Dorklove: A Healthy Obsession

02 May

Pennsylvania Railroad Station at Livermore, PA circa 1908

Everyone knows someone who has one or two unconventional interests or excessive enthusiasm for a hobby that seems a lot more like work than fun. Perhaps the idea that hams, railfans, foodies, and the like are savant-esque dorks is a modern one? Before the standardization of four-year-degrees-for-all, these over-interested individuals might have been working in their fields of fascination rather than in the cubicles they decorate with memorabilia related to their passions. Amateur astronomers are one kind of zealot hobbyist that actually makes significant contributions to their subject of fascination.

Still, people who aren’t railfans cannot possibly identify with rail fans. A non-railfan might wonder why a person, who most likely does not work in or have any other affiliation with the railroad industry, would spend their precious Friday nights waiting alone by the railroad tracks at night hoping to catch sight of their favorite locomotive engine (or for that matter, why does anyone have a ‘favorite locomotive engine’ in the first place?). Why would they bother to learn the first and last names of the engineers working a particular rail line? What, exactly, is the big fucking deal, here?

Only a railfan would understand.

This notion was highlighted for me a few weeks ago, during a discussion about geomagnetic storm activity. I am curious about astronomy and earth sciences in general, but the magnetosphere is of particular interest to me, as it is where ‘outerspace’ collides visibly, and often violently, with the Earth. Witnessing the Aurora Borealis in my own back yard offers a rare glimpse of something special that provides a sensation – a visual – which makes learning all the technical details worthwhile. It had never occurred to me that someone might find my efforts to understand the science of the magnetosphere unusual in any way. I was talking, rather excitedly, to my friend about influence of the imminent G2-class geomagnetic storm when he stopped me to ask ‘why do you know so much about this?’

This gave me great pause, for I had never considered the ‘why’ of learning all I could about geomagnetic phenomena. It is just something I do, without understanding the motivation. Indeed, my knowledge would not help me to accomplish anything tangible (except for maybe writing a blog, or be more au courant conversationalist?), and I have no intention of going back to school to study the subject in a formal setting – and yet, I’m still immensely curious.

I think a railfan might understand?

I’m unconcerned with the opinions of anyone who might find my fascination and pursuant time consumption objectionable or perhaps, unproductive. At the end of the day, I know that learning and understanding gives me great pleasure – and that’s all the explanation needed.

While on the topic of railfanning, I will confess I have a touch of this fascination, myself. I have not memorized common locomotive names and their corresponding wheel arrangements, but I have ‘a thing for’ abandoned rail lines and infrastructure. It is more accurate to say my interest in disused transit technology centers around a particular geographic location: the former town of Livermore, PA.

It is likely that readers who know me, personally – will have some curiosity about the place as well – if you are local to the area itself. If you are, perhaps you’ll want to return to this blog frequently, as I intend to write about Livermore extensively and will publish my own exploration of the place in great detail.

For anyone who does not know about Livermore, PA– I will summarize: Livermorewas a town situated on the banks of the Conemaugh River abandoned for flood control in the early 1950s. This simple fact alone seems uninteresting, but the history of the town is imbued with ‘rural legends,’ much like urban legends have been exchanged for years.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, generations of local children have whispered stories to one another of the townspeople of Livermore meeting a watery demise and leaving behind angry ghosts. Rumors tell that George Romero’s 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was filmed in Livermore Cemetery, but I have not found an official source to confirm this. As a child, folk tales circulated about the town church’s steeple: when the Conemaugh’s water level was low, you could still see it rising above the water. As a kid, it was impossible not to have some kind of emotional response to the stories of Livermore, and as an adult – I’m still curious about the place, though my concentration has shifted from legends and ghosts to engineering history.

This is something else I think a railfan might understand.

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Posted by on May 2, 2011 in Local History


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