I can still remember the smell of the hot, hopelessly humid, stainless steel box of a kitchen on the train. During meal service for 70+ passengers, the cook swayed with the rocking of the train while also stirring or flipping things, opening and closing fridges, plating meals, wiping counters, and loading and unloading the dish sanitizer. Service for each meal (there were three a day) could take three hours. You might get a break and get to sit on a milk crate by the flat grill or look out the window in the hall outside the kitchen for a few minutes. Smokers sometimes ran to the vestibule, the spaces between cars, to suck down a cigarette. Because it was often above 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the kitchen, cooks wore white short-sleeved shirts, but we were required to put on our chef coats (which had to stay clean) when we left the kitchen. Official clock on, clock off times were 6:15am and 8:15pm but I usually got to work early and the train was often late. We were supposed to work two days on, two days off, but I regularly worked back-to-back shifts where all the meals and plates and days and time ran together in a hazy loop. I kept a journal of how many runs I made every summer, who I worked with, if something happened, and how much tip money I’d earned.
When I was an undergraduate, I worked for a tour company that paid Alaska Railroad (ARR) to pull its cars from Anchorage to Denali Park and Fairbanks and back during the tourist season, which was officially May 15 to September 15. It was a good job for college kids. We worked hard, got paid what we thought was a lot, and made friends. We played ultimate frisbee, went out drinking, and had barbecues after work. We commiserated about gross tasks like cleaning the grease trap on the flat grill or cleaning up when someone got sick, friends being on opposite shifts, and the repetition of the food. We played tricks on each other, sometimes dated coworkers, and took group trips to summer festivals. I did this for five summers and the work I did there, along with scholarships and family contributions, kept me out of student debt from 1996 to 2000. I was a busser, then a cook, then a server. I loved it then, and I love to talk about it now. Looking back, I think it helped me learn how to plan, how to engage with a lot of different kinds of people, and how to do messy work that is often unappreciated or made invisible.
I don’t know how it is now, but back then ARR pulled between two and seven of our cars on a Denali/Fairbanks-bound and a Denali/Anchorage-bound train every day. There were five crew members on each car, with three of those working the kitchen and dining room. Every morning, the crew would help passengers embark and disembark. They brought carry-ons. Heavy ones. Many of them were elderly, and getting up the train stairs was hard. It was part of our jobs to greet them, make sure they got on safely, and help with their bags. We had assigned places to stand and formed a human baggage chain.
My arms got a 30-minute lift workout before 8am every day I worked. They got the reverse when we arrived at the Park, and we did it again with the new group we took from the Park to Fairbanks. We’d do it all again when we went back to Anchorage the next day.
Two days of work, four hours of lift workouts, nevermind all the back and forth on a minimum 14-hour shift. I wish I’d had my step counter then.
The ride is pretty. It did not escape me, even at 18, that the passengers paid a lot of money to ride this train and to ride it once. We had some really wealthy people ride, but we also had people who had saved up their money for a long time so that they could take this “once in a lifetime trip” to a place they thought was really special.
It is special.
I saw bears, moose, swans, foxes, sheep, beavers, and eagles from the train.
The train winds through valleys and mountains and eventually hits the permafrost and lower mountains in Fairbanks. On a clear day you can see Denali from a spot by the Talkeetna River –the engineer often slowed down on those days so people could take pictures. There is a place along the same river where a pair of swans nest every year. There are strikingly blue rivers and ponds made by beavers. There is a place north of the Park where two rivers, one glacially clear and one cloudy with sediment, merge; the patterns the water makes as they combine change depending on if it’s raining or not and how hard. There is a place south of the Park where triangles of rock (called schist) pour down mountain sides to make a cone shape, or as the guides say over and over all summer – “the schist hits the fan.”
I took my camera sometimes. I tried to get out of the kitchen or the dining room to take shots of the prettiest places on the line. The best time to do this was when we had a “dead head” – a part of the journey where one car didn’t have passengers. Maybe we needed six cars going north, but only five going south. A car would be “dead” for a section of the ride, and we’d get a list of things to clean since we weren’t serving passengers. Some people welcomed the break, while others hated losing out on tips. But if we rode, we were guaranteed full pay and overtime pay because Alaska labor laws acknowledge seasonal labor is usually more than eight hours a day, and you have to pay even tipped staff minimum wage (it was $5.15 my last year, but I made $7.25 as a cook). Personally, I liked “dead heads” because I could pay more attention to the ride, even if I was supposed to be polishing silverware or bleaching mugs. I didn’t have to talk to anyone but my crewmembers, and they were often my friends. It felt like a luxury to have the train car to ourselves. We knew those cars and the scenery much differently than the passengers did because their trip of a lifetime was our daily grind.
Every day, the crew checked the manifest to see how many passengers and groups were riding. If we had special groups, like travel groups from another country, we’d get briefed before we left. I remember the ones from Japan the most because I loved having the chance to practice my Japanese. My bosses noticed and put me on those groups when I was a server. Cooks liked the Japanese groups because they’d all order the same thing, and that was easy to prepare.
Over time, we could make pretty accurate guesses about passenger tendencies like tipping based on how they interacted with us. We also learned how to defuse situations. Once when I was a server a lady I’d never seen screamed that I’d spilled hot cocoa on her the day before and I should stay away from her. I quipped, “Oh, that was my sister. She’s sorry.” And she was nice as pie to me the rest of the day. I don’t have a sister.
One day, I was serving a family and the plate I was holding was hot, so I was bouncing it on my fingers to keep it from burning me. The train lurched as I approached the table and the plate went flying to the floor next to them. “You didn’t know you were getting flying fish for dinner, did you?” They laughed and tipped me well even though I’d made a huge mess.
Sometimes people asked if I was a college student, and what my major was (it was biology and English with a psychology minor). They’d draw connections between me and their daughter or granddaughter or someone else they knew. Other people assumed I’d be in service forever and did not want to know anything about “the help.”
Despite the constant rocking and clickety-clack, the train ride was not always predictable.
During one season alone, there was a forest fire, a rock slide from heavy rain, and some derailments literally stopped us in/on our tracks. One time one of the engines overheated and seized up.
The line in Alaska is a single track line for the most part. There are places to pull over if one train meets another or needs to overtake another. But if something happens on the line, there has to be a plan B. Or C, or D or E. We regularly pulled over to yield to the freight trains, from which ARR made most of its money. They’re longer and heavier, and they take longer – sometimes miles – to stop.
One of our derailments was in a canyon. I was in the kitchen when our car got jerked off the rails and started riding the ties. Dishes started to fly off the shelves and the cook yelled at me to help him keep them in their places. When we finally stopped, the train was leaning towards the river. From upstairs, where the passengers were sitting, it looked much scarier because they couldn’t see the ground from their vantage point. It just looked like we were about to fall into a watery torrent. Lots of people were terrified and it became our job to keep them calm while ARR figured out what to do.
Not all the cars had derailed. The ARR crew had stopped the train in time to keep the last car on the line. Eventually, we shepherded all the passengers from the derailed cars to the ones that were still on the track. The brakeman disconnected us from the derailed cars and the train slowly pulled away. We disembarked the passengers in the Park and rode back to Anchorage in the dark. This was memorable because at the height of summer in Anchorage, the sun doesn’t set until almost midnight. It took a couple of days to fix the mangled track, so we were all suddenly off.
Sometimes you’d get off the train and your body would feel like you were still swaying. This happened to me a lot at the start of the season. You get used to having to pay attention to the moves of the train under your feet, and it would be second nature to hold your arms up defensively against the wall when walking through the halls, or to reach out for pillars as you passed through the dining room. More than once I told a passenger to sit down when I heard the air brakes go, knowing that we were going to jerk to a halt.
My body was always tired after a shift on the train, but I was okay with that. What I hated the most was the slimy, smelly film the food cooked on the flat grill – and the vinegar we used to clean it nightly – left on my skin when I was a cook. I often played ultimate frisbee on the lawn of the company apartments in Fairbanks with my friends, but I always washed my face and arms first. I had to get the smell and the slime off my skin.
We were required to wear black, closed shoes with a good sole as part of our uniform. I chose a pair of Doc Marten Mary Janes and wore them for three years. The elastic broke, but I had them fixed. It happened again, so I got a pair of lace ups without the famous yellow stitching. They were heavy, and I felt a lot of relief when I switched to running shoes after work. I still have those lace ups; every time I put them on, I remember going up and down the halls of the train cars and sometimes catching myself as the smooth bottoms skidded over the carpet in wet spaces.
I think of my time on the train as one of the most formative parts of my life as a young adult – sometimes more so than my undergraduate experiences, which my work on the train paid for. I learned how to balance work and play, how to work with lots of people, and that there were consequences when I messed up. I managed my own money and time. I practiced “adulting” and I had fun.
No one in my immediate family went to grad school. My parents were happy that I was paying for part of my education, so no one gave me a hard time for working a service industry job instead of finding opportunities aligned with my majors. I didn’t really think much about connecting school and work back then, and anthropology wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t until I moved to Japan to teach English that I figured out what anthropology was, and realized that my interests in culture, health, and Asia could fit together.
Once I had started down the graduate school road, I voiced some regret that I’d chosen to go back to this train job rather than to take a research position in a lab I’d been offered by a faculty member. The person I confided in told me that faculty member had been reported for sexually harassing students in their lab. “Be glad you were on that train with your friends, paying off your school” they said.
Today, I pay attention to my students’ work situations. What are they being encouraged to do there? How long are they spending at work, and what are they learning there that prepares them for adulthood? How can I help them connect work and class experiences? It might not seem obvious at first blush, but that time prepping kitchens, making meals, serving people, shuffling bags, and working and playing with my friends on the train has proven invaluable when it comes to working with my students. If I can remember the effort I put into 14-hour-plus days – what it really felt like – then maybe I can remember that my class is only a tiny part of their lives. And the more I can help them view what happens outside of my class in anthropological terms or as lessons for later life, the more satisfied I am that that job was worth it.