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A grand getaway

Allison Johnson

My son Nathaniel and I lead exciting lives. When the sun shines brightly and nothing’s on the schedule, we pack a picnic lunch and head to that all-time trendy locale, the Glenwood Springs train station.Nathaniel is a train junkie for whom the sheer exhilaration of watching the real McCoy go by ensures a long afternoon nap. During these outings we also swing by the new train museum in the depot. With a 2-year-old’s impatience, Nathaniel harasses the attendant to keep the model trains running: “Can the trains wake up now?” he says. “Now? NOW?” Meanwhile, I stock up on the best deal around: Used train magazines for a dollar.This past spring I decided to indulge Nathaniel’s passion for trains with a short trip to Grand Junction. The two-and-a-half-hour round trip cost $45 for both of us. The next train back didn’t leave until the following morning, so we spent the night.Curiously, on the day of our departure, my little train junkie refused to board.”Shouldn’t we go sit on the grass?” he suggested, shying away from the hissing steel leviathan on the track.After several minutes of coaxing, the conductor and I finally convinced him to hop aboard. We sat in the virtually deserted sightseeing car, which has floor-to-ceiling windows and broad views of the passing landscape. Although I’ve driven I-70 to Grand Junction for years, I never realized that so many towns, ranching communities and side roads exist along this corridor.The sightseeing car also included two fairly incongruous television sets, a reminder that while we were aboard for mere hours, others were riding the train for days. One couple had traveled from Illinois to meet their children. “We probably won’t do this again,” the wife admitted. Another man’s journey with three small children would take him more than 24 hours. I commiserated, while privately thinking I’d rather be hanged than confined to a train with three children for that long.By the time we arrived in Grand Junction, my own child was running up and down the aisles, jubilantly celebrating his newfound ability to open the car doors and ditch his mother.At the station we fetched our bag and stroller and walked two blocks to the Hawthorne Suites. Since our nonsmoking, two-room suite had lodged a smoker the night before (a maintenance man was madly fumigating the room when we arrived), the manager generously accommodated us elsewhere. We wound up with free lodging – two connecting rooms with four beds – at the Hampton Inn next door. Both of these modern and affordable hotels are located conveniently at the end of Grand Junction’s Main Street, and we soon ventured out in search of dinner.Grand Junction doesn’t get enough credit for being pretty. To outsiders, at least, the city is defined more by its shopping mall and discount stores than by its quaint, pedestrian-oriented downtown with outdoor sculptures, boutiques and restaurants that range from brew pubs to French fare.Nathaniel and I strolled tree-lined Main Street before settling on Il Bistro, an Italian restaurant just a few blocks from the hotel. My veal and polenta in a gorgonzola cream sauce was dreamy, although my fond memories may have been prejudiced by the extra wine and dessert I ordered since I no longer had to pay for a hotel room.On recommendations from locals, we tried the Crystal Café & Bake Shop on Main Street the next morning and were treated to pancakes as large as tires. Our train was two hours late, which apparently is a typical problem with Amtrak’s service through Colorado. We checked our bag at the station and wandered back to explore the rest of Main Street. Toys for the Fun of It, a fabulous toy store at 519 Main St., along with the Readmore News & Bookstore and Brown’s Shoe Fit Company, ate up our delay.The train rolled in around noon, so I decided to brave Amtrak’s cuisine for lunch. My romantic notions of dining-car service were shattered within minutes. The old couple seated across from us smiled tolerantly at my anxious attempts to restrain Nathaniel from lunging over the back of our booth into strangers’ laps. My veggie burger was palatable, but Nathaniel’s pizza could have decapitated someone if flung like a Frisbee. Next time I’ll grab lunch ahead of time on Main Street and remain in the sightseeing car where Nathaniel can wander at will.And there will be a next time.I’ve always wondered what Nathaniel’s first indelible memory will be, and I suspect this train adventure may be it. Even more than a month later, he lights up and tells strangers, “I rode a double-decker with my mommy!” We can’t drive through Glenwood Springs without a fervent plea for another train ride, and I really can’t blame him.For the simple, unusual and inexpensive getaway the trip afforded me and for the thrill it brought to my son, the jaunt to Junction is a first memory I’ll be glad to repeat.Allison Johnson lives in Carbondale and, when Nathaniel isn’t climbing in her office chair, works as a writer.


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