’t assume that to live in a city with toilets is preferable to a village without.

Don’t be frightened just by standing on a main street, looking out past the race finish line, and seeing 50 miles of nothing.

Credit: Roman Valerevich

The Beringia operates under a dry law. Still, it has a long history of tying sodden participants to trees so they wouldn’t attack anyone. In theory, any member of the group could have been expelled for drinking, although in practice people carried flasks of whiskey and stashed bottles of vodka under their snowmobile seats. Three men on the trip were drunk almost constantly. They spoke very deliberately in an attempt to conceal this fact. One blacked-out snowmobile driver drove a wavering quarter-mile before he was pushed to his own passenger seat and someone else took over the controls. But we needed him, like we needed the drunk doctor, photographer, hunter, volunteer, to continue the race, so no one mentioned it to the organizers, who in turn pretended not to already know.

Traveling 55 miles one afternoon, we kept stopping the snowmobile for tea, then topping off the stained thermos lids with cognac. Other drivers stopped and kneeled on the track beside us. I dropped my gloves, leaned over for them, dropped my hat, covered my face, and started to laugh. I was so suddenly drunk. The other passenger on our snowmobile lifted up his camera and I turned away, laughing, moaning, “Nyet, nyet, nye snimai menya.” Don’t film me, I was saying. Later he showed me the footage: brilliantly bright tundra all around, my shoulders shaking, BERINGIA emblazoned on the orange safety jersey on my back.

One man came back to camp at 10:30 in the morning while I was rolling up my sleeping bag. “I don’t know how many people I’ve killed,” he said. His words were running together.

I pushed the liners back into my boots.

“If you asked me how many, I would have to admit that I don’t know. I couldn’t count. I simply pressed a button—” He mashed the air over and over—”And everyone within 250 meters of my vehicle was immolated.” His face loosened into grief. “This was war,” he said.

“Do you want some tea?” I asked. He accepted. Uncapping my thermos, I poured him a cup.

He stared at its murkiness. “I could kill you right now,” he said. “I’ve killed for less.”

Impressed by his certainty, I left the room. Later I repeated this conversation to one of the doctors, who nodded. “When I came home from the army,” he said, “I was afraid I would kill someone. Kill someone just like that! Suddenly! Accidentally! In a store or at a movie theater!” He traced a line on his pants leg. “So I went only from home to work to home to work, every day for months. So I wouldn’t kill someone!”

He was smiling. “Are you joking?” I asked.

“No,” he said. Still smiling.

Those on the race were customs officers, reindeer herders, poachers, welders. One was a former sniper. One was a senior nurse. A few shoveled coal in their towns’ water heating plants, and coughed gently and constantly, mouths loose, eyes unblinking. They were always patient with me. In the midst of a thousand-kilometer race, they took their time. This is how to dice an onion properly, someone explained: Chop it this way, hold it, chop it that way, line it up and slice, slice, slice. Someone else stopped me in the middle of an hour gathering wood and turned over two logs: “This one is dense, see? And this other is quick to burn.” He brought me over to a pile of skinny branches. “This wood is full of sap. The sap is fuel.” He looked up at me. “Can you identify different trees?” I shook my head. “That’s OK,” he said. “We’ll teach you.”

Our snowmobiles kept breaking. Tarps on the leading vehicles loosened, dropping stoves, suitcases, groceries for long miles, and those machines following would arrive at the night’s camp with snow-covered sausages and loose shoes tucked behind their seats. One green evening as we were traveling through the woods, the trailer behind us rammed forward and slid off—the spring connecting it to our snowmobile had snapped off. I tramped backward along the trail to look for it. The air was grainy with twilight. There, half-buried, was a sheared foot-long piece of metal. I lifted it into the air and hooted. The snowmobile driver hooted back, and, at a distance, held up his arms to me, like he could embrace me in these empty woods, like these small successes were enough to build a clean and complete world.

Climbing off their sled runners, mushers advanced on their teams. They were screaming. Russian vulgarity has a vibrant, vicious lexicon, where a few foul roots are shaped into hundreds of nouns, verbs, adjectives, modifiers. Whole paragraphs can be turned out using only the core word “cock.” American academics write theses on this stuff. In my college Russian courses, we hid dictionaries of curses under our desks. Hard noise rose out of the backs of the mushers’ throats. On an icy plain, they cursed the dogs, their parents, their anatomy. As other sleds neared and finally overtook them, the mushers continued to hurl obscenity into the cold, forgetting, in the heat of the race, that at the filmmaker’s request they were sometimes wearing cameras. In the evenings everyone crowded around to watch. The filmmaker’s laptop showed sweeping shots of mountains, gradually depressed brakes, the steady beat of the dogs’ feet—and then one racer’s voice would ring out. “Fuck your mother, you shitty cunts! Catch up! Catch up!” Onscreen a sled drew ahead. “You shitty fucking cunts!” Watching this, the mushers fell against each other’s shoulders and laughed until they cried.

Competition came and went. The mushers shared a long history. They slept pressed side by side like baby mice. Still, as the days drew on, the race grew harsher between them all: This one, that one, was cheating. He wasn’t carrying all his required equipment. He shaved off a mile by leaving the trail. She refused to admit that she stole two dogs. He was switching out his tired animals in every town. They reported each other. Some were docked minutes. There were disputed friendships, soured friendships, years of anger, old affairs. Rivalries, jealousies, sport, sex.

Sex. Always sex. Despite our padded snowsuits and the fact that no one had bathed in ages, the Beringia was ruled by desire. My notes became not much more than a catalogue of touches, winks, and suggestions. An organizer pressed his fingers against his temples—”I’ve seen so much filth in the past few weeks,” he said. In one cabin a man reached out to hold the hand of the woman beside him. His wedding ring gleamed in the near-dark.

I’d pictured this event as a race, then as an expedition, but at times in truth it seemed only like a mat of intimacies and betrayals. There were private rooms, accusations of spying, plane tickets bought and returned. Because I could hardly speak, people came to me with their secrets: one about marriage, another about disease. I promised not to tell and so I won’t…but. But. But riding on the back of a snowmobile through an entirely white world, I thought, who cares about connections, who cares about confidences? Who cares, who cares, who cares?

Sex. Always sex. Despite our padded snowsuits and the fact that no one had bathed in ages, the Beringia was ruled by desire.

Someone left me little gifts. I found resting on top of my backpack three fresh bananas, a tropical impossibility in the middle of this stretch of ice.

Someone else stared at me. He pulled a dried fish out of his pocket, cracked off its head, and handed me its body. He brought me food, kneeled across from me, and in silence watched me eat. It became just the two of us alone in a hot cabin. I lowered my hands. “Don’t look at me like that,” I said.

“I can look at you however I like,” he said.

I turned my face away. My knife, suspended on a rope necklace, thudded against my chest. He continued to speak to me very softly and with great anger.

There are some things I never expected to do. I thought, I will live in a city with lots of theaters and art museums, hold health insurance, touch a pen to the tip of my tongue in the evenings and adore the bustle around me. I never thought, I will stand on the runners of a dog sled and feel them flex like a live animal under my boots. I will sit across from someone who turns his hand over to show me the tendons severed by enemy soldiers in Chechnya. Then I moved to a volcanic peninsula hanging 900 miles off the edge of the world, where my life, as I expected it, cracked open.

We slept on reindeer skins that smelled like vanilla tobacco. We lashed tarps and smashed sleds. I scraped lines of black blood from the spines of frozen fish, and watched my hands turn from red to purple to white from the cold, and loved it.

I was sent ahead. Our team of eight volunteers raced through the softening dark. Cold fell around us. At midnight, we arrived at an empty, unlocked elementary school, where we enjoyed the luxury of choosing our own sleeping places in the width of a cafeteria. The men broke out their best food (almonds, dried apricots, hard-boiled eggs). I took a shower in the dark changing room of a factory, where the floor was slatted wood, the hot water sulfurous, the walls soft with slime. Pushed forward without supervision, the group inevitably drank. Time drew long. Eventually, soon, the mushers would come, in a rush of frost, steam, sugar, scars, blood, and bandages. We waited.

And then I was left behind. “No,” I told a race organizer in a hallway 250 miles from the race’s end. “It’s impossible.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m here to write about the race. That’s why you took me, isn’t it? You understand that if I don’t see it all, I lose my story, I lose everything?” Zrya, I kept saying in Russian, which means “in vain”—in vain I’ve shaped my life these past weeks around your appetites, in vain I’ve arrived here with my notebooks and knives only to be abandoned. Zrya. My eyes were tight fists. Zrya.

Another organizer, who was also being left, tipped his head at me. “Can’t you just make the end of your story up?” he said. I started to laugh. Covering my face with my dry palms, I couldn’t stop laughing. I got hysterical.

We were in a town with 2,000 people poised at the edge of a mountain range. The race was dropping volunteers to make room for extra fuel. After a week, a helicopter would bring four of us, 15 injured dogs, and a hundred pounds of untouched food to the race finish. Gutted, I stood outside without my jacket to watch the yellow oil barrels loaded and secured to snowmobile trailers. The cold was like a punishment. If I had spoken Russian fluently, been a better cook, worked harder, known more, I would have made it to the mountain pass. I was sure.

Credit: Roman Valerevich

I went back into our base to clean up. While washing dishes in the bathroom sink, I saw in the mirror that the body of a man I once feared was passing behind me. “Can you help me?” I said, quietly, voice forced out of humiliation, to his reflection. He had influence here. He’d always paid me special attention. I’d been waiting for this moment for an hour.

He kept his back to me. “With what?” he said.

“With…”

“I know,” he said, and laughed. “I’ll try.” I gathered the dishes and left.

Ten minutes later, he called me aside for instructions. He was lacing up his boots. My things were still packed uselessly in another room. “Go to the race leader,” he said. “Directly to him say, ‘Take me, please.’ Just like that. ‘Take me’—don’t say, ‘I want…’—what we want doesn’t matter here…”

I found the leader. “Take me, please,” I said.

“We can’t,” he said.

When they were taping the final boxes of food, pulling on their masks, tossing reindeer pelts over their snowmobile benches, I plucked at the race leader’s sleeve. “Take me, please,” I begged, but he didn’t.

The mushers had started hours before. The last snowmobiles, crowded with photographers and doctors and white tubs of kibble, peeled out. The four of us stood at our base’s door and lifted our palms in farewell, and the departing volunteers waved back, and then they were all gone. We went inside. My heart was broken. My heart was broken. After months of preparation and weeks of this expedition, I couldn’t imagine what would come in the Beringia’s absence. The future dropped off like a cliff face. I pushed myself against the floor of the emptied building and, to my shame, wept like a child. Meanwhile the race moved farther and farther away.

I would never see what the mushers saw.

 

The first was so angry. He’d killed before and could again. It wasn’t his fault—he’d been pushed into this blood rage by the race organizers, the regional bureaucrats, the mushers who wouldn’t talk to him, the people that didn’t love him, his dogs that refused to cooperate, his ex-wife. He shoved his sled forward in hate. After the Beringia ended, he’d write articles condemning the corrupt idiots who made him fall behind this year. He’d show them all. He’d throw a rock from the street through his kitchen window when his woman locked him out of their apartment. He’d yank his animals backward through the snow. He’d kneel on the grounds of his kennel and weigh a foot-long metal hook in his hands. He could kill. He could.

The second sat on his sled bed, let his legs hang over one side, and rode. Years ago, he finished in third place, and now he was coming in second to last. And what did he care? Oh, well. The race gave him food and shelter and a month-long tour through the wilderness—that was enough. Smiling, he adjusted his sunglasses. The dogs’ feet carried on ahead.

The third didn’t have the strength. He was tired. His dogs were built for work, not racing. His legs ached. On the Beringia’s seventh night, he drank, put his head down, gave up, dropped out.

The fourth felt lucky. After flying in three hours from Khaborovsk, he pushed his sled along the frozen rivers and marveled. He pressed his cheek to his lead dog’s snout. “Look, Penny,” he told her—his daughter had named the blue-eyed pup Penny—”Look around, we’re in Kamchatka.” He was thrilled. And when he got sick, couldn’t breathe, was sent to one hospital and then another and finally had to drop out of the race, the absence of his long body and good humor shook everyone. People kept saying, maybe the fourth musher will join up with us again, until they reached the finish and saw he wasn’t there.

Bad weather was on its way. The metal-tipped pole hung cold in his glove. Knowing its weight, shrinking, his dogs began to cry.

The fifth looked at herself in the mirror. She couldn’t stop crying. Her husband stopped talking to her four days ago, her child didn’t understand, and her friends were sending her text messages that didn’t come through in the tundra but sprang up bing bing bing on her phone as she neared a town. You’re crazy, they wrote. Give up. We don’t recognize you anymore. They used to call her beautiful. Anyway, with or without them she’d make it to the end. She touched her eyes and her reflection. Soon she’d return to herself.

The sixth was running this expedition for the thirteenth time. He glided over hills and down the mouths of valleys. At each night’s base camp, he clowned, mugged, peeled off his pink turtleneck sweater and lay on the floor to tug at people’s ankles. His voice cracked at the tops of his jokes. When, at concerts or award ceremonies, the race organizers called him up to stand in line with the rest of the mushers, he folded his hands behind his back and let his face fall into solemnity. He became very still. Putting out of his head his wife, his bed, looking out over the audience, he thought of the next day’s fresh snow.

The seventh offered blessings. He carried a satchel stitched with the cross. When in a village, he sang hymns and passed out holy water, but when on a track, he cursed the teams ahead, hurried his dogs forward, and grew wild for the win. God will forgive him for that hunger. The Lord knows he was trying to be a better man.

The eighth belonged on the Beringia. She fit it like wet clay around a thumb. In the race’s first years, long before she herself began participating, when Kamchatka was just splintering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, she would travel to Esso each spring to see the earliest mushers off. She collected their stained jerseys. Now she kept a shelf of trophies of her own, and audiences in each town greeted her with the biggest cheers. She had always been this competition’s champion.

The ninth was racing toward his fiftieth birthday, which shared a date with the race’s final finish. His hair was already entirely white. Over fifty daily miles of ice and snow, he called to his animals with a running burr: raggadaraggadaraggadara…

The tenth was running near the back of the pack, but she still seemed like a winner. People admired her tremendously. She was intimate without being intrusive, funny without being forward. Strangers approached her for interviews. Each evening, at the veterinarian’s approach, she knelt in the snow, snaked her fingers around her dogs’ legs, and flipped them over. The animals yelped in surprise. She pressed her body to theirs and didn’t blink as the vet administered antibiotics and the animals started to scream. She smiled. She had a great smile.

The eleventh inhaled smoke, shut his eyes, and giggled. The race organizers called him up on stage to be recognized as this year’s northernmost participant. He and his helper traveled three days, by helicopter and plane and bus, to reach Esso. Now his lungs were expanding. His mind was clear. He’d race this length and then mush another 600 miles home. Fixing his hat over his ears, unfazed by the tundra ahead, he coasted.

The twelfth thanked God. Thanked Him for the food on the table, packed powder underfoot, good health, bright sun. Thanked God that when, on the race’s very first day, a stray coal lodged itself in his house’s cracked chimney and the entire structure burned to the ground, his family was still in Esso seeing him off, and no one he loved was hurt. Family was the most important thing. Family and faith. Ashes were the most important thing. No. The twelfth musher thanked God he won this year—he won! He knew he would. He hoped he would, anyway, his dogs had been in good shape, his equipment was ready—he was ready—and hadn’t they needed it? Couldn’t he use the money? To start rebuilding—couldn’t he use the fame? He won, he finished two hours ahead of the rest, he saw that finish line hanging unbroken from 685 miles away—he did it—He did it—thank God!

The thirteenth shouted at his dogs, “Catch up! Catch up!” They kept plodding forward. “Catch up!” The other sleds drew ahead. “Catch up!” While overtaking him, his fellow racers laughed; over broth each night, they imitated his call. “Catch up! Catch up!” The thirteenth musher didn’t find this funny.

The fourteenth put his arms around the others’ shoulders. He slurred against their ears. He loved them all. What did he have to go home to? Keep racing. Stay together. Carry on.

The fifteenth sent the rest of the racers running in fear. They hunched on their sled runners and called into the wind, “How far away is the fifteenth musher? How many miles? How many minutes?” He came at them like a storm. Though he finished second this year, missing his fifth Beringia win by 164 minutes, he blew in grinning to the final finish line, long, long ahead of the others, holding a staff with an unfurled Russian flag. The crowd went wild. Everyone said he was a hard man. They called him wise. Standing over his dogs, narrowing his eyes, the fifteenth musher showed his teeth.

The sixteenth picked up his ostol and rose from his sled. His animals had all bent their backs so they looked like no more than a lashed-together series of spines. They refused to move forward. Bad weather was on its way. The metal-tipped pole hung cold in his glove. Knowing its weight, shrinking, his dogs began to cry.

 

Open the windows of the helicopter. That’s my advice to you: a mile up, slide open the portholes around you, so snow can settle against the fur of the animals pressed against your feet and your broken heart can rattle around in your ribcage. You were left behind. Don’t ever forget that. The race ends tomorrow, and you were left behind.

In the center of the tundra, at the top of a peninsula, at the far eastern edge of an enormous country, come back to the mushers, their helpers, race organizers and volunteers and feel that you are coming home. Six hundred and eighty-five miles of beaten snow lie behind you. The Okhotsk Sea is smooth and white. Kiss the cheeks of the tired racers. Hear the stories you missed. When you ask them for more, they hold your hand.

You are all brimming with a great common love that cannot be articulated in English or Russian. Black and yellow ribbons mark the trail at your back. Schoolchildren have waited all year for the mushers to arrive. Old women taped expedition posters to their kitchen wallpaper. After twenty days, the Beringia has reached its final finish line in Ossora, leaving in its wake iron crosses, donated clothing, dog urine, and stripped reindeer bones. And what did it give you? Everything. Did you get what you wanted? Yes. No. Yes. You received an education. You got a story out of it all. No. No. If you’d had more time…

Chase this race forever. Return in 11 months. Want, now, most of all, to be back once again on the endless Beringia.

Julia Phillips has spent the last five years going back and forth between Russia and New York City. She lived in Kamchatka while on a Fulbright grant in creative writing. More by Julia Phillips