It’s 2:30 in the morning, and I’m cresting the hill on Ballaine, headed south. The peaks of the Alaska Range rise up out of the pavement, monstrous purple and frosted pink. This is why it is good to be awake at this hour. This is why I can get up in time for a 3:45am bag pull at Bear Lodge. Denali is probably out to the west, but he will hide away under summoned clouds by mid-morning. My guests will ask later if they will be able to see the mountain from the train. Maybe, I will tell them; you never know.
When I get to the yard, I check the highway board before going to my coach. I leave for Prudhoe Bay on Friday morning with 34 guests. The fireweed is in peak bloom, and there will be miles of magenta blossoms on either side of the haul road for a lot of the trip north. We’ll leave the fireweed and boreal forest behind us as we push toward the bay, traverse Atigun Pass scanning for Dall sheep, and hope that it doesn’t snow. . .even though it’s July. I can smile through my bag pull because I will be at the Arctic Ocean in 72 hours, because I will take photographs of smiling guests who waited years to stand on that beach or plunge headlong into the frigid water just to say they did it. Maybe someone will pull me into the picture with them, and I will live forever on a coffee table in a photo album in Witchita or Hong Kong or Sidney. “And that’s Elizabeth,” they will say to a friend. “She was our guide.”
My coach wakes to the turn of my key with a rumble, a sound I have come to love after three years and over 20,000 miles on Alaskan roads. We are partners in every adventure, over the Denali Highway, up the Dalton, out to the gold mine or just back and forth across town to the airport, her belly full of luggage and my head full of well-wishes for my guests’ journeys home. Come back in winter, we always tell them, and they laugh. But I mean it, I say, as they step down to claim their luggage, feeling awake and alive finally; this is home now, and if ever you return, I’ll be here, and it would be my pleasure to share it with you. . .again.
THE ALASKA EXPERIENCE: