by Irene Butler
Santa has been sneaking away from the mall on certain days during December. The paparazzi found him gleefully swinging from the side-ladder of the powerful engine of the Verde Canyon Railroad Train in Clarkdale Arizona. Much laughter and singing resounded from within the coaches on these days, and there were sightings of Mrs. Clause and Elfie through the train’s panoramic windows.
Is Santa sloughing off during his busiest season? Is he planning to trade-in the old sleigh and have Rudolph (et al) fly this train brimming with gifts across the sky instead? Or perhaps the old boy just thrills in riding the rails. Known for our private-eye propensities, my husband Rick and I are sent to investigate.
We purchase our tickets and mingle with the crowd on the station platform. Moments after the conductor crows, “All Aboard”, we are nestled in the comfy coach seats. The train pulls out of the station and into the wilderness of Verde Canyon for a four hour trip to the ghost ranch of Perkinsville and back.
The splendour of crimson cliffs reaching into a brilliant blue sky is mesmerizing. I catch my breath looking down from lofty trestle bridges at the shimmering Verde River snaking below on the valley floor. Deer, elk and javelina emerge from the forest of Cottonwoods and Sycamores to quench their thirst. A Great Blue Heron cruises along its emerald waters.
As nature’s extravaganza unfolds outside the windows, Molly, the train’s narrator enriches our experience with historical facts, “This line was completed in 1912 to haul copper ore and supplies to the once booming mining town of Jerome. A miracle of engineering, it took just one year for 250 men using 200 mules, picks, shovels and lot of black powder explosives to lay these rails.”
She points out a tin ranch roof and has us chuckling with her dash of folklore, “The Packard’s homesteaded this 60 acres from 1910-1922. They had a brisk business selling fresh produce to the miners, until Mr. Packard’s rounder ways got to the Missus. Forging his name, she sold the ranch for $1,800 and disappeared for parts unknown.”
Upon passing the ancient Sinagua Indian ruins dating back to 600AD, I pondered their way of life in the lofty cliff dwellings chiselled out of the rocks of red red as red as Santa’s suit! Our thoughts are jarred back to our mission.
The train enters a 680 foot tunnel. In the darkness a “Ho,Ho,Ho” bounces off the cavern walls. Sure enough, upon leaving the tunnel, all eyes are on the pot-bellied gentleman himself, along with his better half and his pointy-eared helper.
Taking up two seats to fit his ample girth, he invites the children to gather round his magic story book for “T’was the Night Before Christmas”. Mrs. Clause doles out scrumptious cookies to all from her gallon pail, and Elfie tags behind with milk and hot chocolate, and coffee for “kids” taller than one and one-half metres, like us.
The celebrity trio heads a sing-a-long of “Jingle Bells”. Mid-verse commotion erupts. Santa is in the lead as everyone rushes out to the open-air cars for the wondrous spectacle of Black and Decker, the canyon’s resident bald eagle couple, gracefully soaring towards their gigantic nest on a cliff.
Around the next bend everyone in the train shouts “turtle”, “elephant”, and “angel” as we pass a series of shapes formed by nature’s artistry atop a particularly rugged cliff section. Our singing resumes followed by another round of cookies and milk.
We came away awed by the stunning wilderness beauty and in high spirits from the frivolity of riding the rails. Although not able to glean if some secret agenda was up his big red sleeve, we now understood why Santa Claus leaves the mall, as such a merry time is impossible to resist for the “King of Merriment”.
IF YOU GO:
During December (prior to Christmas) on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays the SANTA CLAUS EXPRESS leaves the Verde Canyon Railroad Station in Clarkdale AZ at 1:00 pm and returns at 4:00 p.m. For details on click on HYPERLINK “http://www.verdecanyonrr.com” www.verdecanyonrr.com
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