For Dan’s birthday, this year, I arranged for us to drive up to Chama, NM, on Thursday morning, and to ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (narrow gauge, steam engine) on Friday.
We left Albuquerque around 11:00 a.m. on Thursday for the three-hour drive up to Chama. Neither of us had ever been in this part of the state, which is pretty close to the Colorado border. The portion of the trip from Espanola to Chama was really beautiful. We didn’t stop for pictures, but promised ourselves that we would do that on our way back down. Once we got to Chama, a town of 1200 people, we were so surprised at how green it was. It really seemed to be a thriving little town, with logging, ranching and the train apparently being their main sources income. Besides some motels within the city, there are numerous big lodges that cater mostly to hunters and fishermen.
Last winter was an especially heavy snow season for the Chama area. Depending on the part of town, they had between 9 and 14 feet of snow (more, of course, in the mountains). As a result, a number of buildings in town collapsed under the weight of the snow on their roofs. The only grocery store in town was one of those casualties. A new grocery store hasn’t yet been built, so the residents have to drive a minimum of an hour-and-a-half, each way, to purchase groceries. The fire station also collapsed, and the fire chief was killed in a related accident.
We checked into our cute little motel, the Vista del Rio Lodge, when we got to town, and then went to get some late lunch at a recommended cafe, called Cookin’ Books. It seemed like an odd name, but there was a book store inside the restaurant, which somewhat explained it. The food was really good -- nice sandwiches on homemade breads, soups, salads and desserts.
After eating, we went down to the train station. It was around 3:30 p.m., and one of the trains had already pulled in. Before I knew it, Dan had struck up a conversation with the engineer, a young man who grew up in Switzerland, and who inherited his love of steam engines from his father. I asked if he’d be the engineer on our trip, the next day, and he said he would not. We mentioned that we’d ridden another narrow gauge train (though not pulled by a steam engine) from Skagway, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon, and he said he, too, had ridden it.
Around 3:45 another huge, black steam engine came chuffing into the station, blowing its whistle and puffing out huge billows of black smoke. We watched all of the travelers exit the cars, and heard lots of positive comments about the trip, making us all the more excited about our own trip, the next day.
Early the next morning we got up and got ready for our train trip. On the way to the station we stopped at an espresso shop, so Dan could get his early morning Americano. We arrived at the station quite early, but already there was a lot of activity. The train had been filled with coal and water, and was building up a head of steam. Passengers were already arriving and milling about at the station. Several volunteers were there to answer questions. Dan spent a few minutes talking to one of them, a man from Mississippi, who comes to Chama every summer to volunteer on the railroad. He would be riding our train with us later that morning.
We watched as they finished preparing the train for the trip. The conductor helped the engineer to back up the engine and couple it with the other cars. Then they moved the train forward a bit, with a lot of steam spewing from the wheels and, at 9:40, allowed us to board.
I had purchased tickets for the “parlor car,” which was the first class accommodation. Besides having individual chairs and tables, the parlor car had it’s own restroom and snack bar, with complimentary beverages and light snacks (muffins, biscotti and bagels). The lady who worked in that car was really nice, and a good conversationalist. On the trip north, we were the end car, which gave us some great photo ops of the rest of the train, as we went around curves. The car just in front of us was a platform car, where you could stand in the open air and enjoy the scenery.
At every opportunity - such as a railroad crossing, a park, or just a place to pull over on the road - cars were stopped and the people were standing outside, watching us pass and waving. It was really fun.
The scenery really was beautiful -- lots of sweeping vistas of the green valley floor, rivers and streams, and the mountains. The forested areas were mostly a mixture of aspens and spruce. One of the rivers we traveled beside for awhile was the Rio Los Pinos. Those of you who know our physical address will recognize that as the name of the street we live on. Interestingly, Rio Los Pinos -- River of the Pines -- is surrounded by spruce trees, but no pines! At Cumbres, which is the summit, the altitude was 10,015 feet.
Around 1:00 we pulled into the station at Osier, the half-way point on the full run of the Cumbres & Toltec, and our final destination, since we purchased the half trip. At Osier, we ate a wonderful lunch, which was included in the price of the train ticket. We could choose between a turkey dinner, a meatloaf dinner, or a soup/salad bar meal. All of the food was cooked fresh there, including the turkeys, which are roasted overnight for each day’s noon meal. Dan and I had the turkey dinner, and it really was delicious, more like a home cooked Thanksgiving meal than cafeteria food.
We had about an hour and fifteen minutes at Osier before we re-boarded the train. Instead of turning the train around, they just turned the engine around and brought it to the other end. So our car, which had been the last car going up, was the car right behind the engine, going back. Dan and I took advantage of this by standing on the small outside platform, directly behind the tender, during a good part of the return trip. It was the best view! There was a railing to hold onto. I thought it'd be scary, but it really wasn't. The train doesn't go too fast -- something like 13 miles per hour -- so there wasn't a lot of wind in our faces. Looking down on the tracks from the platform on the front of our car, and behind the engine.
We stopped at Cumbres Station to fill the tender with water.
Going downhill, the engineer released steam from the left side of the engine.
We pulled into the Chama station, on time, around 3:45 p.m. We were tired, so came back to our room to rest a bit before going to the High Country for dinner. It had come highly recommended, and we weren’t disappointed. We both had the New York strip dinner -- way too much food for me to finish off, but it was very good. Afterward, we drove north on the highway, paralleling the train tracks for a few miles. There was a light rain falling, but it didn’t take anything away from the beautiful scenery. In fact, it looked even greener because of the rain.
The next morning, Saturday, we would leave Chama, and return home, taking some pictures along the way. Those pictures and narrative will be a separate post.