Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A little about The Last Train to Clarkdale

I've been a railroad buff for most of my life. When I was growing up I seldom saw trains except for the small mixed freight "local" that came into the Verde Valley from the Santa Fe main line across northern Arizona. Then on occasion when my grandparents came out west, we went to Flagstaff and met them there when their train arrived from Kentucky. That was always very exciting.

Just for fun here is a very old snapshot of the original depot and a more recent view of the current one. They give you an idea of how Clay recalls it and how he sees it in the story. They are both my photos. The one was taken with a Kodak box camera and shows the building just left of the tall smoke stack, long gone. The color one on my recent trip back for my high school reunion.. Now the former freight line into Clarkdale mainly serves as a scenic tourist excursion line. I took this trip a few years ago myself and found it to be wonderful, a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. The idea of a story featuring this trip began to take shape in my mind but other things came first. Finally I had a chance to tell that tale! This one will be coming out in the fall, perhaps around October, as part of another Amber PAX titled All Aboard. We've done trains before but its a great theme to revisit--at least for me!

The first hero came to me first and began to talk to me. Then a bit later, I meet the other man. It's very rough yet but here is the first part of the story....

Gliding down the gentle curves of I-17 from Flagstaff, Clay almost drove on autopilot, watching the familiar yet strange landscape unfold before him. They said you can’t go home again. He wasn't sure he even wanted to, yet something seemed to be drawing him back. The drag of it felt as relentless as one of those tractor beams they spoke of in old science fiction tales.  How many years had it been?
More than ten, nearer twenty…  He had to be bloody fucking insane to go back and relive a minute of it. The memories that filled the oldest suitcase in his mental baggage were all ugly, weren't they? And yet what he felt now seemed vague, gentle nostalgia instead of the bitterness he thought would be there.
As he turned north toward the Verde Valley towns, he decided maybe that was partly because nothing was the same. Oh, the same ragged old hills, the unbelievably blue sky, some of the old run-down buildings still mixed with the new ones. Would he run into any of the guys he’d known in school, the ones who’d taunted him as “Gay-Clay” and made his life miserable? Or any of the older folks who’d known his parents and been as appalled as they’d been when he was came out at sixteen? Still, he had to take that risk. He just knew he had to go back and come to terms with it all. 
The old grade school looked derelict and decaying. They had new schools now, consolidated to serve the several small communities instead of the low-budget old ones for each area. The middle school was gone—only a concrete foundation left. The old high school held some offices and a small shop or two.
He made a U-turn and headed down another road, the one that led to a favorite old hang-out. The railroad station had never been much, a small frame building painted a dull mustardy yellow, but for him it was paradise. He loved trains, always had. For several years the high points of his week were the days when “the local” arrived, a Santa Fe manifest freight bringing in a variety of commodities to serve the somewhat isolated area, a few villages in a river valley edged by rugged mountains.
Smelling the diesel fumes, hearing the powerful rumble of those GP-9 locomotives and sometimes daring to talk to some of the train crew took him out of his misfit status. When a work train came in with crews to maintain the tracks or repair the bridges over the many arroyos that tended to wash out during the summer monsoon rains, he would hang out and watch, listen and learn. Those experiences had turned him to the career he followed to this day, a life inexplicably bound to the railroad industry.
He pulled in to the parking lot, a much larger and well-maintained one than he recalled and looked around in amazement. The new depot, built in Spanish Colonial style, had class and quality. Behind the building, two older but clean and brightly painted diesel engines idled, hooked to a string of matching coaches and some open observation cars.
Of course, he recalled, they ran a tourist expedition here now. He’d read about it a few years back and then promptly forgot. On an impulse he got out of his crossover and walked in. Maybe he could still get a ticket for today’s trip, or at least soon, before he headed back to Topeka. It was midweek, just short of summer, and the crowds were not too heavy yet. As luck would have it, he got a seat on today’s trip. Maybe it was meant to be.
With a couple of hours to kill before the post-noon departure, he wandered through the gift shop and then out to an open courtyard that featured several bronze sculptures of wildlife. They were exquisite and beautiful.
A slight sound close behind him had him spinning around. Clay was always sensitive about his space, alert. Maybe that went back to the mean tricks and bullying he’d known in school. Unseen people behind him were not safe. Was this different? As he took in the man who had paused, a step or two away, he felt the same shocking jolt one got from a close lightning strike, the sizzle of energy and the keen ozone scent that stirred an adrenaline rush. Could a heart really skip a beat and then leap forward in double time? It felt that way. He sucked in a fast breath. Who was this guy?


Jon Reid took fame and notoriety in stride. As a world renowned wildlife and scenic photographer, his face might not be known but his name was. He kept clear of the danger zone in front of a camera but behind one, he was an acknowledged genius. Why then had life begun to feel dull, colors muted and flat as if viewed in poor light? Could it be because there seemed to be no new venues to portray, no new adventures to dare?
Or maybe because the solitude and independence he’d once valued so highly now seemed empty. Lonely... He’d never expected to apply that word to himself. He didn’t like it.
“Nice work,” he remarked casually when the man he’d approached whirled around like a startled deer and then stared, something akin to shock or amazement on his face.
The stranger nodded. “Yes, it is. They are, all of them. I’m guessing the same artist produced them. He didn’t do bronze, but I’m reminded of the Larry Toschik’s work.”
So, the man knows something about wildlife art. That wasn’t typical of the kind of tourists Jon expected to encounter on a much touted scenic rail excursion like this one. Still, some did come to see the eagles and other species that called the rugged and remote canyon home, the route the track traversed.
“I’m a fan of his work myself. I believe these are by another artist, though clearly one with a similar level of skill and attention to detail.”
The stranger nodded again. He edged back a step or two, while the initial expression of wariness if not actual fear left his face.
“Are you taking the train today?”
The other man shrugged. “Yeah. I hadn't really planned on it but when I found they still had seats available, I decided I might as well, almost as if it was an omen. I’m a train fan, always have been. Maybe it’s in the genes. Both my grandfathers were railroad men.” He stopped then as he feared he was babbling or talking too much to a stranger.
“I enjoy them myself,” Jon said, seeking to put the other man at ease. “A trip like this is fun for that as well as the sights to be seen. I’m hoping to get lucky and find a few photo ops today. I prefer to miss the summer weekend crowds. It’s easier to get some good shots if the observation cars aren't jam packed.”
They ended up eating lunch together, sitting out in the shady courtyard with food bought from the casual little cafe in the station. The weather was mild, warm but not yet the stifling heat that would come later in the summer. A light breeze carried the subtle sweet scent of mesquite blooms and tamer flowers making up the landscaping around the depot. Above through the slatted roof, glimpses of the incredible blue of the desert sky tempted the artist in Jon’s mind. He glimpsed a large bird, high in that sky, a hawk or perhaps even an eagle. With luck he’d see more where he could photograph them from the train.
While they waited for the train to load and depart, Jon enjoyed the company, despite his normal habit of staying aloof, He found the somewhat diffident younger man a pleasant companion. No harm in some conversation, was there? He doubted he’d ever see the other man, who’d introduced himself as Clay Carter, after this one day. Still, they talked easily and it seemed no time at all before the growing crowd of passengers gathered to answer the call to board.
Jon glanced at Clay as they tossed the trash from their lunch into a convenient can and started toward the platform. “What car are you in?”
Clay glanced at his ticket. “Flagstaff, it says here. It looks like they all have the names of Arizona towns. How about you?”

“I’m in Flagstaff as well. What a coincidence. Well, let’s obey that all aboard and begin this adventure.”

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