The tracks guided us through a desolate forest no man could call home. Perched between cars, I stuck my head out the window to feel the force of the train explode against the rushing winter winds. My heart began to thump at the speed of the engine and the frozen air made my eyes tear.
It was already mid May, but I grabbed my thick jacket, hat, and gloves, which were buried deep within the forgotten corners of my backpack. Up to this point in Alaska, I’d only witnessed temperate sunny days of spring, but to expect any sort of norm here is to be fooled by the violent, fickle weather of the Far North. Yesterday I strolled along hot rocks on the banks of Talkeetna, letting the sun kissed river run its fingers through my toes. Now every spruce tree and mountain top made way for ominous grey clouds and the frostbitten air they unleashed. A violent snow storm was forming and I was far from ready.
I had just awoken on the train, which was leaving the mountain climbing town of Talkeetna and speeding towards Denali National Park. But for a brief moment I had forgotten where I was heading. Nothing was familiar except lying down on the leather skin of a steel monster driving 100 mph into the great unknown. In front of me was a young petite girl who reeked of Walmart perfume and quarter life crisis. Behind me was a guy who seemed to be taking a refreshing weed nap, the poster boy for Alaska’s legal marijuana. The most interesting of all was a bigger woman sitting in front, who introduced herself as a professional “Adele impersonator.” She handed me her card, “in case you need my services”. I had no clue why me or any other God Forsaken soul would need such services. I boarded the Alaskan Railroad to watch the rolling winter landscape, but like always, my greatest entertainment was my fellow passengers.
“So why’d you come to Alaska?” I asked everyone, while asking myself the same question.
The petite girl said how bored she was with life after months of working in customer service for AT&T. Thank God, she’d now be working in customer service for a Denali gift store. Letting out a loud snore, the guy in the back jolted awake and said how he was here to work as a raft guide, making some quick cash before his next semester at college. The Adele impersonator, whose eyes were caked with eyeliner and lips dripping with lipstick, said she was paid by one of the hotels to “entertain guests”. More than anything it was that she too quit her job for another season in Denali.
That’s what happens here. Adventurous 20-somethings, jaded by the relentless routine of every day life, start reading Jack London stories, and screaming the words of Christopher McCandles from Into the Wild, “No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees!” They dream of Alaska as the last place in America where the youth can find true freedom. Then they sporadically book a one way ticket to Anchorage in May as if the midnight sun will thaw the frozen Earth and their problems with it. Some like the train conductor with a white beard and a questioning eye never left and the youthful summers turned to decades of aging winters.
He told me, “people come here looking to escape. Hell I know I did years ago. I don’t know what it is, but something definitely happens to those who move to Alaska for the summer.”
What’s immediately noticeable is how hair thrives in areas it normally didn’t and everything about their appearance seems wild. However, the true changes are more deep rooted. There’s an unblinking, courageous look in their eye after months of walking amongst grizzly bears taught them that fear will only make you prey.
Packing up everything they needed to survive in a backpack made them prefer the simplicity of a tent to the luxury of a Hilton suite. More than anything, it’s the dual respect and appreciation for the Earth after one of it’s most extreme environments has continually brought them to the peak of life and grips of death.
Now the other passengers and I were getting the first taste of it. It began as just a day of clouds , but it turned into something else. Much of the weather of the Alaskan Interior comes from the frigid Bering Sea of Russia and a few of us stood in the corridor to feel the brunt of the snow coming down. It wasn’t a blizzard, but instead a vengeful wind whipping pin needles of ice into the train and onto our faces. Feeling brave, I stuck my head out the window and my cheeks pushed into my eyelids that had begun to go completely numb. I wiped the frost off my face to see that the landscape had changed and changed again.
The train brought us past rushing rivers of salmon runs, over long valleys and seas of green, near black bear cubs climbing trees, and now we were now pushing on through the mind blowing Broad Pass, a valley within the Alaskan Range where herds of caribou migrate in the spring.
That was what made trains the optimal way to travel. They brought you remote places cars and buses could not. They rode at a comfortable speed where you could appreciate the land, as opposed to the lightning-fast-delusion of planes. One of the most euphoric feelings I’ve ever known was finding a seat on some foreign train, where you can watch as you drift into the dripping horizon.
I sat around with the other passengers, drinking a few beers and making mild plans to hangout once the season begun. But once June rolled around, we’d all be too engulfed in the madness of the Denali summer and most of us would never see each other again.
It was still snowing when I arrived in Denali National Park. Denali is relatively close to the Arctic Circle so blizzards could happen in the middle of July and I was getting the dreadful feeling that winter would follow me all season long. I got a ride from a girl from Wisconsin with blue hair and the same tattoo as me. She saw the dreariness of winter in my eyes so she gave me a hazy promise that summer was on its way.
Article by Spencer R. Morrison