10/21/2004: From Durango to Cortez, CO
I got up in the hazy, cloudy morning and stood by the narrow gage tracks across the highway from our hotel. I knew the schedule, so I only had to wait for 10 minutes before the daily train came by. Now, I'm not that big a fan of trains. I like their economy, and their history. But here in Durango, trains have special meaning. So I looked a couple of miles down the track and finally saw the light under a tower of steam and smoke. It hooted and whistled and whuffed toward me. Suddenly, this spark-spewing, coal fired, ground shaking Phoenix raced past me. Okay, it was doing about half the speed of the cars on the road a few dozen yards away. But what's the drama in those?
As it slowly disappeared down the canyon, I waited until I couldn't hear it any more.
After we checked out, we went to the train museum. Durango is about midway along the old rail line from Taos, NM to Denver. It was the maintenance center. From the 1950's through the 1960's, these no-longer-economically effective lines were ripped up. Except for the mountainous stretch from Durango up to Silverton. A Florida enthusiast bought up that line. Other enthusiasts refurbished the round house, and even did a complete gut rehab on an engine. This is a big job. There are few places in the world that can handle rebuilding an 1880's steam engine from the ground up as more than a one-time project. One is in Durango. The part of the round house that is not museum is a big and busy machine shop.
Anyway, after lunch at a French Bistro (yes, there was a Kerry sign in the window), we headed west to Mesa Verde National Park. Like Yellowstone, this was land set aside by my favorite Republican, Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, there were spectacular views from up there. On a clear day, you can see 200 miles. On a windy day, like today, you feel like you could blow away that far!
We got there just in time to take the last tour of the day down into the "Cliff Palace". For those of you who have taken a class touching on American Indians, or archaeology, or pre-European American history, or environmental issues, or even geology, you probably have seen pictures of this site. It was an Anasazi cliff dwelling, a defensible granary. Abandoned around 1250 A.D.(At about the same time as the Cahokia site was abandoned). Dendrochronology shows not just the time of the abandonment, but also the reason: Drought. Not just the usual and expected occasional year or two, but 10 consecutive years of drought.
This site is not handicapped accessible. There are 100' of wooden ladders to climb, and plenty of uneven surfaces and steps. It was fun! There are many other dwellings on this mesa, dating back some 500 years before the cliff houses. But we got there late, and expect that we shall return someday.
It was dark by the time we slowly wound our way back down the winding, narrow, dark roads from the mesa to the town of Cortez, CO, where we stopped for the night. Our room is a 1950's throwback. Kitchenette, easy chair, homey table lamps, and such. And a WiFi connection that I suspect I'm not supposed to be using without paying extra, but it was completely exposed.