Due to so many stops and overnights there, I had become a creature of habit. First, there would be a gas-up at the Mobil station, then up the street to the City Market and back down to the Holiday Inn, where I would hang out in the rear parking area along the roaring Animas River. A picnic table under a grove of elms always provided me with a perfect setting to relax, sketch, write, or even watercolor…and sometimes spend the night. But, like I said before, Thursday, April 7th, 1999, was going to be a little out of the ordinary. The bike was the ticket.
I pedaled around downtown (two blocks removed from my familiar zone of activity), and found it all too gentrified in its attempt to attract tourism…a common practice of towns near ski areas. Heck, Raton was real. So, I ventured over to a graveled parking lot, and through an open gate with a sign reading: “Authorized Personnel Only”. Big deal, it was wide open. I was hoppin’ and boppin’ over railroad tracks, the first real test for my all-terrain bike. With a twitch of an eye, I found myself thrust into a realm of the past – an actual working roundhouse and turntable. All color dissipated…it was a montage of black and white, just as it was supposed to be…grease and grime everywhere. I casually wandered into the roundhouse. It was a sight to behold. There were four magnificent steam locomotives (all 2-6-2’s), resting resplendently over their respective service pits. Two of them had their massive drive wheels removed. I couldn’t imagine what they were doing. I did remember a chestnut of steamers: “It takes five minutes to find the problem, and five hours to fix it.”(with diesels, it was just the opposite). Or were the mechanics just re-greasing the wheel bearings?
My curiosity was running rampant, but fortunately I had the prescience to realize I was already off-limits. So far, no authorized personnel had come around to question my presence. I stretched my luck, roaming around the engines and gawking at how incredibly those machines were put together. The steam locomotive was the quintessence of man-made steel put in to motion…how’s that for an epitaph? I even clambered an engine cab for a few moments of fantasization, throttling at 80 mph across the plains of Nebraska. As I was about to leave the premises, I noticed a narrow aisle separated by a guard rail at the “front” of the roundhouse. Obviously, it was the corral-like containment where they herded the tourists through, so that all they could see was the rear-end of the coal tenders (the locomotives were backed in from the turntable). Meanwhile, I was getting away with murder.
I was about to pull off my Great Escape, when I was confronted by a mechanic. I threw up my hands and said, “I just rolled in here on my bike, and was wandering around, looking at these beautiful engines. I didn’t see any danger in that.” His response was, “Yeah, maybe not, but you get near a blowtorch at 1500 degrees, that’s not safe. Best you be gettin’ on outta here. If you want to get on with a tour, you can sign up at the depot.” I thanked him for his advice, and scrambled on out of there. As I was hitching up the bike, I was thinking: “Wow, what a wild and wonderful experience that was. You did it, Early…you did something on a dare.”
I headed due north on U.S. 550, a.k.a., the Million Dollar Highway (an appellation which I will emboss later), wondering how long the tracks of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge (remember D.& S.N.G.?) would remain in view. I was hoping they would parallel the highway, but instead, the tracks soon disappeared into the unknown. Over a good 20 miles, the highway rose gracefully with passing lanes and ample shoulders. I thought: “Could they have improved this road all the way to Silverton?” I quickly found out otherwise – three wide lanes shrunk to two narrow, twisting and turning lanes, with an appreciable increase in the degree of ascent (about 6 %). It was anything but a tortuous drive, since I considered myself a fairly seasoned mountain negotiator, after living in and/or driving through Colorado for the last 20 years. In fact, I was reveling at every turn.
And speaking of negotiating hairpin turns, one of the allurements of traveling in April in Colorado was that the road was not clogged with flatlanders in their RV’s and SUV’s. In fact, I had the road all to myself. The other beauty was, of course, the majestic, snow-capped peaks of the San Juans, the same mountain range I had seen 20 miles east of Durango earlier that day. Only now, they were so close and foreboding, they seem to say: “If you honk, I’ll throw an avalanche on top of you.” I pulled off on a siding to photograph some of the splendor, and wouldn’t you know, the batteries were dead in the camera. My instantaneous urge to shout profanities was quickly muffled by a fear of starting a snow-slide. I gathered my composure, and slowly descended to Silverton.
Now there was a town that seemed isolated from the rest of the world, sitting at an elevation of 9,500 feet in a bowl, completely surrounded by mountains. I had just surmounted two passes of over 10,000 feet, and I felt like I was on top of the U. S. of A. The cold, thin air gave clarity and definition to everything around me. I cruised up Main Street (the only paved street in town), made a U-turn, and eventually spotted a Kodak Shop – just what the doctor ordered (I hoped). Sure enough, the little shop with the little lady had the little pellet-sized batteries for the ol’ Minolta. The proprietor had one of those unforgettable faces – a wide, pleasant smile that spread across a smooth, tanned skin, with a hint of Native American descent. She was friendly, yet reserved, but I could sense she was eager for conversation. After all, it was the off-season, and I seemed to be the only “tourist” in town. I commented on how “original” the town appeared…not all gussied up for greed’s sake. I even went so far as to mention the quagmire of the side streets. Her reply was, “Yes sir, we’re proud of the town just as it is, just like it was more than a hundred years ago. Sure, some of the store fronts have been repainted, but that’s about it.” Then I asked her, “I’m really curious. How many hours of actual daylight do you get here around Christmas time (nearest to the Winter Solstice), with all these mountains around you?” She answered, “On the shortest days, the sun comes up about 9 AM and sets around 3:30. Yes sir, we scramble to get things done in those six and a half hours.” She was a delight to talk to.