Grantland Goes to the Iditarod

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland  •  05.09.13 | 7:09 AM ET

This past March, Grantland sent writer Brian Phillips to follow the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Alaska’s famous 1000-mile feat of endurance, by bush plane. The resulting story, Out in the Great Alone, comes with all sorts of online design bells and whistles—embedded audio and video, and a map that updates itself as you scroll through the narrative. But what I liked best about it was its emphasis on place, not so much on the ins and outs of the race itself but on the landscapes and communities it passes through. Here’s Phillips:

I took a walk through the village. Couple of roads twisting down a couple of hills, some pretty rough-looking houses. Moose antlers over the doorways. Things happen to the color blue during an Alaska twilight that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Imagine that the regular, daytime blue sky spends all its time floating on the night sky, the way you’d float on the surface of a pool. Now it’s submerging itself. You could see it vanishing upward. The cars looked derelict, half-buried in snow. Snowdrifts rammed up doorknob-high against the houses. Every now and again a snow machine would go screaming by; the drivers always waved. Snow 3 and 4 feet high on the roofs.

But it was such a warm place. I mean, fine, we’re all cynics here, go ahead and click over to your next open tab or whatever, but you could feel it: this fragile human warmth surrounded by almost unmanageable sadness. Outside the checkpoint building the Takotnans had set up a row of burled tree stumps beside the flagpoles, and now two guys with chain saws were carving long crosscuts in the stumps. Each night during the Iditarod they’d pour diesel into one stump’s cuts and then light it, making a torch as wide as two people embracing that’d burn for hours and hours. Mushers coming down the river toward the checkpoint would see the torches from—I don’t know about miles, but a long way away. Eight or nine villagers, along with a few volunteers, gathered around the fire. Jay was there, talking about airplanes with Bernard—you could tell from the way he’d sort of bank his hand at the wrist and slide it through the air. Christophe went around taking pictures. A little gang of kids played king of the hill on a snowdrift. The night just dwarfed all this.

It’s a long one, but worth your time. The New Yorker also sent a writer to follow the Iditarod this year; subscribers can read Ben McGrath’s story here.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

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