Southwest tourist trains huff and puff their way into a past devoid of power lines and highways

CHAMA, N.M. — The countryside of the American Southwest is rich with reminders of an earlier, romantic time when cowboys, bandits and everyone in between roamed the hot, forbidding deserts and snowy mountain passes.

If you can avoid cities, power lines and highways, in fact, it still looks much as it might have when your great-grandfather sent a picture postcard to your great-grandmother.

But there is an almost living, seemingly breathing reminder of that time that still rolls through that scrubby brand of wilderness: the tourist trains, now as much a destination as the dusty plains and mountains themselves.

Meet one of the trains' caretakers: Alan Loomis.

Nearly every morning from late May through late October, Loomis dons a white shirt, navy vest and necktie before setting squarely on his head the defining piece of his work uniform: the flat-topped, navy cap with gold braid. It identifies him as a conductor.

A self-described "corporate dropout," Loomis headed west from Madison, Wis., about 20 years ago, quickly discovering his true passion: trains. He landed a job with the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (888-286-2737, cumbrestoltec.com), forever turning his back on the world of big business.

"The conductor is in charge of the train, you know," he proudly informed a passenger. It's true. The engineer may drive the train, but it moves only when the conductor gives the OK.

Back in the late 19th century, trains on the line between Antonito, Colo., and Chama, N.M., hauled ore, timber, cattle and sheep. Now it is human cargo that Loomis welcomes to America's longest and highest narrow-gauge railroad. (Narrow gauge is about 3 feet versus the standard 4 feet, 81/2 inches.)

"This is a museum," he said while sharing the line's history with passengers. "This is a living, breathing, moving museum."

That could be said about virtually all of the so-called tourist trains scattered throughout the American Southwest. More so than soldiers on horseback, it was the arrival of the iron horse that truly tamed the last frontier of the continental United States.

Trains arrived relatively late to this sparsely populated region. The Cumbres & Toltec trip helps visitors understand why. As the steam locomotive begins the 64-mile journey west from Antonito, it chugs through pastures before climbing even higher into the Rockies. Amid scrub brush, aspens and pines, the train passes through a couple of tunnels before reaching Cumbres Pass (elevation 10,022 feet) and Toltec Gorge, which the train traverses on an 800-foot-long trestle rising about 60 stories above the canyon floor. Along its route, the train crosses the Colorado-New Mexico state line 11 times.

"When you look at the engineering side, it was phenomenal what they went through, wasn't it?" marveled John Allerton, a visitor from Scotland whose wife, Viv, booked their summer trip to the Southwest to celebrate rail fan John's 70th birthday.

Single-day round trips can originate in either Antonito or Chama, making the journey one direction by train and the other by bus. Viv Allerton recommended making the westbound leg by train.

"The scenery improved as you came back to Chama," she said. "You were in the flatter territory near Antonito, and then it got prettier on the second half of the trip."

Indeed, after crossing the somewhat-shorter Lobato Trestle, the train parallels the rushing Chama River as the cars steam toward the western terminus. At that point guests flock to the open-air gondola car for the obvious photo opportunity.

With a bit of planning, it's possible to link a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec with a trip on another of the region's tourist trains, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad (877-726-7245, coloradotrain.com). Though the Colorado railroad makes a run between Alamosa and Antonito, it's best known for the trip across La Veta Pass between Alamosa and the town of La Veta.

On summer weekends, the Rio Grande Scenic operates its unique "concert trains." For the price of the train ride, the railroad throws in a free concert atop the pass (mostly country and some gospel). Adjacent to the tracks, a natural amphitheater sits in a meadow full of wildflowers, the soaring Sangre de Cristo Mountains forming the backdrop to the tableau.

Solar panels and a windmill generate electricity at the location. There's an abundance of wind at an elevation of 9,400 feet, so much so that local country singer Will Dudley wrote about it for one of his original tunes.

"Hold on to your hat when you cross La Veta Pass

The wind blows strong in Colorado …"