On a sultry summer's eve, the tables in the courtyard of the Alys restaurant at La Veta Inn are crowded with folks lingering after they've finished their meals, enjoying the music of local singer-songwriter Will Dudley.
Hold on to your hat when you cross La Veta Pass
The wind blows strong in Colorado
The cowboy crooner isn't forecasting the weather, but he might as well be, because some in the audience will ride the rails in the morning up to La Veta Pass in search of more live music.
For five summers now, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad — a tourist train operating between La Veta (pronounced lah-VEE-tah) and Alamosa in south-central Colorado — has been offering passengers a terrific deal: You buy a ticket for the scenic trip through the Rockies (starting at $30), and they'll throw in a two-hour concert.
The concerts — accessible only by rail and staged on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through September — feature mostly country, bluegrass and cowboy artists. Past performers have included Larry Gatlin, Nanci Griffith and Ricky Skaggs. This year's lineup includes Michael Martin Murphey, the Rifters and Weavermania. Although not superstars, they're talented musicians nonetheless.
The concerts are staged in a natural amphitheater, a wildflower-strewn mountain meadow with the towering peaks of the Sangre de Cristo as a backdrop.
As Dudley predicted, it's windy atop La Veta Pass. Some baseball caps go flying as passengers step off two trains at what was once a railroad settlement named Fir. An old steam locomotive has made its way up the mountain from Alamosa to the west, while a diesel engine has pulled coaches from La Veta to the east.
First-class passengers have paid for the pleasure of riding to the concert in style, in luxurious rail cars once operated by the Illinois Central Railroad. They're reminiscent of another tune in Dudley's repertoire.
Dealin' card games with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score.
"City of New Orleans" is not only the song's name but also the name of the train on which these cars once saw service. Seated in comfy lounge chairs, guests are served free drinks by railroad personnel who also provide decks of playing cards and rolls of pennies.
Card games, however, distract passengers from the passing scenery as the trains chug toward La Veta Pass. From the town of La Veta, the steel rails pass through two tunnels as they climb more than 2,200 feet. The 40-mile journey takes a little more than an hour.
"Bear on the left!" a voice squawks through a walkie-talkie as visitors press their noses to the windows. The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad also hauls freight, andbears frequent the spot where 2,000 tons of barley were disgorged during a derailment a few years ago.
"Every summer, they come back. Sometimes we see as many as 10 bears in this one spot," explained Ryan Weeks, the passenger services manager. "They know the food's there so they come back every year."
After arriving at Fir in late morning, guests can chow down on the contents of a boxed lunch ($10) or a catered hot meal ($12) featuring barbeque beef and pork, plus baked beans and potato salad.
Although no buildings remain from the original settlement, the railroad has constructed the chowhouse, the stage and modern restrooms. All the electricity is generated on-site, using solar panels and a windmill to harness that seemingly ever-present wind about which Dudley sings.
Keep your boots on at night
Keep your coats buttoned tight
You never know just when it's gonna' snow
They build snowmen in July in Colorado.