The Junkyard Team
My family’s story starts not at the beginning like most stories, but
rather the middle, like a donut, with the center empty, but
surrounded by life’s sweetness. Our donut middle was an auction.
The contents of a storage unit were being sold. Sold, because the
renter of the storage unit was three months behind on the rent and
had no chance of paying it off. I remember that day with vivid
The renter, the de Golyers, a family of five with the noble French
surname, watch helplessly as their belongings are bid on by
complete strangers. Mother sobs silently as family heirlooms
become part of new family histories, simply by someone raising a
hand. Father watches, thinking deep down, could this have been
avoided? He knows in his heart the answer is yes, but the children,
two boys and a girl don’t know how a man’s pride can be destroyed
by failing as the provider.
Item number 318, a worn down, battered dog sled, with seven
harnesses, starting bid… One hundred dollars. Not a single hand
shoots up, or even rises above the waist. What would anyone want
with second hand dog sled? I remember to this day the answer to
that question as it will forever be imprinted in my head. My father
raised his hand. He looked at my mother like a super hero silently
coming to the rescue. That rickety old sled changed all our lives and
my parents scraped up one hundred dollars, to the penny to win
that well used contraption back. That sled was part of our family
and needed to be forever with us even if that meant spending the
last of our gas money to make it so. The sled was coming back
home, wherever home might be. We strapped the sled to the roof of
our rusty old suburban and drove on to another state where my
father would find work. The dogs that took that sled to victory were
long gone, but they will always be in my heart. They never quit,
even when they should have never bothered starting. They were the
My parents are of strong stock, almost too strong in their will,
which caused a lot of friction growing up. Mother came from a strict
Irish Catholic background and father, well he came from a long line
of blue bloods, but wanted to work with his hands, so he went into
construction. The money was usually good, but required us to move
every six months. This put a strain on the family, but mother kept
busy by raising three kids. Billy, Cody and Crystal. The boys were
four years apart, Billy being the eldest and Crystal was the youngest
at a year younger than Cody. We continued to move from state to
state. Wherever a highway was to be built, that’s where you’d find
us. This went on for years until mother had a breakdown. I recall
her hair turned gray overnight. My mother couldn’t bare to move
anymore. She wanted a place to call her own, so we loaded up the
truck with all our belongings and moved to Oregon. Father had the
notion of becoming a rancher. It was a huge risk, but at least we
wouldn’t have to keep moving.
We found a four hundred acre homestead, tucked away in the
furthest reaches of the rugged Eastern Oregon mountains. No
man’s land, but when you’re a kid space to play is like having
Heaven within reach. We didn’t own the land, but the kids didn’t
know any better. Renting was okay until we made decent ranchers
of ourselves. The house was an old farmhouse, from the 1880’s.
The water came from an old hand pump and the toilet was an
The electricity came from a gas generator in an old shed. To most
people this would be an interesting weekend getaway. To us it was
home and we were determined to make it work. The barn was the
best of all. Big, rusty red and empty. Well, not exactly empty. Deep
in the shadows, hidden in a dark corner of the barn’s loft was an
old dog sled. It looked quite out of place, but so did we.
The sled was made with such care and craftsmanship. Whoever
made this sled put a lot of love into it and expected it to last as
long as there would be men to ride it. My mother was not an
outwardly social person and was often very quiet, a stark contrast
to my father. To the outsider she came across as mean, but she was
very much the opposite, she was just quiet.
The day her and I pulled out that sled, though I was only twelve
years old, I understood a twinkle a person can have in their eye
when something magical has fallen into their hearts. My mother had
that twinkle. Words weren’t necessary. My mother spent so much time being a wife and a mother, she never made time to do something for herself. This was her moment.
At the time, I didn’t realize the magic, but my mother was going to
share this magic with me. The owner of the property didn’t know anything about the sled and wasn’t even aware of its existence. I guess one could argue, it sort of appeared one day, kind of like my family on this patch of God’s country. The months passed and we became ranchers. My dad
spent nearly all our savings on ten head of cattle. Come spring,
they’d fetch a top dollar at market.
Fall was upon us and mother and I had learned all that can be
learned about sled dog racing… From books of course. She and I
studied every aspect of the sport. Could even tell you the history of
it if you asked me. This was our bonding. My siblings thought it was
silly. Father thought it consumed too much time and took away
from chores, but to Mother and I, well it was our thing. We fixed up
the sled and made it shine like it did in its prime. Yet, we were still
missing one key ingredient in the cake of success… Dogs.
All the books had pictures of purebred huskies. Dogs of natural
beauty and stature. We needed a team to pull the sled. My mother
put the proposal on the table to my father. Money was tight. We
grew what we ate and hunted the occasional elk at the back end of
the property. Our money was tide up in the cattle and there wasn’t
extra money to by dogs for what my father considered an expensive
You have to understand, my father was a good man and only
wanted us to be happy, therefore, he was always the one who had a
solution that worked for everyone…. Chickens…What we did have
was plenty of chickens. We had so many hens that if we each had
eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we’d still have plenty to bake
a cake for dessert.
We would sell the farm fresh eggs to people in town. This like most
things in my childhood, looked good on paper, but in practice
proved to be a bit more of a challenge. Finding the customers
wasn’t hard, getting the eggs to them was. Picture a twelve year old
kid delivering eggs by bicycle down the bumpy back roads of
Oregon. I don’t think there was one customer that ever received a
complete dozen intact.
A month later we had put together $300, of course half of it came
from selling a dozen of our prize hens along with their eggs. Now
all we needed was a team of five dogs. The family loaded up and
drove a few hundred miles to Portland. There was an ad in the
paper for sled dogs for sale. We pulled up in our rusted out
suburban. The place looked more like an estate than a kennel. I
remember my father saying how he’d do the talking…. Well, no
matter how well he talked, three hundred dollars wouldn’t buy five
sled dogs. That amount of money wasn’t enough for a three legged
Huskie, let alone a four legged one.
The breeder even commented there was no way we’d find runners
for less than a hundred a piece. It was clear to him we were novices.
It was clear to us to. Mother and I were heart-broken. I even believed it was my father’s fault for not having the money. I silently blamed him, but mother didn’t, she never did. Why couldn’t we sell one of those stupid
cows? We started back home. The drive was silent. My brother and
sister were young and didn’t understand the disappointment
mother and I felt. Good thing too, because it hurt.
Just as our hearts were beginning to settle at the bottom of our
hopeless abyss, my father came through the way only he could. He
spots a sign that reads: “Dogs For Sale”. The sign didn’t say “Sled
Dogs”, so our hopes didn’t exactly jump up and down, but we
figured it was worth a try. Father turned down a muddy road, which
we nearly got stuck in a few times.
The property was nothing like the last place we had been, in fact it
was a junkyard. We passed through the front gates to find the road
lined with hundreds of old rusted out cars and trucks. What the hell
were we doing? I was certain some crazy guy with a chainsaw would
coming running out and cut us all up.
We rounded a corner and abruptly came to a stop. There in front of
us was the most heart-breaking scene of pathetic suffering a
human can imagine. A patch of muddy ground, no less than three
acres in size housed hundreds of starving, barking, howling and in
some cases dying dogs. Each dog had a make shift shelter which
consisted of a turned over, 55 gallon oil drum, half buried in the
muddy earth. There was no one breed, but many breeds. There
were greyhounds, which were once champions, but lost one too
many races and were retired, if you could call this dump retirement.
There were Dalmatians, Basset hounds, Labs, you name the dog, it
was there, though most were mixes of this, that and the other,
mostly the other. Every single dog was coated with mud.
I was too young to really understand the Holocaust, but remember
in the school library, there was a book with old photos. Old photos
of the camps, when they were liberated. I feel I can compare the
two, because these were mans’ best friends and they were treated
like enemies in a concentration camp.
My father’s eyes were watering, my brother and sister were excited to see so many dogs and didn’t understand suffering. My mother and I… Our eyes were on one dog. He captivated us, because he didn’t bark, or howl, he simply watched us. He was a Golden Retriever mix. He looked so
wise. My father was about to put the truck in reverse when my
mother opened the door and got out. When a dog makes contact
with his master, that dog is forever bound to that person. I followed
my mother to the dog. He seemed so out of place, like he didn’t
belong here, like some child somewhere missed him, but as we got
closer to the hundreds of dogs, more faces stood out of the crowd.
There was a smallish Dalmatian, with his ribs sticking out, then
there were the two Greyhounds that looked like brothers. The fluffy
Malamute who looked fat but we later found it was just the mass of
hair that covered him. The faces began to become our team. My
mother and I exchanged glances as we knew that Golden boy would
lead our team.
We wished we could take all of them, but we managed six. I could
understand Shindler’s sorrow. Six out of nearly three hundred. I
remember hating the old, frail woman who cared for the dogs,
though I use the words “cared for” loosely. Could she not see the
suffering? The answer was no, she was literally blind and alone. She
had explained how she took in unwanted dogs and used her social
security to feed and house the dogs.
She’d sell a dog or two a month to help pay for their needs. Father
said what they “needed” was to all be put down. Perhaps he was
right. The ride home was long. Vomiting, diarrhea and more diarrhea. The
total cost of six nearly dead dogs, $250… The magic that was about
to come… Priceless.
Eight terrible hours later we made it home with three Greyhounds,
one Dalmatian, one Malamute and one Golden Retriever mix. The
trip was hard and one of the Greyhounds caught a fever. Mother
and I made the barn into a kennel, with fresh straw and a roof. It
wasn’t the best of lodging, but it was ten fold better than the hell
we found them in. After three sleepless nights of nursing the sick
Greyhound, he died. I woke up that morning to find my mother
cradling him in her arms. It was hard because even the best of
intentions can’t always save what has been abandoned and
It took us nearly a month to nurse the remaining five
dogs back to their former glory and there were some close calls,
but by the middle of November, they were ready to begin training.
Winter was on the horizon and being our first, it was going to be
hard one. The first time we hooked up the team was a disaster. It
was a mess, with dogs getting tangled up in knots. I named the
Golden Retriever Riley, as in Sir Walter Riley. He was patient with us
and seemed to know we had no clue what we were doing.
I swear, there times when he snapped the other boys into shape. Our first
ride was not quite a success and I was dragged a good eighth of a
mile before falling off due to the ten pounds of snow in my pants.
Riley stopped the team and they waited for me to catch up. The
weeks passed and they started becoming a team… We started
becoming a team.
THE LONG WALK
I remember it was on a Thursday in the beginning of December
when we had a near disaster. I can home from school to find
chicken feathers all over the place. My father came out of the house
with his rifle. Pickle, the Dalmatian got loose and killed half a dozen
of our best hens. My father was determined to shoot him. Only
problem was he couldn’t find him.
After an hour of frantic looking, I found him under the house,
hiding. He knew he did wrong. I was twelve, but my father felt it
was time to become man. It was my job to shoot him. With tears in
my eyes, I managed to coax him out from under the porch. My
mother was due back from town and I knew if I could just prolong
things until she got home, she could convince my father to spare
the dog. Where the Hell was she when I needed her? Time was
running out and father wasn’t going to back down. I leashed up the
dog and cursed him for being so stupid and putting me in this
I cried like crazy with the rifle ready to do the deed. That dumb dog
just looked up the barrel into my soul. This was the end. Wait! My
father yelled from across the way. I saw the compassion in his eyes.
“Make sure that dog stays locked up” he said. I could have kissed
the man. From that day on I locked that dog up as he was a Wiley
one. December dropped lots of snow, which made training a fun break
from school. My mother and I became consumed by the sport and
even though not one of our dogs was remotely close to being even
mistaken for a sled dog, my mother decided to put her social
inabilities to the side and promote the first Annual Elkhorn Crest
sled dog race.
The date was set for February. She managed to get together a purse of ten thousand, a lot of money in those parts. We had top racers from around the world sign up. This was big. I thought it was ironic the family with the makeshift sled team was putting together a race. People got excited. Businesses, both big and small wanted to take part. Heck, Kris Kristofferson's doppelganger was the grand marshal. What an event. I have to say, I still to this day can’t picture in my head my shy, quiet mother
getting people excited about a bunch of dogs running across the
snow, but maybe that’s what made it special.
NEED A MIRACLE
One afternoon I was training the dogs as I had done most
afternoons, when I got to the back end of the property. Ten of our
cattle lie dead in the snow. Within a week we lost nearly half of the
herd to Anthrax. Father took it hard and started drinking. He
seemed to give up on things. He stopped caring.
Mother became more determined to make something out of our
team and she passed the torch to me. I was to race this mixed nuts
in the biggest race this part of the country has ever seen. Money
was tighter than usual and usually it was really tight. My mother
and I went without to put back into the team. My brother and sister
did their part too. Father tried, but he buried himself in the bottle. I
remember my mother and him fighting late at night. Why did those
cattle have to die?
Ten thousand dollars… I used to lie up at night and see if I could
count that high. I would always fall asleep before I reached a
thousand. That much money would save us. I was only twelve, but I
knew I could save my family.
When I thought things couldn’t get any worse, things did just the
opposite. I remember a black truck driving up our half a mile
driveway. This was a brand new truck, the kind many a country kid
dreamt of having. The truck parked and a middle-aged man
stepped out wearing what looked like a costume one would buy at a
dude ranch. His much younger wife dressed even gaudier. The
young woman loved the scenery of this four hundred acre plot, as
did the man. My dad came out to see who these people were.
He was a film producer from Hollywood and she was his third wife I
found out later. They loved what we did with the place, but you
could tell they would change a few things, like all the animals
roaming free. You see that couple bought the property for a
vacation home. Our year round home was now their four weekends
a year playground. We had sixty days to pack up and leave. They
were at least polite about having us out. My mother always wanted
a place to call her own and now with the passing of a pen, the place
That night, I couldn’t sleep. My mother’s sobbing haunted me. I
snuck out and slept with the dogs in the barn. The dogs were awake
when I came into that barn. They all looked at me for answers. I had
none. Riley, he looked at me differently. I believe he knew what
needed to be done. I fell asleep amongst friends on a bed of straw,
under a rusty barn’s roof, under a clear, cold sky.
January was colder than an Eskimo kiss, with temperatures dipping
well below freezing. It was a bittersweet month. We as a family were
packing up to move, but as racers were getting ready for the big
race. We sold the remaining cattle at market. We lost money on the
deal, but my father had stopped drinking away his bitterness and
started helping with the race. Win or fail, we were going to do this
as a family.
HELL FROZEN OVER
The course was five miles long and zig zagged in and out of the
trees. An oblong, intricate mess of frozen hell. My mother designed
the track. When I first saw the course, I thought she was trying to
kill me. Did she really expect me to survive this treacherous trail?
Yes…. And with a little luck, win it.
Lucky for us, we lived ten minutes from course and I was able to
practice. My team was ready and had become pretty darn good even
by sled dog standards. They were surprisingly fast. Riley led these
boys like Napoleon. He was small and older than the rest. He had a
sweetness about him, in fact he would lie on the porch and let
kittens sleep on his back, without so much as a sniff. But this was
not a time for him to be sweet. He needed to lead and I needed to
push him to push them.
Our first time out on the course, nearly two weeks before the race,
was slow and I was heavy on the break around those tight corners.
Mother watched from the field with binoculars. With stopwatch in
hand, she marked my times…. Again, do it again… Again, do it
again… You break too heavy on the corners. You need to slide into
the round she would say. That day, we did the course five times.
Twenty-five miles they ran, but our last time was our fastest. We
finished our first course run in a record time. How the hell did we
do it? To this day I can only guess it be one of two things, not
knowing any better, or just having the heart. I like to believe those
dogs pulled off the latter.
The next morning we started early. We later found out it was too
early to be out, as there was still ice on the course. The third corner
was my fear from the day before. It was sharp and just after a
straightaway so you build up some speed to it. I remember the
straightaway and I remember the corner, then breaking, then black.
I woke up a few minutes later on my back. When I managed to
figure out where I was, I realized I wasn’t on the course anymore
and worse than that, my team was gone. I ended up, down the side
of the mountain. My jacket was ripped up and my head hurt, but I
was alive. I guess I hit the corner to fast and went flying.
I started back up the hill and there they were. My team was waiting.
They all looked back at me as though to say come on, let’s go.
People seldom show such loyalty. The handle to the sled was
shattered. The handle was a rounded piece of wood, wrapped with
leather that arches from one side to the other. Now it was two
pointy splintered pieces of wood. A sled’s handle helps steer the
sled, so needless to say, this wasn’t going to make things any
We managed out of the woods, but the sled was hard to steer and
needed to be fixed if I wanted to win. Father didn’t eat supper with
us that night. He always ate with us. I excused myself from the table
and went to the barn. Under candlelight my father was repairing the
sled’s handle. I stood back in the shadows and simply watched. He
didn’t know I was there and didn’t even look up from his work. His
hands worked more like an artist than a burly construction worker. I
decided to leave him be and go to bed. Morning comes early with
only two days until the race.
The whole town was excited. All the world had come. There were
press people from as far as Japan there. What did my mother do?
The race itself was to last three days. The first two days were
qualifying rounds and the third was for all the apples. Boy, did we
seem out of place. Every racer other than me had big trucks with
little doors poking out purebred Huskie heads. The sleds were
professionally made, the dogs matched, the harnesses matched…
Everything matched. Most racers had sponsors like dog food
companies and the like.
My sponsor was a Folgers can filled with change. Every penny was used. It was clear I was out of my league, my dogs weren’t even sled dogs, sure they were attached to a sled, but that’s as far as the similarity went.
I wanted to run far and fast away from here, but my mother’s eyes
were happy at the grand event she put together from nothing.
Besides, though no one said it, my family needed me to win.
I put aside my embarrassment from the looks and snickers of my
competition. My father said they were just scared of a young kid
like me with a ratty team like mine winning. At the time it made
sense. Heck, I’d be embarrassed to be beat by my motley crew. I
was the youngest racer there. When the press got hold of that fact, I
became somewhat of a pseudo celebrity. I was even interviewed by
a reporter from Iceland. At the time, I didn’t even know there was
an Iceland. Wow.
It was show time. My nerves were on fire. I felt sick to my stomach.
They lined up the teams. We were eight teams back. Luck of the
draw I guess, but we had to deal with it. I looked back and there
was my family lined up, watching me. Not word was said, but I knew
they were excited. The official fired the pistol. BANG!!! Lightning
was let out of the bag. I could here somewhere behind me the
crowd cheering and for a moment, I forgot where I was. I was
quickly reminded I was in a race when the ninth team passed me..
HIKE!!! I yelled and my boys ran. It was a tug of war, neck to neck
for eighth place. The Swede wasn’t going to let me get my place
back. Every time I tried to pass him, he would swerve. Corner after
corner we fought and each time he kept me behind. I had to get
past him, as there were only eight places for the next day. Ninth
would be the end of us.
HIKE!!! HIKE!!! I remembered there was a wide corner a ways up and if I could just get alongside him, I could squeeze through. The corner was coming up fast. HIKE HIKE!!! My boys seemed to now my plan closed the gap. The Swede caught on to my plan, but it was too late. We burst through the hole just before the trail narrowed again. The Swede wasn’t happy and I think he may have said some unsavory things in his native tongue. We pushed on taking eighth place.
The home stretch was one of the best days of my life. A twelve year
old, unpopular boy and his mangy mutts were showered with cheers
and applause. We qualified. Before the congratulations, the dogs
had to jog a cool down. All the teams I just ran with cooled their
dogs down. A racer from Montana came up beside me. “Good run”,
he said. He shook his head with a grin and moved on. Good run…
Did you hear that boys? We finally got recognized as a sled team.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited. I looked out the
window to the barn. The Eskimo’s on the coldest nights, let the
dogs sleep inside. My parents never allowed dogs inside the house
and tonight, even if it meant getting my backside tanned, they were
going to sleep inside. I snuck them in as quiet as I could. Even
though I believe not one of those dogs ever slept in a house, they
respectfully went straight to sleep on the floor without a single
The second race day my team brought me to fifth place and we had
qualified to be in the final race. Riley cut his foot on the ice and it
bled a lot. The cut was a nasty one. The on sight vet wrapped the
foot, but suggested he call it a day. Those were his exact words,
“Call it a day”. Didn’t he understand my family’s existence depend
on this race? I couldn’t except it. Mother explained to me that it was
okay and a hurt dog can’t be pushed. I was too young to
understand this and only wanted to win. I couldn’t except that we
had come this far only to quit now. Boots…. I turned to see the
woman who came in sixth place standing nearby. “Here”. She tossed
me a bag of dozen red little boots. “They’ll help.”. That’s all that
she said and she packed up her dogs and left. The same woman I
had beaten, had just given me a dozen dog shoes. That was the
first time in my short life I experienced good sportsmanship. They
looked silly in the boots, but at least they wouldn’t cut their feet.
That night was the longest ever. Mother and I sat up with Riley. We
changed the bandage and wrapped it again. I was starting to doubt
he could pull through for us. Mother told me to go to bed, but I
wanted to stay with my team. She convinced me they needed me
fully rested, so I reluctantly went off to bed. She stayed behind.
Morning came and I looked out the window to see Mother on the
sled and the team with their silly little boots on doing a practice
run. He was okay!!! I later found out that my mother had stayed up
all night with Riley. I know in my heart he got better for us and any
pain he felt, he hid. Today was going to be the day. A day that
would forever set my life in a particular path. So I thought.
We got to the course and there seemed to be three times as many people
there. Did the whole world come to this small patch of snow in the
middle of nowhere? It certainly appeared that way. Today was
different for me. I wasn’t nervous and just wanted to run our best.
Run we did. The boys dug in and plowed the snow like champions.
They ran like the wind, blowing in and out lanes, moving up and up.
We even made a miracle comeback after crashing. We did all we
could and even though we shot for first place, we got third.
We were tired and I felt like I failed my family ten thousand would
have changed our lives.
For a week I was down and sad until one day my father pulled out the local newspaper. There printed for the town to see was the race standings. My name was there in black print “Third Place”. Then the article went to state the standing in the world, as this race was an association sanctioned race. I was ranked 101st in the whole world. I was the youngest ranked racer, but it wasn’t me that placed, it was my team that carried me and it wasn’t
so much the race. The magic was in a group of dogs bringing my
family together. My father was proud of his son and my mother
found her purpose if only briefly.
We went on to win a couple small races, keeping our rank. We
moved to a small rented house on an acre on the other side of the
valley. My grandmother who lived in Nevada became ill and I had to
go and take care of her. It was one of the saddest days of my life
saying goodbye to my team. Ironically, I took a greyhound bus from
Oregon to Nevada. It wasn’t as graceful as my boys. I missed them
with all my being.
While I was away, tragedy took Riley in his sleep. My parents were
struck with more bad luck, as Father couldn’t find work, another
victim of the recession. They put everything we owned in storage
and struggled on the best they could.
A year later I came home. This is where we started, in the middle.
With sled strapped on the roof, we moved to Nevada and I never
raced again, but that sled was our little victory. I’m grown up now
and often wonder about my team. I often wonder if I could ever
assemble a magical team like those raggedy old, mangy mutts. I
believe the answer is no. Never. Being older I can appreciate
friendship. True friendship is when a friend carries you. My friends