Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Engine that Could

All Aboard! at Antonito, CO Station
If you like trains at all, you will love the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which reflects much of the history of railroads in the west. It is a narrow gauge train (3 feet between the rails, instead of the standard 4 feet 8 inches), built in 1880 as part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The narrow gauge allows the train to make tighter turns in the mountains, and reduced construction costs. We traveled from 7888 feet in elevation at Antonito, CO, to the 10,015 feet Cumbres Pass, then down to 7863 feet at Chama, NM.
We left the station at 10 am, stopped for a full lunch midway, and arrived at the Chama by 4:30. Then we boarded a luxurious motor coach, returning to our cars in Antonito in about an hour. As you can see, this is not a rapid mode of transportation, but it was lots of fun!

Trip Route
 In the mountains, a train cannot take a straight route to arrive at its destination. Steel wheels slide on steel tracks if the grade is too steep, so the tracks wind around and around, going up one side of a canyon then down the other. You can often see the track zip-zagging behind you. Oh, what you hear as a child is true. A steam locomotive really does say "I think I can, I think I can" on the way up a hill!
At first, the landscape was dry and flat. A small group of pronghorn antelopes raced us for a while, and eventually veered aside. "Wild" cattle graze on the free range, staring without curiosity as a train passes. We learned that the different patterns of the whistle mean different things.  Four long blasts, for example, means only 5 minutes remain before departure. Elk and mule deer were visible too.

 Going up the mountain requires more coal in the engine to fire up the steam locomotive, and the wind blows it from one side of the train to the other, and in through any open windows. There is no escaping it. But I couldn't stop thinking about all the Westerns I've seen with trains, and even a few non-Westerns. There's no way anyone (other than a stunt man) could run from car to car on a train like this. The cars jiggle back and forth too much. I kept picturing Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future III, as the train raced toward the gorge, with the school ma'rm hanging from the side of the engine. Actually, this train has been used for many movies over the years.
Observation Car
The Observation Car is nothing like the one we rode on AmTrak in Oregon last summer. This one is an open car - open to the sun, the wind, and every bit of smoke and soot from the engine. However, it was also the best place for photos. By the time we stopped for lunch I was filthy. I'm so glad we don't have to use coal for transportation and home heating anymore. The smell and dirt were incredible.
Cliff Swallow
About half way, we stopped for a huge lunch, meeting the train coming from the other direction. Got a little birding in at this stop. They put up wire netting to stop the swallows from nesting under the eaves, but it doesn't stop these little birds at all! I have a new respect for those men who built and worked on the railroad - we went through a tunnel in stone that was 1.5 billion years old at one spot, and through more recent volcanic ash in another place.
Toltec Gorge
The Toltec Gorge is 600 feet deep, and we moved with no room for error before a drop straight down. The slopes looked distinctly unstable in several spots. They no longer run the train during the winter, but when it was a commercial venture, they had to plow in the winter. I can't imagine the conditions.
 After Cumbres Pass, we slowly crept down through glacial valleys and winding trout streams. With each change in elevation, the aspen trees changed - fully green at the lower levels, up to no leaves at all in the higher mountains. I could hear the little leaves calling "Go away, nasty train! Cough! Cough!" It was a great trip, but I was so glad to get in the shower when we got back to the condo!

Here are all the videos I took, sliced together. See if you can find the antelope!

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