Cary was a simple woman. She often marveled at the needs of her contemporaries that seemed to crave so very much to create the illusion that they were happy -- fancy clothes, long cruises and big houses. They needed pools and bragging rights, art ownership and club membership. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with these things; she simply did want them or need them to define her.
If she wanted a day of unbridled contentment, Cary would cruise the thrift and consignment shops within a 50-mile radius of her modest home. Often she went with a friend. But just as often she went alone, seeking out a treasure of low-end but lovely vintage jewelry. She knew that she often overlooked other treasures as she poked among the beads and tangled chains of other people’s cast-offs so lately she had been schooling herself to rattle among the coat hangers for a pretty jacket or look on the shelves for a pleasing candle holder or vase for the flowers she grew in her garden. She rarely found anything she wanted. Often she came home with a desire to clean out her own congested cupboards and closets, to shed possessions instead of acquiring more.
She would frequently see something that reminded her of a friend or relative, living or dead. And she treasured these little trips into the psyche of the things that please. She believed utterly in the messages she found; a ceramic owl, a hummingbird pin, a ruby glass cardinal, a crystal angel -- each calling up a private and personal memory, a bit of wisdom or humor. She was reassured that her friends, past and present were with her even though she may be alone. These forays were almost spiritual, and they refreshed her in ways that were hard to explain to her family and friends.
Thus it was a startling thing that she found -- crammed in the back of a dusty shelf in a hole-in-the-wall consignment shop. While owls and angels are a common motif, a dog sled motif was decidedly rare. But there it was, tagged with a pasteboard ticket on a string looped around the neck of a carved soapstone musher. It was damaged -- one could see one dog’s muzzle was chipped, and the leading edge of the sled was rough with a broken spot. The tag read “as is.”
Cary knew immediately that this strange sculpture, imperfect as it was, was destined to go home with her. She knew mushers. And it just so happened that, at the moment, she was following the Iditarod, that iconic race through the Alaskan wilderness that was in its final grueling days. She was privy to some of their challenges and knew of their courage and, sometimes, their heartbreak. Like the little soapstone statue she held in her hands, sometimes they were hurt in the journey but still basically intact. Her mind drifted back almost 30 years to memories of her friend, Jason. He was a hardscrabble boy whose love of dog-powered sports started when he hooked up his mongrel, Bo, to his toboggan to gather maple sap in the waning days of Vermont winters. Back then, his knowledge of the word “mush” was solely of the gluey mash that he ate day after day for his morning repast. Now the word “mush” meant that the snow hooks that anchored his wooden sled to the ground were being released and the yipping, yowling pack of his beloved Siberian Huskies could hit the trail.
After all these years, Jason was training for the CopperBasin 300, a qualifying race for Iditarod dreamers. Cary knew, because of him, that this was a unique sport – really more of a lifestyle -- that it was ancient and elemental; a man and dogs mutually dependent. The whole purity of the endeavor was an anachronism in an era of social media, smart phones and beyond. What were her musher friends telling her now with this treasure showing up so unexpectedly in her hands at very end of the Iditarod? Why had they appeared on this dusty shelf in the form of a tiny soapstone trinket for her to find?
She pondered the message of perseverance in the face of heartbreak, of work and dreams and elemental connections as she climbed into her dusty car to head to the next thrift shop. But she knew that anything else from here on out would not compare to the tissue-wrapped treasure now in her purse.
The gods had already spoken for this day.