The existential life of a female railfan

on Wednesday, February 27, 2019

I’m an elephant. Not my favorite metaphor, but it works in this case. I am one of few elephants, anyway. I’m a female immersed in this hobby that if measured by our readership is 99.5 percent (maybe higher) male. Even in the railroad industry, females are a minority. I don’t know the precise statistics, but I know it’s not 50-50. I’m not one to use the girl card. In fact, I’ve avoided writing about this for that precise reason. I’d like to think there’s nothing unusual about anyone’s interest in anything. Whatever sizzles your bacon, right?

I am rarely at an industry convention or photo conference for more than 10 minutes before someone asks me how I came to be at Trains. That question is couched in some reference to the fact that I’m not a “typical railfan.” Followed up usually by “Is your husband a railfan?” What I really want to say is “Did you choose your career path based on your significant other’s preferences?” I mean come on! It’s hard not to laugh at that question.

I was not 4 years old and standing trackside with my dad as he took pictures of trains. Never happened. My grandfather did not work for the railroad. I did not take a cross-country passenger train trip when I was 10 and fall in love. My connection to trains grew organically with perhaps a bit of serendipity.

We moved around when I was growing up, but coincidentally we lived in cities and towns with freight and/or passenger trains. When I was in college, my first apartment was adjacent to the now former Elgin, Joliet & Eastern. While I lived there, they were tearing up the tracks. I was fascinated by the machinery. When the workers had gone for the day, I took a souvenir spike left on the former right-of-way. Why? I don’t know. Why not? For my 20th birthday, before I worked here, I spent the day at East Troy Railroad Museum, riding trains and taking in their museum. It was my choice. Why? I have no idea. I thought it would be cool. It was. After graduating with a degree in art and journalism, I applied to Kalmbach. And, I’m grateful that former Trains Editor Mark Hemphill, former Managing Editor Hal Miller, and Classic Trains Editor Rob McGonigal took a chance on me. Since then, I’ve seen staff members come and go, and I’ve learned valuable lessons from them all.

I know that several of you have either chosen not to read this or have already given up. I know that because I know you. I’ve gotten to know you really well over the years. If you’re reading something and it’s not “railroady” enough, you check out. Boom. You’re gone. That’s OK. I get it. I’m not Fred W. Frailey who will tell you six ways to Sunday how Amtrak could up its game or what railroad presidents ought to get their acts together and serve their customers better. I’m not Jim Wrinn who will tell you what steam engines will blow your hair back this year. I’m not going to tell you which railroads rebuilt their locomotives and where they’re operating. But, I do know that’s what you care about. And, we work hard every day to get you that information. (I can tell you how I accidentally ended up in some guy’s lap the first time I rode the L in Chicago way before I worked here. If you want me to tell that story, I will.) I love the Trains brand deeply. I love working with you, authors and photographers, and serving you, consumers of our products and services. I learned from you and I grew up with you (well, kind of :o)). This is not just my job.

And, as far as that serendipity? My first issue of Trains that I worked on, photo below (although my name didn’t appear on the masthead), has my birthday on the cover. It’s for an unfortunate reason, but the irony is not lost on me.

So, that’s how I got here.

Why do I stay? I think I only recently realized the answer to that. A significant part is you and my coworkers. But there’s another part. I had a conversation with someone in the industry about how to empower people new to this interest. I’ve always said that learning about railroads is like learning a foreign language. For most people to become fluent it takes a long while. So, the first rule of this club, this community, is to be curious. Ask questions and immerse yourself in railroad information: magazines, books, online stories, and for crissakes, get out there! Get trackside. Get your hair blown back. Volunteer at a tourist railroad. Get dirt on your face. So many cool things are happening out there all the time. Enjoy. I do. Even here. Typing away at my desk. 

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