|Day 3: Las Vegas to Black Rock City
The next morning, Wednesday, Aug. 27, I woke up at 6
AM and looked outside. It was still dark, and nobody was up. That was odd...
until I realized I was in Nevada– Pacific Time. It was really 4 AM.
That meant I could go back to sleep for another 3 hours! So I did.
Before leaving for Burning Man, I researched the water
situation. Everybody has to bring their own water to Burning Man. The web
sites list several places to buy bottled water on the way to the playa,
but I had other plans. Bottled water costs money... but when you've got
a motel room, all your water is free! I'd brought with me two 7-gallon
jugs, and figured I would just fill them up from the motel bathtub, and
I'd be set. I thought, I am sooo smart. ...Except, the room they
gave me in Vegas didn't have a bathtub, only a shower. So, there
I was at 7 AM, standing like an idiot in the motel bathroom, holding empty
water jugs up to the spraying shower head. I thought, I am sooo dumb.
But, I did get them filled, giving me enough water to use two gallons
a day for a week, if necessary.
I checked out, got $20 of gas and headed out of town.
The quickest way would have been up Highway 95 to Reno, but it was my first
time in Nevada and there were places I wanted to go. Interstate 15 north
took me out of Las Vegas in a long, slow climb into the high desert. Jets
from nearby Nellis Air Force
Base buzzed overhead. About 26 miles outside of town, I turned off
the interstate for Highway 93, "The Great Basin Highway," which looks like
it takes you off to the edge of the Earth. You could see for miles up or
down the road. Right about then, Satori's odometer clicked over 88,000
miles. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. I passed mountains with layers
of exposed sedimentary rock, making multi-colored rainbow swirls in the
mountain sides. The road took me into the Ely District, overseen by the
Bureau of Land Management. It was a lonely road, with only one or two cars
in sight anywhere else on the highway. I waved at the occasional trucker
as they passed, but none of them waved back. Is that something truckers
don't do in Nevada? One dusty side road pointed to a 1-room schoolhouse
museum 38 miles off the highway; the lonely road disappeared into the rocky
hills. The wind was really fierce, but I didn't realize it until I saw
the road markers wobbling in the wind.
About 15 miles before Alamo, Nevada, the road twists as
it enters the Pahranagat
Wildlife Refuge. Alongside the road, a dry salt flat stretched for
miles before turning into a great flat marsh. From there, the landscape
got progressively greener, with trees and little farms. The Pahranagat
Valley is a little oasis in the Nevada desert, with a big, blue lake and
great camping sites. ("Pahranagat" comes from the Paiute Indian word meaning
"place of many waters.") I passed through Alamo, Nevada, elevation 3,450
feet. Just outside town, a sign declared that the next mile of highway
was adopted by "Eagle Mother's Clan of the River People."
Down the road, just outside of Ash Springs, there was
a junction with a little store selling "alien fresh jerkey." This was the
place. I turned west onto Highway 375, "The Extraterrestrial
Highway," which would take me past the famous Area
51. I didn't get far. The whole road was shut down a mile from the
junction. The highway was being worked on by the Nevada Dept. of Transportation–new
asphalt was being put down.
All the cars on the road had stopped. I got out and talked to a road worker
named Glen, who said there would be a "pilot car" coming to take us through.
A guy on a motorcycle, however, decided to find another route. (The idea
of eating gravel for 10 miles must not have appealed to him.) Glen was
curious about where I came from, where I was going, and where I'd been.
He wanted to travel. He said one of these days he was going to travel,
maybe as far as Maine. "Gonna catch me some lobsters," he said. "Eat me
some lobsters." Just then the pilot car (a truck, actually) came and guided
our little group through the construction zone.
The road winds uphill from there, topping out at the Hancock
Summit. Once you're over the top, you get a view of the whole valley. You
can see a dirt road scarring the landscape of the valley below. You can
see it for miles. It's the road
to Groom Lake... Area 51. There's no sign as the dirt road angles off
from the highway (between the 34 & 35 mile markers). I stopped to take
a picture, and wondered how far you could get down that road before the
helicopters start showing up. While the cause of much speculation, Area
51's secrets may not be all that fantastic. The actual Groom Dry Lake borders
the Nevada Test Site,
where hundreds of nuclear bombs were exploded in the 1950's and ‘60's.
It's a toxic, radioactive wasteland the size of Rhode Island, and not a
place you'd want to visit, anyway.
Not far down the road is the famous "Black Mailbox," the
site where many UFO-ogists have camped out over the years, watching for
alien craft coming out from behind the mountains at night. (These days,
the Black Mailbox
is cleverly disguised as a white mailbox.) A guy from England
was stopped at the mailbox, and we took each other's picture next to it.
He said he felt "quite embarrassed" about stopping to look at a mailbox...
until I stopped, too. I never got his name. The road goes for about 11
miles in a straight line across the valley floor before topping a low hill.
Several miles beyond, I got to the little town of Rachel,
Nevada. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it little hamlet of shacks and
mobile homes, and would probably be easily passed up if not for the mystique
of Area 51. I stopped at the Little
A'Le'Inn for some pictures and a Dr. Pepper. (I also got a can kozee–
it was an impulse buy.) It was a homey little small-town bar & grill,
a place I wouldn't have minded hanging out at if I'd had the time.
Heading northwest out of Rachel, the mile markers count
down to the county line, then start up again. I saw some beautiful mountain
scenery, including an unusual black-topped mesa. The area isn't fenced,
so you have to watch out for free-range cows. Actually, there are fences,
but they separate areas the size of counties, and every now and then you
go over a cattleguard in the highway. I crossed the Queen city Summit,
the Warm Springs Summit, and the McKinney Tanks Summit, and with each passing
dramatic valleys would spread out before me. The pattern of climb climb
top wow repeated itself all day. From Rachel, it's 60 miles
to Warm Springs, which is more like a bend in the road than a town. All
I saw was a cafe. And a dog. He looked like a nice dog. From there, I took
Highway 6, "The Midland Trail" through Tonopah until it connected with
US Highway 95. The Toiyabe
National Forest was unusual in that it didn't seem to have any trees.
Okay, a couple, but you'd think they'd have more than a few to call it
a "forest." When I passed the Tonopah
Test Range later on that afternoon, a sign told me I was on "The Grand
Army of the Republic Highway." (Chancellor Palpatine was nowhere in sight.)
At the old mining town of Tonopah, I stopped for another
$20 of gas. I was still hours away from my destination. It was a pretty
day for a drive, with lots of happy, perky clouds in the sky. At Mina,
Nevada, I passed a store that had a sign out front: "Welcome Burning Man
Visitors." Just ouside of Mina was a blue building called the Wild Kat
Ranch, featuring "free coffee & showers"... a bordello? (Their website
says, "Serving America, one guy at a time!") I went through Luning, and
then passed miles of concrete ammunition bunkers at Hawthorne,
site of an army ordinance facility. Hawthorne is on the banks of Walker
Lake, which had stunningly deep blue water. It took a half-hour to drive
around it. The afternoon sun was becoming searing as I turned onto Highway
95A at Schurtz. Trees and green fields greeted me in Yerlington. I made
it to Fernley, Nevada by 7 PM (Oklahoma time). I figured it would probably
be a good idea to get an extra $10 of gas, just in case. I called Mom and
my wife, since I expected my cellphone to quit working soon, and if I died
in the desert I wanted them to know I loved them.
Highway 95A turns west on Main Street through the town
of Fernley, and heads north under Interstate 80 turning into Highway 427,
which almost immediately becomes Highway 447, the Arthur S. Jackson Highway.
Fernley marks the beginning of the 40-mile
Desert, the most dreaded section of the California
Emigrant Trail. It's a hot, unforgiving wasteland that took the lives
of many a pioneer...and I was headed into the middle of it. It was another
77 lonely miles to Gerlach. At Nixon, I passed signs welcoming people to
Burning Man. One roadside vendor was selling "burning barrels." Past Nixon,
the road curves around a mountain overlooking Pyramid
Lake, with it's distinctive pyramid-shaped island. I didn't have time
to look, though. Traffic on the lonely 2-lane road was thickening, and
as the sun set lower in the sky a kind of frantic desperation took over.
In moments, I was in the midst of dozens of cars, vehicles of all shapes
and sizes, zooming down the narrow highway. It was like a race. It was
a race. We were racing the sun, flying down the road as fast as
the speed limits would let us, hoping to reach our destination before darkness
fell. My heart was racing, too.
A sign in tiny Empire, Nevada declared "Welcome to Nowhere."
Some of the cars stopped at the little store there, but the rest of us
raced on. Gerlach was another small town, with lots of roadside vendors
offering a last chance for supplies. This is the last contact with civilization, such
as it is, before Burning Man. Traffic kept going, but slowed as the road
got congested. We turned off Highway 447 onto Highway 34, which takes you
to the Black
Rock Desert, called by some the flattest place on Earth. The road winds
another 11 miles along the edge of the immense dry lake bed. At last, I
caught a glimpse of something on the horizon-- it was Black Rock City,
Burning Man's temporary community. It spread out across the desert for
miles–thousands and thousands of tents, cars, campers, RV's and other vehicles.
At the gate, a guy stopped me, and my van got a good look-over.
Satisfied, the guy tore my ticket and gave me the traditional Burning Man
greeting: "Welcome home!" Ahead, one of the Greeters pointed me to the
Gate Camp, which was way up close to Center Camp. He encouraged me to adopt
a "playa name" while I was at Burning Man, so I chose Tap. That's how I
introduced myself to people all week. I drove down Certain Street to the
corner of Authority and parked by the side of the road. I'd made it! I
was at Burning Man! I should've eaten some supper, but I was too
excited. I walked down to the Esplanade and got my first sight of the Man.
It was way out in the playa, surrounded by the gigantic campsite. It was
a brisk walk out to the Man, a half-mile, and I realized why everyone said
to bring a bicycle. Outlined in blue neon, the Man was quite a sight. He
stood on top of a huge pyramid, with steps going up almost to the top.
I checked out Center Camp, a huge, round tent with couches and benches
for talking and stages for performing. There were people doing yoga out
in the middle. I walked around the miles of campsites for hours and,
well, got a little lost. I was really tired when I finally found my car
again. There was already playa dust all over the dashboard. In the eastern
sky, Mars was the brightest light in the moonless sky. It was the closest
it had been for 60,000 years. The whole sky was amazing. The air was crystal
clear, and I could see the Milky Way and all the constellations. I was
beat; I'd driven 561 miles that day. I locked up my bicycle to the outside
of the car, inflated my air mattress, rolled out my sleeping bag and went