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Chasing Trains in Arid-Zona

Sometimes in the depth of winter in Mendocino County escaping to a land of sunshine for a break seems like a REALLY good idea. If that destination features tourist railroads my “ferroequonoligist” (lover of iron horse/trains) husband hasn’t ridden yet it’s all the better.

With rides on the Grand Canyon Railroad and Verde Canyon Railroad, and two little lines we can now claim over 50 individual railroads ridden on in the U.S., Canada and Japan. It took us over 45 years to accomplish this and we’re proud of ourselves. We buy embroidered patches for rails we’ve ridden and sew them on vests. We wear those vests and are literally “read” by other rail fans that walk in circles around us pointing and commenting on trains they’ve ridden on too.

Headed east hayfields in California were fallow, with tractors just beginning to plow and flocks of seagulls inspecting overturned dirt, but from southern Arizona and Nevada truckloads of green alfalfa bales were headed to our state. The single most universal vehicles on the highways were Wal-Mart trucks. Gas was $2.39 in Arizona. 

We spent the night at Ellis Island Casino and Brewery in Las Vegas, chosen because we like good beer. We also learned about a new money grubbing ploy called the “resort tax.” Now if I was at a place with pools and spas and fancy stuff I might not fuss but this is a mandatory fee tacked onto every room near the Strip and not advertised or shown, often, on a property’s website. So POOF! Our room cost $30 more than expected. 

“Get Your Kicks on Route 66” the song says. I don’t know about kicks, but we enjoyed the scenery and the Burma Shave signs from Kingman to Seligman in Arizona and again east of Barstow in California. If there is any way, shape or form the days of old motoring can be merchandized the Route 66 merchants have done it. In Seligman is the Route 66 Roadkill Café. No, they’re not serving roadkill, though they do have a cookbook you can buy to do so. Instead they’re famous for the comical names for menu entrees. You can order a Splatter Platter, Roadside Revenge, Smothered Deer, Rigor Mortis Tortoise, Chunk of Skunk, Paws & Claws, Yellow Line Bovine and Really Bad Hunter (vegie) Burger. On the way home we visited the Route 66 Museum in the Barstow CA train depot full of old cars, motorcycles, photos, maps and every conceivable item you could slap a Route 66 sticker on.

I’m easy to amuse during long distance travel, starting with reading road signs. “Animals on Road next 114 miles” Arizona proclaims white Nevada promises “Next Gas 96 Miles.” There is no standard open range cattle sign. The silhouette image can be a contented cow, a standing bull, or a dashing thrashing bull with horns. Horse signs show a horse standing, or galloping with mane and tail flowing. Burros get their own image. Near Walker Lake in Nevada the big horn sheep cross the highway to reach water and a flashing illuminated sign warns “Major Sheep Crossing.”

In Arizona and Nevada your highway crosses arroyos, washes and draws. Exit signs direct you to shooting ranges and trap shoot facilities and rifle clubs. Building signs offered the Best Beer on the Planet. Recreational Vehicle Proctologists would fix your RV’s plumbing, Hostels and Bivy’s would shelter hikers and bicyclists in the eastern Sierra and the synthetic grass store would do your landscaping. In Sedona the Center for the New Age promised the largest metaphysical bookstore on the planet. I loved a self-service dog wash bay in the car wash. It had a giant cage in it and a promise of only warm water and dogs happily barking as their owners squirted them off. I loved the juxtaposition of a truck passing us labeled “Christian Ministries Tent Revival” while the next truck’s signage proclaimed “Adult Entertainment Emporium”


The individual road names I spotted delighted me. I’d like to drive the Jackrabbit Trail, wondered who Sore Finger Road was named for and saw pavement go down No Name Lane. Don’t know if I’d want to live on Thirsty Acres Road. I wanted to exit the highway in Arizona just to go to Bumble Bee or Daisy Mountain. Don’t ask me why, but there is an official highway sign outside Bishop CA on Highway 6 stating” Providence Rhode Island 3,600 miles.”

At frequent Border Patrol (BP) checkpoints near the border we’d pass signs that said “Border Patrol Working Dogs Ahead-Restrain Your Pet.” People we talked with in the Southwest want what they call Boots on the Border for protection. That’s a BP agent every few miles with a radio in his hand to report suspicious activity. We watched the BP constructing the wall at the New Mexico/Arizona/ Mexico border. Locals were appreciative for the employment but questioned the efficiency of the Wall and liked the idea of drones.

No trip for me is complete without my question page in my journal where I write down all my “I wonder…” thoughts. 

Note:The person writing this is a paper and pencil journalist. I do not travel with computer or smartphone and research my questions when I get home. So, does anything eat creosote brush? Yes, jackrabbits. Creosote is taking over the grasslands of the southwest. How much land does state and federal governments in the southwest own? In Nevada it’s 84%, Arizona it’s 81% and California 49%. What limits the growth of Saguaro cactus to the north? Temperature. They can’t stand prolonged 25-degree weather. Why is there an Andy Devine Blvd. in Kingman AZ? Remember Roy Rogers’s sidekick with the rasping crackling voice? He grew up in Kingman and was a beloved local character.

An observation about jet airplanes chem trails (sorry if I’m making some people nervous…). At Coaldale junction near the CA/NV border I counted 15 of them. I watched jets crisscrossing each other using the clear blue sky as a canvas to paint chem trails on. This kind of activity must constitute “fun” for the pilots from Nellis AFB. On a brighter note I saw true craftsmanship in the building of impenetrable cactus fencing. Plant big tall columnar ones in back, then a line of bushy prickly stuff medium size, then tiny deadly spiny ones in front, throw in a few cholla, and let it grow 20 years…a very effective barrier.

Now, about those trains we chased. Well, really, we didn’t chase them, we rode them. The Grand Canyon Railway and the adjoining hotel in Williams AZ is run by Xanterra, a corporation that buys up National Park hotels, attractions and concessions. It was slick and spiffy and a seat price could vary by $100 depending on if you chose coach, which we did, or luxury plush dome cars with food and booze. Listen folks, the scenery out the window is exactly the same in every car…why pay extra for a softer cushion? The ride was 130 miles round trip on a beautiful bright cold day and the depot on the South Rim was a two-minute walk away from the canyon’s edge. There I looked left and right and counted whopping 15 tourists within sight…a big difference from the hundreds in summertime. We picnicked on the porch of the old El Tovar Hotel and had three hours to wander before returning to the train.

Verde Canyon Railroad is different. Starting out of the old copper mining town of Clarkdale it runs for a 42 mile round trip along the Verde River with a sky full of bald eagles and red rock. The only disconcerting thing is that copper mining leads to smelting the ore, which leads to slag. This noxious liquid sludge hardens into rock. The train drove through a corridor carved through a slag heap 40’ high covering 40 acres. The mines closed years ago but we passed a slag recovery project investigating what could be done with the abandoned waste. Again, this train offered coach for the regular folks and a caboose with overstuffed chairs, champagne and a valet. We choose to sit outside in the open observation car. It says something that both these trains had 10 cars and hundreds of travelers.

The tiniest train we rode on was the Queen Mine tour in Bisbee AZ. You literally straddled this tiny contraption, a leg on each side, four persons to a car, as a tiny tractor engine hauled you into the depths of a copper mine. Very educational. We also caught the Nevada Southern Railroad in Boulder City NV for a short jaunt along a highway. Rail bikes were big items here…pedal out to the end of the line on apparatus holding two peddlers or four and the train brings you back to the station. All in all this vacation was a nice break from the redwood coast and we’d be happy to share any of our rail adventures with interested folks.

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