(Editor's Note: To read this book for yourself, request book number RC61948 from your state's library for the blind.)
The Iditarod is probably the most celebrated of all dog sled races worldwide. It follows an 1,100-mile course from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. The event, held once each winter, is so demanding, with rough terrain and unforgiving weather, that the fastest finish time ever was just short of nine days! In "No End in Sight," a young woman, legally blind from birth, describes in vivid first-person prose her pursuit, from the age of 8, to compete in that famous race, a dream realized at the age of 20.
This book, very skillfully narrated by Kristen Allison, has in its 278 pages much to fascinate every low-vision athlete and every dog lover, as well as something for outdoor lovers, policy wonks, accessibility advocates, legal eagles, amateur psychoanalysts, and family therapists, among others. It is a rich autobiographical chronology, from the delivery room, when the newborn's impaired eyesight was first noted, to that ultimate athletic contest in Alaska.
It was Rachael's experiences competing with fully sighted public school classmates in track and in cross country that spoke loudest to me. She, running an extra mile along a cross-country course when she missed a turn; me, relinquishing first place by misjudging the location of the finish line at a track meet. I was running the anchor leg on Nathaniel Hawthorne Junior High School's half-mile relay team, but not because I was the fastest of the four-member relay team. Only years later did I figure out why the coach put me in that anchor position. He must have wisely judged that I might have trouble aiming the baton into my teammate's hand stretched back behind him before running the next leg of the relay race.
Rachael's vision impairment drew taunts and ridicule from classmates, she recalls. That did not speak to me. True, I had formidable fighting skill. But her apparent social clumsiness seemed to be her primary vulnerability, not a lack of physical prowess. In fact, the story offers ample evidence that Rachael Scdoris was actually an extraordinary physical specimen.
Several of the experiences recounted which illustrate Rachael's heroic determination also illustrated her father's questionable behavior. One morning Rachael jogged the entire 26 miles from her rural home to her high school because the bus she regularly caught for the trip failed to appear. I couldn't help but wonder why her father did not wait for the bus with her instead of simply dropping her off and driving away. A few pages further on in her narrative, Rachael describes completing a grueling sled dog race painfully frost-bitten after taking a severe spill at an undetected sharp turn just out from the starting line. Her clothing was filled with snow from the incident resulting from her father's failure to competently perform his role as her two-way radio "visual interpreter" following behind her on a snowmobile.
Mr. Scdoris was not the only visual interpreter who failed at times to provide Rachael with sufficient visual information during sled dog races. Many pages in the book report, in great detail, a long series of sled dog races which led up to the climactic episode of the story, the Iditarod. In these many races, Rachael was always accompanied by someone of her choosing, driving a snowmobile (referred to as a "snow machine") just ahead or just behind her sled. One of these helpers was Dan. His unhelpful shout over the radio was, "Get back on the trail," when Rachael's dogs took her off route onto an adjacent highway. "Get on the brake!" puzzled her. "Cliff just ahead!" would not have puzzled her. Dan did better with his descriptive communication sometimes. "Corner left! Lean left!," for example. And then, "Switchback right," "Quarter mile, switchback left."
Rachael's own imperfections are revealed from time to time in the story too. Never far short of awesome physically, but certainly an emotionally flawed human at times. "I told myself that I really did not care if I even finished this ridiculous race," she recalls thinking during particularly frustrating sled race conditions. Later she admits, "It was pretty much the height of embarrassment." And on another occasion, "I expected Dad to lecture me."
Rachael shares with readers her struggles with her self-image as a blind person, sometimes projecting, however understandably, onto others and how they saw her. She writes, "... but it seems everyone I come in contact with focuses on one thing, what I can see. Or, to be more precise, what I cannot see." Then comes a musing with which many low-vision readers will identify, "Exactly what do I see? I have been asked that question a million times." When she writes about her particular vision impairment, "It is just different. That is all," some will mutter, "Denial" and find confirmation in a following passage. " 'Disabled' means unable. I am not unable."
Rachael's sensitivity to the attitudes of others toward her vision impairment showed vividly when the time came to apply for permission to compete in the Iditarod. Rachael worried that her special need for visual interpreters might be enough to result in a rejection. But she believed that the law was on her side. She writes, "After all, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) virtually guaranteed that I be granted reasonable accommodation." Then she adds a more pragmatic observation in her favor, "Besides, having me run the race would only attract more public interest. In the long run, that could only benefit the Iditarod."
The most thought-provoking part of the entire story for me was this account of Rachael's attempts to gain entry to the Iditarod. Her preoccupation since she first frolicked with her father's sled dogs as a young child, that participation did not come easily. It turned out to be a greater challenge than all the physical demands of her innumerable preparatory dog sled races. The problem, as she anticipated, was not the quality of her record in dog sled competition, but the special accommodation she required. The fairness of being accompanied by a second person to narrate the course to her generated much debate among members of the race's executive board. I was reminded of the current controversy over a world-class track star who runs on prosthetic legs which are suspected by some critics of giving him more spring in his stride than his fellow runners can get from their God-issued natural legs. There is currently a competitive woman swimmer without legs, causing some to wonder if having legs is a net deficit causing more "drag" on her competitors than the "kick" produced by legs. Then there is the matter of the 2007 New York City Marathon Committee banning the wearing of headsets by runners because it has been decided that listening to inspiring music confers an unfair advantage to runners wearing them. The live music being played along the race route which touches all five of New York's boroughs, and of course, the cheering crowds, certainly inspired me during my marathon runs. But those sounds were available to all of my competitors too. These days I use a sighted guide in road races, and I assume it is obvious to spectators that there is enough slack in the thin strip of cloth that connects us that he is not pulling me along!
My closest personal association with the Iditarod came when a large contingent of blind lovers of the out-of-doors were housed in an Anchorage hotel during a week-long Ski For Light event. The ceremonial starting line for the race was a short stroll from our hotel on a downtown street. Our winter's exceptionally mild weather had required trucking in snow to create a better "photo op" for the start just a few days earlier. No such good meteorological fortune Rachael's year. The last portion of "No End in Sight" goes into great detail about each segment of the monstrous climatic and geographic obstacles confronting Rachael during her Iditarod. There was so much detail, in fact, I became impatient to get to the inevitable climax. Then, a surprising ending! An ending you won't read about in this review. Get the book and find out for yourself!
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