Firing Up the Coal for a Colorado Getaway The Day to Day summer travel series continues with another trip -- this time, however, using a very different kind of fossil fuel. Adam Burke skips the gasoline and hops on a narrow-gauge, coal-powered train into an isolated canyon near Durango, Colo.
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Firing Up the Coal for a Colorado Getaway

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Firing Up the Coal for a Colorado Getaway

Firing Up the Coal for a Colorado Getaway

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All right, from bio-diesel to a hundred bucks of gas. This is our summer travel series. We sent writers out to places they can get to and back on that much gasoline. But you know writers: they don't always do what you ask. A case-in-point, NPR's Adam Burke.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

ADAM BURKE reporting:

Hey, who needs gasoline? The Rocky Mountains have over 100 billion tons of coal to burn.

(Soundbite of train)

BURKE: I catch an old-fashioned, narrow-gauged steam engine that runs north-south in Colorado, between Silverton and Durango. It takes about three and a half hours to go 45 miles through a fairly remote part of the San Juan Mountains. When I get on in Silverton, most of the passengers are carrying either a camera or an ice cream cone.

But a few of us have backpacks stuffed with camping gear. The train will drop us off on the edge of a massive wilderness area at a place called Needle Creek. The train snakes alongside the Animas River, spewing a cloud of black smoke. As I prepare to get off at Needle Creek, the conductor gives me instructions on how to flag the train down for the return trip.

Unidentified Man (Train Conductor): You just swing your hand horizontally across your body like that. That means stop.

BURKE: That's how they did things 100 years ago, he says. Make that signal, and the engineer will answer with three short bursts of the whistle, which tells everyone the train is about to stop.

(Soundbite of train stopping)

BURKE: I look through the logbook at the trailhead. Everyone who signed in is headed to the exact same place: a cluster of popular mountain peaks, all topping 14,000 feet above sea level. They're in all the guidebooks. A white-haired backpacker asks me if that's where I'm headed. I'm not sure where I'm going yet, I say, and he smiles back, but it's a tight smile, a smile that says oh, you're one of those idiots who goes out into the woods and does stupid things and then we have to come bail you out or look for your body.

(Soundbite of heavy breathing)

BURKE: Well, I hope that's not the case. I just don't like heading toward a point on a map simply because a guidebook says it's the place to be. I want these mountains to talk to me, even if I'm not going to like everything they have to say.

A few miles in, I cut off the trail and head up through a thicket of trees and brush, into a steep, unmarked canyon. I wrench my way through tight trees, scramble nervously across slopes and gullies smeared with loose rock and boulders, stopping only out of sheer exhaustion.

(Soundbite of heavy breathing)

Oh my God.

But not for long. The black flies are brutal this year. Stupid, easy to kill, but they bury you with their legions, and each one has the same single-minded goal. It wants to land on you, tip its hind end in the air and excavate your flesh with its serrated jaws.

Within a half hour, my legs and arms are covered with welts and tiny pools of my own blood.

(Soundbite of running water)

I jump into a water hole, and it's cold. I find wild raspberries and strawberries. And I stumble onto an edible mushroom, too, a boletus edulis, one of the few almost idiot-proof mushrooms that grow out here - fairly easy to identify, not uncommon, but a prize to a hungry trekker.

(Soundbite of snapping branches)

(Soundbite of fire)

BURKE: I cook the boletus mushroom in olive oil and stir it into pasta with pesto sauce, eating by headlamp while it gets dark. Tomorrow I'll hike back down to the tracks, and when the train comes, I'll wave my hand in front of my body to flag it down, the way they did a century ago. And the machine will eventually give an answer, wailing through the canyon, echoing out of the 19th century, pressing toward the future with all the dirty forests of coal and steam. It's a sound that will call me into the whirring clockwork of the present with ringing clarity.

(Soundbite of three short train whistles)

BURKE: Adam Burke, NPR News, in western Colorado.

CHADWICK: And on the trip, Adam took some pictures. You can see them at Our series, A Hundred Bucks of Gas, continues throughout the summer, and there's more to come in a moment on DAY TO DAY.

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