- archived recording
(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway“.
- archived recording (blair braverman)
The dogs did well. It’s a beautiful day. It is, like, four degrees. We’re averaging about 8 miles per hour, but 10 miles per hour —
Blair Braverman is a dog musher, adventurer, and writer. She ran her first Iditarod two years ago. The nearly 1,000-mile race across Alaska is one of the toughest endurance challenges in the world.
- archived recording (blair braverman)
Oh, steep hill. Whoa.
OK, went down onto a riverbed.
Braverman survived the race, finishing after more than 13 days on the trail. But that was the easy part, as her many rabid Twitter followers know. She’s lived on a glacier, woken up buried alive in a snow cave, and nearly died in the desert while competing on the show, “Naked and Afraid.” So I wanted to talk to this woman who seems to be afraid of absolutely nothing. But we did get waylaid by one survival test she didn’t sign up for.
We were supposed to have this conversation some weeks back, and you were diagnosed with COVID. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling a lot better and also like I lost a lot of strength. I was sick for about a month. It feels like the illness is not in me, but, like, I need to sort of work up to things slowly. The funny thing is, I live in the woods. I truly hadn’t been anywhere. I hadn’t been in a grocery store or anything.
So you define remote and social distancing, essentially.
I do. And then my husband caught it from me. And the health department called me and said that they think I caught it from a dog.
That’s what they called and told me.
And only one of our dogs had been anywhere in the past couple of weeks, and it’s this old man named Harry, who’s 12 years old. So we’ve been calling him Typhoid Harry.
Oh, where was he? Where was Harry? Because you live in a remote rural town in northern Wisconsin, right?
He visited another musher. He hung out there. He did a couple of tours. And then he came back. They dropped him off in the yard.
And you think he got COVID from the musher or another dog?
I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t even know if that’s true. I don’t know if you can get COVID from dogs. I just think it’s kind of funny that that’s what they told me.
No, no, actually, there’s a theory, that the CDC says a small number of dogs and cats have been reported to have been infected. And the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered low, but not completely impossible. But it looks like you’re the person who had it. I’m just curious, what is the attitude towards COVID where you are? Are people wearing masks out there?
It depends. I mean, and we’re on the border to Michigan. And Michigan had a mask mandate long before Wisconsin did.
And people were angry about it.
They were angry, but at some point, they sort of gave up. And I think they were very angry because a woman told them to do it. Because the governor was a woman. I don’t think they would have been as angry if a man told them to do something with their face. I would say there’s a lot of the sense that we are protected by being sort of far away from things, although we’re close to Green Bay, and Green Bay had a massive outbreak.
Right, right, and so people aren’t paying as much of attention. You were talking about losing strength. It’s not something you’re used to being. You sort of traffic in being strong. So talk about the Iditarod — something I would never do. But you did your first one in 2019. So walk me through what happens.
Yeah, so the Iditarod is a 1,000-mile dog sled race. And it follows this historic route that goes from Anchorage to Nome in the Alaskan interior. It was developed, actually, in the 1960s because sled dogs were going extinct, basically, after everyone was using snowmobiles instead. They called them iron dogs. So this race was developed to sort of bring back mushing. It’s sort of grown into the biggest event, but there are hundreds of dog sled races. But this is, like, the one everyone’s heard of. So I wanted to do it, and I worked on my qualifiers for a couple of years.
What’s a qualifier? How do you qualify for it? Smaller races?
So to qualify for it, you need to complete 700 miles of races, and you are evaluated along the way. You have to be evaluated by a team of veterinarians. And they evaluate you based on your dog care, your survival skills, fire starting, your relationship with your dogs, whether you turn into an asshole when you’re sleep deprived, things like that. So I passed that and entered the race. And basically, you set off with 14 dogs. And nobody can help you. It’s completely unassisted. So everything for that usually 10 days to two weeks, you do everything entirely on your own. And you can leave dogs along the way. Like if a dog is getting tired, you can leave them at a checkpoint, and they’ll be cared for by volunteers. But you cannot add dogs.
So it’s intense. It’s a huge thing. It’s a huge journey.
And why did you want to do it?
I mean, I wanted to do this big journey, and this seemed like a really good way to do it. And what’s so cool is you just think about all the legends who have mushed that trail through so much history since before Alaska was a state. And it’s feels like an honor. And — I don’t know — it’s just incredibly cool. It’s like stepping out of your time in history. And it’s the most intense connection with your dogs when you’re out there, doing something with them, where you’re really working so closely for a long period of time. So that was what I wanted.
What about for you, for your personal challenge? I mean, people do all kinds of adventures all over the world. But why this one for you?
Well, it’s the most well-known in my sport. So I’ve been mushing for a long time. And ever since I was a teenager, when I first started guiding, the first thing people ask you, is have you done the Iditarod? And I was really tired of saying, no, not yet. My husband got into mushing through me. We had sponsors, and those are all things that are huge barriers to entry, having human support, having financial support. So it seemed like just everything lined up, and the opportunity was there.
Is dog sledding expensive? You talk about sponsors. How do you finance it?
Oh my god, it’s so expensive.
Running the Iditarod itself, not having the team, but running the Iditarod, people usually estimate between $40,000 and $100,000.
And then, if you have 20 or 30 dogs year round, people can easily spend six figures. So what happened is, I started getting dogs, but I’m also a writer, and I went to grad school for writing. And I knew of artists who were using Patreon, and so we thought this was interesting. We’re already sharing stories about the dogs. People were asking how they could chip in, and I was very resistant for a long time. And then we set it up, and now I know a lot of mushers who have Patreons. It’s people sponsoring the experience, sponsoring dog care. ‘Cause if you have dogs, you have dogs year round. You’re responsible for them year round.
So you completed the race two years ago. And your husband, Quince, did the race last year. They’ve changed the route due to COVID. Will either of you be running the Iditarod this year?
He has been registered. We weren’t sure because we wanted to see what the COVID safety precautions would be. And we didn’t feel that it was responsible for us to come from the Lower 48 with a dog team.
Mm-hmm. So not this year, possibly next year.
Possibly next year. We have to do something fun for the dogs because they want to have fun, no matter what. So we’ll come up with some fun trip for them this spring. And they won’t know the difference.
OK, how many dogs do you have right now?
I’ll teach you a trick. You never ask a musher how many dogs they have. You ask them how many dogs they’re feeding.
You’ll never get a number. Because people have foster dogs, they have retirees. There’s dogs moving around. They’ll talk for an hour if you ask how many dogs. But we’re feeding 23.
You’re feeding 23. I am feeding two, but they’re so fat, they’re eating for six. So you actually once said and have expressed it many times, I consider myself a coward. I’m the most fearful person I know. Explain that because most people don’t think of you like that.
I am. OK, well, I’ll give you an example. So I got into mushing when I was 18 years old, and I was a kid from California. I moved to the Norwegian Arctic and went to a socialist dog sledding boarding school for a year, and from then, became a dog sled guide in Alaska. And for years, every time I got on a dog sled, I would sob, even though I did it every day. So when you’re hooking up a dog team, you put the dogs in their harnesses, and they get really excited. They’re pumped up. They’re barking, they’re jumping. And you hook them to the front of the sled, and they start jumping. They’re trying to run, and the sled is tied off to something solid. It’s tied off to a tree. And the sled is shaking because the dogs are trying to get it to move. And you have to get on to the shaking sled and pull the quick release. And every time I did that, for years, my eyes would start freezing shut because they were just watering from fear.
That’s not exhilaration?
No, I hate adrenaline. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. As soon as I pulled the quick release, I would be OK. It was just the moment before moving. And when you’re on a dog sled, you have no physical control over the team. It’s all built on trust. You can’t make them go right or make them go left or make them not run into a river or whatever it would be you’d want them to do. You have to build the relationship, and they choose to listen to you. And sometimes they choose to chase a rabbit.
It’s sort of like you’re driving a high level car that has a mind of its own.
But you get on anyway. You also write that fear makes you brave. What does that mean?
Well, I mean, you can’t be brave without fear. Otherwise, it’s not bravery. It’s just ignorance or indifference. I mean, I think the dogs make me brave because I have to help them to overcome their fears. Like, when they’re puppies, we really work with them on going into different environments and exposing them to a lot of stuff. And they crawl through tunnels, and they go jump into a cranberry bog and all this stuff. And once the dogs are relying on me, I’m not going to disappoint them. So once I’ve hooked up the dogs, they want to run. I’m going to take them running, no matter how scared I am. So I can trick myself into doing this thing. And when you’re doing something dangerous based entirely on trust with your team of very energetic dogs, the better you know them, the more confidence and the more safety you have.
What’s the scariest thing that’s happened to you in the wilderness?
I mean, the scariest thing that could happen to me is a dog getting hurt. That would be the worst thing. But there’s a lot of low level scary things. A lot of what I do, there’s no one who can help you. So you’re out with the dog team and you come to a place where the trail — you know, there’s thin ice, or the trail is covered by all these fallen trees because there’s been a storm, or you’re being followed by wolves.
Did you ever see the Liam Neeson movie where he’s followed by wolves the whole time?
I’m sorry to have plot spoiler. He doesn’t win the fight.
Oh, I won the fight.
OK, all right.
See, but that’s interesting because you say fight. So much of how we talk about nature is, like, this battle metaphor, which I also disagree with.
Yeah, it’s true. But what is the scariest thing? Like, waking up buried alive in a glacier, or —
Yeah, I did wake up buried alive at one point.
How did that happen?
Well, I was 18, so I was stupid. And —
OK, what did that have —
— I didn’t want to sleep in a tent with other people.
So I dug a snow shelter, and I dug it straight down into the ground, just a tunnel. It sort of went down and sideways, like an L. And then there was a storm overnight, and it packed in the entrance. And my friends woke up in the morning, and they couldn’t find me. There was just bare snow where I had been. But luckily, by the time I woke up in this little coffin-shaped, pitch black ice tunnel, where I couldn’t even lift my arms — I was knocking snow onto my head when I tried to reach my hands up to my face — they were already looking for me. And I could hear them, but they couldn’t hear me.
Oh my god, that’s horrible.
You know what’s funny? The scariest thing —
I’d be scared of that.
That one wasn’t that frightening. Although I wrote about it in my book, and my husband can’t listen to that scene. That one scares him so much.
The scariest thing I remember, actually, or the most scared I remember being was in the Iditarod two years ago when I was in this part of the trail that has nobody, like truly nobody. It’s an area the size of many states, and it has maybe three people. So it’s deep, deep wilderness. And I was all alone. I hadn’t seen other teams in a while. And we were going over these massive rolling hills, and the trees were dead. Some of them had been burned. And I saw far ahead a human figure step out from between the trees —
— and then back into the trees again.
Sasquatch, but go ahead.
Well, and I was like, oh, I’m hallucinating. This is what happens to people out here. I mean, I know a lot of mushers hallucinate, and it’s kind of entertainment. It helps the time pass, but I’ve never hallucinated. And so we’re getting closer. And I was like, oh, that was so weird. You think it’d be a more interesting hallucination. And we’re getting closer, and I see the figure again come out of the trees. And it’s a human figure, but it’s emaciated and pitch black.
And it happens a couple of times up ahead, and I’m like, this is a trick of my mind. And I just have to calm myself down and remind myself of what’s real. And then the next time it did that, the dog saw it, and all their hackles went up.
And that’s when I knew it wasn’t in my mind.
And I wasn’t going to stop. We were, like, 600 miles in at that point. At that point, you don’t stop the team. You just, like, whatever this thing was, we were going to have to pass it. And it’s dark out, and I’m sort of catching it in my headlamp. And we get closer and closer, and the closer we get — and the dog’s hackles are sticking up between the bits of their harness. And they’re looking back at me, and I’m like, I don’t know, guys. And the closer we get, I keep expecting it to turn into a tree. And the more clear it is that this is an emaciated human figure, just completely pitch black, until finally my lead dogs reached the figure. And at that point, I was like, there are aliens. I didn’t think aliens existed.
My entire understanding of the world shifted in those eight minutes as we mushed toward the thing. I was like, I was just wrong about everything. And it wasn’t until my dogs reached the figure that I realized it was an Idita-runner. It was a man dressed in black Spandex from head to toe who was running the Iditarod trail.
And he had stopped —
Who the heck was that? Are you kidding?
He had stopped to watch the dogs because he thought the dogs were cool. So he just was standing there, watching the dog team come.
Oh my god.
But he was wearing like a black balaclava, like black Spandex head to toe.
Oh my god.
And he was very thin because he was an ultra marathoner.
But what struck me the most after that was, well, there’s people who run the Iditarod trail.
All right, OK, you got me, Blair. You got me. Oh my god, I thought it was aliens.
It got me!
What was most interesting to me is, I felt like, wow, it didn’t take much for me to just assume that my entire understanding of the world was fake. So that’s what stuck with me.
You just explained exactly how social — people are on their social media dog sleds, and then they see a figure far away. And then, of course, Hillary Clinton is an alien lizard. No, it was a runner. That’s fascinating. All right, anyway, so you also wrote a book called “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube“, which is my favorite title of a book of all time. And you wrote about how one of your trainers had a rule — never let go of the sled because it’s better to let the dogs drag you than leave you in the tundra, where you die alone. That sounds like a really good piece of advice, by the way. What kind of risk is involved in dogsledding?
I mean, hopefully, not very much if you do it safely, right? You should not start with a big dog team. People can start with one or two dogs. You could start with your two, slash six, dogs, Kara, and tie them to a bicycle and that would be mushing.
If you ever want to, you’re invited to come out here, and I’ll teach you to mush.
All right, deal. I mean, honestly, I take pride in the fact that my dogs don’t listen to me at all. Yeah, they’re untrained in a very malevolent way towards me. Anyway, are there risks to dogs, too? I mean, because you get heat from the animal rights community for using them in this manner.
I don’t think of it as getting heat. I mean, I was a vegan for a long time. I think that mushing itself, dogs pulling sleds, is just such an inherently positive thing. The dogs love it. It’s good for them. The issue is, is someone, like, taking care of the dogs in the other parts of their life, or are they an abusive asshole? And the mushers that I care about and the mushers that I love and admire love doing this positive thing with dogs and also love dogs. And that’s why they do it. So they spend the rest of their life and all their money and all their time trying to give these dogs the best lives we possibly can.
And you’ve said so many people assume that relationships with the dogs and your relationships with each other are based on control and hierarchy and power, really, over dogs. And you said that’s the biggest misconception.
Yeah, I mean, people love the myth of the alpha dog. They love it. And it is a myth. It’s been debunked. And also, anyone who spent a lot of time with any group of dogs can tell you that their relationships with each other and with you are far more complicated. But I think that humans want to have that kind of power over each other. So we’ve sort of projected it onto dogs in order to, like, validate it in ourselves. I mean, as a musher, if I have power, and that power would be to take my dogs and do something extraordinary, like cross Alaska or cross Wisconsin or mush in the Yukon, all these places that I’ve been lucky enough to mush, the way that I have that power is not by exerting control or force. It is by building trust. And the way that I build trust is by anticipating the dogs’ needs. So they have to learn that if we’re setting out on a trip in a totally new place, they can just let themselves run because as soon as they get tired, I’m there with soft beds for them. As soon as they get hungry, I have a snack for them. Before they get hungry, I’m giving them snacks every hour, and they have water. And everything they need is sort of cared for, and therefore, they don’t have to worry about it and they can just run. It’s actually all they want to do. They are like, eat, sleeping, and running, and they love it. And so that power that I get comes from anticipating the dog’s needs enough that they will sort of give me their athleticism and take me for a ride and listen to me when I steer them because I know where we’re going, and they don’t. They never how far they’re going. So they have to be with a person they trust.
Why do we then have this idea of the alpha dog? Because it’s so prevalent, the idea of there being a person or a leader. And it’s how we build our hierarchies in all areas of power, whether it’s a company, whether it’s government. Why do you think that endures?
I think it’s very simple, and I think it’s easy. It’s prescriptive. If the way to gain power and to earn leadership is through force and dominance, that actually isn’t that complicated. If the way to gain power and earn leadership is by really listening to the people that you’re serving or the dogs that you’re serving and building their trust over long periods of time, and if you do things wrong, you will lose that and you will lose your authority, that’s just a messier story. It’s a lot less appealing. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be back in a minute.
If you like this interview and want to hear others, hit Subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with author Brené Brown, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Blair Braverman after the break.
Well, you wrote interestingly for The New York Times about being a dog sledder gave you unique insight into living through the pandemic. Can you explain your argument? What do you think the metaphors in this are to how we’re dealing with what we’re dealing with?
So the similarity between the pandemic and mushing is that you don’t know how far you’re going, and you don’t know how much it will take to get there. Every time I harness up my dogs, and they’re barking and they run out of the yard and onto the trail, they don’t know if they’re going two miles or if they’re going 200 miles. They do not know. They’re just going to run, and they’ll tire themselves out if I don’t slow them down because they aren’t able to see ahead. So, in order to get my team to endure something of an incredible distance, I need to force them to rest before they want to. And that’s actually the hardest thing. People ask us how we teach sled dogs to run. And the answer is, you literally put a harness on them, and they run. You don’t have to teach anything, but you do have to teach them to rest, and that is a challenge. It is a lot easier to prevent fatigue than to recover from it. Just to bring that back to the pandemic, what I would just say is, people are pushing themselves really hard. And you need to make sure that you’re acting as if it could go forever. You need to be resting, taking care of yourself, getting enough sleep, connecting with your friends. All these things are things we feel like we can push to later. But if you get too isolated or scared or any of these things, it’s just going to be so hard to undo.
It’s an interesting idea to think about the idea of endurance and continuing to move through something like it’s never going to end, which it does feel like. Speaking of which, let’s talk about another pretty hardcore survival challenge you went through. You were on the survival show, “Naked and Afraid“, a reality show where people are, as the name suggests, naked and possibly afraid. And they’re left to their own devices in the wilderness. This is the thing I would never do in my life. But why did you want to do it?
That show was a blast! That was so fun. And my husband did it, too. We were recruited together. And then we were sort of split up and sent in different places. I got an email one day inviting me to apply for it. And I spend so much of my life creating adventures, and so much of an adventure, whether I’ve done through hikes or I’ve mushed in the Arctic or whatever it is, you spend months planning. It’s so much work to plan. So this was an adventure that I could literally just step into. Someone else did all the work. All I had to do was show up and take off my clothes, I guess. Yeah, that was the downside. And so, it seemed fun. And I figured I’d go through the application process and just stop when it stopped being fun. And it just sort of was interesting the whole way. So I was sent to South Africa.
Which you didn’t know, correct? You were not told where you were going.
I was not. I found out about a week in advance I’d been hoping to go somewhere tropical because I’ve never been somewhere tropical. So I’d been studying up on how to tap rubber and make fish traps and all this stuff. And then I was sent to a desert.
So you said it was a test of creativity, and why was it creative?
Yeah, I think everyone assumes it’s this test of toughness. But it felt like a test of creativity to me, because, ultimately, you can be passive. If you’re there and you’re waiting for 21 days to pass, you can sort of sit there and not do too much. But you have no supplies, and you don’t have clothing. And clothing is your first shelter. So anything you need, you need to find a way to create with the resources around you, which are not things you could have predicted. So that part was super fun for me. I made a fishnet out of a dead wildebeest mane. And I loved being in a place that was different from anywhere I’d ever been before.
And you also talked about being feral versus the idea of “making the wilderness my bitch.” I think that’s how you phrased it.
I mean, I read a lot of survival books as a kid. And Americans — white Americans, to be clear — do have this sort of framework where nature is an enemy. And even if you’re very close with nature and you’re out having an adventure, it’s still something to be conquered. And the books that I read, for one thing, they were all boys. They were all boys in these survival situations. The only book I read with a girl in a survival situation was called “Baby Island,” and it’s about these two girls on an island with a bunch of babies that they have to learn to take care of.
And so they have to learn to be mothers while they’re picking bananas.
Yeah, did you read “Island of the Blue Dolphins“? That’s a wilderness book about a woman.
Oh, I haven’t, really. But I should go back and read it. Because I’m interested in —
You need to read that book.
And she has a dog. There’s a whole dog. It’s about a woman living within the wilderness. But go ahead. Go ahead. Oh, she’s writing it down.
I just jotted that down. I’ve heard of it. I can’t believe I haven’t read it. What I noticed in all these books is there’s sort of two ways it can go. A survivor can either tame the wilderness and make it like civilization — think “Robinson Crusoe” — or they can go feral. Like, what happens if I put myself in that situation? Which one will I do? And I definitely started feeling like part of nature in a way I never had before, where I very much was aware of me being part of the food chain. We got surrounded by hyenas almost every night. I ate about probably 800 calories in 11 days total, until my other partner got a warthog, and at which case, we had a lot of food. But I would look around, and I started seeing everything around me in terms of whether I could eat it. So if I saw a bird or a warthog or a leopard or plants — we found some wild mustard — if I could not eat or catch anything, I had no interest in it.
Huh. It does get to that.
Yes, we’d be surrounded by elephants, and the crew would be like, isn’t this the most beautiful thing you’d ever seen? I think they wanted me to respond a little bit more for the camera, and I would just be like, I am trying to care, but I couldn’t make myself care because I just was thinking about pizza.
Yeah, I did a very short survival thing, and all I thought about was graham crackers. I had a journal, and I thought I’d write all these great things in it. And instead, I thought about graham crackers the entire time. That was it, and that was the whole thing. So why was getting the warthog such a moment?
It was. Well, my other partner Matt had a bow and arrow, and he shot the warthog. And then we were gorging ourselves because we didn’t know if we could get it all to keep. We were drying it, but there were these monkeys, and we thought they might take it. And it was also a big deal because at that point, I’d been getting very weak. And I thought maybe it was from lack of food, and I thought that that would make the difference in me being able to stay there. In fact, once I had eaten and I was still that sick, that gave me clarity that I needed to leave. You know, spoiler alert, I didn’t make it to 21 days. I left after 14 days. And we found out I had a brown recluse bite on my neck.
And this was an infection on your cheek from a spider.
We don’t know for sure it was a brown recluse bite, but based on the way my flesh dissolved, it seems like it.
So I love how you just say when my face was dissolving just so casually.
Yeah, I have a scar.
I have one from when a kid hit me in kindergarten. It wasn’t a brown recluse spider, but that kid was a jackass. Anyway, what do people not see that happened on the show?
A lot of humor, I think. We were joking around a lot and making up songs and stuff. And it’s more like people expect it to be fake. I wish it were fake. It would have been great if they were giving us Gatorades and sandwiches. But they weren’t. And in fact, I remember one of the first nights, there is this emergency radio. So I pulled out the radio, and I radioed. And I said, hey, we’re surrounded by hyenas. And they were like, um, so what do you want us to do about it? I was like, I don’t know. You guys have guns. If we get attacked, you could try to scare the hyena. I don’t know. And they were like, oh, no, well, we can’t come out there with you. There’s hyenas. We can’t go out there.
[LAUGHS] Well, thanks.
So that was sort of what I realized. Oh, this is completely legit.
Yeah, you were actually in danger. So which was harder, “Naked and Afraid” or the Iditarod?
“Naked and Afraid” was probably more dangerous, and the Iditarod was harder and more frightening because in the Iditarod, I was responsible for other beings.
Right, interesting. I went back and read a piece that you wrote for The Atavist about being a tour guide and also mushing in Alaska as a day adventurer. You have disdain for the day adventurer. You called it flightseeing, which is an interesting word. I’m going to read this passage to you that I really thought was great. “Our job was to provide a luxury experience, all the thrills of the glacier with none of the discomfort, either physical or mental, that comes with the terrain. It wasn’t our efforts were secret. They were just invisible. We cleaned the kennels constantly so the tourists would be spared the sight of a single lump of dog poop. We raked the fur that collected on the snow and piled it behind the tents, an enormous mound we called the woolly mammoth. Sometimes we had to be creative. If the dog’s eyes got sore from the sun, I’d put mascara around them to minimize the reflected light. Those dogs must be related, the tourists would say, admiring the huskies with big black circles around their eyes. But because it was easier than explaining it, I just let them believe it.” So talk about this idea of sort of day adventurers.
I love day adventurers. I think anything that helps people get out into wilderness is good. But that essay was about a time when I was very unhappy in the service industry, in this corner of the service industry. I was very unhappy as a dogsled guide and that was because I was undergoing sexual violence while I was there. And it really highlighted the amount to which I was performing. And so that essay was about resenting people who normally I wouldn’t resent as a result of what I was going through myself. And it sort of backfired because after I wrote that, I had people contact me and say, you write about lying to tourists. And therefore you think lying is OK, and you’re also lying about the sexual violence you’ve come forward about. But either the nuances were not coming through in that essay, or people did not want to see them and are looking for ways to undermine women or survivors.
Well, welcome to the world.
Right, exactly, yeah. So it’s like, how can we find a way to prove that she’s untrustworthy? I wrote that essay probably when I was in my early 20s. And I’m in my early 30s now. But I think if I were sort of designing that tour myself, I would want to present a more complicated view.
Mm-hmm, right. Why is it that we don’t want to see a situation out of control? We try to suspend disbelief that we have control over a lot of things.
Yeah, I mean, it’s this sort of contradiction in a luxury wilderness experience because luxury implies that every single thing has been lined up just right for your comfort. And part of what I love about wilderness is that that is the opposite of the case. Nature does not give a shit. And I mean, I’ve always thought I would much rather be eaten by an animal than harmed by a person.
Because there’s no ill will. If I got eaten by hyenas, the hyena didn’t care about me. It wanted to eat. Whereas humans, we might be the only ones who just actively want to cause suffering to others. Maybe this isn’t true. Like cats, I think cats play with their prey and stuff. But overall, if you go into nature, it does not care.
You’ve written about surviving sexual violence and about your husband, who is transgender. You tweet a lot. What are the advantages and disadvantages of living so publicly?
The disadvantage is that there’s always people who are going to tell you, you’re wrong. And there’s always people who are looking for the moment that you slip up. And the advantage is that you get an incredible community of people who share the same values and who care about the same things you do and who find joy in the same things you do. I mean, we have an incredible community on Twitter who have started following the team. They’re so cool. When I was in Iditarod, they started a fundraiser called the Igivearod and raised $100,000 for causes along the trail.
Speaking of who wants to help you succeed, you work so closely with your spouse, doing these dogsledding races together in really harsh environments. Man, my wife had a hard time this morning with breakfast. It would test most marriages. What is the key to doing that?
I mean, luckily, we like each other a lot. And we also don’t agree on everything. And it’s his opinion that I want to hear. And we know how to ignore each other. People assume, for instance, that because he’s also a writer, like, most of what I publish — I mean, I don’t know if he’d even read my book before it came out. There’s ways in which we’re really in each other’s space, but we also just do our own thing. And I know that he supports every bit of it.
All right, so I was curious — are you a writer who adventures or an adventurer who writes?
It varies on whether I’m writing or adventuring that month. This year, I am more of a writer who adventures because I’m really turning my focus, I’m working on two books.
And what are they about?
These books are actually about sled dogs — a book of photos and a book of narrative nonfiction about mushing world and living with this many dogs. And what’s interesting is that if you write something from a female perspective, it’s seen as a book for women, whereas sort of the most meaningful readers I’ve had have often been men because a lot of that book is about being a young woman and how you are treated by men in different parts of the world. And women know that. I’m not writing that for women. Women know that.
Yes, you’re right, bingo.
Especially because some of it is ugly. And so, in some ways, I’m like, no, this is for men to read because they haven’t experienced this probably, whereas women know this shit. They don’t need to read my experience with it. They have their own.
How do you think we survive this time? This has been a very trying time for the entire planet. Not just the pandemic, but all kinds of things that are happening. And it feels like a very out of control time, in a lot of ways. And we all have warthogs and cracks in the glacier and recluse spiders of various types waiting to attack us metaphorically. What do we have to do right now?
I think it’s so easy to fall into despair if you think too far ahead. Just think to the next checkpoint. That’s all that exists, is whatever your next goal is, whatever the thing is you need to get to next. Get there, and then figure out what you’re going to do. You don’t need to plan it all. You don’t need to know it all. That’s not even possible.
And when you think about a lot of the rise and this idea of preppers and the end times, my brother, he has, like, this is my survival closet. And he said, what is your plan? And I said, I’m going to come and rob you. That’s my plan. That’s my plan right now. And there’s a lot of tech people. They all have motorcycles and places to go and helicop— they happen to do it up real heavy. But what do you make of that idea of that they’re going to have to survive in the wilderness or in some different world, where all hell breaks loose?
I think most people wouldn’t survive in the wilderness, although it’s actually kind of hard to die in nature. A lot of nature isn’t dangerous. It’s just uncomfortable because we’ve built a world of comfort around ourselves. I think that the most important prepping is taking care of each other. I worry that prepping turns into a fantasy. If you have a lot of tools, if you have a lot of guns, if you have a lot of survival equipment, you’re going to want to use it. And it turns into a way of being selfish. And if the way that you prepare for the unpredictable is by building your relationships, building your skills, taking care of your health, taking care of your family, making sure that there aren’t people falling through the cracks in society, I mean, then that’s prepping I can 100% get behind.
OK, if you had to pick one thing to bring out in the wilderness, one thing — when I was on Outward Bound, they gave you a match and some —
No, no, they gave us two matches, two matches. Let’s just assume there’s clean water. What would you take out in the wilderness? What’s one thing that’s critically important?
Oh, well done.
I’d rather have another person than any tool.
That is a really good answer. I wasn’t thinking- – I was going to be like, knife!
So what’s your next adventure with someone else?
I think the next project we really want to work on — and my husband and I are both sort of going about it different ways — is improving accessibility in the outdoors and in outdoor culture. We have such a narrow idea of what outdoorsy means, and it’s like a white, skinny, young, cisgender able-bodied person. And people who don’t fit into that are either not welcomed or systematically excluded. And my husband would love to do something about accessibility of the Iditarod trail. Not bringing people there, but bringing it to them.
I thought you’d say go visit the aliens that you met when you were on the trail.
Well, that, too.
No, I’m kidding. Would you go to space?
No, absolutely not! I do the things I do because I like this planet.
OK, all right.
OK, would I be guaranteed to come back alive?
No, would you?
No, never. Are you kidding? Kidding? I won’t leave my house.
Will you come mushing with me?
OK. I absolutely will.
Well, perfect. I’ll tell you what, come bring your children, visit the dogs, and we’ll do a survival experience. And you guys will be the tool that I bring, and we’ll see how it goes.
Survival experience. Is there a Four Seasons there?
Have your people talk to my people.
All right, deal. All right. I really appreciate it. Blair Braverman, thank you so much.
Oh, thank you so much. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“Sway” is a production of The New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Vishakha Darbha; edited by Paula Szuchman; with original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Eric Gomez; and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa.
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