A TRIP TO CHAMA
BY DON M. SCOTT, RAILROAD MAN
A SPECIAL MAGIC overcomes you as you drive into Chama, New Mexico if you're a narrow gauge railroad nut. Otherwise, Chama might be little more than a pretty, wide spot in the road between somewhere and nowhere.
At about 3 o'clock on a rainy mid-October afternoon, at the end of a long drive from Durango, my beloved spouse and attorney, Norene Scott, Railroad Woman, and I pulled into Chama. I had saved stopping at Chama for the end of our vacation because I had sworn to Norene we would avoid (at her specific request) all "dirty, nasty, stinking little railroad towns". Clearly I had lied. If Chama exists for any reason other than a railroad, God alone knows what it is or was! As far as I know, Chama came into being solely to serve as a helper station for the Denver & Rio Grande and that is sufficient reason for the Railroad Man.
If, at this point, our editor, Uncle Russ, finds it necessary to inject some of Chama's history, I ask only that he keep it short. [For the sake of maintaining the unique flavor of the Railroad Man's narrative, he will omit it entirely. He promises, in a future issue, to run a separate article about Chama including some history and a different selection of photos.-Ed.]
The Railroad Woman, as usual, lapsed into her normal mode of back seat driving even though, before we left home, I deliberately had removed the back seat. "Watch out!" she exclaimed quietly, "Don't hit that steer!" Then she warned, "School bus stopped ahead. I suggest you avoid running over the kids." (I rarely do.)
We arrived in Chama hoping to find a nice, warm, comfortable motel but, since one entire side of town is a narrow gauge railroad yard complete with a 90 foot tall coaling tower, a giant dual spout water tank, a funky old station and, as we drove up, three K-36 and K-37 (2-8-2) locomotives puffing and steaming and shuttling around passenger cars, I pulled to the side of the road and jammed on the brakes instead. "Whoa!" I shrieked. "What's down there? Steam locomotives? Golly gee snapturtle," I exclaimed, "what a surprise!" I made a high speed U-turn and drove down the embankment toward the station.
Then the unthinkable occurred. Even the Railroad Woman became enthusiastic. Unlike in Durango, where everything is all freshly painted, shiny, and behind fences, we found ourselves in the middle of a trio of "dirty, nasty, stinking", beautiful, operating steam engines. It was cold and misty, smoke and steam swirled everywhere, and the sunlight filtered though the clouds in a special effect artists love. Watching those iron beasts shuttle the cars and themselves up and down the length of the yard before their crews prepared to bed them down was awesome. The Railroad Woman and I snapped photos like mad.
As we prepared to leave, a grizzled man I was chatting with asked, "Are you heading up the pass to see the freight come in?"
"The freight? Where?" I asked.
The Railroad Woman and I dashed for the car and drove about 3 miles north. There we found a 25 car freight train with boxcars, reefers, work cars, flatcars, gondolas, and a caboose chuffing, rumbling, and rattling down the pass. We snapped another dozen photos, then chased the miraculous apparition back to town, narrowly avoiding the same steers and children, and careened back down to the railroad yard to catch the arrival of the freight and the subsequent engine servicing.
Finally, after dark, we found what I am sure was the last motel room in town (always make advance reservations in Chama), enjoyed a good steak dinner, and sacked out. The next morning we woke up early. It was sunny and crisp. The yards were buzzing with activity as crews prepared a pair of locomotives for a doubleheader over the pass. We watched passengers board and the train depart. As we availed ourselves of opportunity to take some spectacular photographs, we realized the last twenty hours of our lives could have been occurred half a century ago. If you love narrow gauge trains, Chama really does have a special kind of magic.