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The Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks, AK

"I can still sleep tonight, but I don't know about tomorrow night," said Crispin Studer, a mechanical draftsman and first-time Yukon starter. He recently moved from Erlach, Switzerland, to Whitehorse because "in Switzerland, we do not mush."

"The big nowhere—where else would I want to be?" asked Studer, hobbit-like in his thick oval glasses and green stocking cap, with a crooked smile. He said all he was hoping to do was "finish"(which he would do, 18th in the field of 31, after 13 days, 14 hours, and 12 minutes on the trail).

Others felt the same way. Agata Franczak, 49, originally from Poland, now of Dawson City, Yukon Territory, has been mushing dogs for 13 years and "trying to convince every other woman in Cracow and Warsaw to do the same," she said. "To be out there with my dogs in that huge country gives me a sense of humility."

Even among the stars, people like Hans Gatt and Zack Steer, who would battle it out for first and second place, respectively, there was a sense of the sheer vastness of the land and the task ahead. "I want to win, of course," said Steer, a two-time Iditarod finisher. "But I respect it more—a thousand miles, all that openness. And if you don't respect that, you don't respect anything."

Walking out to the icy parking lot of Cold Spot Feeds, past the dozens of pickup trucks, the mushers' respect seemed the correct way to feel about the entire Alaskan interior. Civilization had stitched itself into the landscape here, but humanity's presence was by no means irrevocable. The country was big and rough, never tame. It still could swallow you up like a lost prospector.

It was about nine o'clock now—p.m.?a.m.?Either way, this being Fairbanks, we were already seriously behind schedule in our drinking. Most of the old pipeline joints are gone, but saloons have come to take their place. We settled in at the Midnite Mine, which sounded like a leather bar in New York, but here was just one more dispenser of Alaskan Amber with a lot of Doors and Bob Seger songs on the jukebox.

The plan was to have a couple of cold ones, and then drive up the Steese Highway due north, past Fox and the turnoff to Chena Hot Springs. The Steese,one of Alaska's oldest roads, was first laid down soon after gold was discovered. Even now, the pavement goes for just 60 or so miles outside of town. After that is only gravel. The car-rental people make you swear you won't drive their cars up there. But the boys over at the geophysical sector of the university were predicting an especially active aurora, and we thought this was the place to see it, where the road gave out, where the sky looked the way it must have when the first people here gazed up.

But even if 25-below-zero temperatures have a way of sobering up a half-drunken man, driving didn't seem the best idea—we could smack into a moose, or whatever else they had all the way up there. As it turned out, there was no need to drive the Steese.

The aurora came to us, right in downtown Fairbanks, hanging above the telephone poles and the neon signs, a grand green swath edged with purple, the product of who knew how many billions of electrons sent straight from the sun. First it approached in straight lines, like a piece of pulsating graph paper, then it began to swirl, like a vortex.

A vortex over Fairbanks—that was wild, extreme. I stood in front of the Midnite Mine thinking of my pal Kazuo, who'd traveled thousands of miles to "the big nowhere" in the hope that the northern lights might help him and his wife have a child who'd one day be at the top of her class. Who was to say it wasn't true?Looking up, I felt smarter already.

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