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There aren't many rules on the train called the Hurricane Turn. Dogs roam the aisles and sit next to their owners on the seats. The baggage car doors are wide open, even when the train is moving.
"Oh yeah, this is like the best job in the whole railroad, you bet," says conductor Wade Sherwood.
The Hurricane Turn is one of the last whistle-stop trains in the U.S. — trains that allow travelers to hop on and off where they choose. With tight schedules to keep, most train operators have abandoned them.
Found in Alaska's interior, the Hurricane Turn also provides the only access a few dozen families have to their remote homes and cabins.
It's Sherwood's job to keep track of who's getting off where and when they'll be coming out of the wilderness. He uses a giant whiteboard to chart the action, and he handles the chaos like the friendly mayor of a small town.
The train runs 55 miles through a section of dense Alaskan birch and spruce forest, winding through low mountains and over glacially fed rivers. Tourists ride the train to take in the scenery and spot an occasional bear that pops into view.
For Sherwood the locals are the real, attraction-hearty Alaskans that have built homes and cabins that are completely cut off from the modern world.
"It's exciting. You meet some real characters out here," he says. "It's not an easy place, and it's a rare person that can spend time here and make a life."
One of those characters is Harden Mevin, a small, older man with a long, gray beard. Most of the locals are heading into recreational cabins, but Mevin is one of the few who lives out here year-round. He stays even in winter, when temperatures can dip to minus 40.
Mevin built his own cabin 34 years ago and lives a subsistence lifestyle. He uses the train to get supplies, but also to visit friends farther up the tracks. If the railroad offered frequent-rider miles, Mevin would have platinum status by now.
When asked what his life would be like without the Hurricane Turn, he says, "that's a real hard question because it's our only access, unless you owned a helicopter."
Ken Flynn has been riding the train even longer than Mevin. He staked out land and built a 10-by-13 cabin 40 years ago. He chose a site 2 miles off the tracks for its spectacular view of 20,000-foot Mount McKinley.
He and his wife, Julie, live in Anchorage, but this is their fifth train trip into their cabin this summer. They enjoy escaping their cellphones, computers and cars in the city. Flynn says they don't even like to hunt or fish. Their life at the cabin is more basic than that.
"It's just the sheer enjoyment of being out in the wilderness. It's quiet. Our activities pretty much are limited to hauling water, gathering firewood, and once that's done then we can relax," he says.
When their stop comes up, the Flynns climb down from the baggage car and Wade hands them their backpacks and trekking poles.
The Flynns say it's always a little strange when the train pulls off and leaves them just standing there, on their own in the middle of a vast wilderness. But that's exactly how they like it.
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