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Physics or the Paranormal?

There are no trains where I live. That’s because there are no tracks to run the trains in the first place. The rural valley in which I live has no railroad tracks, there are no tracks outside the valley or the other side of the mountains, and it is at least a five-hour drive to a major rail line. The only place with railroad tracks in the area is near a town called Mina, Nevada, which is many miles north of the valley, and it is not a busy line.

A diesel locomotive much like this one has been heard in a lonely Nevada town.
Railroad Bridge

So imagine my surprise one stormy night in 2014 when I was blasted by the sound of a locomotive horn. Not only did I hear a locomotive horn, I heard the hiss of locomotive brakes, as one might hear when a train runs through a crossing. It appeared to come from the highway west of our house, but when I looked out the window, I saw nothing unusual in that direction.

I just shrugged off the situation. After all, it was rather windy and it was possible that I heard something that sounded like a locomotive horn that was distorted in the storm. This is where I left it for the next two weeks, until one sunny afternoon with no wind and no storm, when the blast of the horn returned from the same direction. Once again, there was nothing moving on the highway.

The phenomenon continued, with no distinctive pattern. Sometimes it occurred during a storm and sometimes it occurred under clear skies. The only consistency I found was that most of the horn events occurred at night. Several events occurred in the late evening, when I had the windows open to let in the cool night air. Sometimes it was just the locomotive horn, but sometimes there was a hiss or a rumble that went with it. It was quite disconcerting to hear the sounds of a railroad in an area that didn’t have one.

I started to look into where the strange sound could’ve come from. My first focus was the Owens Valley, which is west of my valley on the other side of the White Mountains. The mountain range butts up against the highway that is near my property, and if there were sounds from a railroad coming over the mountains, it would make the most sense. After all, the noises all came from that direction.

There is only one problem with this hypothesis. There are no rail lines in that part of the Owens Valley. Bishop once had a rail line, but it has not been active since at least the 1960s and was torn out decades ago. The only remains of the line that you can see are a few flat places along the east side of the valley, marking the old location of tracks.

Could I be hearing the ghosts of an old railroad long past? Well, there is always the possibility that it was some kind of echo. The only problem with this idea was that the rail line that ran through Bishop used steam trains and the horn I was hearing came from a modern diesel locomotive. I completely dismissed the idea of the paranormal being responsible for this weird phenomenon.

So if it wasn’t coming from Bishop, where was the mysterious horn coming from? The nearest major rail lines to Fish Lake Valley are in Las Vegas and the Mojave Desert. Could the sounds come echoing up the network of valleys and canyons from the desert? This is highly unlikely. There are mountain ranges in the way that would deflect the sounds, and Las Vegas is at least five hours away. The Mojave is even farther away and is even less likely to be broadcasting the noises.

This left only one candidate: the small and unbusy rail line near Mina and Luning, Nevada. Trains are parked along sidings on this line, so movement does take place, but it is rare. This line mostly connects to Hawthorne, Nevada, to the north, where trains occasionally rocket along the east shore of Walker Lake. Another branch of the line snakes up into the mountains to Yerington and locations north.

But how would I be hearing a railroad that was miles away and at least an hour’s drive? This could be the only source of the locomotive horn, and the hisses and rumbles. Was it possible for the noise to broadcast through the network of mountains, valleys, and canyons, to the south end of Fish Lake Valley? And why were the sounds coming from the west when the railroad was north of us?

I have only one explanation for this. The sounds are actually coming in from the north, but are bouncing off the White Mountains, which are acting as a sounding board to send the vibrations back into the valley. It is an auditory illusion that they are coming from the west. Sound travels in weird ways among mountain ranges.

There are still a few things I haven’t explained about this phenomenon. Why did it only occur at night? Well, I’ve passed that rail line many times, but only during daylight hours. In that time, I’ve never seen a train running on the line, and I can only assume that most of the trains run at night. This would explain why the sounds were usually only heard in darkness.

Another reason the phenomenon took place at night could’ve had to do with the physics of the air. Things move differently in the cooler night air than they do in the warmer day air, and sounds can travel much farther than they might during the day, especially in a desert with few to no trees. This may also explain why I heard the railroad sound effects so clearly at night but not usually in broad daylight.

But that is not the most baffling thing about these train horn sounds. Probably the strangest part of the phenomenon is that it was very short-lived. It only occurred in the summer of 2014 and never after that point or before it. I have lived in this valley for thirteen years, and only in 2014 did I hear the locomotive horn or the accompanying sounds.

Was there something special about the summer of 2014? I can only assume there was some unusual circumstance that led to the sounds that season, which could not have been present before or after. But what exactly was it? I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation for it, something involving the physics of the mountains, valleys, and desert. I doubt this is a paranormal event, but the scientific cause of the phenomenon remains a mystery.

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