Part 3 of a 6-part series
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We just can’t seem to get train travel in America right. Seriously, spend a week in the U.K. or mainland Europe, and you’ll notice what a horrid excuse for train transport is the U.S. infrastructure.
Or so is truly in the Lower 48.
For on the Alaska Railroad, you experience not only a level of comfort with which we are unused to in the U.S., but a luxurious experience that ranks up with the rail travels of Britannia and continental Europe.
GoldStar Service will today take us from Denali down to Anchorage, the state’s largest city and home to half of Alaska’s entire human population. It’s going to be a good eight-hour journey, during which time not only lunch but dinner will be served. I aim to get some writing done, as well as spend time on the outdoor observation platform to watch this beautiful Alaska flying by during the journey through the heart of this incredibly large state.
After boarding, a porter ushers the first 10 rows of GoldStar class down to the dining car directly beneath. You are seated “festival style,” which means you need to make, if not friends, then temporary polite conversations during your meal. Victoria and I wind up seated with a truly international couple of a New Zealand woman and her boyfriend, a Dutch native who has resided in Australia for decades. They met within the past few years, after their respective children had all grown and moved on. Now they travel the world together, but still maintain their respective homes in their two neighboring countries separated by the Tasman Sea.
Over breakfast of eggs, reindeer sausage and French toast we four chat of our various world travels — as it turns out, Victoria and I have both been to Australia, and I’ve also been to New Zealand — the state of political affairs and the truly interconnected world we inhabit. Coffee is strong, as is the iced tea brought by our waitress, a native of Montenegro working this coach during the final weeks of the 2017 summer season before the cold and the snow unleash their more than half-year takeover.
There is no WiFi on this train, which puts the emphasis on looking about you, taking in the amazing landscapes of forest, mountains, vales, glades, hillocks and rivers — all of which run a steely gray due to the silts that glacial melt drags along on their eventual march to the Pacific.
Signs of human habitation, or signs of their abandonment, are also in evidence, perhaps none more so than in the former town of Curry, where a once-great hotel housed both railroad workers and tourists on their way north to Denali before the old coal-burning locomotives were replaced by diesel engines, making a stop for fuel in Curry no longer necessary. But for a briefly burning moment in the 1920s, Curry was marketed as a world-class resort for the well-to-do on their way north from Seward to Fairbanks. A great hotel was set up here, but it burned down in the 1957, all but erasing Curry from the map but as a curiosity.
A helpful porter points out the sights, such as remote human cabins accessible via hiking, and which don’t have running water or electricity for the truly rustic adventurer. We even pass by a rather remote “town,” Sherman, whose city hall sits along a stream bed, a testament and outpost of the wonders of democracy even here in Alaska’s remoteness.
Heading further south we cross over rivers whose waters bear that same steely gray sheen, the result of glacial melt and silt flowing inexorably together as tributaries of the Yukon and then many, many, many miles out, to the Pacific Ocean.
Dinnertime, and again we are ushered by sections down to the galley. This time we are seated with an Indian couple who emigrated to North Carolina. We trade stories of our respective professions and travels over cod and pot roast. The wine selection is impression for such a voyage, and Victoria enjoys Cabernet and I some Chardonnay to complement the native Alaskan cod.
The bar is fully stocked, and our tickets entitle us to two complementary adult beverages. I have to try out the Denali Brewing Company Single Engine Red, a nicely hopped Irish red-style brew concocted not far from the namesake mountain. (Their Blonde also goes down easily.)
After hours of being out of reach of cellphone coverage, the bars of AT&T gradually begin to return, and soon the porter informs us we are passing through Wasilla, home of onetime mayor and former Gov. Sarah Palin. (Despite my best intentions with my binoculars, I cannot, in fact, spy the Russian mainland from here.)
The mountains, forests and rivers are still all about us, but gradually they are joined by Lowe’s, CVS and other mainstays of capitalism, assuring that we are returning from the primeval of the wilderness back into “civilization.” Accordingly, soon I can spy multistory structures on the horizon as Anchorage approaches, the first “skyscrapers” we have seen since leaving Washington, D.C., last week.
But we are thousands of miles from the nation’s capital, and Anchorage, Alaska state’s largest city, has much to teach us.
Fore more on traveling the Alaska Railroad, visit AlaskaRailroad.com.