As one who has always encouraged his students to build upon the knowledge previously imparted, these numbers should look familiar―37.2691273,-107.8825162―but if clarification is necessary, refer to our last post, Boondockin’ the Old Spanish Trail.

Trains for us have always been the confectionary opiate of travel, and we’ve satiated ourselves to the edge of tomorrow. However, the rarity of steam conveyance intrigued us, and we would shortly climb aboard the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. On the train, visual senses take a hind seat to the scent bouquet of mechanically mixed grease, lubrication oil, century-old expanded and contracted metals, oxidized brass, and bursting superheated steam, carrying in it the tens of thousands of cycles of compressed water and scale collected from mountain cascading streams: a 100-year-old scent timeline of machine.

The original rail cars themselves smell of wood, lacquer, leather, lubricating oil, and an ever-present essence of coal fire accumulation―slightly sickly sweet―and creosote, a smell long gone from modern noses.

It is said that scent and memory neurons share proximity in the brain, and memories long past spring to my mind of inhaling chimney smoke from coal-heated buildings during Chicago winters; a memory of watching an old stooped-back black man, shoveling coal from a monumental street pile into a wheelbarrow and from that into basement windows from 8:00am to 3:00pm, every day.

Our belching and rhythmic steam train now awakens ruminations of countless mountain miles, its living, young, sinuous, coal tender pitching shovel after shovel into the firebox maw, kept the beast chugging for a round trip of 90 miles and seven hours’ travel time.

These hungry beasts consume five to six tons of coal per trip. Later steam technology introduced the stoker, which automatically dumped in coal faster than the tender could shovel, but not on this train. For you more technically minded folks, six tons of coal produces about 48,846 KWhrs, equivalent to 28 barrels of oil, and just a smidgen under seven megawatts of power. This is a heck of lot of energy, enough to power between 2,800 and 6,300 homes a year, depending on how much they are energy hogs. Locomotives are powerful beasts, ranging from 1,000 hp small switching yard “mules” to monster 7,000 hp diesel mountain pullers.

I’ll say just one more thing on the technical side here before moving on to the ride of a lifetime. Very simply, engines are rated by “tractive effort,” which is how much the train can pull up the track, and this is variable depending on the weight of the engine, weight over the driving wheels, its capability of producing power through heat expansion, and the peak track uphill grade to overcome. This is the extremely simple version. If we travel any further up this rail line we’ll have to begin using our calculators.

When folks bring up the topic of trainspotters, there is often an exchange of “that look,” and perhaps a snarky comment, but this subject commands serious attention. The steam power years on the railroad were a wonder of emergent technology and exponential growth. Libraries have been written on the subject and no matter where you go on a train, it doesn’t matter what type, people are compelled to stop and wave. And then there are the binocular and note-taking breed that can tell you everything you would ever want to know about the engine, motive power, range, application, and wheel arrangement, of which there have been 32 varieties, and much more, ad nauseam. Am I starting to sound like a spotter?

There are a number of railroad museums across America, and we’re at a wonderful national treasure, here in Durango, Colorado, housing all things railroad, including two to three retired steam engines. We are about to embark on a magnificent journey….

We arrived at the train depot trembling with excitement at 7:30am, for an 8:30 departure.

Ours was to be the second of three trains to leave that day, and we chose the Mama Bear (my terminology, not the train’s) ticket level. Papa Bear was the Presidential car, accepting about 15 passengers, and supposedly matching service level to the moniker. Ours, with just 30 intrepid souls, happened to be the last car on the train, making it―in our opinion―the best car of them all. Imagine stepping out the back door onto the rear platform, to watch canyon vistas slipping backwards into the distance, a metaphorical passage of life’s realized adventurous pursuits. Both Papa and Mama cars had the luxury of nicely appointed bar service and seasoned attendants. The Baby Bear coaches offered, besides standard seating, the option of a fully open roof rail car for stunning vistas, plus the rare opportunity to experience omnipresent coal dust and smoke belching from the locomotive―at no extra charge. Safety glasses were available to protect eyes from tiny coal dust sparks and a warning to NOT rub eyes if an errant smidgen should migrate in.

With a tiny lurch, we set off through downtown Durango and quickly picked up speed across flood plains below the mountainous horizon, created by long past retreating glaciers. Our car attendant informed us that shortly we would be pouring on power to hit the beginning of a long steep grade. Our engine, we learned, had a sweet spot of torque-to-power that maximizes mountain climbing. It seemed like minutes before the land fell away around each bend to reveal breathtaking beauty, yes, but if you suffer height issues, it will challenge you to keep breathing. Soon, 500 feet of air carried the distant sound of the raging Animas River rapids to our ears, the tracks a mountain goat’s body away from the precipice alongside us. Looking around me, I saw that others had my same reaction of pulling away from the open windows as if that would help keep the train from tumbling over the edge.

I took comfort, though, in knowing that this railroad had been in service since 1881, and had experienced only a few catastrophic wrecks…

As we climbed higher and higher, the river followed us in waves from deep chasms to roaring just beside our gently swaying cars, and back again, to switch sides like a slithering snake seeking safety, as we crossed trestles.

At one point, the train stopped with the engine directly over the center of a high trestle to discharge a blast of steam and accumulated scale that kept the boiler from clogging.

It is fascinating to learn that this old technology attempts to be energy savvy. They don’t pump water to the engine to maintain steam. Instead the train stops several times during each leg of the journey under over-track reservoirs, collecting cascading snow runoff and effortlessly delivering 10,000 gallons of water to engine holding tanks for each round trip. The water is free, and so is delivering it to the train. That pesky coal, however, has to mess up our efficiency equation.

We hopped off the train in Silverton, one of the highest towns in the United States, established in 1874, and trudged off toward the center of town feeling a bit woozily at an altitude of 9,318 feet. There should be no surprise as to how the town got its name. We were nestled in a sub-alpine valley and all around us towered neck-craning, snowcapped 13,000–14,000 feet peaks. The air was pleasantly cool in contrast to that of Durango almost 3,000 feet below us. It should be no surprise also to travelers that Silverton is primarily a tourist-centered town with only about 400–500 permanent residents.

As was often the case in towns like this, there existed the dark and light sides, and so it was in Silverton. The main street, Greene, which was paved, divided the “society,” west, light side of town from its notorious east, dark side, and the famous four-block, unpaved Blair Street section.  The “dark side” sported saloons, dance halls, and around 29 bordellos, housing up to 117 working girls (a very specific number?), about three-quarters of the town’s female population. Many stories abound of raucous events, gunfights, and drama that could be expected from an enterprise such as this. I find it interesting that as much as society abhors such degenerate activities, it continually patronizes their “depraved, libertine, and lewd eminence” today. Families troop down to locate themselves in these “disreputable” spots to eat ice cream, take pictures of themselves pretending to be these characters, holding replica guns in fudge-smudged hands.

It’s fascinating to observe men festooned as gunslingers and women dolled up like Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke, a whitewashed, good-natured bar prostitute. Sigh…all is theater and we are all paying to play.

Silverton is similar to many cruise ship ports of call in Alaska that depend on the massive influx of passengers for their survival. The town sits barren as a ghost town until transportation drops a teeming horde of tourists with cameras and whining kids in tow to scavenge, like vultures, tchotchkes for their home horizontal surfaces. We joined them, barely escaping the daily summer afternoon rain-and-hail storm by finding a fake saloon to quaff brews and munch on all-American buffalo burgers and fries. Ah, the Wild West!

Leaving Silverton was not as easy as we anticipated. One of the train locomotives jumped the tracks in town―thank goodness no one was hurt―and logjammed the return home by over an hour. Our return trip became an educational extravaganza thanks to our train car attendant, Ellie, who before her long stint on the Durango-Silverton line, worked as a geologist in Alaska. As we rolled carefully back down the track, she studiously explained much of the fascinating two billion years of geological formation that created the landscape we traveled. That is a long story but framed by a knowledgeable and entertaining teacher is fascinating. Again, we encountered the rise and fall of the earth over vast geologic time, which I find fascinating to imagine mountains forming, planning down to be covered by seas that then drained north instead of south today. These events occurred numerous times, recorded in the rock walls along our journey, a time machine that boggles and humbles the mind. Then humanity appeared in the relative blink of an eye, supremely faster than a hummingbird’s wing flap compared to the age of the earth itself. How seeming quickly our presence on this planet erupted, and how profoundly powerful are the changes we mandate by this existence. We purchased a geology map of the train line to study as we moved along, guided by Ellie, who discovered another geologist on board our car, and much good-natured argumentation and hand waving ensued.

Looking out the side of our car into the moving vista, we noticed burn marks on the ground beside our tracks and learned that in the dry summer high elevation heat, sparks from our locomotive can set the brush along the tracks on fire, which can be catastrophic. Behind every train, a “speeder,” a small one- or two-person rail car with a 30-gallon tank of water, checks for smoldering brush that can evolve into a conflagration in a heartbeat.

The railroad also has employed a helicopter to fly the entire route with a water bucket to check for emergent burns. As if this isn’t enough, a “gang car” equipped with 330 gallons of water, can assist the prop car to extinguish any hot spots, shoot water up to 400 feet, and pump water directly from the Animas River that flows alongside most of the route. We wondered if in the early days of train travel, such care was instilled into their systems.

The evening closed in on us standing on the back of our car as we dropped down into the lowlands, watching the light and track recede into the distance.

We were suffering from “museum fatigue” after packing in all of the sensory input from our day’s activities. This was a monumental, mountainous, awe-inspiring journey of a lifetime, and if you are planning to hang out for a while, catch the bicentennial (in 2081). It will be a notable event for you and the railroad.