Mitten List: Ride the North Pole Express

December 5, 2014


I always thought I had a pretty good handle on what the North Pole might be like.

I mean, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert by any means. But I thought I knew a thing or two.

After all, I’ve seen Elf approximately five billion-jillion times. (And I will continue to watch it five billion-jillion times because watching Will Ferrell eat spaghetti with maple syrup and jelly beans on top really never gets old.) I’ve also seen all those creepy claymation Rudolph movies. And every single year when I was a kid, I’d sit on Santa’s lap, and I’d tell him I wanted Barbie Fashion Plates, and he’d get me something that was totally not Barbie Fashion Plates, but, still, I felt like I really knew the Big Guy, you know?

Whelp, I was proven wrong once again. Because last week I actually went to the North Pole.

Yes, THE North Pole. Even the sign said so!

Why, yes, that IS a Christmas tree on my head? What? Isn't that what YOU wear when visiting the North Pole?

Why, yes, that IS a Christmas tree on my head. What? Isn’t that what YOU wear when visiting the North Pole?

And it was totally nothing at all like what I was expecting.

But I get ahead of myself.

Really the whole point of my going to the North Pole, was not so I could hang out with Santa and a bunch of elves, but because I wanted to ride on the Pere Marquette 1225, an old steam engine train run by the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan.

Every year before Christmas, the train is transformed into the North Pole Express, complete with a stop in the North Pole, and ever since I heard about it last year, I’ve been wanting to go.

After all, I love everything cheesy and Christmassy. And I’m also a big huge train nerd.

And if there’s one thing I love more than cheesy Christmassness and trains, it’s cheesy Christmasness combined with trains.

And, well, the North Pole Express was every bit as cheesy and Christmassy and trainy (totally a word) as I expected.

The conductor was a total real deal conductor in a fancy old timey uniform.



He stamped our tickets with a stamp in the shape of a teeny tiny train engine on the way there.

Notice the mini-choo-choo train on the left side. I DIED.

Notice the mini-choo-choo train on the left side. So freaking awesome.

And then he stamped them with a stamp in the shape of a teeny tiny caboose on the way back.

Now with a mini-caboose on the right side. OMG, right?

Now with a mini-caboose on the right side. OMG, right?

There were kids decked out in their Christmas pajamas. Including the kid sitting in front of me, who kept on popping up to look at me, because apparently the sight of a full-grown woman wearing a felt  Christmas tree on top of her head is weird or something.

Nothing weird here, kids.

Nothing weird here, kids.

And there was even a “Hot Cocoa Class” of seats where people were able to drink unlimited amounts of hot chocolate with all manner of whipped cream and toppings.

Sadly, those tickets were sold out when I booked, so my friend and I were in the less excitingly-named “Commuter Class.” Which came with unlimited amount of… umm… stares from small children.

The commuter class. Notice the apparent lack of whipped cream.

The commuter class. Notice the lack of whipped cream.

It wasn’t until we hopped off the train an hour away from Owosso, that I started to think that everything I thought I knew about the North Pole was totally wrong.

First of all, we were still in Michigan. Ashley, Michigan, to be exact.

Secondly, the train was greeted, not by Santa and his merry band of elves, but by hobos.

This is who welcomed us off the train.

This is who welcomed us off the train. Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that either.

And, finally, I counted at least two liquor stores in the tiny three-block town.

Well, now we know why Santa's so jolly.

Well, now we know why Santa’s so jolly.

Not that I’m complaining about any of this. Because Michigan and hobos and liquor are, seriously, some of my favorite things.

In fact, now that I think about it, I should probably just move there.

Our first mission in the North Pole was to find food. Because that’s usually my first mission when I go anywhere.

I was thinking we’d be stuck eating candy canes and sugar plums and snow. But the food choices were much more diverse than that. There was a cafe offering pizza and hotdogs, a saloon, an ice cream shop called Bearadise, a Czech bakery and a soup kitchen, which was run by hobos. Because of course it was.


Mmm… hobo food.

As tempting as it was to eat hobo soup, we settled on donuts and hot cider and a cookie the size of my head. Because going to the North Pole should not involve a balanced meal — it should involve lots of sugar, amirite?

We then poked around the shops. Which, again, were a lot more diverse than I was expecting. I was imagining the North Pole would be full of shops selling useful but boring North Pole things, like reindeer feed and sleigh polish.

But instead there were a number of cute craft shops, a studio of glass blowers and some guy carving wooden bears out of chainsaws.


Because nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a bear carved with a chainsaw! Also, what is that thing in front of the bear? Do I even want to know?

There was even a building with face painters and a caricature-artist and some guy who juggled bowling balls and balanced a bike on his head.

Again, this was totally not what I was expecting from the North Pole. I mean, if anything, I expected the entertainment to consist of Christmas carols being sung by drunken elves and reindeers jumping through flaming hoops.

Okay, I’m really kind of sad there were no flame-hoop-jumping reindeers. But the bike-on-his-head-guy was pretty cool.


Not exactly a flame-jumping reindeer… but still pretty fun.

After spending two hours in the North Pole, the train was ready to board again, and that’s when Santa Claus showed up to bid us all farewell.

If I had had any doubts that we were actually in the North Pole before then, those doubts quickly disappeared when I saw the Big Guy.

I mean, just look at him. He’s the Real Deal For Real, amirite?


I even had half a mind to march up to him and ask him where he’d been keeping all the Barbie Fashion Plates I had asked for year after year.

When we got back on the train, we were greeted with a card on our seat with a jingle bell attached and the word “believe” on it above a picture of Santa Claus.

Trust me, Big Guy, I believe.

(But I’d believe a lot more if I maybe got those Barbie Fashion Plates you owe me. Just saying.)

What’s the cheesiest holiday thing you’ve ever done?

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On December 5, 2014 at 9:29 am Hata Trbonja said:

    Hello Sally!
    We didn’t celebrate xmas growing up but I celebrate with my husband and his family. But, I had the best time with my students. We would have a pajama day where they had to bring in their favorite mug and while they watched Polar Express, I made hot chocolate for them. They loved it almost as much as I did.
    Ahhh…the memories.
    Also playing Charlie Brown Christmas music gets me right in the heart every year.
    Hata Trbonja recently posted..Parmesan and Rosemary Roasted Nuts

    • On December 10, 2014 at 9:45 am Sally said:

      Wow, that sounds like such a fun Christmas celebration with your students! My Christmas celebration at school this year amounted to me making my students take a grammar quiz on the last day while I wore my grumpy cat Christmas sweater and felt Christmas tree on top of my head. They weren’t so amused. 🙂

  2. On December 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm Jenny said:

    Never really been a blog reader but I just happened to stumble upon your site while searching for a grumpy cat Christmas sweater. And let me just say, I Love your blog! My boyfriend and I are giggling on our way back to St. Louis while reading about your Christmas adventure in Michigan.

    Haven’t had any atsuper cheesy Christmas Adventures, except for looking at some oddly, creepy Christmas lights in Missouri. However, you are motivating us to start some of our own adventures!

    • On December 10, 2014 at 9:44 am Sally said:

      You don’t know how happy it makes me that you found my site via searching for grumpy cat Christmas sweater. I feel like that means I’ve finally made it to the blogging big time! 🙂
      So glad you’re enjoying the blog!

  3. On December 5, 2014 at 3:13 pm Emiko said:

    I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything super cheesy for christmas (unless you count decorating my house with 10 fake trees…), BUT the hobos made think of something else. I’ve heard that a cat symbol in hobo language mean ‘a kind woman lives here.’ I just thought this blog, cats, hobos…it was worth a mention!
    Emiko recently posted..Where are you from?

  4. On December 5, 2014 at 5:49 pm Christine said:

    I giggled all the way through this post! – hobos? Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Thanks for sharing your travels!

  5. On December 6, 2014 at 12:24 am Priya said:

    I can’t believe you met Santa! I also can’t believe he never gave you those Barbie Fashion Plates! Jerkface.
    Priya recently posted..On Moving Flats Unexpectedly, Living Without WiFi, & Figuring Out My Next Travel Move

  6. On December 6, 2014 at 7:19 am zoe said:

    I can only assume Santa got his ideas about what presents to give little girls from the same place as my mum – not sure where that is, but it definitely involves NO BARBIE EVER.
    zoe recently posted..Living alone: pretty great or pretty great?

  7. On December 10, 2014 at 10:23 am becky hutner said:

    this reminds me of the time i got my itinerary for an alaska press trip & saw “north pole” on the schedule. i went around telling everyone i was going to the actual north pole until i realized it was just a tacky gift shop hundreds of miles south of the real deal. i was so disappointed, i boycotted the whole thing.

    err, not that yours isn’t the real deal either. clearly!
    becky hutner recently posted..Fashion ‘Round the World: FALL ’14

  8. On December 11, 2014 at 11:23 pm Camylah said:

    Dear North Pole expresses I really need 10 tickets

  9. On December 19, 2014 at 11:54 am Tom @ Waegook Tom said:

    I’m still confused by all the hobos. Were they supposed to be Santa hobos, or realistic elves?

    And you should have totally stormed into Hot Cocoa Class, a la the airplane scene in Bridesmaids. If you’ve head to see Bridesmaids, I implore you to YouTube ‘Bridesmaids airplane scene’ RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..Lehua Night Market: 樂華夜市

    • On December 25, 2014 at 11:21 am Sally said:

      Somebody told me there were a lot of hobos in the movie. I guess that’s what you do when you need to expand a picture book into a two-hour movie — you add hobos. I’ve never seen the movie, but now that I know there are hobos in it, I might just have to watch it!

  10. On March 3, 2015 at 11:16 pm Ceri said:

    Wow, the North Pole is certainly more populated and urban that I imagined.
    Ceri recently posted..My Five Favourite Things in February


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