Above: John Bush discovered his love of trains growing up in Telluride, Colorado. Photograph by Stefan Wachs. 

THE WAY JOHN BUSH SEES IT, his life nearly ended when he was 29. He was standing alongside a locomotive engine at a railroad museum, still recovering from a bad fall that had threatened his ability to walk, when he realized that if the doctor’s prognosis had come true, his days of tinkering with historic train engines would have been over. “That was a real wake-up call,” he says. “You don’t have to be old and gray to be dead. If you’ve got something you want to do, go do it now.” He shelved his pursuit of a PhD in anthropology and scheduled his house-painting business around working with trains at historic railroads, until that grew into a year-round job. In 2013, he became president of the 19th-century Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. This year, the line celebrates its 50th anniversary as a restored tourist treasure, owned jointly by New Mexico and Colorado. 

AS A LITTLE KID IN TELLURIDE, I kept hanging around the train yard. They would chase me off every 15 minutes or so. Eventually they put me up in the cab of the locomotive: “Here, you sit on this seat, and then we’ll know where you are.” And I started riding around on the train. That’s kind of what piqued the interest.  

IN AUGUST OF 1951, we got tickets to ride the Galloping Goose, this thing like an automobile with railroad wheels. When we got down to the station, they took one look at my mother, who was pregnant, and said, “No, no, you’re not riding this thing.” I was as distraught as only a little boy can be. My mom said, “It’s okay, Johnny, we’ll ride it next year.” Well, the railroad died in November of ’51, and so there was no next year. 

I FELL OFF A LADDER AND INTO A FIREPLACE. I broke my hip and wrist. I had to drive myself to the hospital, down a mountain road, and got told by the doctor, “Well, you had a bit of bad luck and you may never walk again.” It brought up all those feelings that I had as a little kid: Oh my God, it’s all gone, and I’ve lost it

WHEN IT TURNED OUT THAT I COULD WALK, I went up to the Georgetown Loop, the tourist railroad west of Denver that was being put back together, and volunteered. The first day I was there, their locomotive broke down. I got it fixed and came and volunteered the next four or five days in a row. And they said, “How would you like to work for us?” 

IT’S OBVIOUS from looking at the legislation that when the two states signed it—we plan to have a ceremony on July 1 to commemorate that signing—they didn’t expect this revival to last five years. They probably didn’t expect it to last two years. They certainly didn’t expect it to last 50 years. The real miracle story is that for 50 years it has managed, at all turns, to find what it needed to keep going. 

THERE HAVE BEEN PEOPLE CONTINUALLY EMPLOYED on this railroad—father to son to father to son to father to son and daughter—that go back to its origins in 1890. That’s part of the reason it’s so important that this survive. 

THE RAILROAD WAS BUILT BY IMMIGRANTS. The immigrants coming out of the Old World and out of a post–Civil War America came west to build a new life, find a future, and live the American Dream. That’s an important part of our history as a nation. What I’m trying to do is allow people a way to see the world that the immigrants saw 140 years ago. The Cumbres & Toltec is uniquely positioned to be able to do that.  

WE’RE A 10-FOOT-WIDE PATH through 64 miles of essentially wilderness. When you get out there, it is the past as far as the eye can see in any direction. I firmly believe, on both the good and the bad, you can’t tell where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. 

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Visit the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad online for updates on its expected opening date (June 13), modified schedule (one trip daily through September 11, 2020), special departures, and anniversary attractions, include Galloping Goose railcars in July and Victorian-era locomotives in August (cumbrestoltec.com).