It’s all too common to say “cheers” or “salud” when raising a glass in celebration. Within that arena, “To the horses!” may sound a tad bizarre, but it’s been my default toast for the last 15 years. Whenever my wife and I raise our glasses, those three little words escape our lips. We say it so much, in fact, that we are sometimes asked for an explanation. We are always happy to regale, even though the backstory is utterly tragic.
The toast reached a broader audience when I gave it to Doren, the best friend of protagonist Jonas in the Immortal Wake series. Doren wields it like a personal mantra, which signals to the reader that it carries weight. When I first called attention to it in Transient, I explained with the following passage:
Doren’s trademarked toast was a nod to his early days in Alaska. It referenced the old borough town of Skagway. Dead Horse Gulch, a ravine north of town, earned its nickname after 3,000 pack animals perished there during the infamous Gold Rush. The area served as a short but treacherous passage to the Yukon. The steep terrain was so dangerous that overburdened horses often broke their legs on jagged rocks. Trekkers refused to waste ammunition to put suffering animals out of their misery. Instead, they dispersed their loads onto the other animals and let the injured fall to their deaths in the ravine. This happened so often that the stench of the rotting corpses polluted Skagway a dozen miles away. The story horrified Doren, who pledged to toast every brave horse that died. He had long passed the 3,000-drink mark, but he continued the ritual nonetheless.
The heartbreaking reality is that it’s completely true.
My wife and I lived in Seattle for several years. Trips to Alaska were a common custom, so we partook as well. We visited several towns along the Inside Passage, including Ketchikan, Sitka, and Juneau. We even made it as far north as Carcross in the Canadian Yukon, which served as a backdrop for The Mortal Vestige. We learned a great deal about the local cultures and history, but nothing prepared us for the horror that awaited us in Skagway.
My wife and I in Carcross, Yukon
Skagway is a charming town, don’t get me wrong. It’s just the launching point to a truly horrific site. We embarked on a scenic railway tour through White Pass (a delightful experience that we highly recommend). The weather was great, the scenery was gorgeous, everything was perfect. A peppy guide provided color commentary, which was great until we got to Dead Horse Gulch. Her voice turned somber as she revealed its grisly history. Knots formed in our stomachs. Our smiles faded into revulsion. We spent the rest of the ride in queasy silence.
Later that evening, we were enjoying a delicious meal and reflecting upon the day. When we revisited Dead Horse Gulch, I raised my glass and said, “To the horses.” My wife echoed the sentiment and clinked her glass to mine.
And so began a tradition that continues to this day.
It warms my heart that Doren is a fan-favorite character in the Immortal Wake series. When I was creating his arc, I knew from the beginning that he was going to be an Alaskan native, but bits and pieces of his personality remained unclear. His backstory is also quite tragic (which you can read about in Transient), so it seemed only natural that a tale like Dead Horse Gulch would arouse his deepest sympathies. The toast gave him a relatable depth that defined his path. As a result, this simple gesture became the emotional backbone of the series.
Every now and then, a fan of the books will greet me with the toast, which always makes me smile. The gesture serves as my newsletter valediction and I still invoke it in conversation. It’s habitual at this point, and it always carries an undertone of “we can do better.”
So whenever you find yourself with glass in-hand, raise it high and join me in salute.
To the horses! (clink)