Up the Junction: a night on the American Railroad

The Arizona skies that stretch across the plains to infinity were now black, the last of the daylight long since chased away into nightfall. Emily and I were riding Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to Williams in Coconino County, on our way to the Grand Canyon. 1700 miles, 32 hours, 7 states and countless games of dog Top Trumps (of which I won precisely none) had passed since leaving Chicago and this leg of the journey was finally almost over. All that was left now was to sit back in our seats and wait for Williams.

We were tired and edgy, the muted sounds of the train warping in our ears until the grinding squeals of the wheels on the rails were the machinery of an abattoir and the melancholy wail of the locomotive horn was the cries of cattle being lead to slaughter. If travelling is like dreaming, as Edgar Allan Poe said, we were at the point of waking: our pleasant westward canter across America on the brink of dissolving into memory, the following morning’s trip to the Canyon still impossibly far away. We were in a curious state of rolling stasis, in motion yet immobile, unable to think beyond the next step because our immediate fate was as yet uncertain.

The Amtrak station, Williams Junction, was a few miles from the town limits. Google had already made it clear that it was far from being a bustling, 24 hour transport hub — there was no taxi rank, no taxis … no road. Although the true extent of its isolation and inaccessibility was as yet unclear to us, it was certain that we couldn’t make it there on our own. Before leaving Chicago, I’d made an expensive long-distance call to the company who ran the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, where we were booked to stay, seeking confirmation that the advertised bus would be waiting for the Chief when it arrived.

No problem, the switchboard operator assured me. The hotel’s bus is always there to meet the train. But what I hadn’t asked, and what was now making me doubly uneasy, was what occurred in the event of a delay. Amtrak services are notorious for their laidback approach to timekeeping; works on the track back in Colorado during the morning had left us running approximately two hours late. Our scheduled arrival time at Williams Junction was 9.30pm but we hadn’t left Flagstaff, the preceding stop, until well after 11.00pm. Would the bus still be waiting for us when we got to our station? Would the conductor throw us off the train in the middle of nowhere with just our baggage and the American night for company? Would we be left, as Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook put it, up the junction?

Emily had been catching up on her sleep but a gaggle of middle-aged Britons had boarded at Flagstaff and were now clustered in the corridor outside our door, audibly drunk, undisguisedly snooty and deeply outraged to discover the toilets in our car were not working. (The mechanism that drained the sewage tanks had stopped working somewhere in New Mexico, shortly after a member of the staff from the dining car had done the same, although the two incidents were probably unrelated.)

Art, our unflappable attendant, was roused from his own quarters and he directed the women whose needs were the most pressing to the adjacent car. They returned a few minutes later talking loudly about the ‘tired old negro lady’ they had encountered (we guessed they were referring to Art’s counterpart next door). Emily was on her feet in a flash, all thoughts of sleep forgotten, ready to confront these ghastly anti-ambassadors for the UK, but they were already scuttling into their cabins, their racist chatter fading with them. We were left once again with only the sound of spinning wheels for company.

There was no announcement for Williams. Although this was not unusual, as the loudspeakers were switched off overnight to avoid disturbing sleeping passengers, it seemed ominously fitting nonetheless. Why would Amtrak bother broadcasting a stop that was beyond the back of beyond? Instead, the train conductor stuck his head into our compartment and told us we’d be there in a couple of minutes. Slowly, reluctantly, we gathered our hand luggage and left the roomette for the last time. Collecting our suitcases from the rack, we joined the conductor at the door of the car. He was looking out of the open window into the darkness, a walkie-talkie in his hand. When the train began to slow, he stuck his head out into the night and began muttering instructions into his handset. It was bewildering at first but then we realised he was guiding the engineer, advising him where to bring the Chief to a halt.

This was enough to raise my fears about being stranded to boiling point. If the conductor was having to tell the guy driving the train where to stop, there would be no hope of us finding our way out of Williams Junction without the bus. What would we do if it wasn’t there? Throw ourselves on the mercy of Amtrak and plead to be allowed to continue on to Los Angeles, where we could at least find a cab and a hotel? Or borrow the walkie-talkie and ask the engineer to take a detour via Williams itself? (Although the mainline bypasses the municipal area entirely, the other spur at the junction is for a freight line to Phoenix which passes the Grand Canyon Railway station in the centre of town before continuing south.)

The train came to a halt with a shudder. Something had changed outside but before I could process what it was, the conductor threw open the door and tossed out the step stool. Emily climbed down and I followed, blinking at the change in the light — not to darkness, but to a harsh sodium glow. Three lampposts stood in a row like spindly sentries, their bulbs bathing a square of ground in artificial orange brightness. Outside its boundaries there was only dirt and darkness. Inside was a silver-and-blue Amtrak sign confirming that this was indeed Williams Junction, AZ and a white Ford minibus. The words ‘Grand Canyon Railway’ were emblazoned above the windscreen. The driver was removing cases from the rear doors, but I paid no heed to him or the tired-looking people standing nearby. For a few moments, the relief was as paralysing as a tarantula bite.

When it passed, I realised the importance of the bus link to the hotel. Williams Junction is less a railway station, more a clearing in the Kaibab National Forest: a siding with a rectangle of concrete slapped over it. Everywhere else is trees. It may look quaintly rural during the day, but in the middle of the night it was oppressive and scary. Emily had noted earlier in the day that rural America was overrun with desolate places where one could commit the most ghastly of crimes and get away with it; if there was ever a patch of woodland that looked like the haunt of a serial killer, this was it — and the bus driver, who was unshaven, dishevelled and wearing what looked like an official Amtrak cap, could easily have been a demented murderer from the pages of an early Stephen King novel, waiting for the day when an annoying passenger pushed him over the edge of sanity and into an orgy of bloody backwater slaying. It was probably just as well the Brits who’d boarded at Flagstaff weren’t getting off here.

Others were, though. Guided by the conductor, the engineer inched the Chief forward until another car was over the concrete and more passengers alighted. By the time the train slowly pulled away into the night, its horn echoing through the dark like the bark of a coyote, seven of us were sitting in the cramped interior of the bus while the driver finished loading our bags into the back.

There really was no road out of the forest — only a dirt track that curled up the hillside through the trees like a snake leaving long grass. The bus driver handled it with the carefree ease of long practice, braking so late for each curve that the vehicle’s ancient suspension was constantly protesting. His manner towards his passengers was similarly breezy, chatting to our companions about the habitual lateness of the Amtrak trains, but my suspicions that he was driving us deeper into the woods to carry out some nefarious crimes were only abated when the dirt beneath the wheels turned to paved asphalt and we emerged from the trees to join the road that had once been Route 66.

But even America’s most famous highway is anonymous at midnight. It was just another strip of asphalt in the bus’s headlamps. As the driver swung out onto the road, heading for town, the lights picked out a sign for a local wildlife park: Bearizona. Wincing at the pun, Emily and I sat back in our seats and waited for Williams.

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