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Weekend Escape: Arizona : Canyon Cruise : The West is won on a rail journey through history and natural wonders

February 25, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Dean writes for The Times' Life & Style section

PRESCOTT — First passion: In my closet are chaps hand-stitched in Bodie, a Stetson custom-shaped by actor Rory Calhoun, boots aged and softened by dust and horse sweat, and a dozen other tokens of the frustrated cowboy.

Second enchantment: As a boy I watched trains sucking on oil cans and spitting steam before thundering to far and exciting cities; as an adult I rebuild that romance with model railroad layouts by Lionel.

"My husband, the Marlboro Man," says a wonderfully indulgent Mrs. Dean. "And his life as the Little Train That Could."

She was less cynical about a weekend promising to merge both fascinations: first-class packages for two aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad as it slashes through Sinagua Indian lands, Tonto Apache country and the copper-heavy, gold-bearing canyons of central Arizona.

There has been railroading in this wilderness north of Prescott, narrow and standard gauges, wood-burners and diesels, since copper mining put Jerome, Clarkdale and the Black Hills on the map in 1876. One line, the Arizona Central, was laid in 1911 as a 38-mile spur from the smelters of Clarkdale, northwest to a junction at Drake where trains hooked into the Santa Fe trunk.

Never abandoned, unlike mines and smelters, the Arizona Central was purchased in 1988 and renamed the Verde Canyon by the Western Group, headed by obsessive railroader David Durbano of Ogden, Utah. Durbano owns similar lines in Wyoming, Oregon, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. All operate as excursion trains.

These days, riding the Verde Canyon Railroad is a quick, easy adventure. Southwest Airlines between LAX and Phoenix has friends flying free, $49 round trips for singles, and the Deans snuck in for $118. Round trip, both of us, nonrefundable.

To reach the railhead at Clarkdale requires a Hertzmobile ($105 buys a two-day rental of a Nissan Altima compact) for the two-hour drive from Phoenix through Prescott and Jerome. The latter now mines more tourists than copper as a registered ghost town, but one thoroughly back to life.

Then there's the ticket to ride. Dressed as we would be in the best of Levi Strauss, with haberdasheries by Wah-Maker and resplendent in the aforementioned boots and Stetson, naturally we went for the first-class package. That's $196 for two, or $35 more than the tariff for coach passengers.

Here's the enticing kicker. Just stand-alone, one-person train tickets cost $52 for first class, $35 for coach, with a $20 rate for young'uns under the age of 12. But the package includes train tickets, a room for the night at Sedona's Red Canyon Inn, and a $30 dinner voucher for chosen, yet choice restaurants.

Not being into the pain and suffering of doing much of anything before dawn, we flew to Phoenix on Friday afternoon, leaving LAX on Southwest's 4:30 p.m. flight. The 70-minute trip arrives at Phoenix Sky Harbor at 6:40 p.m., their time, because Arizona refuses to follow the daylight saving schedule of its neighbor to the west. Along with a deep distrust of Californians who eat sushi for breakfast, it is best understood as having something to do with the Cowboy Way.

The drive from Phoenix to a planned overnight stop at Prescott--hey, these boots were made for a midnight clump around famed and rowdy Whisky Row--was a clean, 90-minute shot through purple darkness to the Hassayampa Hotel.

Do it if you can. It costs about $100 a night for a room that although delightfully restored, hasn't changed its circuit-rider style, brocade furniture or floral wallpaper since this brick hotel was built in 1927. Certainly not since Tom Mix, Clark Gable and Will Rogers rode its Chinese-red elevator still operated by an attendant.

Your $100 also buys one well drink in the bar, and a huge, friendly, overstuffing breakfast that only territorial grandmothers remember how to make.

We passed on the well drink, settling for a three-block stroll to the Gurley Street Grill, where the best beer is Prescott Red, a microbrew by someone called Crazy Ed Chilleen, and where the Cajun scallops and calamari were probably one reason America moved west in the first place.

The drive through a crisp Saturday morning, the folds of Mingus Mountain and the crumbling hairpins of already lively Jerome, were a 30-minute primer to the gorgeous granite and stern, wooded canyons of the Prescott National Forest.

Then follow signs to the depot to make a 10:30 a.m. show time for the 11 a.m. whistle and complimentary mimosa as the big diesel and its reclaimed carriages pull free of Clarkdale and minimal civilization.

First class or coach? We aristocrats had free snacks, Swedish meatballs, chicken wings and fruit. Coach passengers bought their soup, chili, sandwiches and chocolate cake at an on-board deli.

We sprawled on broad, comfortable sofas; coach riders got vinyl benches. But full bars (brand drinks, this time), guides' commentaries, observation flat cars and vistas that stretched as far as history could see, were open to all.

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