Photography by Leland Marshall
Marla BB and her dog team
Marla BB reached to the middle console of her truck, grabbed a chunk of homemade cake, took a gulp of strong black coffee from a mug she'd balanced on her dash, mashed her foot on the accelerator and steered with her free hand, ascending the gravel road and turning abruptly into the driveway of her new eco-cabin—the new home of Hilltown Wilderness Adventures in West Chesterfield—without spilling a drop or a crumb.
"I really want you to see the composting toilet," she said, braking and stepping out of the truck to make way for her dog, Lightning—aka "Boo," a Malamute—all in one fluid motion while still holding coffee and cake.
"I know it's a, umm, you know, it's only a toilet," she says, frowning for half a beat, then grinning widely, "but it really just blows me away."
The composting toilet. And the wood stove—"It's from Sweden and super-efficient," she noted. And the solar panels and insulation and energy-efficient windows and wood and flooring milled from timbers on the property and, of course, the plan (as of press time, nearly a reality) for a greenhouse garden irrigated by brown water from the cabin.
Marla BB doesn't bubble and she doesn't gush—she's not the type. But this tour of the nascent lodge on a late autumn day was a loving, almost reverent showing of a building designed and outfitted to be uber-ecological, a building that's kicked her ass and cost her a bundle she doesn't have but that represents both the physical and spiritual center of her life in Western Mass.
It is also represents a compromise, a workable alternative to what might have been a life in the big, untamed state of Alaska, where BB has become heavily involved in the annual Iditarod Great Sled Race, working as a dog handler for top racer Aliy Zirkle.
"When Nancy and I had Ruby," BB said, referring to her partner, Nancy Rothenberg, and their six-year-old daughter, "it put my longing for adventure to a serious test. I really wanted to go to Alaska, to just immerse myself in the mushing scene. But now I had a family that I loved and wanted to be with. I decided if I couldn't go to Alaska, I could try to bring some of that vibe here. There are a lot of similarities—Alaska and the hilltowns. Lots of space, woods, wild animals, great places to recreate, to breathe. And we have people who get it, who want to stay connected with the natural world."
Leaning on her years of work as a teacher and martial arts instructor and a lifelong passion for skiing and boating—among a number of outdoor pursuits that grew to include mushing—BB obtained the requisite certification and insurance to operate as a wilderness guide and opened Hilltown Wilderness Adventures.
"I was like, let's see if I can make a living doing the things I love," she said.
The eco-cabin and the land it sits on will allow BB to expand her operation, taking on larger groups, whether hardcore action junkies eager for a mushing adventure or, say, inner-city school kids who've never experienced the wilderness before.
On this particular day, the eco-cabin is not a finished project ready for its grand opening. That point was underscored when, in mid-sentence, while she was showing me how to rake out the composting toilet, Marla looked out the basement window to see the town building inspector pulling into the driveway.
The composting toilet would have to wait.
Not 30 minutes earlier, BB had been enticing me with less prosaic implements than her new toilet (her new composting toilet, that is).
We'd already spent a good chunk of the morning with her team of 10 Alaskan sled dogs, huskies bred from Iditarod champions. Marla had introduced me to each one, pointing out the particular physical and temperamental characteristic that each brought to the team, all the while scooping poop—a Sisyphean task. From the kennel area we made our way back to the house, where she showed off a couple of her favorite toys: dry-land dogsleds, basically tricycles with big, fat tires that you ride standing up, presumably while being pulled by a team of dogs.
"Take that one for a spin and I'll run in and grab us some coffee," she'd said, nodding toward a slick-looking rig with hand brakes. She'd pulled the contraption from a garage overstuffed with every kind of sports gear. Skis, bikes, boats and all sorts of iterations of dogsleds mingled with life jackets, wet suits, paddles, fishing rods and boots in a giant, disorderly pile, but Marla seemed to know exactly what and where everything was.
"Just point it downhill and go," she said. "It's a lot of fun."
Down a long driveway and out onto a dirt road I glided like a gladiator in his chariot. Behind me—all around me, really—I heard Marla whooping encouragement.
By the time I climbed back up the hill, pushing the tricycle ahead of me, Marla was standing by her truck, holding two mugs of steaming coffee and absolutely beaming.
"Fun, huh?" she said. "I can see you're a real pro at that. Now you've got to try it with the dogs. So, want to go see the property?"
Later in the day, Marla led me on a twisting, turning hike over that property. Although not a particularly vast parcel—about 17 acres—it is prime, spilling down a mountainside in West Chesterfield, with a rich variety of trees and woodland plants, some of the terrain quite steep, some of it flat. The views are amazing.
During the hike, as I watched her climbing over blowdowns and jumping trickling brooks, she appeared the epitome of the warrior athlete, agile, liquid, but hard, even brutal. Any doubt I might have had about the cardiovascular condition of a 50-year-old dogsled musher was quickly dispelled by what long-distance runners refer to as the "talk-test." Running over hill and dale, Marla doesn't once let the simple act of breathing interrupt her running travelogue—a free-flowing narrative that includes not only observations about all the beauty we see before us, but insights into her past adventures and the dreams she has for the future.
And when she stops for a minute to give her Malamute some loving attention, Marla shows off the lungs and pitch control of a trained blues singer, howling and enticing Boo to join in.
For readers who follow the local arts scene, the name Marla BB will sound familiar. An accomplished blues singer and recording artist, BB—who adopted her stage name a few years back, changing it from Brodsky—made her living touring nationally for many years. She's opened for some of the greats—Delbert McClinton, Koko Taylor—and shared the stage with the likes of Pete Seeger. Since moving to the Valley in 2000, she's earned accolades like this from Ken Maiuri of the Daily Hampshire Gazette: "Marla BB is a wildly expressive singer, going from a low purr to a torrid, breathy vibrato to a high-throated Billie Holiday croon to a raw scream, all in the space of a couple lines."
A black belt in tae kwon do, BB has also been a strong presence in the martial arts scene in the Valley, where she's taught self-defense and used martial arts training as the basis for a series of violence prevention and empowerment programs.
She got her start in music at 12, chanting in synagogue. As a teenager in Philadelphia, she studied voice at the Curtis Institute of Music; at 18, she moved to Boston to study at Emerson College; she also enrolled at the renowned Berklee College of Music. At the age of 21, she graduated from Emerson with a degree in drama and two years of professional experience at Reality Theater, which would later become Theater Works, the acclaimed experimental theatre troupe.
In the working world, BB was a multidisciplinarian from the start, mixing theater, music and movement as a teacher and performer while continuing her own studies. She trained in the Alexander Technique, which emphasizes the importance of breathing and posture—an athlete from a young age, BB had a good sense of the power of breathing, a sense refined through years of voice training—and began to explore martial arts. When she could, she stayed in touch with the outdoor activities.
To hear Marla BB even try to encapsulate the '80s and '90s is almost comical, not because of the dizzying number of tangents required to cover so many eclectic experiences, but because she is never once breathless as she does it.
"It was a wild time," she told me, "going all over the place as a teacher, meeting all kinds of students in all kinds of environments. And then going on the road with a band. Busy, but it all fit together: teaching, singing, studying, training&" She paused and looked at me intently, reaching out to touch my forearm.
"And always breathing," she said, flashing a smile.
Now, as Chesterfield's building inspector Paul Tacy talks to Marla about the insulation in the cabin—"You want to get that buttoned up before the snow comes," Tacy advises—my eye returns to a painting Marla's seven-year-old daughter Ruby has recently done. In essence, it is a view of the life BB and Rothenberg have created for themselves and their daughter in a place surrounded by trees and mountains, rivers and lakes, where dogs run and a child steps out on a path to adventure.
In one part of the painting, Ruby has depicted her mother's bonfire ring, a place BB considers deeply spiritual. As easy as it is to imagine BB and her clients sharing time together in such a primal setting, Ruby's storybook depiction of a fire surrounded by four empty logs invokes a serious question: has Marla BB, in her effort to create the world of her dreams, finally bitten off more than she can chew?
The life of a wilderness guide may sound romantic, but there are a couple of harsh realities, including the big three: you can get yourself or other people killed if you screw up; the money generally sucks; and it's a young person's game. Some of the most famous guide services, like Exum Mountain Guides in Grand Teton National Park, actually provide a good enough living to keep experienced men and women—names like Jack Turner and Evelyn Lees come to mind—in the game well into their sixties and beyond. But for a small operation in Western Mass. run by a woman who seems constitutionally inclined to treat each client to a custom-designed wilderness experience, the ingredients of which can be mixed, matched and massaged from an a la carte list—hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, skijoring, mushing—the potential risk surely outweighs the chance for lucrative return.
BB finishes speaking with the building inspector and prepares for our hike. For the first time I notice what looks like stress etching her face, and she acknowledges that difficulties lining up the financing for the eco-cabin have turned the tasks of design and building into a slower and more precarious process than she first envisioned. She could have continued to operate out of her home on Cummington Road, where she and Nancy and Ruby and the dogs live, foregoing a project that will require her to service a sizable bank loan while trying to build her business. But she wanted to do something more, something not only to secure her business but to preserve a small part of the wilderness that brought her to Chesterfield in the first place.
"And I wanted to do it green, to show that we really can live lightly on the earth," BB said.
In a day and age when politicians of a certain stripe want to revise the image of the rugged individualist and risk-taking entrepreneur to fit their desired story line—a story line that celebrates greed and selfishness and paints the wealthiest among us as misunderstood and largely unappreciated benefactors, the sole creators of economic opportunity—Marla BB is the real deal, a person with true grit, a person willing to take risks not just for money—not for money at all—but for love: love of family, love of wilderness, love of adventure.