Where the trains call, and the mountains answer

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Silverton, Colo., is a small town, nestled high in the San Juan Mountains and hemmed in on all sides by steep grades. It is compact enough that a train of about ten narrow gauge cars spans a good third of the settlement’s length. The entire valley is visible from the switchbacks of U.S. Highway 550, the only major road leading into the town. I count three trains lined up in the yards, all headed up by a Mikado under in steam, and many dozen people boarding No. 480’s train for the return to Durango.

I’ve arrived at Silverton later than I would have liked, and step out of the car just as the five minute whistle sounds out. The long quill comes echoing back from the mountains. I’ve got only a few moments to snap some pictures of the scenery and the locomotives before I am a member of those crowds, greeting the conductors, matching my ticket to my seat. I am one of the last to board the Durango & Silverton train, and I have barely settled in when I hear the hiss from No. 480’s open cylinder cocks and feel the slack jerk out of the train.

For the first few minutes out of Silverton, it appears that the tracks have nowhere to go, and that they will come to a dead end at the base of the mountains. Going straight up and over them is too steep for any wheeled vehicle, and going around is far too circuitous to be practical. At the last moment, though, the rocks part and reveal a corridor just wide enough to admit the train. The landscape makes a complete transition within a few piston strokes: We are out of the high valley, hugged on both sides by bald canyon walls, basking in the smell of pine sap and coal smoke.

The train does not have to chug along much farther at all before Silverton disappears behind us, and the few hundred of us on the train are alone with the mountains. We are immersed in the high, knife-sharp peaks that usually only form a backdrop to other adventures, and the swollen Animas River abuts its banks a few yards away from the tracks. The train’s movement and its proximity to the water puts temperatures in the low fifties, and the car hosts offer blankets when a moderate rain begins to fall. Even in July, some of the mountain tops are frosted with snow. Were it not for the lack of fire-hued tree, I could be tricked into believing that it is early autumn.

Up here, there are startlingly few signs of humanity to be seen. There are no weatherbeaten homesteads digging in to the craggy slopes, no half-rusted vehicles abandoned at the edges of fields, no fences dividing the land into parcels. Those of us on the train are alone with nature in its most untouched form, witness to all of its beauty and also to its mercilessness, and experience as rare as trying to navigate through unabridged darkness.

The train is the only thing I can find displaying right angles and a regular design, but somehow, it doesn’t feel like an intrusion onto the natural landscape. It shuffles through the gorge and around the outcroppings like some large creature, infrequently seen but still intrinsic to the setting when it does appear. The roaring river and the whistling pines seem richer against the train’s rhythm.

I am riding in one of the open coaches--well worth the price, as the glass roof gives a full appreciation of the towering summits above us. The sway of the rails and the full, five-sense experience of this trip forestalls most conversation among the passengers. We are lulled into a state of quiet awe, filled with a deep appreciation for the beauty of our surroundings.

We all seem to think of the train as a native part of this biome, as a creature with its own niche in this ecosystem. I sense us settling more comfortably into this conclusion every time we bump over a joint in the rail. Nothing in our car host’s narrative attempts to steer us into compartmentalizing our surroundings into the natural and the industrial. No one seems to question what we are taking away from the experience, but I can’t help pausing to reflect on how unusual it is.

Throughout their history, the railroads have been portrayed as in conflict with the natural world, then as a master over it.  It is not an unfair characterization. Building a permanent way across the United States required entire landscapes to be altered and permanently changed the ecology of the plains states, and many companies, when the railroads monopolized travel, touted the railroad’s very real ability to make faraway lands accessible in their advertising. The railroad network finally conquered nature’s last bulwark--distance--and strung entire continents together under one banner.

There is little doubt that by the 21st century, nature has cowed to the railroads and other industries.  The interplay between human enterprise and the wilderness feels different on the route between Durango and Silverton, though. Here, nature exists at its rawest, and the railroad traverses it with the lightest footstep possible. I can find none of the boreholes and drill marks that typically evidence human incursions into rocky territory, and in some places the tracks skirt within inches of the edge of a cliff. The engineering is so precise that it is more rational to forget the human hand behind the design, and imagine that the nature landscape and the industry running through it must have coevolved into their present form.

All forms of railroad equipment are designed to the conditions where they operated to some degree, particularly steam locomotives.  Here in Colorado, though, the relationship between nature feels symbiotic, as if by some chance a narrow little shelf developed half way up the San Juan slopes and the railroad equipment ripened into the best form to take advantage of it. It is difficult to believe that the process required any human interaction, and easy to believe the mountains would protest what remains of the railroad ceasing to operate.  After all, the rocks turn each of the locomotive’s whistles out into a conversation, as if they are reluctant to let silence absorb the last of the echoes.

The fortunes up here have at times tipped in favor of either industry or nature.  Before it was tourists, the primary cargo on these tracks was raw goods excised off of the mountains, and in contemporary operation, excursions are occasionally delayed by landslides or boulders obstructing the tracks. Nature has already reclaimed the abandoned portions of the Denver & Rio Grande route with startling efficiency, and the trackage that does remain, like those anywhere else, must be frequently maintained to remain in functioning condition. The type of harmony one feels here isn’t the kind where all adversity has been removed, but when two powerful elements retain their competitive spirit and yet come to a place of respecting each other.

The feeling that nature and industry are in balance up here may be an illusion, but it is a pleasant one. It draws deeply on our sense of adventure, and yet, assures us all under control even here, where the natural world is at its strongest.  The Durango & Silverton offers a completely unique experience, and is highly recommended for anyone interested in trains or in experiencing a true wilderness.

Trains, in conjunction with Special Interest Tours, offers a Colorado tour that includes the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. For information about 2016 tours, see
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