The Way John Would Go.
There are stories of grizzly bears who wake up in the middle of their hibernation, stumbling around in the snow swept forest. Perhaps hungry, still in dream. I imagine their lumbering bodies casting dark angular shadows as they interrupt branches of moonlight glinting through the bare fingers of larch. After wandering a bear might return back to their den or their dream-walk might end by laying down beneath a new tree or rock ledge for the remainder of winter.
Modern humans, animals ourselves, it seems may have the strangest relationship to the“outdoors.” Why climb mountains? Why go to far away land that we often have no connection to? Why the obsession with external beauty, both of land and body? Why should the hardships faced on expeditions justify superiority? Why do we romanticize leaving home, rather than learning the names of the trees and plants closest to our beds? Why is it such a big deal to be the first one to do something? Why is crushing and conquering often more valued than nurturing and relating?
I recently heard someone say, the answer to today's question is tomorrows’ prison. It is true. Life is constant change, and it is a delusional path of suffering to seek static answers. The benefit of a question is not the answer, but the way curiosity orients our lives towards expansion rather than contraction.
Historically in Minnesota (where I live), January is the coldest month of the year. Since 2019, the high point of each January has been riding the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon with a group of friends on fat bikes. Our journey follows approximately 200 miles of snowmobile trail (the sled dog race route) up in the shoulders of the sawtooth mountains, whose lip defines the western edge of Lake Superior.
The most profound part the journey, besides being on the trail at the same time as the dog teams, is when we stop about 100 miles in at the Sawbill check point to volunteer, (stay up all night) helping as many as 25 mushers settle their teams in for a mandatory four hour rest, after which we help them get back out on the trail, before doing the same with our sleepless selves.
The Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was named after an Anishinaabe man, John Beargrease, who delivered mail between Duluth and Grand Portage, MN, by dogsled. As the story goes he won the bid for the mail route each year by throwing out the lowest number. I did not know John, and the sense I get is that while some of his motivation was certainly towards a paycheck, being where you love to be, doing what you love to do, is never only about money.
This year on our ride the temps were warm, making the trail slow and soft. At one point we decided to take a forest service road that was plowed. In leaving the trail, my friend Alexandera said, “I am pretty sure John would have gone this way!”
As the four of us pedaled down the road, four chickadees darted in and out of the spruce boughs ahead of us, playing, as if they were dolphins riding the pressure wave of our invisible boat. From that moment on, “I am pretty sure John would have gone this way!” became a playful statement within our group, acknowledging that a route is not fixed but rather something you adjust as you go. A passageway through oneself in relationship to the land.
It’s exhausting to find your value in hardship and constant struggle. The same things we learn from pain we can also learn from joy. I know, that’s a cliche, but it seems there are an awful lot of people out there trying to suffer their way to enlightenment.
On the Beargrease we spend a large percentage of our time in the dark. It makes you appreciate the light. Riding self supported and existing entirely outside for long stretches of time without shelter reminds the body of its capacity for adaptation. I am often left wondering, when I return home to the city, what is crazier, living in and with the cold, or going in and out of temperature controlled buildings and automobiles improperly dressed all day long?
At this point I am unable to imagine a new year without the Beargrease ride, any less than I can imagine life without the questions and experiences which continue to thicken the continuum of mutuality and relationship in my life.
What happens if we aren’t motivated by outcome, by the highest bid, or speed, but by what might emerge from curiosity and relationality? What incredibly profound spaces might we find ourselves in if we spend more time dream-walking between dens like the bears, than we do trying to be the first one at the top of the mountain?