While we were on vacation in Colorado, my sister was looking through travel brochures and found a narrow gauge train trip. “This should be fun,” she said, “Let’s do it.” I was already tired of sight-seeing. But anything would be better than more steep mountain roads with sharp curves which made me feel as if the car was going to go over the edge of a cliff taking my stomach with it. A train has to stick to the rails unless it jumps the tracks or runs into the station, a possibility I refused to let my mind dwell on.
The locomotive was an old steam engine from the 1800’s fed with coal shoveled into a boiler to create the steam that powered the engine. “Narrow gauge,” I discovered means the rails are 3 feet wide instead of the usual 4 feet 8 inches. This enables the train to make sharper turns in steep mountain passages. Oh, goody!
According to history, and travel brochures, the trains were originally used to serve the gold and silver mines in the area. After the mining rush ended, most trains were scrapped. Only a few survived, one of which was the one we were riding.
The seats were hard and the ride bone-jarring with nothing to cushion us from the metal wheels on metal rails. Not only one of the longest surviving trains of the era, it was also one of the longest surviving rail lines, taking about eight hours to go from beginning to end. I was beginning to wonder if I would be one of their longest surviving passengers.
The old engine was barely able to make some of the steep climbs. We were in the first car behind the engine and could hear it huffing and puffing, reminding me of the children’s story the “Little Engine that Could,” “I think I can, I think I can,” it puffed. “I hope you can, I hope you can,” I thought.
We opened the windows so we could have an unobstructed view to make pictures. Sometimes a whiff of the engine’s smoke came inside and tiny cinders settled on the window sill, a reassuring occurrence. At one point we stopped to take on water at a tank reminiscent of the old TV show, “Petticoat Junction,” except there were no petticoats. After the boiler heated up, there was a large blast of steam and a rainbow appeared in the steamy mist causing “ooh’s” and “ah’s” from the passengers.
The mountain scenery was spectacular, to say the least. We snaked along on heart-stopping narrow ledges that were carved into the side of the mountains especially for the train. Sometimes the rails followed a creek which had managed to find a passage between mountain peaks. There were so many vistas of rocky peaks and broad valleys that I wore out my finger snapping pictures, not to mention killing the battery in my cell phone.
After my heart restarted, I saw the green spruce trees creating forests of Christmas trees on the hillsides. Due to the high elevation, the aspen trees had already changed to fall colors and the white bark and gold leaves stood in magnificent contrast to the evergreen trees. The round leaves of the aspen trees resembled gold coins hanging from the branches, an enchanting sight even when scared out of your wits.
There were hundreds tourists filling the cars of the train. We couldn’t figure out where they all came from. My sister overheard the conductor say the engine was pulling the maximum load that it could carry. I must have been right about the puffing of the engine. I didn’t want to think about what could happen if the engine gave out.
The trip took eight hours on the slow-moving old choo-choo. For the return trip, we boarded a sleek and comfortable bus that took only about an hour to return us to our starting place. Thank goodness we no longer have to depend on old steam trains for anything other than sightseeing, and possibly an occasional heart attack.
Copyright 2016 Sheila Moss