The visitors stand meekly behind glass for a time, two popeyed New York fish in an Alaskan aquarium.
The crowd poured off the train into the fresh snow; the winter province of ravens and ermine and bears now filled with wives carrying Thermoses, of blonde children, of IBM men in lederhosen. The blue and yellow train is toylike in the sun and there is an oompah band tootling, tubas and trombones catching the reflection of mountains in their glistening brass.
Along the tracks the crowd teems as at a subway station, a scene of commuters from civilization to the wilderness. The New Yorkers look at each other, narrowly. Here they are, in God's own emptiness, thousands of miles from the nearest skyscraper, where there cannot be found a total of one million people within 2,000 miles in any direction. Yet here is a bigger crowd than they had ever seen cross-country skiing at one time in the Catskills, which are within 200 miles of 25 million people.
Slowly the crowd unknots and begins to unravel along the tracks in both directions, down the banks toward the fiat lake surface. Some sprint boldly, others tumble in the snow like kittens, some swoop out toward Trail Glacier as if they are being chased by a bear. Soon, from the train above the valley leading to the glacier, there can be seen dozens, hundreds of skiers, tiny in size like ants, busily crisscrossing the lake's surface, vanishing into the woods, squirting between trees. The cheechakos and Mike Hershberger and a lawyer named Walter Cardwell, a native of Texas, tool easily down the bank in a shallow traverse, quickly cross the lake, stride rapidly into a woods, out the other side, past a gurgling creek, past a porcupine's trail and—most importantly—past hundreds of other skiers who have strung out like a great colorful length of string along routes leading toward the glacier. In some places the skiers are backed up like Sunday traffic, waiting for the fallen to rise and let everyone go freely.
Eventually, the Hershberger group moves ahead of the lines. Many from the train simply disperse into the trees and trails and disappear. Not many continue the drive to the glacier but the cheechakos do—this is why they are here—and soon they have covered two miles, three perhaps, and they are swinging along the floor of a flat white valley. High on each side are blunt peaks and precipices and—ahead, at the end of the valley spilling down between the low summits and rocks and plunging snow drifts—is the glacier. It is a majestic sight, rolling out of eternity as it has for who only knows how many millions of years, wheeling beneath its cream-smooth surface such force as can crush boulders into loam and grind deep canyons out of cloud-high mountains. Once upon a time, that is; Trail Glacier is now in a suspended state, no longer quite alive, no longer insuperable in its strength to shape the planet.
The small party stops to rewax. Mike Hershberger passes around a chunk of reindeer sausage, brown and sweet. The older visitor opens a bottle of Beaujolais and hands it around. Walter, the lawyer from Texas, squints at the crystalline bowl overhead and breathes in a mighty lungful of the biting air of eternity and takes another swig of the wine and sighs a sigh. He says, "I cannot remember at any time in my life a day that was better than this one."
The cheechakos and friends ski to the spilling-buttermilk base of the glacier, then climb into the cool violet shadows, up several hundred yards, steep enough to herringbone. They do not climb to the top but well up onto perfect snows beyond the middle. They stand there and look back, down across the long valley floor from whence they came. More than a thousand people here? Crowds on the snow of this beautiful desolation? Of course not. There are a few people moving about in sight. The crisscross signs of tracks in the snow show there have been more. But nature has swallowed up the sense of civilization's presence already, smothered the crowd's talk and made the encroachers invisible in the immensity of the mountains, the brilliance of the snow.
"Where are the glacier worms?" asks the younger cheechako.
"You see them mostly in the morning," says Mike Hershberger. He laughs. Everyone seems exultant, high on the ecstasies of the steeps. Mike bellows into the crystal air over the four or five miles back to the train: "Hey! Hey! Everyone! We're waxing with peanut butter and jelly today!" Then he laughs some more.
The party sips more wine before riding the glacier snows down, floating through the soft stuff, buoyant as if they are surfing some understanding wave. They sun themselves again for a while on the glacier lip, then sprint back across the valley. The snow turns steadily to a warmer yellow, then toward amber, then to a subtle russet pink in the later afternoon. They cross the darkening valley, stride through the woods, across the open lake and up the bank again to the train. In deepening lights it leaves for Anchorage promptly at 5 p.m. It is filled to the baggage racks with a population of flushed and perfect people.