On the way to Flagstaff the next morning, I somehow remembered the turnoff to my other “Arizona Nightspot” – a solitude next to the Southern Pacific mainline. I just wanted to make sure I could find it again. It had always been a special place to watch the freights roll by and fall asleep to the whirling sound of steel-on-steel. I made my way through Flagstaff past the venerable railroad depot and checked into the Best Western Kings House. Yeah, I was treating myself. It was a Saturday, and the first full college football weekend was on tap. The spoils of TV had overcome me. Nevertheless, it was a glorious afternoon, watching the grid-iron titans of Michigan and Washington, Norte Dame and Nebraska. Periodically, I would take a break and bike around the area, sort of like a catharsis relieving the couch-potato syndrome.
After a complimentary Continental Breakfast, I just had to make one more visit to the Depot just in time to get a rush from a passing freight roaring past the station. I chatted with the lady behind the Info Center counter. We came to the conclusion that Amtrak was in dire straits. “It costs more to take the train than it does to fly,” was her comment, sad as it sounded. I had to say, “You know, as crowded as the airports are, the airlines should subsidize building more railroad lines to take the load off. In the long run, they’d be making money. Can’t you see it….American Airline’s Sunset Limited from Chicago to Los Angeles? Anything’s possible.” She gave me a quizzical nod.
It was north on U.S. 89 to the junction of U.S. 160 where I could still Mt. Humphreys at least 60 miles away! Eventually, the pyramidal cone disappeared, finally giving way to the earth’s curvature. Only in the wild and wonderful West! The highway led me through one of the most desolate areas in the country. The sage and sand was dotted sparingly with trailer homes and the like. They might as well had been living in hollow trees (if there had been any around). I was definitely back on The Reservation. Appropriate to Arizona, the road was lined with towns of picturesque names, such as, Tuba City, Cow Springs, Shonto, Kayenta, Dennehotso, and Mexican Water. It was fun repeating the names in my head, as an alleviation from the dryness of the drive.
Midway through the stretch, I came upon a most astounding sight. Out of nowhere, there appeared an electrified railroad track – in the middle of nowhere! My first thought was, “A commuter rail line between Four Corners and the Grand Canyon? Naw, I’m just thinking in the absurd. What in the Wide World of Electric Trains was it doing there?” The tracks and power lines paralleled the highway for more than 30 miles before it diverged toward a power plant-like structure. Ah-ha, I finally deduced the line was probably privately owned for hauling coal. When I stopped for gas in Blue Mesa, I asked a Native American boy about the tracks. He confirmed my observations – the mystery of the “phantom railroad” had been resolved.
It turned out to be one of those splendid, late afternoon drives with the sun behind me, lancing its rays off of the mesas, canyons, and rock formations. I could have sworn I saw John Wayne leading a cavalry over a ridge. As I crossed over to New Mexico, I was all too happy to escape the Arizona Gestapo one more time. In Shiprock, I found the City Market with its commodious parking lot full of 18-wheelers. I knew I had found a place for the night. The panhandlers were swarming like flies on a picnic roast. Every one of ’em needed money to get to Monte Vista (Colorado) to pick potatoes. “Are you sure they grow potatoes in that part of Colorado?”, I asked one desperado. “Si, senior, mucho potatoes everywhere,” was all I got. I was dubious, but gave him a gratuity anyway (I’ve got to check on that later). I talked with one trucker who said, “One of those guys told me he was praying for me and my truck. Can you beat that?” “Well, they’re poor, and we’re not,” was all I could say. I went to sleep listening to the Dolphins – Titans game on CBS/ESPN from somewhere, U.S.A. while watching the temperature marquee on the neighborhood bank drop from 73 to 59 degrees in a less than a hour. I was just thankful I was not wanting for anything, you know what I mean?
I decided to take U.S. 64 east through northern New Mexico instead of heading north to Cortez and Durango where I had already been. The Golden Rule of Travel: always return a different way. It was another beautiful drive through Carson National Forest and the little burgs of Dulce, Lumbertop, Monero, and Chama. Across the state line into Colorado, it was uncanny how the terrain changed, from rock-strewn mesas and scrub cedars to lofty mountains and lush pines and aspens. I criss-crossed my journey at Alamosa (completing one loop of the figure eight), and headed north to Salida and east to Pueblo. I had entertained thoughts about going to Denver, but it just didn’t feel right at the time. I wasn’t in the mood to negotiate a metromess, just like I had avoided Los Angeles (San Francisco, of course, was an exception). I bedded down for the night behind my old reliable Holiday Inn. It was September 10th.
About 10 o’clock the next morning, I strolled into the lobby and noticed a half-dozen people standing around a wall-mounted TV next to the registration desk. All I could make out was a smoke-filled skyline of lower Manhattan. I turned to one man who could see my dumbfounded look, and without asking anything of him, he simply said, “It’s like Pearl Harbor all over again.” Then the reality of what had actually happened finally set in. I walked back to the van and sat there for awhile, trying to comprehend what had just transpired. I thought, “My God, I was fast asleep right here when all that happened.”
I headed east on U.S. 50 across the rolling, bountiful prairies of Colorado through the pleasant little towns of La Junta, Las Animas, and Lamar (with its acres upon acres of malodorous feed lots). All the while, I was tuned in to KOA out of Denver, listening to up-to-date reports of the terrorist tragedy. Then I got philosophical about what was really happening. It was one thing to be at home, glued to the TV, watching first-hand all the images of the Attack on America. It was entirely another matter, as I was, being on the road. In all practicality, I felt detached from the horrendous events for the time being. I was cruising along in Mid-America, feeling as safe and secure as anyone possibly could. But then, I still couldn’t help thinking about the unbelievable collapse of the Twin Towers and all the innocent lives that were lost. Fate is the Hunter.