There was a point in the first Harry Potter movie when the hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was the scene showing the train ride to Hogwarts – it triggered a spasm of nostalgia that made my stomach hurt.
I don’t know if the Alaska Railroad still gives a student discount, but when I started school in 1971 they did – you bought a regular ticket and upon arrival it was endorsed with a special stamp to make it “good” for a return trip. The trip up just before the fall semester was just a regular Alaskan summer excursion ( jaded a kid could get after living in the Last Frontier for nine whole years); it was the trip back at Christmas that was magic.
You left before the sun came up – and was up for only about four hours so most of the trip was completed in the dark. It was a magic dark though with moon-shine, star-shine, the Aurora Borealis and countless homestead lights sprinkling the countryside with bright little beacons that fired your imagination. The track paralleled the highway in several places so you also got the treat of amber and red car-lights flashing by. Overlaying all of this was the ever present fog and mist drifting in from not just heating stoves and automotive exhaust but from nearby streams and rivers.
…and it wasn’t just the trip – the terminals at both ends reeked of drama and strong emotion. While leaving or arriving at the Anchorage terminal was usually a very “flat” affair, the very opposite could be said about Fairbanks. It was like you were in a movie – tearful promises and farewells, hugs and kisses – I half expected French genedarmes or German storm troopers to come bursting through the door after me as the train left.
I wish I had a better photo of both the train and the school – this one dates from the mid-1980s but still looks pretty close to the way it did when I went there. Looking at the school in the cold light of day its just a unspectacular little land-grant school – but in the fall of 1971 it was the start of a movie that I was going to live in, making made it the best place in the world.