Conductor Steve Culver, a 40-year railroad veteran, chats with passengers and sets up a display featuring old Denali maps, thumbed-through books, a cup of Cook Inlet glacial silt sand, fox, marten and beaver furs and even a family photo album featuring his own family and cabin.
There’s a freedom to being a train conductor during the winter, he says. You can do things you can’t get away with in the summer, like stop the whole train so passengers can take pictures of a moose. He also slows down to deliver newspapers, chucked from the train to people who live near the tracks but off the road system.
Around 11:30 in the morning, the train squeaks into Talkeetna. Because most of the town is within a few compact blocks of the station, visitors spill out hoisting skis and make their way on foot to homes or lodgings.
There’s plenty to choose from: you can rent out a cabin (talkeetnacabins.com lists a variety of possibilities) or stay at one of several good bed and breakfasts and small inns in town. One of the most economical atmospheric places to stay is the Talkeetna Roadhouse, community hub, purveyor of massive cinnamon rolls, hotel and meeting place. Originally established in 1914 and established as an “official roadhouse in 1944,” the joint has served miners, trappers, railroad builders and climbers, along with the pioneers that made Talkeetna home. The walls are still made of the rough planks and covered with maps, mementos of Denali expeditions and Iditarod paraphernalia. The food is simple and hearty. The cinnamon rolls are the size of a soccer ball. The biscuits and gravy could sop up the entire Cook Inlet. The hotcakes and bacon are described, euphemistically, as “plate-sized.” And in the winter, rates are modest: a bed in a dorm-style bunkroom is just $21, a room is $41.
But the Roadhouse isn’t the only game in town: Talkeetna, unlike many other tourism-dependent Alaskan towns, has a wide variety of dining options that are open year round. The Denali Brewery is a recent upstart. Run by three bearded (plus one non-bearded) entrepreneurs, they make creatively spiced (lavender, curry) beers available at several spots in town. The attached Twister Creek Restaurant serves favorites like char-broiled halibut and crowd-pleasing sweet potato wedges. Other favorites include Mountain High Pizza Pie, which serves local beer and an impressive array of gourmet pizzas, the West Rib Pub & Grill, popular with locals and visitors alike and famous for giant caribou burgers. A few miles out of town on the spur road the upstart Flying Squirrel Bakery Café offers up you-won’t-believe-it’s-vegan brownies and meaty lasagna alike.
At night, locals head to the Fairview Inn, a well-worn bar with décor dominated by a huge, smoke-stained painting of Denali. Live music happens frequently, and the friendly local dogs sometimes get in and wander around despite a sign behind the bar – presumably a reminder for bartenders-- that says “NO DOGS NO DOGS NO DOGS - BE TOUGH MARNIE.”
Winter, Coleman says, is the time when the community “gets down to the nitty-gritty.” There are movies at the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar, craft fairs and ski races, like the Ole and Lena Classic, which requires participants to tell a joke at each of several checkpoints.
In recent years, Talkeetna has promoted a slew of winter events – like December’s Wilderness Woman competition and Bachelor Auction weekend and the March Oosik Classic ski race. There are also plans for a new Nordic ski trail circuit around the nearby X and Y lakes, down Comsat Road, which locals hope will attract more weekend ski visitors.
So you can eat, drink, ski (the town has miles of maintained trails that parallel the spur road) and spend time gazing at the mountain from down by the frozen Susitna River. But the best part of a winter weekend in Talkeetna may be the pace, as slow as frozen molasses. It gives visitors time, says Roadhouse owner Costello, to detach from their Blackberries and iPhones and actually engage in old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation.
“It’s easy to get into peoples’ stories,” she says. “That’s what makes Talkeetna and the Roadhouse special. People can talk to each other.”