With so many hours on a train, we will have a lot of time to read, we thought and packed quite a few books and magazines. So far, we have rarely touched them. During the eight hours on the train from Denver to Grand Junction, Colorado, we did nothing but staring out of the window deeply impressed by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
Leaving Denver, the train climbs up the steep curves into the mountains. In the narrow curves, abandoned train wagons filled with dirt and rocks function as windbreakers. A few minutes after we enter the mountains, the train slows down. There might be rocks on the tracks, the conductor explains through the speakers. A network of wires next to the train tracks is connected to the signal system. If a sliding rock touches one of the wires, the signals force the train to stop. An Amtrak employee has to check the tracks and remove any rocks that might have fallen on the tracks. Large rocks might require heavy machinery, and in some of the remote areas the train passes through, removing large rocks from the tracks can take hours to days.
We are lucky. Our train keeps moving, slowly climbing to an elevation of more than 9,270 feet (or 2,825 m)– the highest elevation a train reaches in the US. From the snow covered mountaintops we make our way through a unique landscape. We pass through bright green plateaus, wood covered mountains and spectacular creeks, always staying aside the Colorado River. In some narrow canyons, the train seems to be close to touching the red rock walls on one side while, on the other side, the tracks are only a foot away from the steep cliffs down to the roaring river.
A section of the river is known for its rafting and kayaking and has the nickname ”Full Moon River”, we hear. We have no idea what that is supposed to mean. This changes when we pass the first group of people in a rafting boat. As soon as they notice the train, two guys turn their back towards us, pull down their pants, and shake their naked butts towards the passing train. ‘Mooning the train’, this tradition is called. In the few hours of riding along the river, we see more naked butts than we have seen in the past years. From our seats in the panorama wagon we have a great view and wonder how a tradition like this develops.
But our train ride was not only entertaining, but also very educational. Representatives of the National Park Service boarded the train with us in Denver and entertain us all the way through Colorado. Bob, Jack, and Jim - all volunteer national park rangers - patiently explain what we see along the route from Denver to Grand Junction. They point to eagles nesting in dead trees, keep us informed about current level of elevation and flow speed of the river, and tell the story about the 1880s committee, which explored whether it was possible to build train tracks through the Rocky Mountains. Three hours delayed and getting closer to Grand Junction, our destination for the day, we realize that the plan of renting a car for the next day will not work out anymore. But we do not have to wait long for our rescue: Bob, one of the rangers, offers to take us to the Colorado National Monument the next day.
In the morning, at 8am sharp, Bob and his wonderful wife - well equipped with a big bottle of water and fresh strawberries from their garden - pick us up from our Airbnb. Bob, a retired professor and expert of ornithology, turns out to be the perfect tour guide for the plants and animals of the monument. We learn about the water saving strategy of blooming cactuses and about flowers that change their color after being pollinated. Bob also introduces us to the Merlin Bird ID App, a database of hundreds of bird calls we use to attract different birds to come into sight. After a little walk, we drive all the way through the monument, getting spectacular views of the red canyons. We end our wonderful tour in Bob’s favorite pizza restaurant, the Hot Tomato in Fruita. It is meeting people who volunteer to be our local tour guides and take the time to share their #favoriteplaces what makes traveling truly special.