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Weekend Escape: Arizona

Absolutely Gorge-ous : Carefree and car-less while making tracks for the Grand Canyon

November 10, 1996|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles freelance writer

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Like a surreal image in a Rene Magritte painting, the harvest moon silhouetted the tall, spindly palm trees outside Union Station. Surreal. That's how it felt on a Friday night earlier this fall as my husband, Paul, and I wheeled our bags through the grand, old--and nearly deserted--terminal and climbed aboard Amtrak's sleek, silver Southwest Chief bound for Flagstaff, Ariz. Neither of us had taken a train in years, and we had never spent the night in a sleeping car.

I had persuaded Paul that since we only had a weekend, taking the overnight train to Flagstaff, then a bus to the Grand Canyon (included in the rail fare) , was the best way to get to this wonder of the West, a sight I'd never seen. Paul agreed that the time was right for a canyon visit, after the summer hordes had departed and the weather cooled, but he had one caveat: He needed a restful weekend getaway. No problem, I said, until I laid eyes on our sleeping compartment.

I had imagined we'd have a cozy compartment, like that shared by Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in the movie, "North by Northwest." Instead, ours consisted of two seats facing each other, which, when joined together, formed one narrow bed. An even narrower bunk bed pulled down from the wall above.

But because Paul is an agreeable traveler, he didn't complain. In fact, as we chugged out of the station (right on time at 8:55 p.m.), he led the way on a tour of the train that ended in the dining car, where complimentary champagne, cheese, fruit and crackers were being served to the sleeping-car passengers.


By the time we squeezed into our bunks the train was shuddering so much I almost wished I had brought along the acupressure wristbands I wear on ships to prevent seasickness. The train's wheels squeaked more than clickety-clacked (as in my nostalgic memories of rail travel), but we liked hearing the clanging of distant train-crossing bells and the wail of the train's whistle, and we were soon rocked to sleep.

It was still dark out when our sleeping-car attendant, Rene, woke us at 5:45 a.m. Though there is a shower in each sleeping car, neither Paul nor I felt like getting wet at this time of day. Instead, like circus contortionists, we wriggled into our clothes in our tiny compartment, and made our way to the dining car for a nicely served traditional train breakfast of eggs, hash browns, fresh fruit, biscuits and coffee (all included on a sleeping-car fare).

At 6:50 a.m., 10 minutes ahead of schedule, we stepped off the train onto the empty platform of the circa-1926 train depot at Flagstaff.

There's not a lot going on in Flagstaff at 7 on a Saturday morning, so we stopped for a latte at a college hangout called Late for the Train. Despitethe jolt of caffeine, we both dozed on the 80-mile bus ride to the Grand Canyon.

We awoke to yet another surreal moment, for until we walked around the lodge facing the road at Grand Canyon Village, we couldn't see the canyon itself. Then, suddenly, there it was in all its magnificence: a vast chasm one mile deep, 277 miles long and up to 18 miles across. Its dramatic red-, gold- and buff-clored cliffs and rock buttes offered a glimpse into the past; the striations represent nearly half of Earth's 4.6-billion-year history. I couldn't help whispering my 12-year-old son's favorite expression, "awesome."

Unfortunately, check-in time at the Grand Canyon Village hotels isn't until 4 p.m. Though both of us would have liked to have freshened up, we changed into jeans and hiking boots in our hotel's public restroom, checked our bags and set off on a walk along the rim.

Under warm, breezy and crystalline-blue skies, Paul and I hiked west along the South Rim of the canyon--a mostly pine-tree-shaded, flat and easy hike--stopping at various lookout points for majestic views. When we found ourselves short of breath in the 7,000-foot-high altitude, we'd hop aboard one of the park's free shuttle buses that ferry passengers from lookout point to lookout point along the eight-mile West Rim Drive.

We returned to our hotel, which was built of massive pine logs and native stone in 1905. The El Tovar is the grande dame of Grand Canyon hotels, like the Ahwahnee is at Yosemite National Park. Though I could have reserved a room elsewhere in Grand Canyon Village for less than half of El Tovar's $121 price, Paul thanked me for having spent extra to stay here. After the closet-size sleeping compartment on the train, we found our attractive room at El Tovar, with its king-size four-poster bed, huge bathroom and partial view of the canyon, palatial. We checked in, showered and took a blissful nap.

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