Sunday, August 23, 2009

Marathon Southwest Colorado Trip - Part 2

Part 2

ring, ring, ring…

Not sure what it was at first, I slowly began to recognize the distinct sound, and still in a half conscious state, I woke up to answer the telephone on the nightstand. It was the front desk with my requested wake-up call. It was 6:00AM…

The previous day had been long and my body needed the 7 hours of sleep that I was able to pull off. Rain was falling from the dreary and overcast skies and it looked as if it was going to be around for a while. I had another train ride planned and the Potato Express running between Alamosa and Monte Vista was going to be my poison for the day.

I had arrived at the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad ticketing office to the same smiling faces from the kind people that I had experienced the day before. I got my ticket and headed out to the platform. I had arrived to find jacketed and umbrella covered passengers boarding the San Luis Express train that I had taken the day before. I was thankful that I was able to be on the train the day before and to have had the beautiful weather that we did. Although it would still be a wonderful trip, the cool, dreary, and wet weather would definitely put a damper on the passengers wanting to enjoy the open air car and the photographers wanting to capture their experiences. I would be experiencing mostly the same conditions, but my trip today would be shorter and would be exclusively in the valley.

The Potato Express train as I noted above travels round trip between Alamosa and Monte Vista, Colorado. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad and its sister railroad, San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad (SLRG) also provides a great deal of freight service, and that business is a significant contributor to the railroads bottom line. The make-up of this train is primarily freight based but it also provides limited passenger service. The ride takes just 40 minutes and covers roughly 17 miles. Due to the routes short distance, this train makes 2 round trip journeys each day, carrying passengers and freight.

The platform and immediate yard was only occupied by No. 18 and the San Luis Express train. My train was scheduled to depart at 9:30 and it was already 9. With old No. 18 shrouded in a plume of steam, it slowly departed the platform to begin its daily journey to La Veta.

There was still no sign of the train that I and a few others were waiting for. The families also there waiting for the train were taking shelter under the eaves of the original train station, which is now home to the Alamosa Welcome Center. The Rio Grande offices are next door and across the street on State Ave.

Several minutes later I saw the headlights from our General Electric diesel electric locomotive as it was approaching from the east. As the train rolled up and stopped at the platform it already had several hopper cars hooked up behind the single passenger car that stood directly behind the locomotive. As everyone was waiting to board a conductor emerged from the rear of the train and the engineer left the cab of the engine to greet everyone and invite the 20 or so of us making the trip aboard.

I was excited about making this trip today. The short trip in of itself was not the most exciting trip, but there were two things that were going to work well for me. One was the fact that it was a short trip and that I would be back to Alamosa before noon. Secondly, and this is what I was most excited about, I had the opportunity to ride in the cab of this working train. I introduced myself to Jason the Engineer/ Conductor and to Jason the Engineer. Yes, both of the guys were named Jason. That made it easier to for me to remember their names.

I had decided that I would ride with the rest of the passengers on the way to Monte Vista and would ride back with Jason (Engineer) in the cab on the return trip to Alamosa. I had the option of being in the cab for the entire trip, but I wanted to be able to visit with the other passengers as well as Jason the conductor, and take in the sights from the passenger car.

As I boarded the train and entered the passenger car, I noticed that the car was quite different from the ones on the San Luis Express train that I had taken the day before. This car was also an older car, but it was designed for short commuter lanes, as it has just one wood bench that stretched the length of the car. Once everyone was aboard, Jason (the conductor) gave everyone the “flight attendant” type safety briefing to all of us that had boarded in case there was an accident or other incident. He had said that a couple of weeks earlier a woman in a car had ignored the trains horn and continued across one of the railroad crossings on the route. Obviously the train was unable to stop in that short distance and the rear of the woman’s car was hit and was thrown off the track and spun around. Luckily no one was injured. As much as people have heard about the need to heed railroad crossings, and the consequences of when that does not occur, it is amazing that people still decide to try and beat the train. Oh my god!!

You could tell that Jason (the conductor) really loves his job. He had been working for the railroad for just over 4 months and is a native of Alamosa. When he had an opportunity to go to work for the railroad, and he immediately gave notice to his other employer. These smaller railroads are an excellent opportunity for younger folks to get involved with the railroad, as well as for those that have worked for the much larger class one railroads that are looking for a slower pace and a more stable schedule. The San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad cross-train their employees so they can jump into multiple roles such as Engineer, Conductor, Switchman, etc. as the need arises. As Jason was conversing with all of us, we also found out that he is a volunteer fireman for the Alamosa Fire Department. That was interesting for me, because I also do some work for a Fire Department and Fire Organization here in the Denver Metro area. I would also later find out that Jason (the engineer) is also a member of the Alamosa Fire Department.

The diesel engine slowly began to rev and the train began to move from the platform, and we were on our way to Monte Vista. The rain had stopped and the cloud deck was starting to rise and there were even a few breaks with blue sky behind.

The train had to make a stop at a siding to drop off some of the hopper cars that we had been pulling. Jason left us in the passenger car to disconnect the hoppers and make the necessary switches.

Shortly we were again under way, and I managed to grab a few shots from the vestibule directly behind the locomotive. The train’s horn sounded multiple times as we approached and passed crossings on our way to Monte Vista. As we pulled up to our destination in downtown Monte Vista, Jason told us that we would have about 45 minutes to explore Monte Vista and he made several suggestions on getting a quick bite to eat. The train slowly came to a stop next to a park on the eastern edge of the downtown area.

As I was noticing a distinct looking wagon from the windows of our car, Jason let us know about an Amish woman who had homemade bakery items for sale in the park. I immediately knew where I was going to stop. Both Jason’s took their scheduled time to take their lunch break and left the rest of us to venture out and do some exploring before we had to be back.

The wagon that was sitting between the train and the park was definitely of Amish origins. I did not know that we had an Amish community here in Colorado, so I was fascinated by the prospect of being able to go and meet the lady wearing the distinctive style of clothing and white bonnet behind the tables with her baked goods. As I approached the park I was grabbing shots of this wagon and the smaller wagon behind that was used to carry all of tables and goods that were being sold. The set of wagons was not something that one would expect to be seeing here in Colorado. A covered wagon would have been more of a historically accurate scene for the area. The horse that would have been pulling the 2 wagons was not anywhere to be seen. As I drew closer to the Amish woman I noticed that a small girl that was with her was with also dressed in the same style of attire. The tables were covered with jars of homemade jams and jellies, pies, breads, and other delectable treats.

They had seen me carrying my camera with its large white lens and camera bag as I was taking pictures of their wagons. The little girl’s attention was focused on my camera and its lens. I introduced myself and was welcomed by Katie and her daughter Carol. During our conversation, I discovered that their family is a part of a much larger Amish community just outside of town. 30 families live the Amish lifestyle just 12 miles from Monte Vista. Katie’s family moved here from a Wisconsin Amish community several years ago. Katie’s husband works as a crane operator in the valley, and they live the traditional simple lifestyle that the Amish people are known for. They have no electronics and no electricity or many of the modern conveniences that most of us take for granted. I was surprised however that they do make use of solar technology. When I asked Katie where their horse was, she told me that they tie him up behind some railroad cars used for storage on a secondary track right behind the main line by the park. Every Friday Katie and Carol make the hour and a half and 12 mile trip to Monte Vista to sell their homemade goods to the local residents as well as the passengers from the train. As I was sitting there, there were multiple people and regular’s who came by to purchase Katie’s tasty treats. I am not normally one to indulge in sweets or desserts, but since they were being so kind, I felt the necessity to purchase a few of their goods. As I scanned over the table, my eyes were focused on some of their homemade fudge, and I knew that my family would enjoy the fact that I brought some of it home.

I asked if it would be alright if I were to snap a few photos of them. Katie was very kind and said sure, as long as she did not have to pose for any of the shots. We both chuckled and I assured her that there would be no need for that, and I just wanted a few natural shots as she went about her business. Carol, being very shy was not too sure about the camera, although she was very curious and sweet and I was able to snap a few shots that were real keepers. I really enjoyed my time visiting with Katie and Carol and was very appreciative of them allowing me to capture their, as Katie put it, plain and simple ways.

As time was quickly passing, I took a quick jaunt through the downtown area and was able to get a few photographs of this small rural town.

I walked down Adams Street, taking some of shots of a couple of dogs that were patiently waiting for their master in the bed of a pickup parked in front of the store fronts. They posed very nicely for me and my camera.
The 45 minutes had passed quickly and it was time to head back to Alamosa. Jason and

Jason were walking back to the train as I and a few other passengers were waiting alongside the train. The remaining passengers had already boarded the passenger car.
Jason, the Engineer, invited me to board the maroon colored 1986 General Electric B39-8E Diesel Electric Locomotive numbered 8527. This locomotive was originally built for LMX Leasing and was subsequently purchased by RLCX in 2001. The San Luis & Rio Grande (SLRG) leased this locomotive in 2006 and it was re-painted to the SLRG colors in 2008. These powerful locomotives were once widely used by Burlington Northern (BN) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).

Okay, I know that this is a guy thing, but I was really excited about this part of my trip. Big engines, a lot of power, and a railroad, sounds like a good thing to me.

As we got ready to depart Monte Vista, Jason (the Conductor) and Jason (the Engineer), worked like a finely choreographed dance troop. Jason, in the cab, communicated with Jason at the rear of the train via radio to make sure that the necessary crossing gates had dropped and that the traffic had stopped for the crossing. Our Engineer Jason started to sound the horn, and began to back the train out of the yard in Monte Vista, all the time communicating with the Conductor to make sure that all was clear as the train crossed the highway.

Our crew had to get the train turned around so we could head back to Alamosa. As the train cleared Highway 160, we continued to back up for approximately ¼ of a mile to what railroaders refer to as a “wye”. A wye is a triangular section of railroad with switches at each intersection of the triangle allowing the train to make a 3-point turn. As we approached the wye, we once again had to cross Highway 160 twice as the crew navigated the wye, so we could head eastbound toward Alamosa.

While Jason carefully watched his surroundings, controlling the diesel electric locomotive, and sounding the horn, he communicated with Jason at the rear of the train as he watched for traffic and any obstacles and made the necessary switches in the wye.

As the last gates of the railroad crossing raised and the lights and bells went dark and silent, we were on our way. This was the first time that I had been in the cab of a diesel electric locomotive, let alone one running on a working railroad. This was a real thrill. You could feel and hear the power of the diesel engine and generator behind you as it drove the electric traction motors under your feet. This is not a class one railroad, so our speed was limited but the unique experience still made my whole trip.

I found out that Jason our Engineer was also a native of the San Luis Valley and started working for the railroad over a year and a half ago. He pointed out that all of the crews were cross-trained and were often required to do the work of several positions during their daily duties. This differs from the larger Class 1 railroads where employees work only in the position that their job title denotes. This is sometimes a hard adjustment for those employees to who have come from the Class 1 railroads to make.

As I alluded to before, Jason our Engineer, also volunteers for the 35 member volunteer fire department in Alamosa just like Jason our Conductor. Even though these guys work for a smaller railroad, they are still entitled to all of the benefits that all railroad employees are eligible for, including retirement and other savings and health plans. Jason also really enjoys his job and was very thankful that he had an opportunity to join the railroad. Both Jason’s have the ability to go to a larger railroad if they wish, but they are both fairly sure that they will end up staying pretty close to home in the San Luis Valley.

We had several crossings that Jason had to watch closely and sound his horn to. I took the time that I had to not only talk with Jason, but to also put my camera to work.

The time had gone very quickly as we were already pulling into the station at Alamosa. Even though my trip lasted just a few short hours in the morning, I certainly got a lot accomplished. Wow, what a morning! From meeting and getting to know the crew of our train, the passengers, as well as some of the fascinating people of Monte Vista and the San Luis Valley, to the experience of riding in a diesel electric locomotive, I have had a phenomenal time and a great learning experience.

And the day is just half over….

Stay tuned for part 3.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Marathon Southwest Colorado Trip - Part 1

I am still trying to recuperate from a two day trip that was jam packed. But anyone who knows me, expects that I will get as much stuff in as I can with the time allotted, and more times than not I overrun the time that I have.

This excursion was no different. I had been planning on making this trip since last fall when I had been in the area on another project. Even though I had anticipated that this road trip would be primarily a photography trip, I was amazed at the number of incredible people and places that I encountered in a part of the state that I had either spent little or no time in.

I had to break my blog entry into 3 parts due to the shear amount of information that I amassed during these two short days. I know that I will definitely be returning to this incredible part of the state in the future to discover many more things that I just did not have time to see.

I hope that you enjoy reading about and seeing photos from my two day marathon tour of Southwestern Colorado.

Part 1

After getting just a few hours sleep, my alarm went off at 3 AM on Thursday morning. I was up and ready to hit the road.

There are a few advantages to leaving in the middle of the night, one of them being no traffic. What a nice change of pace.

I have always liked trains, but over the last year or so, I have been becoming more and more a rail fan. With the help of some of my Flickr contacts and other more serious rail fans, my interest and knowledge continues to expand and I have been able to capture these special moments and experiences in my images.

My train out of Alamosa was scheduled to depart at 9:00 AM, and I needed to check in by 8:30. My truck pulled into town at 8 with 30 minutes to spare. I had already purchased tickets from the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad several days earlier for the two trips that I wanted to experience. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad is a standard gauge railroad that combines both passenger and freight trains along their track which extends from Monte Vista on the west to Walsenburg on the east, and from Alamosa to Antonito to the South. The Alamosa to Antonito train ties in with the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad which runs from Antonito to Chama, New Mexico.

My plan for Thursday was to take the San Luis Express round trip from Alamosa to La Veta via La Veta Pass. This trip takes the better part of a day and approximately 120 miles, so I limited my itinerary to just this trip for the day.

Upon stepping up to the ticketing window, I was immediately greeted by the friendly folks behind the counter. The ladies and gentlemen were very friendly and I would soon find out that the entire railroad staff that I encountered, from the ticketing folks, Customer Service Reps, Conductors, Engineers and others were all very approachable and friendly.

One of the main reasons that I wanted to take this train is that it is powered by No. 18, an American Locomotive 2-8-0 Consolidation Steam locomotive. Upon entering the platform area, I immediately noticed the sound and smell indicative of a coal fired steam locomotive. The locomotive was standing ready at the platform and there were approximately 60 passengers patiently waiting to board.

It was going to be a beautiful day to take the train as the sun was shining and clouds were just scattered in the beautiful blue sky.

I purchased a ticket for the dome observation car, which among others were purchased from the Alaska Railroad. Our train today, was powered by No. 18, and included the dome observation car, a 1950’s era coach car, the 1918 Calumet Club Car (which was rebuilt in 1948), and an open air car.

The majority of travelers got tickets for the nice air conditioned observation dome car. One of the families that I was sitting next to was a grandfather and grandmother from Golden, Colorado that were on a weekend outing with 3 of their grandkids. The grandfather volunteers at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, and they try to do several trips with the grandkids each summer.

There were individuals and families from all over the country and from various backgrounds. Of those people, there were several other photographers and rail fans. I also believe that there were several other local regular travelers also aboard.

Once everyone was aboard and settled the train slowly started to chug its way away from the platform.

The first 20 miles or so was spent traveling east along the valley floor of the San Luis Valley towards Fort Garland at about 30 MPH. The trains awesome steam whistle pierced the air as it churned toward railroad crossings along Highway 160. Passengers were treated to a magnificent view of the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range and Mount Blanca from the left side of the train. The sun was highlighting the tops of the mountains. This time also gave passengers and the train staff, including Carlos (Engineer) and the PCA’s (Passenger Car Assistant) a chance to get acquainted and for the passengers to be served drinks and snacks.

The train made a brief stop in Fort Garland to pick up a couple of additional passengers, and was quickly underway again.

Within just minutes the scenery began to change as the train began its ascent up La Veta Pass. Several other photographers as well as myself quickly left the comfort of the dome observation car and headed to the back of the train to the open air car with cameras in hand.

No. 18 had 3 engineers in the cab with one of them being checked out on the steamer. This allowed Carlos, another engineer to be back with the passengers to log the trip and complete other required paperwork. Carlos is also a fellow photographer, spent quite a bit of time visiting with the passengers and also giving us photographers tips on photo ops along the route.

There were several turns along the route which gave us some nice photo ops along the way as the train snaked its way up the pass. The combination of aspen and several pine and spruce varieties of trees as well as the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range provided a beautiful backdrop to our vintage steam locomotive. The trains vestibules also provided areas for people to enjoy the fresh mountain air, take in the sights and grab a few shots if they so desired.

We soon arrived at Fir Station, a midpoint stop at the top of La Veta Pass. At the top we met the westbound diesel electric locomotive passenger train also traveling between La Veta and Alamosa. They had to wait until our train arrived since the route is single track. The engineer from the westbound train alerted our train crew of 2 brown bears that were sighted between tunnel 1 and tunnel 2 on the eastern side of the pass. We were stopped just long enough to transfer a few passengers who did not want to make the full day trip. Fir Station provides a remarkable view of the track to the west of the station and of the surrounding terrain. It also has an outdoor amphitheater and wind turbine that supports outdoor concerts and other events.

Our steamer slowly began the eastern descent down the pass towards 2 tunnels on the route and the town of La Veta.

I was able to hear and smell the brakes on the train as the engineer held the trains speed to around 15 miles per hour as it slowly made the descent towards the first of the two tunnels. As the train approached tunnel 1, Carlos and two of the other PCA’s (Passenger Car Assistant) made sure to come back to the open car to watch for the bears along with the rest of us. Everyone in the open air car were huddled on the right side of the car anxiously looking and waiting for the possibility of being able to see the bears that had been reported by the other trains crew. We soon entered and passed through the first tunnel which I guess was approximately 200 feet in length.

Everyone’s attention was focused on spotting the reported bears. We were soon treated to 2 brown bears shading themselves in the brush and shrubs just 20 yards from the track. With my camera at the ready I quickly snapped several shots of the one bear that was plainly visible sitting in the shade almost enjoying watching the train and those of us hurriedly snapping his picture. The other smaller bear was almost completely obscured by the surrounding vegetation. The bears quickly faded into the distance as the train continued on its journey.

After the sighting, people and other photographers were asking me if I had got any shots. I quickly ran through the 6 or 7 shots that I had taken and seen that I had got some fairly good shots in the short period. Other passengers asked if they could take a look, because either they did not see the bears or their shots did not come out well. I was kind of surprised at first that a few of the passengers had never seen a bear outside a zoo environment. I should have not of been. I sometimes take all my experiences that I have had over the years for granted. There are a lot of folks that do not get out into the wild to be able to experience nature and what Colorado has to offer.

Soon, the second tunnel approached and passed. This tunnel was much longer than the first one, probably 500’ in length. Carlos continued to point out sights along the way down the mountain. There were old rail beds from days gone by from ore cars that were taken down the mountain for processing. As we approached the Cuchara Valley, the scenery once again began to change. This time, passengers got to observe the fertile fields of crops, hay, and pasture for cattle and horses. Passengers who were observant also got treated to several doe deer that were grazing in the pastures along the track.

After about 2 ½ hours we pulled into the historic town of La Veta. The skies had started to cloud up and were looking like rain could start at any time. I have on multiple occasions been on Highway 160 but always neglected to make to the turn to La Veta and went on over La Veta pass via the highway.

The old train terminal in La Veta is now home to the town government . I love these old stations as they are a symbol of American railroading of years past. I like to see these old terminals being restored and used for other functions and not be torn down or just sit empty and allowed to fall into disrepair.

We had two hours to explore the town and grab something for lunch from one of the many eateries along the historic streets. The crew made a few suggestions on places to go and check out. I decided on the Ryus Ave Bakery just across from the park that was adjacent to the station. The charming little bakery had 2 tables with umbrellas on the east side of the building and 2 small tables with chairs on either side of the front door entrance facing Ryus Ave. All of the tables were already occupied with patrons. The bakery had a line of about 12 people waiting to order and the 6 tables inside were mostly filled with not much room to spare in the small bakery. Most of the people were locals enjoying each other’s company and a good meal. The small kitchen in the back was hustling with activity from the employees putting together customer’s orders. From the end of the line I looked over the menu which consisted of sandwiches on homemade breads, salads, bakery specials and of course all of the good stuff like pies, pastries and other desserts.

When it was my time to order I decided on half of a sandwich which came with homemade coleslaw, pickle and chips. I ended up passing on the other really good stuff. By the time I ordered one of the tables out front opened up, so I decided to take in the sights and enjoy my lunch from there. Almost as soon as I sat down, I started feeling a few raindrops, and I thought that I might have to take refuge inside. But they mostly held off until I finished my lunch.

Across the street on the north side and next to the park was an art and pottery gallery. One of the artisans had some freshly sculpted pottery in the bed of a pick-up out in front of the store. I was in the process of admiring the craftsmanship and taking a couple of shots when the skies opened up and started to pour rain. I quickly took refuge under a canopy in the park. The shower was short-lived and lasted only about 5 minutes.

I continued to explore the downtown area and take in the sights. The town has really benefited from the train and passenger traffic as well as from other seasonal visitors to the area. I took the time to visit with some of the local residents as well as with some of my fellow train passengers talking shop about photography and trains.

The two hours passed quickly, and while the other passengers and I were exploring town, the crew had taken the engine to the yard for water, grease and oil and turned the engine around and re-connected with all of the cars.

The trip back to Alamosa started as planned and as the train made the steep climb back up La Veta Pass, No. 18 was spewing black smoke and steam as it labored up the mountain. As the train made it to the two tunnels, all of the passengers got to experience the darkness, smoke, steam and heat from the steamer as it passed through the tunnels. Those folks, including myself that were out in the open car got a really good dose of the historic nature of the classic engine. We all tasted the after effects for several minutes after experience. Very cool!!

Again we had to stop at Fir Station at the top to meet the diesel train on its return trip to La Veta. This time all of the passengers got to disembark the train for about 40 minutes while we waited for the other train to arrive. The afternoon was overcast and cool, and I was able to meet and speak with several other passengers during our wait. I am amazed at the number of rail fans that I have encountered on this trip. It was a real joy to visit with and get to know some of the other people that have gathered to take this wonderful trip.

Once the other train arrived, there were again some passenger exchanges, and we were on our way. The trip home was very relaxing and quiet. Most everyone took the time to return to their seats to either take a siesta or just visit with family and newly formed friends.

As the train once again dropped down into the San Luis Valley, the whistle once again began to blow, signaling to everyone that the trip would soon be ending. The train pulled into Alamosa at 6:30 PM and everyone said their goodbye’s and disembarked for the evening.

It was a long day for me, but I would not have missed it. The experience of the train, the railroad employees, and the people who boarded her was unforgettable, and I would do it all over again. I even made a few contacts to boot.

I headed to the hotel to get checked in, had dinner and called it a night. Friday would require another early start and would go well into the night.

Stay tuned for part 2…