I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a conductor's cap and overalls.
Not romantically, but definitely in the romanticized sense. I mean, there's just something about a burly, soot-covered brakeman, looking a century out of place, politely weaving his way through tourists to join fellow train workers at a cafeteria table.
You see, workers on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad operate 1920s-era steam engines. Somebody's got to shovel coal, regulate the steam and so forth. This ain't Amtrak. This is the real deal. Well, with livestock and cargo swapped for tourists.
The C&T winds its way across the New Mexico-Colorado border 11 times on a 64-mile segment between the diminutive, quaint towns of Antonito, Colo., and Chama, N.M. Trains ride on a high-altitude, narrow gauge remnant of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway, completed in 1880.
Canopy and open air
My girlfriend and I decided to go round-trip to Chama, which entails a train ride there and a bus ride back. (Options are available to ride in the opposite order, go one-way, or go round-trip by train to the halfway point in Osier.) With trains departing at 10 a.m., we left the Springs after work on a Friday for a low-traffic night drive.
Taking Interstate 25 south through Walsenburg and Alamosa led us to the sleepy front porch of the River's Inn & Swiss Cottage in three hours. A cursory Web search revealed the Antonito B&B that morning, and charming, multilingual innkeeper Ursula Knobel Armijo agreed to stay up late for our arrival.
The four-room inn, also restored from the turn of the century, features fine antiques, original fixtures and elaborate woodwork. We climbed out of our carved canopy bed in the morning to a European-style breakfast of Swiss oatmeal and homemade crepes filled with organic zucchini, strawberries and rhubarb from Armijo's garden.
The other guests, consisting of two retiree couples who'd ridden the train the day prior, told us stories across a long, polished dining room table. I was scarcely able to pay attention, preoccupied by the ride ahead and notion of enjoying a carefree, traveling existence when I retire. 37 years to go. Sweet! (Be like the train. Be like the train. Keep on chuggin'.)
A two-minute drive from the inn put us trackside for check-in. We boarded to find school bus-like seats under large, sightseeing windows. We quickly deduced that we needed nothing from the dining/trinket car, and that the best ride and views would be from the open-air observation car.
We spent nearly the entirety of our roughly five-hour ride out under the sun, listening to the volunteer docents tell train history and stories about each section of the track and the scenery. The only drawback was the smoke and coal ash; it occasionally blew back into our faces, leaving tiny black crumbs in our hair and accidentally smudging across our arms, faces and clothing.
I didn't read until too late the bit in the brochure about not wearing white. Please, don't emulate me.
Ever skeptical of tourist activities, I aim to keep my mind open with one base assumption: Tourist destinations, like mainstream music, must at least possess something worthwhile enough to interest so many people. Not all things touristy suck.
Riding the C&T Railroad not only illustrated that, but it totally exceeded my expectations. I've never been a model-train guy, and only found generic novelty in Eurail-ing in college. But this day, I couldn't hear enough train talk and lore.
Chugging on high mesas, up switchbacks and through rock tunnels above the Rio de Los Pinos, we passed the high rock faces of the Toltec Gorge, and, later, Windy Point, next to the 10,000-foot ghost village of Cumbres, where railroad families used to winter under feet of snow. We saw whole mountainsides of aspens that begged for a fall viewing. We stopped in Osier, at one time a toll station on a wagon road, for a large buffet lunch with surprisingly good food (options: soup and salad, Thanksgiving-esque turkey dinner and meat loaf, potatoes and veggies).
On the bus ride back from Chama, we took catnaps before arriving back in Antonito by 5:45. Having polled several locals on which lower San Luis Valley option to choose for good Mexican food, we stopped into Calvillos Mexican Restaurant & Bar in Alamosa on the way home. Generous portions and a stiff margarita delivered what we were looking for.
All in all, our journey south via three forms of locomotion proved worth it for the comfortable lodging, good food and picturesque scenery. Not to mention the, um ... conductor's caps and whatnot.
River's Inn & Swiss Cottage
317 River St., Antonito, 719/376-6029, antonitobedandbreakfast.net
Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
Departing from Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo., daily, through Oct. 14 (opens in late May)
Rides ranging from $48 to $129 ($24 to $38, children); call 888/286-2737 or visit cumbrestoltec.com for more.