On Friday, July 16, 2021, we moved our base camp to Chama, New Mexico. The short two-hour drive on US Highway 64 through lush canyons and meadows was a delight. About halfway, we stopped at an overlook and picnic area where wildflowers were in full bloom.
I imagined where we live in the Bay Area, the drought would have already forced the wildflowers to shrivel up and die. So, it was a treat to see their smiley faces at their peak in New Mexico’s higher elevations.
Little Creel RV Park in Chama squished us into a small space that crowded the trailer next to us. The park owner said not to worry. The men next to us would leave over the weekend and might not return on Monday, and they didn’t all week.
Although the room slide encroached on the neighbor, the awning and picnic table area had plenty of room, especially since no one pulled in next to us until two days before we left.
First on our agenda while in Chama, was to ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. At Coffee & Espresso Bar, we started our day with a breakfast sandwich, Danish, and a cup of coffee, and then we watched the volunteers prepare the engines and hook up the cars.
We ended up in the first seat in the first car behind the engine. One would think a steam engine would be preferable to diesel because of the smell. In order for the steam engine to work, it needs fire to heat the water to create the steam. And what fuel did they use for the fire?
Coal. I could barely stand two minutes outside on the platform. Soot and red-hot embers of coal swirled around me and flew in the door whenever it was open. And forget about resting your arm on the windowsill unless you wanted a holy shirt sleeve.
It was comical to see one passenger—a man in his fifties—so excited about riding the train. He stood on the platform for the entire trip while soot and embers rained down on him. His grandson brought him snacks and drinks, but the man never budged.
Pulling the mountain was not much faster than walking due to the incline. We were thinking it would be faster on the way back, but we were wrong. The Engineer/Conductor told us the old-fashioned brakes required they keep the downhill speed to a minimum to avoid becoming a runaway.
At the Osier train stop in Colorado, we all disembarked for a buffet lunch in the dining hall. On one side of the building, they served a turkey dinner, and on the other side, they served meatloaf. Salads were also available downstairs.
I opted for the turkey dinner. The turkey and gravy were tasty. All I can say about the canned green beans is that they weren’t fresh, and a couple of bites of dressing were more than enough. The best part of the meal was the not-too-sweet pumpkin pie with whip cream and flaky crust. I should have had two slices.
After lunch, everyone gathered outside, wandered around the other buildings, and waited for the train to return.
All the passengers climbed aboard for the trip back to Chama, taking the same seats as before. The atmosphere in the car was a stark contrast. Those of us in the front were mostly quiet, enjoying the scenery outside the windows, or nodding off into a tryptophan coma. In the rear, a group of women may have had more than their share of the alcohol served during lunch.
The women giggled, they laughed, they squealed, and they teased one another. When we stopped to refill the water tank, one lady came up to the open seat across from us and alternated hanging out the window to yell at someone to get the water guy’s attention, and ducking back into the car to yell at her sister, “Alma, come here.”
Apparently, the water guy was good-looking and Alma was single. And then there was the man who showed up at each road crossing. The women would hang out the windows, and wave and squeal like teenage girls.
It was a kick to watch a group of middle-aged women acting like teenagers and the grandpa acting like an excited boy. Their antics were just as engaging as the scenery outside the window. It was also cool to see all the people who parked and got out of their cars to take photos and wave at us.
What could be better than riding on a historic train, gazing out at the scenery passing by, listening to the docent tell stories about the people and history of the railroad, and snuggling in the seat with a best friend and spouse? Not much in my book.
A few facts about the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (CTSRR)
- The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGWR) operated from 1880 to 1968, transporting ore, livestock, freight, and passengers.
- Cumbres Pass, Colorado, is at 10,015 feet.
- The 1920s ushered in automobiles and graded roads, reducing the need for passenger rail service.
- DRGWR discontinued passenger service in 1951 and freight shipments in the late 1960s.
- The States of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased 64 miles of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1970 and renamed it the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
- CTSRR was designated as a National Historic Landmark on October 12, 2012.
- Since 1981, Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec’s vibrant volunteer program has and continues to preserve and restore the buildings, property, track right-of-ways, signs, and rolling stock. Through its assets and scenic tours, they also interpret the history of the railroad.
- Each summer, the Friends hold volunteer work sessions in Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. Volunteers can choose from “mechanics, woodworking and painting to landscaping, food service, photography, and record-keeping.”
- Catch a train ride at either Chama, New Mexico, or Antonito, Colorado.
Coming up in future episodes: Ghost Ranch and Heron Lake State Park