Hendrickson had expected to be with them. Hendrickson had worked so hard to try to be with them. Hendrickson was thinking the Iditarod would be her chance to at last enjoy that primordial splendor found in Alaska's winter wilderness.
"I work full time year-round," she said. "I work. I run dogs. I work. I run dogs. It's all for this. Mushers talk about being constantly broke, constantly tired. It's hard. The race is relaxation."
Or at least it is supposed to be relaxation. For Hendrickson this year, it has just turned into hell. After 20 hours here with a strong dog team and no sled, she was planning to call it quits on her second race.
It was a hard thing to think about. She had to fight back the tears when she did. She knew if she pushed herself she could keep going, but it just didn't seem worth it.
"I don't want to be the last musher," she said. "I feel like it's a cop out, but I don't want to keep going."
Zoya Denure -- another musher dropping out here with a different and unique problem, a breast infection -- tried to counsel Hendrickson with the reminder the Iditarod is supposed to be a race. If you can't race, Denure said, scratching is the thing to do.
"You can travel around home if you just want to travel," Denure added. Hendrickson, nodded and ran her fingers through her long, dark hair. She struggled to keep her heartbreak from being too obvious.
"I didn't really mush in the back of the pack even last year,'' she said. Back there now, she's discovering there's a different attitude. Some of the back of the packers aren't really in a race at all. They are in a survival competition. They travel slower. They rest more. They just try to hold things together for 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome.
A graduate of the University of Colorado, a former teacher turned environmental regulator, the 39-year-old Hendrickson confessed to some competitive juice in her veins. A one-time Iditarod volunteer, she started running dogs because it looked like fun. Then the dogs took over.
In 2003, she noted in her Iditarod bio, "I sold my house and everything in it, quit my job and headed north (to Talkeetna). I spent two years learning the ropes and paying my dues as a handler. I loved the lifestyle and running dogs. Then I got to run a race (the 2005 Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race on the Kenai Peninsula) and that got me hooked even worse. For the last couple of years I've been working on building my own kennel and racing my own dogs. Iditarod 2009 was my rookie year. It was the most fun I've ever had. My dogs convinced me we had to go again."
Her 2-year-old puppies were by this time 3-year-old, trail-hardened veterans. They had more power, more endurance, and they knew now to rest at checkpoints. Hendrickson shyly confessed that veteran musher Jon Little, after seeing her team this year, expressed his belief she could be in the Iditarod top-20.
Not that Hendrickson allowed herself any such expectations. But she did want to race, and she did until somewhere just outside of Finger Lake. Then she broke the runners on her sled.
"I'm going across this flat area,'' she said, "and then I hear this crunch, crunch.''
That was the sound of the runners snapping beneath her feet. Eventually the entire rear compartment of her tail-dragger sled broke off, leaving her with a problem. She still had the good half of a dog sled, but it wasn't big enough to carry her dog food and gear.
"The problem is I never thought about that,'' she said. "I couldn't get all the gear in the front.''
She squeezed what she could into the sled, tied some more to the outside, tossed the rest, and kept going. She made the checkpoint here fine, but with only half a sled, she knew there were big problems ahead.
"I could get to Rohn,'' Hendrickson said, "but I couldn't get across the Burn."
It is 75 miles across the Farewell Burn from the outpost cabin of Rohn to the Interior village of Nikolai. Mushers need to be able to carry enough food to feed a team at least once along the way. Hendrickson needed a sled that would carry such a load.
She sat there and waited, hoping someone else would scratch and volunteer her theirs. It didn't happen until too late.
"I've been waiting her 20 hours,'' she said over breakfast Tuesday. She had declared her 24-hour rest stop -- a mandatory break all mushers are required to take once along the trail to Nome -- so she was OK in that regard. But if she left at the end of it, she'd be far off the back of the race.
"I'd be seven hours behind the last person,'' Hendrickson said, "and (Iditarod race officials are) not going to go for that.''
With the screaming winds blowing snow sideways in Rainy Pass, race judge John "Andy" Anderson was telling mushers he wanted them to bunch up and work together to get through the notorious and narrow gap in the mountains. Hendrickson was pretty sure he'd fight her going over on her own, though she had faith it would be no problem for her dogs.
"God, they're so strong,'' she said. "They're so good this year. It was going so great.''
There she had to stop and struggle again to hold back the tears. She pushed back her chair and got up from the table. She didn't want to talk anymore.
"I gotta go do something to get my dogs out of the wind,'' she said, leaving to be alone with her best friends and her shattered dreams.
Craig Medred's Iditarod coverage for Alaska Dispatch focuses on the "back of the pack" mushers trying to reach Nome. His coverage will document the real life struggles of ordinary people when they cash in everything to chase their dream of becoming an Iditarod dog musher. The stories are a prelude to the forthcoming book, "Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations along Alaska's Iditarod Trail." Click to pre-order a copy.
Contact Craig at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com