Cuba Omohundro: Ride the rails and learn about western Colorado
Portrait 2011 — Volume 1: Leaving a legacy
In a few months, as summer nears, Cuba Omohundro will grab a bag with some of her belongings and catch a train headed east.
If you’re lucky enough to be on the California Zephyr Amtrak train with her, you’re likely to hear some great stories from her about western Colorado and the people who inhabited it.
Omohundro is not some railroad renegade who jumps a train when she is looking for excitement, although she admits she has found it with her Amtrak adventures.
Nor is she a dining car bon vivant, cornering unwilling passengers with her stories. In fact, just the reverse is true. Passengers often seek her out — and others like her — to hear more stories about western Colorado.
That’s just fine with Omohundro. “It’s a chance to educate people about my home state,” she said. “We are out there in the train meeting people, introducing them to Colorado.”
“We” in this case refers to Trails and Rails volunteers, people serving in a program that is a partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak. There are about 10 such volunteers working in this region, and Omohundro is coordinator of those volunteers, as well as one of them.
Trails and Rails was created in 2000 when a Park Service employee was riding the famed City of New Orleans train, and thought it would be nice to know more about the country through which he was traveling.
Not every section of Amtrak route has a Trails and Rails program. But about a dozen of them do, including many of the most scenic sections in the country. The section between Grand Junction and Denver is among them.
“Our section was started in 2003 by Ron Young, who was then a ranger at Colorado National Monument,” Omohundro said. “He wrote the first script.”
“There’s certainly a natural connection between here and Denver,” said Young, who has since retired from the Park Service but continues to serve as a Trails and Rails volunteer. “This area has some of the most striking lands anywhere in the world.”
The script is the information about the countryside through which the Amtrak passengers are traveling. It includes information on national parks and monuments in the area, as one might expect, since the Park Service is one of the partners. But it also includes information on geology and history for places and people not directly related to parks and monuments, along with some railroad anecdotes.
Along with a script to work from, volunteers receive training related to railroad safety and standard train operations. They are given instruction in operating the Amtrak public address system. And they begin their train work with experienced volunteers.
Volunteers leave Grand Junction each Thursday during the summer on the eastbound Zephyr. They return Friday or Saturday on the westbound train from Denver. They receive meals on the train, cab fare and hotel accommodations.
During the nine-hour trip, “we talk the whole time” Omohundro said. There are formal programs in the observation car, and more spontaneous presentations throughout the train as passengers stop the uniformed volunteers to ask them about Colorado.
Bill and Pat Yett of Delta, retired Park Service employees who will become volunteers on the Grand Junction to Denver route this summer, got to experience just how much the volunteers can talk last year when they audited a Denver to Grand Junction trip for the Park Service.
“On the trip home, the train had a fuel pump that went out just outside of Boulder, and we were stuck there five hours,” Pat said. “The ladies worked so hard to keep us occupied. Then after we got going and the engineer was trying to make up time, just outside of Rifle, we hit an elk. It severed the brake line and we had another wait. It was very adventuresome travel back.”
The Yetts’ first experience with Trails and Rails was shortly after they were married six years ago. For their honeymoon, they took Amtrak from Denver to San Francisco, and were captivated by the presentations on Donner Pass and other parts of the trip through north-central California.
But the presentations on the Colorado run are equally interesting, they say.
“There’s a lot of sharing of experience,” Bill said.
Omohundro is a Colorado native who lived 30 years in New Mexico working as a registered radiological technologist, doing mammograms and ultrasounds.
She and her family moved to the Grand Valley in 2003, to the Fruita area. In 2006, she saw a notice in The Daily Sentinel seeking volunteers for the Trails and Rails program and decided to check it out.
“It was something that sounded so exciting,” she explained. “So I responded.”
She worked with Young and eventually took over his position as volunteer coordinator.
“She’s doing a fine job,” Young said. “She’s very dedicated to the program. She really enjoys working with the volunteers and certainly understands the value of the service to Amtrak passengers.”
Readers interested in joining the Trails and Rails program can fill out an application at http://www.volunteer.gov/gov later this spring. Those simply wanting to learn more about the program can go to http://www.nps.gov/findapark/trailsandrails.htm.