We left the Valley of Fire, outside of Las Vegas and started East again toward the Petrified Forest – which was our next stop. After several hours of driving, Sandy decided she had had enough, so we started looking for a place to stop. She found what looked like a State Park, so we pulled off the road, only to NOT find it. All we could find was a golf course. The road was narrow, and before we knew it, we had doubled back under the highway again and ended up in Williams, AZ – a town we knew nothing about.
Williams isn’t a large town, but it is one of the towns along Route 66 not mentioned by the Eagles in “Take It Easy”, and it is also a gateway to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We didn’t know this. We just knew we were tired and needed to find an RV Park. Luckily, we happened across one as we came into town. This is where it gets a little weird and pretty cool as well.
We asked the lady at the desk if she had a spot for us, and luckily for us, she did. And then she asked us if we were there to ride the Polar Express? Now, if you aren’t aware of it, there is a really nice Christmas book by the name of “The Polar Express” which is written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsberg. (There is also a movie, which we aren’t so high on). The book has been around for about thirty years, and Sandy fell in love with it many years ago. It is a book she has purchased again and again to give to friend’s kids and nieces and whoever else she wants to give it to.
Well, when the lady asked us that question, Sandy’s eyes got big. “What is that?” she asked. So, it turns out that there is a train station in Williams, and one of the trains that departs on most days is a round trip train up to the grand canyon. The park we were staying in was actually called The Grand Canyon Railroad RV Park, and they had a hotel, the RV Park, assorted restaurants, gift shops and bars. It turns out that about fifteen years ago, someone had the idea of turning one of the trains into The Polar Express from the book. The woman told us that the train would be leaving for the North Pole at 5:30 and 7:30 that night. Sandy’s eyes got bigger, and if she had been a dog, she would have been wagging her tail. Before I knew it, I was hightailing across parking lots, and through buildings toward the ticket office to see if there were any left.
We lucked out. I went into the Williams train station, which not only looks like an old fashioned train station (lots of ticket seller windows with people in traditional railroad costume) but also features a gift store chock full of Christmas and railroad stuff. I went to the window and asked if there was any chance they had two tickets left for the late train. The girl helping me yelled over to a woman at a computer terminal, who looked down at her computer for a moment. “Yup, I’ve got a couple left!” she said. Soon I was running back across the parking lot with a big smile on my face. (We found out later, that getting tickets on the “day of” can be very difficult sometimes – especially on a weekend. People from all over Arizona come up to Williams each year to take this train).
So, we parked the ‘Stream, ate some dinner, walked the dog, and then went over to the station about 6:45. By now, it was dark, and the whole area – trees, buildings, fences – are lit up with Christmas lights. And all around us are tons of people wearing pajamas. That’s right, pajamas. In the book, the train to the North Pole is inhabited by lots of kids who have all jumped onto the train in their pajamas. So, the Williams version is the same. Couples in pajamas. whole families in pajamas. Some of them all decked out in matching pajamas. (We didn’t know, so we ended up traveling in our street clothes, which felt a little like going to a black tie affair in blue jeans)
We decided to stop into the Pub for a hot toddy. It had snowed in Williams a couple of days before, and although there was very little left on the ground. It was pretty chilly, so a drink was in order, so we had a quick one and ventured out to the train. Each car was painted dark forest green and they had produced magnetic signs for each letter of the name “The Polar Express”, so each car had the name on the side. Because it was a cold night, many of the windows were frosted and the entire platform was now filled with families and kids and Sandy – all scrambling around with bright eyes. At each car door, were servers just like in the book, wearing chef’s white uniforms and hats.
Soon, we were boarding. Each car was old fashioned with fabric seats and wood sash windows. The luggage racks were decorated with garlands and wrapped packages. Soon we were headed north, and about ten minutes into the trip we all had been served hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies and a christmas song book. Each car had two servers, who spent most of the trip riling the kids up and getting them excited for our trip.
After refreshments, the servers brought out gigantic copies of The Polar Express and walked up and down the cars showing everyone the illustrations as Chris Van Allsberg’s voice was piped through the whole train as he narrated the story of the Polar Express. Meanwhile, outside, we had passed into high desert, through some kind of brightly lit, time-warp tunnel, and moved ever closer to the North Pole. Before we knew it, we had arrived there and were very surprise to see Santa next to his sleigh. We stopped and everyone went to the windows to look out upon Santa’s Village stretching out beyond the train. It would have been nice to get out, but we were told that Santa and his elves were hard at work getting ready for Christmas, so we couldn’t disturb them.
After about five minutes, the train started moving back toward Williams. It was then we heard a commotion near the front of our train car (we were in the second car behind the engine). Kids started screaming, “It’s Santa!” Sure enough, Santa had jumped on the train and was walking down the center of the car handing out silver sleigh bells – the same gift that the little boy in The Polar Express had received from Santa at the North Pole. Everyone on the train had received “The First Gift of Christmas”. The entire car was soon ringing to the sound of sleigh bells.
Santa slowly made his way up our train car, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, taking time to talk with happy kids and Sandy, and posing for selfies with everyone. It amazed me to think that he was going to make his way up fifteen train cars, (there were about a hundred people per car) but I guess that is why this is his busiest time of the year. We all watched as he made his way to the back and then disappeared into the next car.
Santa is a pretty hard act to follow, but our servers had a plan for that as well. We were all now instructed to get out our song books and we proceeded to sing Christmas Carols all the way back to Williams – accompanied by much shaking of sleigh bells. It is a little surreal to be traveling in a train with hundreds of pajama-clad people singing Christmas carols, passing through the time-warp tunnel and back into Arizona. But everyone had smiles on their faces, and the kids started to slowly come off their sugar high’s as we pulled into the the station.
Soon we were back out into the cold, and the train platform was filled with happy, but exhausted, people. We made our way through the crowd and went back to our favorite pub for another cocktail and some smokin’ hot french onion soup. It was the perfect thing to warm us up after our chilly trip to the North Pole.