Over Marshall Pass, Published 15 March 1937I awoke with a bound, for this was to be a highlight of the trip I was to be two miles in the air tn a train. I felt tired I wondered why the boy hadn't called me at 5 a.m. as planned, but my watch which never lies said it was five hours past midnight, and I recalled I was in a hick hotel. I dived into my tub, slithered around in the hard water, ran the soap around a bit, and then made ready to do on my stays. First, however, I wanted to check the time, to see how much I had left. I looked at my watch, and It was exactly 12.40 a.m. Was I something or other? I realized in a flash that my eyes, full of sleep, and my brain as fuddled as a punch-drunk pug, had juxtaposed the hands, and that what I read for 5 a.m. was really 12.25. Reversing the hands, I had roused myself and gone to my morning tub at 25 minutes past the witching hour. I went back into bed, breathed in that rare mountain air, and was duly called all over again at 5. This time at least I was one bath ahead, and I was soon over the Rio Grande station, ready to take the narrow gauge.
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You know, I had planned this trip for 12 years, ever since I was out on the Rio Grande in 1925. Now I was actually going to go over this to me almost fabulous route. Hastily disposing of doughnuts and coffee, I went down to see my engine. She was not narrow gauge, but the train was. This is possible by having a sort of oscillating coupler. Switch-engines around Salida, where both standard and narrow gauge operate, are equipped this way. Perhaps I had better say right here and now that of the 2,800 odd miles the Rio Grande operates, over 900 miles are narrow gauge. The big .headquarters for these Lilliputian locomotives is down at Alamosa, pronounced AlaMOOSA in Colorado for no reason I could find out, but pronounced Alamosa, just as you would think it would be, in New Mexico.
The standard gauge switch-engine backed my train off the three rails, and then swung it around on the southerly narrow gauge track where it left the five cars. The standard gauge goes on ahead toward Grand Junction, where we shall be this afternoon when we hit the main line again. So the little narrow gauge No. 479, with its eight little drivers, four aside, coupled on, and I had a chance to look over the train.
The coaches are all old and date back probably to the beginning of this century at least. The engines are only about 15 years old at the most, and likely 13. The day coach had the funny little shallow-backed, red plush seats of the old-time cars, while the observation coach had its seats arranged like those of a sleeper-back to back and face to face.
By the time you read these lines, these cars will have disappeared. The Rio Grande were rather disappointed I could not have seen the new equipment, which is to be a liiminutive replica of modern standard equipage. But I was delighted to glimpse this interesting hang-over from the old autoless railroad days, when the railway was king and the public could be damned and were. The old-time oil lamps burned cheerily as no electric or gas contraption ever did, and the little coal fire sent a warming wave that felt so much better than the usual type of train heat. I could hear the fire crackle from time to time, as we made ready to start. The seats were narrow, so that two people as stout as I could not sit side by side with comfort. The rear platform could be called an observation platform by courtesy only, for it was narrow, and your head almost touched the emergency cord. Altogether, it was the most interesting car I had ridden in for many a long day.
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I was still walking around in the dark for it is pitch-black at six a.m. in December when two men bore down on me. One's name was Mr. Broderick of Gunnison, Colorado, and he was to ride with me as far as Grand Junction, 209 miles, eight-and-a-half-hour trip by train and bus. The other was Carlton T. Sills, publicity man for the railway, who had ridden all night on the train to be with me in the morning. Vice-President Shields telegrams were still working. Mr. Sills was a Gunnison boy, and as an old newspaperman, talked my language.
The three of us went out on the back platform, just as the little train started to go. Now bear in mind we were at the 7,000-foot mark, and when we stopped climbing, we were to be near the 11,000-foot level. I looked out in front and saw the headlight of the wee five-car train, going almost at right angles to my coach, as it picked its way around steep curves without a moment's pause. Twists that would tear any standard gauge train to pieces seemed to give this engine the zest kids get when they play crack-the-whip. Still dark, the shower of sparks from our tiny engine blew high into the starry heavens as we struck, the first grade. I don't know how sudden a curve a standard gauge train can make, but this fellow could go round a 23-degree curve and never bother a bit.
Day began to break slowly, all too slowly, as we left Mears Junction behind. We had come 11 miles and climbed 1,400 feet. The real pull lay ahead, however, for in the next 14 miles, we were obliged to pant up 2,425 feet. I could just begin to distinguish things as our engine went to work. The little train never seemed to hesitate nor slow down as the giant locomotives do when they go over a standard gauge pass. You did not have the long, steady pull. Instead, you seemed to have a nimble, sure-footed creature up ahead, that never understood the symbol rallen-tando, and seemed content for the most part to play scherzos, the while doing staccato work with the stack.
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I saw that there was snow in patches now, but always on the north side of the track. The railway was built, they told me, on the southern slopes as much as possible, to palliate the snow menace. A huge bank of clouds, resting all night like some sleeping, gigantic wraith on a rough-backed bed, still reposed, though stirring occasionally uneasily, on this couch which was the Continental Divide. I could see the track far below me, and away above me. Had it been summer, I could have photographed three different levels at once. In the days after the war, four old-time locomotives would often break down on these grades, and freight trains had troubles, no matter how numerous the power. Now, however, our 479 was getting up into the 9,000-foot area, and we were still going strong. The sun was up, as the pink mist-puffs far to the east would testify, but I could not see it yet. thanks to this cloud bank, hundreds of miles long. At first black, it became something lighter than that, then through a dozen shades to white, next pink, and at last, when we got near the top. it was suffused with gold.
Meanwhile, I tried a few experimental pre-sun-up shots with my Zeiss, and they later turned out pretty well. I often got the machine ready to focus on some scene, only to have .it disappear from view. I had not realized before that the sudden curves on a narrow gauge can take you out of sight of a whole valley in the twist of a wheel truck, and while on a slow-swinging four feet 8½-inch gauge, you would have all the time in the world to get your shot. On this epileptic railway, you had to bag your scenes on the wing.
It got colder. We were now In winter, as we hit the 10,000-foot mark. Breathing came a little hard. My heart pounded perceptibly. My ear drums did funny things. My nostrils got a little sensitive. Still we went up and up. I looked into the heavens, and there above on a slope, was a still higher track. We were by now a sky-going railway in a big way, with most of the world below us, and only pink-tipped, snow-capped Mount Ouray above us. Then the sun hit us too. and in the intense cold, those weak, orange rays were welcome. The train started to slow up. We entered a snow shed. Everything got dark. We were in the Pass. We had entered Marshall Pass station. Wc were 10.868 feet above sea-level. Truly, as I promised, I got you up to two miles in the air on a train.
You're in the clouds now I'll have you in peach orchards in my next.