Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

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--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

A Place to Gather

June 6th, 2016 by

Published in Alaska magazine.

I sat at the Talkeetna Roadhouse with three other women climbers after an attempted ascent of Denali. After two weeks of freeze-dried meals, our mouths watered in anticipation of home-cooked fare, and the aroma of freshly baked bread warmed the room.

We replayed our failed summit bid of North America’s highest peak, the storm that hemmed us in and the staggering grandeur of the mountain itself. We needed a place to collect ourselves. We needed comfort food. And we were not alone. Conversations about trail conditions, hazards of wilderness travel and the weather have been taking place around tables at the Talkeetna Road- house for nearly 100 years.

IMG_9333The Roadhouse sits on Main Street in Talkeetna, a community with an official year-round population of 876, located halfway between Anchorage and Denali National Park and accessible by road, rail and local air taxi. Founded in 1917, the original Roadhouse was constructed by brothers Frank and Ed Lee who freighted supplies to mines in the Peters Hills, Cache Creek and areas west of the Susitna River. Ed Lee married Isabella “Belle” Grindrod, who began serving two meals a day for miners and other folks traveling through. Belle raised chickens, grew a garden and baked bread to supplement the wild game and fish that she served her guests.

Today, travelers gather to eat hearty food and enjoy the Roadhouse tradition of family dining. You’re likely to sit at the same table with bush pilots, Alaskan old-timers and expedition members from around the globe. Fresh-baked goods— crusty breads, succulent pies, and three varieties of cinnamon rolls—have become a local institution. For breakfast, the menu explains that you can “order eggs any way you want, but they’ll come out scrambled every time.”

A dozen years after my Denali climb, I met the current owner of the Talkeetna Roadhouse, Trisha Costello. It was a chilly winter morning and she was picking up several guests at the Talkeetna train depot to attend one of her cooking classes. In summer, the bakery and café are often packed with diners, but during the slower months of winter, Trisha offers her skills at making piecrusts and other delectables to aspiring bakers.

IMG_9347At the flag-stop train depot, Trisha greeted a new round of students for her baking class, receiving a hug from Sarah Owen, a four-time participant who traveled from Anchorage. As the mid-morning sun crested the horizon, Trisha explained that she bought the Roadhouse in partnership with her father in 1996. Since then she has worked hard to uphold the tradition of frontier hospitality and good food. The Roadhouse also rents rooms and a historic trapper cabin. “Adventure isn’t just about getting the wind in your hair,” Trisha said. “Adventure can be about culture, about food or wine. It’s about experiencing something new.”

Back in the bakery, Trisha’s three students lined up at the counter and learned how to work flour between thin flakes of cold butter. Hot loaves of bread cooled on a table nearby.

Out in the dining room, an older couple enjoyed a giant sourdough pancake with blueberries. Another couple on a Saturday field trip from their home in Palmer joined the table. Before long their breakfast arrived—enormous plates of eggs, Yukon gold potatoes and thick slices of bacon. My husband and I ordered up the breakfast wrap and a piping plate of biscuits and gravy. All of us commented that we would not need to eat for the rest of the day—maybe for the rest of the week.

At an adjoining table, a group of young people talked about snow conditions and how soon it would be before they could wax their skis. Stickers from climbing expeditions around the world plastered the support beam in the middle of the dining area. A stone fireplace spanned one wall of the room, and a piano sat in the corner. Photos of visitors from far and wide covered the walls.

Talkeetna has always been a place to gather. Native people found sustenance at the nearby confluence of the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna Rivers. Later the town became a supply stop for miners and trappers on their way into the bush, and in the 1920s the community served as a base of operations during the construction of the Alaska Railroad. And ever since frontier days, when fresh bread was first pulled from the oven, the Talkeetna Roadhouse has been there to feed the hungry and offer rest to weary travelers along the way.Denali lr

 

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Mt. McKinley, the Chugach Mountains and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska;Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

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