Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Flashback: 2002.

In the 2002 Iditarod Trail Invitational I was racing, ravenous, and had just left the native coastal village of Shaktoolik with a fresh resupply.  We use the post offices as our checkpoints in that race, meaning that we ship whatever we think we might need a few weeks in advance.  Back then you never knew if the villages would have stores, if/when you’d arrive, if/when they’d be open, what they’d have (or not) on the shelves, etc.  One year I arrived at the village store in Koyuk to find a pallet of Nutter Butter cookies (one of my all-time favorites) front and center by the door.  A quick glance revealed that they were six years past their expiration date, yet proved just as delicious as the day they were born.  And a bargain at only $9/pack! 

I share this story as entertainment, but also to illustrate that you make a best guess on what you’ll need from a few weeks and several thousand miles away, then ship it.  And pray. 

Among the goodies in each of the boxes I'd shipped out were headlamp batteries, dry socks, spare inner tubes, Bag Balm for my, um, bag, maps for the next section of trail, and lots of food. Salient edibles that year were Velveeta-and-bacon-filled tortillas, heaps of gummi worms (they’re excellent when frozen), and a quart-sized baggie full of chocolate-dipped dried apple rings. I looked forward to these more than anything else as I approached each village. 

 In order to get a box to any of these villages, the postal service has to use increasingly smaller aircraft to get from the hubs to the dots at the end of the line, and as such the boxes get handled many, many times — tossed into and out of the bellies of many small planes along the way.  Often the boxes simply never arrived at their destination; whether they were lost, stolen, or destroyed is anyone’s guess. 

When they did somehow arrive they looked like they’d been dragged most of the way from Colorado to bush Alaska.  The box that I picked up in Shaktoolik was ripped, scuffed, had been wet and dry several times, and had two gaping holes in the bottom.  It was obvious some stuff had fallen out and been shoved back in, and it was clear that not everything had made it back in.  From the general heft of it I assumed there was enough food to make it a few more days to the next store, so I signed for it and hustled out the door. 

Outside the PO I haphazardly tore everything out of the box and stashed it wherever I could on the bike — inside of pogies, inside the frame pack, in pockets in my jacket, etc.  Just a quick and dirty pack job for the moment, as I was leading the race and wanted to get out of town (and out of sight!) before any other racers arrived.  That done, I hightailed it back onto the trail and headed for the sea ice of Norton Sound. 

 A few hours later, hungry from the exertion of flight and able to see about 10 miles behind along the empty trail, I stopped for a snack. I sussed out the apple rings and was surprised to see a hole in the side of the bag. “No matter,” I thought, “at least they’re all still in there.” 

What I hadn’t noticed was that there was also a hole in the side of the Bag Balm ziploc, and that greasy, nasty stuff had gotten everywhere -- including all over the apples.  They still looked oh-so-delicious but the balm had rendered them completely, terribly inedible.  I carried them the next two days, occasionally trying to clean them with snow or to just tolerate the flavor, but each time I got instant gag reflex at the taste of the petroleum-jelly-based balm.  I ended up leaving the brim-full bag on a table inside of a shelter cabin near the Kwik River, figuring that someone might be in a survival situation and need to choke them down.  Or, better, maybe they could use them to start a fire! 

 Three days go by.  I’m back in Anchorage after successfully completing the race.  The guys that finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th are flying back from the finish, and I’m thrilled to meet them at the airport to hear all about their rides.  Over the next few hours, in the course of much eating and storytelling, one of the three (a Brit) mentions how they'd found this indescribably delicious concoction some trail angel had left in a cabin.  He went on to re-imagine the ethereal flavor, something intangible but very familiar, of apples dipped in chocolate, with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ tying it all together.  He confessed that he and his mate (another Brit) ate the whole bag while their traveling partner slept nearby.  They admitted they felt guilty for not sharing, but were too overcome with the unique flavor to even consider stopping until there was nothing left to eat...