SEWARD, ALASKA — The Alaska Railroad slices up the middle of the state like a bolt of blue and yellow lightning, into the belly of a place that is camera-ready and bountiful beyond belief.
The rail line begins in the little seaport of Seward, chug-a-lugs up to Anchorage, past Denali National Park and Preserve and finally to Fairbanks, an almost 500-mile jaunt of day trips throughout Alaska's short, short summer.
Why the train? Because, unless you're a moose or have moose tendencies, parts of the 49th state are accessible only by rail.
Why the train? Well, does your rental car come with a bartender? Or a fresh-faced young tour guide? The train is also an affordable throwback -- comfy, almost clubby, with way more wiggle room than a 737 and none of the flight crew psychosis.
Why the train? Because your dog sled is in the shop. Honestly, quit asking so many questions and climb aboard.
This wet and snowy town was Russian soil until U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward stole Alaska for a song in 1867. (Can you imagine the course of world events had he not?)
Today, Seward is a major cruise hub and the southernmost point of the state-owned rail line.
Tourists from the cruise ships hop aboard here, as do day-trippers down from Anchorage. About 6 p.m., I do too as the eight-car train pulls away from the little depot and curls its way north.
Right out of the chute, this is just the sort of dramatic scenery I'd always envisioned. I loved Alaska before I ever set foot here in June. I fell for its pictures, as if it were some sort of mail-order bride.
Never been? Imagine a more muscular California. Imagine the state film director Peter Jackson would create had he a blank check: glaciers, waterfalls, gushing gorges and wildlife just everywhere.
"Black bear off to the right," one of the train guides says.
Seats are assigned, but you're free to roam the train to find a better spot or scout a better vantage point: window, dome car, the open vestibules between trains. Half a million passengers use the Alaska Railroad each year, but there is no crush for space on this late-June trip. Even in coach, the cars are roomy, bright, with an elegant retro feel.
The railroad is known for its easy pace, stopping for animal sightings or glacier views. Mileposts mark the way, and maps delivered by the teenage guides make it easy to plot your progress.
At Mile 50, we hit a series of S curves. At Mile 52, we pass Spencer Glacier, named for a railroad employee who fell into a crevasse and died in 1914.
"Black bears in the middle of the tracks, scurrying to the left," a guide announces over the public-address system.
By the way, here's another reason for "Why the train?": Because there are lots of great places to sneak a nap -- the beach, the opera -- but none better than aboard a lumbering train after a late-afternoon Bloody Mary.
At about Mile Marker 78, I nod off like a grizzly bear.
Just to be clear, the Alaska Railroad does not overnight anywhere. It makes a series of day trips. So I hop off at Anchorage to spend a day or two knocking about this town of 300,000 fleece-lined souls.
Anchorage, with about half the state's population, is certainly its most urban city, but the downtown is steps away from salmon fishing and a sensational nature trail that wraps along the Cook Inlet.
I spend a morning in the modest downtown, checking out the gift shops and restaurants along 4th Avenue. The free wooden trolleys stick to local businesses in town; the red trolleys, $15 for an hourlong tour, give you a wider view of the city.
For me, the best stop is Mulcahy Stadium, where the Alaska Baseball League features some of the best college players in the nation (these are Alaska's Durham Bulls). Admission is $5, hot dog $3.
A half an hour south of town is another only-in-Alaska venue. At a sensational turnout called Bird Point, you'll find rare bore tides, a breaking wave that rushes up an inlet in places with extreme tidal changes. There are only 60 places in the world with bore tides and only a few that are as dramatic as this -- on an arm of the Cook Inlet, surrounded by mountains. Whales sometimes follow the tide, and seals frolic in the waves.
Ten minutes south, at the Silvertip Grill in Girdwood, slabs of reindeer lasagna as big as small appliances are being served.
I like Girdwood. I like reindeer. I kick myself the next few days for missing it on the menu. But the halibut is out of this world. This whole state seems out of this world.
ON TO DENALI
North we go, like a lovesick salmon.
This next run, Anchorage to Denali National Park, is strikingly different from the Seward leg -- flatter, with thick forests of birch and spruce. The state's quirky history is laid out before you here, and it's easy to get a sense of how settlers spread north in search of gold, solitude, coal and adventure.