Po­lar Ex­press FRON­TIER

Chas­ing the spirit of Christ­mas, JACINTA TYNAN dis­cov­ers a win­ter won­der­land

Sunday Territorian - - FRONTIER -

Ever since a young boy in his blue dress­ing gown and slip­pers was trans­ported to the North Pole on board the Po­lar Ex­press which pulls up at his bed­room win­dow ‘wrapped in an apron of steam’, a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren have dreamed of be­ing be­stowed the same ex­clu­sive pas­sage.

In a small town just west of Flagstaff, Ari­zona, on Route 66, they can. Be­cause it’s here that such magic awaits.

Each win­ter dur­ing the fes­tive sea­son the Po­lar Ex­press de­parts twice nightly from his­toric Wil­liams bound for “The North Pole”.

Thou­sands of ex­cited chil­dren — and grown-ups — in­clud­ing me and my two boys, true be­liev­ers, many decked out in their win­ter PJs like the boy in the story — the book and the movie — clam­ber aboard each year clutch­ing their copies of The Po­lar Ex­press (stocked, handily, at the sta­tion gift shop) to take their seat in this 1985 Christ­mas clas­sic reimag­ined.

By day, and ev­ery other time of the year, this train is part of the his­toric Grand Canyon Rail­way which, apart from a two-decade hia­tus to 1989, , has been chug­ging gg g ad­ven­tur­ers to the Canyon since 1901. The diesel lo­co­mo­tives and grand car­riages are all orig­i­nal, each with their own unique his­tory, ac­quired from train ser­vices across the US and re­stored and re­fur­bished to re­tain their quaint vin­tage charm with wood pan­elled walls and up­hol­stered bench seats.

These cars are souped up for yule­tide with fes­toons of twinkly lights and mistle­toe gar­lands, in­side and out.

Us Po­lar Ex­press ticket hold­ers are greeted at the door not by Tom Hanks, who played the con­duc­tor in the 2004 an­i­mated film but, pretty close, com­plete with gold pocket watch, who makes his way down the aisle punch­ing each ticket with a smi­ley face.

A band of merry ‘chefs’ weave be­tween the seats serv­ing warm choc chip cook­ies while bal­anc­ing a tee­ter­ing pyra­mid of hot choco­lates.

“Wel­come aboard The Po­lar Ex­press” booms the con­duc­tor, and we’re spir­ited off to relive the ad­ven­ture so fa­mil­iar to chil­dren all around the world, many of whom have come from far flung home­lands es­pe­cially for this mo­ment.

There’s a com­mu­nal Po­lar Ex­press read-along, the voice of author Chris Van Alls­burg nar­rat­ing his fa­mous story as the chefs hold the pages aloft for all to see.

No book nec­es­sary for most kids who are quite fa­mil­iar with ev­ery word. (The Po­lar Ex­press movie on re­peat loop at Wil­liams rail de­pot also helps re­fresh the sto­ry­line). There’s a Christ­mas carol sing-a-long too, all the old favourites, as we thun­der north­ward through the ‘wilder­ness’ closer and closer to The North Pole. Even­tu­ally, the train slows to a crawl, the con­duc­tor urges us to keep our eyes peeled, the en­tire car­riage of fes­tive rev­ellers chant­ing “I be­lieve, I be­lieve” as wide-eyed kids com­pete with a bus­tle of poised iPhones, press­ing their faces against the win­dows for a closer look.

And, lo and be­hold, out of the dark­ness, Santa’s rein­deer ap­pear nes­tled in the snow be­side a team of cheery elves, his workshop fes­tooned with a blaze of lights.

There’s Mrs Claus, wav­ing fu­ri­ously and, could it be? The big man him­self clutch­ing his belly and ho-ho-ing, straight out of cen­tral cast­ing.

No­body sees him do it. Santa’s crafty like that. But the next thing he’s on board, burst­ing through the car­riage doors like a rock­star, singing au­to­graphs, pos­ing for self­ies and pre­sent­ing each child with a sil­ver sleigh bell, just like the one so beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated in the book, ‘the first gift of Christ­mas’.

The Christ­mas magic doesn’t need to end there. And for most P.E. vis­i­tors it doesn’t. True Christ­mas trag­ics of­ten com­bine their visit to Flagstaff with a stop-off at The North Pole. Yes, you read that right. Por­tals for the North Pole Ex­pe­ri­ence (known as NPX) de­part Flagstaff twice a day from Novem­ber un­til De­cem­ber 28 whisk­ing fam­i­lies off to Santa’s Grand Workshop with spe­cial ac­cess to the fac­tory floor and his top se­cret ‘Area 47’ Sleigh Han­gar hous­ing his fa­mous sleigh and mis­sion con­trol. They work side by side with the elves build­ing toys, earn­ing their Elf Diploma from Elf Univer­sity.

The Po­lar Ex­press and NPX are the draw­card for some 180,000 tourists to Flagstaff ev­ery north­ern win­ter but the city is a mag­i­cal des­ti­na­tion at the best of times.

On New Year’s Eve lo­cals gather in the snow to count down a gi­ant pinecone which drops from a 120-year-old ho­tel in the old town square. A pi­o­neer tim­ber and rail­road town along Route 66, Flagstaff re­tains its his­toric charm with a streetscap­e of orig­i­nal and mid cen­tury build­ings, many of them pubs and restau­rants spe­cial­is­ing in South West USA and Mex­i­can cuisine from just across the bor­der.

Amer­i­can grill is the go at the iconic Black Bart’s Steak­house — all Wild West swing doors, moose heads and wagon wheels — where the wait staff belt out show tunes while drop­ping plate-swal­low­ing steaks be­fore us then leap­ing to the stage to fin­ish the num­ber.

Sev­eral orig­i­nal Flagstaff stores have stayed the dis­tance in­clud­ing Bab­bitts ‘Ranch­ers and Mer­chants’ started by the five Bab­bit broth­ers in 1888 and still go­ing strong, now an out­door out­fit­ter with all you need to equip you for the snow capped moun­tains be­yond. From cen­tral Flagstaff you can be in the heart of The Grand Canyon in an hour-and-a-half, an easy day trip.

A day trip which be­gins for many pioneers, like us, with break­fast at the Grand Canyon Cafe which has been serv­ing up clas­sics like South­west­ern skil­let, green chile bur­ri­tos and chop suey (a nod to the orig­i­nal Chi­nese own­ers) to Route 66 trav­ellers since 1942. It might be funkier these days but re­mains hall­mark old Amer­i­can diner where fam­ished lum­ber­jacks come to re­fuel along­side tourists like us. My boys prop up the soda bar de­vour­ing stacked pan­cakes and sky high milk­shakes with a cherry on top.

We’re at the south rim of the Grand Canyon by mid morn­ing, hop­ping from one breath­tak­ing look­out to the next, stunned into un­char­ac­ter­is­tic si­lence by the vast gap­ing vista sur­round­ing us. There’s a more hard core way to do the Grand Canyon, hik­ing into the steep val­ley 1.8 kms be­low for a spot of river raft­ing or camp­ing. But with chil­dren in tow, this is the go: full frontal ex­po­sure to the awe­some­ness of na­ture — one of the Seven Nat­u­ral Won­ders of The World, no less — via a gen­tle am­ble along the par­tially paved rim trail from south to north.

Kids aged 4-14 can qual­ify as Ju­nior Rangers here — and at most US Na­tional Parks — by

learn­ing about the lo­cal his­tory and na­ture and tak­ing a pledge to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment. My boys be­come Ju­nior Rangers at Wal­nut Canyon too, 15 min­utes from Flagstaff, which we hike the next day be­side 12th cen­tury an­cient cave dwellings, sketch­ing na­tive cac­tuses and hug­ging gi­ant fir trees.

We also go ski­ing in Flagstaff. Ari­zona Snow­bowl, an eight-lift ski re­sort as good as any you’d find back home, is just 20 min­utes away. Even in a slow snow win­ter, snow­mak­ing does the trick with 2300 ver­ti­cal feet of runs for me and ski school for the kids.

We’re back in town in time to take in the con­stel­la­tions of the north­ern win­ter sky at the Low­ell Ob­ser­va­tory, which they’ve been do­ing here since1894. We spend an awe in­spir­ing evening peer­ing through the orig­i­nal Clark te­le­scope which was used to map the moon for the Apollo pro­gram in the 1960s. Low­ell’s other hum­ble cre­den­tials in­clude dis­cov­er­ing Pluto in 1930 and the rings of Uranus in 1977. The Apollo as­tro­nauts prac­tised driv­ing the moon buggy at nearby Cin­der Lake Crater Field cre­ated by NASA for its moon-like to­pog­ra­phy.

Flagstaff is a Win­ter won­der­land hit­ting peak form at Christ­mas, although it’s ev­i­dent it re­tains its beauty all year ‘round. We wake to squir­rels and wood­peck­ers in the trees out­side our win­dow at The Lit­tle Amer­ica Ho­tel, much to my kids’ de­light. It’s these crit­ters they talk about most in the months since our visit. And the night they jumped aboard The Po­lar Ex­press.

As an­other Christ­mas ap­proaches and those mem­o­ries start to fade, a tiny sil­ver bell sits be­side their beds, and they can still hear its “sweet sound”, proof that they didn’t imag­ine a thing.

Pic­ture: iS­TOCK

The Grand Canyon is stun­ning in win­ter with snow all around

Sky News Pre­sen­ter and author Jacinta Tynan and her chil­dren stayed as a guest of Flagstaff Con­ven­tion & Vis­i­tors Bureau and Lit­tle Amer­ica Ho­tel

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