The Old #18 is a massive, 100-year-old beast of a locomotive. It’s a hot, black, patched up and steaming, greased up and gleaming jumble of nuts, bolts, pipes, valves, levers and fire brick, topped with a bell to ring and a cow grate. A brakeman and engine-woman drive this hunk of iron that is so alive and vital that, even if it were to be cold and quiet, one still might fear it would awaken upon approach like a slumbering dragon. Carcasses of other old locomotives rest upon disconnected rails in this Alamosa, Colorado train station. I think about wanting to photograph these upon return at the end of the day, but right now, with a rattle and shunt, our club car, coach, and dining cars pull out of the station behind The Old #18. Her great throaty whistle wails and steam shoots out over the embankment, sending a gale into the weeds along the ditch.
Ed Ellis, president of the Iowa Pacific Holdings Company and owner of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, tells me that this Pullman car, the Mardi Gras, was the very car that Steve Goodman wrote “City of New Orleans” in back in 1971. Indeed, this Pullman and a host of other coach and dining cars that make up this train were amongst those that worked the City of New Orleans line of the Illinois Central Railroad back in the day. Ed told us he fell in love with trains riding in this very car as a twelve-year-old boy growing up in Paducah, Kentucky. So here we were now, part of this wondrous continuum. On the way up the mountain Sue and I took out our instruments and sang “City of New Orleans” for the passengers on the Mardi Gras. As the sagebrush desert of the San Luis Valley passed by our window, the train rocked us back and forth, and a sense of timeless connection welled up within me.
This weekend we’ve been hired to perform for Mountain Rails Live, a summer concert series held in a natural amphitheater at 9,200 feet at the crest of La Veta Pass in the Rocky Mountains of south central Colorado. Our job specifically was to play an hour-long opening set for western singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphy (remember “Wildfire” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac”?). I recall enjoying his music on AM radio when I was in high school in the `70s. Now, “Murphy,” as he’s known, is a veteran entertainer and it was a great pleasure to see him work – a master at his craft. Murphy brought along his long-time bass player, Gary Roller, whom we persuaded to play a couple of songs with us at the end of our set. We also had local cowboy singers Jim Garling and Fred Hargrove, who also acted as our MC, to round out the bill.
The only way up to the concert site is by rail – one line travels east from Alamosa (the train we were on), and another that travels west from La Veta. Everybody gets on the train in the morning – audience, performers, crew, food service, and security alike. Worldly cares seem to fall away as we ascend in altitude. Sue remarked that it’s kind of like rail therapy on the train spa. And there really is nothing more for this captive audience to do but enjoy the ride – the music, clean air, scenery, abundant conversation, and good vibes all of which contribute to a feeling of wellbeing. Upon arrival at our destination known simply as “Fir Junction,” several hundred people disembark and settle in for three hours of music, stories, bar-b-q, dancing, and relaxing.
The scenery is incomparable. Mount Blanca and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains make a jagged profile on the western horizon. The air so crystalline clear that the pines and aspen across the valley appear as though you could reach out and touch them. They say it’s not unusual to see elk, bear, mountain lion, and turkey. Because electricity is needed to run the PA system, lighting, and kitchen, Ed and company installed solar panels and a small windmill to power the site. I particularly enjoyed our green room. Usually green rooms are like closets or dungeons, dank places that smell of neglect. But the view from my wicker chair out the back door upon the hill covered with delicate grasses, blue spruce, and pine was peaceful. It was the best green room ever!
On the way up Ed told us a story about a freight train he had hauling a load of barley that lost its breaks and overturned on the La Veta side of the pass. Having no other option they covered the barley over with dirt and left it there to compost – and compost it did. Before long all sorts of wildlife were attracted to the warm and steaming mash – especially bears! Bears dug into the soil for the intoxicating pulp and even went so far as to carve winter dens in the balmy dirt. It practically became a tourist attraction to see drunken bears lolling about. Though it happened years ago now it’s still not unusual to see bears and wild turkeys scratching at the dirt, attracted still to some vestige of malted pleasure.
After dropping us off at the concert site, The Old #18 continues east to La Veta where it gets greased up, water tank filled, and turned around. Its arrival back to Fir is a dramatic event. With the audience below and tracks above, whistle blowing, steam hissing, and iron on iron sounding out through the valley, The Old #18 upstages anything else going on. Now Murphy, who has done this show a few times before, tries to time his encore with the arrival of the train, and on our Saturday performance in front of 400+ people, he did just that. With all six of us on the stage, running through a medley of tunes – “Life is Like a Railroad,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “This Land is Your Land”… by the time we get to “This Train Is Bound For Glory,” The Old #18 pulls over the rise and blows her whistle so loud that the crowd bursts into cheers. Our diva has returned to take us home!
With the gear packed up, lawn chairs stowed, and the last CD sold, we all climb aboard the train and settle in for a ride down the mountain. Everybody is loose now, happy, buzzing, and pleasantly tired. Back in the club car Ed and Fred take out their guitars and start up a jam session. I grab my mandolin as Sue does her banjo, and we begin running through folk standards, train songs, cowboy ballads, and novelty numbers. As the train pulls into Alamosa, Ed launches into “Good Night Irene” and everyone sings along. By the time we step off back onto terra firma our world has essentially shifted. Every one of us has in some way had a transformative experience. Whether it was the clean air, the cathartic stories, or simply the joyful music in the high Rocky Mountains, I’m sure our experience was catalyzed by surrendering to the movement of the train.
Note: To view a photo album of this trip upon the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad go to our Facebook site: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dana-and-Susan-Robinson/245400750541