The full Moon was high in the sky at 3 AM. All around me, the landscape
was lit up like an alien world: no movement, no sound. I curled up in my
sleeping bags and went back to sleep.… I woke just before sunrise. I slept
for almost 10 hours? I hardly ever did that back home. It was Saturday,
August 24th. I had already started a bag of dirty laundry. It was 62
degrees out when I went to take a shower. Breakfast was ramen noodles and
my last hard boiled egg. Birds chirped off in the brush. The Sun came up
The guy from the colorful rig stopped to say hi. His name was Rags,
and he was also on his way to Burning Man. It was his third year. He and
his family were from Taos. They were going to spend the night at Walker
Lake, where I’d thought about camping before, pick up supplies in Reno
and head on out to the desert. I went ahead and filled up my water jugs.
I also soaked the clothes I’d been wearing for three days and set them
out in the back of the van to dry out.
There were steep grades heading out of town, climbing into thick, wooded
hills of pinion and juniper. I was on the Great Basin Highway, and soon
crossed the Oak Springs Summit at 6,237 feet. Coming down from the summit,
the land quickly got drier with less vegetation. I passed the Trilobite
Area, where fossils of 500-million-year-old creatures have been found.
A dry lakebed appeared ahead, and the road turned into a straight line
all the way to the horizon. Fields of yucca plants carpeted the land down
to the floor of the valley. The road climbed again to the Pahroc Summit,
a half hour out of Caliente. I passed a field of jumbled boulders under
towers of stone. There were almost no other cars on the highway.
|On the way out of the park, I passed a guy riding a bicycle. There
was a nice, wide bike path along Highway 315. It was a bright, clear morning
as I turned south. The van went in and out of shadows as it climbed through
a rocky canyon. Caliente is a tidy little town tucked away in the Delamar
I passed the Grover C. Dils Medical Center and a sign for “super park.”
It was a sleepy Saturday morning in a quiet, friendly town. I liked their
classic train station, which is apparently a museum now.
Up ahead, I turned west on Highway 375, near the turnoff for the Frenchy
Lake Unit. That was where I got on the Extraterrestrial Highway. The last
time I went that way was on my first journey to Burning Man, ten years
past. The highway sign was different. I figured the old one got too covered
up with stickers. There were four cars parked in the shade of the trees
next to the turnoff. It was 40 miles to Rachel. A sign warned there was
no gas to be had for the next 150 miles. I passed the Alien Research Center,
which had a 2-story alien figure out front and advertised “cold drinks.”
There was a long, slow grade as I climbed westward out of the Pahranagat
Valley. Past the Hancock Summit, I could see the long, straight road to
Area 51, recently declassified.
There was nobody else on the road when I stopped at the infamous Black
(white) Mailbox. I had remembered Rachel being right down the road, but
in fact it was 20 miles down the road, over the next ridge. The original
Extraterrestrial Highway sign was posted alongside the road as I pulled
into Rachel. Ten years after my first visit, I stopped at the Little A’Le
Inn.They still had the “free parking” sign for flying saucers on top of
the telephone pole.
|The interior walls were covered with pictures of aliens, UFO’s, maps
and photographs. Gone were the ultra-political signs that turned me off
on my last visit. I made a pit stop and picked up a new can cozee. (I used
the first one until it literally fell apart.) I spoke to the owner, who
had been running the place for 25 years. Her husband Joe recently passed
away. The time capsule from the crew of “Independence Day” was still outside.
A local lady arrived on a tiny motorcycle right as I was leaving. There
was a steep climb as I headed northwest on 375. A sign warned of flash
floods in the area. Cattle grazed at the Queen City Summit. An antelope
ran across the road right in front of me, but by the time the “shutter
lag” warmed up the digital camera, it was gone. Passing clouds drew stripes
across the western mountains. I watched one cloud shadow reach and crawl
across a mountaintop like the hand of doom.
It was 74 miles to Tonopah. I had not taken this road in ten years. The
road sure didn’t get any shorter. The landscape was desolate, but not empty.
Pockets of life held on in scattered farms. It was just before 1 PM when
I got to Warm Springs, a town in name only. Everything there was closed
long ago. I turned west on Highway 6. There was a tough crosswind as Satori
struggled over the Warm Springs Summit.
Down the road, I stopped at an isolated rest area. Tall trees and picnic
tables were inviting. A sign warned any water there was unfit for drinking.
Flies swarmed freely in the rest rooms. The only other vehicles parked
there was a land yacht pulling a compact car, and a pickup with a horse
trailer. As I rested, women took the horses out and took them for a walk.
The wind was fierce. Rocky desolation was all around. Satori was forced
down to 45 MPH going over the next summit, but I finally made it to Tonopah.
I was halfway to Fernley, back on familiar ground. Tonopah had the most
expensive gasoline in Nevada, but it was a long way to Hawthorne, so I
got $20 worth. A tow truck playing loud music stopped in the parking lot
to give a stranded Nissan SUV a jump. There were two cars at Miller’s Rest
Area when I passed. That was where I’d originally planned to stop for water,
but since Cathedral Gorge had water I went ahead and filled up back there.
The day was starting to get long for me as I drove into Hawthorne at a
quarter to four (OK time). I should have been able to see Walker Lake,
but there was too much smoke. The streets were quiet and oddly empty. I’d
come to expect the local cops to follow me through town, but nobody was
out that day. I made a pit stop at a convenience store. Two guys were talking
about the smoke out front. “I’m from Idaho,” one commented. “It’s up in
||I drove into an awful headwind. The sky was hazy from what I thought
was dust. It turned out to be smoke from a terrible wildfire in Yosemite.
At the Bishop turnoff, the mountains were almost completely obscured from
the smoke. Burners in an SUV waved as they passed me. There were three
cars at the Wildcat Ranch brothel, outside of Mina, but no cars at the
Desert Lobster. Smoke seemed to swallow up the mountains in a ghostly haze.
Pulling out of town, I couldn’t make out the lake or the imposing western
mountain range until I was right next to them. I turned my headlights on.
Visibility was about 200 yards. I wondered what it would be like on the
playa. Just past Schurz, the air started to clear, but I noticed all the
oncoming traffic coming had their headlights on. The RV park in Schurz
was closed and empty, leaving nothing but a dry field behind.
In Fernley, I passed a restaurant that advertised it was a “Nice Family
Bar.” I’d already gotten some gas in Fallon, but before heading for the
playa I stopped and splurged on another $20 gas. It was one thing I figured
I wouldn't have to worry about. Then, I splurged again and got an Arby’s
sandwich for supper. (I never had lunch.) I called home, then turned my
||The wind was terrible at the Lynn County line. There were swarms of
moths in the air, for some reason. Thousands filled the air, like snowflakes.
I made it to Fallon, “The Oasis of Nevada,” just after 5 PM OK time. I
found the Walmart and got some last-minute supplies: tea, beer, vodka,
lip balm, and shampoo. People in the store had facemasks. I told the clerk
the wildfire smoke outside was crazy. “It’s more than crazy!” she replied.
When I got to Fernley, I stopped at the Desert Rose RV Park and made
a reservation for the night of Labor Day. “Going to Burning Man? Silly
question,” the lady said. She said it was good I made a reservation early,
because that was turning into a very busy weekend.
|People had been anxious about conditions on the playa
all summer. In June, a sudden flash flood washed out parts of Highway 447
between Fernley and Gerlach. It had already been a strange year for weather.
When campers arrived for the unofficial Fourth of Juplaya
campout, they were surprised by rain and fierce straight-line winds.
Playa dust does not turn to mud when it gets wet; it turns
to goop, something between wet plaster and thick glue. Walking on
it just makes it pile up under your shoes, so that within a few steps you're
walking on a sloppy cinder block. The second week of August, workers on
the playa were again hit with sudden storms, bringing rain and hail. Some
were stuck overnight at their construction sites. Water runoff carved wide
gouges in the playa. Burners wondered what the surface of the desert would
be like after heavy big rigs and huge RVs rolled across it.
Fortunately, the weather seemed to hold out. Conditions
in northwestern Nevada were dry and warm the last half of August. It looked
like the desert would be packed and dry. Still, a week before the start
of the event, road crews had not yet finished repairing Highway 447 near
(Pictures not by me)
Police were parked at the turnoff for Highway 447. The smoke was very
thick as I went through Wadsworth. A sign flashed BURNING MAN EVENT SOLD
OUT. The western mountains were surreal silhouettes. Traffic slowed down
to 45 PMH. At Nixon, a car was beside the road, a guy looking under the
hood. It was 35 MPH leaving Nixon, but sped up for a while. Pyramid Lake
was completely obscured by the smoke. If I didn’t already know there was
a lake there, I would not have guessed. Reflected sunlight produced a ghostly,
golden shimmer in the distance. There was a big gouge on the east side
of the road where flash floods had washed out the road earlier that year.
The line of vehicles snaked up the highway, everyone too close together
to pass anything. Despite the smoke, I could tell the Sun was getting low.
There was another big gouge beside the road near the Snoopy Rock. The wind
picked up, and the convoy of cars emerged from the shade of the western
mountains. The line of cars behind be stretched as far as I could see.
It took almost two hours to get from Fernley to Gerlach, 78 miles. Colorful
vendors lined the streets of the little town. It was like a festival. Outside
of town, the playa came into view. It looked… wet. There was a pretty sunset
when I arrived on the playa and pulled up to a stop at the Gate. There
were several rows of cars waiting to get through. Of course, like at the
supermarket, I was in the slowest lane. An hour later, I was still in line.
Two girls were pushing their stalled car in another lane, and they
were still getting in faster than me. The backfire from a VW bus
sounded like gunfire. It got dark, and I was getting very tired. BMIR was
warning everyone the BLM officers were stopping people for the least little
traffic offense. Slowly, the lines inched forward. After two hours, I could
see the lights of the Gate. The wind picked up. The radio reported there
would not be 70 MPH winds that night, as had been previously reported.
Two and a half hours after arriving, I actually made it to the Gate…
and got in line at the Box Office. That’s where I bumped into Ranger Bobo.
We found the line for staff credentials, which was much shorter than the
ticket line. Three hours after arriving on the playa, I made it to the
Greeters station. The wind was kicking up the dust. One lane was blocked
by police for a medical emergency, but they soon cleared it. I was finally
waved through. I drove up the 6:30 road, then turned at Rod’s Road and
had to make a U-turn. I kept looking for the Sparty truck, but it didn’t
make it out that year. I pulled into camp and stopped at Hair of the Dog,
15 hours after leaving Cathedral Gorge. I had a cold beer, and talked to
Brian W., Blurose, the Captain, and Colleen, whom I had not seen in years.
Rerun gave me a hug, and Steph pointed out where everything was. I decided
I would set up my tent in the morning. I got my sleeping bags and bundled
up in the back of Satori. I had no trouble at all falling asleep.
Last updated: September, 2013