Kneeling between the leaders at the front of the lines, I watched my dad struggle to restrain Little Lefty as he clutched the chain around her neck and ran from the truck to the sled, where Nick waited to hook her up with the rest of the team. The usual frenzy ensued, fraught with jumping, howling, and nerve shredding cries that seemed more ghostly that canine. I was accustomed to this routine, having ridden with Nick several times that winter, but this would be my dad’s first dog-sled ride. He and my mother had flown in to visit for the first time since Nick and I moved from Pennsylvania to Utah six months earlier in pursuit of his dog mushing dream.
Since then, Nick had discovered trails on Strawberry Ridge where he now trained the dogs twice a week. From October through March, pristine snow blanketed miles of wilderness, which ranged in elevation from 8,000 to 9,500 feet. The trail Nick most often traveled wound through the Uinta National Forest, and the trees lining that trail often parted to reveal breathtaking views of the valley below. When we didn’t cross paths with snowmobiles, the silence of the ride transported me into a wonderland reminiscent of fairy-tales.
“Haaaa—aayke!” Nick yelled, and the dogs surged forward in concentrated, now silent, effort. As the sled pulled away with my dad in the cargo basket, leaving my mother and I in the echoing wake of their departure, I closed my eyes to imagine what he must be feeling. My own experiences had felt like gliding on a cloud in heaven by way of sled-dog drawn chariot. The most fascinating part, I noticed after a few rides, was the chain of events that occurred when one of the chariot-pulling dogs relieved him or herself mid-stride. I’d witness these proceedings from my privileged perspective as a passenger in the chariot. Nick would urge the dogs to keep on running, and they’d do just that with barely a blip in the motion as the droppings from one or another bounced off the snow and disappeared behind the sled. The entire display represented a natural wonder from which my fleeting worry about the trajectory of the bounce in relation to my position barely distracted. I was gliding on a cloud in heaven with nary engine sound nor fume. The sporadic puff of fecal odor could not disturb my inner peace. I did not know if Dad would share my fascination with the dogs’ secondary talent, but I surmised he’d reach transcendence either way. The gaping grin affixed to his face as they glided into the parking area validated that prediction.
We entertained my parents through the rest of the week by treating them to an assortment of scenic attractions highlighting the glamour of Park City and rustic charm of surrounding areas, all the while touting the depth and range of our new homeland’s appeal. As we prepared dinner in the Harvest Gold kitchen of our rented mobile home the night before they were scheduled to fly back to Pennsylvania, Dad admitted that nothing matched the allure of the dog-sled ride. His words of confession, to those of us familiar with the feeling, were superfluous.
The next day, the mobile home fell silent in the absence of its guests, affording ample time to ruminate on the state of my affairs. In six months, I’d found neither cultural comfort zone nor social solidarity in Utah. This wasn’t something I had verbalized to my parents. At the age of twenty-eight, my relationship with them had yet to strike an emotionally supportive balance. Chemically induced clashes of will with my mother and note-card driven lectures by my father in response to any manner of irresponsible teenaged behavior (I tried most on for size) had driven me to silence through the better part of high school. It wasn’t until I left for college and found my confidence in academic success that we forged respectable relationship terms. This included conversation, albeit mostly intellectual. I knew they were not pleased about my choice to move with Nick, but eliciting further judgment through discussion seemed counterproductive. So I smiled while Nick and I showcased the area for my parents, and we talked about the high-desert weather that, we all agreed, seemed too perfect to be true.
That spring, Nick told me about his ideal scenario. “How great would it be to own land on Strawberry Ridge?” he’d say to me periodically. “I could build a house with a dog kennel, and run tours right out of the back yard.” Though certain the question was rhetorical, I could not stop myself from imagining such a home in a remote area of the wilderness with no one around but the dogs. The fantasy prompted me to mention once in casual conversation at work that I enjoyed the company of the sled dogs more than I did most people.
“Well, they don’t talk back,” one coworker quipped, leaving me spinning in rapid-reply impotence. Is she saying I lack tolerance for the beliefs and opinions of others because I enjoy the company of animals who can’t talk? I wondered after a moment. As the retaliation window slid shut in my stunned silence, I recalled other times I’d failed to trump someone’s jab with a clever response. My talent, to my life-long dismay, lay not in snappy comebacks, but in long-term analysis. I pondered the insults people hurled at me long after they’d hit their mark. This one, in particular, proved to be quite thought provoking.
One of Nick’s sled dogs had fallen ill earlier in the year. When I walked into the kennel on that Saturday afternoon, I saw the dog’s eyelids at half-mast and noted the way his once perky ears lay limp, now parallel to the ground. I watched his head hover at shoulder level as if his collar were loaded with lead, and I knew in an instant he was sick. He did not verbalize his feelings, but the message in his demeanor was clear. I knelt beside him, and he leaned his body into mine then gazed into my eyes. The English language would have served no better in communicating the desperation I recognized. Without words, that dog spoke to my heart, an epiphany destined to remain subconscious in the absence of my coworker’s remark.
My thought train continued on its tracks to consider the complex communication processes that took place within the canine pack. Sans human intervention, I’d seen the dogs quickly and innately find their positions to form a fully functional team. This amazing feat would not be possible without communication. As I’d never witnessed the formation or experienced the existence of a fully functional human team, it seemed to me that dogs communicated more effectively than people, “talking” notwithstanding.
Having arrived at this triumphant conclusion, I overcame the sting of my coworker’s comment. Shortly thereafter, I approached her with a graphic design idea. At the adjacent desk, I overheard Lena, another graphic designer, ask John, a member of the sales team, if he wore the “holey underwear,” and I turned my head in time to see John smirk in lieu of a reply.
“Wait a minute,” I said, abandoning one conversation to perform a hostile takeover of the other. “Why would anyone wear holey underwear?” I envisioned a one-piece cotton garment hanging in dilapidated rags off someone’s body.
“It’s a Mormon thing,” Lena replied. “John is a steak leader.” I briefly wondered what the role of “steak leader” might entail but felt the need to first attend to the holey underwear order of business. Did the Mormons consider holey underwear to be a sign of humility? I wondered. Did they have to wear the same underwear every day, until it became holey?
“But why does it have to be holey?” I continued after a thoughtful pause.
“I have no idea,” Lena said. “It’s just what they have to wear. It’s supposed to protect them I guess.”
“But how would something with holes in it protect anything?” I still didn’t get it. Lena burst into laughter.
“No, it isn’t holey! It’s holy—like blessed!” she said.
“Oh!” I forced a communal laugh rather than proceeding with questions about the steak leader position.
In time, the art of active listening, as opposed to blatant questioning, would enlighten me to the fact that the term “stake” referred to a division of the church and not, as I had surmised, a juicy slab of beef. When this information revealed itself, somewhere in the middle of a typical workday, a smile usurped my face. At the same time, I wondered if I’d ever relate to the people and customs in my new town.
This is home now, I thought, glancing at the phone on my desk. My smile faded as a lump swelled in my throat. Though I had no idea what I’d say, I felt the sudden urge to talk to my parents. Instead of picking up the receiver, I returned my gaze to the computer screen, where the clock in the menu bar displayed the time remaining in my workday. I hoped the Utah sunlight would persist long enough to afford a late afternoon visit with my surrogate family of sled dogs.
Tara Caimi is an independent writer and editor based in central Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University, and her work has been published in journals and magazines including the Writer’s Chronicle and Fire & Knives. Excerpts from her full-length memoir, Mush: The Scenic Detour of a Life, have also been published in The MacGuffin, and Oh Comely magazine.