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Chasing Trains In The Southwest

For 46 years I’ve been married to a “ferroequinologist.” Know what that is? A person who loves any and all aspects of railroading. They are also known as “foamers” as they foam at the mouth when they sight a train. You learn to live with them. After all, having ridden more than 50 tourist trains in the USA and Canada we’ve seen some pretty interesting stuff. 

So the perfect summer vacation, in his mind, was to drive to Colorado and back and ride the four tourist train lines we had not been on. Mission accomplished 3,500 miles round trip later. Did I mention there were a lot of side trips and interference by Mother Nature? 

Being cheapskates, and not wanting to add mileage to our aging vehicles, we rented a nine foot U-Haul cargo van. I take one of these to Burning Man every year and refer to it as the “Poor Woman’s RV.” Put a thick foam pad to sleep on and sleeping bags, ice chest, folding table and chairs for camping, An electric tea kettle that plugs into the cigarette lighter, groceries, and we’re ready for adventure. 

The best part of the vacation was the weather, I kid you not. Rain! Thunder and lightning! Hail! Flash Floods! and PUDDLES! Can you tell we’re rain starved Californians? We loved it even when it inconvenienced us. Green grass, wildflowers blooming, creeks flowing, campgrounds where you could have a fire and skies clear of forest fire smoke were enjoyed. 

I will not bore my reading public with a “—on the first day we did this—” but instead share observations on travel through five states in the American Southwest. I happen to love road signs and am always looking for new or unusual ones. New to us were yellow animal crossing signs pictographs with sheep and pronghorn antelope on them, along with the obligatory “Deer crossing next 68 miles.” Cowboys on horseback got their own pictograph in Arizona and there were horse and buggy ones in Utah. 

Along the highway first we saw “Flash Flood Area” followed by “Do not enter roadway when flooded.” Then came “Climb to safety during flash floods” (what are you supposed to do with your car?) and the warning “Debris on highway possible during inclement weather.” Emergency exit ramps for truck drivers having a hard time braking going downhill had signs before them saying “Truckers—don’t be fooled—seven miles of steep grades ahead.” 

I love street naming whimsey in the west. Cartographers pick a landform—peak, butte, gully, pond, bench, plains, flats, and then add a plant—pine, willow, spruce, brush—and add a critter—deer, elk, coyote, buffalo and proceed to make up street names like Willow Gulch or Coyote Butte, or Buffalo Flat. The term “crotch” for canyon and “nipple” for mountain peak were evident on the map. Big Water, Utah chose to name the streets in the small town for Revolutionary War themes. We saw streets named Concord, Lexington, Arlington, George Rogers Clark and Aaron Burr. Personally I liked Lonesome Polecat Lane, Bumblebee Drive and Happy Canyon. 

There are businesses’ in the American Southwest we seldom see along California roadsides. Sawmills turn trees into logs to build log cabins and blacksmiths make branding irons. Drive-In movies still exist as do boot and saddle repair shops. Livestock auction yards are next to slaughterhouses, offering to butcher and wrap cattle, buffalo, wild game, mutton and goats. Fly shops offer fishing lures and outfitters to take you to trout streams. Glass shops provide hail damage repairs and your old skis can be made into patio furniture. Dogs are well taken care of with canine  orthopedic veterinary services and bakeries (dog biscuit bakeries.) 

The backroads of the Southwest are wonderful. Give us two lanes of pavement, no fences, a sign saying “Next services 130 miles” and we’re on our way to race dust devils down the highway and have herds of wild horses running next to us. The best views were places like the Monitor Mountain range in. Nevada with a landscape never touched by the hand of man. The state highways have cattle guards across them. 

Colorado is planting parallel lines of evergreens along its highways to become living snow fences. Where there is fencing to keep wildlife off the highway there are grass surfaced fenced overpasses to allow migration. A man sat under a shade umbrella in the back of his pickup truck surrounded by summer squash, tomatoes and zucchini and held up a sign saying “STOP! Buy some!” 

Life on the Navajo Reservation appears to be improving. Homes have evolved from hogans into single wide trailers and then modular homes. Houses have been built onto hogans with a solar panel in the yard and a satellite dish TV antenna on the roof. New construction has house and hogan painted the same color. 

Now about those train rides, the erstwhile reason for the jaunt. The best? The Cumbres & Toltec Railroad out of Antonito, Colorado. On it we crossed the Colorado and New Mexico borders a dozen times during the six hour trip, often over 10,000’ in elevation. Often there are no highways in sight. Old telephone lines with sun stained glass insulators and old dangling wires parallel the tracks. You can see geology, wildflowers and lichens three feet outside your windows. Skeletons are seen trackside where some animal tried to outrun the locomotive. U.S. News & World Report rates this the #1 tourist train ride in the USA. 

Cripple Creek Railroad in Colorado was much smaller and more personal—great for real train fans and you learn a lot about mining. Royal Gorge Railroad in Cannon City, Colorado was tourism gone to extremes. Pretty scenery in the Arkansas River gorge and great visual lessons on how to cantilever a track to a cliff face with cables to get past difficult spots. This and the Georgetown Loop Railroad are set up to handle hundreds of riders a day and not interested in letting you look behind the scenes or into the equipment yards—they’re focused on the almighty dollar. All together we spent close to $500 on these rides so it’s not a cheap vacation choice, but the scenery is great. 

Pine bark beetle infestation and the resulting conifer forest die off is rampant in the Southwest—miles upon miles of dead forest. The Cumbres & Toltec Railroad runs a speeder “fire engine” a half mile behind the excursion train watching for any sparks. The potential for incredibly destructive wildfires from standing dead trees is depressing to think about. 

Our trip home got complicated when Interstate 70 closed due to mudslides in the Glenwood Canyon. I wondered if the AMTRAK train got through. We detoured through northern Colorado and Utah on the way home with a brief stop to see the Heber Valley Railroad in Utah and the Nevada Northern Railroad in Ely, Nevada. Monsoon rain meant traffic going one way on a divided highway could splash huge sprays of water into the windshields of cars traveling the opposite direction. And while all this was going on I was driving in the slow lane and was passed by a pickup pulling a fifth wheel trailer and a boat  going 70 m.p.h. in the rain. He must have been a local.

A closing “heads up” I want to offer all campers. In southern Utah off Highway 85 between Kanab and Page, Arizona is a turn off to the south for the Vermillion Cliffs and the White House campground and trailhead. Two miles down a dirt road along the Paria River we found an amazing campground and we were the only people there. A white sandstone bluff 100’ high pockmarked with perfect circle holes showed where wind and sand had ground into rock and it bordered the campsites. The bluff radiated heat for hours after the sun sank behind the horizon, much to the delight of the lizards. The only sounds were coyotes wailing and water running over stone. The night skies were amazing. White House campground is worthy of an overnight stop if you are ever in the area.    

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