The spark of inspiration can be blamed on Disneyland and the Grand Canyon Diorama lying alongside the rails of the Disneyland Railroad. Like the rest of the theme park, the Grand Canyon Diorama is not supposed to replace the experience of the Grand Canyon... How could it? The painted backdrop and taxadermied animals are meant to inspire one into entering a mental landscape, a feeling of what it must be like to ride a steam engine along the rim of the majestic swath cut by the Colorado River. Imagine the passion planted by the discovery that there was, in fact, a steam railway that brought passengers to the Grand Canyon!
Upon discovering that the restored Grand Canyon Railway exists, the thought of visiting it never drifted far from my mind. One perceptive girlfriend later and we were on the plane heading for Flagstaff, Arizona. On landing (and having our baggage find its way to us on a later flight, neither our first nor last problems with Horizon Air and United Airlines), we took a side jaunt to Sunset Crater National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. Wupatki is notable for the millennia-old ruins left by the Puebloan, or Anasazi, people famous for the more spectacular sites of Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly. It was amongst that ancient masonry that we experienced the vivid purples, reds, blues and yellows of an unparalleled Arizona sunset.
Wupatki Nat'l Monument.
A short drive down America's Main Street, Route 66, and we arrived at Williams and our abode for the first part of our stay, The Red Garter Bed and Bakery. If you are planning a trip to the Grand Canyon yourself, I cannot more highly recommend The Red Garter. Right on Route 66, the Garter is a two-story brick building restored from an illustrious career including an opium den and a brothel. The lushly appointed Victorian rooms are reportedly haunted as well, or "slightly haunted" according to the skeptical owners. Williams has the reputation of being the third most haunted city in the United States, though our evening ghost tour resulted in little more than wind-blown doors and light reflecting off specks of dust.
The big day came, and with our baggage transferred, we heeded the cry of "all aboard" to find our seats on the antique Pullman carriage. We found that our trip back from the canyon was the better of the two: while the original Pullmans have a historical flair, there is a great deal to be spoken for with the parlor car. Besides the plush seats, polished wood trim and complimentary alcoholic refreshments, it also provides exclusive access to the platform at the rear of the train. One of the problems with appreciating works of engineering is that one cannot both experience being in them while at the same time appreciating them aesthetically. The one thing you cannot do while in the Eiffel Tower, for instance, is look at the Eiffel Tower. The one thing you cannot do on a steam train is watch the steam train... Unless, that is, you are hanging off the back of the parlor car, the ponderosa-scented wind blowing through your hair, the monsoon rains of August drenching you.
A lone ponderosa pine.
Our goal was reached, though unlike the Disney version one cannot ride the rails along the rim. They must get out and walk to the rim of one of the most magnificent natural wonders one could ever lay eyes upon. Unfortunately for my readers, the Grand Canyon defies the power of words to describe it. It is sublimity in purest definition, a chasm of such temporal and physical scope that it is beyond imagining. The tiered rocks in hues of red, brown and beige drop a thousand feet and more straight down from the rim, taunting even the bravest and most foolish who would venture to the breech. Gazing from the safety of the rim or from above by helicopter, one still only gets the sense of watching the canyon, like a diorama. A true sense of its wonders comes when one descends along the trail into it, whether on foot or by the classic mule ride. There one is enveloped by the canyon, its walls stretching above and beneath to place oneself within its immeasurable vastness. At the end of the day, the stone blazes with the most astonishing sunset ever beheld.
The whistle blows, the train beckons, the canyon pulls from sight and all that is left are the faint melodies of Grofe's famous suite. Travelling back to Flagstaff, we visited the observatory of Percival Lowell, the famous crank who, in 1894, established his eponymous observatory for the study of Mars and its life. In 1895 he published his theory in Mars, followed by Mars and its Canals in 1906 and Mars as the Abode of Life in 1908. To make it an even set, a seven hour layover and a pair of very generous friends who I hadn't seen in far too long brought us to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. It is, as any movie using it as a backdrop can attest, an Art Deco masterpiece par excellence.
The Lowell and Griffith Observatories.
Then things came full circle in their own way. Our layover in Los Angeles coincided with the third Sunday of the month. Those are notable as the days that the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society, dedicated to preserving Walt Disney's railroading legacy, opens the doors of "Walt's Barn" in Griffith Park. This was the barn that Disney built in the backyard of his home on Carolwood Drive as a shop and switching house for his miniature railway. Now it is kept on the premises of the LA Live Steamers, housing exhibits, artifacts and memorabilia having to do with Walt Disney, his famous railfanning employees like Ward Kimball, and the railways of Disneyland. The trip began because of a Disney train, and in a sense ended with one as well.