The Alaska Railroad (Oct. 15, 2003)

It was a late summer afternoon in Anchorage, Alaska. Dale and I were outside, in the backyard of the small house we rented. We lived in an older section of town called Spenard. A couple "massage parlors" stood guard at the head of our little residential street.

The backyard of our home abutted railway easement, and railroad tracks ran down the middle of that easement. Freight trains lumbering behind the house were a common occurrence. We'd rented the place for years and were quite used to the noise and spectacle, but for some reason, on that particular afternoon, as yet another freight train thundered by, something different happened.

I don't remember a lot of discussion on the subject, it was probably a matter of me suddenly asking, "Hey, you wanna hop the train?" and Dale surprising me with his easy answer, "Okay."

As we approached the train and began jogging next to it, I realized that what appeared, from a distance, to be a sluggish pace wasn't so slow after all. In order to match the rate of the train I had to accelerate to my top running speed. Doing this on the gravel berm, right next to the great lumbering beast, was not easy, and the danger of the undertaking suddenly became clearer.

The other thing that became evident was the fact that railroad cars sway side-to-side, quite a bit, as they roll down the tracks. I was running alongside a black tanker — a large cylinder, laying on its side — which had a steel ladder running top-to-bottom, down the middle of its side.

There comes the fateful moment when you have to make the immediate and absolute transition from running next to a train to grabbing ahold of the thing and climbing aboard. With some combination of reluctance, fear, and excitement I reached out, grabbed the ladder, leaped from the ground, and pulled my feet up to the bottom rung. Success! I had attached myself to a moving train.

I decided it would be best to climb up the ladder to the top of my tanker. I did so slowly and carefully, applying a death grip to each rung as I ascended. At the top of the tank was a large round hatch, with a circular guard rail around it. I clambered over the railing and settled on the hatch. Looking around, I spotted Dale successfully perched in his turret, a couple cars back. They we were, two grinning fools sitting atop a great rolling train.

Now we began to enjoy the experience, watching the splendid Spenardian scenery slide by. We rolled past neighborhood houses and backyards, with flagged clotheslines and kids' bright toys strewn about. Far ahead of us, we heard the engine's loud horns blow a big chord before each road crossing. After awhile our tank cars would clack across the boulevard, and we'd get a quick view of the automobiles lined up and waiting in both directions.

The highlight of the trip was laughing and waving to the initially shocked and then delighted train-watchers as we cruised past Elderberry Park. Kids yelled, pointed, and waved from the swings.

Soon our train was taking a big right turn and pulling into the downtown station, and as it began slowing we decided to debark, before we came under the gaze of some disapproving train-yard boss. Down the ladder I went and off onto the gravel again. Dale was soon with me and we walked away, breathlessly sharing our impressions.

The spontaneity of the act became more evident as we realized, with empty pockets, our next challenge was how to get back home.

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