Winter Train

The echoes of “All Aboard!” hadn’t even faded as I clambered into the coach car, looking for my seat. I was ready, and this being the railroad, leaving on time is always a certainty. And sure enough, right on time, the winter train left the depot and headed into adventure and the wonderland ahead of me.

It’s been a few years since I last rode the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad winter photography tour. Yet, I instantly settled into the comfortable rhythm of being on the train. There’s something, a hard-to-describe something, about pulling out of the station, through the town of Durango, then into the mountains, which is exhilarating and comforting, both simultaneously. I settled into my seat, at least for the moment, and enjoyed the buildings, then later the forest, rolling by as we headed toward our first destination.

Sure, it was cold. It was deep winter, after all, and winters are cold. That’s OK. I am more than prepared for it, bundled up in layers, topped off by my arctic gear last used near the arctic circle in Alaska. It would be colder soon, anyway, when I stood in the snow, but that was yet to come and would not be an issue.

The Durango & SIlverton Narrow Gauge Railroad transforms itself

The Durango & Silverton sponsors a photography tour a couple of times a year, once in the fall and once in the winter. These are fantastic events. We head toward great vantage points, and then leave the train. The train backs up for a “run by,” providing an opportunity for an extraordinary photograph. I’ve been on many of these, and I always enjoy them.

Although I primarily focus on landscape and nature photography, something about a steam engine calls to my soul. I can’t quite put my finger on why this is, exactly, but that’s OK. It is within me, and it just “is.” To me, a steam engine chugging through a landscape feels precisely correct, and how can I not photograph it?

This year the Durango & Silverton line decided to roll back the clock to the 1970s. Instead of the usual livery of “Durango & Silverton,” the engine was sporting “Rio Grande,” and the coaches re-lettered to “Denver & Rio Grande Western,” just as they did in that period. Engine 476, today’s steam engine, once again sported the “diamond stack,” which was last seen in the 1980s. To be fair, this combination would not have been seen in winter, but we’ll let that be for the sake of returning to the 1970s.

Making the photographs

The winter train chugged as it encountered the first grade up into the San Juan Mountains, but these mountains were no match for the K-28 engine. The snow began to pile up the higher we climbed, and soon enough, the train glided to a gentle stop. We weren’t at a depot, of course, but instead stopped in a clearing. Gathering my gear, I hopped off the coach and into the snow. I trudged a few feet away from the tracks, found my best vantage point, and waited.

With its customary toot-toot, the train backed up down the tracks and out of sight down the track.

Immediately, although I knew better, I felt a little odd. After all, when you are standing in a snowpack in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere, and the train that brought you there is now leaving you, that gets your attention. It is too easy to imagine what it might be like if the train kept going, without me, back to the station. I would be alone without the winter train, left to my own devices to fend for myself. My thoughts, now their own runaway train, gathered steam.

Here comes the winter train

The merry “Toot! Toot! Toot!” of the engine’s whistle broke through my thoughts, though, and here comes the train! Hooray! I am saved! And also, I can make the photograph I have been waiting for.

476's Mountains

Engine 476 roared past me as I created 476’s Winter. The rumble, deep, throaty, and powerful, shook the ground as the train passed me by, reinforcing how mighty these engines are. Smoke billowed from the diamond stack and now and then created smoke rings. The Turtle and Pigeon mountains stood mute in the background, observing a site they hadn’t seen in fifty years. I would like to think they approved of what they saw.

The train roared down the track past me, but I had no fear I would be stranded this time. The winter train glided to another gentle stop and waited for me to trudge through the snow and board it. It is downright fun to get on and off the train at these different places; it just adds to the sense of adventure!

Onward to Tefft Bridge

Once again, I settled into my seat and watched the scenery roll by to the next stop: Tefft Bridge.

I’ve photographed this scene before but was glad for another chance. The first time, many years ago, I knew how I wanted the photograph to turn out, and it did. This time, I was looking for a similar scene, but better. 

As usual, I jumped out of the train and into the snow. I scrambled up a small hill since I wanted a high vantage point. I found the perfect spot and watched as the train backed out of sight. “Toot! Toot! Toot!” Three whistles told me the train was coming, and I made ready.

Tefft Bridge

The bridge, while wonderfully photogenic, also makes for a complex composition. By its very nature, it blocks some of the train, so the timing of making Tefft Bridge is crucial. I needed to have just the right amount of train through the bridge. Too little, and the engine is blocked. Too much, and it looks like I was too late. My experience from here before paid off, though, and the final result was exactly as I envisioned. 

In what seemed the blink of an eye, I was back on the train, pondering the upcoming location and the last one for this series. I had a good idea of what to expect and pre-planned it as much as possible.

The Treacherous San Juan Mountains

High above the Animas river, Engine 476 slowed down and crept through a series of sharp turns with sheer, steep drop-offs just inches from the outer rail. Areas like this convinced the early route planners that a standard gauge railroad could not be put through the San Juan Mountains, and it would have to be narrow gauge, if at all. Although some considered it impossible, the designers did put in the railroad. Still, even traveling down it today, I wonder how they did the unthinkable. Somehow, they did, with, quite literally, inches to spare.

As we snaked around Horseshoe Bend, I got off the train for the last time. As before, I stood waiting, ready, and determined. The train backed up out of sight, and all was ready.

The train streamed around the bend, blowing off steam as it did so. Perfect! I love how the thick black smoke and white steam billowing out over the sheer cliff complement each other in Steaming Bend. A scrap of snow lets us know it’s winter, and this scene perfectly illustrates the power of a steam engine in the rugged mountains.

Steaming Bend

Alas, it was time to board the time one final time for the trip back into town. Elated, the remainder of the journey flew by. I departed, now at a proper station, with beautiful photographs and memories. 

Even though I was just on it, it is time to plan another trip aboard the winter train!

Bring 476 Home

You can purchase 476’s Mountains here. What better way to celebrate the glory of a steam engine?

Horseshoe Canyon

As adventures go, this one didn’t start off very auspiciously. Long planned, constantly delayed, it seemed I would never make it into Horseshoe Canyon of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. And today, of all days, yet another roadblock loomed before me. But today, I would have none of that and pressed forward. I’m glad I did. It all worked out. Let’s back up and start more at the beginning.

Looking at Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe Canyon and where we’re heading for our adventure

Horseshoe Canyon is home to one of the, if not the, most significant rock art panels in the Southwest: the Great Gallery. Significantly, its sixty figures are six feet tall, and the gallery stretches almost three hundred feet long. It is impressive, to say the least. This panel contains both pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictographs are painted on the walls, while petroglyphs are carved or etched. The panel called to me across the years.

I’ve photographed many rock art sites over the year. However, this one, in particular, was always in the back of my mind. I knew I had to visit it, and the need to do so became more urgent as time passed.

Rock Art and the Barrier Canyon Style

The rock art of the Great Gallery is in the Barrier Canyon style. This style is exemplified by long panels with heroic figures. These figures are life-size or larger and feature several variations, particularly among the figures we consider sprit-like. And the Great Gallery is regarded as the prime example of the Barrier Canyon style.

The panel is relatively accessible, although it does require a seven-mile round-trip hike, the last part of which is straight up. However, I also wanted to be at the panel by myself, as I often do, to be alone and silent without interruption. This meant going in the offseason to lessen the likelihood of seeing other people. Also, the hot summers make the strenuous hike all the more challenging. Winter is ideal, but the snows also increase the difficulty, if not making getting there impossible. For me, spring and fall are my best bets.

I planned the trip several times, but a scheduling issue would arise each time, usually at the last moment. I was beginning to think that I should not make this journey. Finally, this fall, a window of opportunity popped up, and I went to Utah without a second thought. My thought was to get there while I could. I put my backpack together, gathered my gear, and was gone in a flash. No one could stop me now!

Except myself.

Previously, and I am unsure how I did this, I managed to twist my knee. The injury wasn’t enough to stop me from walking on it. Well, no, that’s not true. It was enough to stop me from walking normally. For weeks it had been bothering me, on and off. Some days it was OK, more or less, and other days it was decidedly not OK. Each morning was a little different, and I knew it would be fine sooner or later.

The Journey Begins

I drove to Green River, Utah, and stayed at a hotel there, providing a comfortable night before my hike. I woke up bright and early, and I do mean bright early. Not even the alarm clock was awake before me. I sprang out of bed and immediately discovered that my knee had decided that today was a good day to not bear any weight on it. This was a dilemma. The sensible option was to head back home.

Yeah, we both know that didn’t happen.

Limping around the hotel room, I gathered my backpack and ensured it was ready to go. I miraculously found a hot cup of coffee in the lobby. With that one discovery, the day was brighter already. I crawled into my SUV, started it up, and realized that even pressing the accelerator was painful. This was really not a good idea. I have had many adventures that were not a good idea, so why should this one be any different?

Ignoring my discomfort, I headed down the road to Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery! I had reasonable directions, but it was dark out, meaning the world beyond my headlights wouldn’t exist for many more hours. That’s OK. I figured I knew where I was going. All I had to do was make one critical turn onto a sketchy dirt road, and I would be fine.

Once I missed the turn onto the dirt road I was expecting but didn’t see, I realized that my plan could have been more foolproof than it was. I thought there was a sign, but the darkness hid it if it was even there. I’m not admitting that I drove in circles for a few minutes hunting for that road, but I did turn around several times. I eventually found a likely candidate and decided this was the right road. Time to find out if my hunch was correct.

I was expecting a long, slow ride to the trailhead, and I wasn’t expecting the road to be marked. Meaning it would work out and I found the road, or it wouldn’t, and I took an aimless drive in the pre-dawn desert. I would know in about an hour. Either way, I headed off into the darkness and possibly into oblivion.

The road was rutted, bumpy, full of washboards, sandy, and everything a desert dirt road is supposed to be. Unexpectedly, after about a half hour, I found a sign and knew I was on the right road. My knee was no better, but neither was it any worse. I pressed on, now enjoying the ride and thinking about the hike ahead.

I made it to the trailhead as the sun was beginning to rise. So, parts of my plan were working out quite well. I was pleased as I wanted to be on the trail at first light. I stepped out of the SUV, realizing my knee would still not fully bear weight and would be a problem. But hey, what’s a strenuous seven-mile hike on a bad knee?

I changed into my hiking shoes, slugged my pack onto my shoulders, drank the last of my coffee, and locked the SUV.

Off I went into Horseshoe Canyon. I was committed now to seeing this journey through.

Into Horseshoe Canyon

I was worried that I might be unable to find my way, but that was an unfounded fear. It was easy to locate the trail, and I began my descent into the canyon, every step reminding me this was not ideal. I’ve done worse, although this one is right up there. Quickly, I made a beeline toward the Great Gallery. I knew there were other panels in the canyon, but I wanted to make my primary goal, then slowly work my way back.

I also worried that there might be others, but that did not come to pass. Although there were other cars already at the trailhead, they were camping and not on the trail. I was alone in the canyon, which was a magical experience. Although it was painful to walk and the descent into the canyon was difficult, I was also keenly aware of this incredible experience. The significance was not lost on me.

I enjoy hiking in the wilderness. There is something about having your pack on your back, a trail or even no trail, before you as you trek onward. Hiking in the early morning is even more enjoyable as I wander through the land as it is just waking up.

As I continued, the sun was still low on the horizon, and the autumn morning crisp. Eventually, the sun’s rays began to light up the top of the sheer sandstone walls of the canyon, and I enjoyed watching the sun slowly make its way down toward the canyon floor.

Sometimes I enjoy companionship on my adventures. But for others, I prefer to be alone with my thoughts to go deeper into the experience. To me, Horseshoe Canyon is one of those times best experienced without companionship.

I continued on the trail, wending through the canyon, drawing closer to the Great Gallery. I saw the other panels I needed to visit along the way and noted their location for exploration on the way back.

Eventually, there it was! The Great Gallery! It was everything I hoped it would be, and the moment I saw it, I simply stopped and stared. How could I not? I don’t know how long I stood there. My watch also stopped, and the moment was timeless.

Once I could breathe and time flowed again, I shrugged off my backpack and marveled at the panel. I examined it from left to right, then back again. I looked at every figure and then looked again, wondering what the message was. But I knew that the answer was not mine to understand. That’s OK. Some answers will never come.

I made the photograph I longed for all these years: the Great Gallery.

Great Gallery
The Great Gallery. Click/tap for a larger view

The left side of the panel is colloquially known as the Holy Ghost. I spent a lot of time staring at this section and made Holy Ghost, another photograph I had dreamed of. I could not be more pleased with how it came out. There are more details about this section, too, in the link.

Holy Ghost

My goal was accomplished; I journeyed into the past and marveled that the figures have survived until today. The experience remains etched into my mind. The photographs turned out even better than I had hoped, and I am beyond pleased. The reward was well worth the effort, and I breathed a sigh of relief at accomplishing this photograph.

Eventually, it was time to leave. That was not easy, both mentally and physically. My knee reminded me this was still not a good idea, and I knew the remaining three and a half miles would not be comfortable. I put my backpack on again, felt its weight on my knee, and headed back to the other panels.

High Gallery is another spectacle panel. Named for its location—high up on the canyon wall—it contains figures in the same style as the Great Gallery. As before, its message remains unclear and unknown to me. In this photograph, I stepped back to include the cottonwood tree in peak fall color, which I think adds to the scene.

High Gallery

There is a question of why this panel is so high up the wall. At a guess, it is a good fifty feet off the canyon floor. It could not have been easy to create this, leaving us to wonder why there, of all places? Why not put it closer to the canyon floor, just as all the other panels are?

And High Gallery contains a secret, too! Look very closely at the left side just above the cottonwood. Do you recognize the woman’s face in relief? And do you see what she is looking at?

Now the placement makes perfect sense. The woman is looking directly at the gallery, and now more of the meaning becomes clear. Not to rain on my own parade here, though, this is only one interpretation, and it may be sheer coincidence. However, it is the interpretation that I choose to go with.

I want to highlight another panel that I particularly like. The Horseshoe Gallery has similar enigmatic figures in the same Barrier Canyon style. As with the other panels, the meaning is not mine to know, yet I still enjoy the experience of staring deep into the past.

This was the last panel I photographed, and I carefully repacked my backpack for the hike out. I knew I had a steep ascent ahead of me, and it would not be easy, given my knee. I also knew there was nothing for it, so I set out, slowly aching step by slow step.

No sooner had I left the last panel than I heard voices coming from further up the canyon, and soon enough, I saw the hikers attached to them. We exchanged hellos, and they headed off searching for their own adventure. I soon encountered a larger group and then a small one. It’s as if the canyon knew I met my goal and deigned to let the rest of the world in.

I silently gave thanks for my solitude and wished my fellow hikers well.

The Final Ascent

I approached the steep ascent with trepidation, yet met it as I always do—via a single step forward, followed by all the rest. My knee did not appreciate the extra effort, and let me know that. But, I have, quite literally, crawled out of a canyon before, and this time I would walk on two feet, so I counted it as a victory. It was only a seven hundred feet ascent, but it took me a while.

I exited Horseshoe Canyon and returned to the SUV, grateful for the opportunity to sit down and rest. Eventually, I readied myself for the trip home, and the trailhead receded in my rearview mirror. It was past midday, and easy to find my way back to pavement and civilization and then home.

Today, as I write this just over a month later, my knee still hurts off and on, although it is slowly healing. The pain will eventually fade to nothing, but this experience will always be bright inside me.

Bring home Holy Ghost

You can learn more about the Holy Ghost panel, and even bring it home for yourself!

Yesterday’s Glow

I am always deeply fascinated when I visit the ruins of the Southwest. There is something awe-inspiring when you are standing there with a structure that was built a thousand years ago, and yet is still standing today. The wind brings echoes of the past to you and it is easy to be transported back to that time. I ponder what it must have been like living there. The pueblo would have been brand new, and probably still being built, for they certainly weren’t static structures. The signs of the hustle and the bustle of daily life would be everywhere, and perhaps children ran squealing from one room to the next as children often do. I imagine life back then, and marvel at the ingenuity and courage of those who lived here. As night falls, the scene fades back into black, and is lost among the night. Yesterday’s glow fades along with daylight.


The National Park Service, for just one day a year, will light up–from the inside–the Spruce House Pueblo in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. This is not a trivial effort, by far, and even at that, they take their time and make everything perfect. Rangers strategically place lanterns and lights in the ruin itself, and they do so with eyes of artists. This is no haphazard be-what-it may arrangement, but instead slow, deliberate and careful. It takes them days to make all the placements. If that isn’t enough, the Rangers and volunteers also place luminarias all along the walkways of the Monument, again, not a trivial task. For the park’s centennial celebration they placed four thousand luminarias!

Crowds gather up at the top on the anointed day. The Rangers light each light and luminara, one by one, then make whatever final adjustments they need to. The crowd is always quite lively and the conversation brisk, but as dusk begins to fall and the ruin comes into its own, absolute silence descends. Everyone is completely transfixed, and for this moment–this one, special, magical incredible moment–we are all transported back into time, and the pueblo, for it is no longer a ruin, comes back to life.

Light streams from the doorways and the windows, just as it must have so many centuries ago. Shadows dance and play among the walls, perhaps remembering the children that once did that in the flesh. Light pours up from kiva, calling us to the ceremony taking place there. The entire effect is absolutely surreal. Eventually, the crowd regains its voice, but now it is just a murmur, as the full impact of what we are seeing settles in. Yesterday’s Glow now mixes past and present seamlessly.

But the Park Service did one better than Spruce House on their centennial. They also lit Cliff Palace, which is one of the largest and most magnificent ruins anywhere in the Southwest. The effort to do this was extraordinary. All the lights and lanterns, and especially the heavy propane tanks, had to be carried in on the steep, narrow path down to the ruin. Cliff Palace is a big ruin, and it took a tremendous amount of time to place each light. Doing this pueblo in addition to Spruce House was a monumental task, yet they did it, and they did it expertly.

As with Spruce House, when dusk began to fall the pueblo sprang to life. The site was, well, beyond words. Even as darkness came in and tried to cover all, the pueblo glowed with an intensity that went well beyond the lights that were there. Eventually, one by one, the lights were put out and the ruin once again was there, the dancing shadows living on only in our memory.

What makes this event so incredible is that it is only the second time that the Park Service has lit Cliff Palace. And who knows if they will do so again, if ever.

But the photographs remain, and allow us to see the pueblos as they once were. Yesterday’s glow will remain with us forever.

Purchase Yesterday’s Glow

You are can purchase Palace Light  and always keep Yesterday’s Glow alive.