While visiting Shelburne recently, NHPR’s Sean Hurley heard about Sally Manikian. She's a local dog musher - yes, that's unusual, but for reasons more than that, reasons he couldn’t quite discover, she'd caught the town’s attention. What, he wondered, made Sally Manikian so … well, interesting to her neighbors? He went to find out.
When Paul Patry hears the dogs barking in the distance he pulls his truck to the side of the road to watch. He knows Sally Manikian and her dog team will pass soon. “Well, I'm a logger up here and I'm also a moose shedder,” Patry says. “I pick up moose antlers. So I'm in here all the time and I see her here all the time.”
The sled glides out of the woods, 12 dogs at the front – Sally Manikian at the back - and Patry waves to them all as they pass along the old logging road. “She's unreal,” Patry says, “she's out here all the time. Doesn't matter what the weather is, how cold it is, she's out here.”
Though Manikian’s training runs usually manage to go unobserved, Sally herself, living in Shelburne, has not.
Sally, the locals say, is often the talk of the town. “She's singled out as quite an individual,” Steve Tassey says. “Yeah. I think the world of her.”
Ken Simonoko thinks the world of her too. “When I saw her standing on a woodpile with a chainsaw,” he says, “I said that's the girl for me.”
When I finally met up with the famous Sally during a break on one of her long training runs, I ask her why she’s so well known in town. It’s not her dog sledding, she says – she’s never won a race and there are other mushers in town.
Maybe, she suggests, the interest is due to the mystery of who lives in her house. “The first few years actually that we lived here,” she says, “my brother and sister don't go outside a lot - so everyone always wondered, is that you alone in that big house?”
I watch as she spreads hay on the snow for her dogs to sleep on. The 36-year-old woman and her team have just run 50 miles – they’ll run twice more and through the night. “This is what's called a double camp,” Sally says. “We'll run and then rest and then run and then rest and run. So run, rest, run, rest, run.”
After wrapping the dogs in warming vests, she hauls out a 5-gallon bucket loaded with red frozen bricks of meat that she begins to chop into smaller portions with an axe. “So this is beef and chicken. And this will be the snacks for the trail,” Sally explains.
This – the dogs, axing bricks of meat, mushing through the night - is not exactly the life she expected, she tells me. When she was a little girl she had a pet rat. The family had cats.
“I never wanted a dog,” she says. “I wanted everything else. I had a bird. I had goldfish. My sister had gerbils. I was actually really afraid of dogs.”
She has 22 dogs now. As a little girl, a lot of her time was spent indoors. “Like we weren't an outdoors family. We were not a hiking family,” she says.
This is due mostly to the disabilities of her younger brother and sister. “They have Fragile X which is a developmental disability,” Sally says. “It's an abnormality on the X chromosome that, you know, manifests in autism-like stuff - you know shyness, difficulty communicating.”
One day in high school, Sally went on a little adventure. “During April vacation,” she recalls, “on a really sunny bluebird day just taking a plastic lawn chair and like bringing it out in the middle of the woods and just sitting in the middle of the stream and being like, this is my day.”
She wanted more of these stream-sitting bluebird kinds of days – and as she got older, she found them. “When I was in my 20s,” Sally says, “I had a lot of back country field positions so I lived in the woods without running water or electricity a lot.”
But when she was 22 her mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. With her father no longer in the picture, Sally had to come home. “So when I was 22,” she says, “I knew that I would have the responsibility of my brother and sister. You know, usually when you're in your 20s is when you kind of make the decision about getting married and having kids and by then, my life - it just - I didn't have that choice anymore. So I never had to make that decision.”
But even as she began to care for her siblings, Manikian also knew she’d have to find some way to take care of herself. “We bought a house for my brother and sister and I to live in - and we moved in August and in September I had my first five dogs,” she tells me.
When I ask if there’s a connection, Sally says, “Oh absolutely! I also knew when I moved in with my brother and sister that I needed something that was uniquely mine. And at that point I was really, really depressed - like I had helped my mother die in a six-month period, I had packed up my family home, relocated my brother and sister north,” she says, and sighs.
“I had a hard time getting out of bed,” she continues, “and I knew that if I had dogs I had to get out of bed. And that's not why I have dogs now. Dogs are not my therapy but they've definitely filled a purpose because we need something that gets us out of bed and for me it's always been a sense of responsibility for other beings.”
She works full time for a national conservation organization. Her brother and sister have part-time jobs, cleaning six hours a week at local shops. When she travels for races, a caregiver is always at the house to watch them.
“It could be viewed as all a chore,” she says, “and some days it does feel like a chore but I think in the long run it really is more that there's multiple sources of success and failure and joy and sadness and they all balance each other out in a way that I think is important for me.”
Sally is often a topic of conversation when Shelburnites get together. You are the talk of the town, Ken Simonoko tells her at one such gathering.
“I was the talk of the town, right, nothing new?” Sally says and laughs. “I'm the town celebrity right?”
“You are. Of course,” John Gralenski agrees.
There’s a certain kind of person who becomes famous locally in a way that also means they will never be known to the wider world. Not famous for any great achievement or particular skill. Who they are is enough.
Which is why Paul Patry, who sees other dog mushers from time to time, only stops to watch when Sally passes on the sled.
Waving, gliding away into the wilderness. Run, rest, run-rest-run.