I recently took a couple quick trips to Colorado and breathing the thin mountain air brought back memories. Although thirty-some years have passed, I still remember the thrill of exploring The Moffat Road.
The road was an old railroad bed that had been stripped of the rails and and most of the ties. The Forest Service had produced “A Self-Guided Auto Tour” and we decided to explore. (I know I won’t have all the details right. Forgive me, but it’s been a long time.) We began in Rollinsville which consisted of a couple buildings. A cowboy restaurant/local cafe/bar served good food and great conversation. Taking the road up toward the Moffat Tunnel we passed by what decades before had been a huge ice house. The framework and beams were all that were left, and many were hidden by wildflowers and weeds. Looking up we could see the road – full of switchbacks – where we were headed.
I know there was a ‘town’ called Tolland that was a railroad station back when trains went over the pass. I don’t remember what was left of the town when we explored in the mid-19 70s. Perhaps I was just too excited to get to the real fun. To the left we could see the Moffat Tunnel, where trains take a six-mile ride through the mountains to reach the Western Slope. Sometimes we’d just sit and watch the trains go in or come out of the tunnel. The engines roar, the power, the rumble, the blast of the whistle – don’t you just love trains?
About seven miles up was a square water tower. Weathered and falling apart, it looked nothing like the water towers I was used to in the Midwest! As we walked we picked up old spikes and nails – holding a piece of railroad and Colorado history in our hands. Valuable? No. But a treasure nonetheless.
Trains prefer a 3% grade. Anything more than that is difficult to climb or descend safely. However there are sections of this road that are 4% grades. There were several tunnels, abandoned buildings and towns, and lakes which tumble through my memories. One weekend we parked the car and climbed down to some old abandoned buildings. We hiked across a beautiful meadow to a small creek. I remember looking down at my right hand and seeing it turn black – completely covered with mosquitoes. When it started to swell, I stuck it in the creek’s freezing water for as long as I could stand. (Hard to believe it was July!) The swelling was gone and we continued the hike – after using bug spray! Rich had walked further up and turned to talk to me. When I looked up at him, I saw a lovely doe looking at me from only a few feet behind him. She seemed to say, “Does he belong to you?” When he turned to look, she ran. We camped that night with an almost full moon keeping watch over us.
The next morning we hiked back up to the road and took the route closed to cars. There were two trestles which seemed almost like new. We walked over them and around. At some point we ended at a spot where the town dumped their trash. As we dug through the debris, we found old pottery shards, bottles, and iron items we didn’t comprehend. It was exciting to think of the people who had lived, worked, and probably died in this beautiful but tough country.
Another time we decided to take my folks over the pass. Dad, a brakeman for the TP &W, loved all things trains and mom would enjoy the views. The four of us climbed into the cab of Dad’s blue pickup (this was long before seat belt laws) and took off. Everything was fine till we were almost to the top when a blizzard came out of nowhere. With no place to turn around, we just kept moving uphill. Almost to the top we noticed movement to our left. Bow hunters on horseback, with their deer loaded on mules, hunched against the blowing snow formed a line. They were as surprised by the storm as we were. When we made it to the top, we rested and debated whether to go back where we came from, or continue to the west. Only a short way down and we were once again out of the snow and enjoying the history of the road again.
Several years later we drove to the top and while I went fishing in the lake just down from the apex, Rich went fishing in the valley stream for brookies. I had my 18 month old daughter and our black lab with me. It was one of those beautiful Colorado days and I loved it. Moving slowly over the mountain from the west I noticed a storm cloud. By the time I packed up and headed back to the truck, it started snowing. Holding my daughter close to me, I looked for the truck, then started in a line toward it with my head down – my dog at my side. After walking a short way I felt the need to stop. I know God was protecting us, because when I looked up, I saw that I had veered to the left and had stopped a few feet short of the edge of the cliff. The truck was to my right. Thanking God for His protection, we made it back to the truck, ate our lunch, and waited for the fisherman in the valley to realize it was snowing where we were, not just raining.
There are more memories tucked away, but these are the ones I best recall. I’d love to drive over the road again, but the Needle’s Eye Tunnel has caved in and prevents one from driving from one side to the other. Trestles that were sturdy enough to drive over years ago are no longer safe to walk over now. But the road is still there. A temporary railway over the Continental Divide has left its mark on the mountain and on the people who still love the thrill of discovery, the tug of history, and the lonesome call of the train whistle.