Amid the solitude that envelopes the open lands of Southern Colorado, Stathi Pappas breaks the peace as he shovels coals into a steam train engine built in the 1880s.
His hands and boots are black, with smears from the dense substance brandished across his suspenders.
“It’s almost all-consuming in some ways,” he said. “People build their lives around this interest.”
Pappas has been up since 2 a.m., preparing the locomotive with a group of similarly dressed men. It is an arduous process that includes filling the engine with water and keeping the coals hot so it can be ready for an 8:30 a.m. departure.
But this is not any trip on any day. People who have traveled across the world to be here will remember it for quite some time as three other steam engines warm-up for their departures as well.
“You never know when an event like this is going to happen again. If ever,” said Pappas.
This is the world’s largest gathering of steam train engines in one place at one time. An event the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico tried throwing last year but had to cancel because of COVID-19.
“Steam engines are a living mechanical device,” said Thor Windbergs, who traveled from Germany to see these trains. “I was hoping to bring my son along, but unfortunately because of COVID, I couldn’t bring my 10-year-old son. Hoping to come back next summer to ride the train.”
Black plumes billow above Windbergs’ head as more whistles and bells signal the nearing departure.
A man donned in suspenders and a conductor’s hat moves up and down the wooden aisles of the locomotive’s cars asking people for their tickets as another hangs from the side of the train to holler one last, “All aboard!”
And before you know it, they are off.
The journey will last 80-some miles over the course of nine hours, as it takes passengers from the small valley town of Antonio, Colorado to the mountain town of Chama, New Mexico.
It chugs along slowly, reaching a top speed of 20mph as the train winds its way through dense mountain forests and scenic passes.
Some onboard are here for the sheer enjoyment of watching the world pass by, while others are here to remember times more sentimental.
“My wife and I actually met on this rail line in 1979,” said Scott Gibbs, who did not have to travel far for the trip.
Gibbs is Colorado’s rail commissioner.
“She sat down. It was a very cold July morning, and she noticed I had a thermos. And she was wondering if I had coffee. I said no I have tea and I handed her a cup of tea. I converted her to be a tea drinker. She’s been a tea drinker ever since,” he said laughing.
While Gibbs remembers how his love for trains led him to the love of his life, Jack Beck stares out the open window of train car 168 with a stoic, yet content look across his face.
“Like I always do, I try to soak it all in,” he said.
Beck traveled from rural Nebraska with his wife of more than 50 years to enjoy this ride. Her parents worked on a rail line like this for most of their lives, so the journey holds its own sentimental value.
“It’s just, I think, a great tribute to our history and to our past,” he said. “It helps keep history alive. I just love seeing young people on these trains because that’s our future and that’s this railroad’s future.”
By their very essence trains are connectors of coasts, people, and passions that allow those here to connect to something deeper.
“You know, it’s a yearning for authenticity and being able to say that I was part of it. And I think that’s what’s special,” said Pappas.