On the Balance of Confidence: What hope looks like in January


Willie Jr went into the sled bag on Friday after 19 miles. His head had started bobbing slightly, and I stopped the team right away and snacked them. Pulling and kneading on the little guy’s shoulder didn’t reveal much, but I put him in the sled bag all the same, assuming it was a transfer of him favoring his rear foot that traveled to his front shoulder. As we finished the run, I saw Hawkeye stumble slightly, I had been running him without booties and he had acquired an ice piece between his toe and he screamed when I rubbed it later that night. Those two are part of the 10 solid dogs, who have been on every run and had no injuries in varied conditions from hard pack to ice to deep soft snow. To see them fumble was shaky. 


And then my tractor shut down, the fuel gelled with cold and the filter clogged.


My truck has this persistent roar that starts at 50 MPH.


A storm of 12-18” is over us, right now.


Monday I pick up the rental trailer, and do my best to prepare it for livability during a race that is forecasting highs below zero.


Sitting in my driveway, I felt small and tired and sick.


‘But you’re Sally,’ Chuck said. ‘You can do anything!’


January is a tough time of year, in the rhythm of dog racing. The dogs have enough miles where they are ready to race, and sometimes they get a bit fruity if we aren’t racing yet. It’s been five months of long days, of running the dogs for six hours and then working for 8 more, or working for 7 hours and then running the dogs into the night, switching from task to task to task. It’s the next grant application, the next conference call, the next piece of paperwork, the next complex project negotiation, the load of wood to come inside or the dinner I still have to cook for my family, but also designing new ways to keep Vega from vomiting or wondering what happened to Zippo’s shoulder. My body is tough. My brain and heart are tired.

December brought some rocks and shifts to the confidence I have. The sudden death of Wembley has echoes, has me fearing the sudden death of any member of the team. Hawkeye was quiet during feeding and I honestly expected to see him on the ground, and I watch Aurora to make sure she’s breathing when she’s socked out by the woodstove. The sudden breakdown of the truck, the alternator failing and the engine shutting down, has me overly concerned about every creak and wobble, about the possibility of an exploding clutch or a tire flying off. 


There are fears that I don’t possess, that I have moved past. I wear a helmet because my sled flipped and I hit my head on a rock, the scar on my temple a constant reminder of the 21 stitches and the concussion. Flicking through the list of things that make me worried, one thing I do not worry about is flipping a sled. Knowing that I’ve grown past that fear and rebuilt that trust gives me hope, hope that continuing to move forward in the world will give me the time to regain that confidence. And while I have persistently frost nipped my hands to the point of my skin swelling and my fingers tough and rigid (not easy to type these days), I have no fear of that deep cold that awaits on the Beargrease trail.

Experience is not a slow accumulation of brazen confidence, at least not for me. It is a cycle, of things falling apart and then coming back together, falling apart and then coming back together. I have come to find that I can both be undone and together at the same time, the things that are together giving the solid ground to face what has come undone. It is really hard when the balance of confidence tips, sometimes, towards being undone. It is especially true when facing a new challenge, the first new race I’ve entered in three years.

When the calendar flips over, I find myself re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s book of essays, Hope in the Dark. A slim volume that chronicles the difference between hope and optimism, that lays out the slow pace of change and the butterfly effect between action, time, and growth.


‘To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.

I say all this because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should show you out the door…Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed…the German philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote, “The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.” To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.’


There are three days until I sit in the driver’s seat of the truck and point the nose west towards Minnesota, 13 dogs, one Elissa Gramling, and well over a thousand pounds of meat and kibble and gear in tow. I signed up for this race, for this wild challenge, partially because of the energy at work in the team this year, but also because I had accumulated just enough confidence to prepare myself to become undone. Hope in the dark, as things fall apart.


I’ll be chronicling the team members’ strengths individually via our social media, but here are the 13 dogs slated to jump in the truck on January 23rd: 


Leaders/ Front End: Ariel, Aurora, Willie Nelson Jr, Fanzine, Gem

Middle/ Team: Hilde, Victor Hugo, Rocky, Inferno, Hawkeye

Wheel: Loki and Oriana Fallaci

13th Dog: Vega



Ellie and Zippo have acquired, unfortunately, season-ending shoulder injuries. Nibbler fell in a moose hole and should be back for the Can Am 250. Egan has struggled all season with driving too hard and managing his pace. 


You can track the race in real time, via the Beargrease website. Race starts on Sunday January 27th. 

Sally Manikian