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?

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.