Following the path of my mother Kathryn and great grandmother Rebecca, I turned, as they did, from Los Angeles headed for the Grand Canyon and then Kansas City, Missouri.
After just one night in Los Angeles, Kathryn and Rebecca boarded the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe – the “Missionary.” When I got back on the rails, it was to start what would ultimately be 2,265 miles on the Southwest Chief.
We were headed to the Grand Canyon, though the tracks have been rerouted since they got to Williams, Arizona, directly. My train delivered me in the middle of the night at a “place” Amtrak calls Williams Junction– all that is there is a sign and a bit of concrete for a platform.
From this “artificial station” in the middle of the night, I was once again on an Amtrak bus, this time to Williams where you get to sleep for a few hours before the morning tourist train to the Grand Canyon. There at least I thought I actually could ride the train Kathryn and Rebecca did. Not quite. One of the cars was a 1920s vintage (without air conditioning) but the engine was a diesel. The Grand Canyon Railway does have an old steam engine they roll out once in a while.
The landscape between Williams and the Grand Canyon hasn’t changed much, nor has the canyon of course. However I noted the low walls along the cliff edges were not there in the 20s, having been built by the WPA in the 1930s. Back then it was just you and the canyon.
With diary clues about where they had stayed for their $1.25 per person – a little white cottage at the canyon rim, I inquired but found no who knew much about Bright Angel Camp, which existed between the eras of the Bright Angel Hotel and what is now the Bright Angel Lodge.
As I browsed at the Hopi House, I realized that I may have found the source of the Navaho rug I’ve inherited. At the canyon I felt a stronger connection to their trip than in radically changed cities.
To get back to Amtrak’s Chief, I reversed the process with another half-night at Williams and a middle of the night boarding at Williams Junction. Fortunately I could sleep extra hours because we were kept well aware of the multi-hour delay and could stay in bed rather than stand trackside for hours in the middle of nowhere.
Out the window in Las Vega, NM, I saw the Castenada an abandoned Paul Harvey place. The 1923 Southern Pacific train stopped for travelers to eat at Paul Harvey restaurants in Seligman (AZ), Gallup (NM), Clovis (NM), and Amarillo (TX) .
On my trip, I could enjoy dining car meals but was surprised to find that there’s nothing regional on the menu – same menu everywhere on Amtrak. And they were always out of half the listed menu items. Not at all like the old days.
Even when working under duress, delay, and dwindling stocks, Amtrak’s dining car and sleeping car attendants maintained their good humor and their spirit of service. These days the conductor and engineer have a firm 12-hour tour of duty but the others work from when the train leaves Los Angeles till it gets to Chicago, not matter how long that takes.
Julio, my sleeping car attendant from Arizona to Kansas City, ranks as the best I experienced, but all were attentive. The ride from Williams Junction to Kansas City ranked as one of the worst, however, in terms of old car creaks and bumps in the night!
At Union Station in Kansas City I came close to knowing Kathryn and Rebecca’s experience. Lovingly restored, the station is a grand venue like it was for travelers 90 years ago.
The Ladies Waiting Room, where Kathryn wrote that they spent four hours between trains, is now a restaurant called Pierpont’s (amusingly named by the renovators for J Pierpont Morgan, who was not exactly in favor of women’s rights). During a long lunch there I used my imagination to feel their presence.
Kathryn and Rebecca left Kansas City on the Missouri Pacific train to Sedalia for a week’s visit and then returned to Kansas City to get a train on the Frisco lines to Oklahoma. I, on the other hand, had to rent a car, since there is NO passenger rail service from Kansas City to anywhere in Oklahoma. Driving to Stillwater and Beggs, Oklahoma, provided some surprises.
Finding the family turned out to be more difficult than I expected, but I found some of the places and solved a mystery as well in the next phase of the trip.