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A Tribute to Gary Paulsen

On the evening of October 13th of this year I was taking my dog out for our final walk of the day. The stars shone brightly and there was a chill in the air. Winter in New Jersey was approaching and I was wistfully thinking of where I would rather be. Whenever my thoughts turn to leaving this place, or any place I find myself, I inevitably settle on Alaska - the place that has had a hold on me ever since a brief trip in my early teenage years. The raw beauty, the wilderness, the people, the dogs...they all captured my imagination in a way that has never been duplicated.

I grew up in rural Tennessee where snowfall isn't a staple of winter. Nonetheless I developed a love of snow. All the while watching the animated movie Balto so much that I am now surprised the VHS tape didn't wear out. I made the decision that one day I would have a husky of my very own. As I got older I learned about the exploits of Susan Butcher and followed the Iditarod each year. Dogsledding was the only sport in which I could name more than a handful of athletes. One could say that North is the direction that resonates most strongly in me. Perhaps similar to the notion of West to those long ago pioneers swept up in the idea of Manifest Destiny.

But none of my various forms of armchair travel and daydreaming transported me quite like one particular book. I can't tell you where or when I bought it. All I know is that it's been a core part of my personal library since my time as an undergraduate student. That book is Winterdance by Gary Paulsen. It's only appropriate to give you the full title, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod.

My copy is well worn. The pages are yellowed and dogeared. It has traveled with me and to the homes of various friends and family over the years. It has gone from Tennessee to Oregon to Georgia to Missouri and now to New Jersey. A family member remarked that she read it multiple times before returning it to me. I can relate. I'm unsure how many times I've read it myself.

It is a story that I sink into. One where my surroundings are suddenly far, far away and the only thing that exists in that moment is this one man's story. This one man and his dogs. It is full of hope and humor and folly and tragedy and determination - in both the human and canine variety. The inexplicable intertwining of the two is on full display in this Alaskan tale.

I read it every few years. I like to give myself time to forget the small details, so I can experience them anew each time. And on the night of October 13th I was thinking of reading it again. That thought led me to wonder what the author had been up to in recent years. So while my dog was otherwise occupied, I pulled out my phone and typed "Gary Paulsen" into my browser. I was met with an NPR story published 4 hours prior that Paulsen had died that very day at the age of 82. I can't tell you why, and I am sure it isn't rational, but I couldn't help but feel that my thinking of him in that moment, on that day, meant something. I don't know what. But it feels like hope. Like keeping a dream alive...a dream of dogs and snow...a dream of Alaska.

An excerpt from Winterdance:

...I thought that any sane man who was in his forties and had a good career going would quit now, would leave the dogs, end it now and go back to the world and sanity and I knew what scared me wasn't the canyon and wasn't the hook hanging by one prong but the knowledge, the absolute fundamental knowledge that I could not stop, would not stop, would never be able to stop running dogs of my own free will.

I am here in this space simply to say thank you to Gary for sharing his story and that it has meant so very much for my spirit over the years. I look forward to reading it again and again.

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