In August 1951, little John Bush was to ride the Galloping Goose, the tourist train in the San Juan Mountains that was meant to save the Rio Grande Southern Railroad.
It was a big day for the boy, who grew up in nearby Telluride, the train yard his playground.
Mom was pregnant, though. The Galloping Goose didn’t want to risk her riding.
“Sorry,” the motorman said.
Mom assured her son: “We’ll ride next year.”
But there was no next year for the railroad.
“The railroad died,” Bush says almost 70 years later. “I felt that kind of loss and sadness that only a kid can feel. And again, that feeling that only a kid can feel about putting something back together. Like Humpty Dumpty, I wanted to put it back together.”
He could not.
But for most of his adult life, Bush has been doing his part to keep alive the railroad that defined the West. He’s the subject of “The Railroader,” a National Geographic short film that becomes available to stream online Friday.
The film, made by Russell Bush, is a glimpse into his father, the man overseeing the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. With cinematic elegance, the younger Bush celebrates the trains still touring the rugged valleys and mountains between Colorado and New Mexico, the steam engines still chugging since the tracks were laid in 1880.
Russell, who lives in New York City, has crafted a valentine to his childhood home of Chama, N.M., the southernmost portal of the Cumbres and Toltec.
“I grew up in a place that I always have to explain where it is whenever I meet people in New York or whenever I’m traveling,” he says. “I want people to know where Chama is. … I want people to know about the spiritual and philosophical rewards of the place.”
That’s found on the railroad, the Bushes believe. “I think what this railroad in particular offers is the feeling of unbridled imagination,” Russell says. “The feeling of being alive. That’s what we want to share with people.”
John Bush has been president of the Cumbres and Toltec for seven years, not counting a stint from 1989 to 1996.
The family then moved to Alaska, where he was superintendent of the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railway. In 2002, he left to manage a California scenic railroad.
But before all of that, he was high on a ladder painting a house. It was his way of making money while pursuing a doctorate degree in anthropology — until the long fall.
“You’ve had a bit of bad luck,” he recalls the doctor saying. “You may never walk again.”
“This was a couple of days before my 29th birthday,” Bush says. “That’s when a light went on. You don’t have to be old and have gray hair to get dead. So if there’s something you’re passionate about, go do it now.”
He never shook his childhood wonder for trains.
He couldn’t put the railroad back together, but maybe he could get some of the original locomotives running again. His first was in 1977, an engine he revived at the Georgetown Loop Railroad.
One ongoing project is Engine 168. It was cosmetically restored and served as a monument in Colorado Springs for a while, and now a team at Cumbres and Toltec is working to get it running again for the first time since 1937.
“When we did the dedication of the 168 in Antlers Park back in ‘84, what I said about it was, this was a harbinger of a time when we thought there were no limits,” Bush says. “That there wasn’t anything we couldn’t accomplish if we put our minds to it.”
The old trains, then, are a symbol — an important image from a boy’s memory.
“I want to help people capture that feeling of a world that is not limited or small or behind walls or afraid,” Bush says, “but a world that is forward-looking and courageous, self-confident and all that.”
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