almost -- it is possible to believe it is the late 19th century and Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson are in the coach just ahead, traveling back to Dodge City to aid their friend in arms, Luke Short.
Almost, it is possible to feel the shock that gripped a trainload of passengers in 1881 when they arrived at the isolated Toltec telegraph station on the edge of awesome Toltec Gorge to learn that President James A. Garfield had been assassinated. They held a memorial service and passed the hat to build what is today the country's most isolated monument to a national leader.
Almost, one can feel the excitement of the westward movement as a narrow-gauge train rumbles through canyons, meadows and mountains that are mostly as isolated and unspoiled as they were when the first railroad surveyors broke trail in the 1870s.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is not an amusement-park train. It is a trip backward to an era of steel rails and iron men, when expanding steam was harnessed to do battle with the mountains and gorges that hid the wealth of Colorado and New Mexico. The C&TS is for those who want to spend a day in a remote corner of the Earth, reliving a bit of history.
Little has changed since Gen. William Jackson Palmer pushed his booming narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railroad into the mountains a century ago. "Development" has little meaning to the Colorado-New Mexico central border area where the land often is more vertical than horizontal. For more than 40 of the 64 miles from Chama, N.M., to Antonito, Colo., there are no roads, no cabins, no man-made structures of any kind except the railroad and the buildings and water tanks built to support it.
And C&TS has held change to a minimum.
The steam locomotives blasting upgrade to Cumbres Pass and easing along the cliffs of Toltec Gorge are the same locomotives that carried generations of passengers and freight to the boom-and-bust silver country. The cars rumbling along behind are the same freight cars, changed only by windows cut in their wooden sides and seats for passengers (although increasing passenger loads have required the building of some new cars).
They roll over rails that have carried history. A new generation of tourists now follows the steel trail that carried Earp, Masterson, Doc Holliday and thousands of others to the rowdy camps at Silverton, that carried white schoolteachers to the Indian reservation at Dulce, and ranchers home to Chama, and fishermen and hunters to the high country, that carried silver ore and lumber east, and canned goods and oil drilling pipe west.
There are no fake "outlaw" attacks or other staged events on this ride. The engines and cars are painted the same black and "boxcar red" as the day they were brand new. The coal dock and water tower and engine shed at Chama are almost unchanged. In important ways, time is suspended for a day.
Because snow is king in the high country, C&TS has a relatively short operating season -- June 15 to Oct. 13. Trains leave daily from both Chama (at 10:30 a.m.) and Antonito (at 10 a.m.) and meet at Osier, Colo., a deserted old railroad town, where a substantial lunch is served in the old section house (where track workers once lived as they tended to their section of track).
That leaves the possibility of several itineraries: A round trip over half the line from either Chama or Antonito, returning from Osier to Chama at 4:30 p.m. or Antonito at 5 p.m. Fares are $25 for adults and $10 for children 11 and under. A through trip from Chama to Antonito by train, returning by highway van to Chama at 6:35 p.m. Another option is to begin the trip by van from Antonito at 9:15 a.m. and use the train to return to Antonito. This fare is $39.50 for adults and $20 for children.
* A through trip from Antonito to Chama by train, returning by van to Antonito at 5:30 p.m. Again, there is the option of making the van the beginning of the trip, leaving Chama at 8 a.m. The fare also is $39.50 for adults and $20 for children.
* A through trip in either direction, using your own return transportation, at $35 for adults and $17.50 for children.
* The "overnight special," taking the train both ways with an overnight motel stop in either Chama or Antonito, for $119 per person double occupancy or $129 single, with children $55 each. These rates include the train fare and the motel, plus lunch at Osier both days and dinner and breakfast at the overnight stop.
For a variety of reasons, it is better to begin any through trip from Chama, a remote town nestled in the mountains. Antonito is a dusty little town in the middle of the flat San Luis Valley, although local folks are on a campaign to provide more facilities and promote the recreation possibilities around the rim of the valley.
Chama also is a more interesting town to explore, partly because walking tours of the largely unchanged rail yards are encouraged. In addition to the old coal tower, the engine house and original station, the yards are crammed with old railroad equipment ranging from locomotives and cars to the rotary snow plows that once kept the line open through the fierce winters.
Chama also has a greater variety of lodges and hotels, ranging from comfortable hunting lodges to some charming (but not luxury) "downtown" hotels -- the Shamrock and Foster's.
If time and budget permit, a through trip is better than the turn at Osier. The two halves of the line are vastly different. The western half (the Chama side) is highlighted by the steep climb to Cumbres through the aspen and evergreens. The eastern half (Antonito) has the most scenic point on the line, the 1,100-foot Toltec Gorge, where you look more than 600 feet straight down to the cascading Rio de Los Pinos from a shelf cut into the side of the nearly vertical gorge walls. The gray rock walls and narrowness of this gorge tend to strike a sense of awe and foreboding in those who pass through.
In short, the western end is pretty and spectacular, the eastern end rugged and spectacular.
Chama is the best starting point not only because it is a pleasant off-the-beaten-path western town -- with one block of old stores, hotels and homey restaurants fronting on the one main road and overlooking the railroad yard -- but partly because of the climb up the Cumbres Pass grade, which begins a few miles east of town.
This 4 percent (rising four feet in elevation for every 100 feet traveled) grade often requires two locomotives, and the sight and sound of this double-header working at full power, blasting smoke and steam skyward, is awesome.
After following the canyon of Wolf Creek for 10 miles or so, the railroad takes several sweeping curves along a mountainside and around Windy Point, affording a sweeping view of the valley below and the mountains to the west and south. From a shelf on the side of the mountain, you can see for miles, almost all the way back to Chama. In the valley below, which glistens with thousands of golden aspen in the fall, you also can see a seemingly tiny streak of rail, revealing just how far the train has climbed.
Cumbres Pass, at 10,015 feet, is the highest railroad pass still in use in the United States. The old station still is intact, and often the train stops for water, allowing a walk around the grassy mountaintop. (Look to the left as you pass Cumbres station. Those large wooden structures over the spur track are snow sheds, once needed when it was necessary to turn helper locomotives in the winter.)
From Cumbres, the train rounds Tanglefoot Curve, where it doubles back on itself and begins the slow descent down to the pleasant Los Pinos meadows, a large, flat expanse of marshy grassland surrounded by pine-covered hills. Making a wide sweeping curve at the Los Pinos water tank, the railroad leaves civilization. There will be no more highways, no more buildings other than railroad buildings for the rest of the day.
At Osier, the lunch stop, the Los Pinos River has begun to fall away into a craggy canyon that gives only a hint of the yawning chasm ahead.
Toltec Gorge. The name alone brings goosebumps to anyone who has seen it. Those with a fear of heights should move to the left side of the car at this point. It was necessary for the railroad builders to blast a narrow shelf along the side of the volcanic rock, and at one point even that was not possible and a rickety bridge (later replaced by a more substantial rock wall) was built out from the side of the gorge. So for a few hundred feet, it is possible to look straight down into the depths of the gorge.
Just before the train creeps out onto the rock wall (there is no speeding alongside the gorge), look to the right for the Garfield monument.
Immediately after the rock wall, the train moves into the safety of a tunnel, one of two on the line. This one is called the Rock Tunnel, the other the Mud Tunnel.
Just before the Mud Tunnel, a few miles later, the railroad passes through a series of strange pinnacle-like rock formations, named Phantom Curve by early train crews because at night, the locomotive headlight would silhouette those formations on the far canyon walls like dancing ghosts.
From the Mud Tunnel, the railroad wanders about the canyons created by the tributaries of the Los Pinos, through the abandoned railroad settlements of Sublette and Big Horn, around so many curves that it often is possible to see several levels of track that you traversed miles before or soon will traverse. (When the first passenger trains plunged into these mountains, gamblers would take bets on what direction on the compass the train would be headed exactly five minutes later.)
From Lava Tank, the railroad sweeps down into the San Luis Valley to Antonito and civilization. As the train descends around the hills and into the flatlands, mountains and canyons drop from sight and the land is transformed into a treeless, semi-arid plain.
A few tips for riding the narrow gauge:
* Bring warm clothing and wear boots or heavy shoes, even during the middle of the summer. Weather in the high country is unpredictable, and the converted freight cars are unheated.
* Be prepared for semirustic conditions. There are rudimentary rest rooms on the coaches and simple facilities at Osier, and it is possible to buy snacks on the train and lunch at Osier. But don't expect luxury, and don't expect to be able to get off and go to the corner drugstore if you forgot your medication.
* Eat the lunch at Osier rather than packing a picnic lunch. For $6 ($3.75 for children), you have a choice of a Spanish buffet or a barbecue buffet, both hefty and good.
* Make reservations in advance, especially for weekends, far in advance for the fall when the aspen are turning gold. General Manager Dan Ranger said he expects heavy bookings well in advance for the last three weeks of September and the first two of October. He suggests making reservations three weeks in advance for September. And he pointed out that most weekends are sold out in advance because that's when local people ride. Reservations are available from C&TS, P.O. Box 789, Chama, N.M. 87520, or P.O. Box 668, Antonito, Colo. 81120. The phone numbers are (505) 756-2151 in Chama and (303) 376-5483 in Antonito.
* Read the history of the area, and learn something of the geography in advance. Much of the history of the westward movement and the Spanish incursions was written within a few hundred miles of the C&TS.
The survival of the C&TS is a part of the area's history. It is a railroad that would not exist today if not for a combination of factors.
The Rio Grande Railroad built west to reap the harvest of the silver boom of the 19th century, but the boom went bust almost immediately and by all logic the railroad should have been abandoned decades ago, as were the thousands of miles of other narrow gauge lines that honeycombed Colorado.
The Chama-Antonito line is part of what was the last surviving Colorado narrow gauge, a line that went from Alamosa, Colo., to Durango, Colo., with branches to Silverton, Colo., and Farmington, N.M. The Durango-Silverton line caught on as a tourist line in the 1950s and 1960s, and was assured of preservation, but the days of the Durango-Alamosa "main line" seemed numbered.
Passenger service through Chama ended in 1951. Freight service continued, fueled by an oil boom at Farmington, N.M., the lumber mills at Chama and Durango, and the annual movement of sheep from the high country. But freight service grew less and less frequent, down to less than once a week by the 1960s.
However, federal and state regulation -- many would say overregulation -- prevented abandonment until 1968. The Alamosa-Antonito segment remained in freight service as a standard-gauge line (the narrow gauge had shared the standard-gauge line that far, using a third rail). The Cumbres-Durango-Farmington segments were abandoned outright.
But preservationist sentiment was at its height throughout the country in the late '60s, and the states of Colorado and New Mexico were persuaded to buy the Antonito-Chama portion of the line for $547,120. It was whipped into shape almost entirely with volunteer labor, mostly local rail fans and former workers on the line.
The steam locomotives and old rolling stock survived for so many years after other railroads had been modernized because the tight curves and rugged country made it uneconomical to change the line from narrow gauge (with rails 3 feet apart) to standard gauge (4 feet 8 1/2 inches apart).
The Rio Grande could have bought diesels, but early narrow-gauge diesels did not work well on their tryouts in the high country, and the expense of modernization seemed excessive for a line that the railroad wanted to abandon anyway.
Economics, regulation, sentiment and tourism worked together over the years to preserve a slice of Americana. Year after year, it became clear that a museum was slowly being formed in one of the most rugged and remote areas of the country. The line became an anachronism, a time machine. And that's what makes it worth riding.