For Arizona rail aficionados seeking a daylong excursion, I would recommend the voyage from Flagstaff to Albuquerque via Amtrak. No scenery in the world is better suited to the view from a second-deck car.
Our destination was Santa Fe. The Germans might be experimenting with 21st-century magnetic levitation and France may have the TGV here and now, but the unfortunate fact remains that Americans can only view their present rail system as an anachronism. With cars fabricated 20 years ago and rails that would be considered Third World in Japan or Europe, Amtrak exists as a creature of the past,.
Imagine, if you will, this scene in Flagstaff on a crisp, sunny morning. A number of passengers are milling about in front of the brick station when the Amtrak agent urgently signals for their attention.
``We are going to have to work fast when the train arrives,'' he explained, ``because the engineer cannot stop here more than 10 minutes. Under Arizona law, if the engineer blocks a crossing more than 10 minutes, the sheriff comes out and arrests him. He spends a night in jail and Amtrak pays a fine, plus the cost of sending another engineer by taxi from Albuquerque!''
There were several Germans among those waiting. When I translated this message, they though it was a wonderfully staged moment, put together so they could take home a tale of the Wild West. The Amtrak agent, however, could not have been more serious. Fortunately, Amtrak was in and out of Flagstaff under the legal limit, and our fears of Arizona justice evaporated when the northlands opened in their vastness to blue mountains on the horizon.
On a sunny day such as this, the view from an elevated rail car extends at least 30 miles to the horizon. The immediate landscape carries outward from the rail bed with a table flatness, cut here and there by imposing fault cracks. Occasionally a concrete bridge to nowhere appears in the desert, archaeological remains from the earlier civilization that built Route 66.
A late snow had brushed the red rocks that loom at the New Mexico border as suddenly as Ayers Rock emerges from the Australian landscape around Alice Springs. From this point, the rails trace a shallow circle around the base of Mount Taylor, sacred to the Navajos as Turquoise Mountain. Its snowcapped heights provide a stage backdrop to a hundred miles of western New Mexico.
In the foreground could be black lava beds, yellow uranium tailings or pastel sky cities built on the mesas hundreds of years ago, but the Turquoise Mountain maintains its eternal vigilance.
At Gallup, Amtrak brings aboard a Navajo guide who discovers wild horses in the canyons for us to see, or points out the remains of Anasazi dwellings as the train slows to cross the Continental Divide.
There are a number of options on this journey. If both the eastbound and westbound schedules are being met, the traveler from Arizona can simply alight from the eastbound Southwest Chief in Albuquerque and catch the westbound Chief three hours later, a round trip completed in the span of one day. One could also opt to stay over and enjoy a night in Albuquerque Old Town, or continue another hour on the eastbound Chief to Lamy for an easy motor coach connection of 14 miles to Santa Fe.