We floated through spruce forests and untracked meadows topped by a pale sky. I eased my grip on the handle and watched an unbroken tableau of woods and fields unfurl below us. It was hard to believe that we were just outside Alaska’s second-largest city.
Details, Fairbanks, Alaska
Once an early 20th-century trading post that served gold miners, Fairbanks is now a flat, frozen college town of 32,000. But it’s most notable for what surrounds it: a 7,000-square-mile borough of boreal forests, peaks and glaciers. This part of Alaska is marked by harsh extremes — vicious wind, up to 20 hours of darkness and temperatures that regularly dive below zero. It’s not an obvious destination for midwinter rest and relaxation. Most of the few winter visitors come with a purpose: to see the aurora borealis.
I’d come for more than that.
I’d spent the previous week on a raucous, bourbon-soaked ski trip with friends in Prince William Sound and was in need of detox. I’d come seeking a sliver of peace, but I was also curious about the beauty of the interior. What I found surprised me. After three trips to Alaska, I realized that I’d never truly understood the spirit of the state until I visited its remote northern reaches last winter, alone.
To get from Anchorage to Fairbanks, most sensible people take a flight. I, however, decided to take the train, a 12-hour roll through the deep freeze of central Alaska. I wanted to understand the scale of the state by traveling through it, not over it, and it seemed luxurious to have nothing to do but watch the world go by.
From the station in downtown Anchorage, we rattled past homes steaming with heat and the distant peaks of the Chugach mountain range, exhaling puffs of windblown snow. The railroad is still a transportation corridor for certain snowbound homesteads, such as Sherman and Chase, where residents waited by the tracks for supplies.
Soon, the settlements thinned into meadows, forests and mountains. Old telegraph poles and the occasional cabin stood in varying states of decay. I spotted a moose and watched a black fox, stark against a white meadow, scare a flock of crows into flight. We headed through Denali National Park and past the continent’s tallest mountain, wrapped in clouds.
Only the occasional gorge or peak interrupted the soothing monotony of trees. The sheer scale of it could easily inspire boredom or unease, but for me, it was fascination. The train rocked me into a meditative trance, and as the hours rolled by, I realized that this is the only way a traveler can begin to grasp a place so big and wild: by simply watching it.