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A few days ago, I cinched up the speed laces of a pair of Salomon Sense Ride 3s and wound up running a trail that lead me into the early 20th century.
How’s that possible? Nope, this isn’t a story about me running through some cosmic time machine. I was running along the route of a little-known, long-ago railroad known as the Argentine Central Railway, a narrow gauge line that once snaked its way from the small town of Silver Plume, Colorado, to the summit of 13,600-foot Mount McClellan from 1906-1918.
It was a rarity among railroads of the early 1900s in that it was built entirely to take tourists of the day into a remote section of the Rocky Mountains. Back then, the mountains seemed to be a rugged place—dirty, cold and demanding—but still interesting to the more civilized folks of the towns and cities in Denver, Boulder and Golden and 75 miles to the east.
Although the Argentine Central turned out to be a historically insignificant railway that was plagued with financial challenges from the start, what amazes and intrigues me is that the path of the rail line—and its purpose of taking tourists to gawk in awe at a high-mountain peak—remains intact more than 100 years later. (Part of my intent in running that route that day was to get a bird’s eye view of another trail-running project known as the Torreys-Ganley Traverse.)
Those who know me know that I am a huge train geek and have been since my formative years as a little boy. I have photographed thousands of trains in my lifetime, a passion I learned to enjoy with my late father.
Those who know me know that I am a huge train geek and have been since my formative years as a little boy. I have photographed thousands of trains in my lifetime, a passion I learned to enjoy with my late father. I still stop and marvel when a train passes by and always smile when I hear a train’s whistle or air horn in the distance. I always wanted to be a railroad engineer when I was young and have often daydreamed of what that might be like—or what it might have been like 100 years ago. I have a big collection of old maps, postcards and artifacts from railroads across the U.S. And so, as a trail runner, I am especially intrigued by abandoned lines that have become official trails or have left purposeful pathways into otherwise mostly inaccessible places.
Much has been made about the great work of the Rails to Trails Conservancy nonprofit organization and its efforts to turn industrial rail lines into pastoral pedestrian trails. I’ve enjoyed many runs on some of those trails—including the Kal-Haven Trail in Michigan, the Illinois Prairie Path in Illinois, the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail in Northern California and the Mineral Belt Trail in Leadville, Colorado, and have enjoyed learning about the history of those routes while marveling at the amazing community resources they have become for human-powered locomotion.
There are more than 40,000 miles of pedestrian trails in the Rails to Trails database and not surprisingly there are routes in every state, including dozens around most major cities.
There are more than 40,000 miles of pedestrian trails in the Rails to Trails database and not surprisingly there are routes in every state, including dozens around most major cities. One of the trails that’s high on my list is the 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail that meanders through the Black Hills National Forest in southwestern South Dakota.
While most of the Rails to Trails database are relatively flat, meandering and well-manicured routes, I’ve always most interested in the former rail lines that have been left untouched after the rails have been removed. I’ve been fortunate to ramble over a variety of long ago lines in the mountains of Colorado, including my recent jaunt over the Argentine Central. Among my other favorites include Rollins Pass in the mountains west of Boulder, Upper Gold Camp Road in Colorado Springs and the Alpine Tunnel Trail west of Buena Vista. There are dozens of former mining railroad routes in the mountains around Leadville, Silverton and Nederland and, of course, the Manitou Incline is also a former tourist rail line, one that left behind one of the steepest and most challenging running trails in the country.
I don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation, but there are present-day moments that start to paint a picture of what might have been my distant past. Running those routes represents the crossroads of my love for trail running, my passion for railroads and my appreciation for history. Yes, I soak in the views and natural features present in modern times, but I have to admit, I typically drift back in time when I am running those routes, allowing my mind to wander and wonder what life might have been like back then.
On that recent day on the old Argentine Central line, my trail-running partner and I were awed by the old mining ruins, a vigorous waterfall, colorful wildflowers, the remains of a former day lodge and even numerous railroad ties still in place 100 years later. But instead of trail running in modern times, maybe I could have been a conductor on one of those trains and welcoming old-timey citizens to the sights and splendors of the West.
The transformative power of trails touches each of us in different ways at different moments in our lives. … For me, it’s often been a way of connecting the past to the present, especially when I am running on a trail where a railroad once ran.
While running a trail race during the Sunset Trail Running Festival a few years ago, I was in awe about how the Denver, Boulder and Western Railroad once zigzagged through the same mountainsides of what was then, and now, known as the Switzerland Trail of America. I have written about those experiences many times, but less because I am a journalist by trade and more that I somehow feel connected to that history.
As I have run the Leadville Trail Marathon and brought friends along to see some of the old mining ruins on other nearby trails, I have often wondered if I was a locomotive engineer playing a small role in stirring the local economy and ushering in transplanted citizens just as I have been encouraging trail runners and endurance athletes in modern times to explore the trails, races and culture of that quirky city at 10,200 feet above sea level.
On Sunday morning, as we descended back into Silver Plume on the Argentine Central to conclude our run, we heard the shrill whistle of the Georgetown Loop Railroad echo through the forest and we immediately marveled at the vibrant connection to the long-ago history. In some ways, what’s past truly is prologue.
The transformative power of trails touches each of us in different ways at different moments in our lives. Sometimes, it’s about being in the natural environment. At other times, it’s purely about running, athleticism and training. For me, it’s often been a way of connecting the past to the present, especially when I am running on a trail where a railroad once ran.
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and now serves as a contributing editor.