For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to work on a train. I don’t know what is so appealing about them, but there’s something about the nostalgia of train travel, and the fact that very little has changed about the railroad in all its years of existence and it still remains one of the most effective and enjoyable means of travel.
Well, this sure seems to be the summer of dreams, because recently I’ve started getting some shifts to work on the northbound train, to welcome Holland-America guests to Denali and teach them a little bit about the park before they arrive. It’s seriously one of the most fun (and chaotic and stressful!) shifts I’ve ever worked!
On Train Day, I meet up with two Iditarod mushers (Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore!) who also greet the train passengers, and we ride 2 1/2 hours south in a transport van to the location of Hurricane. Hurricane isn’t a town… it’s just a location on the side of the railroad tracks. I was pretty stoked when I first learned I’d get to meet Aliy and Allen in person, after watching them both cross the finish line of the Iditarod in 2013.
Once we arrive at Hurricane, the waiting game begins. So far I haven’t had to wait for more than an hour for the train, and when we hear the rumble of the railroad tracks, it’s game time. We jump out of the van and wait by the tracks, waving at the passengers as the train stops for the briefest moment for the conductor to get us on board. Aliy and Allen start at one end of the cars, and I start at the other.
The Holland-America cars are double-decker and set up so the passengers ride on the top, and kitchens and dining and restrooms are on the bottom. Once we pass over Hurricane Gulch, a railroad trestle so high the Statue of Liberty could fit under it (literally!), I take the microphone and do my best to get the passengers excited about coming to Denali.
It’s actually fairly difficult because A) the passengers have been on the train for like 10 hours already since they boarded in Seward and they’re exhausted, B) there is amazing scenery everywhere so half of them aren’t listening, and C) the train attendants are bustling around serving food and drinks, so it’s just utter chaos. Nonetheless, once I finish my short talk, I get to walk up and down the car for a few minutes to answer questions and chat with folks before moving on to the next car.
To get from car to car, I go back downstairs through the underbelly of the train. Sometimes I pass through a kitchen car, where I’m greeted by big smiles from the chefs and try not to bump into anyone or any hot stoves as the car shifts and jolts under my feet. Sometimes I pass through a dining car where attendants are rolling silverware and chatting about their long day. I wish I could spend more time in the lower parts of the train with the workers! When I get to the next car, I ascend the spiral staircase again, take the microphone, and start all over.
By the time I get to all the cars (usually 5-8 cars), we are just about at the Denali station, so I wait in the vestibule so I can get off and greet passengers one last time as they transfer from the train to buses that will take them to their hotels. What a long day for all these folks!
And just like that, my day is over. I feel so lucky to get paid to ride the train, and to be even just a little part of all these peoples’ first taste of Denali.
Trains and adventures and long days and heartbreaking beauty make up the rhythm of life here, reminding me how fortunate I am every day.