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Copper Canyon 6 The Starlight Express

by Chris Guenzler

My 40th birthday was fast approaching so where else on the planet would I plan to spend it than on another Bananafish Tour adventure. Bill confirmed that he was taking the ex SP Dome and I would get to ride also in the new open car he made out of the Domingo Mora lounge car. The trip's itinerary had been changed by the removal of the first class train out of Mexicali in the morning since the railroad had been privatized. Our trip would new leave Mexicali on the evening on the schedule of the old second class train which was the only passenger service left out of the border town. I would be seeing new countryside south of Empalme and none of that most scenic Altar Desert complete with the sand blasting I always endured. Day 1 and 2 would be a totally new experience so I was excited as I drove down to Calexico to meet the group as I was about to start a new rail adventure in Mexico.

12/26/1998 I met the group at the AA parking lot in Calexico shades of the first trip before we walked across the border into Mexico to a taxi stand and a group of five of us taxied to the Los Arcos Restaurant to wait for the late comer. I read my copy of Yes News about the current happenings of that progressive rock band. A roll call was taken and with everyone present and accounted for, Laura collected the Tourist Permits. They then arranged transportation to the train station, myself and a group of backpackers from Holland going to just Creel rode in the back of a pickup truck which is illegal in California, however I loved the experience. We all walked into a very crowded and busy Mexicali where we all waited for Laura to take care of the Tourist Permits with Customs. Watching people drag boxes through the door one at a time while having their tickets checked each time they did proved quite interesting to watch. As train time neared, our group was allowed to bypass Customs and board the train cars of our group. I did not get to press the button for the green light on this trip. I wondered if they were still even using it.

My car was the last of the two we took on this trip, my good and dear friend, the Rapidan River. I was assigned the bed in the lounge section which gave me plenty of space since we have the Dome car and I would have the whole area to myself. I settled in to my area before walking forward to the ex Southern Pacific homemade Dome Car. Following a brief period of exploration, I settled for a seat downstairs for departure. The train left Mexicali full and only a few minutes after passing through the former SBC yard, we headed out of Mexicali out into the night, I returned to my area, pulled down the bed and fell fast asleep never experiencing the sandy environment of the Altar Desert.

12/27/1998 The next morning I awoke sand free in Benjamin Hill and following what would be my normal meal on the trip of two peanut butter sandwiches, Cheeses and Chocolate Chip Cookies. The morning preparations were done faster than normal not having a private room and I started another day. I ventured off to explore Benjamin Hill. I found an ex BC Rail Alco, an old friend from Canada which had pulled our train here from Mexicali. Two coaches had been set off for their return trip to Mexicali tonight. With time before our connecting train from Nogales would arrive, I walked up and over the pedestrian bridge over the yard for the first time, with a great view of Benjamin Hill before I walked around the streets of town thinking about Anna and my last trip here. She was so much fun even when she was sick. I wished she was here with me now. With the train from Nogales being two hours late, it allowed me to watch the freight train for Mexicali being made up for its run northwest. The train from Nogales finally arrived and connected up to ours with a departure for the south in the afternoon Sonoran sun.

Leaving Benjamin Hill, I rode up in the Dome car and enjoyed the passing Sonora scenery. After a couple of enjoyable hours we paused at Hermosillo before continuing our journey south. We passed the Bay San Carlos and the Bay of Guyamas, both very beautiful sights before arriving at Empalme finding our sister northbound train waiting at the station. Leaving Empalme, we traveled directly east towards Ciudad Obregon as I witnessed another beautiful Mexican sunset and sped off into the night. There is a huge Walmart at Obregon before the train headed for Navajo, San Blas and Sufragio. The early evening sky provided a great view of Venus, Mars and Jupiter. We arrived in Sufragio where the group detrained for a trip to the hotel at El Fuerte while I remained on the cars. After switching the cars onto a siding, I made up my bed and fell asleep sober in Sinaloa.

12/28/1998 Sober in Sinaloa II, the extended stay.

Waking up sober once more in Sinaloa, we had been moved to the interchange track while I had slept and to a very cool windy sober morning. After my morning duties were completed, I shot a couple of Engines at the shops then waited for the First Class train to pick us up. I learned that the Second Class train was over two hours late with no word on our First Class train. Much later the Second Class train finally showed up with the soldiers of the Army looking for drugs as they inspect every train which passes through here. It departed east and it turned out to be a beautiful warm winter day. The Kids from Holland decided to have a picnic out on the grass by the cars which attracted hobos and dogs. Making the best use of my time, I made a study of dogs, hobos and chickens of Sufragio while I sat on the 886 kilometer post of the CHP line which was only a foot above the ground.

Our train finally arrived at noon but unfortunately it was going the wrong way towards Los Mochis. I figured it would turn around about three thirty or four would be its second arrival time in Sufragio today. Well I always wondered what went on during the day in Sufragio anyway during daylight so today would be my lesson on that subject. With the weather now down right delightful, I followed the lead of my friends from Holland so I became shirtless and in my shorts, working on my Sinaloa suntan sitting on the 886 marker. Three units and a caboose arrived from the east and I thought for a second a rescue train for us? No such luck as it just continued on its way to Los Mochis. Next a southbound freight train on the ex FCP and one yard crew went to work making up a northbound freight train. It became a study of flat yard switching and how the hobos climb up onto the roof of cars without a ladder. What an education I was receiving at Sufragio today. The kids from Holland all through this had played soccer with some local kids before they had a cheesecake and cracker session on a blanket and visited the Station's restaurant. We got a visit from a CHP employee who told us that the first class train should arrive here by four.

The Starlight Express 12/28/1998

Sure enough at ten till four here came our First Class train and our cars were quickly attached to the rear and off we went from Sufragio to points northeast, eight and a half hours late. We sprinted through San Blas and through the heavy plant growth infringing on the right of way thanks to the plentiful rainfall courtesy of El Nino. We arrived at El Fuerte, meeting our group and a load of firewood that I loaded through the rear door of the dome with the help of some local kids. Leaving El Fuerte in the last light of day, I was still riding the vestibule as we passed the brightly it cement plant which eliminated star gazing for a few minutes until the train left its influence returning us to the moonless darkness of the night. We stopped at Loreto to pick up the new open car. Bill took his lounge car the Domingo Mora and cut off one third of it creating a totally unique open car. It was placed on the rear of the train so now I was going to get the unique experience of going up the ex Chihuahua Pacifico under the most star filled sky I have ever seen at any time in my life.

We departed Loreto as the group discovered the open car. I got asked, "How are we going to see anything in the dark?" I said, "Trust me! El Fuerte River Bridge in ten minutes and the first ever Bananafish Tours Flashlight Contest. "We came out onto the El Fuerte Bridge and everyone turned on their flashlights and I was surprised how totally everyone was into the crossing of the river. I awarded the best flashlight, a marine model that I would borrow at Temoris later this evening. People were now coming up to me asking, "Chris, what's next?" my answer, "El Descanso Tunnel longest on the railroad and the very first of eighty five you will be going through before Creel tomorrow." I then came up with the name for our trip, "The Starlight Express" with everyone thinking it was a perfect name for our adventure and tonight's trip.

Twenty five minutes later we entered the longest tunnel on the railroad with everyone flashlights aimed at the ceiling fully illuminated the inside of the tunnel. The group was really enjoying this whole darkness experience. "Chris, What is next?" they asked, "The Chinipas River Bridge, highest on the railroad and flashlight time in ten minutes!" I said with a bit of excitement in my voice. We made the curve with oh's and ah's feeling in the air as the train headed out onto the highest bridge on the railroad. Even in the dark you can tell it is a long way down to the water. "What's next, Chris?" "Temoris, the most spectacular view on this whole railroad," I said. "How can you show it to us in the darkness?" they asked me and I replied, "Trust me!" As the train proceeded into the narrow canyon the stars outlined the canyon walls in a most beautiful scene, the Starlight Express indeed! What a great name I gave our train. I have a pen length flashlight which happens to be extremely bright in situations of total darkness. It is so bright in fact that when I glimpsed something down along the river, I shined my light down the slope revealing three derailed freight train cars. I then taught the group the difference between real tunnels and the fake tunnels used to keep the rocks off of the tracks. It was actually quite romantic out here. It was too bad that I was taking the Starlight Express alone. Now who would I like to have here with me now? Good question. I will have to think about that one. It might be someone who reads this. At least it is a great railroading experience riding this line under the stars.

As we crossed the lower Santa Barbara Bridge, I announced that we were approaching Temoris and I borrowed the Marine Flashlight which has the strongest beam of all. I pointed at the station at Temoris across the canyon and the Santa Barbara Bridge as the train crossed over it. I managed to light up the waterfall and the lower monument high above us. We stopped at the Temoris Station and I told everyone what to expect next, the climb up the middle level to the La Pera Tunnel with the 180 degree curve inside of it putting us up on the upper level. Even in the darkness, everyone was really impressed with Temoris. We departed Temoris with the Marine Flashlight Tour continuing to give the tour. Through the La Pera Tunnel and my last goal was to show everyone the monuments when we passed between them. I lit up the 25 year monument first below us and quickly switched to the completion of the railroad monument high above us before we entered the tunnel after tunnel section where I announced that I was going to bed. Everyone thanked me for a great Starlight Express experience and I walked away amazed that I had pulled that whole event off. I went to bed a very satisfied person after that incredible experience.

Divisidero 12/29/1998

I woke the next morning and learned that when our group had arrived at Posada Barrancas to detrain to go to the Mansion Tarahumara Hotel that half of our group were still on the train when it left so they all rode up to Divisidero with me and had to wait for the bus to come up and take them back to the hotel. What a wild night some of them had while I slept so peacefully through the whole event. Divisidero was absolutely silent in the mid morning hours as no one was stirring. I was a bright sunny morning with cool temperatures as I detrained for a morning hike to climb up the ridge that overlooked Divisidero from the northeast. It took me about thirty minutes of hiking and climbing to get to the spot I wanted to take a picture. I crossed the little streams which were frozen meaning it had gotten below freezing last night. The view was spectacular as it gave me a whole new overlook of Divisidero plus the cliffs below it. I ran out of film so I rewound the film before I started back. Little did I know that I had dropped the camera batteries out of my camera. Returning, I found a trail back to the hotel which was much easier than the way I had come out there. I came upon the kids from Holland and pointed them in the right direction for the great view of Divisidero. Returning to the train, I discovered the missing batteries and resigned myself that it was the end of my picture taking for this trip but at least I had gotten the picture that I had wanted. I fixed my lunch before venturing out among the Indians to look for rocks for Maureen Angle. I made several purchases and I knew she would be happy with them. I returned to the open car to work on my suntan and to kill time until the group returned.

The Trip to Creel 12/29/1998

The group returned with various stories to tell about their adventures last night with everyone saying how much they liked the Mansion Tarahumara. They all got settled back in as the First Class train from Chihuahua arrived and stayed ten minutes before departing. Then the wait began for our eastbound train to pick us up to take us to Creel. The mid level clouds took over the sky and the air temperature began to drop so it became jacket time again. Passengers began to wonder if we would see any of this line in daylight and I said, "I can show you the Rock of Fertility and El Lazo {360 degree loop} in total darkness if it comes to that, just take what I am saying as foreplay before you see the rock. If it is dark, you will see it!" I knew I could say that because I had not let them down yet and I was not going to start now. Bill and I went to the hotel at Divisidero and had the clerk radio Creel and Chihuahua City for a possible ETA on the train. Six o'clock was the answer so it would only be another hour and a half. I said to Bill, "That is better than the eight and a half hours yesterday" and we both had a good laugh.

Everyone's spirits improved when at ten till six we all heard a whistle and the train arrived, first picking up our cars and replacing them with the cars of the Sierra Madre Express. Twenty minutes later we departed in the twilight of the last light of the day which had lit up the cliffs where I had been on with a quick burst of sunlight from out of the clouds. It was most beautiful. The train sped off on its way to Creel as the snows became common place on the ground. We lost all light and would make the rest of the trip to Creel in the dark. My ladies who wanted to see the Rock of Fertility joined me and waited patiently until we passed through Tunnel 12 and I spotted it, turned on my pen flashlight lighting up the Rock of Fertility for all of them to gaze at out in the darkness of the night. We passed it with them all thanking me before they headed back inside. That left the group who wanted to see El Lazo. We waited patiently then when I felt we were there, I got everyone ready and showed them the line we would be on in a few minutes after we circled El Lazo. We made the left hand turn through the two tunnels before crossing over the tracks we had come up on with then lighting them up with their flashlights. They thanked me before heading inside, leaving me alone in the open car with the stars all to myself the rest of the way to Creel.

Creel 12/29/1998

The group detrained across the street after the train cars were spotted and headed to the Parador Hotel while I walked there I saw a store that sold camera batteries. "I will bring the camera with me in the morning," I said to the owner who was happy to get my business. I arrived at the Parador as the group was checking in with everyone offering me a shower in the morning. We had a group dinner at the restaurant across the street before I walked back to the Rapidan River and another night of great slumber abroad the train.

12/30/1998 The next morning I walked to the Parador Montana and was offered a shower from the first of the group's couples I met. Did that water sure feel good on my skin and I walked out of their room clean. I had breakfast of Hot Cakes before the group went on the Tarahumara Indian Cave Tour with me staying in town this time shopping. I went to a record store and bought a Best of Rod Stewart tape made in Mexico, had an enjoyable time getting the camera batteries for my camera and toured the town of Creel Museum for the first time. For a small place it had an excellent museum. I missed a freight train while I was looking around the museum before I returned to our cars to await departure.

Daylight Downgrade 12/30/1998

Everyone was happy when the First Class train showed up only twenty minutes late about twelve thirty. Following the switching moves including our cars, a box car and spotting a South Orient car we were on our way hopefully to see Temoris in the daylight. I was the first one out into the open car with a chair and took the best spot protected by the car ahead on the regular part of the train out of the wind. Soon I was joined by the members of our group and my Ladies not only want to see the Rock of Fertility in broad daylight but every other scenic line side highlight that I could show them starting with El Lazo which I told them was over half an hour away. Never less, our entire group was in extremely high spirits. The snow on the ground created a whole different feel to this trip for me than before, an additional feature of beauty that I had always dreamed of seeing which I got to live out on this journey. I wore two jackets to keep me warm on a cool late December Chihuahua afternoon. I will always in the future bring my UP jacket rated to a minus fifty degree range. We passed one of my markers for El Lazo so I got the group really excited right before we crossed over the top of the lower track making our three hundred and sixty degree circling of El Lazo with a very happy car of passengers. Now my Ladies were getting excited. I would say that they were in a state of arousal after all of the verbal foreplay that I had been giving them. We crossed the dirt road and I called out, "There it stands!" With cameras clicking and video tape rolling we passed the Rock of Fertility and after we had passed the standing stone everyone's comments were that they were in awe.

Once more the Rock of Fertility provided me many moments of humor and pleasure. The rest of the run to Divisidero passed extremely quickly. Before we detrained at Divisidero, we picked up the cars of the Sierra Madre Express before we unloaded for the fifteen minute stop.

Once underway again, we made fast tracks to San Rafael with me pointing out the Mansion Tarahumara as we passed by it. The basket selling women at San Rafael made a few more sales to our group in the open car before we departed. It was a beautiful late afternoon as we crossed the La Laja Bridge and traveled downgrade around the curves and over the less lofty bridges. We pulled into sidings twice to let the two eastbound trains pass by.

At Bauchivo, we dropped off the cars of the Sierra Madre Express before we continued our downward trek. The group had dinner which allowed me the open car all to myself except for a couple of people Bill had invited back from the regular train. Bill asked me to go up to the engine to get Laura to bring her back for dinner. I walked through the train to the rear locomotive where I was greeted by a solider with an automatic weapon who was very surprised to see me. The brakeman upon my request for Laura went up to get her and I was asked to take a seat in the engineer's seat while I was waiting. About five minutes later Laura and two young women returned with Laura saying that if you stood on the front pilot and you threw your arms up in the air, it was like you were in the movie Titanic. I guessed that I would have to go see that one.

Following the walk back through the First Class train, I returned to the peace and quiet of the open car which I now enjoyed for myself for the first time on this trip alone and figured how many kilometers it was to Temoris. I walked back to the dome car and gave a ten kilometer warning to Temoris. About five more to go, most of the group were out in the open car and by the time we were at the tunnel after tunnel section everyone was there as we popped out of that tunnel which gave everyone a daylight view of Temoris in the last light of the day. Everyone was excited as we made our way down the upper level with the great view below. As the train entered the La Pera Tunnels I gave the instruction to change to the other side of the car for the view below when we exited La Pera. I said a little prayer thanking God for my sobriety and seeing Temoris in daylight once on this trip. We descended the middle level before coming to a stop at the Temoris Station. On the move again, we passed underneath the monuments, by the waterfall and curved over the Santa Barbara Bridge to the lowest level at Temoris. The group left the open car to return to the warmth of the train while a few of us decided to stay outside in the cool fresh air as another night started under the stars. I talked to a woman from Germany who had come back from the regular train for about forty five minutes before she returned inside. I planted myself in a chair to enjoy the Chinipas River Bridge, El Descanso Tunnel and finally the El Fuerte River Bridge before calling it a night. I returned to the Rapidan River, made up my area and fell asleep knowing that tomorrow morning I would wake up in the train yard in Sufragio. All of the group would board the lounge car and be taken to Los Mochis to a waiting hotel. I fell asleep thirty nine and woke up forty the next morning.

Forty in Sinaloa 12/31/1998

Awakening on my 40th birthday seemed no different than any other day of my life. It was a nice sunny day and following breakfast I took a nice peaceful walk around the yards of Sufragio. Returning to the Rapidan River, I enjoyed a musical interlude before the group's return on the buses all very happy to see me. Everyone got settled into their rooms and I returned to the fresh air of Sufragio. Bill had walked over to the yard crew and came back announcing, "If anyone wants to learn how to run a locomotive the yard crew would do it for a tip." We climbed up onto the front of the locomotive with everyone wanting me to go first since it was my birthday. I declined since I had already run a locomotive in Mexico and that would give more chances for other people to get a chance to operate an engine in Mexico. I just stood on the front porch with Laura and others going up and down the yard tracks of Sufragio. Laura mentioned the Titanic arms in the air thing again which we all did before she got the group to sing happy birthday to me on the front of the engine as it was moving down the yard tracks. That really got me into the spirit of my birthday plus I was racking up the miles going back and forth on the yard tracks. After seven round trips I got off to have lunch as the crew had to run up to San Blas to get their lunch thus ending a unique experience that could only happen in Mexico. Two members of our group tagged along for the ride to San Blas in search of liquor. When they had returned one of the crew members after we had been placed on the train to head north to Mexicali stated that he had not been paid for his services he had provided. It was explained to him that everyone had paid for their service and that his other two partners did not divide the funds with him. He still was not happy so Bill gave Laura some money to pay him to keep him happy. If everyone was kept happy then on some other future trip the same offer could be made and others could have a unique Mexican railroading experience of running a locomotive.

The Burro 12/31/1998

Leaving Sufragio on the Second Class train which is now the only train left will allow me my first daytime views of the Sinaloa and Sonora countryside to Empalme. My goal for this journey is to shoot all of the depots and places we stop long this route. I took my spot in the vestibule for the quick trip to San Blas, my first station to photograph. From here on, other than named places, I had no idea what awaited me. We curved off to cross the El Fuerte River saying goodbye to the CHP tracks that had running alongside of our tracks from Sufragio.

They made the lunch call so everyone except me headed to the Dome car leaving the vestibule to me. I took a sleeping car ladder thus giving me a chair to sit on for the reminder of the afternoon. The Second Class train got its nickname the Burro because of all of the stops it made on its way north hence its slower schedule than the now extinct La Bala {the Bullet}. We stopped a couple of times in the middle of nowhere to drop off passengers for small villages. The main north/south highway ran alongside after we had crossed into Sonora. I just sat back enjoying the countryside, waving to the passersby and having a real good time of doing what I do best in life, ride trains. I detrained at both Najova and Ciudad Obregon for pictures. Otherwise, I just relaxed on my 40th birthday.

At Esperanza, the station was abandoned and covered with graffiti something I had not seen that much of in Mexico. We met our southbound counterpart before we passed through a forest of Saguaro Cactus. We arrived at Empalme at the last light of day, I walked back to get a shot of a few locomotives where a group of hobos were smoking some very good smelling marijuana. As I walked towards the front of the train, the sky was producing one of the best sunsets of the trip. The train passed the old FCP shop on the way out of town. We left Empalme getting a great view of the Bay of Guyamas in twilight. I enjoyed the star filled sky from the rear door of the dome before I told Bill and Laura that I was going to take a nap and to please wake me up at ten thirty. I headed to my berth in the Rapidan River for a well deserved rest.

I slept for about three hours before Bill woke me up and with my batteries recharged, I headed back to the Dome car for the New Year's Eve Party. I took a glow stick I had brought with me and pulled a Rock of Fertility joke by sticking it down my wind pants giving a glowing erection as a miniature version of the Rock. Everyone had a good laugh with my joke before I vanished up the vestibule of the Rapidan River before we arrived at Benjamin Hill. Following a rather lengthy station stop where one of the railroad workers was trying to cause Bill some problem with the Dome car and while they were trying to solve the problem all of the cars got watered. We headed out into the darkness of the Altar Desert and I returned to the New Year's Eve Party but found the smell of Champagne on people's breathe bothering me tonight so I steered clear and only stayed only until midnight Sonora time before returning to bed for my last night on the train. One hour later it would be midnight in California and while I slept I had visitors who sprinkled me with glitter, some which got in my eyes. I would have the last laugh in the morning when my drunken friends would be hung over.

1/1/1999 I awoke following the all night trek across the Altar Desert sand free once more, stone cold sober and wide awake happy. I walked back to the Dome car to get a cup of tea and enjoyed the predawn scenery. As the train crossed the Colorado River and entered Baja California Norte, I reflected on what a unique trip this one had been. I settled with Laura as we crossed through the steam fields before entering Mexicali. They pulled us straight into the station ending my sixth Bananafish adventure on day one thousand seventy nine of my sobriety. Five of us piled into a taxi to the border before we walked across through US Customs asking me what I was bringing into the United States. "Rocks," I replied. "That is a new on for me. Have a great New Year's Day!" the agent said as I walked away. We walked to the AA Parking Lot and following a ten minute wait for the people parked in front of me to return, I was back on the highway heading home in my Geo Metro for Santa Ana and another Amtrak train trip to Solana Beach tonight.