For children of all ages, there is a deep and never-changing love for trains and for stories that give us hope. The story of the Polar Express captivated my two sons’ hearts and mine over 22 years ago when the book was first released and I stumbled on to the book at the local book store. Cody my oldest son, got the book and his first of many silver sleigh bells as a Christmas gift while he was in Kindergarten. We read the book over and over that holiday season. After he returned to school he told everyone about the book. For years after that first Christmas, I was asked to come to his elementary school to read out loud the book that had captured the heart of my oldest son and every child who heard the story of a boy and his lost bell.
Then 17 years later Christopher was born and the tradition of The Polar Express continued with the same book and a small boy. Somewhere along the way, others fell in the love with the story and the movie was made that almost every child today has heard of. I was again asked to come to the elementary school and read allowed the worn and dog eared pages to the children. Soon after the release of the movie, an idea came into the mind of a group of avid train people in Elkins, West Virginia and The Polar Express became a live stage show on the rails in the mountains. With last year’s count of riders being over 30,000 who come each year to spend a couple hours on the train to have a short visit with Santa and be reminded that even the oldest of us can still believe in the spirit of Christmas.
This year we were lucky enough to get tickets to take my youngest son and my granddaughter for a ride on the Durbin & Greenbrier Valleys Railroads licensed version of The Polar Express. The tickets sell out around April so it takes a little planning to get them before the Holiday Season. We were encouraged to ride the 7pm train just after dark so the kids could see the holiday lights at the North Pole. the Durbin & Greenbrier runs three trains on most nights one at 5pm one at 7pm and one at 9pm with the later two running in the dark.
The experience is geared so that riders are entertained on the way out to the North Pole (45 mins) with the dancing, singing chefs from the book who serve cookies, and hot chocolate to every passenger. The return trip ( 45mins) is filled with meetings with the Hobo that rides on the roof of the train and a visit with Santa and several elves. Each passenger has their Gold Train ticket punched and is gifted a silver sleigh bell imprinted with the words The Polar Express. The evening ends with the Chefs telling jokes and tossing snowballs around the train car and making fake snow.
This trip was a gift to my Granddaughter and it was a special experience that we shared together and will never forget. As we left the train and walked in the dark back to our truck, I realized that my cheeks hurt from all the smiling I had done over the two hours. That I was happy about the holidays for the first time in several years. That I had actually gotten a few precious hours of my childhood back and was so thankful to Santa for my very own silver sleigh bell. At 50 I think I needed to remember that there is always hope and a reason to believe.
The night ended with two very happy young people who drank hot chocolate ate cookies and met the Santa for maybe the last time before they reach their teens. They bought ornaments to take home and snuggled up together in the back seat laughing and smiling about what they saw and how they could do the whole trip again. Tom and I held hands on the way home, at peace and with happiness in our hearts. It was as if Christmas had come back to us too.
I will always be thankful to author Chris Van Allsburg for his skill in writing and drawing. His story has filled my adult life over and over again with hundreds of wonder-filled children who sat patiently to hear about the train ride to the North Pole. His story has helped to revitalize a small mountain town in West Virginia that had a train, the snow and the wilderness of his story. But most of all he has filled my middle age with memories of happy children and my first silver sleigh bell….. maybe if I am still lucky I will hear it ring for many more years to come.