For Smithsonian: A ride on America’s last flag-stop train into Alaska’s homestead country

If you can find it, pick up a copy of Smithsonian Journeys. It is one of my most favorite projects, in part because so many of my favorite journalists and writers wrote and took photos in it, including Ash Adams, Brian Adams, Katie Orlinsky, Wayde Carroll, Seth Kantner, Nathaniel Wilder and Kirsten Swann. I also liked it because it gave me a chance to explore a little of my own family connection to the railroad line that runs from Talkeetna to Hurricane through off-the-grid homesteader country.

Here’s how my story begins:

To get to the town of Talkeetna, where Alaska’s popular flag-stop train begins its route, take the Parks Highway north from Anchorage through the Anywhere-in-America strip-mall colony of Wasilla, pass Happy Hooker Towing and the neighboring Church on the Rock, go by so many lonesome coffee carts in so many dusty gravel parking lots you’ll lose count and on through the town of Houston, where kids on four-wheelers race down the roadside, kicking up dust.


Keep driving as these touches of urban living give way to a rolling tapestry of silver-bark birches. When you get to the stretch where trees were torched into black spindles by wildfire last summer, you’re close. Maybe then, up over a rise in the highway, you will get a glimpse of Denali’s unreal height, its snow-smoothed shoulders holding the weight of a wide, blue sky.

It had been a quarter of a century since I’d been to Talkeetna. Now, I was going there to catch the Hurricane Turn and ride 55 miles north through a series of off-the-grid homesteads to Hurricane Gulch. There the railcars would stop atop a bridge over a 300-foot drop to Hurricane Creek before turning around. It’s said to be the last flag-stop train route in America, a six-hour trip into a simpler, elemental way of life.

Read the rest here.