Across the street is a greenbelt. The greenbelt runs long, east and then south to Eagle River. It is not so wide as it is long. It slopes upward, gently, and atop the hill are condos. Brick fortresses veiled by summer foliage. Now wintertime trees make visible the elusive homes that sparkled like beacons of hope with color bulbs until just a few days ago when the first musher passed under the burl arch in Nome, Alaska.
So what I heard might be true. Like black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day it might be local tradition to keep your Christmas lights lit – and bad luck at bay – until the finale of the Iditarod, which is a few days faster than it used to be. Perhaps because they now start in Willow instead of Anchorage, a seventy-one mile head-start. They call it the Restart.
The morning of the Restart, we estimated an hour and a half on the Glenn Highway. With kids, you must always grace yourself even a few minutes extra time. And with my friend along for the ride, we had four children to entertain. Luckily, a few McNuggets and a case of DVDs make that possible. We buckled in, turned on Veggie Tales, told the guys we’d meet them in Willow, and took to the highway.
A mile into the drive, we stopped. In a sea of red taillights, we sat idle. Earlier that morning, a convoy en route to the north country had experienced an accident. For thirty miles I watched for evidence of the incident. Nothing. Only a bald eagle perched on the flats past the Knik River and a slow stream of taillights. The Veggie Tales DVD ended. We started handing back small snacks from our supply. We popped in another Veggie Tales movie. The traffic eased up. Just in time for us to hit all the lights in Wasilla. We pulled off for a bathroom break.
In the heart of Wasilla the highway becomes the Parks Highway, and out past the city limits it was dreamy to cruise just above the speed limit. Denali appeared and reappeared as we wound north. We talked and talked and the third Veggie Tales DVD of the day pacified the older kids. The little ones slept. I checked our time. In spite of the hour delay, we would have just enough time to park and catch the first dog sledder.
Now, seasoned spectators had warned me of the unavoidable parking nightmare, and still I hoped. Like the van visor clip held the orange VIP parking pass, I held onto my hope that we’d park close. That our walk to the starting line would be short. That we’d catch all the action and some food truck lunch.
The car ahead of me came to a complete stop and I fumbled for the four-way flasher button.
Six miles. A mere ten minutes away. And all northbound traffic was stacked ahead. It hit me. “This is the line for parking,” I said. “We’re in line for parking. But we have twenty minutes until start time. We’ll make it.” I said this to my friend and then to myself. For the next hour or so.
For sixty minutes Google Maps naively promised four minutes to my destination. It never caught up to real-time. For sixty minutes we rummaged for more snacks, consoled crying babies, strained our eyes for signs of Willow and the dreaded parking lot.
The parking lot. A crowded field of threshed willows sticking out of the snow. The place where I heard the familiar countdown of the announcer as we pulled on hats and gloves and hustled to the crosswalk. A sea of red-cheeked faces. I decided to view the mass exodus as the wave of first-arrivers. They’ve had their fill, I thought. A few sleds in and they’re done, just wanting to beat the crowd home.
“And the last musher is on the way to Nome! Thanks for coming out, folks!” Or something like that. I was on the phone when the announcer concluded the event, just as we spotted the start line banner.
We walked up the small hill and there it was. The beginning of the trail. A long runway from the starting line out across frozen Willow Lake. It was filled with snowmobiles and vendors and lingering spectators. We saw a prop plane take off. A little hang-glider motored back and forth over the lake and the last of the food truck crowds.
The snow of the lake kept my tea cool and chilled my food, but I ate anyway. The sun was warm and the kids found hula hoops. My friend and I basked in the glory of three dozen food truck cookies and the relief of arrival, though the relief was bittersweet. The kids didn’t see one dog. But, of course, this was not fully realized until we made our way to the emptied parking lot.
The drive back was swift. The kids ate through the last of the snack supply. Alpenglow faded to blue shadow.
Now the last of the mushers have crossed the finish line, 1,000 miles away. Now, instead of Christmas light I watch for stars, knowing nights of stars and auroras are numbered. Today, I noticed the air smelled of spring.
Spring, the scent of ice water. The sound of rushing water and morning birds, who will soon sing at midnight and make me forget all my winter blues.