So, Alaska is a HUGE state, but a small town. The entire state is a small town. There aren't that many people up here, relatively speaking, so it's amazing how often you know someone who knows someone. Or you just get to know someone yourself. The alleged "famous" in AK are just thick on the ground some days, it seems.
Anyone who follows mushing at all (and even a few who don't) will have heard of a number of people I've had as clients (past and present) and/or have met any number of times. Martin Buser, Jeff King, Karen Ramstead, Dee Dee Jonrowe, the Reddington dynasty (I met Joe and Vi before they died, and know some of their children and grandchildren), Libby Riddles, Charlie Boulding, Vern Halter, John Baker, Linwood Feidler, the incomparable Lance Mackey.... and many more, lesser-known outside Alaska, but still remarkable athletes and mushers in their own right. And there are others, related to mushing but not themselves mushers, like Hobo Jim. I've been to Hobo Jim concerts in the Knik Bar (and let me tell you, that's a hell of a show, for anyone who hasn't sen him in person; he's an amazing vocalist and an even more amazing guitarist). I've chatted with him and had him sign one of his CDs for me. One of my clients owns River, the blind sled dog from the books. Another is better known as Dusty Sourdough (also from the books, not to mention the stage show at the Sourdough Mining Company.) Shadow Spirit, the dog from the books, was one of my patients until her death. One of my clients wrote Danger the Dog Yard Cat the and Storm Run and was the first woman ever to win Iditarod. Several clients have been on TV, starring in commercials. Some of them have rubbed shoulders with Olympic greats (and some have rubbed a lot more than shoulders with them, as one pair of clients are the parents of an Olympic gold medalist.) One transient client probably knows a number of Hollywood's finest, as he trains wild animals for movie work. Some are amazing artists. Some are TV reporters.
Most of the time they seem like just folks, moseying on in to the clinic to do business as usual, and many of them I didn't know were famous until after I'd already kind of gotten used to them; when I first came to Alaska I wasn't versed on all the local "celebs" of mushing, and by the time I knew who many of them were, relative to their sport, I'd already blown my chance to get a thrill from just meeting them; they were already part of the fabric of life here, and at that point you really can't go back and be the starry-eyed awe-stricken fan meeting a legend for the first time. Oh, well; that might be for the best. You miss out on the thrill, but you also miss out on the opportunity to make a complete idiot of yourself. I find that I have plenty of opportunities to do that anyway. Open mouth, insert foot..... or else, just act like a complete geek. That's equally embarrassing, in retrospect.
Today, for instance, I go to take an appointment. I glance over the chart - a dog in for me to check his tail - and I happen to notice that the client's name is Gary Paulsen. Smiling to myself at the coincidence, I go into the room, where two men and a sled dog are waiting.
"So, we're here to take a look at his tail today?" I ask. The men nod, hoiking the dog up on the table for me to have a look. I inspect the wound, which unfortunately has enough skin missing that I'll be unlikely to be able to improve it with surgery. The owners detail the treatments they've done at home (antibiotics, begun the night before). We go over options, and I pause to update my chart notes.
"You know," I say, "I bet you've been told this before, but you have the same name as the writer of one of the funniest books I've ever read," I say to the older of the two clients.
"Really?" he says. "What's that?"
"Winterdance," I say.
The client nods. "That's me," he says.
"I'm sorry?" I say, not sure that I've just heard him tell me he's THAT Gary Paulsen.
"I wrote that," he says, matter-of-factly. There's no trace of boast, no pridefulness, just an admission of fact.
"Really?" I ask. "I'm going to have to get your autograph before you leave," I tell him. He gives me a sort of half-smile, shyly pleased. "I have to tell you, " I add, "That one scene, where you're about to take your team on a training run and you have the gang line tied to your bicycle, and the dogs are starting to pull and the gangline is starting to thrum like a just-plucked guitar string and you're just starting to think, "Hmmm, maybe this isn't the best idea..." right before the dogs snap the brake line and you go rocketing out the driveway... that's one of the funniest things I've ever read. "
Mr. Paulsen nods. "I never did find all the pieces of the bike," he says. I can't help it. I laugh.
"Well, it was one of the funniest things I've ever read," I say. "I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe and tears were running down my face - and I couldn't stop."
"Well," he says, smiling, "thank you."
"I should be thanking you," I tell him. "I'm grinning my head off just thinking about it now. It's given me a lot of pleasure over the years. I enjoyed the book enough that I bought a copy for my Dad - his own copy, not just recycling mine, because I think when you read something that good you should honor the author by buying a second copy for the person you want to share it with. I think he enjoyed it enough that he passed it on to my brother."
"That was one of the funny ones," he allows. ONE of the funny ones? I quickly quiz him on other titles that he thought were funny; he mentions Harris and Me.
"That's a bunch of stories about how this friend of mine and I got into all kinds of trouble on the farm when we were kids, one thing after another," he says, shaking his head. "Sometimes I don't know how we lived through all the stuff we used to get up to."
That's it. I have to see if I can find a copy of Harris and Me. And maybe Hatchet, which he also mentions. [Here I must also advise you that if you have not read Winterdance, you really really should. It's an honest and highly readable account of mushing and the Iditarod in its earlier days. And remember... laughing so hard you can't breathe.]
We finish up making a plan for the dog, I shave the hair away from around his wound (which he is very patient about), and we go up front where I get a piece of letterhead (since it's nice cotton bond paper, not the plain old typing paper that we use for most everything else.) Mr. Paulsen makes a little autograph written out to me. I depart for the back and the cases waiting for me there, thanking Mr. Paulsen again for all the enjoyment he's given me over the years from his writing, and telling him most sincerely that it's been a real pleasure to meet him. "And you,"I add to his companion, a gent named Leo, "although I didn't have as much to say about your writing," I add, with a grin.
"Leo's working on it, " Mr. Paulsen says. "He writes, too."
"Well, keep at it and bring me in a copy," I tell him.
I take my autograph back to my office and carefully stash it on a shelf, humming to myself. I think: Hmmm, maybe I can get a copy of Harris and Me and then call Mr. Paulsen up and suggest he might need a recheck for his sled dog, and by the way, could you inscribe this book for me...?
See? I'm telling you. A complete geek.