If you are looking for an inspiring place to spend Earth Day, where better than the Grand Canyon where the reasons to protect the environment fill the eye in every direction? Four and a half million people from all over the world travel to see where history, geology, biology and botany come together in Nature’s most glorious classroom.
So I felt very good indeed when I visited the canyon earlier this week on the earth-friendly Grand Canyon Railway, because this April 22nd, its historic steam locomotive will be chugging from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon Railway Depot powered entirely by reused vegetable oil. It begins a season in which the daily train will be pulled by the 1923 locomotive on the first Saturday of each month. When it comes to the 3-legged stool of environmental stewardship; this new old-fashioned train hits all three.
First, the 400 to 600 tourists it can carry into the park each day are not driving cars, waiting in emissions-producing lines at the entrance or filling up parking lots at the national park.
Locomotive No. 4960 a big beautiful, iron horse had to be taken out of service for environmental reasons in 2008. Transitioning to earth-friendly fuel gives her another lease on life.
The used French fry oil powering the steam locomotive is being saved from the garbage. The water in her boilers comes from reclaimed rain and snowmelt.
When my husband, Jim, and I boarded we were already a bit buzzed with the high that comes from knowing we had made a choice that was both good for the environment and fun. We had not anticipated the thrill later described by Xanterra Parks & Resorts train operations general manager Bob Baker, a former Brit who says he gets jazzed that grandparents and parents can bring “children to see a piece of American history in action and to ride on a train pulled by a 1923 steam locomotive.” He knows he’s “introducing a part of U.S. history and heritage” to people too young to remember it and that means most of us.
“Some kid who grew up on Thomas the Tank Engine sees this and they go ‘Woo!’. It’s like they’ve seen Jurassic Park,” said the railway’s chief mechanical officer Sam Lanter, who was wearing the classic blue and white ticked railroad overalls.
This is no ordinary train ride, it’s not even a Thomas the Tank Engine ride, Sam said. “The steam experience, you see it, you hear it, you smell it.”
This we realized as soon as we boarded the train. Forget everything you know about crowded airplanes and commuter rail lines. The refurbished cars are truly a step back to a time when travel was as much about the journey as the destination.
We had tickets for the “luxury dome” Fred Harvey car, a 1955 double-decker originally named the Copper Canyon when it was on the Great Northern Railway’s Empire Builder train from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. The windows that wrap from side to ceiling offer expansive views of the route as well as the cars ahead when the track curves. We sat in comfy upholstered seats that evoked the past, but in fact were new because the 66 seat car was completely redone in 2012 at a cost of $1 million.
Singers performed for us on both legs of the trip and – spoiler alert – there was a little Western-themed action on the way home.
We didn’t spend the entire trip on our seats, though. On the way there, we stood “politician style” on the observation deck on the back end of the train chatting with other travelers and planning what we would do during our visit to the canyon.
Before noon each day, the train deposits its passengers on the south rim at the immense Grand Canyon Station, a two story structure that is one of only 3 log train depots remaining in the country. On arrival, – in my eagerness to get to the canyon – I rushed by it, a mistake I rectified later in the afternoon when we returned to catch the daily 3:30 back to Williams.
The train had a beautiful breakfast that we could eat at our seats or on polished wood tables positioned by banquettes. The car attendants, Bobby Patricca and Sherry Baker were enthusiastically mixing cocktails for passengers, but I wasn’t going to drink before hiking along the edge of a canyon with mile long drops! On my return, however, I was thirsty, so Bobby fixed me a martini and delivered it to me along with a recitation of the train’s sustainability statistics; fuel burned and passengers carried. His facts were confirmed by Bob and Sam when they took me on a tour of the rail yard in Williams that afternoon.
“In our research, we are the only ones using yellow grease,” Sam said, referring to the Frito-Lay and fried shrimp byproduct that will power Locomotive 4960 on April 22. “And it’s a closed loop,” Bob bragged, since the Grand Canyon Railway kitchen also contributes its waste cooking oil to run the train.
It is no wonder that the men behind turning a symbol of a fuel consumptive and smoky past into an environmentally responsible alternative to cars are bursting with enthusiasm about their accomplishment. Nor should it be surprising that this transformation should occur here in the middle of the wilderness, far removed from the nation’s technology centers, because to contemplate the canyon is to want to do more to protect it and the rest of the earth we all share.
“We had a buy in from the fishermen and the hunters and the hikers,” Sam told me about Xanterra’s plans. “To be environmentally aware here is not a hard sell.”