Awestruck in high country

It’s hard for an Easterner like me to get his brain around the enormity, grandeur and diversity of the terrain New Mexico and southern Colorado have to offer. And as we directed ourselves northwest, our hours behind the wheel left us speechless as we contemplated the beauty of nature in the high country.

From the unexpected and stunning drive through Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Tx., to the desert and rising mesas of New Mexico, to the promise of the Rockies and the deer-dotted ride from Santa Fe to Durango, Colo., we began to fully appreciate just how big and wondrous this country is.

There really are no adequate words to describe the view, and we began to have difficulty taking photographs and videos as we plodded along. Every vista proved more breath-taking than its predecessor; each bend in the road presented us with another “wow” moment. It’s as if Nature long ago had a “top this” contest with herself, and in the process created her own rock, sand, river and tree equivalent of the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art, the Field Museum, and the Uffizi all in one.

After a luxurious soak in a spa followed by a couples massage in Durango (so much for roughing it), we asked one of our massage therapists for advice on where to head next. “How many weeks do you have?” she asked, setting the stage for the next few days of our journey that promise to once again up the ante in our search for this nation’s beauty.

Earlier in the day, we got a glimpse of the remote backcountry around Durango, where temperatures in the 60s and a brilliant cloudless blue sky did little to wrestle the snow’s command of the mountains. It was a heavy winter for snow, we heard all around Durango, and the higher one goes the deeper becomes the snow while the sun becomes warmer. It is a baffling contradiction of Nature, that one could get as sunburned as I did while crunching through several feet of snow.

Our access to this undeveloped wonderland into the San Juan National Forest was provided by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a four-hour round trip through history “through the remote Rocky Mountains of Southwest Colorado.” The 1923 engine – which one of the on-board crew proudly related has never missed a day of service – chewed through over six tons of coal and a few hundred gallons of water as it chugged and cranked through the fields of Durango, the foothills of the mountains, and finally along narrow footholds carved from the mountainside.

Imagine the effort it took to create this track – which legend has it was completed in nine months – it was fun to think about 19th century luxury travelers rocking back and forth and sipping a beverage as they made their way across the land.

Our engineer, Mike Nichols, was a terrific ambassador for the captivating essence of trains as we rested for an hour at the trip’s turnaround point high in the mountains, appropriately named Cascade.

Adorned in the classic engineer’s garb of overalls, red bandanna and engineer’s cap, Nichols’ eyes twinkled and the smile wrinkles around his eyes worked overtime as he described his life’s work.

“My dad was an engineer, and he used to take me to the roundhouse twice a month to pick up his check,” he related, smiling. “That’s what ruined my life.” He’s been an engineer for 37 years, 16 on the D&SNGRR, and this is a guy whose work is clearly his first love.

He proudly showed off the engine’s dials, gauges and opened the firebox’s jaws to show the blazing coal fire within. He explained the propulsion and braking systems with the knowledge of a man not only intimately familiar with the train’s workings but also capable of repairing it should something break down – as has happened – on the last leg of the trip. Once it passes Rockton, one of the train’s staff explained to us, there’s no road access, so the crew is pressed into dual duty as onboard mechanics.

The train itself was worthy of an entire blog entry, but its intent is to provide access to the mountains to lowlanders who otherwise would be left to imagine its beauty or breathlessly witness it in the pages of a photo book. Trouble is, anything I write, or any photos I post, would not do the stunning views justice.

Craggy, snow-covered peaks, where tall pines clung to the near-vertical mountains in defiance of the elements, plunged to green-watered gorges, the product of glacial excavation millions of years ago. An occasional wilderness camp cropped up before we hit high country, but the land otherwise is untouched.

It is beautiful, enormous, and humbling beyond description or belief, and we spent most of the ride in an open air car, leaving the inappropriate “comfort” of the parlor car. It felt right to be as close to this as we could get for the brief time we were invited within.

As I write this, the sun is rising against the snow covered mountains, and the workmen who call the Super 8 home are packing their thermoses with coffee and starting the day. We spent an extra day in Durango, an outdoor lovers’ paradise (they even have two kayak slalom courses on the Animas River, open to community use) that left me wondering how and why I never lived here. It’s paradise, far as I’m concerned.

And now it’s on to Mesa Verde and the deeper glimpses of grandeur Nature has to offer as we head north into Colorado then to Utah.

What awaits us are more oohs, ahhs and heart stopping moments as we dive deeper into the wonders and magic of unspoiled America.

      One comment

      • fbk

        Wow …. was this written with love, or what??? You are starry-eyed and done in, I can see. And I can relate. Trying to write to my parents from the road 38 years ago, during a four-week trip across the country by car, left me likewise wanting for truly on-target description. It IS a magnificent country, isn’t it …. (and they didn’t have spas then or couples massages!) I am thrilled about being taken along for this ride … ESPECIALLY by train, my favorite way to travel … fbk

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