Four August Days in Death Valley

On August 14, the six citizens of Little Barstow, California- Death Valley’s smallest and traditionally hottest town- awoke to the dread sound of Incoming. Incoming Scirocco, the devil wind, always blows hot and always blows dry.

As they prepared to open the town’s only remaining business, a combination gas station and AM/PM Mini-Mart, left in place only to service the few tourists brave enough to take this alternate route to the Las Vegas gambling dens, or lost, they noticed something. And it was not good. The normally orange-hot horizon was gone; completely blotted out by what appeared to be a tidal wave of dust. As luck would have it, the only radio in town had broken two days before so they had no way of knowing that the century’s worst dust storm was on track and heading directly for Little Barstow.

A half hour later, after boarding up the Mini-Mart windows, the 6 terrified residents huddled together, not for warmth but for security, the screaming 110 decibel wind hurtling pellets of sand against their world at what seemed to be barely subsonic speeds. In an eye blink, 12-foot high sand dunes had formed on the tarmac, completely covering the two gas pumps. The building’s doors were being relentlessly sealed by an angry Mother Nature.

A hellish 6 hours later the screaming faded and citizens of Little Barstow began digging themselves out, only to emerge into what appeared to be a post-nuclear landscape. Madeline Murray O’Hare, the town’s elderly post-mistress was the first to notice the wreckage of the yellow school buses. Their roof lights were barely visible under the sand that buried what was left of California State Route 42. Fearing the worst, the residents dug frantically at the piles of sand with anything they could find. Shovels, tin cups, even hubcaps were employed to uncover the buses. Everyone was fearful they would find dead children stacked like cordwood. Instead, the rescuers found an amazing mixture of live bodies.

Impacted by the zero visibility wreck, the occupants of the two vehicles were now one group. Clutching each other for reassurance, covered with fine white grit, some weeping uncontrollably, the two very diverse groups were fast on the way to becoming a single unit. Bus 184, containing a tour group of research librarians, on their way to Las Vegas for the annual Searching Online Conference, had just driven themselves into librarian legend. Days later, each librarian would be interviewed by the media, make the cover of Life magazine and sell her story to the Fox network for a mini-series. On the other hand, the occupants of the county school bus #63 would never make the papers, the TV news people were not allowed interviews and all speculation was neither confirmed nor denied.

Bus #63 contained 34 CIA agents heading towards a remote desert just outside of Las Vegas to take part in an exercise designed to hone the skills necessary to allow them to pass as indigenous Kurds. For the next four days, Little Barstow had no electricity, no water, no air conditioning, little food (except 6 cases of Ding Dongs that had been forgotten in a back closet, and a few warm Cokes-the Classic Version) and was completely forgotten by the world because unknown to them, a 6.7 earthquake had just leveled a major portion of Los Angeles and tied up all available rescue efforts. It would be days before registration at the online conference that the questions would begin to rise, questions about the massive no shows.

Over the next 96 hours the librarians and the agents were completely dependent on one another’s skills, not only for survival, but for morale and entertainment. Suspecting each day could well be their last, everyone rationed the Hostess snack cakes and extended the rusty water in the two toilet tanks by mixing it with a touch of warm Coke. As so often happens in life threatening situations, traditional suspicions were set aside, politics were forgotten and, in between the occasional liaison, each group began swapping stories and comparing methodologies.

A new, top secret, method of research (MOR) was spawned from these humble beginnings. This firm uses the unedited results of those four days of infamy.

Used by permission of Lee Lapin, editor of “Breaching Security- The Newsletter”.