As part of clearing the mind for some huge life change-ups last month I visited
Alaska has been on my “list” for a long time. The world is a big place and I’ve got a long list, but Alaska has held a special place on that list. For years I’d say, “I’ve been to 49 states, but no one is perfect.”
My parents–five-kids-cat-dog-trailer and all—were, and still are, fanatic travelers. I bagged most of those 49 states while sitting in the back seat of a station wagon, finger on a gas-station map, listening to my mother read to us—the old version of audiobooks—having debated with my brother which of us would have the diaper pail and which would have the cat box at our feet. (I was oldest and got first pick. I picked the cat box.)
Although my ex-husband likes the mountains and the outdoors, he doesn’t like to travel. Still, I always thought I’d get him to go to Alaska with me. But after 35 years of marriage it became increasingly clear that, not only was he not going to Alaska, he wasn’t going to be my husband. So eventually I went alone.
I loved the huge expanse. The big sky reminded me of Montana, the outdoorsy-ness of Colorado, the friendly quirky people of Oregon. The rain of Washington and even more rain, Oregon again.
The four-hour train ride from Anchorage to Seward was tops on my agenda.
“Watch for beluga whales on your right,” said the younger-than-my-daughter guide as we passed the waterway with the funny name, Turnagain Arm. “Captain Cook recognized the dangerous waters and told his crew to ‘turn again’.”
A few minutes more and it was, “Notice the dead trees on the left. After the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the largest earthquake ever in the North America, this area flooded and the salt water killed all of the trees.” A little later, “Look up on the right, and there is a huge bald eagles’ nest. Alaska has 90% of the bald eagles in the United States. Their nests are used over and over again for years, decades even. Each year the birds add to their nests, which can easily reach 1,000 pounds.”
No belugas that morning, but I saw the eagles’ nest—the eagles themselves were out fishing–and the tree skeletons, standing there spookily in the water for nearly 50 years. My binoculars were ready when a fellow passenger called, “Moose on the right!” Sure enough, there were two meandering moose. Don’t see any of those at home in California.
The scenery was so enthralling I couldn’t leave my window perch to go downstairs to the dining car for breakfast.
“If you look to your right,” said the guide, “you’ll see large stone stanchions next to the river. Those are part of the old Loop District.”
Sure enough, there was a giant stone pediment. I’d have guessed it was the base of an old watchtower. From its beginnings in the early 1900s, the Alaska Railroad used steam engines, which can only manage a grade of 1%. But the grade steepens as the train climbs the Kenai Mountains, plus it had to dodge a glacier. So engineers constructed a tunnel and a giant loop to effectively lower the grade enough for the train to make it up the hill.
Without much luck, I tried to envision a loop of track, sort of a loop-de-doo roller coaster, but turned on its side. The loop seemed more plausible when I shrank it to Thomas the Tank tabletop proportions.
The Loop was awkward and ungainly, a lot like my life lately. And just as that section of track required huge amounts of extraordinary care and maintenance–in the winter a crew stood constantly at the ready for repairs and to keep the tracks from freezing, constantly opening and closing doors to the tunnel—so too with my life. Maintenance crews of friends, The Karen Sanity Committee, have been helping me up the especially steep patches, and preventing my underpinnings from freezing up, even nudging me onto the sidings when necessary.
“But with the conversion to stronger diesel engines,” said the perky guide, “and the retreat of the glaciers, the loop system was no longer necessary. In 1951 the Loop was removed and replaced with an S-curve.
“Get those cameras ready, as that S-Curve is the very best place to photograph scenery and the train at the same time.” All around the train car, cameras clicked and whirred, iPhones made their distinctive camera noise.
“Of course the Loop,” said our guide, “was much longer than the S-curve, and removing it eliminated over a mile of track. Management thought about how to deal with that since every mile of train track is numbered. They ultimately decided to simply remove a mile
from the numbering system. There is no mile 50.”
How clever. Can I just remove a section of my life that’s complicated and obsolete? Get rid of five bridges, a tunnel and a snow shed, all the maintenance they require, all in one go? Change my internal numbering system even? But somehow that doesn’t feel right. You need to just keep going no matter what. My maintenance crew has helped me with that. And before that, my parents with our intrepid traveling. If you wait to do things until they are easy, you’ll just keep waiting.
Cat box or diaper pail? Sometimes it’s both.