BALLAD OF THE NORTHLAND: A NOVEL BY JASON BARRON

It took me a very long time to write Ballad of the Northland. It first came into my mind to create ‘Ballad’ when I was eighteen years old (many years ago!) I had volunteered my services to the Iditarod as a checker, and the first place they sent me was Finger Lake, one of the first checkpoints on the race. This was back in 1990, when Gene Leonard still had a cabin out there, and long before there was any lodge.A number of other fellows and fellowettes (including Montana’s Jack Beckstrom and Norman Vaughan’s wife Caroline) and I were charged with setting up a camp/checkpoint, figuring out where to park all of the incoming teams, and organizing a mountain of musher’s drop bags. We had about a day and a half before the first teams were expected to arrive to get all of this done, and we worked day and night to make it happen. For a kid like me, this was all terribly exciting. Just looking at the surrounding forest was enough to give me chills; and the mountains, simply awe inspiring! This feeling of awe was before the drivers even showed up; legendary drivers like Joe Runyan, Joe Garnie, Jerrie Austin and Dewie Halverson, Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson; and tons more. Yes, you could say I was a bit overwhelmed.The first driver in was Runyan, and watching his team break out of the woods on the far side of the lake and come motoring towards us like a furry freight train gave me a feeling of wonder which I never forgot. By that night, our little rustic checkpoint was filled to overflowing with all of the teams and drivers whom I had been raised to look up to for my entire childhood; it was glorious pandemonium.It took several days for the race to pass us by. Right after the tenth driver departed for Puntilla Lake, deep in the Alaska Range, a great cloud of ash and grit descended upon us, and by daybreak, over an inch of the stuff covered the ground. Mount Redoubt in southern Alaska had blown its top (we later learned), and was belching out a continual plume of smoke, steam, and ash. This left us, and somewhere around 50 dropped dogs, stranded for almost a week. All in all, I spent ten wonderful days there, and it was during this time that the ‘Ballad’ began to germinate in my head.The sheer magnificent immensity of the wild bushland and the intrepid explorers who stood the runners of their sleds and went out into the heart of it to do battle with one another until a victor was crowned in the far off gold fields of Nome. Heady stuff for an 18 year old boy; heady stuff for me now. These things were to serve as my inspiration for the eventual story.But, I was frustrated. The story I wanted to tell was not really about a singular person, or even a collection of people. It was much much larger than that. The story I wanted to tell was first and foremost about the Northland, and the sheer scope of the idea, and the place, overwhelmed me.For the time being, I contented myself with writing a series of epic poems titled ‘Northland 1’, ‘Northland 2’, and so on. The first of them was written right there in that Finger Lake checkpoint by the light of my failing headlamp, while a storm of black ash rained down upon my head. I wrote those poems because at the time, I didn’t know how to tell someone a story as big as the Northland, didn’t even really know how to make it into a ‘story’ at all. See, I knew even then that the moment I started naming drivers/characters with real names, that I gave the eventual ‘hero’ a real handle, that a big part of the magic and mystique would be lost. And this stumped me.I have spent the last twenty years compiling notes and thoughts on this matter, and all I can tell you right now, is that the moment I figured out how to tell the story, I dropped everything I was doing, sat down at the computer, and pounded it out.Twenty years after that experience back at Finger Lake, came my dog mushing fable ‘Ballad of the Northland.’ What follows is a brief look at the prologue.PROLOGUE:We are on the coast of the Bering Sea and very near the town of Nome Alaska, at a small Eskimo village known as Shaktoolik. We are arranged in the lee of the orange metal box which serves as the town’s armory; I, huddled down behind my sled, those few of my dogs remaining in the team crusty eyed lumps curled nose to tail against the blow. All around us the wind howls its black rage, a mighty bellow of sand, ice, and splintered dreams sucked from the body of the earth and flung into the hungrily waiting maw of Norton Sound. Numb and frozen, I can imagine Mother Nature herself bending down to scream her inarticulate fury directly atop my shivering body, her face made twisted and terrible by the offense of my hubris. Funny thing, hubris. After the last number of days, there is no courage or bravery left, only a brittle shell of fearful despair, and the distant memory of pride is but a pale joke. I have been locked into a particle accelerator and smashed down do my lowest common denominator, a handful of atoms thrown into the cold to burn like tiny meteorites before fading down the long dark throat of eternity. And maybe this is even funnier, but whether by destiny, fate, or simple brutish determination, now that I have come to this place at the end of all creation where almighty God himself has seemingly turned his gaze away, I realize that my life has finally come full circle. It was here that my story began, and very likely it is here where it will end. The sands of time are running from my hourglass as surely as the heat is cooling out of my bloodstream, so I guess I had better get into the meat, what little there is, of my story. Oh, but beginning a story is such a very hard thing to do. First off, my name is unimportant. My ghosts are my own, and to tell you my name would only serve to make them yours. And second, I came here to win. No excuses, no complex agenda, just the primal need to test myself against the legendary Great Race, the 1000 mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, and come out the victor. I came armored with youthful determination and a gutful of talent and ability and accompanied by a collection of my finest dogs, warriors one and all. Only to be smashed and broken, the wreckage of my foolish desires scattered from one end of the mighty Alaskan wilderness to the desolate coast of the Bering Sea where onyx waves crash upon the seawall and ravens spin against the firmament like fragments of ash on sackcloth. My primary adversary takes his ease inside the armory, cool blue eyes glittering with calculation and stern appraisal above an unsmiling beard as rough as steel wool; he has championed this race for the last six years in a row, and it is clear to everyone that he intends to make it seven. I and my pitiful group of nine tired dogs pose no real challenge for him. Or so some would say. Looking past my team, I gaze out to the Sound where the detritus from the shoreline has been launched into a perfect black wall, and I understand that the battle taking place out there between Odin and his brethren to subdue the Great Wolf is literally shivering the ice apart and carrying it out to sea. I am suddenly and completely tired. In an effort to keep my mind from considering the frozen gray horror lurking in the depths of my boots, or the grim plan which has been ticking over in the back of my head, I think instead about those distant memories of my family, that long ago day when we had all lived in this tiny village together for the very last time; the beginning of my story.My Mama and Papa were schoolteachers; they brought my baby brother and me here to Shaktoolik when we were both very small, to teach the ways of modern western civilization to a timeless people who may have been better off having never met a white man. I remember nothing before this point, and all of the people and places from this section of my history are faded, sepia toned clips out of a dusty album salvaged from the ruins of a neglected childhood; disjointed and jerky, hiccupping impressions only loosely based on reality. I remember that my Mama’s eyes were soft and gentle, and that her long dark hair would hang down in front of her face whenever she would laugh at something that she thought was funny. Her bosoms were large and full, and looking at them made me think of warm dough rising in the leaf patterned bowl next to the old soot stained cook stove. When she bathed my brother and me in the galvanized tub also used for our laundry, she would tie her hair back with a faded pink bandana and roll her flannel sleeves up to the elbows to keep them out of the suds while the two of us boys frolicked like seal pups and generally made a sopping mess out of things. Not every time, but often, she would sing to us an Irish ballad of love or loss, her voice sweet and husky and redolent of swift flowing streamlets and fields of feathered tundra. I miss my Mama so bad sometimes. I don’t remember Papa as well. He was tall and bearded, his voice rough and smelling of liquor and tobacco. He was as hard as Mama was soft, though I don’t really recall why I think this. He was never punishing or cruel, but there must be some reason that I do not miss him as much. His hands were very big and calloused, and I can visualize them with perfect clarity holding the barrel of a graphite pencil and making marks and symbols against smooth unlined paper while his breath made my eyes water like I needed to cry. My little baby brother…he was no more than two years old on that last day, lengthening out and leaving his baby chub behind, and I like to think he would have grown to be a very strong man. God knows he was smart. He would sit there cross legged and chocolate faced, already out of diapers, frowning and crooning with concentration as he sorted out the nine block animal puzzle on the floor. ‘Me buf-lo,’ he would announce. A few minutes later, after building the buffalo, he would say triumphantly ‘Me done!’ than ‘Me Ea-gle,’ and so on. We were playing on the floor together, using our set of colored blocks to build an elaborate animal corral, when Papa burst unexpectedly through the door full of excitement and smelling of cigarettes and alcohol. The wind that came in at the heels of his work boots was raw and hungry. I can remember his excitement, red eyed and loud voiced, almost shouting at Mama. He had an idea, a plan, but I know that Mama did not like it. She tried to talk him out of it, hand on his arm and gentle toned. Time shutter steps, lurches a bit, and now me and my are brother are bundled into fleecy thick snowsuits with heavy scarves smelling of the mornings cooking’s wrapped about our little faces, standing outside in the blistering teary eyed cold, the funny little houses of the village standing in rows two by two and marching off into the Sound where we had been told never ever to play. Every other house sported a furry husky on an extraordinarily long chain, long enough to allow the dog to perch on the rooftop like a misshapen spiky furred bird of prey. Papa’s yellow snowmobile is idling and he is pouring gasoline from a red plastic jug, slopping fluid onto the seat and cowling in the process. Mama stands with us and I can’t see her face behind her scarf, but I can tell by her eyes that she is very unhappy. Memories stutter, grainy black and white, and now we are on the Sound in a little sled being pulled behind Papa’s snowmobile. I can’t see much because I am buried with Mama and brother under heavy blankets in the basket of the sled, but I can see the sky which is a clear hammered blue stretching from horizon to horizon and impossibly huge and empty. To either side is nothing but a flat white blank for miles and miles without end, uninterrupted by feature of any kind whatsoever. It makes me feel small and squirmy, so I quit looking. It is cold cold cold, and my mouth is rank with the exhaust fumes from the snowmobiles engine. Brother moves against me, his little body shivering, and Mama hugs us both really tight. Now it is silent, save for the sounds of Papa softly cursing and a subtle wind whispering at our feet. Baby brother is sitting on a pile of blankets and fussing, tired of this trip and wanting his puzzles. Papa kneels against the snowmobile and his big hands rustle senselessly at the exposed and muted engine. His bushy beard is a mess of dangling icicles and he looks scared. We are grains of sand sandwiched between the great white pan of the Sound and the gunmetal gray cap of the sky. The sun is a silver nickel on the horizon. Off in the distance, I can just make out the blocks and rectangles of the village of Koyuk, and then they mysteriously disappear behind a gauzy curtain of snow. Fine cold flakes suddenly pepper my stinging cheeks. Old stilted black and white film, overexposed. Memories jump and skip and the soundtrack is interrupted by a throaty gush of wind. The dark of night is almost upon us, and it is snowing and very windy now. The sled has been overturned against the brunt of it, and we huddle miserably cold and desperately afraid as the needle points of ice drive and swirl about us. It is so loud that I cannot hear myself think, but I can clearly make out my baby brother sobbing with terror and pain. I, too, am sobbing. Papa hunkers down with the only form of light left in the world, an old battered electric lantern producing a feeble orange glow. ‘It’s no use,’ he says. ‘It won’t go.’ ‘I know,’ Mama responds. ‘Koyuk is close.’ ‘No it’s not.’ ‘It’s our only chance. I’ll get help.’ ‘Don’t you dare leave us,’ Mama says. ‘Got to,’ Papa replies. ‘Please don’t. Please, don’t leave us.’ Papa stands, turns from us. He puts his head down and begins to walk away. It only takes a few seconds for the wind and snow to render him a wraithlike silhouette lit by the faint arcing glow from the lantern. I never saw him again, and I will always remember his big solid hand carrying that lantern into the night. It is full dark now. The wind is alive; a howling beast ravening and slobbering to be fed. Mama is holding us really really tight, and she is singing something sweet and warm. It has been a long time since my little brother quit his crying, or maybe I just can’t hear him anymore. It is dark, dark like the inside of a well, and I’m starting to not be so cold. The wind is howling. I squeeze brother as tight as I can but he doesn’t squeeze back, and Mama has her face as close to mine as she can get and she is singing something, something, sweet and warm, and I’m no longer cold at all, not even a little bit. The wind is howling and Mama is singing, Mama howling and the wind singing. I can’t tell one from the other now. Howling and singing. Please believe me when I tell you that there is a place where the wind never stops blowing…END OF PROLOGUEJason Barron is a nine-time Iditarod finisher and lifelong outdoorsman. His first novel “Ballad of the Northland” can be purchased at kanabearenterprises.com.

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