A golden eddy in the current of time

Locomotive 453 steam-engine "freight train" on a special Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec run approaches Toltec Creek.

Dan Leeth

In the movie Back to the Future, a plutonium-powered DeLorean sports car catapulted Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, 30 years into the past. Onboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a coal-fired locomotive does a similar thing, transporting me and my fellow passengers more than a century back in time.

The longest and loftiest narrow-gauge route remaining in the country, the Cumbres & Toltec snakes back and forth along the state line between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. Just as passengers have done since the train’s inception, we hear steam-driven pistons throb and wheels clack as cars sway down the tracks. Billowing smoke from the boiler scents the air with the heady aroma of burning coal. Over most of its 64-mile route, there are no paved roads, no power lines and to the dismay of social-media addicted teens, no Wi-Fi, internet or cell coverage. A panorama of wilderness-worthy scenery passes by in blissfully slow motion.

 “It’s the past as far as the eye can see in any direction,” observes Cumbres & Toltec president John Bush. “It’s this eddy in the current of time.”

The route dates back to the early 1880s when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad laid tracks linking Colorado’s capital with the mining mecca of Silverton. Rather than using standard gauge with rails spread 56.5 inches apart, the Denver & Rio Grande placed its rails 36 inches apart so its trains could make tighter turns through sinuous mountain terrain. While many of the line’s narrow-gauge tracks were later converted to standard, the route between Antonito and Silverton remained unmodified. Today, the preserved sections from Durango to Silverton and Antonito to Chama offer scenic escapes into a bygone time.

Unlike its more northerly sister, which follows the Animas River through a lush canyon, the Cumbres & Toltec climbs through the mountains with sweeping views of hills and valleys along the way. Come fall, those slopes glisten with the Midas-touched leaves of autumn aspen.

“Riding this train is on my bucket list,” an excited passenger told me over breakfast at the vintage Steam Train Hotel in Antonito.

One-way Cumbres & Toltec journeys depart daily from either end. On this journey, I chose to head westbound from Antonito, which allowed me to watch herds of pronghorn dart across the San Luis Valley in the crisp light of morning. After the conductor punched my ticket, I left my reserved seat in a closed passenger car and headed for the open gondola, where docents from Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec provide a commentary about what we’re seeing. As we approached a wooden trestle 5 miles from town, docent Bob Ross related a tale of its multiple monikers.

“There are two stories, the first of which I don’t believe,” he admitted. “Theoretically, in 1880, they hung a guy named Ferguson off this trestle. That’s why they called it Hangman’s or Ferguson’s Trestle. The second story is definitely true. Willie Nelson made a movie out here in 1988 called Where the Hell’s That Gold? During the filming, they accidentally burned the trestle down. So they had to build us a new one. We now call it the Willie Nelson Trestle.”

A trackside sign soon revealed that we’d passed into New Mexico, the first of 11 border crossings. We’d gained several hundred feet in altitude, and the sage and rabbitbrush of the San Luis Valley were giving way to piñon and juniper. Crossing back into Colorado, we rounded Whiplash Curve, a series of horseshoe-shaped loops needed to maintain an ascent angle of less than 1.5 percent or roughly 80 vertical feet per linear mile.

As the piñon and juniper slowly surrendered territory to ponderosa pine, we were treated to sneak peeks of the autumn magnificence that lingered ahead. Trackside willows shimmered with gilded leaves. Nuggets of golden aspen began to salt slopes and line the tracks. A mother lode of 24-karat color sluiced down hillsides beyond.

The train stopped at the former railroad station of Sublette to take on water. Here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, stands the home where a section foreman and his family once lived year-round. There were seven such section houses between Antonito and Chama, but only three remain. All have been restored by the Friends, along with trackside signs, whistle boards and mileage markers on the route.

“About 10 years ago, we were out here painting the mileposts,” Ross told us. “All of a sudden, we heard something and looked up the hill. A mountain lion was staring down at us from maybe 50 feet away. Fortunately, the lion was not hungry, and we were able to get out of there without any problems.”

For the rest of the story see the September/October 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

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