One of the world's truly great road trips left Big Lake, Alaska Sunday as 38 teams blasted off on the famed Iditarod Trail in the start of the Iron Dog -- the world's longest, toughest snowmobile race.

Forget about the latter for a moment. The pro-class racers in the Iron Dog -- including Todd Palin, husband of national political celebrity and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- will get more than enough attention in the days ahead as 38 teams vie for $210,000 in price money along a 2,000-mile-plus, sled-bashing, body-pounding, potentially bone-breaking dash from the starting line on a frozen lake 60 miles north of Anchorage. Driving west, they'll reach the remote historic, gold-mining town of Nome near the tip of a peninsula in the Bering Sea by mid-week. After a short rest, they'll turn east towards Fairbanks, the self-proclaimed golden-heart city near the center of the 49th state, where they'll finish on Saturday.

Consider, instead, what lies ahead for these 29 forerunners on the trail:

  • The windswept and snow-drifted muskegs of the Alaska Range foothills.
  • The wild-and-serpentine trail through the beaver ponds and big-spruce forest on the climb up the rugged valley of the inappropriately named Happy River toward Rainy Pass.
  • The towering peaks of the Alaska Range.
  • The bison-filled regrowth of forest on the Farewell Burn, the site of what once was the largest wildfire in North America.
  • The smooth, frozen (hopefully) surface of the Kuskokwim River leading into the Interior.
  • The land gone lonesome in what was once the gold-rich "Inland Empire'' of the Alaska territory.
  • The mighty Yukon River, so big and so full of history, that flows west through the Interior toward the Bering Sea coast.
  • And the coast itself, a place beautiful in its desolation on a sun-blessed day and downright intimidating in a storm.