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“Mary, I don’t know if you’ll remember me.” The woman who approached me before my speaking event in Jackson looked familiar, but I couldn’t make the connection. “Years ago, we met at the Alpine sled dog race.”

“That was my first Iditarod race,” I said and felt myself blush. “I arrived to Alpine completely unprepared.” I cringed at the memory. “I was so new to Wyoming, I had no idea what I was doing.”

She laughed. “You were great.”

I chuckled, but shook my head. “No, I wasn’t, but thank you. Everything that could go wrong, did. It’s amazing I even filed a story that day.”

One of my first newspaper assignments when I moved to Wyoming in 2004 was to cover the Alpine leg of the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race. I wasn’t just new to the Cowboy State, I was new to Wyoming winters. I had always associated freezing with the “balmy” 32 degrees that it takes for water to freeze. I had no idea that subzero temperatures existed. Unfortunately, one of the signs of freezing to death is the loss of cognitive function, so I may have already had one foot in my frozen grave.

In my ignorance of Wyoming winters and wanting to make a good first impression on the job, I dug into the back of my closet for my only wool outfit, which at the time, consisted of a plaid, wool mini-skirt and matching jacket. I found black tights that I paired with black heels. When I stepped out of my warm car, I thought the initial bite in the air would subside. I was in a word – clueless.

It was ten below with some kind of wind chill factor. I still don’t know how the wind chill factor is calculated only that it somehow involves math, my mortal enemy. If I ever found myself in a life-or-death situation that involved math, I would breakout my compact instead of a calculator so I could at least freshen up to look my best for the Grim Reaper.

Suffice to say, it was freezing with wind that made my teeth chatter, my legs shake and I lost all feeling in my feet. When I found the man I was supposed to interview, my pen stopped working. Ink is not only thicker than blood, but also freezes to a solid quicker. As a journalist’s daughter, I had always joked that I had ink in my blood, and with the combination of the temperature and my attire, my journalism genetics almost seemed like a death sentence.

That’s when someone, possibly the woman who reintroduced herself to me last weekend, offered me a pencil and gloves. I don’t think I ever returned either. With trembling hands and slurred speech, I began my interview. I’m sure a lack of intelligence or sobriety was immediately questioned more so than the absence of a winter wardrobe.

By sheer dumb luck, my camera didn’t freeze and I was able to snap the necessary pictures to accompany my story. I walked as fast as my frost-bitten feet would allow to my car where I knew I needed to go home and make a fire. My outfit seemed like perfect kindling. They say the clothes make the person and at my first Alpine Race I was just a harlequin’s hat away from being a complete fool.

The memory of covering that Alpine sled dog race was one of myriad memories that returned when I was in Jackson last weekend. Locals reintroduced themselves to me, which made me feel so welcomed and homesick.

I wasn’t new to journalism when I moved to Wyoming, but that first winter tested my resolve. My saving grace was the community, who introduced a Southern Californian to the necessities of surviving a Wyoming winter – hat, gloves, boots and a sunny disposition because that would be the only warmth I’d feel on my face until Spring.

Today, Saturday, Jan. 27, the Alpine leg of the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race will begin at 9 a.m. at the Greys River Trail Head Parking lot.

If you’re planning to attend the event today – please dress warmly.

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Mary Billiter can be reached at marybilliter@ymail.com

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