Want to hear a really cool story about how my family made it to Alaska?
My grandpa, Steve, fresh out of high school, left his pregnant girl in Washington to find a job in the great state in 1971. He hitchhiked (before that was a scary murderer thing to do), crossed the Canadian border in a truckbed full of weapons (before that was something that was patrolled at borders *apparently*), and got a job on the railroad as soon as he found Anchorage (before it was cool). My grandpa, filled with young ambition and the motivation to provide for his growing family, started in a low position, and by 1974 became a conductor of the Alaska Railroad.
If you rode an Alaskan train between then and 2013, you've met Steve. My grandpa was regarded as the "ambassador of the Alaska Railroad" and has been noted all over blogs, travel guides, and various media regarding the Alaska Railroad for years. I'm not trying to toot the family horn, but choo-choo.
For 42 years as the Number 2 Conductor, my grandpa raised his children up and down the tracks.
His grandkids, too. I still remember so vividly being hoisted up onto the overhead baggage bars, waving at the passengers, practicing Japanese with the tourist couples on their way to Fairbanks to conceive under the Northern Lights. I fell in love with a couple who were maybe in their early 20s. I sat in their seats with them for hours reading fairytales. I thought they were my new parents, and I still to this day have his expired drivers license. They were from Kansas.
I remember fur coats everywhere. Freezing my butt off in Fairbanks, at big outdoor museums of ice sculptures. I remember hot cocoa in dim hotels, and running from car to car and seeing how fast we could get from the front to the back of the train. I remember heading south to Seward, racing past oceans and mountains. Counting wildlife and being overwhelmingly entertained by snacks and family bonding time with cousins, aunts, uncles, and always - the comforting sound of Grampy's voice as he got to know every passenger's story.
And just like that, I was a grown up, moving up and down the west coast. Just like that, I realized the last time I was on the train was at age 14. I realized that my kids, who squeal with glee every time a train passes, who want to touch all of Grampy's model trains and vintage ties, had never experienced a major part of my childhood and the mould from which I emerged.
I started planning elaborate summer trips, and put that desire out into the universe at just the right time, I guess, because the PR company who manages the Railroad found us and reached out with a gift to Talkeetna! We leapt at the opportunity, and quickly packed our bags for a weekend getaway in the Denali mountains.
We did the pre-trip shuffle around the house, loaded up kids and bags and favorite toys and were grateful we only live a few blocks from the station. We hustled into the familiar lobby. Brick walls, high ceilings, friendly ticketers, and fur coats. People were bustling onto the train. We started forgetting what year it was, and wondering how many of these people were using this as a main method of transportation around Alaska, how many of us were after mini-vacations, and how many of us were headed all the way to Fairbanks for good luck under the borealis.
The inside of the train was just the same as I remembered, except that the isles seemed slightly narrower. The overhead bars weren't as sky-high. The only thing missing was Grampy's sooty laugh, his photo albums from the decades before, and his booming "ALL ABOARD". The only thing missing was the hat he's always liked to toss on the kids heads.
They were thrilled anyway. Spencer and Oliver walked around the train doing Steve's bidding, telling everyone that it was their Grampy's train, and learning all the passengers' stories. The kids pressed their faces and hands to the windows, baffled by where they lived for the first time. We ran from the back to the front of the train, swinging doors open between the cars. We snagged some apple juice, read some stories, and before we knew it, we were at our stop.
When we arrived at the Talkeetna dugout, I mean train depot, we were greeted by a winter wonderland, a sweet shuttle driver who only got electricity in his home 10 years ago, and a short ride to the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. We checked into the hotel, and the boys promptly passed out for a nap. Not Spencer's and my style. She and I went exploring, and wound up outside on the huge balcony (that, at the time was foggy and snowy, and we had no idea would reveal the most beautiful view later) throwing snow and hanging in our t-shirts. We found a large rec area filled with couches and boardgames and massive windows, and looked up where to grab the best hot chocolate.
We shuttled to Mountain High Pizza Pie once the boys woke up, and had the yummiest pizzas! We ran around some more and showed the boys what we'd found in the hotel. We had dinner in the hotel's restaurant which had a cozy, intimate environment, then we snuggled up to the fireplace with hot cocoas and went to bed.
The next morning, we woke up and burst out of our room as early as possible (I'm that traveller. I think Jake and the kids both prefer to lounge a little.) to sunshine and a clear view of what the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge has to offer off that balcony. Denali (Mckinley? You tell me. I prefer the latter.) was clear as day, breathtaking, and, obviously, massive. We ate breakfast in the hotel's restaurant, overlooking the mountains.
We shuttled out to main street, stopped at Mountain High Pizza Pie to pick up Oliver's stuffed puppy he left the day before, and then walked around the little shops and bought some touristy gear. We went to Denali Brewing for lunch, and I couldn't tell if I was starving or if it was quite literally the best veggie burger I'd ever had. We were greeted by a hilarious server who had to take a few moments to get excited about a puppy outside before apologizing for the (very short) wait. She brought us delicious mules. The music was a steady flow of hipster, underground, acoustic, and The White Stripes and I felt very much so at home. Jake and I loaded up the monkeys and walked around in the sun a little before shuttling back to the hotel to wait for the train.
Just when our mini-vacation felt over, the trip home was the best part. The kids jumped back on the train with their tickets in their hands and already felt like pros at the whole "riding the train" thing. We hopped on, found our seats, and counted more than 12 moose along the way. Halfway through, we stopped to get a closer look at a family of four moose that were headed our way. Spencer thought we were stopping so they could board the train too, and she lost her mind with excitement. She spent the rest of the train ride talking about them and looking for them. "There was a mom moose and a Jakey moose and a Spencer moose but the Oliver moose was really slow. That's why they missed the train." because it's always little brothers' faults.
We pulled into the Depot at bed time, just to see the Fur Rondy festival in full swing. Tourists hopped up all over the train to get photos of our colorful city, while we pressed our faces to the window and relaxed into the thought of home. Within ten minutes, we were in our beds, filled with stories. The train crosses intersections all over Anchorage, and we'll sit before one every so often while the kids yell from the back seat "CHOO CHOO" and then spend the rest of the car ride talking about that time we went on Grampy's train.
I love that the train is a tangible piece of my grandpa for all of us, forever. My grandpa is my biggest hero and the most spiritually aware human being I've ever known. At this point, he's retired, traveling, and exploring veganism, all while being the resident dog whisperer of the community, raising all of the fatherless children he can find, helping others find higher grounds, higher powers, and more powerful selves, and showing the whole world how much good it contains. A lot of people will be talking about Steve Culver and the roles he's played in their vacations, their healing, and their lives for years and years to come. He's worn all the hats, all the badges, and held all the titles, and because he was once the Ambassador of the Alaska Railroad; no matter how many generations come and go, it'll always be Grampy's train.
To book your tickets for summer train rides, go to https://www.alaskarailroad.com
To book your stay at Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, go to https://www.alaskacollection.com/lodging/talkeetna-alaskan-lodge/
Sponsored By The Alaska Railroad & Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, Pursuit Alaska Collection