train

In Wasilla, Alaska, there’s a little transportation museum set back in the woods. The collection is mainly outdoors in a large field, its contents exposed year-round to the brutal elements. In winter the ice and snow covers the earth, turning the cars, buses, trolleys, train engines and planes into lumpy, sleeping white giants. The red and black glass of a police car’s lights might poke up a bit from the glittering white surface, a plane’s propeller might be frozen in mid-turn, but for the most part the place is completely asleep until May.

When the snow and ice melts, the museum opens. The cars, buses, trolleys, train engines and planes wake up with the bears, and are rustier and more ragged from their slumber. Children climb on their hubcaps and wings, photographers document the orange and red patina the winter snow and spring rains left on blue and yellow Alaska railroad engines. The museum is full of the elegant, colorful decay of chipping away paint, and sometimes, heightening the richly rustic surroundings, an eagle occasionally flies overhead before roosting high in an old train station semaphore. Sometimes a bull moose wanders blindly into the field and munches on the purple fireweed blossoms growing wild around the chrome hubcap of an old Cessna.

Snaking around the perimeter of the museum is a miniature train, just big enough for people to straddle and ride. The little engine has been painted to resemble Thomas the Tank Engine, and the caboose is no bigger than a Radio Flyer wagon. The conductor is just the sort of man you’d expect to see in south central Alaska: a hearty, round stomach, a Santa beard, a red, weathered nose. He takes most of the cash you carry ($2.00 each to ride) so that you can travel through the cool, open air on the small train with your children through the mosquito-swarming woods. The female engineer (a tall, thick red-haired woman with very broad shoulders) takes you and your children through birch, cottonwood, fir, and even over a small creek that flows only a few feet below the tracks. There are three or four bridges, miniature engineering marvels made of log and popsicle stick. The train only comes off the track once or twice, and when the engineer instructs you all in a deep voice to get off the train and come put it back on the track, you realize that she is not female at all but a transvestite with painted pink toes and fingernails, and you raise your eyebrows a bit involuntarily and bite your lip to stop a smile from escaping. How strange things have become in this small forest.

You de-straddle the train car you’ve been riding, and instruct your children to stand near you while you help hoist the train back on the track. Looking behind at the other riders, their faces are filled with a sort of bubbling, guilty mirth. Laughter is threatening to escape from their throats. It’s stuck in yours, too, and it’s the kind of laughter that will usually only manifests during the most inappropriate of times: funerals, weddings, job interviews. Luckily the engineer has everything sorted out quickly, and soon is he back on the engine, smoothing his sparse, bright red hair back into a pink scrunchie. He focuses his pale, eyes forward, and turns the train engine on again.

The train coasts, with shaky confidence, downhill deeper into the woods. You relax, and take in the small scenes that the people who made the train and track have created. Tucked in the woods, to resemble the small cabins and buildings one might see while riding the Alaska railroad to Tok, or Deadhorse, there are tiny Lincoln Log villages and lone cabins. In one tiny, moss-covered shack an old Peaches and Cream Barbie sits on the porch, perched on a rocking chair. A small, stuffed Scooby Doo sits beside her, keeping sentinel. She reminds you of the prostitutes you read about who lived in Nome during the Gold Rush, and appears to beckon you to join her in her dusty cabin. Her eyes are the same vacant blue as all of her Barbie sisters, her hair the same gossamer white blonde (although the strands are not smooth but wild and tangled), and her hands are the same unfortunate and useless fused plastic as the rest that fell out of the Mattel factory mold. But there is something sinister about this Wasilla Barbie, and you wonder if these woods have turned her feral.

When the ride is done you and your children climb off the train, and are thirsty. Inside the museum lobby is an old soda machine, filled with glass bottles of Coke and Sprite. The mosquito bites you’ve all acquired during the train ride itch only slightly.

No, not at the Transportation Museum…this was taken by Gary at Independence Mine (where Men in Caves is set). Too cute not to share. Xander was four and a half. 

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