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…

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