Dust. Thick billowing clouds of it. Tumbled swirling clouds of dust, stretching horizon to horizon.
Enough to choke on. Enough to clog the air. Enough to blacken the sky. Enough to stop a train.
Stop a train? Yes, that’s what I said.
It was in my first year as a conductor’s apprentice, that we ran into the storm. The Western Pacific Railway‘s inaugural run from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah, was scheduled to coincide with the hammering of the last spike, in 1869.
Our shiny new train was loaded with dignitaries and high society investors, for her maiden run, all shelling out a large amount of coin to travel on the latest, swiftest train in existence. Why, my train could make a full 70-80 miles per hour on the salt flats, fully stoked and the throttle wide open!
Tickets sold out months in advance. The mayor gave a speech of all things, complete with a ribbon cutting ceremony and the traditional bottle of champagne broken against the hull as though it was a boat being launched. He acted as though the train was his invention, the launch was that important to his constituents.
The fastest run ever, it was to be. One for the records and all that. They even scheduled the departure so that the train rolled into the midst of the Last Spike ceremony with only moments to spare, like a Queen arriving fashionably late to honor the royal court with her presence.
It was not to be the anticipated run of legend. We did make the news on that particular day, but not for what we set out to do.
The shiny new steam engine pulled away from the station, chug, chug, chugging away to the cheers of the crowd. Passengers hung out the windows waving to friends and family, then ducked back inside to avoid mussed hair and tousled cravats.
The train ran like a dream, the engine settling into a controlled track eating chugging that seemed effortless. Beyond the edge of town, at the engineer’s signal, I opened the engine’s doors and shoveled as much coal as the open maw could hold, into the fuel chamber then closed her up, latching the door it with a clang.
I could not have been more thrilled as I climbed up into the engineer’s look out, to watch monotonous landscape out the open windows. I could not take it all in. The country side blurred as it whipped by.
We had two stops to make along the way, one to pick up even more VIP passengers and the second to rendezvous with a stage coach delivery by Wells Fargo. The mail was increasingly being sent by train but the stage coaches still delivered the mail to the waiting trains from the sorting post offices.
About two hours outside of Promontory Summit, it began. At first, it was only a haze on the horizon of the high desert floor. The heat from the ground shimmered with the view, making it difficult to tell what transpired in the distance.
As we drew closer the engineer swore softly under his breath. “Well look at that” he said, pointing at the horizon.
I pulled out the binoculars we have stashed in the engine, for spying out trouble on the ground. The view sprang forward, tossing me directly into the turbulence. The roiling, twisting clouds appeared to consume everything in their path. Between us and them, I could barely make out the waiting stage coaches. We would reach them just before the clouds did.
Ten coaches awaited our rapidly approaching train. As the train squealed to a halt at the crude station, I saw the coach drivers hit the ground running. Not a moment to waste, they loaded the mail into the secured carriage hold, then racing back to their coaches high tailed it out-of-town ahead of the racing storm.
Passengers pulled their windows shut with a snap at the sight of the dust storm enveloping the train. Pelting, stinging sand struck the train like a thousand tiny hammers, peppering the train and clogging the air intakes. The great engine sputtered and gasped, searching for air that was not filled with grit. Sand piled up against the train, great drifts of it against the wheels even as the engine got underway.
About a mile down the track, the train lurched to a halt. A four foot high sand drift completely covered the tracks. As the dust storm moved off and the air cleared, figures emerged from the settling clouds of dust. Masked men, carrying a gun in each hand. My heart lodged in my throat.
English Idiom: “Hit the ground running” – “Seize an opportunity; begin at full speed…The origin of this term is disputed. It may come from troops dropped into a combat zone, from stowaways jumping off a freight train as it nears the station, or from Pony Express riders avoiding delay when they changed mounts.”
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