USA - SEPTEMBER 2002
It was just getting dark as I arrived here in Chama, New Mexico, and the petrol station was just closing. I couldn't even get a coffee! So I asked where was the cheapest motel around, to which the reply was "just across the road".
Can't remember how much I paid, but it was cheap enough and excellent value for money - and there was a small shop next door that did serve coffee.
I asked the landlady about eating in the town, and she directed me up the road a mile or two into town for a meal. It seems that here at the motel I was not quite in Chama, but on the periphery.
It was a nice walk up into town in the dark, and I couldn't help but notice on the way up - "Live Music Tonight" in one of the small bars. A big fan of live music, me, so I reckoned on calling in on the way back.
Landlady's choice turned out to be a traditional small-town diner/bar where I had an excellent Mexican chili bean something.
I changed my mind about the live music evening on the way back when I saw 4 people in the audience and heard the strains of "I lost control of my 18-wheeler and ran over my dog". I went to get an early night.
It's such a shame. As I said, I love live music but most country and western music is so awful, and much of the rest is just plain banal. But if Widespread Panic can make the effort to come to see me when I'm in the USA, then why can't Alison Krauss? I'd love to have a fiddle with her and she can sing to me all night.
Don't by the way confuse this particular Alison Krauss with the arguably-more-famous Allison Krause - one of the four students shot dead by the National Guard at Kent State University in May 1970 and about whom Neil Young wrote the song "Four Dead in Ohio"
Next morning, I meant to have an early start, but it's just too easy to get sidetracked in rural North America. I mean, can you imagine someone parking something like this on your front porch - it just invites visitors.
It carries the "bow tie" insignia which, I reckon, makes it a Chevrolet, but I've no idea what. I'd say late 20's or so. In the "Hemmings" that I picked up in Ellsworth, Maine last year, there's a photo of a 1927 Landau, that looks not-too-dissimilar from this, except that where the third rear window is on this one, the Landau has its folding hood
It looked fairly complete and basically sound, from what I could see. Anyone with some time on their hands and a modest amount of money could do something worthwhile with this. At least the owners have it under cover and out of the elements. That makes a pleasant change.
Anyone know anything more about it? If so, and I'll post your comments. There wasn't anyone about at the house to ask.
One thing I noticed was that it had solid pressed-steel wheels. I'd be interested in the date that these started to become fashionable, as on my travels both on this voyage and on subsequent voyages, I'd come across a great deal of wreckage that had the remains of wooden-spoked wheels.
It would certainly help me for dating puposes if I could at least work that out.
As I've said before, one thing I like about driving everywhere without a tourist guidebook is that suddenly you find something totally unexpected - and that certain something can be one of the most interesting parts of the whole journey.
THE CUMBRES AND TOLTEC RAILROAD
If you've been reading the story attentively
(you have, haven't you?)
you'll have realised that the only reason I stop for the night at a particular location, with the exception of Flagstaff, Santa Fe and Carbondale if you can bear to read to the end) is because it's getting dark! And driving in the dark for no good reason means you are likely to miss important and interesting things.
Consequently when I found myself driving past a scene like this at 8.00 in the morning - well, I bet you would have stopped too.
I remembered the previous evening groping my way up into the village from my motel in the pitch-black night and stumbling over some railway lines. I wondered what they were doing here and all kinds of speculation went through my mind. Well, I can safely say that I never expected anything like this at all
So, finding a suitable place to park the brumsie, I went off to make a few enquiries, like you do well, like some of us do.
But you take my point about driving anywhere in the dark. I'd have gone right past all of this. It was right across the road from where I had eaten the previous evening. I was probably not 50 yards from here, on foot too, and I hadn't noticed anything at all.
The story is, so I was told by a guy in a railway carriage, that this whole area of the San Juan Mountains is riddled with mining and other mineral-extracting activity, and it had been exploited by the white man for years, at considerable risk to himself from the angry natives.
Whatever was found was packed out of the area on mules down into the valleys where riverboats or wagon trains took it off east to the centres of production.
Afer the America Civil War ended in 1865, the American economy underwent a rapid period of expansion. Demand for the minerals soared, and this meant that pack-mules, waggon trains, riverboats and the like were no longer the answer to the transport question.
Consequently in the late 1870s the Denver and Rio Grande proposed a whole system of railways over the mountains from the mines to Denver. This involved some massive construction, of which any engineer can be proud, and a narrow-gauge trackbed which (if my eyes do not deceive me) has a width of 3 feet. I was told that it runs at gradients of as much is 4% - which is steep for a road over a distance, never mind a railway.
Although things went swimmingly at the beginning, the first signs of difficulty came as early as 1893 when the US Government stopped making silver coinage. This led to the closure of many of the silver lines along the route.
The depression of the late 1920s followed by the construction of the "New Deal" highways in the 1930s started the decline of the mountain railways, and permanent rail services ended here in 1951.
The track was finally abandoned in 1967, and once closure was confirmed, the states of New Mexico and Colorado launched a combined effort to preserve what they could of the narrow-gauge industrial heritage.
This led in 1970 to the purchase of 64 miles of railway line and a "lock stock and barrel" assortment of locomotives, carriages, trucks and equipment from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
This 64 miles makes it the longest narrow-gauge steam railway in the whole of the Americas.
It is also the highest - reaching an incredible 10,015 feet as it crosses the Cumbres Pass just up the road from here.
Note to self - go to the Cumbres Pass and check this out. It must be superb
Judging by all of the railway equipment lying around here, they really did make an all-inclusive deal with the Denver and Rio Grande.
A couple of the photos above here show a traditional snow-plough attached to the front of an engine, but here you can see a pair of rotary snow blowers.
They are just normal railway engines encased in a wooden housing and with an enormous fan on the front. This fant turns at speed and blows all the snow away from off the railway lines in front of the trains.
Apparently they are in full working order too, and in winter regularly take to the rails to clear a route through the snow. I was impressed by this. I can imagine just how much snow they would get around here in the wintertime at 10,000 feet up in the Rockies or wherever we are.
One of my eternal gripes about North America is that "preservation" means "slap a few coats of paint over the rust, no-one will notice it". You've probably noticed my remarks about this from Cheyenne and Flagstaff, if you've been following my site with any kind of attention.
Well, it was round about here that I began to have a second opinion, as you can well understand when you see all of this.
I wondered what kind of repair facility they would have - I mean, the maintenance of a fleet of steam engines isn't a project to be undertaken lightly.
I expected something, but nothing quite like this. I'm not used to seeing workshops as well-equipped as these here. Cold and draughty they may be, everything is under cover and they've enough machinery here to be able to cope with most engineering problems.
By the looks of things they're not afraid to tackle major restoration either. Judging by other railway preservation workshops I have seen, I would imagine that any steam locomotive that came out of here would probably last for ever.
Seeing the work that is going on here in an attempt to keep this fleet of steam engines on the road (or should that be "on the rails") gives me quite a bit of encouragement, and revised my opinions about American preservation techniques.
I know a couple of other steam trains, and even a Lancaster bomber in Canada, that would benefit from a visit up to here.
But the future of the railway is apparent from the photograph just here. There are nothing but buses and cars full tourists and willing volunteers out for the day on a Sunday to take the train to nowhere in particular, just for the ride on a preserved steam train here in the USA and to enjoy the view.
And its route through the Toltec Gorge down to Denver is apaprently a view to enjoy. It has inspired many writers to wax lyrical about it.
A travel writer called John Pitt, in a book called "USA By Rail" (that I picked up in a library clearance sale in 2005) reckons that "it remains one of the world's most scenic routes, taking you through the Rockies by way of tunnels and breathtaking trestles".
Well, I have to tell you that from the little I saw of it, it certainly looked spectacular enough to me, and if I'd have had more time I'd have gone with them to enjoy it myself!
So after what I reckoned was a good half an hour of whistle-blowing, the train finally departed into the sunset (well, actually, it was the sunrise but don't let's go getting the facts in the way of a nice piece of prose.)
I had to say that I was extremely pleased that at least someone was doing something to keep some part of history alive in the USA.
Passenger-carrying transport means not only revenue to maintain the equipment, but it also imposes a public liability insurance requirement on the part of the operator, in case there's a rail crash and someone gets hurt. And insurance (if the USA is anything like the UK) means annual inspections of steam machinery to make sure it's safe to admit the public. And annual inspections means enforced maintenance.
So there's hope yet for the railway here. At least there always has to be someone with their eye on the ball.
Before I left, I had a quick poke around the junk pile at the back, like you do (well, like some of us do, anyway). How about this on the left? A Caterpillar V8 diesel? Well, it's not that I'm saying that it's big, but you'd measure its capacity in cubic metres, not cubic centimetres.
I'd just been on a biodiesel course, and I was "into" diesel-powered machinery. I reckoned that it could power an alternator big enough for the needs of everyone in my village at home, not just me. I wonder how much that would cost to ship back to Europe? I could have endless hours of fun with a beastie like this.
One final thing to do, and that is the question of the gift shop. I think that this is probably a good time to explain my principles when in places like this, in connection with the entrance fee for any attraction.
Well, seeing as what I had just been doing didn't cost me anything at all, I staggered out of the gift shop under the combined weight of a good book and pile of tee-shirts for my friends back in Europe. You can draw your own conclusions from that.
So - that was the railway that was, then. And I was getting ready to leave. But Chama hadn't quite finished surprising me. It's just amazing the things that keep on turning up. Like this BSA A50 here on the right outside a bar. Now you don't even see many of them in the UK these days on the road, so seeing one in the States was quite a surprise (at least, I was surprised).
You can see it's an A50 and not an earlier A7 because it's a "unit" twin (the gearbox and engine are in "one piece", and not separate) and the single carb means that it'll chug along forever. Oh happy days from when I was a kid! If only BSA had stuck to their guns ... Mind you, I bet he's fitted a different jet in the carburettor than the standard one. The thinness of the air up at this altitude would make the engine run quite lean, and you'd need to richen up the mixture. I loitered around to see if the owner would expose himself, but no such luck and eventually I wandered off.
But not to show that my mind is permanently cluttered up with mechanical exhibits (well, actually it is, but you have to make a special effort for the non-technically minded amongst us), here are just a couple of photographs of the town of Chama.
This photo shows the restaurant where I ate the previous evening. It's the last building on the right, and the entrance is at the side down the alleyway. Did I mention the good plate of chili beans without cheese that I had? Well, if New York New York is so good that they named it twice then I can certainly mention my chili beans again.
You can see that Chama is a typical western mountain town like many others you encounter up here in the hills. However it manages to remain relatively unspoilt, which is always a pleasure to see.
I'm getting sick and tired of towns that are "modernised" or "improved" to suit the tourist taste, when most real tourists want to see the real town in all its original glory. Heaven help us if they decide to build a theme park out of something like this.
Like most good towns, there are always two ways to leave. Chama was no exception. The direct road in the Carbondale direction was Highway 84 to Baxterville over the Wolf Creek Pass of 10850 feet, whereas there was a much longer way that went
You surely don't need any clues to work out which road I took.
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