Trip Date: July 15, 2013
Wendy and I had arrived in Durango the night before for the melodrama, knowing that the sixth day of our vacation would be consumed by riding the steam train from Durango to Silverton and back.
DAY 6: STEAM TRAIN BETWEEN DURANGO & SILVERTON
Selecting a Car
My father and I rode in a standard-class coach car in one of the Durango-Silverton steam trains in 1991. When I returned in 2010, I rode alone in the first-class Silver Vista car. So when making reservations many weeks ago for Wendy’s introduction to the railroad, I opted for the deluxe-class Rio Grande car, knowing that its two-person bench seats, facing outward for the views and offering greater privacy, would be better for a couple like us. The Rio Grande, like the glass-ceilinged Silver Vista, is still an open-side car, with attendant issues of rain and flying cinders. But it is cheaper than the Silver Vista, with the only real downside being the loss of complimentary soft drink service. Wendy and I brought our own bottled water, which turned out to be for the best, since the one time we fought our way forward to the concession car to have our complimentary mugs filled at no charge, the line was so long we gave up.
At the Depot
After parking at the depot we walked by Engine 480 as it belched smoke, preparing to head off toward Silverton. We’d be riding a later train, and I shot footage of the earlier one leaving the station. A broken generator meant the concession car in our train had to be replaced, leaving us with time to kill, so we toured the Railroad Museum at the depot. I must confess I liked one of the old automobiles more than the steam trains, but a railroad buff would surely love the museum.
The Ride to Silverton
Wendy and I boarded the Rio Grande, walking down the narrow center aisle to find our seats. I had booked too late to get the preferred right-side seats, but we still had nice views heading north toward Silverton as we pulled out of Durango and passed the nearby mountains and hills.
We began paralleling the Rio de las Animas Perditas, or River of Lost Souls. There was much development all of the way north along the line until we hit the edge of the national forest. Not much later, we made it through the narrow cuts in the mountainside to run along the High Line, where the train runs along the bluff hundreds of feet above the river. We could easily stand up for those views across the train.
Being the last car in the train, we could see the wriggly narrow-gauge track behind us, explaining the rocking of the cars. Wendy liked the gentle rocking motion, finding it relaxing, although it made traversing the aisles somewhat challenging. I was grateful for the restrooms at the rear of the car in front of us, reserved for deluxe-class guests.
We passed Tall Timbers, once a five-star resort only accessible by the train, which has been converted into Soaring Tree Top Adventures with zip lines for day trippers. A girl was zipping alongside the train to advertise the experience.
During our ride, we were alert for aspen groves, since Wendy wanted a shot of some for a wall of her apartment, but all of our shots had too much motion blur, even at the train’s slow speed. The mountains built up around us, with high cliffs.
The conductor alerted us as we passed a huge pile of debris which was taller and longer than our train. The railroad created it a couple of years back when clearing the tracks after an avalanche. The conductor rode in our car almost the entire time, since he had to exit off the back of the train at each stop. He’d been working for the railroad for almost 30 years, first as a summer job while he was a teacher and later while consulting for the PBS affiliate in Tucson, Arizona. Now he works on the railroad for much of the season, but is close to retirement.
Two Hours in Silverton
We finally pulled into Silverton and quickly made our way over several blocks to the Handlebars Saloon for lunch. It was packed, but they had a table free in one corner and the food was good. Stuffed animals hovered overhead as we stuffed ourselves.
I took Wendy to the town museum, which is near the 1908 City Hall. The museum continues to expand, and is now too extensive to fully tour before having to board the train for the return journey to Durango. They spent $860,000 renovating the jail and have added a wagon shed to the three story building they brought in next to the jail for more museum space. Their guys spend their winters working on the museum, despite its unheated interior, which means they are working in rooms in which it is 15 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s dedication!
We rushed through the last part of the museum so we could get to the train, but as it turned out the train left late due to a broken locomotive part requiring welding. They got her going, and we did the entire journey on steam engine 482, rather than having to use a diesel engine to get back to Durango.
A Ride in the Rain
There was a gorgeous long waterfall outside Silverton, and the clouds built up to a light rain for our return journey. That gave the mountain views a more forbidding appearance and Wendy and I huddled together behind an umbrella to divert the rain, grateful for our jackets.
Evading both the rain and my spectacles, a cinder managed to fly into one of my eyes. I could not get it out with our bottled water or even the little sterile water sprayer the conductor kindly offered. A visit to the bathroom sink did not help either, and Wendy knew I needed to cry to get it out. She wanted to pluck a nostril hair of mine to get my eyes to water, but I refused. So she plucked a few eyebrow hairs, to no avail. Then she sneakily yanked out on my mustache! That produced a stuffy nose and a curse from me, but no tears. So my return view of the High Line, looking out from our side of the car this time, was marred by the cinder. My eye did finally tear up and rid itself of the cinder as we approached the outskirts of Durango. If you ever ride the train, wear some face-hugging sunglasses.
Warming Back Up in Durango
We ran alongside a low ribbon of cloud outside of town, and then pulled in to the depot. Wendy and I took our souvenir mugs inside for delicious free fillings of coffee and hot chocolate, respectively. Dinner was at Mutu’s Italian Kitchen, where we split a Chicken Parmigiana. Wendy liked the sun-dried tomato basil butter on the bread far more than I did. Then we stopped at the Rite-Aid to get me some eye drops before retiring to our motel.
It was a fun and memorable train ride, and the next day would find us transporting ourselves via car for the views at Mesa Verde.