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Copper Canyon 5 Sober South of the Border

by Chris Guenzler

I had tickets to see Jethro Tull and Emerson Lake and Palmer together in San Diego then arranged the next morning to ride the 24 inch gauge Descanso, Alpine & Pacific Railway in Alpine, Ca. Jeff and I had decided since we were so close let's go on out to Campo and ride the steam train there. I met Bill Wallace, owner of Bananafish Tours again at the Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum. We socialized and he learned that I was now living a sober lifestyle. He gave me a 1996/1997 brochure and told me to call him in a couple of weeks. I tried to arrange a trip in October but with the finish all state trip ticketed that was impossible. I suggested a New Year trip with us going back and forth on the telephone and finally ten days before the trip I was all set. The very next morning before school started, Anna asked me what I was doing for Christmas. I told her of the Bananafish Copper Canyon Trip and she asked if I could bring her the brochure so the next day I did. Anna called and I now had someone to take with me on this wonderful trip.

12/26/1996 I drove down that morning to Mexicali with Anna riding in the passenger seat of my Geo Metro with a cold. We parked at AA Parking, walked across the border and taxied to the Hotel Lucerna. Anna got her room but since I was not on the list this time I paid the Bananafish rate. We settled into our rooms before taking a walk up the street to the Constitutional Monument and later we went to get some dinner. I choose Burger King and tried to explain what a plain hamburger was seemed impossible until a very cute Mexican girl with a nice smile told me the secret word to say which was "Solo". Anna went to El Polo Loco and ordered a three piece dinner but the guy thought that she wanted three dinners and charged her that until she caught the mistake. I guess we both need to learn a little Spanish. We watched a period of the Lightning/Panthers hockey game before we called it a night.

12/27/1996 The next morning we met out by the pool and Anna's cold was much worst as she could barely speak. We loaded our bags in a pickup truck and Bill drove us in his van down to the train station. We put our luggage in a pile and the other six passengers besides Anna watched them as Bill and I drove over to his railroad cars in the yard. He wanted me to see his ex SP home built three quarter Dome car which he had just bought. The security guard let me in and I toured it before I took a few pictures of the car. Bill has bought himself a real nice car as I was impressed. I always wanted to see the inside of one of these cars and this is the only active one left. Walking back to the depot, I shot pictures of the steam locomotive and was sad to see it had been graphitized before I joined the group. After all of the locals had passed through Customs it was now our turn but with something new. You now pressed a button, green light you get to go through and red light you get searched. I pressed green, no problem. Anna pressed red and was detained briefly. The only thing I can think of is if you press the button lightly it turns red and press it hard it turns green. It made no sense to me but it must work for the Mexican Custom Officials.

Outside the building Anna and I just had a good laugh about it as our cars were not even on the station platform yet. There are only seventeen people in our group on this trip so we took only one car, a 10/6 ex Southern Railway sleeper, the Rapidan River with a roomette removed creating a lounge area but it was still over in the yard. The train loaded its two cars of passengers then went off to get our car as the passengers in our group got better acquainted. At departure time our train was backed into the station so we could all load. We departed fifteen minutes late as most of us were on the back platform waving goodbye to those in the station who were waving at us on our way. I enjoyed the rear view as we passed through the ex SBC Yard before returning to my room for a couple of cups of 7-UP's to celebrate the start of my first sober Copper Canyon train trip with Bananafish Tours in Mexico. I sat back and thought of my previous trips with Bananafish thinking briefly of Sandy, Michael, Sands and Issac the dog and laughed at some of the most funny Bananafish moments. By the Geothermal fields I was back on the rear watching Baja California fade fast. We crossed the Colorado River and I entered Sonora, the first of the three Mexican states that I was reclaiming for my sobriety, the purpose of this whole trip. I returned to the lounge section to get to know Bill's new wife Laura and her daughter Missy. Missy is thirteen and is a beautiful young lady. She was making her eleventh Copper Canyon trip and she passes out the meals as one of her chores. She really has a nice smile and gets along with all really well. I wanted another picture of The Crosses and remembered just how dusty the Altar Desert was. Upon the completion of that goal and now covered with dust, I returned to my room to find it in the same condition proving that sand can find its way into anything. I was having a peanut butter sandwich when Missy stopped by my room to ask me if I wanted lunch. I returned to the lounge, first stopping by Anna's room to point out the Gulf of California also known as the Sea of Cortez to her. At Puerto Penasco I stepped off with Anna joining me to enjoy the warm Sonoran Sun.

Leaving Puerto Penasco, I sat in the lounge noticing how far east I have gone and could still see the Sea of Cortez until I thought how close we were to the Golden Spike Completion Monument. Well I blew that one by one tenth of a kilometer but now I know its exact location so I will attempt the shot on the return trip.

I took a folding chair to the rear vestibule watching the kilometers fade. I basically sat there all the way to Benjamin Hill except to stretch my legs at Caborca while we met our westbound counterpart. Funny thing by sitting here on the rear is that I got to notice how straight the SBC was and how few curves there are on this railroad. I counted the kilometers to Benjamin Hill where we arrived ten minutes early. With the train from Nogales not due for thirty minutes I got off, photographed some locomotives before walking Anna over to the liquor store so she could get some coffee liquor for her sore throat. We returned to the train straight to my room and drank a toast to our trip together, Anna with her drink and me with my 7-UP. The train from Nogales arrived and joined our two cars off of the Mexicali section and off down the ex FCP tracks we went.

I passed on dinner having peanut butter instead and sat in my room with the lights out watching the countryside pass with the stars shining brightly overhead listening to Elton John. Later returning to the lounge section I heard Bill telling Bananafish stories some I had never heard before. Some were very funny but two dealt with death. I guess when you have taken 1,100 people on tours that death would happen at least once but if I had to leave the Earth, leaving on a Bananafish Tour in Mexico would not be too bad. We made great time down to Hermosillo and I detrained for some fresh air before I put my head down on my pillow and fell asleep.

12/28/1996 Sober in Sinaloa

I awoke sober in Sinaloa for the first time with just one more Mexican state to reclaim for my sobriety still to go through. I went off to photograph engines in the yard while Anna went off on a morning run. The first class train passed us while we sat in the interchange track between the ex FCP and the CHP. The yard was full of Mexican hobos waiting for a chance to leave on the next northbound freight train. Our second class train pulled into the yard a few minutes later with our open car, the gondola which they now kept in Los Mochis so just our car was attached to the rear portion of the train ahead of the open car and the caboose.

Upon leaving Sufragio I gave the rear brakeman in the caboose a UP timetable and a pair of railroad post cards who then invited me back into the caboose after we left San Blas and said goodbye to the ex FCP tracks which had bought us down here. The caboose was full of drums, amps and instruments which were being carried to San Rafael. I climbed up into the cupola and for the next hour and a half I was in heaven. I truly love riding in the top of a caboose. Passing through the countryside I noticed burros everywhere this morning and I had never seen this many before. Since this second class train made all of the stops it gave me a chance to get reacquainted with all of these places. Passing the cement plant at Loreto, I noticed that they even had a small switch engine. There are trees called Amapas with lavender flowers which were absolutely beautiful making the landscape the most impressive ever. We pulled to a stop at Loreto with Anna joining us in the open car. Laura gave us all candy to pass out to the children there. I choose four, a boy and girl around eight and two little ones. When the older two got there, they made sure I gave some to the little ones. To me, that is how it is supposed to be, the older ones watching out for the little ones. Upon leaving Loreto, Laura started talking of a trip when they had to back track to Los Mochis and then the next day made a straight shot for Creel because of a rock slide. I got asked when it was that we got stuck in the canyon. I ran inside and got my mileage book. It was on this date exactly six years ago. We crossed the El Fuerte River with everyone asking me what it had been like six years ago and they were all amazed just like I was when I had lived through it all.

Continuing our upward climb we were twisting and a turning through the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains and I mentioned that these trains had been hit by bandits over the last few years. At Los Pozos we stopped to unload a few passengers and we all noticed a man boarding the front steps of the caboose. Out of the train came a gentleman wearing a sidearm and a badge who reached into the boarding man's jacket and pulled out a pistol which he then unloaded. He escorted the man {bandit?} back inside the train. You talk about De Ja Vu, talking about armed robbery and minutes later that happened. Maybe I better watch which stories I tell.

We plunged into the El Descanso Tunnel the first of the eighty six tunnels on the line and enjoyed the 1,637 feet of darkness in the longest tunnel on the railroad. Upon exiting I noticed a lake down in the canyon and I learned that three years ago they had built a dam on the Chinipas River and when we reached the bridge across it which is not as impressive as it was before but the view up the canyon is still awe inspiring as ever. We passed the abandoned station at Jesus Cruz and we entered Chihuahua and my Mexican reclaiming of states is completed. I returned to my room for a quick congratulatory cup of 7-UP. I went back to the open car for more of my favorite train trip in all of North America. It was now the beginning of the tunnel, view, tunnel territory and after a brief stop at Santa Nino, the furthest we ever got six years ago, we continued northeastward into the mountains. Lunch was served as I again opted for peanut butter. After lunch I took Anna back to the caboose and let her enjoy a few minutes of cupola riding experience. I asked her, "Is this what you expected?" and I loved her answer. "I did not know what to expect!" Now that is a train rider for you living out my motto of every trip is an adventure.

Now as we approached my favorite part of the railroad, Temoris, I was excited just as I was back the first time I was here on that trip on January 1st, 1987.

We curved and crossed the Santa Barbara Bridge, crossed another smaller bridge with the waterfall flowing nicely, under the two monuments and then pulled to a stop at Estacion Temoris. With everyone in the open car for their first time on the trip, Bill gave the history of the railroad and the area. He also pointed out the children here are the rudest of any along the railroad and he was absolutely right. Of course there is a man on a burro for pictures if anyone would have cared which they did not. We left climbing the middle level with where we had come from far below before we entered the La Pera Tunnel where we reversed directions inside and we came out on the upper level gaining an even higher view of the canyon below. We plunged into Tunnel 48, passed between the two monuments and entered the succession of tunnels. Oh how I love this railroad!

Bill led a group of us through the train to the engine with Anna and Missy not enjoying the smells from the sealed second class coach. To me it was just the normal second class Mexican train so it was nothing out of the ordinary to me. We walked out onto the second engine and into the cab where we found a second engineer and armed guard with a rifle. We enjoyed about fifteen minutes of riding there before we walked back through the train at a very fast pace returning to the open car for some well deserved fresh air where I told Missy the story of the walk on my first train trip in Mexico on that very first Puerto Penasco trip. We had a very good laugh together about the whole smelly experience.

We stopped at Irigoyen, another now closed station then made a horseshoe curve to gain elevation. The countryside now turned drier as we entered ranching country before we reached timber country at Bahuichivo. Further up the line we stopped at Cuiteco then crossed the La Mora Bridge. I talked with Stu about railroading over the smaller bridges, through the tunnels and across the La Laja Bridge before we reached San Rafael. Here we cut off our musical caboose and picked up two other cabooses as we waited for our westbound counterpart to show up. We made a quick trip to Posada Barrancas where we detrained but my luggage will continue to ride to Divisidero where I will spend the night in the Rapidan River.

We bussed over to the Mansion Tarahumara while Laura and Missy showered Bill and I got caught up on things. He told me of a comet trip he was planning and asked if I knew anyone who would like to go. We talked about personal matters and it was just like the old days with one major exception, I am stone cold sober this time. We went and took our showers. I had to wash my hair three times to get out all of the Altar Desert dust out of it. I visited with Anna in her room for thirty minutes before we headed to a group dinner with me only eating the soup and a baked potato. I listened to a singer/guitar player while my ride back to Divisidero was eating. We took a quick drive back to the train cars at Divisidero where Ismael let me onto the Rapidan River where I started to write about this trip. Before I went to bed, I walked out into the open car and enjoyed the stars in all of their glory. I grabbed an extra blanket before I fell fast asleep in the peace and quiet of the Rapidan River.

12/29/1996 I woke up at eight thirty, had a cup of tea before walking down to the hotel to have a breakfast of breads after a thirty minute wait. Returning to the Rapidan River, I completed the story of this trip so far with the view of the canyon just beyond the hotel. Divisidero was deserted so I walked the rim of the canyon trail to enjoy the view of Urique Canyon. I followed the trail around for several different perspectives. Back at the platform area I bought my Mom a small hand weaved basket before I returned to the Rapidan River to read yesterday's newspaper and listened to John Cougar. I later joined Ismael outside and we waited for the group to return on the bus. I really had enjoyed my first stay in Divisidero having all of this peace and quiet.

The group returned with Anna heading straight for the canyon while Bill and I went to look at the Mexican Railroad's Business Cars. I then caught up with Anna and took her on the same walk I had taken this morning. We saw some Tarahumara dwellings and took a trail out to the point of the canyon. We passed a cave hearing an infant Tarahumara crying and walked all the way out to the point receiving a great view of Divisidero. I was so glad to have Anna with me experiencing all of this together. She is really quite a woman. We continued on a trail and found goats and sheep in a pen. We took an unmarked trail back with me leading Anna back to the platform where she bought some baskets and I bought a rock for Maureen Angle, the best science teacher I know who is a collector of rocks. The westbound first class train arrived and picked up the business cars carrying a Mexican Senator which allowed me ample opportunity to take pictures of their train. Their switching move delayed our train's arrival.

We left our open car at Divisidero and were coupled up right behind the engine. There was interest of seeing the Rock of Fertility and after viewing it, a comment was made about it being anticlimax. I joked and said, "At least ours have not been graffitied like that one had!" I wished the railroad would sand blast it back to normal. Everyone left the vestibule so I enjoyed the view from it all to myself. We passed through Pitorrel, circled El Lazo, passed through Sanchez and at the second to the last horseshoe curve into Creel, Bill joined me for the ride into Creel where the Rapidan River was set out.


The group checked into the Hotel Neuvo and Anna let me take a shower first before I returned to my hotel, the Rapidan River to write. I started reading "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown before I walked up to the Neuvo to get Anna so we could go to the group dinner via a bus at the Parador. The service was as slow as crossing the United States by mule and my T-bone steak was a challenge to eat but at least it came with French Fries. The payment process would have made a good Monty Python skit. John Cleese please contact me. Anna and I walked back to the hotel with the arch of my foot killing me and I said my goodnight to Anna there. She thanked me for such a special trip and I left truly touched. I returned to the Rapidan River, listened to Queen's "Night at the Opera", read a little more and then fell into a good night slumber in my portable hotel.

12/30/1996 Waking up early, I went to the Hotel Neuvo for breakfast of Hot Cakes, Bacon and Juice. The waitress spilled the juice all over the table and I assisted in the cleanup. The Creel stopover was the usual Tarahumara cave tour, the lake and the Mission Cuscari. The only difference from the other trips besides having Anna with me was the bus broke down, got fixed before the fan belt flew off and was replaced. I shopped in Creel looking for white bread which was impossible and bought some post cards which I mailed to some people back home. We got our cars put on the early train so our visit in Creel was ended early with me glad to be back on the move.

The Return

I started the trip in my room reading Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee but after fifty minutes of reading, Felipe from Chile came to my room. He had been out on the engine but could not get inside the cab so he came back to get my help. I went to give it a try and of course it opened right up for me. I gave Felipe the engineer seat and I explained how the control stand operated. I took the fireman's seat and we had a nice conversation about life and trains before we reached Divisidero.

We returned to our car and then out where I did some shopping. I bought Maureen some more assorted Chihuahua rocks which I knew would make her happy while Anna bought more baskets. While we were there we picked up the open car which was only going as far as San Rafael but I was glad to have it back if only for that short of a trip. Our train since we had left Creel was eight cars, ours on the front end, the Mexican coaches and the Roaring Forks Ash, a sleeping car on the rear. At Divisidero they added the open car in front of ours and the cars of the Sierra Madre Express on the rear end thus making us a long fourteen car train.

We made a quick trip to San Rafael getting a great view of the Maison Tarahumara as we passed by. Anna bought more baskets from the Indians at San Rafael and I nicknamed her the "Basket Lady". Then came the news that the open car would be going with us the entire trip. So as we headed west it seemed like an entirely different trip because of the light of this time of day so I was totally into it. After Chihuahuicame we came out of a tunnel and crossed a bridge with a brush fire burning along the tracks with us never even slowing. Words can not explain how this ride was going for me but the word "Heaven" came to my mind when thinking about it. This is a ride that anyone who likes trains must take at least once but take it with Bananafish Tours for the open car experience. At Bahuichivo we dropped off the Sierra Madre Cars thus making our engines work a little easier. We were running early enough that we would make Temoris with plenty of daylight. As we descended through the tunnels people were fleeing inside to avoid the diesel exhaust but I loved it. We popped out above Temoris and the entire group was out in the open car enjoying the descent of the grade to the station and those rude children again.

Crossing over the Santa Barbara Bridge, Anna was taking pictures as I enjoyed Temoris, my favorite place on any railroad that I had ridden. The group had their dinner as I enjoyed my peanut butter along with a few private moments in the open car. The sun rays were on the upper canyon walls so I knew we should get past the Descanso Tunnel in twilight. We descended through the upper reaches of the Amapas trees and crossed the Chinipas Bridge. A remark was made that I should run my own tours since I know where everything is. I thought that might be a good idea but then could I still enjoy a trip like this? The faint of exhaust headed inside while four of us rode in the open car through the Descanso Tunnel. We passed Los Pozos and then the train hit a cow which went under the train and broke an air hose on the Rapidan River, which Bill retrieved to fix the problem. Darkness took hold and I started the Spot the First Star Game which I win as usual. We passed a freight train at Aquacalienta before we crossed the El Fuerte River with the stars taking full force of the sky. When I say full force I mean more stars than I had ever seen before in my life with them almost giving me a 3D effect. Felipe and I saw a satellite and then a curious area of the western sky where we could not see any stars. There is not a cloud in the sky so we both think it was a ray of the sun was blocking the view. After Loreto that feature faded and you could not spot any constellations because of all of the stars. I walked inside and told the group of the incredible sky who followed me out. Bill and Missy were playing Kung Fu fighting and she was ballet dancing when he was not paying attention to her. One by one they all returned inside leaving Felipe and myself. The lights and exhaust from the Cement plant at Hornillos blocked out the stars until we escaped their effects. Felipe headed inside, leaving me the open car to me and the stars. It became the most intense feeling I had ever had being so close to the universe right at my fingertips. The train was moving fast so I burst out a few songs for my audience of the Stars and God with me doing some of my best singing of my life. At El Fuerte, the Roaring Fork Ash was cut off and Felipe rejoined me for the rest of the trip to Sufragio. As we pulled in I was thinking what a night and what a ride. I was as high as the sky and completely sober. We got cut off by an old friend FCP 553 and Felipe took a picture of me in front of the engine's number board. I said my good night to Anna before I put my ear plugs in so the railroad yard noises wouldn't bother me and I fell right asleep.

12/31/1996 I awoke on the rough tracks of the former Pacifico about forty minutes from Empalme and I joined Ismael for a cup of tea on my thirty-ninth birthday. To get Ismael to know it was my birthday, I showed him my driver's license and like most people who had seen the picture had a good laugh at it. I think there is a law in California requiring a bad license picture. Anna joined me for the last twenty minutes into Empalme. At Empalme I photographed some engines then enjoyed the morning air until our new engineer finally showed up. It seems like every delay in Mexico is for a good reason. Leaving Empalme we passed the shops with its lines of locomotives waiting their turns inside. Turning north, the Gulf of California came into view as did the steam locomotive on display near the wye. I returned to my room, listening to some music, did some word fill in puzzles and just watch the Sonora countryside pass. It's the final day of the trip which I always rest on and before I knew it, we were at Hermosillo so I rode in the vestibule into town. The SBC Superintendent saw my FCP T-shirt and wanted to know where he could get one. His caboose {Office car} had been riding on the back of the train since Empalme. After about fifteen minutes we continued north and the rear brakeman had a FNM timetable which I wanted but could not communicate that to him. I tried money but had no luck with that. At Selva we met southbound number four pulling into the siding and we proceeded north with only a minute delay thanks to our delay at Empalme. Felipe came out and being that he was from Chile and spoke Spanish, I told him what I wanted and he delivered the message to the rear brakeman who gave me his timetable. I ran into my room and got two railroad postcards to give to him. We shook hands and he said that there was a big box in Hermosillo where he can get another and was honored to give to me one railroader to another. I guess I had just made a new friend.

We passed a nice stone station at Carbo with not a speck of trash anywhere to be seen. Pulling into Benjamin Hill, Anna and I detrained prior to the switching to run over to the liquor store to get some gifts for people at work. We walked back to our train past the soldiers looking for drugs and drug runners. Anna and I drank a toast to our final portion of railroad for this trip before I returned to my music. Our car was switched behind the engines for our trip up the old SBC. With the two engines we made great time. At KP 236.3 I finally got a picture of the completion monument of the SBC before I lost my MacArthur hat, one gone and one more to lose. At El Sahuro we ran by train number two holding down the mainline and we went through the siding without stopping thanks to the crew on Train 2. We had been heading towards a weather front all day and our arrival into Puerto Penasco was greeted with wet streets and a rare occurrence of rain for the Altar Desert. We all stretched our legs at Puerto Penasco and we left about the same time as all of those San Diego Railroad Museum trips but with one major change, I was stone cold sober and loving it. Earlier Laura came by to settle the on board expenses and my total was a mere five dollars. It is so much cheaper to travel sober than all of those bar tabs I used to have to pay at the end of these trips. I braved the dust of the Altar for a twilight view of The Crosses and returned to my room for "Songs from the Wood" by Jethro Tull with the line, "Dust you down from tip to toe." Did Ian Anderson have the Altar Desert in mind for that one. I do not think so! But it fits perfectly.

Once out of the Altar, we stopped at Coahulia, crossed the Colorado River and reentered Baja California where Anna and I drank a toast to our first train trip together with our usual drinks. I felt absolutely wonderful and was so glad that Anna had come with me and we were able to share this trip together. We pulled straight into the Mexicali Train Station then shared a taxi cab back to the Hotel Lucerna where we shared a room. Anna went off to the exercise room and I took a nice long rewarding hot shower. I got some more writing done before we went to the New Year's Eve Party and I got sung Happy Birthday plus twice got asked how old I was? I decided that I was only 24 tonight because of all of my drinking {really 39} and I got to enjoy everyone else getting drunk except for Missy and myself. We celebrated the ringing in of the New Year before we went off to our room for one last Mexican night.

1/1/1997 We taxied across the border the next morning before five thirty and the US Custom official never asked Anna or I any questions only be interested in when the cab driver would be returning to Mexico. We got my Geo Metro out of the dusty AA parking lot and headed home. With absolutely no traffic the entire trip having only to pass one car on Highway CA 111 along the Salton Sea. It was clear sailing and before 9:00 AM I dropped Anna off and headed home already planning another trip