The Last Train to Clarksdale

For as long as I can recall, I have always been passionate about train travel, from early childhood riding the miniature train through the Fort Worth Forest Park Zoo, to my longest ride yet, the TranSiberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing.   Still, I can’t get enough.  There is just something about the rhythmic cadence of the tracks, riding through scenery unspoiled by billboards and 18 wheelers.  Not to mention the romantic setting of which mystery movies and spy novels are made.   Even my favorite Joni Mitchell song, “Just Like this Train” is about a train ride.  So I rarely miss an opportunity to, as Joni would say, “settle in to the clickety-clack with the clouds and the stars to read.”

One of the two FP7 locomotives that will be pulling us down the track, are two of only 10 remaining in North America.

One of the two FP7 locomotives that will be pulling us down the track…two of only 10 remaining in North America.

It's not exactly a straight line from Clarksdale to Perkinsville. We'll follow the crooks and turns of the Verde River.

It’s not exactly a straight line from Clarksdale to Perkinsville. We’ll follow the crooks and turns of the Verde River.

These outdoor viewing cars are sandwiched between all the passenger cars.

These outdoor viewing cars are sandwiched between all the passenger cars.

In the most unlikely of places, Clarksdale, Arizona, is the Verde Valley Railway. Yes, it’s a tourist train. And although I much prefer a “destination train,” I will settle for a chance to ride the rails any day. Besides, it’s billed as a way to see the Sedona area as it looked before all the development!

And if that isn’t reason enough, it’s a great way to escape the desert heat for the afternoon. It’s been a crazy spring in Arizona, with wild swings from the mid 90’s to sleet in the foothills, all within the same week. So it’s been tough to predict the sweet spot. I certainly missed it in Camp Verde. Although cooler temps are on the way, it’s a 90 degree day when I board my air conditioned restored railway car named “Sedona” for the ride into the Verde canyon.

This is Fermin (pronounced Fer-MEAN.) He is the host of the Caboose, and has been working this route for 17 years. He was nice enough to invite me in for a tour before the train departed.

This is Fermin (pronounced “Fer-MEAN.”) As host of the Caboose, he has been working this route for 17 years. Fermin is nice enough to invite me in for a tour before the train departs.

This is the way to do! The Caboose can be rented for a mere $700, but if you can scrape five other friends together, that's only $25 more than a First Class ticket! And the six of you get your own private lounge.

This is the way to go! The Caboose can be rented for a mere $700, but if you can scrape five other friends together, that’s only $25 more than a First Class ticket! And the six of you get your own private lounge.

The caboose also has two seats up in the "cupola," the little raised enclosure where you can look out over the top of the train.

The caboose also has two seats up in the “cupola,” the little raised enclosure where you can look out over the top of the train.

The original 38 mile railway was laid in 1911, the purpose being transport of miners and mining materials. A portion of the standard gauge tracks was converted to a passenger train in 1990. The 20 mile ride will travel into the canyon for about two hours to reach the turn-around point at the ghost ranch of Perkinsville for a total of four hours of train time. In route, we will traverse a trestle over a 175 ft gorge called the “SOB Canyon,” and travel through a 680 ft man-made tunnel.

The First Class car offers "livingroom-style" seating. That means two-by-two couches on the left, single table seats on the right.

The First Class car offers “livingroom-style” seating. That means two-by-two couches on the left, single table seats on the right.

This is my seat for the four hour ride. I like being at the end, so I have no one bumping my chair from behind. ;-)

This is my seat for the four hour ride. I like being at the end, so I have no one bumping my chair from behind. ;-)

It's a Bloody Mary morning...or rather afternoon. Helps take the edge off the Johnny Cash tunes.

It’s a Bloody Mary morning…or rather afternoon. Helps take the edge off the Johnny Cash tunes.

I decide to splurge on a First Class ticket for several reasons. First of all, no outside refreshments are allowed on the train. For $25 more, you get “snacks” (hot chicken wings, sandwiches, a vegetable platter, and brownie bites) and a champagne toast. Also, First Class cars only hold between 25-40 people, whereas the coach cars hold up to 75 people. So less competition for the bathroom, the bar, and outdoor viewing space. But the deal maker for me is having single-side seating in the First Class car. There is only one thing worse than sitting two by two on a coach class bench seat for four hours….that is doing it next to a total stranger. So the $25 is money well spent to have my own “elbow room.”

On a side note, if you opt for the First Class car and think “I’ll wait to get my snacks until the line dies down,” don’t expect there to be anything left but a few celery sticks and some sandwich ends. Especially if there are teenage boys on board! He who hesitates goes hungry.

Not much in the way of scenery as we first start out, though it is cool seeing the front of the train as it follows the twists and turns of the track.

Not much in the way of scenery as we first start out, though it is cool seeing the front of the train as it follows the twists and turns of the track.

The train follows the Verde River for a good portion of the ride.

The train follows the Verde River for a good portion of the ride.

Sitting near the back, one gets a full length view of the train at every turn.

Sitting near the back, one gets a full length view of the train at every turn.

Each car alternates with an outdoor car where one can step outside for wider viewing. This would typically be my preference for the entire ride. But it’s so darned hot now, and I’ve been roasting in the Winnie toughing out this latest heat wave, so decide to luxuriate in the AC for as long as possible. The railway has adapted the old adage, “It’s not the destination but the journey” as their brochure slogan…so I intend to make the journey in the coolness of the rail car! Besides, although beautiful, the scenery is not exactly the Rockies…

At long last, the red rocks come into view.

At long last, the red rocks come into view.

Although there are no formations like you see in Sedona, the canyon is admittedly scenic.

Although there are no formations like you see in Sedona, the canyon is admittedly scenic.

View from my seat out my panoramic window.

View from my seat out my panoramic window.

As the scenery improves, migration to the outdoor viewing cars increase.

As the scenery improves, migration to the outdoor viewing cars increases.

Thank goodness there are no railway heist re-enactments on the train. No train robbers running up and down the aisle demanding your money (i.e. tips) like on the Grand Canyon Railway. It’s bad enough that they pipe in railway-themed music for the entire 4 hour ride, songs which according to the brochure have been “thoughtfully chosen for their historical significance and rockin’ beat.” Midnight Train to Georgia. Ride on the Peace Train. And of course, what railway repertoire would be complete without Johnny Cash’s “I hear the train a comin’.” Bring earbuds if you are not easily amused.IMG_4393

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Would I recommend this train ride for others? Well, it depends. Maybe if you are a “train nut”/railway history buff. Maybe if you are in the area. Or maybe if you are in need of break from a hot RV when desert temps are on the rise. But at $90 a ticket, I would have to say you need to hit at least two out of the three…

Excitement mounts as we approach the 680 ft tunnel.

Excitement mounts as we approach the 680 ft tunnel.

This calls for a celebration with a "Tunnel Down Brown Ale."

This calls for a celebration with a “Tunnel Down Brown Ale.”

Once we reach the turn-around point at Perkinsville, the engines detach and come back to the caboose to pull us back to Clarksdale.

Once we reach the turn-around point at Perkinsville, the engines detach and come back to the caboose to pull us back to Clarksdale.

Now riding backwards in my assigned seat, I get a little different view on the way back.

Now riding backwards in my assigned seat, I get a little different view on the way back.

Well I’ve got this berth and this roll down blind
I’ve got this fold up sink
And these rocks and these cactus going by
And a bottle of German wine to drink
Settle down into the clickety-clack
With the clouds and the stars to read
Dreaming of the pleasure I’m going to have
Watching your hairline recede, my vain darling
Watching your hair and clouds and stars
I’m rocking away in a sleeping car
This jealous lovin’s bound to make me
Crazy
I can’t find my goodness
I lost my heart
Oh, sour grapes
Because I lost my heart

Excerpt from “Just Like This Train”
~ Joni Mitchell

9 thoughts on “The Last Train to Clarksdale

  1. I’m at my father’s house now, and I showed him your post. He’s the ultimate train fanatic, and he really enjoyed the pictures. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the details, Suzanne. We won’t be going on that train.
    Have you been on the train from Durango to Silverton? That’s a nice one to do once, I think. The problem is I can’t get great shots from a moving train.
    Last year, my husband and I took the Amtrak Coast Starlight train from L.A. to Santa Barbara, stayed in a nearby hotel and continued on up to Oakland, CA the next day. It was wonderful.

  3. Even though Jim worked for the railroad years ago, neither of us gets too excited about touristy train rides. We might have considered that one just to escape the heat, but a movie would have been cheaper :-)

  4. Hi Suzanne,
    Despite living in various locations in Arizona over the years I’ve never taken this train trip. It was fun to see your photos and hear about your experience. One minor correction, there’s no S, it’s Clarkdale.
    Kat

    • Thanks, Kat. It was meant to be a play on the old Monkee’s tune, “The Last Train to Clarksville.” If I drop the “s,” while accurate, it doesn’t conjure up the tune in my head. Since the blog is my own idle mind’s way of amusing itself, I am going to leave it and hope the residents of “Clarkdale” don’t find it. LOL! Hope you are well and having a good trip north.

  5. There you go getting a song in my head that I’m going to be singing for the rest of the night. You have to cut this out. Count me in as one of the 7, only 5 to go for the caboose. Just give me enough advance notice to figure out how to get there. Love the cupola. A very ingenious way to avoid the heat Suzanne, well done. I totally agree that first class and the last single seat are the way to go. Great pictures of the scenery which did turn lovely. Sorry they feel that silence is not golden on this ride. I think train music could get mighty old. Love the shot going into the tunnel. I think your three caveats are good advice but it does sound like a great and unique way to get out of the heat.

  6. We sat through a time share presentation to get first class seats!

    If you ever have the opportunity to hike Parsons Trail when you are in Cottonwood area, do it! It’s a hike down Sycamore Canyon, adjacent to the Verde River Canyon you rode through. It’s worth the 9 miles of dirt road to get to the TH.

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