The rail thing

Ample legroom, nonstop scenery, chilled martinis instead of traffic jams: Welcome to the new era of private train travel in the West.
Chris Colin

It’s a frigid morning on the windswept hills of western Nevada, a choking plume of tar black smoke rising overhead. We make a beeline toward it, my chartered bus full of train folk, and shuffle aboard. Having concluded the first leg of the Zephyr segment of our train adventure the previous night, we’ve turned our sights to its grittier cousin: the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, Nevada’s most famous short line, formed in 1868 to haul ore from the great Comstock mines to reduction mills in Silver City and along the Carson River. This was hardscrabble mining country. Nobody was pouring martinis.

Great fortunes launched on these rails, but eventually it all slipped away with the Mother Lode. Nearly three-quarters of a century after the V&T line was shuttered, several miles of track have been painstakingly restored by local aficionados. A pair of freelance Wild West reenactors in dusty cowboy hats has come to put on a show outside as we take our seats, and then we’re off, snaking along the ridge of the Carson River Canyon. Relics of mills lie below, overrun with sagebrush and bright cottonwood. Near a lonesome old gypsum mine, wild mustangs lope about.

Everyone around me seems impatient for something, and at last it comes: our first “photo run-by.” I’d heard the term batted around but hadn’t requested a definition. The train sighs to a halt a hundred yards above a dried-out gully. We climb off and line up neatly along the siding. The train inches back behind a distant canyon wall as dozens of expensive-looking cameras are readied. Then it happens, just a sound in the distance at first. Chug. It’s a woof stored deep in the American unconscious, near our feelings about bison and Twain and baseball. Chug. Slowly it emerges from behind the wall—chug, chug—this impossible behemoth nearly swallowed by billows of steam and smoke. Chug, chug, chug. It’s massive and deafening and every millimeter of its solemn grandeur is recorded by the photographers.

And then it happens all over again.

Really. They bring the thing back, hide it behind the canyon wall, fire it up, chug it past, click click click. Rinse, repeat. Having isolated a particularly photogenic segment of history, we spend the morning playing it on a recurring loop and snapping thousands of photos. It is profound and absurd in equal measure, and I can’t help but appreciate the bald nuttiness of it.

Same goes for the rest of the day. After our time on the V&T, the bus takes us to Virginia City, where I watch tourists wander into the Old West saloons and casinos. Us, we tour a workshop of rusty old train parts that Skow knows about. Then it’s on to the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, where we ride another train and poke at still others. I marvel at the extent to which the great railroads helped invent the identity of the Western states, and then I walk around mumbling my favorite locomotive terms: Johnson bar, petticoat pipe, parabolic reflector.

Finally it’s back to the V&T line for another ride because ... well, it’s there. By the time we return to the hotel, I’m convinced we’ve wrung every drop of train-ness from the great state of Nevada. I’m also convinced that, if some new rail relic were suddenly unearthed somewhere, we would have staggered out into the night to find it.

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