Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee
kevin_standlee

Train to the Treeline

Last night was an unusual luxury on this trip – we could sleep in pretty much as late as we wanted. Instead of having to drag myself from bed at 7 AM so I could do my e-mail and such before either getting on the road or being at a room at 9:20 or thereabouts to prepare for a 10 AM meeting, I slept until after 9 AM. Lisa, unfortunately, did not sleep well at all – she didn't get to sleep until after 3 AM – and she hasn’t slept well for weeks, thanks to the tinnitus. Worse, sleeping pills make her nauseous and skitterish, thus producing the opposite of the desired effect.

We had a moderately sedate morning before bestirring ourselves from the hotel room. Our plan was to ride the 2 PM train of the Leadville, Colorado & Southern, but we also were considering visiting the National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame in the morning. I also wanted to see about finding out why my wireless wouldn’t connect. As I mentioned earlier, I fixed the latter, but a series of other delays meant that we decided to skip the museum and grab something to eat before the 2 ½ -hour train ride.

Going over to the train station, we inquired about the two special add-ons. The LC&S is an out-and-back trip that costs about $29/person. For $35/person/direction you can ride in the cab of the diesel locomotive, and for $25/person/direction, you can ride in the caboose. The locomotive is at the Leadville (south) end of the train, with the caboose on the Climax (north) end. The train is pushed north, uphill toward Climax and pulled back down the hill. (Actually, given the grade, it’s possibly more accurate to say the train coasts back down the mountain, using the dynamic brakes and rarely having to apply any pulling power.) The downhill locomotive ride was unavailable, but we sprung for the caboose ride uphill. In retrospect, we made the superior choice.

Boarding the train, we walked down to the end of the passenger cars and waited for someone to let us into the caboose. After a while, Lisa suggested we go to the snack/souvenir/service car in the middle of the train to make sure we were in the right place. There we found the brakeman (he rides the caboose as pilot, directing the engineer by radio and sounding grade-crossing warnings), who told us to go ahead and let ourselves into the caboose. Foolishly, I misunderstood him to mean "wait for him to let us into the caboose." Anyway, he came on down and let us in. The train couldn’t leave without him in position anyway.

Lisa and I were the only people on this trip (about 100 total passengers) who had paid for the caboose ride.

Lisa climbed up into the cupola, set Kuma Bear on the seat on the opposite side, and broke out her camera to shoot video.


I joined the brakeman on the rear platform.


We made our relatively sedate, 10 mph way out of Leadville, taking in the lovely scenery. During the trip, the line climbs more than 1000 feet out of the valley of the Arkansas River – this close to its source, not much more than a small meandering stream – clinging precariously to the side of the mountains. Across the valley you can see mountains still holding on to patches of snow even in mid-August, and otherwise bare of cover with a very obvious timberline.


I climbed up into the cupola for a while to see what the view would have been for trainmen under way when cabooses were standard operating equipment. I’ve been in cabooses before, and even slept in them (in the Railroad Park Hotel in Dunsmuir, California), but I’ve never been in one under way. It’s an interesting view over the top of the train, but the best view of all was from the rear platform, where Lisa had gone in search of interesting video.

Lisa’s camera (the same model as mine) can only hold 4GB of material, even when you have a larger memory stick – in this case, a 16GB one. This is annoying in many respects, because Lisa has found that the “improvements” in the Sony DSC-H series have made the cameras less usable. For instance, the H9, which will handle more memory, goes "beep" every time you press any key, including things like the zoom button. This ruins any attempts to shoot live video with sound. You can disable sound, but the next time you cycle the camera’s power, it reverts to “beep, beep, beep.” When I tried to contact Sony’s customer service to find out how to permanently disable sound, they just parroted the instructions from the manual and didn’t seem to understand that I wanted to do so permanently. Besides, all of the new cameras in the series won’t accept the attachments for the earlier ones, which is maddening due to the investment we’ve made in lenses.

I digress into cameras because Lisa managed to fill up the entire 4 GB with video, and even then she didn’t shoot everything she wanted to shoot. Sometime after she gets home, she may be able to edit it into a single movie.

Anyway, we continued up the mountain, at one point around a very sharp curve that gave us in the caboose a pretty good shot of the rest of the train. (We spoke after the ride to the train’s engineer, who told us, "This line was originally narrow gauge, and when they standard-gauged it, they didn’t fix any of the curves.") After getting to the end of the current line before the Climax mine, we stopped while the conductor talked about the mine (closed in the 1980s but now in the process of reopening) and the railroad (originally connected to the national network but abandoned by Burlington Northern when the mine closed), which was purchased, along with some old boxcars, gondolas, flatcars, and cabooses, for $10 before BN tore up the tracks beyond there, isolating the railroad. The story goes that the line’s new owner calls it, "The most expensive $10 I’ve ever spent," thanks to the cost of rebuilding the equipment and returning the line to service.

After that we reversed course and headed back toward Leadville. We stopped at the old water tank where steam engines once paused for a refill after the arduous climb up the grade. Here passengers had ten minutes to get off, take photos, and tour the caboose or engine. Our ride in the caboose was over, and we retired to one of the other cars for the rest of the trip. The LC&S cars consist of several open gondolas and several covered cars with large windows. At the center of the train is a service boxcar with bathrooms and a mini-gift shop, where I bought souvenirs and a book about the line.

After returning to Leadville, we talked briefly to the locomotive’s engineer, who confirmed that the locomotive had dynamic brakes, which makes hauling the train much easier and produces much less brake smoke (not a pleasant aroma, I know from experience). He had to get going, however, as the train blocks a road crossing when it’s at the station, and after he and the rest of the crew confirmed that there were no stowaways, he backed the train out of the station back toward the line’s yards a half-mile to the north.

After taking more photos, we left, feeling we had definitely got our money’s worth. I might add that the photos here are only the tip of the iceberg. Lisa took many more, but wanted me to only post a few with descriptions.

If you go, make sure you either buy the caboose ride like we did, or be sure to get there early enough to get one of the seats on the left side of the train as the train heads north from Leadville. While it was not an issue on our trip, on a busy day you might find yourself on the right side, where the views are mostly of the steep mountainside looming above you, while the left side gives you the magnificent vistas of the Arkansas river valley.

After the train ride, we went to the Golden Burro Café on Leadville’s main street for a more substantial lunch. Looking in the café's gift shop, Lisa spotted a four-volume VHS collector’s edition of Leadville’s colorful history. She asked to buy it. After some confusion, the counter people said, "The box is empty. We have the DVD!" Lisa didn’t want the DVD, so they lost a sale.

Then it was back to the hotel room, where we stuffed our last ten days of dirty laundry into my rolling bag and went to the laundromat we spotted last night. I brought my computer and looked for a wi-fi signal. The laundromat didn’t have wi-fi, but the auto body shop next door did, and I seemed to have connected to their unsecured signal; unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be actually connected to the internet, so I settled down to compose this entry offline while we waited through our laundry.

We would then have headed back to the hotel, but we thought we’d look in at the bowling alley across the way, because it prominently said PINBALL. We expected to see the usual one or two broken-down machines. Imagine our surprise when we found inside Strikes N Spares a huge lineup of machines, in mostly working order, courtesy of Colorado Pinball, which is here in Leadville. They had a mostly-working copy of Creature From the Black Lagoon, Lisa's favorite game, so there was nothing for it but to stop and get more quarters.

It's a good thing that Colorado Pinball doesn't have a copy of Creature listed for sale in their current catalog, or Lisa would be talking of renting a U-Haul trailer for the remainder of this trip.

More than an hour later, I pointed out that if Lisa wanted us to get dinner, we were running out of time to order a pizza. She looked up the number of the place from which we bought the pizza last night, and I called and ordered more or less what we'd had last night, stressing that Lisa's half was to have pineapple, not pepperoni. They said it would be ready at 9:55, so we played pinball until 9:45. We ended up having to leave a couple of free games behind.

We collected our dinner in the form of a pizza from High Mountain Pies. These folks make a good pizza, but they seem to have difficulty keeping the ingredients straight. Last night Lisa ordered a pineapple, shrimp, and mushroom pizza and they put pepperoni instead of pineapple. Tonight she ordered the same thing and they left off the shrimp. So while the food tasted good, you have to watch what they're actually putting on the pizzas.

Finally, we stopped to get milk from a convenience store, then went back to the hotel, where we folded our clothes, ate our dinner, and then, despite the late hour, went out and walked up and down Leadville's main street. Lisa amused herself by counting how many bars are on this street (including those one block off the main street): 8.

After a shaky start, we ended up having a wonderful time on one of the most scenic journeys I can recall. Colorado is of course full of wonderful scenery, but this is a trip I could recommend. There’s lots of other interesting things here in Leadville, and I’m sort of sorry we aren’t spending another couple of days to explore them, but we still have things to do and see, and it’s a long way back to the west coast.
Tags: kuma bear, lisa, trains, travel
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