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Durango is the Old West at its best

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  • Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Engineer Mike Nichols climbs up a short ladder every morning to shine the bell on his steam locomotive. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

  • A ranger leads a group of visitors through the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. It was inhabited by ancestral Pueblo people between 550 and 1200 AD. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

  • Rafting on the Animas River is a favorite activity in Durango, Colo. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

  • Passengers arrive in Silverton, Colo., to the sights and sounds of an Old West town after a 45-mile ride aboard the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

  • The Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad heads down the grade on the Highline above Animas Canyon from Silverton to Durango, Colo. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

DURANGO, Colo. – Without railroads and mines, what would the American West be? Less populous, less prosperous, less polluted. And the town of Durango might not be anything at all.

Durango, sporty and historic, stands 6,520 feet above sea level among the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, its downtown streets skirted by the Animas River. Look past the runners, rock climbers, kayakers and fly-fishers, past the rampant Subaru wagons, the snowboarders of winter and the second-home-owners of summer, and you’ll notice the narrow-gauge rail tracks alongside the river, leading into the mountains.

This is the route that brought the town to life in the 1880s. Built by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in an 11-month blitz of blasting and trestle-construction, this track for decades carried gold and silver from the mines outside Silverton (45 miles upriver), following a path that clings to cliffs and squeezes through narrow canyons.

Then, after mining began to fade in the late 20th century, the train began its second life, carrying Hollywood film crews and tourists. Nowadays, it carries hundreds of tourists daily and no ore at all.

The last major Silverton mine closed in 1991, and the old Durango smelter and mill, which processed uranium from the 1940s through the ’60s, have also shut down. Durango (population: about 17,000) has evolved into the sort of town that fuels city people’s semi-rural daydreams.

In the grand old Strater Hotel (built in 1887), just above the Diamond Belle Saloon, you can rent Room 222, where author Louis L’Amour spent many an August in the 1960s and ’70s, writing his western novels and listening to the ragtime piano player downstairs. (But I’d rather sleep in Room 327 – lots of exposed bricks and woodwork.)

On the seven-mile Animas River Trail (no motors allowed), the supply of runners and cyclists seems endless, many of them students at Durango’s Fort Lewis College.

At Mountain Bike Specialists on Main Avenue and Ninth Street, you can pick up that SRAM 11-speed rear derailleur you’ve been pining for. Elsewhere along Main, if a storefront doesn’t house a brew pub, field-to-fork restaurant or art gallery, it’s probably a real estate office.

In fact, if you’ve been to Wyoming, you might say Durango is getting Jackson Hole-ier by the day.

As in Jackson, someone, or some plaque, is bound to remind you of the many saloons, whorehouses, feuds and shootouts the city once sustained.

One day in 1906, for instance, the county sheriff and the Durango town marshal shot each other in a dispute over who should control local gambling. (The sheriff died. The marshal, Jesse Stansel, moved to Texas.)

And one day in 1922, after an argument involving Prohibition, the Durango Democrat’s top editor, Rod Day, shot to death the Durango Herald’s city editor, William L. Wood.

The big conflicts on the Herald’s front page during my visit were a little different. On one, Durango and Anchorage were competing to be named the “Best Town in America” by readers of Outside magazine (only to be eliminated by Provo, Utah, and Duluth, Minn.).

On another, hundreds of cyclists were preparing for the 43rd Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, a Memorial Day ritual in which cyclists race the train to Silverton, only to have a snowstorm shorten the route.

In a normal year, mountain bike salesman Jeremy Thompson told me, “The fast riders always beat the train. The fastest guys do the race in about 2 hours and 20 minutes.”

The train? Its standard one-way journey to Silverton takes 3½ glorious hours.

Whether or not you recognize the trackside scenery from the dramatic 19th century photographs of William Henry Jackson or old movies such as “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), odds are good you’ll sigh at the sound of the train whistle, gawk at the coal-burning, steam-belching machinery and then squint into the distance like Clint Eastwood, the better to see the black locomotive chug around a distant curve.

We glided alongside the river, passed stands of aspens, inched over high and low bridges, all the while climbing until we were 400 feet above the river and snowy peaks dominated the skyline.

At Tank Creek, we paused while the engineer blasted steam from the locomotive. By the time we reached tiny, touristy Silverton (population 628), we’d nearly drained our camera batteries and gained almost 2,800 feet of elevation.

About Silverton: It’s a town out of time, surrounded by snowy peaks and dominated by Old West storefronts painted in rainbow colors. In the Train Store, railroad souvenirs. In the Storyteller Indian Store, jewelry. In the Eagle’s Nest, leatherwork.

I got to spend only three hours there (and came this close to buying a $39 leather wallet with an inset buffalo nickel), but I can understand why some locals are eager to see mining rise again. Without it, just about everything depends on the whims of tourists.

I had arranged to take a bus back to Durango (it’s faster than the train). But my thoughts kept drifting back to the Baker’s Bridge area, on the river about 14 miles above Durango.

Why? Upstream, the U.S. Geological Survey has found old mines leaking a stew of chemicals into the Animas, reducing fish and bug populations, and the Animas River Stakeholders Group has acknowledged elevated zinc concentrations at Baker’s Bridge. Yet from the tracks, it still looks perfect.

The water roars and hisses far below. The tall trees huddle ’round, backed by snowy mountains. Local kids dare each other to leap into a swimming hole nearby.

You’ve probably glimpsed this spot in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969). This is the cliff where the posse seems to have the outlaws cornered, the moment when Sundance confesses he can’t swim and Butch tells him the fall will probably kill him anyway. Then the two make their death-defying leap.

The West of old, the West of movie myth and the imperfect West we now live in – sometimes, they’re three different places. And sometimes they all come together in a moment on a train.

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