The History Of The Old West Comes Alive On A Moonlight TrainRide.
By Kevin Franklin
TRAINS KILLED THE wild west. From trains millions of buffalo that supported the Plains Indians were slaughtered. Trains carried in soldiers, heavy equipment and the laws of the East. They carried out tons of ore making thousands of mining operations profitable. Trains even carried away offending Indians like Geronimo, packing him off to die in Florida--contrary to the terms of his surrender.
Worst of all, trains brought in millions of settlers, forever sealing the west's fate with civilization.
Ironic, then, that I am riding a train into some of the last, best vestiges of the Old West. The story becomes even more ironic because the San Pedro & Southwestern Railroad is actually helping to preserve this part of the Old West.
Three days a week the theme train rolls down the tracks from Benson north of Charleston (eight miles southwest of Tombstone). In doing so it passes through history, both human and ecological.
Cochise County is the cradle of the Wild West. Everything from the OK Corral to the final Indian wars took place here. Even Coronado went through Cochise County on his epic odyssey. The San Pedro River cuts right through the middle of it and the railroad right through the middle of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.
Ecologically, the conservation area shows modern-day Arizonans what much of the West looked like before the advent of groundwater mining and general overpopulation. One of the largest stands of cottonwoods in the Southwest grows here, and the accompanying wildlife of a large riparian area flourishes.
The San Pedro & Southwestern Railroad runs daytime, moonlight and theme trips out of Benson. The train runs Thursday through Sunday and has both closed and open cars. The next moonlight trip is Saturday, June 29.
The climate south of Benson is a good five degrees cooler than Tucson, but in summer that's still a little toasty. We opt for a moonlight run.
Departing at 6:30 p.m., the moonlight runs provide passengers with both the sunset, moonrise and cooler temperatures all around.
The light disappears after 7:30 p.m. so we see about half the scenery in daylight and the rest under the stars. The moon climbing over the Dragoon Mountains in the distance looks more like a monstrous red eye than a distant satellite. The light from the train is eerie in its own right. It illuminates just enough of the 60-foot high cottonwoods to suggest their dark overhanging branches and the silent thickets below them, but not enough to reveal any of their mysteries. Punctuating the darkness are occasional wisps of light--fireflies drifting through the shadows.
We even see goatsuckers, a.k.a. chupacabras.
Of course, these are actual birds and not fancies of superstition. For some strange reason, the common name for the bug-eating nighthawk family is "Goatsucker." The nighthawks dart through the headlight of the slow-moving train, devouring the bugs attracted to the light.
The culmination of all these effects creates a sort of real-life version of a theme-park train ride. Except here the abandoned homestead was not union-built and the dead cows are all flesh and bone.
The train stops at the ghost town of Fairbank for a mediocre steak dinner. At $12, the cafeteria-quality food fails to live up to its billing. The $7 barbecue on other nights is probably a better deal. You can also bring your own grub. The "western" entertainment also flounders along. Basically it amounts to some campy folk-singing and a trio of Old West actors performing a paired-down version of the Tombstone street-scene.
Many of the passengers doing their best to reach inebriation probably tuned it out, but I considered marketing manager Rob Bohannan's historical narrative on the train first-rate. Bohannan recounted everything from the making of John Wayne's movie McLintock!, the rise and fall of Contention City to the desperate fight for survival of some Spaniards manning a ruined presidio. Amazingly, all these events took place adjacent to the course of the railroad. Nice of those conquisatadores to have such foresight!
Combined with the sheer joy in riding a train amid lush scenery, the history made the experience a worthwhile adventure.
The deal is pretty good for the region, too. With everyone on a train instead of milling every which way in cars, the impact to the conservation area is minimized while the economic influx is maximized. The narrative helps sustain the stories and culture of the Old West.
All in all, it is a far cry from those destructive trains of yesteryear.
Take Interstate 10 east to Benson and follow Highway 80 south toward Tombstone. About a mile south of Benson start looking for Country Club Drive (the sign is on your right, the road to your left). Take that road east over the tracks and park at the depot. Tickets cost $24, with discounts for kids, seniors and families. Get them in advance from Dillard's box office (subject to their $1.50 surcharge), or phone in reservations to the depot. Call (520) 585-266 for information, or (800) 638-4253 for tickets.
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