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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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
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