The 36th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race launched from the world of glass, steel, concrete and traffic on Saturday.
For the 96 people most intimately involved, this isn't exactly like being shot into space -- but close.
Anchorage has all the congestion and noise of a city. Out there, in Alaska, wait overwhelming emptiness and great, white silence.
It will not take the leaders of this 1,100-mile race to Nome long to reach it. By nightfall today, they will be slipping beyond the last of the hearty partyers who venture out on snowmachines to cheer on dog teams trotting down the frozen Susitna River toward the turn north at the confluence with the Yentna.
From then on, there will be only occasional contacts with what we consider civilization:
A cluster of people outside the Yentna Station Roadhouse in the twilight;
A swarm of airplanes circling the airstrip at the community of Skwentna on Monday;
Another buzz of small planes at the Finger Lake checkpoint 45 miles along the trail past Skwentna as civilization fades in the way gravity is left behind as the space shuttle rockets into the atmosphere.
For the drivers of some Iditarod teams, all focus will shift quickly from the hubbub of Anchorage's ceremonial start to the demands and discipline required to win The Last Great Race. For most, though, there will be simply the immersion into an earlier, more romantic world -- before automobiles and computers conditioned us all to live life in a constant hurry even when there's nowhere to go.
Behind a dog team, there is no hurry. You can only go as fast as the dogs want to go, and for most people in this quote-unquote "race,'' that's not all that fast.
Fewer than 10 teams is this field can be considered legitimate contenders for victory. Another 10 have, at best, an outside chance -- if their dog team happens to come together in that way that is so magical and so rare, if their sleep-starved brains don't lead them to make a strategic coaching mistake and if they get just a little lucky.
Two-thirds of the teams have no chance at even making it into the top-20 money, and they know it. But they don't care.
These are the people like Liz Parrish. They are in the Iditarod purely for the adventure.
"I only have one 50th birthday, so I want to do it right,'' the pint-size Oregon innkeeper said as she waited for her turn to depart Fourth Avenue on Saturday on what she plans to be her first and only Iditarod.
Bundled heavily against the cold, Alaska Range wind whistling down the 20-degree city streets, she looked almost as wide as she was tall. Not in a weight sense, mind you, but in a bundled-up-by-mom-against-the-cold sense. Parrish claims to be 5-foot-1, but that's obviously counting the high heels on thickly insulated arctic boots.
What she lacks in size, though, she clearly makes up in spirit.
"It's just a sled dog race,'' she bubbled. "It's just like all the others.''
Well, sort of, in the sense that a high-school homecoming football game is just like the Super Bowl.
Suffice it to say, Iditarod mushers don't come much greener than Parrish. Her Iditarod qualifying races were the Montana Race to the Sky and the Klondike 300 in the Susitna Valley, where she picked up the red lantern earlier this year. She has yet to experience the nasty curve at the bottom of the big hill where the Iditarod Trail crashes down from the Finger Lake checkpoint. Nor has she endured the "steps'' down to Happy River, where if the first switchback doesn't cause you to crash, the second or third probably will.
She has, of course, been forewarned. She moved from her home at Crystal Wood Lodge near Klamath Falls in the beginning of winter to train with Iditarod veteran Jamie Nelson in northern Minnesota.
"I've been gone from Oregon since the 9th of September,'' Parrish said.
She got to experience a good bit of bad trail in Minnesota, she added. It helped build the bond between musher and the dogs. She has a team she raised and trusts.
All those things can only help along the Iditarod Trail.
It didn't help when Parrish, wearing a bike helmet, crashed on the trail's first turn, leaving Fourth Avenue.
But more important than any of this may be that Parrish has a hard-earned survivor's understanding that the road to success is often as simple, or as difficult, as just hanging on from one day to the next.
Parrish has beaten cancer, fibromyalgia and scoliosis. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say she fought them to a draw.
The cancer caused the painful curving of the spine that is scoliosis. Parrish confesses that can sometimes make it uncomfortable to ride a dog sled, but she doesn't intend to let that stop her.
"I draw inspiration from the toughness of these dogs as they continue to grow and tap into their potential,'' she wrote on her Web site. "No matter where we go, Iditarod or beyond, we live by the motto: "Quitting is not an option!"
But she's not doing Iditarod on a lark, either. She's been a dog person since an Aussie, a Norwegian elkhound and a beagle-mix showed her that dogs like to pull. That was a decade ago.
Parrish quickly went from what she calls an "enthusiastic and naive beginning with (that) motley crew'' to a kennel of 28 Alaskan huskies.
She started scoping out the Iditarod eight years ago when she came north as a volunteer to work at the McGrath checkpoint. She's followed the race closely ever since.
She came back last year to watch the start and get a feel for how everything works. She's spent weeks in Alaska this winter exploring Susitna Valley trails.
So, she's not exactly a neophyte.
Then again, she's a long way from a Rick Swenson or Lance Mackey. On Friday, she admitted that the first time she'd ever hooked a full, Iditarod complement of 16 dogs to her sled was but two days ago.
"That was like strapping a rocket to your a--,'' she said.
Today this gang blasts off from Willow on the adventure of a lifetime.
Godspeed, Liz Parrish.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.