I just spent a very pleasant weekend visiting a friend in Milwaukee – I had no idea they had such an amazing art museum; where have I been? – and now I’m on my way back to Chicago on the train. I think this is my sixth or seventh Amtrak trip this year. I talk about why I am choosing mostly train travel in this blog post, and also this one; but right now I want to focus on one particular quirk I have noticed on these trips.
You may or may not be surprised to hear that there are still many Hardcore Train Geeks in our midst. The ones I’ve met so far are the retired guys (so far it’s just guys) who spend their golden years riding the rails all over the country. They have well-worn route maps, they know the sites where you can check up-to-the-minute schedule information, and they can tell you EVERYTHING you need (or don’t need) to know about the Empire Builder in the spring or the Zephyr in the fall or any given route at any time of year.
One gentleman on my Zephyr trip had a device (I guess kind of like a police scanner) that allowed him to listen in to the conductors’ conversations. He sat with me in the observation car, wearing his headset and contentedly watching the scenery roll by. He told me a few things about what they were saying, mostly clearances and delays and so on. Maybe it would have made some people uncomfortable to know he was doing that. But he just looked so happy. His wife was with him, but she stayed in their sleeper room because she wasn’t feeling well. I gave her silent props for coming with her husband on a trip that clearly gave him so much joy.
This same guy told me about a model train club he belonged to back at his home. They were a big age range, he assured me; and their most recent accomplishment was a complete and painfully accurate scale model of some train bridge device thing somewhere in the midwest. They had been recognized for it, I think; and it was a big deal. Again, he looked so incredibly content when speaking about it. He also admitted it was pretty hardcore geek stuff, but said it without any shame. As it should be.
There are some other guys who will bring their map up to you in the observation car, ignore your earbuds and book, and start monologuing about train trivia. The only thing to do is to get up and move; then they go bug someone else. Thankfully these guys are rare. The route I am on now is the Hiawatha, a very short trip between Milwaukee and Chicago which takes about as long as it takes me to get home from downtown during off hours on the CTA. Still though; I think I sat next to a Train Geek on the way in. He had that very particular attitude about him. He had a paper ticket. He seemed to know everything about how everything worked. He greeted me with, “So did you get everything taken care of?” And I’m like, “yep!” That satisfied him, and other than him commenting on my comic book (he is a collector!) we didn’t really talk much on the way. So he was all right.
I’ve felt most comfortable around geeks of one kind or another for most of my life. My personal definition of the word geek is “a person who enjoys things.” People who experience and express joy when for some reason it isn’t really cool to do that. So they make me comfortable. And they give me hope.