At the beginning of my current sabbatical I wrote that I would ride trains to some of my destinations. I did.
When I went to the Grand Canyon several weeks ago, for the last leg of my journey, I took a Grand Canyon Railway train from Williams, AZ to Grand Canyon Village.
A side note, before I go into details of the train ride, including the robbery. I didn’t want to drive at all; still, my trip from San Francisco to Grand Canyon was surprisingly smooth and pleasant, despite it being somewhat convoluted. I flew to Flagstaff through Phoenix, stayed the night in Flagstaff, took Arizona Throughway shuttle to Williams and then the train. Reversed that to go back. The transitions were smooth and comfortable, and there were sights to see and nice people to encounter at all junctions. To make it cheaper and somewhat less convoluted, one can take Arizona Throughway shuttle from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon (link for more info). You can book train and/or shuttle through Amtrak.
I wanted the train.
The trains run twice daily each way. Once a month, on first Saturdays, the train has a steam engine, and there and then I was!
The train ride is about 2.5 hours. It’s not exceptionally scenic, but lovely enough and has better views than highway. There is a cafe car and “entertainment” on the train. For most of the ride there is no cell signal, which is great to make the person blabbering on the phone behind you to hang up – hypothetically speaking, assuming there is such a person.
Reading about the “entertainment” concerned me, but it was for the most part fine. A friendly conductor tells you little stories and jokes about the sights along the way. On the way to the Grand Canyon, there were two guys with guitars, singing a few American songs in each car, telling more jokes, and engaging with passengers. Since the same musicians went through the entire train, each car got a sensible amount of entertainment, and plenty of time to stare out of the window or to dedicate to other projects undisturbed.
The train was maybe 2/3 full. With seemingly everyone else having company, I got two seats all for myself, both ways. I engaged in the entertainment, tipped the musicians when that was available, and enjoyed the relative quiet otherwise.
When I boarded the train to go back to Williams, I got worried. Right in front of me there was a family with three children, two boys and a girl, maybe between 4 and 8 years old. While there wasn’t much mayhem (yet?), the father looked gruff, mother tired, and children intense. Who knew how that would develop.
Once they settled, the youngest kid, the girl, Ashley started playing a tentative peek-a-boo with me using the seat back between us. She found it pretty amusing when I wasn’t there any more next time she peeked, because Ashley is not the only person who can climb up and down between the chairs, you know. “Were you like that little girl when you were that age?” asked the older gentleman sitting behind me with his companion? “I don’t remember,” I responded with dramatic gravity, “it was such a long time ago.” We all giggled.
Come to think of it, I remember a little bit. I remember being more Gavin, the oldest kid, presently immersed in a huge book across the isle from Ashley and their mother. It was “Harry Porter and the Half-Blood Prince”. Gavin was starting the last chapter, the one after the really sad event happens. The Harry Potter books were not out yet when I was Gavin’s age. I got “The Mysterious Island” for my 8th birthday, and that started the 2 or 3 year Jules Verne reading binge and probably caused whatever little wanderlust I have.
I was so moved by the site of Gavin reading, I leaned over to his mom, Marion, and asked quietly: “Did he read that entire book so far?” “This is the second time he is reading it,” she whispered back, “he is a good reader.” “Is he smart? He must be smart.” “He read Moby Dick when he was three,” chimed in the dad, Conrad, “It was abridged, but still. And he knew 30 words from the American Sign Language before he was 1.” “We taught him a lot, but then the other kids came along, and there wasn’t that much time any more…” sighed Marion. I felt a little sadness remembering how easy it is to abandon the oldest bright child if they are content to sit in the corner with a big book. Marion and Conrad seemed okay though. Maybe Gavin will be fine.
The conductor, Amberrose, told a few jokes and stories. A musician with a banjo came a sang a few songs. We got out of the wooded area and rode over the plains. Suddenly, Amberrose’s narrative was interrupted by an announcement over the intercom that so-and-so escaped from the prison and is at large. Amberrose composed herself admirably and reassured us that as long as the train didn’t stop, we’d be fine.
Guess what! Several minutes later, the train slowed down, we saw three cowboys riding their horses next to the train tracks, and then the train stopped! Before the “robbers” got to our car, we practiced all together screaming in a way that’s not too loud but sort of convincing. The young Conrad, Marion’s and Conrad’s middle kid, got a little belligerent and ready to fight to defend his siblings. Conrad the dad pleaded with him patiently to not hurt anyone and reassured him that this is just the show. The robbers got to our car, said a few scary robber words, politely robbed us of the tip money, and posed for pictures with the kiddies. That was all cute and sweet, and sort of funny how silly the whole show was.
The robbers proceeded to the next car. There was maybe 30 minutes left of the ride, and I thought it would be a good time to eat my sandwich. It was a somewhat sad sandwich, as far as sandwiches go, but I was happy with it. It was a half sub that I bought in Grand Canyon Village for $5 plus small change. Whole wheat bread, generous amount of acceptable guacamole, lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, pickles, banana peppers. The sandwich got all soggy from sitting there for hours, but the pickles were spicy, the veggies vaguely crunchy, and the waxed paper wrap and paper bag held it all together well enough to prevent a huge mess.
Meanwhile, the “sheriff” got on the train to catch the “robbers”. He assured us that they were caught and gave us somewhat hilarious instructions how to get our money back. He was stern and clearly in control of the situation! As he walked through the car he stopped by me, towering over, and asked “Ma’m, what are you smiling about?” I smiled some more, surprised to be put on the spot. He repeated: “What are you smiling about?!” “I am enjoying the show,” I said, still smiling, “It’s great.” He continued: “You just don’t take this seriously!” Hmm… Maybe I need to participate… So I assumed a solemn look and said: “I am very concerned!” He pushed on, towering and all, voice loud enough for the whole car to hear: “It’s all just rainbows and unicorns to you, is it?!”
Snap. My mind went blank. There was no more playing along. There was just I with my pathetic half eaten sandwich out, and, in my head, every tall, confidently sounding person, bigger than me, stronger than me, ever condescending on me in front of … everybody. On and on and on. Everyone else watching silently. With no end in sight. Still there. And now. And now still. With nothing I could do. Wishing I would disappear.
I turned toward the window and made him disappear. With no more entertainment at my expense, he proceeded to the next car, presumably.
I wrapped up the rest of my sandwich and put it away. Then packed everything that I took out back into my backpack and pockets. A woman sitting across the isle two or three seats behind me came up and gave me a few tissues. Isn’t it funny how you can sort of hold it together, but the second somebody hands you a tissue, there goes the floodgate. Little Ashley came over to give me a hug.
Amberrose the conductor wasn’t in the car for the scene, but somebody must have told her. She came to talk to me, asked what happened, protested when I said it was okay. She said she’d go talk to him and asked if I would accept his apology. I shrugged.
As humiliation lifted, anger rose. I was just sitting there eating my sandwich. I appreciated the musicians and performers. It was nice. So what if I am a weirdo traveling alone, or whatever the hell else singled me out. I am a forty year old weirdo, and I had enough bullying and tall strong people towering and yelling at me. So what that you made me cry. Crying in public since I was six and counting. Doesn’t change anything for me. Turned you from a performing artist into bullying loser piece of crap. How does this work out for you?
The train got to Williams. As I got off it, I ran into the sheriff guy. The conductor must have talked to him, because he said something like: “I hear I owe you an apology.” and “I am sorry if I upset you. We are just poor cowboys here…” Not too impressive. I said “that’s okay, you were doing your job the best you could,” and left.
Marion, Conrad, and the kids, were packing into their car in the parking lot. They waved. I stopped by and we chatted a little bit about what happened and our journeys. When he was younger, Conrad used to go onto long backpacking trips, several days and nights at a time of soul searching. He would find himself sensitive and vulnerable upon return, would feel energies in the room and such. Wondered if that’s what was happening with me. Soul searching? Not the words I use, but yeah I guess.
Right before they went to Grand Canyon, they spent several days on an Indian reservation, with Conrad’s old friends, practically family. Soul searching. First time for Marion and the kiddies. It was dark at night, so many stars. Conrad spotted a UFO when he was taking pictures of the stars with his professional camera. He showed me. Definitely: there were fixed stars, and there was a meandering trace of a bright flying object, unidentified to the present company.
Marion said, “When somebody is unkind to you, remember to look around and see how much love and kindness you receive, and notice that.” Yep. Good point. Can use a reminder, too. I told them how angry I felt. “If you journal, write down what happened and what you would have told him,” suggested Marion. “And burn that,” added Conrad. Well, apart from the burning part, here it is.
I hugged Marion and Conrad. They went to have dinner with friends. I went to look for the Arizona shuttle stop, to get back to Flagstaff for the night.
I went to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff late that evening. To see the stars on their clear dark sky, for Marion and Conrad, and for me. I went on a constellation sighting tour, looked through the McAllister telescope on something called Messier 3, and checked out a couple of smaller telescopes doing demos out on the grounds. There were no UFO sightings. An astronomer and I spotted a shooting star while we were talking about telescopes. She identified it as part of the Lyrid meteror shower.