The day didn’t start too well. My bus driver actually got lost trying to find Williams Depot, the home of the Grand Canyon Railway. Mild panic began to creep into my thoughts, but with just ten minutes to spare we arrived at the station and I boarded carriage “E” on the 09.30 train, bound for the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
On some days they run a steam train, but today we are hauled by a nicely restored class EMD F40 locomotive with matching silver vintage carriages. My seat is comfy enough in a slightly too tightly packed coach class carriage. Other options include panorama carriages, and a spacious cafe car, where I end up spending much of the journey. Onboard it is nearly all tour groups – I’m told that people who live in the national park have to work in the national park, so there are no real rail commuters as such.
As the train gradually climbs up to the rim, our car attendant introduces herself. Her name is Kathy, but she tells us everyone calls her “Kathy with a K”. Much of the two and a half hour journey is spent answering her questions and participating in increasingly bizarre tests of our knowledge of the United States. Occasionally the train comes to a halt to let unhurried cattle cross the line. Outside as the trees thin out, moose and deer also seem unphased by the bright shiny train passing through.
We arrive on time at the South Rim station and back in – there is a loop in the line, so trains can be turned around easily for the return. A short climb up some steps and there was the canyon itself, far more beautiful in reality than in any photograph. I spent several hours walking around the rim and fending off excitable squirrels (the park rangers claim that they carry the plague). The average North American visitor seems unphased by the drop of nearly a mile, with no rails or safety barriers to save anyone if they get caught in a gust of wind. I stayed well back from the edge having a lifelong phobia or fear of falling.
Things get a little surreal on the train on the way back to Williams. Men appear on horseback waving guns and board the train with the intention of robbing the passengers, followed closely by a Marshall in hot pursuit. Nothing to worry about though, just a bit of well staged theatre to pass the time as we trundle back down the line. The journey time is around two and a half hours, and this is perfect, as it gives time to take in the experience and the scenery without getting bored.
The plan this evening is a cunning one. Rather than catch the next train from the Amtrak platform here in Williams, I’m headed back to Flagstaff in the bus to pick the train up further up the line – this till leaves an hour or so for dinner before boarding the “Southwest Chief” bound for Los Angeles. I’m told it often arrives from Chicago several hours late, so I have provisions for a midnight feast at the station if it all goes pear shaped.