Tornados, Iditarod, and Finding Rest in a Borrowed Community

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The morning of March 3, 2020, will be forever remembered by Middle Tennesseans as the day a tornado traversed nearly 60 miles and left utter devastation in its path. The day bears an added significance for me, as it was the first day of a bucket list trip to see the 48th Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska.

For both of these things to happen on the same day caused a peculiar confluence of emotion—an uncomfortable concoction of regret, joy, pain, confusion, and elation. When the tornado first ripped through our neighborhood at one in the morning, I immediately and rightly prepared myself to give up this trip I had been wanting to take since fourth grade. It’s not right to be joyful right now; we don’t deserve this. We need to stay home and be with our community. But then, as I swept up glass in our kitchen at 2:00 in the morning, my sweet husband said, “I can’t go on this trip. But you’re going, and you’re going this morning.”

Our driveway was covered by a 70-year-old poplar tree that was uprooted in the storm (one of about 30 trees we lost), so with the help of a neighbor I was whisked to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. It felt very much like an escape, and in several ways, it was. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I began to sense that I needed to disappear and be completely shaken from normalcy—which for me meant to be cold, makeup-less, tired, and smelling of dogs.

If I’m honest, I’ve been restless in recent months. Maybe you’ve felt this way, too. I’ve felt like that eighteen year old girl again—on the brink of womanhood, itching to make new friends, ready to experience newness. When you’re eighteen, you can pick up and go to college. When you’re twenty-nine, picking up and leaving without cause looks an awful lot like abandoning community and running away from your problems. There are people I love here. There’s good work to be done here. But for eight days, Alaska would be my disappearing act, my great escape.

There were a few final projects to complete for clients before I was able to turn off completely, so I had planned to use the airplane time to work, taking advantage of the on-flight wifi (a true wonder). Between completing tasks, I stared at social media, watching as the sun rose over Nashville to show the reality of the storm’s devastation. Pictures of our home began to arrive from my husband, who immediately readied his chainsaw at the first sign of light to begin cutting a way out of the driveway. My head echoed with what he’d said in the moments after the tornado passed over: “We need to pray right now and thank God we weren’t hit any worse.” In the darkness, we could tell there were large trees that had been uprooted and laid down on either side of the house, but the sunlight revealed how close we were to having lost our home. He sent photos and videos of our property, and our neighbor posted her own pictures of trees that fell on her cars and the havoc wreaked on our street.

From six miles in the air, I felt the opposite of what I had expected to feel on this flight: I longed to be home. I longed to put on my bibs and gloves and get to work. My husband told me people were showing up to help without question—dozens of them on a Tuesday morning. I was missing the evidence of a community’s true beauty, all because I had left and abandoned them for my own enjoyment.

At first it was hard to see that leaving was still the right decision, though several friends reminded me of this through text as I hurtled through the sky between Nashville and Seattle. I remember saying to Allan, my go-to conversationalist and wise sage during heavy times: “This doesn’t feel right, but somehow, I think it is.” “You’re right,” Allan assured me.

Community looks like people asking me how my husband needed help when I couldn’t be there to care for him. Community looks like people bringing him food (as a powerlifting lumberjack, he needs a lot of it). Community looks like families with their wee children picking up branches and giving my husband coloring pages to brighten his mood. Community looks like others taking photos of the help we were receiving. Community looks like people saying, “Mike, what do we need to do so you can join Leslie in Alaska?”

I went to Alaska to escape home. But Alaska became a reminder of what makes home so beautiful in the first place.

Leslie E. Thompson

Community also took the shape of comfort from strangers while in a distant land. I had gone to Alaska to become an observer, to melt away and blend into the tapestry of big coats and hats and gloves, but we cannot hide from kindness and grace, even in our parkas and massive fur hats. I was given a borrowed community in this new place. From the moment I set foot on Alaskan soil, I was welcomed. And when people asked where I was from (the Iditarod brings about many tourists, and, obviously, I was one of them), I was met with an immediate, “Are you okay? Is your family okay?” Everyone knew about the tornado that happened just hours before, even in a part of the world that’s so far north it’s basically Russia. I think more of the residents listen to NPR than most folks in the “lower 48,” and apparently, NPR’s coverage of the storms was extensive. Everyone knew about what happened, everyone had seen pictures, everyone wanted to help. I could almost see their hearts reaching out and grabbing for mine. The knee-jerk reaction to care for others in crisis is something we cannot help.

Due to the extreme kindness of several of our friends, and the quick turnaround from insurance and contractors, my husband joined me in Alaska two days later. We spent our time with the crew of an Iditarod legend, four-time champion Lance Mackey. (The reasons he’s legendary are infinite, but I’ll start with this: he’s the only person to win the race four times in a row. I had him on my podcast a few years ago, so if you’d like to learn more about him, you can listen here). I wanted a backstage, all-access pass, roadie experience, and that’s what we got. We broke bread with Lance and his family, we listened as he told stories from the trail, we held his children and cared for them while their parents were tending to race events. We hung out with big, amazing, loud, high-energy dogs and led them to the starting line of the 1049 mile race. We stayed up late. We stared at mountains. We were dang cold. We got tattoos.

And everywhere we went, people asked how we were. We left Nashville to escape and disappear, but instead we were seen and acknowledged by strangers. These people became our surrogate community. In the midst of their own crisis and high-stake events, they became the family we needed. I recall an evening at night’s end in the local haunt, Club Paris. It’s an Anchorage institution with the best steaks in town and a vibe that only fifty years of being on the “downtown strip” could produce. I sat across from my host, Kevin, as he told everyone at the table about my journey to Alaska. My eyes scanned the room and saw Lance across the bar recalling stories about his mother who passed last year, Lance’s children and partner giggling and running around the chairs and tables, and those who had put on the fundraising event cleaning up with beers in hand. I realized this was a membership, and I was being welcomed into it. Southern hospitality is great, but the welcome into Alaskan membership is even better. James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” played us out of the bar that evening as everyone left humming that familiar melody on their way home.

That week, I discovered that there’s a little bit of home everywhere.

I heard the whisper of home as I watched Hobo Jim, a Nashville songwriter and Alaskan superstar, playing to adoring fans.

I heard the echoes of home as Johnny Cash played at a local bar.

I felt the embrace of home when strangers wrapped me in southern-style hugs after learning what we had gone through.

I am not a gifted enough writer to bend words in a way that will make you feel what we felt in Alaska. We are stereotypical in this way: just about everyone who lives there was, at one point, a visitor that couldn’t get the state out of their heart. For Christmas, my mom gifted me a copy of Peter Jenkins’ book Looking for Alaska. Peter (another Nashvillian!) has the best job of all time. He meets people and experiences their lives and then writes about it. I assume he even gets paid for it. What a dream. He’s most known for his book, A Walk Across America, in which he wrote about his experience walking across the country. In Looking for Alaska, Jenkins moves to Seward, Alaska, for eighteen months and submerges himself in the culture. He observes, he listens, he experiences. I began reading the book in the weeks leading up to our trip, and this passage struck me:

Different seasons of the year, of life, demand different kinds of output. There is a time to sow and a time to reap. Sometimes it’s more mental, sometimes it’s almost purely physical. And at times your heart and spirit rule.

—Peter Jenkins, Looking for Alaska

I am reminded of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. There is a time for everything, we are told. I find it of note that at a time when I should have been physically in the act of helping the community, I was being called to a time of healing instead. I trace other times in life when I feel as though I should be in one season, but the one I’ve found myself in looks entirely different. Maybe this is something you resonate with as well.

It will take years to return to normalcy on our homestead. Downed trees will have to stay where they lay, dented land will have to fill itself in, tree roots will have to remain exposed. But the pain of seeing the displacement of these things is tempered with the reminder that during the season of crisis, there was comfort. During the chaos, there was the order of love and care both near and far. They will serve as reminders that while our hearts yearn to see and experience new things, and yes, sometimes disappear, we cannot find ourselves without the oversight of a creator who loves us and cares for our needs.

I went to Alaska to escape home. But Alaska became a reminder of what makes home so beautiful in the first place.


2 Comments

  1. Rhonni

    @nightngale

    Leslie, you bent words enough to bring tears to my eyes (actually I was sobbing) as I read your story. I know what it’s like to live in isolation from community, what it’s like to leave a great community and try to find another, and now, what it’s like to hunker down and live in community in a quite different way. Thank you for your words!

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