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This Much Country
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That winter, she learned that she was tougher than she ever knew. She learned how to survive in one of the most remote places on earth and she learned she was strong enough to be alone. She fell in love twice: first with running sled dogs, and then with Andy, a gentle man who had himself moved to Alaska to heal a broken heart.
Kristin and Andy married and started a sled dog kennel. While this work was enormously satisfying, Kristin became determined to complete the Iditarod — the 1,000-mile dogsled race from Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast.
THIS MUCH COUNTRY is the story of renewal and transformation. It’s about journeying across a wild and unpredictable landscape and finding inner peace, courage and a true home. It’s about pushing boundaries and overcoming paralyzing fears.
Yukon Quest Trail
Where Woodchopper Creek met the Yukon River, blown snow whipped across the ice like big white sheets curling and unfurling on a mile-long clothesline. Trail markers lay like fallen soldiers, splintered by the dogsleds that had come through before me. We were traveling on the frozen Yukon River, and I was in the first stages of a gripping panic. Miles ago, Lance and his team had been just ahead of me. But now they were a long, dark ghost in the far distance, already across the entire river valley from us. The next team was a day behind us, and the trail was disappearing. At the head of my twelve-dog team, my lead dog Solo hopscotched from one patch of snow to the next, linking them together over slippery, wind-polished glare ice peppered with sharp shale. His nose was to the ground as he sniffed for the scent of teams who had come before us, giving him hints about where to go. But the wind was blowing away their trail one gust at a time. It was a chinook—incessant and warm, heralding a new weather system that was sweeping in and erasing the extreme cold of the past week. My giant white windbreaker flapped loudly, whipping against my body, catching air like a sail. But as we hugged turns in the river and thus became sheltered from the wind, last week’s remnant −40°F cold seeped up from the Yukon—a bitter reminder of the fickle flux of this place. Alongside the frozen ramparts of jagged, jammed-up ice, the dogs’ ears perked up and they stared down at the trail. Out of the wind, it was quiet enough that they could hear water pulsing a few feet below us, under the ice. It was frightening, and I imagined my sled crashing through the ice and falling into the river. And now that Lance was leaving me behind, there would be no one to help us. Ahead, the Yukon was a cracked and expansive sea, claiming the entire landscape.
As Lance’s team surged and disappeared into the distance, my team kept stopping for one reason or another. The dogs found prior teams’ snacks on the ground and stopped to chew them out of the ice. They mouthed their booties, ripping off the Velcro fasteners, and the booties had to be replaced. They played with their partners and then got tangled. I became unreasonably short with them, telling them we needed to keep up. I began panicking about falling too far behind and being alone. The more I worried, the less motivated the dogs became. I stopped and pulled on my parka, realizing a reset was needed as the insidious cold infiltrated my layers. Attitude was everything, and I knew that I needed to believe in my dogs. And seven hundred miles into a one-thousand-mile race, I had no reason not to. We had all gotten ourselves this far, hadn’t we?
As the sun descended behind a gunmetal wall of lenticular clouds, shards of light glowed on the distant mountains behind us. But for us, it would be into the dark. Into the clouds and into the wind. For us, it would never be the easier of two ways. Hadn’t I learned by now that nothing worth doing was easy? The dogs faced forward as another gust ruffled their fur. They were silent, patient, composed, self-possessed. They were on an adventure. They were on a new trail. They were not scared. I looked at my sled and saw that it had everything we needed to survive out here. Everything I had learned in an entire lifetime was within my power. I was capable. We needed no one.
I stood on the runners of my sled and looked forward. I snugged my fleece neck gaiter up around my nose and it smelled like my unbrushed teeth, raw meat, dog shit. Before us stretched some of the most lonesome country on earth. It was huge and thrilling, and we were a part of it. An understanding rippled like a current from the dogs to me, and from me back to them. Without a word, they jolted forward, leaning into their harnesses as we glided into the coming night. The only witnesses to our silent transformation were the wolves who traveled wraithlike on the periphery, welcoming us in their way to a lone wildness.
Before there was Alaska, there was Alfred.
I was eighteen years old and madly in love with a boy I’d never met.
The first thing I loved about Alfred was his handwriting. The angular letters written by a man’s hand that spelled out my name. The sign-offs in swift, half-print half-cursive. The whimsical, swaying “A.” After six months of letter writing, the envelopes now came addressed to hilarious nicknames: Kristin “Strawberry Thunder” Knight. Kristin “Big Panties” Knight. I’d rush to the door every day when the mailman came, hoping to see a letter addressed to me from Montana, and later, Washington. Craving the next dispatch of a vagabond lifestyle I had never known. I was a senior in high school who lived with my siblings and my parents in the suburbs in Fort Worth, Texas. And Alfred’s stories of getting drunk and crawling into manholes with his buddies, running from the cops in purple climbing shoes, competitively racing mountain bikes in the Cascades, and climbing peaks in Glacier National Park’s majestic backcountry painted the picture of a life I wanted to experience. He pulled me in like a magnet.
Here’s what I knew of Alfred: He was five years older than me. He loved the Montana sky. He was Native American—his mother was Tlingit and his father was Sioux—and he had brown hair and heavy-lidded, blue-green eyes. He was self-conscious about the eczema that dappled his abdomen and about the extra weight he had gained over the winter but confident about his sense of humor and his outdoor skills. He had tattoos that were intricate and meaningful—parts of his heritage. He had friends who let him sleep on their couch and they had a weekly poker game. They called him Fredo.
I knew all of these things even though I had never heard his voice.
Some months into our correspondence, he called me from a pay phone somewhere in Montana. I imagined him sitting on a sun-washed curb, chrome cable hanging stiffly down from the blue “Public Phone” box; wind shuffling long, green blades of sweetgrass; mountains far in the distance, painted against a robin’s egg–blue sky. Semitrucks pulled in and out of gas station pumps, bound for North Dakota or Seattle. My heart pumped hard as I strained to make sense of it. A stranger’s voice. “Where are you off to next? I’m out of change, I’ll send you a letter. I’ll call again, as soon as I can.”
After nearly a year of contact, we were in love. I love you, he had said on one of his nightly phone calls. And I laughed in disbelief. “Say it again.”
“Kristin, I love you.”
“I love you, too! I can’t believe this is happening!”
One night after dinner I told my parents that I planned to move to Montana to be with Alfred in May, right after I graduated from high school.
This news crushed my parents. They didn’t yet know that I had received a scholarship to the University of Denver as well as admission into the prestigious Pioneer Leadership Program. I had hidden the acceptance letter in my sock drawer. How could I move to Denver when Alfred was waiting for me in Montana? We were already planning to live together in a log cabin outside Missoula, by the Blackfoot River. College was overrated anyway, Alfred had said. Alfred had many opinions.
My parents knew everything I knew about Alfred, starting with the fact that we had met on the Internet. One of my girlfriends had found him on the then popular site hotornot.com, wherein you rate photos of people on a scale of 10 (hot) to 1 (not). Alfred’s photo was most definitely a 10 in my opinion. A blue-eyed, dark-skinned boy with brown hair and a blue bandanna wrapped Rambo-style around his head, taking a break on a mountain trail so carved out and steep and snow-covered it didn’t look real. I printed the photo out and tucked it away in my journal. I looked at it every day. Nothing else about the end of high school mattered, because I had this secret mountain man writing me letters and talking to me late into the night.
My mom was adamant that we should at least meet in person before I threw my future away for a stranger. He could be a serial killer, she warned. Or a fifty-year-old man. She convinced me that he should fly down to Texas the weekend before my high school graduation. In return, I’d fly back to Seattle with him and stay at his parents’ house for a few days. But before any of this could happen, my mom wanted to speak to his mom on the phone. After she dialed, I hid in the hallway around the corner, heart racing.
“This is her first big crush,” she said.
I was mortified. But he really was coming to Texas. In three weeks.
My palms were sweating as I walked into the baggage claim terminal at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. It was May and the temperatures were soaring somewhere in the 90s, the sun whitewashing the miles of concrete that made up the airport grounds. I was so nervous I couldn’t even look at the passengers coming in to claim their luggage. Instead, I turned around and looked out the window. I was wearing a red Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirt and my favorite bootcut jeans. My sister Jordan had straightened my strawberry blond hair and advised me on my makeup choices. “Don’t wear lip gloss,” she warned. “It looks so slimy and unnatural.” My heart thrummed and I wiped my palms on my thighs. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around, straight into his arms. I wrapped my arms around his backpack and buried my face in his shoulder. He was trembling. Later he would say, “You were so beautiful. I never thought anyone so beautiful could love me.”
* * *
Six days after graduation, I was on the road. The plan was to drive from Texas to Montana, stopping at various points along the way to stay with friends and family. Mom and Dad had a travel agent print out a road map with my route highlighted. They had me write down important contact information and addresses. I loaded my black Nissan XTerra with duffel bags of hiking clothes and gear, an ice ax wedged between the driver and passenger seats (for protection against strangers, and also for traveling across steep snowfields in Glacier National Park). I said good-bye to the three of my seven siblings who still lived at home. Before I got in the car, Dad made me demonstrate that I could remove and then replace a tire. I had a blue bandanna wrapped Rambo-style around my head.
The route I took was indirect. It led me out of Fort Worth toward the barren desert of West Texas. With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers blasting at full volume, I drove exactly the speed limit down a sunny, white, two-lane highway outside Jacksboro. I noticed a dark figure making its way across the road and was surprised to find it was a giant tarantula. I snacked on Oh’s cereal, cheese pretzels, and animal crackers so I wouldn’t have to stop at a restaurant. I felt so peaceful and free on the open road, full of intention knowing I was embarking on a journey to the frontier of my known world.
I crossed part of New Mexico, past the volcanic cone of Mt. Capulin where I was forced to pull over in a swirl of dust and sand as a dirt devil swept the highway, red taillights diving for the shoulders all around me. At the Colorado state line I was convinced a black bird with a red ribbon on its wing was following me—a sort of guardian angel. Every hour or so, the bird would dart and soar alongside my car, and I didn’t feel alone. In South Fork, Colorado, I arrived at a friend’s cabin on the Rio Grande. We rode horses around his family ranch and then drove to a Laundromat where I washed my laundry in a machine that wasn’t my parents’ for the first time in my life. I continued north to Glenhaven, Colorado, outside Estes Park, where my childhood friend Liz agreed to meet me. She and I were going to drive across desolate Wyoming together—an absolutely nonnegotiable stipulation mandated by my mother. Liz and I had met at camp when we were fourteen, drawn together by our love of horses. Now she was a firefighter who worked for the Forest Service. She had wrangled a few days off to travel with me, but then unexpectedly got sent out on a fire. I would have to drive two days across Wyoming and Montana alone. I debated if I should tell Mom. “Maybe I’ll tell her after I get up there,” I wrote in my journal.
Two days later, I arrived. I wrote,
The days are really flying by and already I find myself in Babb, Montana! I honestly can’t believe I got myself here—HOLY SHIT! What a drive. I have finally reached a semi-permanent destination. Alfred had no idea I was going to be here today and I think he was really surprised. We just kissed and held each other for a few hours and then he had to go to work. I finally had a meal! It’s been days and I was pretty damn hungry.
Also, many times, usually in cursive purple gel pen, I Love Alfred!
The summer wasn’t anything like I expected. I had never before had a job working long hours on my feet. I had never really been on my own. I lived with Alfred in a one-room log cabin behind Two Sisters Café, where he had gotten me a job as a hostess. We had technically only known each other in person for six days, and we were living together. The electricity came on and off; his grandmother died and we drove to her funeral on the Lake Traverse reservation in South Dakota where I met Alfred’s entire family; a forest fire swept through within a quarter-mile of the café and we all got evacuated while the owner, drunk and in his underwear and backlit by flames, waved a bottle of tequila in the parking lot and screamed, “I’m going down with the ship!” Alfred and I got into our car, a stray dog in his lap, and drove to the group campsite where all the employees of the restaurant would stay that night. Driving down the highway, we witnessed the hellish scene of the entire mountainside on fire. Alfred, completely devastated, began to cry. His home, his love, was being destroyed. And he could do nothing.
Everyone thought I was twenty-four years old and I never got carded in the bars, which all sat on the Blackfoot Indian reservation bordering Glacier. I watched fights break out almost nightly, and had my first sip of Black Butte Porter. It was fun pretending to be older than I was, but also I felt a yearning to be back on the road, exploring. Now that Alfred and I were finally together, I felt guilty about wanting to be alone, so I stifled my wanderlust. I had always said I’d never give up my dreams for anyone or anything. But what about love? This love is not something I can pass up. This is it. Help me find pleasant compromises.
We spooked grizzly bears, went out drinking, hitchhiked on the highway, and took in stray dogs. I bought huge bags of cheap kibble and fed up to ten dogs at a time from cereal bowls on the front porch of our cabin. One of them was a six-month-old pup with a thick tan, white, and black coat and amber brown eyes ringed with black eyeliner. He was unsure of himself and wary of humans, so we fell in love with him the hardest. His name, we discovered, was Maximus. Someone had given him a name and then let him wander the highway to prey on small mammals for his meals, in addition to the bacon we snuck him from the back door of the café. It took us two months of feeding him until he finally gained the courage to cross the threshold of our cabin. He lay down under a table and fell asleep. Alfred sat down on the floor beside him and slowly reached out his hand, tentatively running his fingers along the shiny, thick fur of Maximus’s side. Maximus lifted his head and looked at Alfred, then laid his head back down on the floor with a sigh. Alfred looked at me, both our eyes wide with disbelief. We held our breath, trying to stay as still as possible.
“He’s so soft,” Alfred whispered.
We decided that day that Maximus would leave Glacier with us at the end of the summer. He was nearly feral, for sure, but also he was fragile. Even though he could face down grizzly bears, we felt he still needed our protection. And also, we were the only humans he trusted.
For the rest of the summer, in between adventures, I wrote in my journal. “I miss the solitary independence of the road.” And also, “He told me the other day that he almost asked me to marry him that night with the amazing sunset. I would have said yes.”
* * *
Alfred and I moved to Denver so I could attend DU for at least one year—something I had promised my parents before I left for Montana—but we couldn’t tolerate city life and ended up moving back the following summer. I transferred to the University of Montana and began pursuing a degree in photojournalism.
Maximus sometimes accompanied me on walks to class. We would hike two miles from home, along the dirt trail beside the Clark Fork River, to the university. I carried a leash in my hand, but Maximus and I were working on building trust. Moving freely, he would walk beside me, watching my face, and I would hold his gaze. He would lower his ears and swish his tail, eyes on my feet and not stepping a paw ahead of me. If a squirrel ran across our path, he would be off in a flash of Tigger-style bounciness, fluffy tail sticking straight up in the air, its white tip bobbing.
“Maximus!” I would yell after him. Then, more quietly and with a low rumble in my voice, “Come here. Right. Now.”
He would turn to look at me, brown eyes drooping guiltily, and walk back to me very slowly. One paw in front of the other. Maximus yearned for his independence, too.
It had taken a bit of convincing for our prospective landlords in Missoula to allow us to have a dog. I wrote a handwritten letter to the owners of our dream rental house on Walnut Street—a quaint two-room cottage with white clapboard siding and hunter green window frames that matched the shingles on the roof. It had dark, shiny hardwood floors and magnificent, leafy maple trees out front. I included a photo of Maximus—he was irresistible. With his black eyeliner and Eeyore facial expressions, his deep brown eyes so full of love and longing. How could they possibly say no?
After a week of back and forth, the owners agreed we could all move in with a hefty pet deposit, which, of course, we never got back.
Maximus made good friends at the Bark Park and occasionally, when he got a wild hair and ran away, we could find him there. But sometimes, he would jump the fence and disappear for days. We would search for him in the woods, on trails, down by Rattlesnake Creek, and rarely find him. Once we received a phone call from a man high up on Mt. Jumbo, a mountain just outside Missoula.
“Hello, I’m calling on behalf of Maximus,” he said.
Maximus had apparently taken up residence on the mountaintop, chasing the migrating elk herd, and had found this fellow and his dog to be worthy enough company that he approached them and let the guy read his name tag. Other times, Maximus would just show up back at home, reeking of carcass or covered in some kind of animal blood. He would lower his head and flatten his ears, his bushy tail swishing, knowing full-well the heartache he’d caused in his absence. His fleeing of civilization was something he just couldn’t help, and despite our frustration, Alfred and I understood the impulse.
Through the rest of my college years, Maximus and I traveled hundreds of miles together on foot. We hiked every canyon in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. We climbed the tallest peaks in the Bitterroot Range. We scrambled on boulders and padded over beds of Ponderosa pine needles, opening our nostrils and breathing in the wild woods. We were in the process of developing a silent language, full of body postures and eye contact, and another sense that I wouldn’t be able to verbalize for many years. Once, while we sauntered up a rocky trail in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, Maximus just stopped. My body reacted to him before my mind did, and all the hairs on the back of my neck raised and my skin prickled. Maximus stood squared to something out of sight. Hackles up, he did not make a sound, but I knew he was telling me not to move. Telling me to stay back. After minutes of stillness, we turned around and scurried back down the trail from whence we had come. Later, I read about a mountain lion stalking the trails of the Rattlesnake and I felt such awe for brave Maximus and the danger he’d deterred.
The summer after I graduated from UM, I landed a summer internship in Alaska, working at the Denali National Park Sled Dog Kennels. I’d developed an insatiable love for dogs while documenting working dogs for a thesis project—a coffee table book that displayed the talents of agility dogs, search and rescue dogs, Karelian Bear Dogs, and seeing eye dogs trained by inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison. When Karen, the Denali National Park Kennels manager, offered me a job, it felt like a door opening into a whole new world of dogginess.
It was 2006. I had a lot of outdoor experience but never in any place like Alaska. I had spent every summer from age twelve to seventeen at an outdoor adventure camp outside Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. For weeks, I would live in a covered wagon with three other girls, breathing the outside air even as I slept. There were less than a hundred girls at camp, all middle and high school aged, and we all agreed on a code of living for the summer that we ourselves crafted. We would be honest, courageous, selfless. We treated each other like sisters. We were each other’s role models, partners, and friends. And the counselors who taught us were women not too much older than we were—women in their twenties who still had plenty to learn themselves, but we looked to them as though they were the heroes of our childhoods. At camp we practiced not only how to care for and ride horses, but also how to pack them up with a week’s worth of gear and lead them into the wilderness in a long, sinuous string. We not only waterproofed our hiking boots, but also we pulled each other up fourteen-thousand-foot mountains, fearless for one another. We learned how to repair backpacks and stoves, and also how to live completely self-sufficiently in the mountains for up to five days at a time. Camp made it OK for girls to have the perilous journeys. For girls to have the adventures and the camaraderie of the trail described in books we all grew up reading. Books written by men.
Most mornings at camp started with the voice of one of our counselors yelling, “It’s a beautiful day in Colorado!” and ringing a bell at 7:15 a.m. Sometimes, a handful of us were awakened by our hiking counselors at 2:00 a.m. Feeling a jolt of anticipation, we put on our two layers of wool socks among a gaggle of other teenage girls lacing up their hiking boots, eating bowls of cereal in bleary-eyed silence. We were the ones who had signed up for an E.B. or “early breakfast” hike—one that required us to wake up in the middle of the night, drive to a trailhead and climb big peaks or hike long distances, and get back down below treeline by noon, when the summer storms would hit almost daily. We loaded into the big blue van in the dark, stuffing our backpacks in the back row. Then we’d travel down a dirt trail in a single file line, headlamps off, learning to feel and smell the wilderness, to let our eyes adjust. Learning to trust the girl ahead of us. We would climb Longs Peak, Mt. Merritt, or Pagoda. We would hike thirty miles and climb six peaks in one day. Later in life I would realize that all of the most badass things I had ever done required an early start, no decipherable sleep, and the jolt of adrenaline that came with knowing I was about to do something big. And even at the age of fourteen, I knew that death was an enemy I needed to keep close. Walking on fourteen-thousand-foot ridgelines with my friends while the lightning made our necklaces buzz and lit up the clouds in every different color electrified me and made me feel closer to danger and more alive than I ever had. It became an addiction. Or rather a purifying ritual.
Before I graduated college, I returned to camp to be a backpacking counselor and pass on my knowledge to a new generation of girls. Throughout my life I would return to wilderness again and again to set myself straight. And so with a certain breathlessness, I made my way to Alaska and started my new job at the kennels.
As a kennels park ranger, I greeted hundreds of visitors each day, where I showed them the National Park Service’s only working sled dog team. I told stories about the soughing of sled runners on new-fallen snow, the panting of the dogs and their frozen breath hanging in white puffs at thirty degrees below zero, the loneliness of the trail, the romance of the historic patrol cabins. That I’d never experienced any of these things firsthand did not stop me. After each talk I would hook up a small team and run them around a gravel track on a historic wooden freight sled on wheels. I enthusiastically answered people’s questions using knowledge memorized from a “Frequently Asked Questions” sheet Karen had given me, but also bits and pieces I had learned from the actual dog mushers—all women, incidentally—who worked alongside me at the kennel.
— Blair Braverman, author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube"THIS MUCH COUNTRY is the next best thing to stepping on the runners of your own dogsled. A gorgeous, intimate story of wildness and belonging."
— Leigh Newman, author of Still Points North"Kristin Knight Pace is an adventurer not because of her experience in the wild, dogsledding across the tundra, but because of her fearless approach to life. A bad marriage, a failed business, a betrayal-none of this keeps her from pursuing her Alaska dream. A brave story, beautifully told."
— Amy Shearn, author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far Is The Ocean fromHere"Reading This Much Country is an utterly transporting experience; Kristin Knight Pace writes about the Alaskan wilderness with the tenderness of a lover. An absolute page- turner for those who love wild places, dogs, adventure, and those who just wish they did, Pace's story will have you asking yourself what it means to really live a life."
- "This Much Country, ultimately, is a soul-warming story about setting goals, loving those you're with (including the dogs), and finding accomplishment and joy in every step of the way."— Anchorage Daily News
- "In her new memoir, This Much Country, Kristin Knight Pace writes movingly and candidly about the challenges she faced, and in so doing developed a renewed faith in her ability to take care of herself, no matter how daunting the circumstances."—Salon
- "This Much Country is an honest, heartfelt, and exciting memoir and a must-read for all nature lovers seeking a glimpse into a truly Alaskan adventure."—Booklist (starred review)
- "An intriguing account of one woman's quest to redefiner herself in a land that mirrors her own wild spirit. Will appeal to a multitude of readers, particularly fans of Cheryl Strayed's Wild."—Library Journal (starred review)
- "A vibrant memoir of sled dog racing in the wilds of Alaska. Much of the memoir recounts Pace's training for and racing in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, both exhausting, exhilarating, and, as Pace depicts them, glorious feats. A buoyant evocation of a thrilling, hardscrabble life."—Kirkus
- "Pace is candid about life in the frozen north, and her self-awareness makes this a worthy addition to the outdoor adventure genre."—Publisher's Weekly
- "[Kristin] doesn't gloss over the tough parts of Alaskan life: isolation, no running water, almost total darkness in wintertime. But her journalist's eye for detail is strongest when she writes about racing itself and describes the personalities of her beloved dogs. Her descriptions of the wide, wild country will captivate readers, even those who are not wilderness-inclined."—Shelf Awareness
- On Sale
- Mar 10, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing