TRONA, CALIF. — Eight hours before game time and Mark Goins takes the field. For 30 autumns, the Trona High School groundskeeper has carefully tended a football field unlike any other, a fragile foothold on pride in this withering desert mining town.
The sign above the lightly used press box welcomes people to Griffith Field. But no one calls it that. This is the Pit, home of the Trona Tornadoes, where the Friday night lights illuminate games played on an unforgiving bed of sand, grit and rocks the size of a baby's fist.
Goins wouldn't know bluegrass from Bermuda. He grooms dirt.
He starts by spraying the field with 4,000 gallons of water from an old tanker truck with rusty seams. He lets the field dry to the consistency of a beach at low tide and plows it loose with a pair of iron bars chained to the back of a Ford pickup. Then he flattens the rubble with a clanging steel roller, circling the field like a Zamboni resurfacing a hockey rink.
"It's like a recipe. If it's 110 degrees, it can get hard on you real fast. . . . If you have puddles, it'll stick to the roller," said Goins, 49, who played football at Trona High before becoming its maintenance man. "You can mess it up pretty easily."
Finally, Goins stripes the gridiron with anhydrous sodium sulfate, which is used to make detergents. Opposing coaches hate the stuff because it stings players' eyes, but the cost can't be beat: It comes free courtesy of Searles Valley Minerals, the mining operation that has determined Trona's fate for a century.
Two white smiley faces in the end zones are Goins' piece de resistance.
The Pit is ready for tonight's game. It's smooth as plywood. And about as hard.
High school football binds together small towns across the nation. But in Trona, an isolated gas and beef jerky stop on the road to Death Valley National Park, football at the Pit is a profound symbol of the town's perseverance in the face of economic calamity.
Changes in ownership and technological advances led to steep job cuts at the mine beginning in the 1980s. It decimated Trona. A place that once had a department store, a weekly newspaper, charity balls and commuter flights to Los Angeles is now littered with empty storefronts and abandoned homes torched by arsonists.
As Trona's population plunged from more than 6,000 in the 1970s to about 1,500 today, so did its school enrollment. The junior varsity football team was eliminated for lack of bodies. When the school board voted a decade ago to abandon 11-man football for the 8-man game, angry locals packed their next meeting and forced a reversal.
"The town stood up and said, 'No, we're not there yet,' " said John Foster, the Tornadoes coach and a third-generation Tronan.
Soon enough, they were. After Trona forfeited four games in the 2002 season because it couldn't field enough players, it was 8-man football or nothing. The school joined the Hi-Lo League, which includes teams from the small towns along the Eastern Sierra from Lone Pine to Lee Vining.
"They finally realized that you can't play 11-man football with starting freshmen playing against 18-year-old seniors," Foster said. "They're boys going up against men."
Football in the dirt is a Trona tradition. Migrants from Oklahoma and Texas who came to work the mines imported their love of the sport. Trona High School opened in 1940 and the Tornadoes -- named for the dust storms that skip through the valley -- played at the Pit in a 6-man league. By 1947, the boom town graduated to an 11-man league and the Trona Argonaut chronicled the team's exploits in breathless prose:
Moving with the precision and power of a General Sherman tank, the Trona Tornadoes shifted into high gear last Saturday and ran all over the visiting Anaheim football team. . . .
The gallant but outmanned Trona Tornadoes opened their grid season Saturday by giving a strong Tehachapi eleven a real run for their money. . . .
They came, they saw, and they conquered. . . .
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Quarterback Club met for lunch on Wednesdays during the season to discuss football. They raised money for equipment, college scholarships and improvements to the Pit, including the bleachers, press box and light towers -- a beacon in the desert visible for 10 miles.
"Football is almost like a religion here," said Kent Schmidt, Trona's sole first-grade teacher and its high school athletic director. "Kids who grow up here dream of playing in the Pit. On Thanksgiving Day, you'll see guys playing full-on tackle football out there."
Grass is tough to grow in the blistering heat and saline soil of this prehistoric lake bed. Blowing desert sand would make artificial turf expensive to maintain -- not that anyone has ever seriously proposed it. A patch of test grass planted by coaches in 1966 was mysteriously doused with kerosene and set ablaze.
The Pit is to Trona what Fenway Park is to Boston, a tradition not to be messed with.