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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Who'll stop the train?

Chris Guenzler embarks today on a historic journey that started 27 years ago.


He is an unlikely hero.

As a child, he was picked on because of a speech impediment. As an adult he drank himself into oblivion in his bedroom. And when he finally settled on a passion in life, he chose a hobby whose fans are chided as "foamers," because they tend to be single guys who foam at the mouth at the mere sight of a train.

Even his mom says of Chris Guenzler's Big Day: "Sometimes I think he overdoes it. At the moment I've got a green (swimming) pool out back. He was supposed to have kept it pure, and I just found out the city is coming to look at my green pool, so my blood pressure's up."

Yet Guenzler, 49, of Santa Ana is about to ride into history. At 7:20 p.m. today, he'll board Amtrak's Southwest Chief in Fullerton. And in two days, that train will cross a bridge high over the Missouri River.


In the small world of train enthusiasts, it's an epochal event a "gigantic deal," says the host of the Internet radio show, "Let's Talk Trains."

"Everyone in the train world will know it was Chris Guenzler," says the founder of

In this circle of enthusiasts, it as an event worth stopping the train for. But it's important to remember, it's a small circle of enthusiasts and a big world.

"This is the first I've heard of this," says Lena Kent, spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks over which Guenzler will make his mark. "I'm not aware of us stopping a train anywhere."

Guenzler is not concerned. It is a rainy Friday evening and his only concern at the moment is getting to Irvine Regional Park in Orange to ride a kiddie train for nine-tenths of a mile before calling it a night.


Trains have always rescued Chris Guenzler.

He was born with a blockage of the ear canal. At first, who knew? It wasn't until his mom rolled little Chris in a stroller down to watch the trains. Toot. Too-oot. He never flinched. She took him to a doctor.

"The train's the thing that changed my life," he says.

Unfortunately, he'd already developed a speech problem, which invited teasing. That's why he liked to bike alone down Lincoln Street to the tracks. No talking. No taunting. Just the roar and rush of trains.

One day, he got to walk through the combined El Capitan Super Chief on display at the Santa Ana station. From then on, whenever he saw a train during family vacations, Chris would holler to Dad to stop the car. And he always picked the campsite adjacent to the tracks.

"The boys just loved it," recalls Nancy Guenzler. "I'm just thinking, 'Oh gee, I hope it doesn't derail."

Trains rescued him again as an adult. He began riding in earnest in 1980, but began drinking in earnest in 1988, spiraling into a secret life of alcoholism in the bedroom of his parents' home. Some nights he'd use the bedroom window to sneak in extra whiskey. Other nights he'd stick out his head to hide the fact he was vomiting up every meal.

In 1995 he quit drinking and vowed to ride a train through every state in the union sober. He did. Then all the rail miles of Canada. Then there were rare mileage trips, photo freight trips and 12 years of nightly, sobriety rides to San Diego.

Slowly the miles began to mount. As did his reputation. This time, trains were not only rescuing Chris Guenzler, they were turning him into a celebrity.


Trains have delivered him to Al Capone's hotel room. To minus-42- degree nights. To scenes of majesty and mayhem. He's seen a man throw himself in front of a train, and he's found another hit by a train. He's ridden hand-cars, incline cars, open-air cars and dinner cars. Made mail runs, mining runs and mountain runs.

Along the way, he started writing his tales online.

An unlikely hero, maybe, but Guenzler is now a bourgeoning, online star with Brillo-pad hair, photographic memory and a "Revenge of the Nerds" charm. No pretense. No fashion. No illusions. Just an intense, white-hot love affair with everything train.

After touring Amtrak's repair facility outside Indianapolis recently, he and a friend sat in their car speechless.

"We didn't want to move," he says. "We were still in shock from one of the most incredible experiences of my life."

Such passion has attracted a following. People now recognize him like the time he was snapping pictures of a locomotive in Harrisburg, Pa.

"This guy and girl said, 'Oh my heavens. It's Chris Guenzler! What are you doing in Harrisburg? We read your Web site all the time."

Another time he was photographing a train in Minnesota when a fan from Texas recognized him.

"There's nothing like it in the world," Guenzler says.

He's the No. 1 guest of the Internet radio show "Let's Talk Trains," ( hosted by Richard Hamilton, one of 13 friends joining Guenzler for this week's trip.

And he's about to be the No. 1 train rider of modern times, says fellow rider Steve Grande, whose Web site has attracted more than 39 million visitors since 1998.

How does he know? Because Guenzler keeps meticulous records.

Ask him how far it is from the Boston train station to the Back Bay station, and he will run "literally RUN" to a back room, spilling with boxes, bins and junk, and return with an official railroad timetable. How official? Well, it's titled, "Penn Central Northeastern Region Timetable No. 6, Effective 4:01 a.m. EST, Oct. 29, 1972."Old, he admits, but more accurate than Amtrak's, which rounds off to the nearest mile. The distance, he clarifies, is not one mile, it's 1.3 miles.

He then points to a huge plastic bin of such timetables purchased over 27 years to track every 10th of a mile he's ever ridden. In a few days, the grand total will hit 1 million miles.

On a bridge high over the Missouri River.


If you're ever stuck in Portland till 4:30 a.m. because of a freight derailment; or stuck in Whitefish because of an avalanche; or stuck in Copper Canyon because of falling rocks, you could find no better traveling companion than Chris Guenzler.

He's been known to sleep in crew bunkhouses when all the hotels are booked. To remind upset passengers to look outside at the fresh- fallen snow. To serve as tour guide, historian, jokester, raconteur and unofficial helper of the lost.

"Every trip is an adventure," he says. "And when things go wrong, the adventure gets better."

All he was hoping for is that they might stop the train a minute when he hits 1 million miles on his favorite bridge.

"If they announce it," he says, "I'd walk through the train and say hi to everybody."

Then he'll call a classroom of students at McFadden Intermediate School, where he works, sip a Coke, and enjoy the rest of his adventure.

If they don't stop, that's all right too, he says. Over the past million miles he's learned the joy lies in the unexpected.

Contact the writer: 714-796-6979 or