I expected to write this blog from a tiny cabin in the woods, candlelight reflecting off my screen and a nice warm blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I imagined detailing my long days of work, and then somehow putting into words the fulfilled feeling I was getting from days consumed with wood splitting and puppy-dog tails. I truly looked forward to offering up the stories and perspectives of a rookie dog sled guide, and then of course bragging endlessly about my 18 sweet dogs – my relationships with them growing and improving in fun and enlightening ways.
That’s how I imagined it, but life doesn’t always go according to plan. Instead I am back in Incline Village, sitting on my computer at Starbucks, looking out at Tahoe blue skies, thinking about what I’ll have for dinner tonight, and reminding myself constantly to not open Facebook another time. In truth, this is not a bad place to be, but I’d be lying if I said that this unexpected transition has been easy.
When I landed at the Sacramento airport 2 months ago, it was the official conclusion of 10 months of worldwide travel. It had been the kind of trip that changes you, a giant semi-colon separating the independent clauses that are my 20’s and my 30’s. I felt exhausted from the constant planning and movement, but also fully alive, passionate, eager, and hopeful. I was prepared to deal with some culture shock, but was surprised to find that my appreciation for my country had only grown and I felt relieved to be back in a place where things felt convenient and I could participate fully in the culture, conversations, and lifestyle. More than anything, I was thrilled to be off on our next adventure after a relaxing week at “home” in Tahoe. Dog sled guiding in northern Michigan was the next step in a detailed and exciting plan that Don and I had come up with for our life. And to top it all off, our week in Tahoe ended in celebration when Don asked me to marry him and we finally got to speak openly with one another and our friends and family about spending the rest of our lives together. I saw it this way: we would spend the winter on one more bucket-list adventure that couldn’t really be done once we started a family and got settled in somewhere, then we would hike for a summer, and then it would be time to move back to Tahoe, get married and start in on one big happy, domesticated life. Of course, I should have known that our “plan” would somehow get derailed..after all, isn’t that just like life? Oblivious to this inevitable conclusion, Don and I rode off into the sunrise on a 4-day road trip out to Michigan with all our dirtiest, toughest, warmest clothes packed in the car and our hearts and minds set on a cold, puppy-filled winter.
Our first 3 weeks in McMillan, Michigan were just as we’d hoped. The work was hard, the lifestyle was intense, the dogs were bundles of joy and love, and our staff consisted of a great and diverse group of people. Don and I had been given a tiny cement-floored cabin to live in, with nothing but a bunk bed, a small wood-burning stove with an all-metal door, and the backseat of an old van to use as a couch. No electricity, no running water, and we couldn’t have been happier. We used our one day off a week to drive into town, buy as many $1 candles and AAA batteries as we could afford (we were completely broke after our travels and a road trip), do our laundry, and when possible, sneak in a short mountain bike ride.
The rest of our days were spent working at the kennel. We would wake at 5:45am, attend a morning meeting at 7am sharp, and then spend the rest of the day outside, taking care of the dogs, sitting on an ATV while the dogs pulled us along, shoveling and cleaning our kennels, and completing a whole slew of projects that the owner needed done before the snow fell. Don and I consider ourselves “outdoorsy” and “active” people, but we still had a lot to learn about living off the grid. We sat through lessons on ATV maintenance, learned how to properly use a chainsaw, and even worked on the construction of a large outhouse (which was more like a small real house – it was even being built to code). We enjoyed “family” meals in the “big house” (the one place with a flushing toilet and electricity), where we listened to short stories told by a 4 year old and 2 year old and quizzed one another on things like the meaning of life and the details that went into running the Iditarod. From the beginning, we had noticed a few quirks about the job, but nothing that concerned us much. Our boss was very strict on the way things needed to be done, but I actually appreciated that there was so much structure. I liked knowing the proper way and knowing that everyone would be held accountable. We were also given a lot to learn and balance from the very beginning, but neither Don nor I felt that it was too much. And then, in the midst of all our hard work and commitment, a few real problems began to arise. First, we found that try as we might, we couldn’t seem to separate ourselves from the kennel. Even when we’d head back to our cabin after dark, when all the chores were done, we had a hard time talking or thinking about anything other than the dogs and our days’ work. It was helpful that Don and I had each other, but even when we’d intentionally remind ourselves that a whole world existed beyond those northern Michigan woods, our train of thought inevitably pulled right back into the same station – which dogs got into scuffles that day, who still needed a spin barrel, did we put the metal rake back in the garage after we finished using it this morning? Often, as the days rolled on, our concerns became whether or not we did everything perfectly, not so much because we thought it had to be done a certain way, but because we dreaded being reprimanded by our boss who seemed increasingly disappointed in our performance. The property only had one small square foot of space where it got reception, so we were quite literally cut off from the outside world. Again, this wasn’t so much a problem, as long as we enjoyed our work and felt like it was the life experience we had so eagerly anticipated.
If I had to name a moment or conversation that began our downward spiral into leaving, I’d say it happened one day when the boss and I got into a disagreement over my abilities as a dog sled guide. I felt ready to drive the ATV that the dogs pulled, and to put it simply, he disagreed. After a month of hard labor, my full attention to a variety of small projects and lessons, and the completion of a variety of goals and tasks (such as memorizing over 120 dog’s names), I felt that I deserved some small amount of encouragement. After all, I had proven that I was a competent and hard-working individual, and if it really needed to be said, my co-worker was running dogs and I felt that I deserved the same opportunity. After that day I swallowed my pride and allowed that the boss would let me drive when he felt I was ready. But unfortunately, with each passing day, he seemed less and less impressed with our work ethic, and more and more passive aggressive in his attitude toward his employees. One day, while working on the outhouse project, our boss approached the crew and when he noticed that a board had been placed incorrectly, he began to tear apart huge sections of the building that we had worked so hard to construct. In a juvenile fit of anger, he threw tools and plywood down to the ground, cursed, and when asked to stop, told us to get back to work. Clueless as we were as to what had gone wrong, or how to do it better since we were never even given a plan, we all attempted to meet his request. We pulled together as a team and spent the following hours trying to erect a roof in the midst of his passive aggressive anger and silence. After that afternoon, there was nothing enjoyable about being at the kennel. What had been a wonderful and challenging job became a cold, miserable chore, without laughter or guidance. We still tried our hardest to do as we were told, but directions came through as short quips and any request for detail was treated as a childish transgression. We all persisted in this miserable state for a few days, but eventually, we had to know whether our boss’ behavior could change. Without apologizing for his reaction, we were told that we were not a “rock solid” staff and that if we didn’t like how things were going, we should consider leaving. So we left. That very morning we packed up everything we had moved out there with, made room in the car for our coworker who was also tired of dealing with the bullying, and drove south to stay with Don’s parents until we could figure out a Plan B.
It was the worst possible ending that we could have imagined. We felt miserable, but we also felt like we had been given no other choice. At 30 years old, Don and I were not willing to be pushed around and punished for doing our best. It deserves to be mentioned at this point that we also weren’t making any money. For all our hours of hard work, we left with a measly $400 in our pockets. It didn’t even begin to cover the cost of gas to drive out to Michigan and back. And not to mention the fact that we had lost out on time at some other job. Of course, we had never gone into the job for the money, but we could only understand employees putting up with tha kind of behavior from a boss if they were making some great salary in return. The first week after leaving the kennel was mostly a time for emotional recovery. Don’s parents were gracious enough to have us in their home, where we got to share in some great family time and yummy meals. But the big question, “What next?”, buzzed around us constantly and made it impossible to fully relax. We basically had two choices: either rent a cheap little apartment in Escanaba, Michigan (just a couple hours from the kennel and a town that Don had lived in before) where we could work and save money for the winter, or move to Tahoe and be around friends and good skiing, but live a much more costly life for the 6 months before the PCT. Just to feel like we were actually doing something, we found oursleves applying to work at Northstar ski resort in Tahoe, and when both Don and I got call backs the following day, we felt hopeful that it was a step in the right direction. After a few days of rest, the drive back to Tahoe didn’t feel so daunting and we decided to give Northstar a shot and see what we could make of a winter spent in Tahoe.
We have been so fortunate to stay with my mom’s friend Deb since coming back west, and with the exception of a little restlessness that always comes with unemployment, we have spent the last couple weeks settling into a sweet and fun life together in this beautiful place. Our jobs at Northstar haven’t started yet, but Don was able to pick up some construction work and I am tying up some loose ends in order to have a side job tutoring online. We still miss the dogs at the kennel, but our moments of frustration and confusion have become fewer and far between and we are just grateful for the support we’ve recieved from friends and family. We have come to realize that planning for the PCT, or even our wedding, would have been nearly impossible while at the kennel, and now we have all winter to prepare ourselves. I still hope to drive sled dogs someday, but it will be in a place where I am appreciated, supported, and happy. After all, no one can read your moods and react to negativity more than a pack of sled dogs!