CHAMA, N.M. (KRQE) - It's like something out of a 1950s monster movie: Creepy-crawlies moving down the hillsides of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado and sliming the land.
"Oh God, gory, gory," said a woman who visited the area one day earlier this month.
The creatures are tent caterpillars.
This summer, they broke free of their tent-like silk webs in the trees. For six weeks, millions of them invaded the hills around the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad between Chama in Rio Arriba County and Antonito, 64 rails miles away in Colorado.
"Literally there were so many caterpillars it looked like the ground itself was moving," said railroad President John Bush. "This one was a fairly severe one."
There were so many caterpillars, the train, which is the economic lifeblood for the area, took a hit. The critters slimed the rails and stopped the train dead in its tracks.
The steam-powered locomotive couldn't make it up some of the hills. Cumbres and Toltec employees installed stream sprayers to blast the caterpillars off the track. Two engines also helped haul the train over the slick spots.
And things were hard on the riders, too.
"When they're on the rails and they get run over by the train, they smell like seaweed," said the train's brakeman. "So it made it very unpleasant for everyone on board."
The caterpillars mainly took to the trees, decimating the leaves on hundreds of thousands of aspen and cottonwoods. That's a big worry for those who count on tourism in the area because when those leaves change colors in the fall, tourists pay lots of money to see them from the Cumbres and Toltec trains.
"That was a worry for us," Bush said.
He says the area hasn't experienced such a large outbreak of tent caterpillars since the 1970s. They do not expect another infestation next year.
But as soon as the caterpillars died off last month, the leaves started to slowly grow back. There's no evidence they did permanent damage to the trees. The train's president says riders have nothing to worry about.
There may be fewer leaves, but they'll be close to the way they've been seen from the trains for over 130 years.
"It really is your chance to experience the authentic West," Bush said.
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