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Son of the coolest woman in the universe

01/28/02 12:00AM By Philip Baruth

This past weekend my wife and I visited some friends outside Starksboro, and the idea was that we would have some homemade soup and take their dogsled and their team of Siberian Huskies out for a short run. It sounded simple enough going in, but things began to complicate almost immediately, the way things do.

We harnessed the dogs with no problem. I got on the sled, got my bearings, pulled up the snowhook and let off the brake. The huskies went insane, as they always do when you take off, we shot into the forest, and it all felt familiar again. But that's where the complications set in: there's a lot of time to think when you dogsled, and I began to think about things I hadn't thought about for forever.

My family used to run a kennel in Upstate New York called Little Siberia, and we bred huskies and my mother and I raced them on the weekends.

Now you have to understand, this was the early 70s and my mother was a stay-at-home mother, the wife of a traveling salesman raising four kids alone. She was, and is, a relatively tiny woman, dirty-blonde, 5'2" on a good day, maybe 115 pounds, and a little on the nervous side. She smoked because of her nerves, and she was the sort of woman who diligently searched women's magazines for exotic dishes to liven up the family table, things like Fish Hawaii and Beef Cantonese.

Two things happened almost simultaneously to this woman my mother in the early 70s: her marriage to my father began to come apart, and out of nowhere she took up dogsledding. And suddenly all of this energy that she'd been pouring into keeping the home had another focus, and the focusing of that energy was an amazing thing. Within a couple of years, our number of active sled-dogs tripled, with my mother going as far away as Canada to bring back a likely wheel-dog. Within those same two years, she taught herself not simply how to complete a fifteen-mile course, but how to race it, how to overtake other teams, how to use her smaller size to her advantage. And her five dog team, Bandit, Apache, Danny, Chinook, Cheyenne, those five dogs my mother used like a blackjack on the men in her class who thought she'd never finish in the money.

I saw my father less and less in those dogsledding days, but I saw more and more of my mother. I saw more of what she was capable of becoming.

There was one race in Cobleskill, New York -- I was thirteen years old, out on the course as a trail-hand, stationed at a particularly nasty downhill turn with two other older men. An early rain had frozen it over, and the turn was glassy, almost non-negotiable. Everyone who crested the hill lost control immediately, and it was my job to try to snag the sled when the driver came cartwheeling off.

We'd seen five or six people lose their teams when my mother's red down coat flashed through the trees. Seeing her head toward that impossible turn was like the feeling I'd had inside for months, watching her come to the end of her marriage and knowing that the crash had to come, the inevitable cartwheel off into space.

But what I couldn't have known at the time was that it was the early 70s and like a lot of women my mother had invisibly become something more than she was ever supposed to become, and she and her team cleared the woods and skated the turn in a heartbeat without any help from any of us standing and watching, and then she was off in the forest again, yelling desperately to the dogs like it meant something to win. And I remember thinking to myself that my mother would be all right no matter what happened, and that this was because she could take care of herself, and because she was the coolest woman in all of the known universe.

All of these things came back to me the other day on the trail outside of Starksboro, which isn't to say that it wasn't a wonderful time driving a team of huskies again. It was, but not simply wonderful - more like complexly wonderful.

--Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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