Thursday, September 27, 2012

Anchorage to Denali by rail: only slightly less exciting than something exciting

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Being an American, I am not one to turn down a free (fill in the blank thing).  I refer to my recent railroad journey to Denali National Park. Train phobia, or siderodromophobia, is a condition suffered by one of my husband’s relatives, who coincidentally had won some train tickets. I was able to take the railway trip of a lifetime, or at least, the best trip for the month of August 2012. Full disclosure: the towns of Seward and Wasilla disparaged herein.

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I have the complete set of Agatha Christie mysteries, and the star of quite a few is the little Belgian detective with perfect moustaches, Hercule Poirot. His first adventure is on the famous Orient Express. Perhaps I allowed myself to become a bit starry eyed about the whole rail travel thing, but I did have a few preconceived notions: glamour, exotic locales, and mystery. (Spoiler alert: No glamour in the Duct Tape capital of the United States, I’ve been to Denali National Park and am a lifelong Alaskan so no exotic locales, and the only mystery I found during the course of my travels was a faux chocolate milkshake, see paragraph 7.)

In Alaska, trains are mostly for tourists when they aren’t hauling coal, gravel, or other oddments. The Alaska Railroad tries to drum up some local interest by offering rates from Anchorage to Palmer to attend the Alaska State Fair, but other than that, lots of tourists. And grumpy people. And unruly children. And doors that won’t stay closed.

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The train ride from Anchorage to the Wasilla stop was worth it, if for no other reason, than to hear a loud-talking gentleman ask the porter, “What? Wasilla? Is that some kind of wasteland or something?” You might have to be Alaskan to appreciate the sentiment, but I had to put my hand over my mouth while the LFG hubby made no effort and laughed aloud.

Now this was no ordinary gentleman. He was wearing what was, quite frankly, the widest leather belt I have ever seen. Which would have been remarkable enough, except that the belt wasn’t connected to his pants in any way. So maybe more of a girdle? 

After the Belt King and his either very quiet or mute mail order bride/daughter/whatever got off at the Wasilla stop, we chugged on to Talkeetna, the last brief stop before our arrival at the park. After what seemed like 8 hours, but might have been only 6 hours, we arrived at the Denali station. Whereupon I entered a really stuffy little shuttle bus. Hot air on the face + shot suspension on bus + “smells like people” scent = feelings of nausea. We got out at the hotel just in time and I took such a deep, loud breath that the other passengers probably thought that was the first breath I had taken since entering the bus.

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We stayed in the McKinley Village Lodge, which the hotel bills as “intimate,” but which I say is “too far away from anything.” You can quote me. We had to catch a shuttle to do everything other than wander down to the river and get sand in our shoes, which, note to self, never wear pebbled leather loafers on a sandy beach. Ouch. We did manage to check out “downtown Denali,” which consists of about 30 grossly overpriced stores. And we discovered, yet again, there is no such thing as too much fur in one’s wardrobe.

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At one of the restaurants on the premises (not the one pictured above, which had a great pizza) I received the most watered-down version of a chocolate shake I’ve ever had. I don’t think any ice cream was involved, just chocolate and milk, which most people will agree is called chocolate milk. But I am not one to make a big fuss.

I made a tiny fuss and asked the server (Boris? from Romania. Helpful nametags revealed quite a few of the hotel employees were young people from foreign countries) for some ice cream in my milkshake. I think something was lost in translation as he looked very puzzled. However, he emerged from the back with a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream and made it all OK. I forgive him, maybe in Romania a milkshake is chocolate milk. If I were inclined to any sort of research I would find out. That being said, chocolate milk should not cost $7.00.

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Here’s a free tip: never go to a dinner theatre. We went to the Cabin Nite Dinner Theatre and ate around a big table, family style. I passed the corn and ribs and rolls around to people from all over the country. We also were to holler and wave our napkins periodically at certain catchphrases.

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Just as the food was cleared away and I was ready to leave, the goofy music and singing started in earnest. The doors were shut (is barred to strong a word?) to prevent escapees. No wonder people were drinking so much alcohol. We were to learn, musically, the history of some of the old timers that lived in the area, who’s names, tragically, I’ve already forgotten. If you like cheesy singing, bland food, and sitting by strangers for an overpriced dinner, you’ll love the dinner theatre!

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The next day we took a(nother) bus ride in a real school bus, painted a more dignified color. I was hoping for one of those monstrous, cushy Celebrity Tours buses with included restroom. Alas. Don’t worry, at only one portion of the 6.5 hour ride did I think I was going to die. I really hate a narrow road. Especially on a mountainside.

We saw a lot of wildlife, scenery, and a few glimpses of Mt. McKinley (aka Denali. Yes, a mountain with two names.), all 20,320 feet of it. We also saw: grizzly bears, caribou, a Dall sheep, a coyote, a northern harrier, ground squirrels, and moose on our bus ride. Being from Alaska, I’m pretty jaded, but the tourists were really excited.

Attention: Those faint of heart skip the below picture, I wish I could have, but this view was my near constant companion at every stop. “What?! A wolf, you say?” someone would holler and then the bus would tilt starboard as every soul bounced up to photograph the beast. “But that’s not a wolf, it’s only an old coyote!” The bus riders would snap a few and sit, thus righting the badly listing bus. Repeat at the next animal sighting. For 6 hours. P.S. I wish sweatpants were not the travelers pant of choice. What’s wrong with trousers or a skirt, I ask you? 

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The highlight by far, was the river rapid float on the gray, cold Nenana River. We chose the option where the passengers paddle and the guide steers and hollers out directions. This was the most fun I’ve had in a while, especially when the raft was almost vertical three times. Thankfully, we were wearing dry suits. I have no pictures of this exciting event (I know I heard men screaming), my hands were too busy clutching the paddle with a vise-like grip.

Some brave/foolhardy souls, including myself, jumped into the river near the end of the float. Cheers to the couple from Mexico that took the plunge. I thought it was very brave considering the water must have been about 50 degrees colder than any river in their country!

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The train ride back to Anchorage had two highlights. The first was a tourist from California asking, “What was that town we got off the cruise ship in? Sewage?” You must mean Seward, madam. No, don’t worry, an easy mistake to make. We often name towns in this state after fecal matter. Why there’s Dookie, Poo, and Manure, Alaska, and that’s just off the top of my head.

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The second, lurching around the dining car (above), trying not to fall into anyone’s lap whilst carrying nachos in one hand and a piping hot cheese sauce in the other. Those trains can sway, let me tell you. Now if it had been Viggo Mortensen’s lap, I wouldn’t mind so much. Unfortunately, giant that I am, I would have crushed the tiny, frail-of-bone senior citizens who were actually seated in the dining car. Food grade: a couple of stars better than dinner theatre, and the chicken was impressive. Prices: fairly high, but I say that about everything.

All in all, not much like the glamorous journey I imagined the Orient Express to be. However, the chance to hear unfiltered opinions about Alaska was precious. For my next trip, I plan to track down the town of Manure, Alaska with a clothespin on my nose. Tally ho!

Tips for train travel? Seen Denali National Park?


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