Driving down 1525 West, a quiet road in Farmington, Utah, you pass meditative cows, grassy fields, a few modest houses. Then, on the west side of the road, a mirage looms: 10.5 acres of colorful, pint-size railroad trains chugging out of a replica 1920s station house, snaking through tunnels, over bridges, past waterfalls and man-made mountains. Here live Steve Flanders and his accommodating wife Susan, who over eight years watched her husband turn their farm--and her carefully tended flower beds--into a model-railroad park.
It seems that Flanders, 50, a retired concrete producer, has taken his hobby to an extreme. It began harmlessly enough when he laid a picturesque model-train track in his backyard; his wife's pretty tulips remained intact for the most part. Then he decided that the trains needed indoor storage, and he ran the track into the barn. After that he added rails over the driveway, and before long, he was digging a 4-ft.-wide strip across the yard. From there the park has kept growing and growing. "It's just, as we started building things and we kept going, I couldn't figure out a place to stop. As I sit here and work on the track and the property, I've got more ideas than I'll ever be able to build as far as expanding it," he says. Good for train buffs, bad for Susan Flanders' flowers.
Sure, hobbies and retirement go hand in hand, as quilting grandmas and golfing grandpas will attest. For some, however, hobbies go from a mere distraction to a full-blown obsession, invigorating enthusiasts from train lovers to map collectors. Indeed, some experts believe there's a significant health benefit to be gained by immersion in a passion. "What gets a person out of [depression] is when you're engaged in a stimulating endeavor," says Bernard Landis, 77, a psychologist-psychoanalyst. Six years ago, he cut back his practice and enrolled in art school, and this May he graduated with a B.F.A. in painting and drawing. "You meet people, you open up new doors, and it just changes the chemistry. I'm sure it even affects the immune system. It's such a breath of fresh air."
Consider Carol Lee Lindner, a Haverford, Pa., housewife, who says her life changed several years ago, when she discovered dragon-boat racing--competition among colorful boats, each with 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steerer. She put together Philadelphia's first women's team, then organized an annual 1,400-competitor dragon-boat festival in the city, complete with an athletes' village and an awards ceremony. "At some point, you share the gifts you have with others, and that's where I am at 63," she says.
Giving back is the impetus for a lot of these older hobbyists. David Rumsey, 59, spent two decades collecting antiquarian maps. In 1996, having amassed a remarkable 150,000 maps, Rumsey realized he wanted to leave some sort of legacy. He decided to put the collection on the Internet, and so far has scanned and cataloged 9,000 maps at www.davidrumsey.com one of the largest such online collections in the world.