SAN JUAN NATIONAL FOREST, Colo. — Few wildernesses on earth offer the harmony of the immense San Juan National Forest with its alpine meadows, fishing streams and icy waterfalls. Being here is an experience that haunts the soul long after one returns to the restless world of cities and freeways.
It is Saturday afternoon and the dream is over.
Skies are leaden and thunder rolls through a forested valley, colliding headlong with rocky mountain peaks and echoing along a river that flows beside meadows carpeted with wildflowers.
Soon the rains will come--as well as the train that signals a return to the real world.
For a few days, 30 guests at Colorado's famed Ah, Wilderness ranch have learned the true meaning of solitude in a setting as peaceful as a passing cloud, as pure as a rainbow.
None is eager to leave.
As they board the narrow-gauge train that will return them to Durango, they will carry with them the memories of deer peering from a forest, of icy waterfalls, picnics beneath ponderosa pine and an overnight pack trip to a pristine hideaway high in the Rockies.
Ah, Wilderness is an experience that haunts the soul long after one returns to the restless world of cities and freeways.
Twenty-five miles north of Durango, it is accessible only by the century-old narrow-gauge train that struggles through the canyon three times a day en route to the mining town of Silverton. There is no other access, not even a road. Either one arrives by train or else hikes in; the nearest highway is five miles south of this ranch that's hidden among aspens and evergreens that spread their shade along the Animas River with its deep gorges, rapids and raging white water.
Few wish to leave, says ranch manager Larry Hays, a youthful John Denver look-alike. Hays was managing a hotel in Dallas when he got the offer to return to his native Colorado and he's never looked back.
Those who vacation on this riding ranch with its star-filled heavens soon learn why: Few wildernesses on Earth offer the harmony of the immense San Juan National Forest with its alpine meadows, fishing streams and icy waterfalls.
Twenty years ago, traveling on the little narrow-gauge train to Silverton, I saw the weathered sign beside the river announcing Ah, Wilderness. In Denver the other day I boarded the same train on the same scenic trip that's a flashback to a more peaceful period, a brief moment when America was young and the West was a challenge to be met with courage. Was it really so inspiring, my earlier trip to a near-forgotten yesterday, following the paths of prospectors and railroaders who fought and frequently failed to conquer the Colorado wilderness?
Yes, of course.
Leaving Durango, the engineer tooted the whistle a couple of times and the train lurched forward. Soon it was passing fields of columbine and cattle grazing near the tracks and meadows choked with alfalfa and bales of hay. The steam whistle echoed mournfully as the train inched its way through the canyon, clinging tenaciously to a ledge hundreds of feet above the Animas where the river raged and boiled through rapids and mist-filled gorges.
The canyon has heard the train's whistle for more than a century now. In the beginning the train carried fortunes in ore between Silverton and Durango on its path beneath the peaks of the Continental Divide.
No film director ever captured the scene more dramatically than the engineer of the train with its conductors in their bib overalls and passengers focusing cameras on scenes reminiscent of some Alpine region in far-off Bavaria. While the fireman shovels coal, the scent of pine and smoke fill the air, and deer and elk peer from the forest. Exactly 90 minutes into the trip the train makes its brief stop at Ah, Wilderness.
Waiting beside the track are Larry Hays and his wranglers. While guests hike across a meadow, a horse-drawn wagon delivers luggage to cabins hidden in the forest.
Home for a few days will be this world without telephones or TV, a world disturbed only by the voice of the wind, the rush of the river and the song of birds.
Inside the cabins, guests discover old-fashioned coal buckets filled with wood for a Franklin stove. There are rockers and down comforters and a kerosene lamp in the event the lights should fail, which occurs during summer thunderstorms.
At Ah, Wilderness guests dine family style in the main lodge on fowl and barbecued beef, cowboy biscuits and beans, homemade cakes and pies, blueberry pancakes and an assortment of other ranch-style offerings. While the fare is satisfying, dining can't be considered one of the pluses at Ah, Wilderness. The primary appeal is the rare opportunity to duck out on the world of terrorism and traffic to concentrate on catching a trout or panning for gold or riding a horse to a waterfall whose icy veil provides welcome relief on a hot summer day.