March 13, 2003


Last Idtarod Update for the night.

Robert Sorlie left the town of White Mountain at 3:48 p.m. Alaska time. Ramy Brooks left at 5:17 p.m. (Alaska is four hours behind Eastern Standard Time.)

There is only a 90-minute buffer between them. Neither has reached the town of Safety, the last checkpoint, but they'll probably do so in the middle of the night.

When that happens, a fire alarm mounted on a tall pole in the middle of Nome will ring, alerting everyone in town that the musher(s) is/are only a couple hours outside of town. Everyone spills out of their homes - doesn't matter what time - and crowds around the finish chute on Front Street. It doesn't look a whole helluva lot different than what it looked like almost a century ago.

Nome is on the Seward Peninsula, 102 miles below the Arctic Circle, with its back to the hills and its face to the sea. People work hard — the land demands it. They play hard, too, and party like maniacs.

In spring, they dig out bathing suits and plunge into the icy Bering Sea. In fall, they race down Front Street in bathtubs on wheels. The Wall Street Journal once wrote: "Every night is Friday night in Nome, Alaska. Except Friday night—which is New Year's Eve."

If Friday night is New Year's Eve, then the night of the Iditarod finish is something else altogether. When I covered the race in 1991 for The Anchorage Times, I described it as "a frozen Mardi Gras."

Think about it: These guys (and a few women) have been on the trail for more than a week. They're tired, they stink, they've had no one but dogs to talk to for 1,100 miles.

In short, they could use a drink.

For that matter, so could their families, girlfriends, best friends, buddies, sponsors and everyone else in town, by god.

I saw an exhausted musher pass out on his first beer - with it still in his mouth. We carried him to his room and pulled the covers over him while he was still wearing his arctic weather overalls and boots.

The drunkest I ever got in my life was in Nome on the night of the 1991 race's finish. I had been up for about three days in horrible blizzard conditions and had filed my stories. I was so exhausted, all it took was about three beers. I actually had to break out of a bar. And when I did, I realized just in time that I was looking over a second-floor balcony. After several minutes of contemplating whether the snow berm below the roofline was soft snow that cushions or hard, melted-and-then-iced snow that would snap my legs like twigs. I can still remember looking to my right and seeing the town's streelight glow disappearing about 150 yards out into the frozen Bering Sea.

Maybe it was adrenaline, maybe it was a brief moment of clarity. I don't know. But I somehow decided the best course of action was to go back downstairs and break out of a lower-altitude door.

When I got to Front Street, it's was minus-50 out (minus -94 with the wind chill) and I stumbled my way for several blocks in the middle of the night to get back to the bed-and-breakfast where I was boarding. There was no one on the streets. No one. And everything was covered in snow, so every house and every street looked identical.

Somewhere, God was laughing to the point of hysterical bladder failure at what his cruel joke had wrought.

The next morning, we were due to fly out of the Nome airport (such that it is). I was still so drunk, I passed out in the makeshift station wagon taxi. Then once inside the one-room terminal, I decided to become one with the floor.

Now, you have to understand that Nome is a place used to seeing drunks passed out in public places. It's so common, it's almost a requirement for obtaining a homestead exemption.

In a town that is dulled by such a vision, I served as such a spectacle that people in the airport felt compelled to pose with my passed-out body on the floor of the one-room airport. I still have a photo someone gave me of several fetching Budweiser models kneeling around me as I drooled in a fetal position on the ground in my parka and snow boots. I had no clue. My face displayed the bleached pallor of liver failure. Someone could have jammed a stick of dynamite up my butt - or something far more personal - and I wouldn't have known.

It was not one of my proudest moments.

It's the reason I don't really drink hardly anything anymore. I'm not good at it and I'm too old for flashbacks of the paper-thin indigo-colored carpet of Nome International Airport.

Anyway, Sorlie's gonna win. Like I predicted all along.

Posted by Jeff at March 13, 2003 12:01 AM | TrackBack