The Romance of Steam

by wjw on October 12, 2007

I’m a sucker for the romance of steam. Steam boats, steam locomotives, steam cars, steam monorails, steam zeppelins . . . I like the whole steampunk vibe so much that it’s amazing I’ve never written anything that fits into that category.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that this last weekend found us in Colorado, riding the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a piece of the old Denver & Rio Grande that’s been lopped off and turned into a passenger line for tourists and shutterbugs.
In the 1880s, the Denver & Rio Grande was in a race with the Santa Fe for control of critical mountain passes, a race that the Santa Fe won by putting a group of armed men atop the Raton Pass under the command of former mountain man Uncle Dick Wootton, who actually had title to the pass itself. (His family still owns it, I believe.) The D&RG lost the chance to become a continent-spanning railroad and instead was forced to burrow deep into the Rocky Mountains, chiefly in search of gold, silver, and other minerals.
The Durango & Silverton starts in Durango, at an elevation of 6520 feet, and in something like three and a half hours climbs to Silverton, 45 miles away and at 9200 feet. It follows the path of the Animas River, the full name of which— El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, the River of Souls Lost in Purgatory— tells you that this area was pioneered by some really homesick Mexicans. Probably in winter.
On Friday night we checked into the stately red-and-white Strater Hotel (built 1888), along with our friends Mike and Yvonne and Peggy and Kevin. The whole town was jumping, and filled with people in ten-gallon hats: there was some kind of cowboy festival going on. It took us an hour to get a table in the hotel restaurant, and another hour to get served, by which time I hoovered up my elk loin in record time.
I seem to remember that it tasted pretty good. I also remember that by then I didn’t much care how it tasted.
In the morning we walked down to the rail yard and boarded the train. It was the peak of the season for the autumn leaves: the cottonwoods in the valleys were a deep gold color, and the aspens on the slopes were a brighter, brilliant gold. Unfortunately the day was cloudy, with occasional drizzles of rain, and so nature’s color palette was somewhat subdued.
I had brought my new(ish) Pentax K110 with its nifty DA 18-55mm zoom lens for its first real field trials. I snapped over 200 pictures, the majority of which turned out very fine indeed. I found that I could stick the camera out the window, aim it in the general direction of the most spectacular scenery, and snap away with firm confidence that I’d get some lovely pictures.
Of course the glorious views helped.
We chugged away upslope, through what are becoming Durango’s rather extensive suburbs, all aimed at America’s rich new ruling class. (If you’ve got a couple million to spend, you can get a perfectly acceptable home up there.)
For the most part the D&SNGRR moves alongside the Animas, except in one place where it climbs far above the Animas valley, snaking above the river along the side of the cliff. This is called the Highline, and the train slowed down to about 3mph to allow us to stare and gasp in terror and take lots of pictures of the green river down below. It’s the only wild river left in Colorado, and is used by rafters and kayakers. I’m not sure where they’d find a place to camp— everything seemed made of stone, much of it vertical.
I bought an Official Souvenir Mug, which came with infinite refills, in my case with chai tea. Kathy opined that the pioneers who first rode this railway probably had an inferior grade of chai tea. “Their muffins were better,” I said, having seen what was on offer in the club car.
The train stopped three times for water, and a couple times to let off passengers— hikers, some people who lives in riverside cabins, and visitors to an exclusive outdoor camp for rich people (usually they come in by helicopter). Five tons of coal were consumed in the round-trip journey.
In due time we chugged into Silverton— which is not short for”Silver Town,” but is meant to imply that in its heydey they dug out silver by the ton. Silverton is small, set in a spectacular valley, and features a lot of high Western Victorian architecture— most of it, seemingly, for sale.
We lunched in the Grand Imperial Hotel (for sale), a Victorian relic full of interesting taxidermy. The place was packed with visitors and our waitress was heroic. Those who had burgers enjoyed them, but I believe my turkey was cut fresh . . . from the can.
After lunch I had some time to wander around and enjoy the architecture, including the extravagant cupola on the Federal-style town hall. There was some kind of biker convention going on, and I snapped a picture of a row of Harleys parked in front of the old livery stable.
Then back to the train for the return journey. During our lunch break the temperature had dropped twenty degrees, snow was coming down on the high mountain peaks, and cold drizzle rained down on our heads. A nasty wind blustered around the buildings, and the glorious golden aspen leaves were blown from their trees by the thousands. But by the time we reached the Highline, the storm had passed and sun had broken out. I took many more lovely pictures.
Back in town, we dined at a Tibetan-Nepalese-Indian joint, where again we had to wait an hour for our food. (It was very fine when it finally came, however.) We had thukpas and momos that weren’t as good as Jay Lake’s. At least the cowboys weren’t firing their six-shooters into the ceiling. Then we went to Kevin and Peggy’s room and played card games for a few hours, including one Lovecraft-inspired game that featured little green Cthulhus that represented our Sanity Points. (I kept a tenuous grip on mine.)
Next morning I wandered down to the rail yard to get some pictures of the train leaving on the day’s excursion. I was standing by the track, snapping away as the train moved toward me, and that damn whistle kept blowing. “I wonder if it’s blowing at me,” I wondered, snapped some more pics, and then actually removed the camera from my eye.
Okay, it was blowing at me. I wasn’t standing on the tracks and wouldn’t have been run down, but I would have been sideswiped, and that would have been no fun. So I took a stride out of the way and took more pictures.
Afterward we spent a couple hours wandering around Durango, enjoying the Victorian architecture that miraculously was not swept away by a forward-thinking Chamber of Commerce back in the 1920s, and then returned home, enjoying glorious autumn scenery almost the entire way.
I should probably get a Flickr account so that I could bore you all with the pictures.
tcastleb October 12, 2007 at 5:07 am

Here comes the Silverton up from the canyon,
Here comes the Silverton shovelin’ coal,
Here comes the Silverton up from the canyon
See the smoke and hear the whistle blow!
(Now I have that CW McCall song stuck in my head. -sigh-)
Had two friends in college who actually lived in Silverton and went to high school there, and graduated in a class of five. They both hate that song. And, sadly, I’m a CO native and I don’t think I’ve ever been to Durango or Silverton. :>( Have to go someday. Very pretty.

dubjay October 12, 2007 at 5:44 am

Luckily, I have never heard that CW McCall song.

Once a year the D&S has a photographers’ train. They let passengers off in particularly scenic spots, then back the train up and roll it forward again so the shutterbugs can take its picture.

I might do that in a few years, just as an indulgence.

Paul W October 12, 2007 at 10:46 am

I don’t think *bore* is the right word for the pictures. I would like to see them.

Although few people look at them, I got myself a Flickr account to share pictures from my own adventures.

mdmnm November 13, 2007 at 11:12 pm

The Animas is an exciting rafting trip, in part because, unlike the “drop and pool” Rio Grande, which offers a chance to rest or get back in the boat after each rapid, the rapids are pretty continuous for long stretches. You spend a lot of time thinking “where the heck would I eddy out if I fell in here”.

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