Durango to Silverton – steam trains and snowballs

Thursday 6th October.
It is a well know secret that we love train journeys, especially if it involves a steam engine and a trip through lovely scenery. I get very excited as we park up at the station to see some cars covered in snow.

” There’s been a blizzard in the mountains round Silverton”, we are told. 

We board our vintage carriage hoping that we are not underdressed for the few hours we have in the old mountain mining town.

Durango got its name when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad ( D&RGW) decided that a railway to the isolated mining centre at Silverton would help getting the valuable gold and silver out of the hills. As the road improved and mining slowed down the railway and Silverton itself fell into decline and was threatened with closure. It was the arrival of a burgeoning film industry and an unknown film star, Marilyn Monroe, who starred in ” A Ticket to Tomahawk” that saved the line. As tourism boomed the line was improved, long neglected rails and equipment were restored and the fine heritage line has indeed become a magnet for a quarter of a million or more visitors a year.

The narrow gauge steam train sets off with blasts from the whistle that are so evocative of all those old films and my early childhood when my family would ride the Blue Train to the South of France in the days of steam. 

The train is pulled at a crawling pace up a steady incline that follows the river gorge through forest that is turning more autumnal as we gain height.

We pass the scene of the famous film moment when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid make a plunge into a canyon river 

Butch: I’ll jump first

Sundance: Nope

Butch: Then you jump first

Sundance: No I said!

Butch: What’s the matter with you?

Sundance: I can’t swim!

Butch: (laughing) Why you crazy *******, the fall’ll probably kill ya.

At this point and at several others the train passes inches from the steep ravine and the river torrent hundreds of feet below.

We are on the lookout for bears and elk or moose but see none today. The passing scenery is mesmerising however and we are left wondering about how it was possible to build and maintain such a railway in the 1880’s and the pioneering spirit that would see such a vision through with the limited technology at hand.

We arrive in Silverton to bright blue skies. The blizzard has passed but left the surrounding mountains covered in a thin layer of snow and I find enough lying in a North facing station wagon to make a couple of snowballs with which to pepper Marilyn.

A steam train AND snowballs. What more could a man want!

We take an hour or so after an American lunch to walk around the old town. With a population of just 637 it has four impressive looking churches all of which can see each other’s spires. Perhaps folk here go on a church crawl to pass their Sundays. That would be before or after their visit to the several brothels that sprang up in the shadows of the church spires. They must have been interesting times in these mountain mine towns and times would not have changed much from the 1880′ s through to the 1950’s when tourism sanitised the place and brought a different kind of prosperity.

We get a return journey and arrive back in Durango as the sun begins to go down. We have time for a brief visit to the excellent railway and heritage museum before enjoying a delicious meal at ‘Ken and Sue’s’ – a restaurant I would recommend.

And then it’s back to the ranch, bed and the circling Coyotes.

Lake Powell



Monday 26th – We have left before the Cowgirl has risen this morning. We are heading back on the main Route 89 to Page on Lake Powell with the intention of maybe taking a short boat ride on the Lake.

The landscape along the route is again different to anything we have seen. Rock formations that look like teeth in a skull, huge clay lumps and rock that looks like pumice line the Route until suddenly we see the waters of Lake Powell in startling contrast to the arid desert we have been travelling through for the last couple of hours.

The Lake is another man made marvel designed to control the Colorado flow into Lake Meade further downstream and also to produce electricity.Its planning and construction through the 50’s and 60’s was controversial. Many thought then that it was unnecessary and there is still a body of opinion that thinks so now.
Finished in 1967 it took seventeen years to fill the Lake behind the dam. Its construction has caused havoc with the natural dispersal of silt lower downstream with consequences on the ecosystem of the lower Colorado. It has not prevented the waters in Lake Mead from falling fifty metres.
It exists however and has produced a massive man made Lake that cuts through several National Parks. It has over a thousand miles of coastline and is hundreds of metres deep in places. As well as serving millions of people with water in the surrounding states it has become a focus for tourism since the 70’s and that is why we are here.

We take a short two and a half hour boat ride that takes us around Antelope Island and into the upper reaches of Antelope Canyon. This Canyon can be accessed by road and foot from the south but it is interesting to get a view of it from a boat.

The first part of the trip takes us up Navajo Canyon. We learn the difference between a Mesa rock formation ( think table – longer than tall and flat topped ) and a Butte ( a tower – tall and thin ).

We get up close to the huge rock walls that the Navajo revered as tapestries that told stories in the strange shapes. We can make out dragons and other shapes as well as faces on the oxide stained sandstone walls. Some of the rocks have been sculpted into animal- like forms and we see a huge stone frog that is about to take a leap into the water.
The ever changing rock sculptures are fascinating. So too are some of our fellow passengers. One lady spends the whole trip taking selfies, pouting and preening herself against the changing background. We estimate she has a couple of hundred of them!
It has been refreshing to get onto the water and to get a different perspective of the landscape and the way of life of the many Americans who have a lifestyle built around this man made sea.

img_0474One of the houseboats in the new Marina is valued at over twenty million dollars and they sit there as second homes mostly. A young crowd can be seen on jet skis. Others have taken to canoes to explore quietly the millions of hidden creeks.
And like much of this area there was not even a tarred road or a proper bridge over this river until sixty years ago.

Such is the speed of progress in this country.

On our drive back we notice yet again the complete absence of litter. The roadsides in both town and countryside are utterly free of plastic bags, bottles, cans and all the other detritus that we see every day in the UK. Yet there are not more litter bins, and we haven’t seen anyone sweeping the streets. The only possible conclusions is that despite being avid consumers, Americans just don’t  drop  their rubbish like we do.

This evening we eat out in Kanab, a small town nearby that was a centre of the film industry in the 1930s when it was known as Little Hollywood; a  few films were made here into the 70s, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Photos from the film sets adorn the bars and restaurants including the one where  we get to sample ‘Bob’s famous gravy’ which comes ladled on the mashed potato and on Marilyn’s fried chicken and my chicken- fried steak. No, we couldn’t work it out either, but it tasted ok.



Rainy Flagstaff and Grand Canyon South Rim

imageThursday 22nd/Friday 23rd

We are in lovely Flagstaff. It has something like three hundred days of sunshine a year – even when it’s under three feet of snow. So when we hear that rain is forecast our host tells us not to worry.

“In Flagstaff you just wait twenty minutes in bad weather for good weather to reappear. It never rains all day to soak you out”


On this particular day it started drizzling and then did steady,soak-you-out rain all day. So change of plan.Sadly no Sedona and no ‘standing on a corner of Winslow Arizona’ that had been the plan. What do Brits do in the rain?

Go to a museum!

It’s not actually a bad choice when the museum is the award winning museum of Northern Arizona. We have so much to learn about the ancient geology of this region and the peoples who lived and flourished here for so long. It seems that there is a job on to help ‘Modern Americans’ ( whoever they are ) to accept that this ancient history is also their history. So many of them -we are told- seem to think it all started with the Mayflower or whenever their clan emigrated.

So we enjoy a walk through history and we are dazzled by the creativity and the versatility of the people from various tribes  who managed to live in harmony in what appears an inhospitable environment. We learn how they migrated with the seasons over huge tracts of land; how they used sophisticated tools and made pottery and weaving of exquisite quality; how they largely managed to get on with each other and co-operate in order to survive; how they believed in the sanctity of family and education and so much more.


The Navajo, as one of the largest contemporary families is perhaps the most politicised in the present day and is working to gain some of its history and lands back. But there is a constant battle of cultures. Neil Young wrote a song about when cultures collide. It is a slow process I feel.


Tomorrow we go to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The picture at the top of this blog is done by Curt Walters a contemporary artist. His work is stunning in the flesh. Huge canvasses that glow. Surely the real thing can’t be like that? We will find out tomorrow. His work is hung in a special gallery. A modern man who feels the spirit of this vast landscape. We leave this fantastic museum in the rain and head for the ‘ Pioneer Museum ‘ just down the road. This is set in an old hospital for infirm and homeless that was set up after the railroad brought prosperity to many in Flagstaff.Not everyone flourished in the new and growing town.

This museum brings us up to date with Flagstaff’s history. The first settlers came through in search of a route to the West. They made a road. This eventually became the iconic Route 66. Then the railway came through and the rest is history. Now it is a prosperous university town set in the California Mountains. It has a wonderful climate and is in the middle of one of the largest Ponderosa Pine  forests in the U.S.A.

I enjoyed both places although I am still a little confused how I feel about the second museum’s lack of any recognition of much of the history pre the first pioneers. It kind of reinforces that feeling that the ancient history is not really acknowledged by everyone as being important or relevant.

We manage to drag ourselves to one of Flagstaff’s many burgeoning breweries for lunch before giving up hope of getting to Winslow.

Maybe another day.

Friday 23 rd – Grand Canyon South Rim.

We receive a message from my brother that their hire car has packed up and we have arranged to spend the day with them exploring the South Rim where they are now staying. We hope they will have a replacement by midday and set off from Flagstaff to meet them at high noon.

We enter the Park from the East and the Desert View Watch Tower built by Mary Coulter a pioneer who, together with her husband had a hand in much of the  historical infrastructure of the State.

We are immediately struck by the enormity and expense and the colour of the view. We can only spend a few moments here as we are learning the distances often eat into the time that we allocate for journeys.

So we continue into the park along the plateau and through forest that hides the wonder to our right hand side and only metres away. I would not advise anyone  who arrives at the park around midday to try and park anywhere near the visitor centre. It must be impossible in the summer and despite being out of season it is absolutely rammed with cars when we get there. Eventually I find a space in the Market area and we meet up with a rightly stressed brother and wife. However they are sorted and we can plan our afternoon.

There is a system of shuttlebuses in the park to take you along the rim and we eventually managed to get onto one of these . My heart sinks at first because it is a little like riding the underground in in the rush hour however we jump off the bus and within minutes of walking we are alone with the magnificent canyon. There are not words that I can find to describe the setting. Safe to say I have been lucky enough to be able to see a lot of beautiful places in the world, but nowhere compares to the majesty and scale of what we see here.


We spend an afternoon , until the sun begins to set, walking sections and watching the colours change and the depth of vision and sense of grandeur become almost too much to comprehend. We see deer and huge birds and although we know there are thousands of people doing the same as us there are times when we are alone with an enormous silence in which to contemplate how very small we are in the scale of things.

We have a fairly long drive back to Flagstaff and say goodbye to Tony and De to make the road as the light fades.

Marilyn and I are fairly lost for words on the way.

I am wondering how the rest of this trip can compare with what we have just experienced. And we both agree how fortunate we are that we are able to have had this  opportunity.

And we are told that the North Rim, where we are headed soon is even better.