Riding On A Railroad


We were only on the South Rim for three hours.  Deploying at the Bright Angel Lodge.

I hadn’t been there since 1966.  Needless to say, the Grand Canyon hadn’t changed.  It’s vast!  Far larger than you can imagine, almost too big to comprehend.  A huge hole with giant mountains resembling tits cropping up amidst the vast valleys.

After taking a gander, we boarded the bus to Hermits Rest, seven and a half miles away.  Our plan was to take it to the limit, then stop at one of the viewpoints on the return and walk back.  I figured we’d have enough time to double back from Maricopa Point, not quite two miles from our starting point.  But nervous about being late, hanging up our compatriots, at the last minute we altered the plan.  We’d disembark at Mojave Point and walk the mile or so through Hopi Point on to Powell Point, where the bus stopped on its reverse run (it stopped at all eight intermediate points on the way out, but only three on the way back.)

And at Mojave Point, the views were delicious.  We could see the Colorado River far below.  The sheer walls nearby were emblazoned red.  One could get up on the railing and look straight down.  And that’s what it is, straight down.  A cliff.  This ain’t no ski slope, the sides of the Grand Canyon are vertical.

Having taken a gander, it was time to hit the trail.  Which I’d seen pictures of back at Bright Angel Lodge.  Paved, but in some spots gravel.

They lied.

The path this far out was dirt.  With occasional  markers on either side.  Sometimes logs, sometimes rocks.  And then, just feet away, was the abyss.

Or, as the Firesign Theatre used to say, I was walking mere feet from the Grand CanYONNNNNNNNNNNE!

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be in America.  The land of seatbelts and airbags, where we release our children into society in bubble wrap, worried they might get bruised by the slightest of contact.  America is safe, we’re protected!  But now I’m walking on this sometimes angled, uneven path, knowing that a trip and a slight slip and I’m a goner.

You tell yourself to go.  Not to be a pussy.  But once you’ve embarked, you can’t go back, it’s too scary.  You can kick and scream, but there’s no one to rescue you.  Certainly not in the slow season of November.

So, you can focus on the trail, avoid looking over your shoulder, or just jump.

Yup, you almost want to get it over with.

But truly.  You don’t want to hike and not look.  But you suddenly realize you can die.  And did you really want to go this way?


"You learn a lot on a train."

That’s what Charlie Hunter, leader of this adventure, told us in the parlor car not long after we left Union Station Saturday night.

This was his twentieth trip.  The first was a lark, a writing group jaunt.  From Northampton to Buffalo and back, just that fast. Then, they went to New Orleans.  Then they circumnavigated the country.  Signing up people through "Harper’s". Shenanigans ensued, marriages broke up.  Because in close quarters, you can’t hide behind your possessions, your true identity is revealed.

This was a four and a half day adventure.  From L.A. to Albuquerque and places in between.  The trip knit together by music.  In this case, Stan Ridgway, Jill Sobule and the Handsome Family.  Thirty eight people had signed up to be packed like sardines just to be close to the music.


Yes, that Stan Ridgway, from Wall of Voodoo, of "Mexican Radio" fame.  Then again, is there another Stan Ridgway?

Charlie’s a fan.  He likes artists who employ unreliable narrators.  Sing songs from perspectives other than their own.  As rapists, as less than stellar citizens.

I don’t think Stan’s ever raped anyone.  And unlike the artists in the news, he is both voluble and approachable.  Actually, Stan is a storytelling softie.  He keeps up a running narrative, oftentimes made up on the spot, of what he’s experiencing at the moment.  He’s ripe for a documentary.  He made up a seven minute song entitled "Booze Hole" which was more riveting than anything in the Top Forty.  But I became truly enraptured when he, his wife Pietra and their accompanying guitarist launched into "High On A Mountain".

High on a mountain, wind blowing free
Thinking of the days that used to be

We’re riding through the Mojave Desert.  It’s pitch black outside.  And this number is loping along, perfectly fitting the experience.  There was something about the changes.

And when they were done, Stan went on about them, deconstructing the song, delineating its magic.

He couldn’t exactly remember who wrote it.  "Ole"?

That’s what I thought he said, but searching in Spotify as soon as I got home, I found out it was written by Ola Belle Reed. It’s on an album entitled "Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian Folkways".  And the original, recorded so long ago, is just as magical as Stan and Pietra’s remake, cut for the children’s album "Silly Songs For Kids Volume One".

High on a mountain, standing all alone
Wondering where the years of my life have flown

Where did they go?  Ever find yourself alone and it hits you?  How did you get here?  Where have you been?  Where are you going?  It almost spooks you, you want to put one foot in front of the other, get into motion just to avoid being creeped out.

Great songs don’t have to be complicated.  Great songs encapsulate life better than any movie or TV show.


It was cold!  Thirty three degrees during the day!

After waking up to snow in northern New Mexico, we ultimately arrived in Albuquerque at noon.  They shuffled the four cars of our entourage onto a siding and we disembarked to investigate a city that gets few tourists at this time of year.

And it felt good to get off the train.  Yet bad.

Nobody told me that running the rails was like being on a cruise ship.  I could barely stand up straight.  I was woozy the entire day.  I almost wanted to get back on, to hook up behind an engine, just to wallow and wail, shimmy and shake, the train calming me down like a mother rocking her baby.

Then again, the sleeping quarters were surreal.  I kept bumping my head, and have the scars to show for it.  Finally, we developed a system.  One at a time.  Otherwise, it’s just too crowded.

They’re seats during the day.  And at night, they’re bunk beds.  With no rubber buggy bumpers, since the car was commissioned in 1954, long before America became safety crazy.  But my bruises and bumps made me appreciate the regulations!

The tiny toilet flushed.  And the sink came down from the wall like a Murphy bed.  And to empty it, you pushed it vertical once again.  It was all ingeniously designed.  Albeit for munchkins.  And trying to insert my contacts and brush my teeth as the train rolled down the tracks was quite a challenge.

Anyway, after the sun set Sunday we went to Burt’s Tiki Lounge for a private concert, a triple header of the three acts involved.

And when we were done, we slept on the train, got up at the crack of dawn and boarded a bus for the Painted Desert


A vast wasteland.  That’s what city dwellers would say as you roll down I-40, endless scrub in front, a few mountains in the far distance.  But eventually you get to these two National Parks.  Makes you feel quite small to see these natural wonders. And the rust color of the petrified wood, it was staggering.  You almost wanted to break off a chunk and take it home.  But the visitors center was littered with letters of regret.  The most entertaining being the one that stated the sender was returning the rock because ever since he’d stolen it his life had turned to shit.  Divorce, car wreck, physical ailment…  It was almost funny.  Karma’s a bitch.


Check it out: La Posada Hotel

A Colter hotel that two yuppies rescued from ruin.

It served Route 66, then after the Interstate diverted traffic elsewhere, the Santa Fe railroad employed it and then this couple bought it and restored it.

Huge and hysterical.  Authentic, yet filled with the wife’s modern art.  Food is better than you’d imagine and you somehow feel rooted here in the middle of nowhere.


That’s where we went at the crack of dawn on Tuesday morning.  Well, we would have left at 7:15 if Larry from Facebook hadn’t gotten hung up in the shower.

Actually, we didn’t find out he was a programmer at Facebook until the next morning.  He didn’t want to wear the sobriquet of loser and he wasn’t.  Quite a nice guy, in fact.  Like Charlie said, you really get to know someone on a train.

And after visiting the big hole, we returned the two and a half hours back.  Through Flagstaff, past the giant crater into Winslow, Arizona.


Yes, that’s where La Posada is.  Winslow, Arizona.  Yes, like the Eagles song.

Well I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona
Such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl my lord in a flatbed Ford
Slowing down to take a look at me

We may lose or we may win, but we will never be here again.  So I wanted to see the famous corner!

Believe me, it’s famous, the whole city is trading on it!  You can chalk up Winslow’s revival to the ubiquity of "Take It Easy". There’s an R. Crumb-inspired postcard in every hotel room with the details.  You almost think it’s real.

But it turns out to be metaphorical.

Not that the city hasn’t created a tourist site.  A wall painted with, you guessed it, a girl in a flatbed Ford.  Even better, there’s a red flatbed Ford parked nearby, along with a statue of a musician with a tiny head who’s supposed to be Glenn Frey or Jackson Browne or..?  Hell, there’s even an historical marker.

And across the street there’s a gift shop, where they sell Eagles memorabilia and stream the Eagles’ reunion concert all day long on the big screen.

Utterly hysterical, and testimony to the power of music.


Do you know the song "Mexican Wrestler"?

I doubt it.

Then again, two of the thirtysomething musos on the trip not only didn’t know who Jason Mraz was, they’d never heard "I’m Yours", the biggest song of the year.

The riders on this excursion had no time for the mainstream.  They’re supporting the unique artists.  But can these unique artists survive?


Not that Jill was complaining.  But she did wonder what was going to happen in her old age.  Who’d pay the medical bills?

Jill is a bundle of energy.  But far from mindless.  She was telling me she had a daily quiz on Facebook.  You had to guess who the famous person was.  After 5,000 people signed up for her page, the Facebook limit, she had to create another.  She was not doing it with a goal in mind, but because it was fun.

Remember fun?  It used to be the key driver in the music business.

I told her she should have a weekend.  With games, a scavenger hunt.  Music can’t contain all of her personality.

But when her music is right…

There were three concerts on this trip, never mind the impromptu playing on the train.  You got to hear a cornucopia of favorites and covers.

Yes, Jill played "Stoned Soul Picnic" on the train ride home.  But she also played "Lucy At The Gym" in Albuquerque.

America is so sick.  Your life can’t start until you’re thin and beautiful.  So, you keep on getting ready for the game, not realizing you’re supposed to play all along.  Do you really want to be Madonna?  Working out for hours just to fit someone else’s perception?

But my favorite is "Mexican Wrestler".

Ever been in love with someone who doesn’t love you?

Oh, they almost never hate you, they actually like you, but they don’t know about your feelings, and if they do, they’re certainly not reciprocated.  You get butterflies when you see them, both go to places where you think they’re going to be and avoid places for fear of running into them.  You imagine a life of relationship perfection.  That’s unrequited.

You will never love me
And this I can’t forgive
That you will never love me
As long as I will live


I’d never heard of them.  But they were friends of Stan, and they lived in Albuquerque.  So we picked them up there.

And the last night at La Posada, waiting for the train to come pick us up, I had to ask Brett Sparks, the male half of this husband and wife team, "Why Albuquerque?"

Well, they could buy a house in the best creative neighborhood for a hundred grand, his mortgage payment is six hundred bucks.  But the music scene sucks.

Well, not exactly.  But it’s not like Chicago, where they’d been residing before.  And they’re on the road for eight months out of the year anyway.  They’re big in England, and in the States, Frank keeps them working.

That’s Frank Riley, of High Road Touring.  Brett couldn’t stop testifying.  How he couldn’t do it without Frank, how he wouldn’t know what to do without Frank.  A label is no longer important, it’s all about your agent.  He’s the one who gets you your paying gigs.


Well, I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand

Maybe this Stones record, a rearrangement of a blues classic, was in my brain because Brett sang it in the song circle not long before we left the hotel.

Well, actually, it was a couple of hours.  You see, the train was late.  But finally, after mustering all our gear by the rear door, the assembled multitude emerged outside, ready to hop onto the cars for the ride back to L.A.

There was no station, no platform, no siding.  We were just standing there in the dark, under a million stars.

There was a white line.  I implored Jill and Yves to get on the right side of it.  Obviously, they’d not spent much time on the New Haven railroad.

And a BNSF freight train started accelerating to our right, pulling goods back east.  And deep in the distance to the left, led by a bright headlight, was our train.  Which crept up on us slowly.  But when that much steel ultimately approaches, the speed no longer matters, you feel insignificant, like a bug, or dust.

And Charlie had told us the train was stopping solely for us.  That we had to get on fast.

So the conductor laid down some steps and we ran on, fearful of being left behind.


What’s your favorite train song?

The first one that comes to mind is Tom Rush’s "Panama Limited".

Then, of course, there’s Ozzy’s classic "Crazy Train".

What did Bob Dylan sing, "It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry?"  Stephen Stills and Al Kooper do a killer version on "Super Session".

How about the New Riders’ "Glendale Train"?  From the very first album, with "Portland Woman".

Then there’s the Doobie Brothers’ "Long Train Runnin’".  Even Laura Nyro’s "Poverty Train".

But my personal favorite is Wendy Waldman’s "Train Song", the opening cut on her very first album, "Love Has Got Me".

Well I said, ‘I’d like to catch one’
She said, ‘It can’t be done’
But can’t you see me ride the rails in the morning sun

I lifted the shade to reveal a bright landscape.  Of freeways and low slung business structures.  We were rolling back into Los Angeles.

After allowing Felice to use the bathroom first, I threw on my clothes, got my shit together and walked down to the parlor car.

Everybody was a bit subdued, almost worn out by four plus days of hijinks, of being in close quarters, running at a fevered pace, like a band on the run, on the road.

Fifteen minutes early, we pulled into Union Station.  We got off the train a few minutes after eight a.m.  And then it was time to say goodbye.

We were scattering in different directions.  Us only ten miles west, but two travelers back to London, two back to Canada, others to Houston to San Francisco to…

Needless to say, when I finally got home, I was knackered.

But I had an inner glow.  I’d lived through something.  It was good to be on solid ground, but I couldn’t wait to ride the rails once again.

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