Grand Canyon Railway experience; Williams, Arizona

The Grand Canyon Railway experience is essentially a two-hour train ride from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon… if you return the same day (another two hours) you will have gotten to stay there for about three hours (so a taste). OR — if you are the hiking type, you can opt to stay at a hotel at the Canyon and return a different day.  The “experience” includes a cute little show before the ride, and then some entertainment while on the train, and concludes with a “faux” train robbery on the way back. All in all, when you add up the prices, IF you’re doing route 66 and just want to pop over to the Grand Canyon, to see it… this actually works out to be a pretty good deal money wise.

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The CHEAPEST ticket, which is what I got, was $62.86. This was for the Pullman car, their most historic car (No air-conditioning) and did not include the park entrance fee (as I have been buying the National Park’s yearly pass since I first started traveling… I have yet to not get my money’s worth — when you buy the ticket you tell you have it, when you pick up the tickets you show them the pass and they write down its ID number to submit to the park officials). IF you consider the cost of gas (maybe 3 hours there and back — the train does it slower), wear and tear on your car, finding parking, etc etc…. and the fact that the train includes live entertainment … I think it’s worth it to do it once.

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A lot of the people who do this opted to stay at their hotel as well, but this is not necessary and not what I did. (There is a Harvey House at that location, but its not where you’ll be staying… and you don’t have to stay at the hotel to see it. Essentially, its been replaced by a fairly generic building that looks like pretty much every other 3 star hotel along our highways)… I stayed at the Howard Johnson located about 2 blocks north, for substantially less money. (That said the hotel is OK, but the owners … an Indian couple… just don’t get it. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the WiFi was BLAZING fast… but the security is suspiciously lax. IF You go to this hotel make sure you check in early enough that you can change rooms if you need to. The hotel has no elevators, and they won’t help you with your bags if you have mobility issues like I do. The room I ultimately got did NOT have a chain on the door, or any sort of way for me to keep hotel staff out while I was sleeping. By the time I realized this — after dinner — it was too late to change rooms. The next day the woman who works for them — MUCH better at customer service than they are — and I looked for a suitable room, and we had to go through THREE before we found one with a working chain.)

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So… I checked the weather report for the next day at the Grand Canyon the night I arrived, and it said rain… eek… then checked again the day of, this time specifying the South Rim (which is where the train goes) and it said no rain… phew!! NOTE: It’s important to remember the Grand Canyon is a VERY big place, so when checking the weather, be specific for which part.

With the Train Ride, come a whole package of entertainments. The first happens BEFORE the ride and is cute… I THINK the whole point of it is actually a ploy to make sure customers are on site and ready to go a good 45 minutes before the train leaves… but still…it adds to the ‘ambiance’

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Looking around at the audience, I at first thought there may be one person in this whole crowd under the age of 40, But then I took that back … I just spotted a baby. That said, it was late September and most kids were in school, so the crowd consisted mostly of retirees who prefer to come to places like this when they are LESS crowded. It’s a cute show, funny even, more than a few good laughs. You can tell the actors have done this may be 1000 times but they’re not phoning it in

After seeing the show myself, and many days later… I watched this video and I guess the attitude of the organizers is, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” because in spite of the fact that I saw the show almost six years after this YouTube video was posted — this is almost word for word the same show I saw, just with different actors.

The actors do a bit of improve around what the audience does or does not do, and the audience member roped into the skit, but otherwise, I saw the exact same show. (They even found a guy wearing shorts who had a bag… albeit this bag was backpack)

IMG_3008And after the show, that’s when you’re led by the actors to the train, and you line up by the car you’re assigned to…IMG_7977.jpg

And this is where things got wonky. So the deal is this…. APPARENTLY if you sign up for the Pullman (which is the most affordable ticket) they tell you to show up at 8:30 like everybody else, for what you think will be a 9:15 departure…  but you won’t actually Leave until 10:00. IF they get a lot of people showing up, they’re going to break it up into two trains (according to the manager this is on behest of the park which doesn’t want a boat load of people showing up at once. He said they could easily put everyone on one train). Everybody who bought a ticket on the expensive cars — the ones with the observation bubbles on top of the train for better viewing…. and the MOST expensive cars which are old-fashioned luxury (but with air-conditioning), have a buffet and dedicated performers who are there just for you  — THOSE trains… they’ll leave on time … Those of us with tickets that have air-conditioning but no bubble up top, or those like me who purchased a Pullman car with no air-con…. they’ll leave you standing around and waiting for the second train (and there was NOTHING on my tickets denoting that).

GRRRRRR……

You do however get the same amount of time at the park because your return train also leaves later. That said, once we were on the train, it was actually very pleasant… first a guy comes on, and makes sure you understand all the thing you need to know

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Then we were introduced to our carriage’s aid, the girl in the blue and white outfit, and the photographer (the guy in the red shirt with the massive camera, whose job it is to wander between carriages taking photos on first leg of the trip, and then he tries to sell you your photos on our return one).

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While the downsides of being in the cheap Pullman car is that it goes last (leaving the station) and has no air-conditioning, the upsides are that one, it’s always placed directly adjacent to the dining car (they told me this when I was booking the trip)

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Although this also means everyone in the cars behind us has to pass through us to get to said dining car… for their drinks, snacks and ice-cream

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The other benefit… and this is the more important one I think… is that sitting in an old-fashioned Pullman with no aircon traveling through almost wild country it’s really easy to almost feel like you’ve drifted back in time to when train, horse or foot were your only options for getting out west … a mental fantasy that the more modern trains don’t really support.

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On the way to the Canyon we were serenaded by this young musician, who wasn’t bad

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And then on the way back (when we were all really pooped) we were played at by this guy

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Who was trying just a bit too hard to get us to be clapping our hand and tapping our feet, when all we really wanted to do was rest…

Towards the end of the ride to the Canyon we passed an area that had clearly had a forest fire, which made me wonder how it’d happened and if it were the fault of the train, or the people on it.

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And then right as we were approaching the park, our carriage’s aide (the gal in the blue and white outfit) began to tell us things like, that the red ponderosa pines that grown in the park have a scent. If you smell vanilla, than the tree is a female but if you smell butterscotch, the tree is male. (I never managed to get close enough to one to test it) That, and there’s a $500 fine for feeding the animals … even if it’s a squirrel who stole it from you .. and that we should all beware because they WILL steal your food if you let them.

And then we got to the park….

IMG_3023(I’m talking about the Park in a separate blog post, click here to see it)

And THIS is what you get to avoid by taking the train

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That said, the ride back was also very pretty,

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and the rain that the first weather report I had looked at promised, could be seen approaching us in the distance

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But it included rainbows, which made me happy….

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(and in fact greeted us as with a very light rain just as we arrived back in Williams, which got more intense later in the evening).

 

Towards the very end of the ride, we had a last bit of excitement…  there’s a train heist… it’s actually kind of cute

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(My video this time… Note how the train obligingly stops for the 2 riders )

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But somehow, even though there were TWO riders attacking the train, and TWO gunmen stealing from us… somehow one of them managed to be in two places at the same time (note: two horses carrying two gunmen, two gunmen stealing from us… yet one left over to take care of the horses… this happened how?)

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And then you’re ever so politely robbed. (They threaten to take your stuff, but never do.) We were instructed (by our conductor lady in the blue outfit) that if we wanted to we were supposed to take any money we wanted them to actually rob, and fold it and hold it out for them to take, which a few of the customers did… tips in other-words.

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And then a little later (after the thieves have had time to get all the way to the back of the train, where apparently the guy who plays the sheriff was waiting to arrest them (it’s a shame that only THAT car gets to see the arrest) he waltzes them back through the train to the front, and we all get to laugh about how law and order triumphs.

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Before I got someone to take our photo, the guy with the long white hair, who plays the sheriff, turns out he’s actually Dutch, has spent some time living in Japan, and speaks 9 languages at least a enough to get by… I didn’t get around to finding out how it ended up here doing this.

One thing to beware of… on the train, while you’re close to town WiFi is pretty decent, and from time to time it’ll pop back up…. but at the park and for most of the ride you can forget about connectivity. As such, save your battery and just put you phone on airplane mode to save the battery. This is especially true at the Park… Even though there is signal, you just can’t connect to it because TOO many people are also trying.

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Western Folklife Center: Elko, Nevada

Located in Elko, Nevada, a gold mining & railroad town located off of Interstate-80, is the Western Folk-life Center is designed to promote the cowboy heritage and way of life through their songs, storytelling, poetry (for those who don’t know, Cowboy Poetry is THING) and artwork. It is also the location for the yearly (approaching its 35th anniversary) National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and competition…. six days of poetry, music, dancing, workshops, and exhibits all of which are based in tradition but focused on the modern/rural West.IMG_4677

IMG_2765You first enter into the gift shop, which constitutes almost a quarter of the space, and actually has quite an impressive collection of items. IMG_0078Around the outer edges of the store you’ll find areas devoted to Cowboy poetry, music, and art, as you expect….IMG_0077Plus some handicrafts, including beauty products and other ranch produced handicrafts…. but the entire center of the shop???IMG_0076Jewelry! Lots and lots of jewelry — cause well… profit margins…. alongside the gift store is the art gallery. The guy in charge told me that they always have visiting exhibitions in this space… which switch out every few months. While I was here they had an exhibit about the art of Basque sheep herders (a different sort of cowboy) — and their art forms, including carvings, some of which date back to 1900, that are carved into local Aspen treesIMG_4720because these tree will ultimately die, a married couple had gone around collecting rubbings of all the ones they could find. IMG_0080

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This was followed up by a small display about Basque improvised Poetry. Here they give them a topic and they have to come up with a poem on the subject … which was won by a woman for the first time last year

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Then there was a permenent display, of the movie why the Cowboy sings…. only its the 16 minute version

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Looking online I found the PREVIEW of “Why the Cowboy sings” (1.24 min)

As well as the Full 56 min movie — but no 16 minute version

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After this the docent showed me their western bar… it was not specially made, they found it in a mining camp in a tent and brought it here

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Some examples of Cowboy poetry:

This website shows last year’s “Best of the West” show, which is a yearly performance at the Poetry Gathering, which exhibits some of the best of modern Cowboy music. While this video on the event, gives you an idea of the full breath and depth of it:

Cemetery in a roundabout: West Des Moines, Iowa

Currently situated in the middle of the intersection at South 88th Street and Mills Civic Parkway in West Des Moines, Iowa (not far from I-80), lies the Huston Family Cemetery. It was named for James B. Huston, the patriarch of one of the first families to settle in Dallas County (in the 1840’s) and the LAST person buried at the plot (in 1889). The cemetery is unusual in that it now sits in the center of a roundabout in what was once a rural area, but that is no only about a mile away from a Costco, and as there’s already been one instance of a drunk driver driving through the site, it might end up being moved — although there is some talk of moving the roads instead.

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The area which I’m fairly sure was completely rural a few years ago (like the other grave in a middle of the road I visited in Indiana) is to the graveyards detriment being developed REALLY quickly, according to the locals I spoke to … so much so that — like I already said–  there’s a Costco about a mile directly down the road (with a gas station, which I filled up at).

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The Huston Cemetery consists of 19 graves that date back to the late 1880’s, and are located near to The family’s original home — which is still standing nearby. The home is HIGHLY historical, as it was once a stage-coach station, a tavern, the local post office AND a stop on the Underground Railroad. The family patriarch, James B. Huston, was the first attorney in Dallas County (where the graves are situated)

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According the city’s website, the first two former slave girls, both named Harper, who apparently had “died on their way to freedom” were the first individuals buried there — although this is conflicted by a report from another site, which claims the two girls were part of family that was on its way to Kansas to become part of John Brown’s raiders. They were followed by James Huston’s wife, Nancy Hill Huston, and six of their children, all of whom died young — so there’s a sad story to be told from these stones.

 

 

Jesse James Historical Site, First Train Robbery in the West: Adair, Iowa

Located a short distance off of Interstate-80, in Adair, Iowa, is a monument dedicated to the very first documented heist of a moving train in the west; this occurred on July 21, 1873. The thieves in question were the notorious gang of outlaws led by Jesse James.

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Road is to the far left, then the 2nd road is the off ramp, then the memorial

The memorial is located near the top of a low hill, along side an off ramp type road, so that tourists don’t block traffic or cause accidents.

I found this short segment (2.5 minutes) of a longer “Biography” documentary about Jesse James, that focus on this train robbery… or you can read the explanation I found at the site:

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Both sources make the point that this was sort of learning experience for the gang, in that their actions, jerking a rail out of place, resulted in a derailment of the train and the two needless deaths of  Engineer and the fireman, plus injuries to various passangers… i.e., they ultimately decided this method just made it harder than it had to be.

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Along with the explanation of the robbery are some posters talking about local wild plants and a bit about the town.

Pony Express Station Museum & Gift Shop: Gothenburg, Nebraska

Located in Gothenburg Nebraska is a historic Pony Express Station (well, as it turned out… the walls are original, the roof is new) serving as a museum and gift store. Now granted, it’s not in its original location, historically, it was on the far side of town [they moved it to a park in the middle of town because that was better for business] …. and most of crucial importance, it has no bathroom… But, that said if what you’re looking for is a decent excuse to stretch your legs while road-tripping down I-80, this is it.

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When I first arrived the exterior of the place met my expectations for a small museum dedicated to the historically important, if short-lived, Pony express

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Most people don’t realize this but while it’s a favored features of Hollywood Westerns, the Pony express only was in service for about 18 months, partially because only the government or insanely rich people could really afford it…

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“the cost to send a 1ounce (14 g) letter was $5.00[32] at the beginning, (about $130.00 to today’s standards). By the end period of the Pony Express, the price had dropped to $1.00 per ​12 ounce but even that was considered expensive (equivalent to $27 in 2017[33]) just to mail one letter.”
— from Wikipedia, but also told to me by the docent…  and the informational signs they had attached to the walls…

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And as I already knew, about 18 month after it began working the first electrical telegraph wires had been set along the same distance, GREATLY reducing the transit time for a message from 10 days by pony express rider

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Who had to ride the whole route on horse back…. albeit from station to station, each time switching to fresh horses

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the messages were locked into the “Mochila” which were designed to sit over the horse’s saddle, and could then be quickly switched from saddle to saddle, rather than on the person of the riders themselves

to the amount of time it took to send out all the dots and dashes of the message.

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That said, on closer inspections, mostly what it is, is a gift shop — with over 50% of the space dedicated to sales, and just enough museum pieces thrown in to justify calling it a museum… that and the woman who works there knows just enough about the pony express to give you a short history of it. To be honest was expecting a bit more than this

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EVERYTHING on this side of the building, which is quite tiny anyways, is gift shop

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