SUSITNA RIVER VALLEY, ALASKA
In the shadow of Mt. McKinley, at the shack that serves as the depot for the tiny town of Talkeetna, two dozen people and six dogs board an Alaska Railroad train on a crisp morning, rumbling by beaver ponds and snow-dusted mountain ridges.
The stops on this 55-mile run consist not of platforms and ticket counters but, often, of lone passengers flagging the two-car train to stop just for them. And the disembarking riders gather bags and boxes, step off the train, then disappear into the woods on their way to rustic cabins.
"Bye! Good luck!" someone calls to Kristy Mossanen, who carries her newborn baby girl, She and her husband, Sassan, head up a frost-crusted mile-long trail to their wilderness home and a new chapter in life.
Welcome to the Alaska Railroad's once-a-month Hurricane Turn run, the only designated flagstop train service in the world. The Alaska Railroad is now the last in the world to provide this once-common service - on this run and sometimes on one other route - to those who live along its tracks. It allows passengers to board after hailing the train as if it were a taxicab.
With the state-owned railroad losing money on the service, it is also a tradition in jeopardy.
For those who live or retreat here in the roadless woods north of Talkeetna, flagstop service is practically the only way in or out.
It is also the ticket to a lifestyle no longer available in most parts of the nation, embraced by an eclectic group of Alaskans, despite below-zero winter temperatures and the lack of indoor plumbing, utilities, telephones, and other conveniences.
"My first husband and I split and I was kind of running away from him. It sounds kind of funny," said Sharon McKewen, who has since remarried and is raising two daughters in the woods. She home-schools her girls and comes to "town" - Talkeetna, pop. 775, or perhaps Anchorage - only when necessary.
Marion Elliot moved to Alaska from New York in 1969, married a local outdoorsman, and has lived along the flagstop route ever since. "The adventure of it to me was just so exciting, I had no hesitation at all," she said, her Brooklyn accent still strong. Their son is now in college studying creative writing, an interest probably kindled by long nights without TV, she says.
A rider who identifies himself only as "Jeff" sees other benefits to life here. "I don't want anybody to know where I am. We're out here for a reason," he says, as fellow passengers joke that his boxes hold "Matanuska weed," a locally grown strain of marijuana.
Flagstop rail's financial troubles raise the larger question, usually unspoken here, of how much society should subsidize people so that they can live the mythic independent Alaska lifestyle. Today, this run loses $136,000 a year. And when a Korean company canceled its contract with an Alaska mining company, ending the need for the railroad's coal-hauling business, officials were faced with a loss of $4 million in revenue. They considered flagstop cuts to help make up the difference.
Big mistake, said flagstop enthusiasts. A "Friends of the Flagstop" group formed, and its campaign spawned a flurry of letters, press coverage, and defenders from around the nation.
In October, the railroad's directors backed away from the proposal to reduce service. Though the railroad has imposed a hiring freeze and other austerity measures, the board decided that flagstop service "was a pretty unique service and they wanted to keep it as it is," says railroad spokesman Patrick Flynn. The hope now is that the railroad can attract more travel by summer tourists riding from Talkeetna, so the service will lose less money.
Flagstop fans note that the service provides some unseen benefits. It discourages unsafe travel, such as snowmobile riding on the tracks, a potential liability nightmare for the railroad.
And it is a living link to history, when Talkeetna was a bustling railroad town visited by trappers, miners and, at one time, President Warren Harding. Defenders say it would be unfair to cut the service, since the government has encouraged homesteading.