The Perils of Railfanning - Buried Alive!
Copyright © 1997 Jon Trent Adams

The dead-blue full moon, walleye of the night sky, cast an uncaring, unknowing glare upon me. Vacuous, humorless, it arched high on the sky, wearing the surrounding grove of tamarisk as a mask, insinuating weird, alien shadows.

I motor down this graveled path, right-of-way for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the Coachella Valley of Southern California; I am halfway between the sidings of Garnet and Salvia and about 7 miles north of Palm Springs, tooling eastward, measuring distances and counting numbers of telephone poles per mile. As I drive along I jot observations, details into the trip log. Important matters: I am working on my great guidebook to this portion of the railroad. Research: Checking and rechecking my information.

Along this stretch, just south of Interstate 10, twenty miles west of Indio, the SP first set down track in 1877. For over a hundred years the desert has been a harsh host.

The nearly constant, westerly winds rushing out of the San Gorgonio Pass scoop up the sand and silt deposited by the Whitewater and San Gorgonio Rivers at the top of the valley; carried by this dry roar until the wind velocity diminishes, the sand normally accumulates in massive drifts between Indian Avenue and Ramon Road.

The railroad fights this gritty taupe devil with the tamarisk. Great stands of the African exotic pose as verdant sentinels to either side of the mainline for the next twenty miles, manicured only enough to prevent fouling of the railroad and the access path that parallels. Even when a particularly determined gale roars out of the Pass, the tamarisk reel and sway, straining against the onslaught, stopping most of the sand. But still it gets through.

I am checking the facts as noted in my logbook; from milepost 589.0 to milepost 590.5, there is a cryptic mention of drift sand, prevalent along this section as there are a few holes in the otherwise dense south tamarisk grove. I have been down this path many times previous: I have never seen more than a few minor patches, nothing even to shake a shovel at. But then again, SP maintains a full-time scraper out here to keep the trail clear.

In the far reaches of my headlights, I see the leading edge of the sand leak; I accelerate. Momentum wins most battles. I hit the beach.

Immediately the engine labors: the exhaust tone begins its downward spiral. My adrenaline begins its flow; I imperceptibly realize that I am lifting myself out of the seat, trying to reduce the load on my little car. This is normal.

Momentum is losing the battle tonight. There is a deep hollow at the pit of my stomach and I feel my foot slipping over the edge of that chasm. The sand only gets deeper, my forward velocity smaller; I make a last ditch effort to get to the graveled rise on which sits the rails, hoping for a bit of traction on the cinder rock. I stall the car. A few well-ordered but hastily delivered epitaphs sneak past my teeth.

Restarting the engine, I rock the car; first reverse, then forward again. No progress; in fact I only serve to dig myself in a bit deeper. I shut off the engine, get out and reconnoiter: things could be worse.

It is a bit before midnight. I have been up and on the road since nine this morning. I am worn, red-eyed and without patience. I need sleep. More pertinently: I am only seven feet from the nearest rail. Some trains go past here at nearly eighty; the width of a locomotive grows in more than direct proportion to its velocity. The distant star in my rearview mirror warns me first; a train is coming.

Along this dead-on straightaway, a tangent ten miles long, the approaching headlights first glow rusty red, burnt yellow or dirty orange; the distance, the thickness of the air, the dust and sand all conspire to create a wavering, evanescent premonition that winks and wafts on the distant horizon, showing no signs of closing movement. A campfire on the horizon. No ability to determine instantaneous speed.

Tonight I cannot have long to wait. I am 2000 yards from the curve around which that locomotive has appeared. Even in the few moments that I consider my possible fate, the lamp grows searingly bright, harsh, hot. I should get out of the car. When a train passes at speed, rocks fly, metal leaps, debris showers. What if some load has shifted, once secure but now draped eight feet to one side? My side? I imagine what a lopsided 40x8x8 foot container would do to my little Rabbit if it got the chance: the whole car would be swept away, shucked off as Rabbit pellets. The engineer might not even notice unless he happened to see the sparks.

The very ground now rumbles, presaging the arrival of twenty-five thousand horsepower of charcoal gray and scarlet red steel roaring at sixty per, seven locomotives panting to stay ahead of six thousand tons of priority freight; the rails cry with the pressure of steel on steel. I involuntarily duck.

The fierce blast that the engines generate shoves me bodily; I hear sand and grit, even over the tornado roar, pelt the window glass. The low footlamps on the fore and aft steps of each Diesel are brilliant strobelights in the car's cabin. I am awash in a sonic tempest. The hurricane dissipates, becomes a gale, then a fresh breeze. Soon all that is left is the red light on the rear of the train, receding rapidly into the night, finding the vanishing point, winking dispassionately. The rails resume a fading cry and whine, then silence.

I survive. No mislaid containers, dragging loads, flying debris. Enough excitement; I am still stuck in the sand. With flashlight in hand, I walk downrange, pacing out the distance I will have to travel to get to solid earth again. Luckily for me, the sand drift ends only a hundred yards or so beyond; going forward there is less sand than if I were to reverse my route.

Shovel in hand, I clear the fine powder that has bermed up around the mired tires; the belly of the car is still clear. I also find that firm earth lies only ten inches beneath the surface. However, my car has only six inches of clearance.

I deflate the front, driven tires until there is barely enough air within to keep them on the wheels. This spreads out the weight of the vehicle; the sand, a weak structural pavement, works best when the pressure is minimal. With the shovel I clear a ten-foot wagon rut pathway ahead of the tires, giving me enough room to get up a bit of speed to escape this quicksand.

I settle behind the wheel, turn the ignition key and start the engine. The little Diesel once again clatters to life; I say a few kind words to the sand gods, thank the starter motor deity and engage the transmission in first gear. I ease out the clutch, feel the car balk, increase the rpms a bit, let out the clutch a bit more - I sense the forward motion of the car. I ride the pedal, listen intimately to the engine pulse, pray for deliverance: I roll fifteen feet and sink to a halt again.

Fifteen feet! At this rate I'll be out of here in no time! Maybe an hour or so! Well, maybe by morning.

Out of the car again, the wind howling and quickly filling the freshly-dug valleys with more drift sand, this time I mine fifteen feet of the silty powder. This time I let out the clutch faster and climb on the throttle harder. No place for faint hearts. The little engine strains, begins to bog, then regains energy, perhaps a playful push from the impish zephyr that originally laid the trap.

Free! The little Rabbit bounds to the safety of firm soil; I pause to grace yet a few more kind words. Soon we find a quiet hole under the trees, out of the whitewash of that never-resting, insidious moon above, in which to spend the night in well-earned sleep.

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