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“It’s your happy place.”

Someone told me today that she didn’t quite get the appeal of model railroading, that it must be a male thing. And that’s fair: Model railroads were first invented by a dollhouse maker so they would have something to market to boys. That company still markets trains, but no longer markets dollhouses, so I guess you could say it was successful.

Here’s how I summed up the appeal.

My layout is a nice place. It’s a place I can’t visit, because it doesn’t exist anymore, but if I’m honest, it’s so idealized, it never really existed in the first place. It’s set in the 1940s, but none of the bad stuff that happened in the 1940s happened in this world. It looks like Gaslight Square, without the crime. Indeed, I don’t have a police station because there’s no crime. There’s a firehouse and fire trucks, but all they do is get cats out of trees.

I didn’t say this, but if Wyandotte hadn’t made such a cool tin firehouse, I probably wouldn’t have one of those either. I’m allergic to cats. But cats are OK if they give me an excuse to have a cool firehouse, and cool old-fashioned fire trucks. Priorities, you see.

She nodded. “It’s your happy place.”

Yes, indeed.

Not every layout is a happy place. Some people deliberately model seedy areas, but there, again, they’re modeling something that they probably would be too afraid to visit in person. In that case, it’s still a form of escapism. And it’s a tougher challenge to convincingly depict an area in decay than an area that’s brand new. I know some people want that challenge.

I take an approach that few would call normal. I showed my wife a picture of the Jerni collection a few days or weeks ago. “How’d they make it look so dreamlike?” she asked. Well, that’s just the style of turn-of-the-previous-century German toy trains. To me, that’s the ideal. I can’t do it with German toys–my hobby budget doesn’t stretch that far, and not enough of those toys made it this far west–so I do it with Marx and similar toys and trains instead. I can capture a similar atmosphere that way, while working within the confines of where I live and what I do for a living.

To paraphrase the late A. C. Gilbert, they key is to not forget to have fun. To some people, that means painting bird droppings onto a grimy cabaret frequented by criminals. To me, it includes scouring basements on Saturday mornings in search of old tin.

And, well, it keeps me out of trouble. If I’m not at home, there’s a small number of places I might be. And I’m typically not gone for very long. The train layout won’t build itself while I’m milling about where I bought the parts for the project.

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