Everything but the Canyon!

As we taxi towards our gate, the flight attendant announces, ‘in an effort to keep the cabin cool, we request all our passengers to please lower their window blinds and keep their vents in the open position’. It is a most unusual request, certainly one that I have never heard before, but given that it is 114F or 45.5C in Phoenix at the moment, it probably makes sense! As I begin to lower my window blind, I scan the scene outside – no surprises here – there isn’t a soul to be seen anywhere on the tarmac!

07012011155No doubt, I have experienced such climes previously – and with humidity to boot – but it has been years since I was home over the summer, and somehow the mind associates such extreme temperatures less so with North America as it does with the Indian subcontinent!

It is absolutely scorching outside, as I leave the much cooler confines of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and wait curbside for my friend to pick me up. He has graciously offered to show me around for the second half of the day, but there’s not a lot one can do by means of sightseeing, in weather like this. So we spend the afternoon riding the city’s new and spiffy looking light rail system, all 20-miles of it!

Apart from being surrounded by a handful of mountain ranges, the city is largely flat, sprawling (it is the largest capital city in the US), lacking in soul, and evidently, quite boring! To be fair though, I have also chosen the worst time to be there!

After meeting up with another friend that evening, we have dinner at a local Mexican restaurant and then begin our journey to Flagstaff, some 150 miles and 2.5 hours to the north! We reach there closer to midnight, and I turn in shortly after. As the night wears on, however, 6 more like minded individuals from across the United States, will begin to descend on our hotel in Flagstaff, and awake in the morning to begin a 2-day meet – the 2nd annual Indian Railway Fan Club of North America Convention! And this time around, there’s everything official about it 😉


With breakfast and pleasantries out of the way, we lock ourselves into the conference room and get down to business – immersing ourselves in a series of riveting presentations, enthralling discussions and loud debates – covering pretty much anything related to our common interest, trains! Or what the uninitiated might refer to as mind-numbing chatter!

We still have a couple of hours of daylight when we emerge from our marathon ‘indoor’ session and decide to use the time looking around Flagstaff. Having gained about 6000 feet in elevation over Phoenix, things are considerably cooler too! It is my second visit to the town, and since the first one was extremely brief, I’m hoping to see a little more of it this time. But as one would expect from a group of 9 rail enthusiasts, we end up spending most of our time at the station watching an endless parade of freight trains roll by!

A lot has changed in Arizona since my last visit to the state in ’03 – the passing of the very controversial Senate Bill 1070 for one – which basically requires an ‘alien’ to carry a valid immigration document, on their person, at all times! Ridiculous as this new law is, older, weirder ones still persist supposedly, like those relating to firearms! As we drive around town in fading light, it comes as a bit of a shock to see signs like this in a downtown area, but my friends assure me that it should be the least of my surprises! Apparently, the concealed carriage of a weapon is completely legal in this state and does not even require a permit! Talk about bizarre!!


Having the privilege of ‘alien’ status in this country, I’ve made it a point to bring along my passport, of course, but have so far not been checked. Phew! Riding on that luck, we decide to venture track side post-dinner, and record the passage of the westbound ‘Southwest Chief‘ through Flagstaff.

The ‘Chief’ is late on this occasion but that gives us plenty of time to set up our tripods and figure out our camera settings. When it finally pulls up, we try various permutations and combinations of long exposure shots. The initial results for me are far from heartening, but on my fourth attempt, I luck out! During my 20-second long exposure, an eastbound freighter rounds the bend and its headlights provide just the right amount of illumination for the scene 😉

Day 2 is our ‘outdoor’ session, and not to take away anything from all the knowledge we gained the day prior, this is the one we are most looking forward to! After breakfast, we head some 15 miles east to the little town of Winona. It is a beautifully clear day and the drive there is pretty too – rolling countryside, with mountains all around. There’s very little traffic that early in the morning and Winona is reached in good time.

As we exit I-40 onto a country road, we encounter the most intriguing of vehicles, er contraptions! And rather inappropriately named too! A locomotive by the same name set the world speed record for steam traction back in the day, and to aid that effort they probably thought the better of carrying a bicycle and half motorcycle along!

Winona finds mention in the song ‘Route 66‘ and country singer Wynonna Judd is named after it. Other than that though, it has little else to its credit! But its sheer location, just east of the San Francisco Peaks, does provide some rather dramatic vistas, and a stunning setting to photograph trains! It also helps reaffirm our choice of out-of-the-way Arizona as the venue for our second convention!!

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad’s mainline keeps us entertained for hours on end and there is nary a dull moment on our watch! But the warmth of the sun, to put it mildly, catches up with us eventually, and we head back to Flagstaff to break for lunch.

The town of Williams lies on historic Route 66, about 40 miles to the west of Flagstaff.  Located close to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, it is a major tourist stop. Among other things, it also boasts the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway!

The railway runs a daily service along it’s 65-mile route to the South Rim. By the time we get there, however, that service has departed, but on this weekend there is a special steam hauled train doing several short, 10-mile, round-trips.

The locomotive in question – #4960 – was built in 1923 by Baldwin in Pennsylvania and served on the Midwestern Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) railroad before being retired from service in the 50’s. Once coal-fired, it is now run on waste vegetable oil! Never mind the semantics though – it is every bit a performer – hissing steam, belching black smoke, tooting loudly, and clanking away merrily up the grade!

The train it pulls is made up of 4 beautiful old carriages, dating from the early 20th-century. Compared to their more modern counterparts, not only do these carriages ooze character, but also allow you some much needed leeway to better enjoy the journey 😉

Sedona is our final stop for the day and while it doesn’t quite qualify for an ‘outdoor session’ in railfan speak, it is a destination in it’s own right! The town lies about 60 miles to the southeast of Williams and State Route 89A is the most convenient way to get there.

SR89A cuts through the Coconino National Forest, following the course of Oak Creek Canyon for most part. In the last 12 miles leading up to Sedona, red rock formations, characteristic to these parts, first come into view. The wind-battered rocks are staggering to look at, and given that the road is narrow, steep and winding, am kind of glad not to be on the wheel this once!

Every new turn presents a breathtaking vista, accompanied by the oohs and aahs of fellow travelers! The journey to Sedona is, simply put, stunning! I would go to the extent of saying it is possibly one of the most scenic routes I’ve driven through in North America.

Our progress through SR89A is slow to begin with but that’s hardly reason to complain given the fabulous terrain we’re passing through. The closer we get to Sedona, however, the more backed up traffic is! Given that we have every intention of seeing the town’s famous red rocks at sunset, we now begin to worry, of course! Light is fast fading and the traffic shows no signs of abating!

Vortex Point, located a little outside of town, offers the best views in the house but by the time we get there, it is already dusk! Still, the scene that greets the eye is a surreal one – an array of gorgeous red sandstone mesas and buttes stretch across the panorama, for as long as the eye can see. It’s easy then to appreciate why Sedona has served as a backdrop for many a Hollywood production!

PS – I started writing this post on the 29th of October, more than 3 months after I had returned from Arizona. Not only had the summer come to an end by then but it also happened to be snowing outside my window!!! Seasons change, time flies, and life goes on, but the impressions of a destination remain etched in one’s mind 😉


A full set of pics can be seen here and here.

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