When we got to Durango, CO, it was still early on Sunday afternoon. Our motel, a Best Western, was a short distance past the town on the main road west, so after checking in we drove back into town to find out the details of the next day’s scheduled train excursion.
The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has been in continuous operation since the early 1880’s. Originally part of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, it hauled passengers and freight, including ore from the mines in Silverton and elsewhere, but eventually most of this business dried up or, as highways were gradually built in the mountains, was lost to automobiles and trucks. Since the 1940s (somewhat to the dismay of the Denver & Rio Grande) its principal cargo has been tourists.
In the early 1950s, Hollywood discovered the railroad, and it appeared in several films, from A Ticket to Tomahawk in 1950 (the cast included Marilyn Monroe, Walter Brennan, and Rory Calhoun) to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969. A few of the cars, which had been standard Pullman green, were painted yellow for the first of these films, and they looked so much better that soon all of them were yellow, and so they remain.
The parent railroad, not especially interested in tourism or cinema, asked permission in the 1960s to discontinue this line, but was refused by the Interstate Commerce Commission. They finally sold it in 1982, and it has had three owners since.
The trains run 45 miles from Durango to Silverton and back. The trip takes a little over three hours each way, with a two-hour layover in Silverton, so a round trip excursion requires a full day’s commitment. We had bought our tickets on the Internet before leaving home, and were making the trip on only the third day (May 10) of this year’s summer schedule. Before that we could only have traveled as far as Cascade Canyon, about two-thirds of the way to Silverton. This early in the season, there was only one train a day; a week later a second would be added, and a third in June when the tourist season hits its full stride.
We found the depot and the parking area, and verified that we would have to be on hand with our tickets at 7:30 the next morning. Then we went back to the motel, where we cut the first four CDs of the trip, two copies of the flash card from each camera. (For more information about what we were doing and why, see our FAQ page.)
The Apacer CD burner we used can also display pictures on a TV, and we wanted to check, as the Apacer was still pretty much untested, to make sure that all the pictures had been transferred from the card to the CD. However, the TV in our room didn't have the jacks we needed to plug the cable into. Since this was our first CD burn on the trip, we were too nervous erase the cards until we had put the CDs in a computer and verified that all the pictures we’d taken (at least all the ones we could remember) were there. Fortunately, the young lady at the desk knew where there was an Internet café, and we took our CDs there after dinner. To our relief, not a picture (as far as we could tell) was missing.
We ate dinner at a good restaurant named Gazpacho that cooked New Mexico style, taking our third consecutive swing at this cuisine. Dorothea had (yet again!) chicken enchiladas, and I indulged myself in a tamal plate. We both took advantage of the restaurant’s offer to substitute their home-made posole for the usual rice and refried beans. We had discovered in New Mexico that we were both fond of posole, a spicy corn stew made with kernels that have been softened and enlarged in water and lime. This is said to be similar to hominy, which I have tasted only in the form of grits, but it has a more earthy flavor. Hominy grits don’t taste that much different from wheat farina, but there’s no disguising the corn in posole.
We went to bed early, as we had to get up at six the next morning to make our train.
Riding the Train
We dutifully rose at six, and after minimal ablutions and a so-so free breakfast, drove off to the depot. It was pretty cold there at 7:30 in the morning, so when the train started we were reluctant to open the window of our coach seat. As we pulled through Durango, everyone we passed seemed to be cheering and waving at the train, probably in acknowledgement of its considerable contribution to the local economy. The air soon warmed up and everyone opened windows. Nevertheless, we didn’t envy the passengers (mostly diehard railroad or photography buffs) who had chosen to buy seats in the open gondola cars. We were glad to accept the inconvenience of shooting through the coach window in exchange for protection from chilly breezes and flying cinders.
I had put the polarizer on my lens, hoping (vainly as it turned out) to kill reflections from the window glass, but I left it on even after we opened the window, because the sun was on our side, as was the river, and it reflected off the water. As on the New Orleans trolleys, I had trouble taking pictures because the trees and bushes beside the track kept whizzing past in the foreground, confusing the auto-exposure system and lengthening the delay between pressing the button and hearing the electronic “click.” It was seldom possible to know exactly what would be the subject of the picture by the time it was taken. I gave up and just clicked away regardless, and there were times when the train came to a stop or slowed down sufficiently to make a reasonable stab at taking a picture. I discovered later that the lens hood I was using caused a lot of “vignetting,” making too many pictures look as though taken through a stovepipe. In spite of all that, some of them turned out well enough.
Pictures aside, the views were spectacular. We ran along the side of the Animas River (Rio de las Animas Perditas or ‘River of the Lost Souls’ to give it its full title), the track following its canyon all the way up to Silverton. The river was sometimes close beside us and sometimes far below, often narrow and turbulent, and always swift. Beyond the canyon’s steep sides, covered in dark green, pointy firs and fresh, light green birches and aspens, we could occasionally glimpse looming snowcapped peaks. Once we paused by some fresh meadows where spring was well advanced.
Silverton is a tiny town with gilded-age commercial buildings of the kind one used to see in Western movies, most of them tarted up to tickle the tourists’ fancy. The town is beautifully surrounded by steep mountains, most of them snowy. And indeed there was snow on the ground — plenty in the wooded surroundings and even a little in the town, which is 9,300 feet up, and considerably cooler than Durango is at 6,500 feet. The mountains are full of abandoned mines.
We went into a local restaurant, where I had home-made chili and Dorothea had Italian sausage and tortellini soup; we also split a chicken quesadilla. The service was pretty slow: there were only two people (one a young man carrying an infant on his back) to serve a couple of dozen customers. So when we finished lunch there weren’t many minutes left to spend in Silverton before we had to get back on the train. We invested some of these minutes in buying a piece of fudge, and it was well worth the wait for the candymaker to cut it off a big slab.
The train was backed on to a siding and turned around as we left town, so on the return trip our seats — they were reserved, so people didn’t hop around — were on the other side of the tracks. We got to look at a different set of sights from the same window — not only were we seeing parts of the river we’d missed on the way up because we’d been on the wrong side of the train, but of course we were also looking downstream now.
Having looked over the pictures I’d taken during the morning, I removed the lens hood and polarizer from the camera. Since we started back at two o’clock, the sun was again on our side of the train, but I didn’t want to keep using the polarizer after seeing how it had failed to block the reflections from the inside of the window. I also attached a scope that enables me see the monitor in daylight, and used that rather than the viewfinder for framing. The results were better: I experienced far less shutter lag, and the pictures looked more encouraging in “instant replay.” Dorothea clicked away, too, and we both used so much memory that we decided to burn another set of CDs that same evening and take empty flash cards with us to Mesa Verde, our next stop.
Dining and Burning
We ate dinner at Francisco’s, which serves both Mexican and American fare. Dorothea tackled her fourth straight dinner of chicken enchiladas, but these were so big (and so richly covered with cheese) that she could only eat one of the two on her plate. Meanwhile, I had four medaillons of pork tenderloin prepared with black pepper and a “brown-butter/sage sauce.” This was really more of a butter than a sauce, and the dish tasted very good, but it was also very rich. I had a pint of Durango Amber, a local brew, to go with it.
As planned, we burned another four CDs when we got back to the motel. This time, when the Apacer was verifying the copy, it reported an error on one CD, so we tossed it and made another copy.
This section last updated 12-13-2004