Maybe you’ve had this happen to you. For one reason or another, you have a micro-brief encounter with a famous or sort of famous and or kind of important person that lasts a couple of seconds or a couple of minutes, or whatever, and because of all this, your brain decides from that moment on, you have some sort of a personal relationship with this person. “Oh yea, me and Brad Pitt, we hung out”. That kind of nonsense. For whatever reason, I’ve had a couple of those kinds of encounters over the years, and for some reason, part of me keeps thinking we have something going on that no one else on earth has. Really stupid stuff. But…. that’s sort of what I got with Jessie Royer today. We haven’t ever been and aren’t chatting it up now. We have no relationship. But as far as that voice in my head is concerned, we got a little something going, and it’s not even close to true.
Yesterday, 9+ days and a thousand miles down the trail, Jessie Royer and her 12 remaining sled dogs crossed the finish line in Nome, after mushing in her 18th Alaskan Iditarod sled dog race. She finished third last year. This year, the 43-year old woman placed third again, out of 56 mushers who began the race in Anchorage on March 9th. She’s been in the top ten multiple times now. Other than the odd virus issue, we mortal people sit pretty much toasty warm, wrapped in our snuggle stuff, while this woman does some things we can’t even begin to approach. As a refresher - The Iditarod is called The Last Great Race on earth - 1,049 fricking miles long. She began with a team of 16 dogs, racing a sled full of stuff across an immense, vast, abstract, heartless Alaskan wilderness of mountain passes, frozen rivers, forest, tundra, snow, ice, pestilence, and coastline, with temperatures that can drop any year anywhere from just 32 freezing to 40 below, and every square inch of it for every single second of those 9 days was trying to kill her. The math on this is simple. 18 races, 1,000 miles – I’m thinking, without considering the training miles, that’s all of 18,000 miles of racing on a sled pulled by dogs, across a hideously gorgeous and elegant expanse of frozen ice and snow. The pimped-up Westminster Kennel Club show it ain’t, and I don’t care who you think you are or might be - Jessie Royer can kick your ass.
I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time and I just keep getting delayed. When she came from 30th place to finish 3rd this year, I had to take a moment here and say a little something. In 2014 I was at Triple Creek Ranch, a pretty cool, high-end, rich dude resort near Missoula, Montana owned by the ex-chairman of Intel, Craig Barrett. I was taking a bunch of photographs at the resort that winter. The marketing person said “Hey, we got a woman on the ranch who races in the Iditarod. You want to meet her? She’s training on the property now. We sponsor her.”
I didn’t and don’t know anything of serious substance about the Iditarod. Never seen it, never been there. Don’t know much about Alaska either. I can quote a couple of Robert W Service poems, and I know about Sam McGee and The Call Of The Wild, but that’s the sum of it. For some reason, the Iditarod has always sat in the back of my mind as an abstract measure of greatness - an ancient parable about survival and immortality.
So to the point of all this – In 2014 I spent maybe three hours with Jessie Royer as she trained near Missoula Montana. I actually rode inside in her sled as she drove a team of dogs up a snow-covered logging road. We talked about her training, and I took some photographs. That’s about the run of it.
I’m gonna have these numbers wrong here, but close enough for you and me. I think she told me when she trains, she runs her dogs close to 7,000 miles getting ready for each Iditarod. As in 7,000. Multiply that by 18 and add it to 18,000. At some point in all this, it just starts to get away from me mentally. When I met her, Jessie owned something like 60 dogs or more. That may sound to you and I to be irresponsibly impossible and maybe even cruel. Of course, she has some help in all this, but I can tell you for a fact I saw about 40 of those dogs running loose in the snow as they waited to get hitched up to sleds for training runs, and the look in their eyes said each and every one of those damn dogs would die for her in a New York minute. We’re not talking about animal cruelty here. These dogs are born impervious to and don’t give a crap about what would kill most other living things. They are most happy when running and pulling through and across thousands of miles of snow and ice, and they do it with a vengeance. They are solid lean muscle, and they flat out worship the ground walked on by Jessie Royer.
These animals make border collies working on herds of sheep in Scotland look sedated. I’ve never seen anything like them. Without pausing to consider, they would run through rock. There were a lot of amazing moments in those 3hrs, but a couple of them stood out and involved one of the dogs in particular. First, I clearly remember all 40 of these dogs running around waiting, barking, screaming, lunging, thrashing, jumping and going crazy in the snow when all of a sudden the surging mass of them took a giant step to the left or right as a cream-white husky walked calmly through the chaos, up to Jessie’s side and then gently put his balls onto the snow and ice. He just sat down. I think he was an Alaskan Husky. His name was Ranger - her main lead dog at the time. Amazingly calm. No barking. No wasted energy. Sitting there in the snow without an ounce of frantic and smooth as a warm summer breeze. He sat quietly in the snow, but it might as well have been a throne. His eyes had that gentle expression you would need in order to lead the team going headlong for a thousand miles into a blinding Alaskan wilderness. As I write this, I mark Ranger as being probably 12 or 13 now and possibly retired or close to it, or maybe now it’s just his spirit running through the snow. I took a quick portrait of Ranger and Jessie together looking right at me. I won’t forget it. I did that image 6 years ago and I’ve always liked it. Didn’t know why – it wasn’t that special a photo actually. Nothing much. But a couple days ago I looked at it again for the first time in maybe 4 years, and finally, I saw it. I knew what drew me to it. As I see it now, I look at them both, and for the life of me, I swear they each have exactly the same expression in their eyes and the same smile on their faces. As though they are the exact same being on the exact same path. In the past, we’ve all seen examples of and heard people joke about obsessed dog owners often looking sort of like their dogs. Funny stuff. That’s not the case here. Jessie doesn’t look like Ranger at all. In this photo Jessie is Ranger, and in this photo Ranger is Jessie.
So I got some photos to share here. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this. I simply offer them up as a brief encounter and a killer memory. I haven’t spoken to Jessie since those three hours in 2014 and honestly, I don’t remember a lot of the specifics of our conversations, because hell, I didn’t even know what to ask her in the first place, and then I forgot my notebook. I like that about myself - always the professional. I was nothing but a city kid with a camera, soft hands, and no calluses. But I do remember her presence. That stillness. The calm. The gentle, concise and simple flow of the words. As she stood in front of me, she appeared human but cut from ice and snow.
For all of us, there are people in our lives who stay there and never age. We knew them for a brief moment when we were younger, and we still talk about them to ourselves when we are older. Isn’t it the truth? Isn’t it those brief moments that sometimes cut the deepest and last the longest? Jessie Royer placed third in the Iditarod this year. Damn, that’s a little something. A measure. As I have every year since 2014, around this time in March, I start checking the daily Iditarod standings online, looking at the checkpoints on the map, measuring the miles, thinking about how ghastly wonderful it must be, and just like every year since those moments in 2014, it’s me and Jessie on the trail tonight. To first, shamelessly steal from and then blatantly edit Jack London’s Call Of The Wild - So a health to the woman on the trail this night; may her grub hold out; may her dogs keep their legs; may her matches never miss fire. God prosper her; good luck go with her; and --' 'Confusion to the Mounted Police!'
You can keep track of Jessie Royer at this Facebook link.