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Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Train-aholic keeps bags packed

By Will Hoover - Advertiser Staff Writer

Last year Chris Guenzler was one of 21.5 million people who took a ride on Amtrak. But unlike the other 21,499,999 passengers, Guenzler already had traveled every inch of rail that Amtrak covers. Twice!

Chris Guenzler's love affair with railroads began when he was a child. Now, rides on passenger trains, including all 22,000 miles covered by Amtrak, are linked to his determination to remain sober.

On Sunday, Guenzler will ride the 6.5 miles of rail between Ewa Village and Kahe Point Beach Park in Leeward O'ahu. He will do that twice, too. Once over, once back. This will give the 42-year-old special education teacher from Santa Ana, Calif., special bragging rights: the guy who has been a train passenger in all 50 states.

Is he the first, or only, person to accomplish that?

"As far as I know, nobody has ever rode trains in all 50 states, but I can't say that for sure," said the Hawaiian Railway Society's Larry Howard, who will engineer Guenzler's ride Sunday in the society's restored 1900 parlor car built for Ben Dillingham.

"We have certainly never had anything like this before."

Ron Paludan, amateur railroad historian and "stationmaster" at the Web site, says it's possible others have taken passenger trains in all 50 states, but "nobody I know has mentioned accomplishing this."

Guenzler himself doesn't know if he is America's first 50-state train passenger, and he doesn't much care. He has the ticket stubs to prove he did it. He has the log books that show he's traveled more than a half-million miles by rail in North America.

He also has a letter of congratulations and two 7-cent magnets from Amtrak to vouch for the fact that he has traveled on all 22,000 miles Amtrak covers.

What Guenzler knows for sure is why he rides the rails. Part of it has to do with the fact that the first time he traveled the entire Amtrak system, the experience was so intoxicating he barely recalls it. He has vague memories of certain moments, such as getting kicked off the train in New Orleans for being drunk and disorderly.

"So I went back and did the whole Amtrak system over again, sober," he said.

These days, the tenacious train rider tracks things strictly by the numbers.

Amtrak, which began operating in 1971, now provides passenger service along 22,000 miles of track crisscrossing the United States.

Today is my 2,105th day of sobriety," he said shortly before arriving in Hawai'i for the first time in his life. "As of yesterday, I was at 573,727.5 miles traveled on trains. I ride trains pretty much every day of my life. But I don't drink any more. Riding trains is the secret of my sobriety."

Guenzler's unique 12-step program is hinged to what he says is the long-established "Rule G" of railroading, to wit: "Under no circumstances will any employee be under the influence of any intoxicating substance," he explained. "I've applied the rule to my daily life, even though I'm not an employee of any railroad.

"I've been doing this since 1980. But about 340,000 miles of that has been done in the past five years, since I quit drinking."

Guenzler started hitting the bottle when he was 18. For most of the next two decades, he remained in a stupor. Then, the lifelong bachelor went cold turkey, pledged to remain faithful to Rule G, and vowed to spend most of his nonworking hours riding the rails.

Why the fascination with trains?

"It's my fault," said Guenzler's mom, Nancy. "Chris had a hearing impairment when he was small, and I used to take him to see the trains three blocks away because they were loud. He;s had his hearing corrected. But he still loves the trains."

By age 6, he had taken his first train ride. Since then, he has traveled over mountains, across rivers and though valleys, in every manner of weather, via steam engine and diesel locomotive, on tracks regular and narrow gauge. In a half-million-plus miles, he has not only chugged through each state, but much of Mexico and all but 114 miles of Canada's railways system.

He has done it all strictly as a paying passenger. Guenzler has never hopped a freight train in his life.

What does he have in mind for an encore?

"I'm not sure what my goal is now," he said. "First it was to ride the entire Amtrak system. Then it was to ride a train in all 50 states. But this won't end it for me. I might ride the rails on every continent that has trains."

If he can find anyone willing to haul a small steam engine to Antarctica, Guenzler says he will personally go there and lay some frozen track to put it on.