A Mad Writer’s Dash Down the Long White Trail

Gary Paulson on the Iditarod run.
Gary Paulson on the Iditarod run.

When writer Gary Paulsen ran his third Iditarod in Alaska, he carried with him a still camera that was especially adapted for the cold.  When he returned from that grueling dogsled race, he went to California, rented a sailboat and spent a month just healing in mind and body.

Then, Gary came to Branson at my invitation.  I had arranged for him to speak and show his slides at several high schools and at The School of the Ozarks (now called College of the Ozarks).  The first thing he did when I brought him to our home was to lie down in the middle of the living room floor and go to sleep.

He was still exhausted.

Gary Paulsen
Gary Paulsen

When he spoke at his first school assembly, the auditorium was packed.  Gary began his talk by telling the students that he was the only musher who had a camera and who had taken pictures of his 1100 mile journey from Fairbanks to Nome.

“When I saw the photos,” he said, “it was like having pictures of the moon.”

Then, he put the first slide up and spoke of his beloved dogs and the self-training he did at his home in Minnesota.  His love for his dogs was very evident.  He spoke of them lovingly and with deep affection.

He talked about the other contestants, too, and told of one woman who had been attacked by a herd of wild moose.  He also spoke of falling into a river and driving the dogs onto the bank to escape certain death.

“The first thing I did was to throw a gallon of gasoline on the nearest bush and set it afire,” he said.  He was wet and frozen to the bone.

When he showed the snowy landscapes and the dogs running across a desolate stretch of trail, one could sense the loneliness.  He showed pictures of a frozen landscape that were breathtaking.  It was like seeing a magical world of ice and snow that seemed to stretch forever.

Needless to say, the children in the audience were mesmerized by Gary’s voice, his straightforward manner of telling a moving story without frills or embellishment.  He reminded me of early arctic exploerers who ventured to the poles north and south.  He spoke of the hardships, the frozen fish he fed to his Huskies and Malemutes, the treachery of the frozen lakes and streams, the wolves and aggressive moose.

He triumphed when he told his story of the Iditarod at School of the Ozarks.  Present were professors and students.  A packed house. Frequent applause.  Expressions of amazement and wonder as the audience gasped, both at the photographs and Gary’s clear and unvarnished narrative.

I was filled with the same wonder each time I heard him talk.  He wore the beard, then, and he looked like some ghostly adventurer materialized in the modern world.

Gary took us all to Alaska on an amazing and dangerous trek through trackless expanses buried in snow, that long white trail that, like Brigadoon, appears only for a brief time, then vanishes into the realm of dream and myth.

I have read a number of Gary’s YA novels.  He was the winner of the Caldecott Award, for one of his outstanding books.  He told me that his speaking fees jumped from $50 to $5000 overnight after he was honored by librarians and teachers who hold writers of Young Adult novels in high esteem.

The books I most remember of Gary’s were DANCING CARL and HATCHET, but I have read many more.  I believe HATCHET was made into a movie.  I bought DANCING CARL from him when it was just a short story and I was a magazine editor.  I bought a lot of stories from Gary before an agent, Ray Puechner, took him on and sold his novels.  Ray has since died. His wife took over the agency, and she also died a few years later.

As for Gary’s advice to me should I wish to write YA novels, he said, “Get the parents out of the story as soon as possible.”  Good advice.  He is a master at storytelling and I treasure our long friendship and the time when he came to the Ozarks and showed us pictures of the long white trail.  He has since moved to a tiny town in New Mexico and is still a best-selling children’s author.

I watch the news stories of the Iditrod on television every year.  And, I think of Gary Paulsen.  And I miss him as he misses his beautiful sled dogs.

thumbPlease click the book cover image to read more about Jory Sherman and his novels.

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