The Bell Still Rings For Me (Our Time On Durango’s Polar Express)

The Christmas memories of my childhood include gingerbread boys (courtesy of my grandma,) luminarias (a new mexico tradition,) Christmas lights, lots of feelings of seasonal magic and The Polar Express (the book, not the movie.)  

I have children of my own now, and I want then to have the same feelings of wonderment in this holiday time. Of course some things have changed since I was a girl, but the heart, the warmth of the season remains and Micah and I have combined memories and experiences to create our own version of what we each hold dear from our own early years.

Last year, we took Daphne (along with my mom, brother, sister in law, niece and nephews) on The Polar Express train ride in Durango, CO. We did the whole thing, all of us wore our cozies (this is what Daphne calls pajamas- and it’s become the word we use now) and committed fully to the experience of living out, even just a small piece, of Chris Van Allsburg’s incredible tale. We had a blast and went home thinking we had surely found our new family tradition.

This year, we planned early, got our tickets, reserved lodging and made sure all was in place for another magical time full of song, hot cocoa and most importantly a steam engine through the snow in our cozies. This past weekend we loaded up and headed out to this Christmas vacation months in the making.

To get to Durango we must travel over Wolf Creek Pass, and this past week there was a doozy of a snow storm so I kept my camera handy and caught some beautiful images of winter in Colorado.

After arriving in our airbnb cabin having a couple of days worth of meals, games, sledding outside, fires and lots of laughs, we bundled up and drove into town to join the hundreds of other children and grown ups, dressed in their cozies and ready to take the magical ride.

The station was decorated with care, and plenty of Polar Express merchandise was available for purchase (though I didn’t end up buying any.) Once the elves alerted us to the train’s arrival we all hurried outside to catch the short show, introducing us all to the story line- the young boy and the conductor inviting us all aboard- to go where? Why, The North Pole of course!


Aboard we went- we were greeted by ornaments, lights and cups of hot chocolate. There were fancy “Polar Express” tote bags and mugs waiting for us under our seats. The train began to move forward with a gentle rocking and Micah joked that they must be trying out the new oval wheels. I told him to hush, I didn’t want sarcasm to ruin my mood- I was ready to fully buy into the fantasy. Our hostesses were two cheerful young ladies who were dressed as the chefs from the story- probably a couple of drama students from the local college who landed a sweet winter gig. They handed out goodies and lead us in song as the conductor walked through the aisle punching our golden tickets. Then over the speakers came the voice of Chris Van Allsburg, and so he began the telling of his story, The Polar Express. His recorded voice was so calm, and that, THAT is how I have always held the story in my mind- calm.


The Book- The Polar Express feels like falling snow landing on my nose while I walk alone along a path by the river- it is the sound of my mother’s voice as my brother, August, and I sit quietly by the light of the Christmas tree and look on while she reads- it is the story before the cookies are set out for Santa and getting tucked in- and trying, trying, trying to stay up long enough to hear the jingling of the bells on Santa’s sleigh…  That, to me, is The Polar Express.

The Movie- When Hollywood adapted the book and turned The Polar Express into an animated Broadway show complete with a sorta bad guy and wild song and dance numbers, I thought they really lost sight of the true essence of Mr. Van Allsburg’s story. It’s a shame- and I don’t know everything, but listening to his telling over the speakers gives me a sneaking suspicion I might be right about this.


Back to the train ride- After the story, and the cocoa, and the cookies, the train circled through a beautifully decorated North Pole, and we all waved to Santa. Then there was a strangely loud explosion of singing (which side can sing louder- FA LA LA LA LA!- that kind of thing) and the whole experience sorta started to feel a bit too much like… well, like the movie. The sugar was hitting the children and our chefs as well I think. As we headed back I became acutely aware, not only that the gentle rocking of train really did feel more like a bumpy ride on a country road, but that the heaters were on full blast and there was no drinking water anywhere around. I asked one of the chefs if we could have some water, please. She was clearly exhausted and seemed almost put out as she rushed to get two small bottles of water. She quickly handed them to us and I could see that she didn’t want anyone else to ask her for water- poor thing, I think it was her third “show” of the night, and she had already confessed to cleaning up one child’s throw up so far that evening. All I could think was 1.) TMI- And 2.) You must not have children yet.


The songs ended because Santa walked into our train car. He was beautifully dressed and was clearly a kind and experienced Santa Claus- the man himself, I believe. As he made his way through the car he handed each child a silver bell and posed for pictures. I took a picture of Daphne and Gloria with Santa, but because of the rocking of the train, it was a blurry mess of a shot- I don’t mind though, he was gracious and sweet with my babies and that matters more than the photo op.


When the train pulled up to the depot we exited- children, souvenir mugs, bells and commemorative totes in arm. We drove the snow packed road back to the cabin and chatted about evening’s festivities. What did we like? What could we have done without? The girls were both asleep long before we made it back to the cabin, so Micah and I talked and laughed about some of the jobs we had done in college. I, in fact, had been a theater student at a “local college” once upon a time, and one of the “sweet gigs” I got was to dress up as the Queen of England and silently make my way around a huge room of guests at some fundraiser in downtown Albuquerque. I had to wear a big plastic mask/head- it was disgustingly hot, didn’t breathe and smelled horrible. One year I was a member of an ensemble Christmas cast that performed Las Posadas several times- we had “off shows” and everything was still alright. One year I even played a Who in a production of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas… my point is- I get it. I get being a “performer” and I get being an “audience member.”   


I remember these things, and I think about all that I am doing in my life now. At the end of the day- everyone’s a critic, right? My children had fun, and Daphne has been singing “Hot, Hot Chocolate” all week. They don’t know or care that I want the story to forever be peaceful- it doesn’t really matter that I like the book better than the movie and that I think the singing got a little too loud. They take from the experience all that I’d hoped for- a fun time with our family, and a glimpse into the magic of the season. Through the coming years my children will enjoy creating their own relationship with The Polar Express. Before too long we’ll be planning our next trip back to Durango. We’ll buy new cozies, and plot out meals, make reservations and secure time off. Next time, I will be certain to pack a bottle or two of water in the pocket of my robe.

Tonight, I will read the Polar Express to the girls. We’ll put cookies out for Santa Claus, I will tuck my babies in bed, and while Gloria is too young to feel the thrill, Daphne will no doubt try, try, try to stay up long enough to hear the bells on Santa’s sleigh.


Merry Christmas, and may the peace of the season find you and your loved ones tonight, and every night.



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