DURANGO, Colo. — Many proud subcultures thrive in Durango: rock climbers, marijuana activists, vegetarians, pet owners, banned-book readers, organic-food proselytizers, gun aficionados, hunters and people who frequently write letters to the editor of certain local newspapers.
But, perhaps, its most passionate subpopulation is model-train "maniacs," who say Durango is their mecca: Not only is it home to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and of Soundtraxx, the world's leading model-train sound company, it also has the San Juan Car Co., which manufactures O-scale models of narrow gauge freight cars. Model railroaders meet in numerous tight-knit clubs, organize Durango's Railfest, religiously subscribe to hobbyist magazines such as Model Railroader and cover their basements, ceilings and gardens with elaborate tracks.
Leslie Doran, who, along with her husband, Art Sherwood, is a member of the San Juan Large Scalers Club, said, "There's huge age range. We have members in their 80s — we had a member in the 90s, but he recently passed away — and our youngest member," Joe Weigman, "is 7 years old," Doran said.
They're a determined bunch. Andy Saez said it has taken him years to lay by hand the 4,000 feet of track for his live steam railroad, which encompasses his garden. His train is so large it can carry 20 people and is visible from U.S. Highway 550.
Duane Danielson, a retired stockbroker who lives 10 miles north of Durango, said he owns a 86-by-45 foot layout and has written extensively about it for O Scale Magazine.
"It represents the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern, from western Montana to east Washington from the 1930s — that was the classic era of steam and the first part of diesel. It's my grandpa's railroad, and that's what I like about it," he said. The layout, which spans his basement, is so behemoth that Danielson stores Christmas lights beneath it.
While Danielson's friend Jim Richards concedes that Danielson's layout is "spectacular," he hopes his own "Athabaska Railroad," which is still under construction, will prove as stunning.
Richards said model training was not child's play.
"We don't just take trains and try to run them 'round and 'round, we duplicate as meticulously as possible the real world of railroading," Richards said.
Right now, Richard's Athabaska railroad fills his basement. "It's 55 by 30 feet with additional 25-foot rooms for staging. It's an imaginary railroad; it only exists in my imagination, but it's set in the Canadian Rockies. In my imagination it runs from Edmonton to the Pacific seaport Prince Arthur, named after the fabled British king."
Richards said building the Athabaska railroad required not just money, years of patience and ardor, but wide ranges of technical expertise.
"There are just so many facets to the hobby. There's the engineering aspect, building the freight cars, passenger cars, structures such as stations, often from scratch, which means you're literally working from the ground up. Then, there's the electrical aspect — a lot of guys' control systems are amazingly sophisticated. Then there's the scenery, it's extremely artistic and can be astoundingly realistic. And then there's the historical research that goes into it, making sure that you have all the details, the track size, exactly correct," he said.
Paula Berg, who owns Oscar's Café with her husband, Bruce, said Richards' commitment to model training is far from unusual in Durango.
"You'd be amazed at the number of grown, mature men here who love these trains in their basements. I really do think it's something in the blood. I mean these guys — it's crazy how much they love trains," she said.
In Oscar's, a G-gauge model train circles the room, suspended from the ceiling. "Actually, we moved here because since 3 years old my husband has always been a nut for trains, and the (Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) is one of the last steam engines in the country. We even bought our house by the tracks," Berg said, laughing.
Nationally, train obsessives boast distinguished alumni, including Albert Einstein, Frank Sinatra and Neil Young.
Dr. Mason Miner moved his model train from his home to his office when his last child was born. "We needed the bedroom," he said regretfully. Though he's been building model trains since childhood, he said when he went to a meeting of the Durango Model Railroad Club, "compared to some of these guys, I'm really low key. Some of them are unbelievably into it," he said.
Ray Schmudde built an HO-scale, modern-era layout in a spare bedroom.
"I tell my wife it keeps me out of bars and chasing women," he said. "The catch with this hobby is that it's never finished."
Al Harper, who owns Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, said he "wasn't a model train fanatic," though he also owns the seventh largest collection of Lionel gauge model trains in the country.
"Model railroading is for kids of all ages. We talk about interactive games on iPads and computers, but model trains were probably the first interactive game," Harper said.