Durango & The Million Dollar Highway

The lull of the locomotive whistle echoes through the canyon entering town once more after its journey along the High Line and beside the Animas River, raging and still roaring despite the chill of the early autumn air. Golden aspens embrace the hillsides as the scarlet leaves start appearing. Clickity Clack – Clickity Clack with the bumping and jostling over the narrow gauge tracks. Yes, the Durango & Silverton Railroad harkens one back to the era of yesteryear. Its home base remains in Durango, Colorado, making daily treks 365 times a year through Cascade Canyon and along the river’s path to the still rustic town of Silverton where only one road finds itself paved on the stretch of the Million Dollar Highway.

This blogger and our illustrious photographer visited the area, a long-time favorite of the writer’s, in the middle of September. It would be quite the adventure, full of majestic beauty, and also the dawn of a new chapter in the pair’s lives as well. Durango, Colorado sits west of the Sangre de Cristos and nestled on the foothills of the San Juan Range of the rugged Rocky Mountains. In fact, the area boasts its claim as the steepest and most rugged portion of the entire Rocky Mountain Range. The artsy town celebrates its western heritage and showcases the round house and depot of the old steam train. Adventurers, history buffs, and train aficionados can relive the glimpse into the Victorian days with the daily excursions.

Established in 1881 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad as a new hub, the town of Durango built and thrived all for the rails themselves. The town of Animas City just to the north failed to provide a dowry to leer the railroad men to their own town. So, the company created its own beacon to serve the San Juan mining region. Taking its name as its predecessors of Durango, Mexico, and Durango, Spain, Durango implied its purpose with its meaning. Durango means watering town. It would be here that the great iron horses would fill themselves with the water necessary to provide its steam as it powered its own course over the cliffs and rocky terrain. Eventually businesses left Animas City for the new home of the railroad, finally causing the forgotten town to absorb into a part of Durango in 1948.

One finds two options to depart the tourist town. First, of course, is the narrow gauge railroad itself where one travels along a route no automobile may follow, rising 400 feet above the raging Animas River below while avoiding near misses with rocky cliffs on the other side for a stretch. The two-mile High Line took quite some time to forge, costing General Palmer who commenced the stretch of rails roughly $1,000 per foot of the journey. Reports of women in the camp in Rockwood indicated that the rocks of debris sometimes crashed like meteorites into their village while their men blew their way through with nitroglycerin, frequently enduring near misses. And many other stories exist in the Railroad Museum back in Durango’s depot.

The second path is the Hwy 550, better known as the Million Dollar Highway. Spiraling from its origin in Durango, the two lane highway leads onlookers forward through Coal Bank Pass and cresting at Molas Pass at just over 10,000 feet and staring into the vastness of the high mountains. A powdered dusting reminiscent of confectioner’s sugar stays sprinkled across the peaks, the remnants of its lower elevation touch sparkling as the sun melts it from nearby rocks. The vibrant colors of the fall appear to burst into bloom merely overnight. From Molas Pass one drops a little into Silverton, meeting the early morning train first from the depot 39 miles away. Its whistle announces its arrival as it exits the canyon and makes the curve into the long ago mining town. The local storefronts and cafes anxiously await the hungry passengers as they take their lunch layover. Steam billows from the black locomotive as it chugs its way into town with excited sight seers capturing the bygone era image on film and others watch with the fascination of a child.

Just what is it about trains that so excite people? I, myself, am not lost of this. Knowing how it forged the way for our wonderful country to grow, perhaps? Reliving the days we loved watching of Wyatt Earp and the Victorian pioneers? If not for the invention of the steam engine, the progression of our grand land and its expansion would not have occurred. There’s one thing to remember too though: it also brought about the near annihilation of a race of people who truly loved this earth before us and who possessed such a sacred way of life, the Native Americans. As a woman with Cheyenne blood deep down in my veins I’ve always felt a fascination with the Native Americans as well. But still the romanticism of the railroad and the chance of a farewell and wave to someone taking off on a grand adventure lure me. And that is, indeed, the wonderful thing about trains. They don’t just take us away, but they also bring us home again.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad always held a special place in my heart. I remember first visiting it at the tender age of four. My family loved to travel, often spending 3 weeks every summer out and about, exploring beautiful places. Those moments with my grandparents along with us always make my heart warm and sometimes bring tears of happy memories to my eyes. When I was four, my grandmother walked with me near the engine as the pressure led the whistle to blow. I couldn’t escape fast enough as Grandma held me up off the ground. She was lucky, she always told me. If she hadn’t lifted me off the ground, my little legs were rapidly racing to run. I still have the little wooden toy that mimics the whistle of the iron horse as I blow into it. Grandpa loved taking his pictures and that was the trip I remember him taking his on the real camera and I sat beside him, snapping away on my toy camera.

When I was in high school, we returned again. On our ride back into Durango, our train broke down half way along the tracks. What an adventure to see how they did it before modern technology with the brake man scrambling away down to where we’d passed with a flag, prepared to notify the following train of our ordeal. It gave a new glimpse into how life must’ve been as our trip was delayed another hour and a half. It was a long, hot afternoon, but yet the memories live on.

Two trips later again and now I journeyed with our devoted photographer, anxious to let him see the marvels of the scenery. Always wishing my grandfather could have met him, each sharing the love of the camera and Mother Nature, and with a hint of old-fashioned charm, I felt grandpa very much with us that trip. After tricking me into posing for a photograph beside the caboose in Silverton the day after our train ride, Brent set up his tripod, directing me into the frame. He told me the timer was set and started to race over. Thinking he would sweep in with his arm around me as he often has in our photos together, I grew stunned as he dropped on one knee, producing a little box, and asked the simple question, “Will you marry me?”

At first, I thought perhaps he was joking. We talked about it and felt like we were already partners in many ways, including this very own business venture and blog. But he managed to lead me off suspicion, suggesting we couldn’t afford a ring yet. Then I saw the camera and remembered he set the timer and I realized he was serious. Of course, I said, “Yes,” and was greeted with his great grandmother’s ring. Grandpa would have smiled with joy that day, and I know he was most certainly with us. He would be proud to know my partner. Now, the train held even more a special place in my heart.

From Silverton, one continues to follow the winding and twisting Million Dollar Highway toward Ouray. An eighteen mile journey easily becomes a three-hour ordeal as the landscape and ever-changing gold mine of autumn leaves and mining remains cause travelers to awe at their beauty. Even a photograph does not capture how truly awesome the scenery is. Ouray captures the spirit of the old west, surrounded by forests and cliffs, a relaxing hot springs available to its guests. You could stop here and end your journey. Or you could continue as we did onward to Telluride.

Still, nothing prepares you for the incredible glory of the Million Dollar Highway. The San Juan Mountains possess every bit the true images of the west. It must be this incredible path that beckoned adventurers, pioneers, dreamers, and other Easterners to travel west. The Rocky Mountains are awash with grandeur and majesty here. A simple weekend is not near enough time to savor its royal richness. While traveling back through the highway and back to base, one feels like they truly have stepped back in time. No wonder the land was holy to the Native Americans. It’s like a painting. I glance back to the photographer, now to be my life partner and love, and smile. Paradise on earth is indeed the San Juan region.

Each of the destinations along the Million Dollar Highway and the trip of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad will be expanded upon in the next few blog entries. Please visit us to read more and learn more as well.

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