Go west, go west, the wind murmured in my ear. Hurricane Joaquin threatened to deluge our two towns, while Chapel Hill was in a bit of an uproar over the upcoming local election. So I headed west to the New Mexico high desert and southern Colorado mountains.
I went with my husband and our younger daughter, currently doing research rather than spending long hospital hours training as a surgery resident. Little did we know it, but it was chili-harvest season and every parking lot in Santa Fe was being used to roast chilies. The air smelled of red earth and heat and sunshine.
Never before have I gone to such a place where I could so easily have relocated, except for Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Something about the land called to me, some link to the past.
The link took us nearly 3,000 miles by rental car from the old town of Albuquerque to the plaza of Santa Fe to the depths of Carlsbad Caverns to the rolling gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument to the isolation of Pie Town on the way to Arizona, nothing for miles but a restaurant that serves pie, dozens of kinds, slices of pie with ice cream, with the only savory offering being green-chili stew.
We watched roadrunners cross our path and saw elk graze in the distance. We stopped to hike mountains and traipse through now-cooled lava fields. At roadside restaurants, we downed red-chili enchiladas and finally made our way to Durango, Colorado, where I could check off something on my bucket list: a ride on the Durango-Silverton steam railroad along the Animas River.
Only after getting to Durango did I remember the river was the site of a toxic spill this past August. An EPA contractor had blown-out 3 million gallons of heavy metal-filled wastewater from the Gold King Mine into a tributary near Silverton, where we were headed. More than one hundred river miles, including those of the Animas, were affected, as well as five Western water-supply systems.
Yet, the train ride was as beautiful as I had dreamed. “All aboard,” the conductor yelled as the train began to move, its whistle blowing and the smell of coal steam in the air. My husband and I, riding in the open gondola car, were advised to wear our sunglasses to keep cinders from our eyes. Over the course of our journey, three times, though, I had to wipe a speck away.
As we rode out of town, people along the tracks waved at us. At one point, I spied a little boy in the backseat of his mother’s black SUV, windows rolled down. He wore a pair of oversized green sunglasses and mouthed the word, “Wow!”
Passing over the first wooden-trestle bridge, I saw the Animas River come into view. The gondola rocked, and I felt as if I were inside a boat in rough waters. “I guess this was definitely an improvement over horse-drawn wagons,” my husband opined.
Soon we caught a glimpse of snow-capped mountain peaks. The air had begun to turn colder, and I pulled on an extra sweater, making three layers I was wearing. With the train climbing slowly, it creaked and squealed and leaned as we traveled around bends. We pushed by rock faces so close we could have reached out and touched them. The train shifted gears and we traveled even more slowly along the Animas River Gorge.
Looking down, I saw a most magnificent view. Although there was mustard-colored sludge clinging to the river’s banks, people I talked to said they hoped a spring snow melt would wash it away. Although they were distressed by the affair, they were more sanguine than I would have been if I lived there.
Despite the spill, I was glad I had come. I had escaped the remnants of a hurricane back home, along with political tensions, and the overarching beauty of the place touched me deep within my soul.
Linda Haac lives in Carrboro. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org