Since I was a child, I’ve held a romantic ideal of the Old West. I realize my imaginary Old West bears little resemblance to the real Old West, but I don’t care. I imagine wide-open spaces free from the inconsiderate nature of our modern living, rugged cowboys singing in dulcet, yet masculine tones, land unfolding before my eyes as if it had remained unwitnessed until that very moment.
I got to experience a taste of my fantasy one winter day in Arizona, and I’d like to bring you along.
Our story starts in Williams, where a crowd is gathered outside a train depot to watch a scene unfold. A marshal confronts suspected bank robbers in a mix of Old West quips and slap-stick humor. The villains are captured or shot, 1860’s style, and the crowd disperses in an eager effort to board the awaiting train.
Ours is the last in the string of railcars, The Chief. We settle into our seats in the luxury-class car and are greeted by a friendly guide, who tells us that we may sit in either the current car or forward one in the observation dome. She also explains these cars are only for travelers who are 16 or older. With the families happily loaded into other cars, we are able to enjoy our excursion with only other adults. I’ve come to the point in my life where I enjoy this. A lot.
The train is moving now, and the snowy landscape passes methodically by our windows. The bar is open and it seems a good idea to warm ourselves by enjoying a traveler’s libation. It’s provided by our eager and engaging barkeeper, playing to a receptive crowd yearning for the experience ahead.
Soon a photographer appears, capturing memories for those aboard and taking us, our legs wobbly from the unfamiliar movement of the train, to the outside platform. With the press of a button and the snap of the shutter, she captures what will become a treasured moment in time.
Back inside, cowboys walk through the cars and chat with travelers. Some passengers stay in The Chief, but we’ll venture to the dome car, where it’s less crowded and the view is unsurpassable. The train ride is about two hours, but time has little significance on this day. Instead of counting minutes, we’re counting smiles and passing trees. Before we know it, we are at the apex of our journey.
As the other travelers disperse for destinations unknown to us, we’ll step off the train and head directly forward to the view we’ve anticipated for a lifetime. And at last before us unfolds The Grand Canyon.
It is almost too much for the senses. Upon our arrival, the noon light casts deep shadows along the canyon walls and bounces off fresh white snow. But the winter light is soft, muting the reds, browns, and yellows along the expanse. The reds pull me in, but you notice first the yellows. No, the greens. It’s much more green in the canyon than we had imagined.
Even more than the colors, we are in awe of the greatness of size. A sign even comments on what we’re thinking, “The Edge of Vastness”, it reads. And, indeed, it is. If there is a place closer to Heaven, I can’t comprehend it.
As we walk along the edge of the canyon, the time passes and the sun shifts in the sky. The changing light brightens the yellows and moves the shadows. Every twist and turn of our path reveals another magnificent view, differing from the one before. We stop to touch the rocks when we can, feeling the soft, powdery texture of millions of years of erosion. The scent in the canyon is almost nothingness – another surprise, as we had expected, well, something.
Far too soon, but also just at the right moment, it’s time to once again board the train. Too soon because we could have walked for hours and not seen all we wanted. Just the right time because we are only human and we are tired from the day’s excursion. We head straight to the observation car this time and settle in. The train whistle sounds our departure and soon we’re toasting our adventure with glasses of champagne.
With the afternoon light fading into the western sky and you watching the canyon slip further into the realm of memory, this weary adventurer is lullabied to sleep by a cowboy troubadour and the gentle sway of the southbound train.
Read about the rest of my Arizona trip here.
Full disclosure: I was given complementary media passes for train tickets and a night at the hotel in Williams. However, I wasn’t paid for my posts, and all the thoughts within are my actual opinions and observations. For details on costs and how to book your own experience, visit TheTrain.com.
To hear much more about the history of the train, and what you can experience on it, listen to this interview I did with Bruce Brossman, Arizona Regional Director of Sales and Marketing with the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel. I had to make it into a video format to post on this page, so I set it to pictures I took at the Grand Canyon and at the Sunset Point Rest Stop.