Fifty people, lost in the desert
The morning was cold but clear. I wore shorts, expecting it to be a hot day. We all did.
Around 10:00, Deanna looked up at the sky and exclaimed, “hey guys, look at that cloud!” It looked like some sort of spaceship: round, dark gray, with multiple layers. We dubbed it “the Mothership” and went back to work, pulling little tiny bits of green wax out of the playa. Wax! Why? It took us over an hour to unearth that particular scar, and our noses were in the dirt the whole time.
The next time we looked up, it was noon and the crew was gathering for lunch. The Mothership had stretched and grown, and started producing offspring. Then, the winds came.
Within half an hour, dust was jumping off the ground to lodge in our eyes, our noses, our hair. A massive brown dust devil swooped across the playa; Headhunter and Leeway sprinted out to run through the middle of it. The dust and sand started streaming across the ground in rivulets; the air turned white. Over the radio came DA’s call: “Incoming! Whiteout!”
We hunkered down in busses and vans and trucks to escape the dust. DA and Coyote sped off toward the shore, trying to figure out where the rainclouds were headed. By the time they returned, the winds had picked up and visibility was down to less than twenty feet.
So, the decision was made: we called it a day.
That’s easier said than done, though, once you’re in the middle of a dust storm. We had ten vehicles or so – dump trucks, forestry buses, pickups – and fifty DPWers with varying stages of mental acuity. GPS units and radios were passed out; everyone turned on their headlights and flashers; and we formed a caravan to get to the playa access roads.
It was stop-and-go. Every now and then, a window would open in the dust so that we could see the mountains and orient ourselves. We’d drive until the dust kicked up again; as soon as we couldn’t see the car in front of us, we all stopped to wait for a few minutes, praying for visibility.
Before long, Headhunter was lost. Luckily, he’s been doing this for a while, so nobody worried about him excessively. On the forestry bus, we were fresh out of wiper fluid, so the windshield was caked with mud. Fitz had the same problem in the dump truck; when you caught a glimpse of him, you could see him hanging out the driver’s side window to navigate. The radios were buzzing with calls: “Hey, Degenerate here, I can’t see shit in this dust! Where are you guys?” …”Hormel is clear! We made it!” “Hey you guys, we’re headed for a whitewall. Be advised.”
Slowly but surely, we made our way toward the highway. Fitz’ dump truck pulled up beside the bus, and then Headhunter’s pickup zoomed by. Shotwell, our brand-new bus driver, kept his eyes on DA’s flashers…
It took over half an hour, but we all made it. We gathered at the 8-mile access road and took a head count. After a minor scare, everyone was accounted for – and we drove back on the 34 in silence, raindrops washing the mud from the windshield, happy to be back on solid ground again.
Then, we all took the afternoon off.