So – Monday in Williams, AZ. It was St. Patrick’s day, so there was an irritating amount of green being worn. Maybe if 23rd April was as well celebrated in the Americas I’d be less grumpy. (That’s St. George’s day, if you didn’t know… patron saint of herpetologists ;) ).
Williams is tiny, but still has the standard US grid system… and a train line. And the train goes once a day… to the GRAND CANYON!
Fair dues… there’s not a lot going for the town of Williams, but what it has it makes the most of. It even has a one way road system, to force you to drive on as many of its tiny selection of roads as possible. I suppose it evens out the wear on the tarmac or something.
We woke up bright and early and headed for the hotel to catch the train. We’d pre-booked and it was a good job. Not quite in the Indian railway’s league, but pretty full, all the same.
Once we’d collected our boarding tickets, we headed off to the bleachers for some slapstick cowboy fun before boarding the train. It was a bit forced, but the kids in the crowd seemed to enjoy it, and who am I to say how “entertainment” should be defined?
The train ride was over 2 hours each way, and passed through some amazing changes of scenery. The start took us through a patch of ground colonised by prairie dogs which were energetic in the morning sun, despite the cool temperatures. Each carriage had a couple of stewarding staff. Ours was an elderly guy called Joe – who I swear sounded like a retired Elvis impersonator – and a young lady with far too many teeth and a fanatical desire to smile continuously. At least we’d be fine if the lights went out…
Part of the deal was a musical interlude provided by a live musician. I’ve definitely heard worse, but it was a bit surreal.
It was hard to believe that over two hours had passed when we arrived at the Grand Canyon. A complicated triangle was negotiated to allow the train to basically do a three point turn ready for the trip back later in the afternoon. And we were off… three hours to “do” the GC. Nowhere nearly long enough obviously. This could only ever be a small taste of the real experience. The toothy stewardess was trying to suggest restaurants and shuttle bus rides, which I guess was the typical experience for most of her customers. What a waste! You only had 3 hours… why on Earth would you waste it in a restaurant or a bus?!
Nope, we were off over the tracks, up the steps and drooling over the view in mere moments! A quick packed lunch (which the local squirrels tried to steal), and we headed off down the hole, via the Bright Angel trail… Obviously we weren’t going to get anywhere near the bottom in the short time we had, but we had a very pleasant walk down the well maintained path, and got some spectacular views – particularly of the Battleship formation. My overarching impression is that it was so bloody vast that it just didn’t seem real! Weird… it was almost disappointing. It is so familiar from photos and films, that when you see it for real, it feels more like a theatre backdrop. I remember a similar feeling when I saw many famous impressionist art works in the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. It was hard to muster the appropriate emotion.
After our sweaty return from the canyon, we just had time to walk a little along the top where there’s an informative display of the various geological eras exposed in the canyon, then it was time to get back on board the train for our return trip back down to Williams. We were in the same seats, so got to see the other side of the tracks on the way back. We set off slowly until we left the National Park perimeter, then the train picked up speed and we were regaled with more music. This time from a native Navajo called Clarence Clearwater. He took the opportunity to put a plug in for the Navajo-run sky walk at the West of the canyon that hadn’t been forced to close due to the recent Federal funding crisis… unlike the South Rim. The trip back seemed a lot faster, but I became fascinated by the telegraph lines that had fallen into disrepair. Some stretches were still fully wired, but others had just air to pass the now non-existent telegraph messages through. Then suddenly we slowed a little and saw the fearsome gang from the morning by the side of the tracks. We were boarded, and ever so politely asked if we’d like to donate to their retirement funds… all in very good nature and much fun for the youngsters in the party. Or even the teenagers!
To be continued…