That night the New Yorkers have dinner at Myrtle's Club Twenty-Five and they ask for moose meat, though it is not on the menu. They are told that, no, it is illegal to sell the meat of wild animals in Alaska. They speak lazily of cabbages and kings, of moose meat and fool hens and Sunshine Tuckfield.
It is morning in Alaska, a clean day, bright and light blue. There is Mount McKinley gazing at Anchorage from across the wilds. The cheechakos are up at 6 a.m., the older one proudly pulling on a pair of newly purchased knickers, the younger stubbornly sticking with blue jeans, disdaining knickers as being ostentatious and uncool.
Mist is rising off Cook Inlet, and the Chugach peaks are peach colored in the sunrise as the two leave their hotel and head for the Anchorage railroad station. This is to be a once-a-year occasion for Alaskans, a once-a-lifetime for the upstate New Yorkers: a train leased by the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club is climbing to Trail Glacier this morning, a magnificent lonely place high in the mountains along the rail line between Anchorage and Seward. At no other time of the winter is the glacier accessible to cross-country skiers unless they make a hard and dangerous overland trek of 80 miles or more; today more than a thousand enthusiasts are going to make the trip—civilization transported for a day to a primeval place.
The station, a gloomy sprawling heap, is almost empty when the cheechakos arrive. No train, few people, stillness. Soon the train rolls in, a sparkling blue and yellow caravan of two dozen cars, oddly enough a kind of sprightly, fun-looking railroad. This is perhaps even more odd because the Alaskan Railroad is owned and operated by the Federal Government, the only one of its kind in the U.S. The conductors are smiling, courteous fellows and the newcomers, accustomed to the churlish mien of trainmen around New York City, stand in awe. One conductor has a pair of splendid thick sideburns like a pair of red squirrels' tails, and through his smiles he says that 1,096 tickets have been sold for the morning's trek into the wilds. He seems happy when the crowd begins to cluster on the cobblestone apron by the tracks, almost gaily boosting children up the steps into the train, joyously hoisting up skis and rucksacks for awkward arrivals. He makes the morning even brighter than it is.
Soon the station is swarming with skiers, a mixture of suburban matrons and bearded collegians, scrubbed children in snowsuits and crew-cut Air Force men in knickers, grizzled old fellows who might be latter-day sourdoughs but are probably life insurance agents. The train rumbles out of the station precisely on time. Every seat is filled. There are children frolicking along the corridors and in the vestibules between cars. Newspapers are opened, Thermos jugs uncapped. Soon the entire train settles into a kind of Saturday morning coffee klatch with clear echoes of suburbia all around. The talk tends to drift toward children's arithmetic problems and the price of onions, to the state of potholes in the roads and the cost of car repairs. The New Yorkers are bent upon a once-in-a-lifetime experience, however, and they do not find that gossip along the back fences of Anchorage meets their expectations this morning. They drift to the vestibule between two cars where the window is open and the sweet icy air runs freely.
The train route, about 75 miles, runs down the length of Turnagain Arm, which is resplendent in the brilliance of the day, then up fairly steep grades into the mountains and glaciers of the Alaskan interior. The tracks are usually closed all winter, except when they are cleaned for certain freight shipments between Anchorage and Seward and, for today, the only passenger train to make the run in winter.
The cheechakos are exalted, their eyes glistening with tears in the cold and their faces turning ruddy. They are watching out the open windows for wildlife, specifically moose, along the way. They are optimistic. They have been told that this train is known as the Moose Gooser and, now, as it begins its ascent from the end of Turnagain, they are full of expectations. Suddenly the train slows, halts jerkily, and the word runs back through the cars like a telegraph line that there is a moose on the track. The cheechakos lean out the window to peer ahead. They see nothing. No moose. No goose. The train starts up again.
Then, 10 miles or so along, another electric current runs through the train, a message: there are moose off the starboard side. The strangers stare and—yes—they are there. Perhaps eight or 10 of them. They are churning in obvious terror in deep snow, up to their massive necks in the stuff, galloping along with hooves swimming six feet under the surface. Their majestic-ugly heads, familiar from a thousand barroom walls, are leaping ahead, their antler racks tossing about like crazy furniture above the snow. It is a frantic picture, a moose's nightmare.
Soon the moose are behind. The visitors continue to gaze, spellbound, at the mountains beyond the tracks. They are climbing steadily now and the train clatters through a number of tunnels braced with beams thick as a man's waist. In some places the mountains rise like sheer walls from the edge of the tracks.
The conductor comes through the train, smiling between his squirreltails and says gently, "Got to close the window, boys, in case we get hit by an avalanche. We don't want no one struck flat with a hundred tons of snow, now do we?" No, we do not.