Turning Right Instead of Left
It was early March 2001, and I had just driven back to L.A. from Boulder via I-70.
Immediately upon my return, I sent out an email to my large group of friends (we were known as The OrangeKids) inviting them on a St. Patrick’s Day hike at a mountainous park in Chatsworth, California. We had never gathered together before outside of parties, so this was out of the norm for us at the time.
St. Patrick’s Day arrived. Out of our entire group of 50-60 people, six people showed up (Adam Rosen, Mike Gardea (aka Wonder), Sehra Han, Roxy Han, Orion Henry & Natalie Tennebaum). It was a beautiful day as we climbed to the highest point in the park. Upon arrival, I read the poem I had written at Black Dragon Canyon about ‘choosing right instead of left’. At that point, someone asked “Should we go down the mountain to the left, past the lake? Or should we go down to the right, thru the train tunnel?” We took a vote, and we all chose to go right, instead of left.
As we climbed down, Natalie had to stop and tie her shoe. As she did, I lamented that more people hadn’t shown up, including my brother and my girlfriend. After a few seconds, we continued the climb down to the railroad tracks.
We walked onto the tracks and into the tunnel, which was carved into a large mountain. As we entered the dark, cave-like space, (Orion & Roxy, first by about 20 ft; then Adam, with me following behind a foot or two behind him; then Mike, Sehra and Natalie about 20 ft behind us) we all starting singing “Stand By Me”.
“Not funny, guys.”, someone said. “Stop creeping me out.”
The tunnel was very long, although we couldn’t tell exactly how long because it was slightly bent in the middle in an “L” shape. (We’d later learn it was about 950 ft long.) In the first (and last) 100 ft of the tunnel, there was only about 1 ft of space between the hard concrete walls and the track. In the middle section, there was about 2-3 ft of space between natural, carved out rock walls and the track.
We had just reached that midway point, still singing, when Natalie asked, “Um… what’s that noise?”
“What noise?”, someone responded.
We all froze on the spot. There was only eerie and still silence. Three seconds passed… and then… the screaming whistle of a train pierced the quiet.
“RRRUUUUN!!!”, we all shouted.
Not knowing which direction would be the fastest way out, we all just ran in the direction we were already going. I don’t think any of us have ever run that fast in our lives, before or after that day. Looking ahead, I saw Orion and Roxy get off the tracks and start running in the space between the tracks and the wall. Adam and I followed suit.
The train entered the tunnel behind us, its echoing whistle screeching at decibels that left our ears ringing for days. The overpowering fumes from the diesel engine filled our nostrils and the entire tunnel was consumed by a rumble that vibrated thru our bodies.
Looking behind me I could see Mike, Sehra and Natalie still running on the tracks, silhouetted by the train’s headlight. In the other direction, I could see the tunnel exit… Orion and Roxy were almost out. But it was still a long way to go for the rest of us. At this point, I don’t think any of us in the 2nd and 3rd grouping really thought we were going to make it out of the tunnel.
I was still running about 1-2 ft behind Adam as I cranked my neck back and shouted to the group behind us to “GET OFF THE TRACK!” I did this a few more times, but they couldn’t hear me and were still on the track as the train barreled towards them, dwarfing them more and more the closer it got. So… I stopped running, turned around, wildly waving my arms and screamed one more time to my friends, “GET OFF THE TRACK!”
I could see Mike grab both of the girls and pull them off to the right of track just as the train reached them. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive, but the train was now advancing towards me either way.
Looking quickly towards the exit, I saw that Adam was now almost out, about 75 feet from the exit. I scanned the wall near me and looked for the deepest indentation in the carved-out rock. I scattered up the wall and pressed my back into it, just barely able to dig my fingernails into the edges of sharp, jutting rock.
The train reached me, whipping by only 2 ft in front of my face. The force of the train going by wanted to peel my shoulder from the wall and carry me away with it. I could see lighted windows with blurred faces race past. I closed my eyes and waited for it to be over.
The roar of the train quickly subsided to a distant clickity-clack. I looked toward the exit to see Adam, Orion and Roxy standing outside of the tunnel. In the other direction, Mike, Sehra and Natalie were walking towards me. I finally took a breath and got down from the wall.
Reunited at the exit to the tunnel, we all laughed a nervous laugh of relief, and then cried from fright. We reflected and shared out experiences. Orion and Roxy recounted that only a few seconds after they got out of the tunnel, they turned around to see Adam come out followed a millisecond later by the train. Adam almost seemed to be pushed out by a pocket of air between himself and the front of the engine.
That’s when it dawned on me that had I not stopped to scream at the others to get off the track, I would have been 1-2 ft behind Adam, within the final 100 ft of the tunnel, where there was only 1 ft between the concrete wall and the tracks. I most certainly would’ve died.
This began a whole series of ‘If we hadn’t done this or thats’… If Natalie hadn’t stopped to tie her shoe, or if something – anything — had occurred that would have made us 10 seconds later than we were, we might have all died. If anyone else had shown up that day… If my brother or girlfriend had been there… If I hadn’t stopped at Black Dragon Canyon and written that poem… If someone, somewhere, in the entire history of the universe hadn’t turned right instead of left…
That day was a day that set off a whole other series of events which would also have profound impacts – some good, some bad – on all of our lives, and the lives of others – which lead to an endless amount of other ‘right’ or left’ choices within our individual lives which affect all beings connected to the fabric of time, and that continuously carve out our paths and take us in the next unknown, unpredictable direction.
Everything that happens is the result of something that has already happened, and will affect what happens next. We make choices everyday – make yours carefully… but know that whatever you choose will take you to the next moment, the next phase, the next adventure. And there you will be, exactly where you were meant to be: Here… Now.
Note: This is the same track on which the 2008 head on collision of a Metrolink train and a Union Pacific freight train occurred, killing 26 people, and injuring 135 people. The accident occurred after the freight train emerged from Tunnel #28. That collision occurred less than 1 mile from the tunnel in this story, Tunnel #27.
A Google news search shows several people have been killed in Tunnel #27.
This is where we entered the tunnel. Tunnel #27, in Chatsworth, CA.