It’s about the seventeenth inning of Kickball in the Snow and nobody’s keeping score. It’s about mimosas and bloody Marys at 8am and a three hour train ride out to a four-mile ski hill and a woebegone Alaskan ghost town situated between the railroad and the Susitna. It’s about a wandering polka band. It’s about snowshoeing and skiing with friends up and down the Alaskan countryside to catch a view of Denali in the sunshine. It’s about costumes and face paint and hula skirts and crockpots on every table and more food than anyone needs. It’s about the dance party in the train car on the way back and the after party after that.
It’s SKI TRAIN.
I first heard about the ski train through the Nordic Skiing Association last year, and realized in January that tickets sell out in November. Honestly, it was more the polka band than the prospect of skiing that had my attention, but both sounded good when combined with a train ride on the Alaskan railroad. So when fall rolled around, I made sure to buy my ticket when the gettin’ was good. I bought a ski bag. I had the right clothes. I had garnered enough ski experience to feel confident that I could handle whatever was at the end of the train. What I didn’t know was that SKI TRAIN is not meant to be enjoyed as a solo experience. It is the penultimate Alaskan group friend thing. And I had just bought one measly ticket for stubbornly independent little me.
My mistake became immediately apparent within the first hour, as my table failed to fill, while all other tables in the car around me steadily gathered groups of friends who had reserved whole sets of tables for their party. I mean that. These people had prepared to party from the beginning of the day to the end. Before the train departed Anchorage at 7:30am, our car was decorated with streamers, flags and lots of glittery stuff by the girls who had decided on a patriotic theme. They were decked out in everything red, white and blue, including Daisy Duke shorts with star spangled tights, flowing capes, and sparkly antennae. Did I mention face paint? And square in the middle of the train car sat four enormous speakers– the DJ hub. A young woman came by my table, where I sat leaning against the window, making some notes, and asked me, “Did you buy this whole table?”
“No,” I answered, puzzled myself as to why no one else had a ticket near me.
“Huh. Well, if you want drink or anything, come join the party. Do you want some champagne and orange juice?”
I laughed and glanced at the time. “Thanks, but no, maybe on the way back.”
“Oh, you’re one of those ‘I don’t drink before noon’ people. I gotcha.” She smiled and walked back to her group of friends, while I went back to perusing my packing list for Kodiak. Three or four other people came by, wondering why the seats were empty, and finally people started asking if they could put their stuff there. Everybody had a LOT of STUFF. Crockpots full of barbecue and French toast and chili and meatballs and soup. I think there was a crockpot plugged in at every table. Beer and boxes of wine and bottles of champagne and donuts and thermoses of coffee and bags of chips and stuff I never would have thought of bringing on a ski trip. I mean, I thought this was a train ride to the snow, five hours of skiing, and then a train ride back. I was wrong. This was a full-on party on rails catapulting the good times through the Alaskan winter. This was SKI TRAIN.
And I had not planned accordingly. I had many offers that morning to join in, which I politely refused, until finally one guy decided that since I was not coming to the party, the party would come to me.
Enter Weston the packrafter, river rat, boat captain, George Clooney look-alike and avid dancer. Weston decided that we would be friends, story-swappers, ski buddies, dance-partners what-have-you, and had made this decision by nine am. Weston sported a black bow tie, red velvet pants, a tiny blue plastic cowboy hat and a three day shadow. He housed his bloody Mary in an orange cup with a giant squid on it that said, “GRAND CANYON KRAKEN RIVER CLUB.” Weston was all about having a good time, and offered me a drink at least four times before noon. It was he, in fact, who personally ensured that I had a damn good time on SKI TRAIN.
When he found out I had recently acquired a packraft, we had a lot to talk about, considering that he was originally from Kenai and had experiences of rafting in Alaska and other places running back about ten years. As I was still putting together my final packing list, which would have to be realized when I got home that night, I had a lot of questions, and we went through my list together. He had take a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon with friends, and it just so happened that one of my recent acquaintances had accompanied him on the trip. “You know her?” he asked, shaking his head. “I swear, Alaska is like a small town.”
Thinking like a minimalist in a rush, I had forgotten my water bottle and stuffed my pack with just a few bags of trail mix. Gratefully, I accepted his offer of a bowl of chili, which had been prepared by someone in his group. Eventually I agreed to someone else’s offer of champagne and orange juice, though after tasting it, I decided I liked one or the other, but not both together. When the train arrived in Curry– or more precisely, in the area which once was Curry– I gathered my things, overhearing Weston saying that I was his partner and we would stick together. He caught my eye and raised his knuckles for a fist-bump. “Right?” “Yeah,” I nodded, trying re-think how that would work out and wondering what kind of skier he was. “I’m really bad-ass, when I want to be,” he grinned, reading my mind.
Considering that there were hundreds of people on the train, I wrangled my way out of our car fairly quickly and made my way towards where the ski bags were being unloaded. A small contingent of volunteers were setting up bags in groups according to alphabetical order, so it wasn’t hard to find mine. After gearing up, I looked around for Weston, but didn’t see him anywhere, and started making my way up the hill, thinking he would catch up to me, but also not wanting to leave him too far behind. Eventually, I headed back down, looking for those red velvet pants amidst all the multicolored skiers. I found them after a few minutes.
“Hey, it’s you!” He smiled, skiing forward in long cross-country skis. He had a bright red and blue Salomon jacket and had retained the tiny hat and bow tie.
“Yeah, I didn’t want to leave you too far behind. I thought I heard you say you wanted to be partners today, so I thought I would wait for you and hang out.”
“Oh, I just meant we should meet up before the train left, you know, but yeah, I can hang, that’s great.”
So we kept trundling our way up the hill in cross-country skis, as others passed us in snow shoes, or alpine skis with skins. Some places were steeper than others, and we had to herring-bone our way up, which made for really slow-going. Weston kept telling me stories about Curry, what it was like before it became a ghost town, back when there was a ski lift and a tow rope in the area, and a big fancy wilderness hotel. This had been a stopping point on the railroad between Talkeetna and Fairbanks during the Gold Rush days. Now it was just this, a stopping point. The hotel had been destroyed by a fire and the rest of the settlement –for whatever reason– had been bulldozed into the river, back when the state still did things like that, he told me. A handful of skiers had chosen to pursue flatter routes near the tracks. All had been instructed by the NSAA rep over the intercom to stay on the east side of the tracks, and not to cross them under any circumstances. Most people were making their way up the hill to the cell tower at the top, where the hill flattened out and offered a view of the surrounding area, the Susitna River, and Mount Susitna far to the south. To the west, just over the hills, I could see the crests of Denali, Hunter and Foraker.
The run down was choppy on the steep bits, and both Weston and I fell over time and time again. I finally decided to boot down one portion, but when we hit the gentler slopes, we both tucked down and flowed for about a mile and a half. The smooth snow passed silently under our skis, and we leaned into the curves all the way down the winding hill. The end run out by the train was full of people with grills, lying down with sunglasses on, facing the blue skies and sunshine, but still wearing their puffy jackets and snow gear. A kickball game was in full swing, and Weston chunked his skis and poles in a pile and joined the fray. “Are you on our team?” I overheard someone ask him. “I am now!” he crowed. “All right! SKI TRAIN!” “I like that hat,” the other guy said. “I’ve been getting that all day,” laughed Weston, right as the kickball sailed past him, and he ran after it.
I watched kickball for a while, and the rest of the outdoor crew, then picked up my skis and headed back to the luggage car. I put my skis in the ski bag, and made my way back to car 557. People were already snuggled in, napping, eating, talking, laughing, and waiting for the train to depart. I took advantage of the quiet to try to nap, and perhaps got in a half hour of quiet snoozing before the rest of the group arrived in bits and pieces, and one guy form the river club made the rounds of the car, toting a portable speaker blue-toothed to his cell phone, blasting his favorite party tunes. Pretty soon, he had four or five other people singing along. As soon as the train departed Curry, the DJ started up the big speakers, and for the next three hours, our train literally became a dance party on wheels. People from other cars poured into our car, pressing in on all sides, jumping around, sitting on car seats, hands in the air, singing, and dancing. There were police and security guards making regular rounds, guns strapped to their holsters. A few times somebody got on the intercom and told everybody to keep their feet on the floor and not to stand or sit on the seats. Another time a voice on the intercom instructed everyone who did not have a ticket to car 557 to leave the car, which they did, reluctantly, but after about an hour they all filtered back in again and nobody told them to leave.
Meanwhile, I was still determined to think through the packrafting-in-Kodiak idea, and was scribbling notes. Weston was dancing. His friends were dancing. Finally, giving the impression that he had been bumped out of the aisle, he sat down in the seat next to me and began dancing IN THE SEAT. I simply couldn’t take myself seriously anymore. “Come on,” I said, pushing him back into the aisle. “Let’s dance.” “What, you need to stand up?” he said, acting surprised. “I think we need to be dancing right now,” I laughed. And we danced. And had a really, really, really good time.
“This isn’t what you expected, is it?” He yelled towards me, grinning and dancing, pressed up to everyone else around us in the train car. “WHOOHOO! SKI TRAIN!”