4 Rivet Member
Join Date: Feb 2002
LA Times story
By ERIC RORER
BLACK ROCK DESERT, Nev. -- Two trucks were coming toward us, just plumes of dust at first, billowing out of the pancake flatness that stretched miles in all directions. They rose through the shimmer of the desert?first the roofs, then the windshields, then the entire vehicles. The pickups rippled in the waves of convection, trails of dust swirling behind them into an infinite yawn of blue sky, and their wheels didn't seem to touch the ground.
As I stared at those trucks floating in space, I realized why this empty corner of northwest Nevada is home to the Burning Man Festival, the ever-evolving fete that draws tens of thousands of artists, nudists and run-of-the-mill partyers every year around Labor Day to share works of art, to dance, to perform, to become, in effect, a living, breathing art installation. Reality takes on different dimensions on this vast, dry lake bed known as the Black Rock Desert, two hours north of Reno. It's hard to imagine a better backdrop for artistic and social experimentation.
But for our group of seven men and five women, the backdrop was the main attraction. In May, Burning Man was still months away (it begins Monday this year) as we stood in the sunny brilliance of the morning. Because of the high elevation, temperatures are usually mild in the spring and fall, hot in summer and downright cold in winter.
At any time other than Burning Man week, this is one of America's most remote but easily accessible wildernesses, an outdoor playground of endless vistas, natural hot springs, wild horses, bighorn sheep and, despite all the attention Burning Man has brought to the area, very few people.
Desert Survivors, a low-profile, nonprofit Bay Area-based hiking and conservation group, organized our trek. Its trips, publicized only through the group's newsletter and Web site, are informal. Trekkers bring their own gear and food, and they provide their own transportation to and from the trail head. The price is right: Trips cost $10. They're open to anybody in good physical condition, and they don't require anything more than basic camping and backpacking skills. The trip leaders have an impressive depth of knowledge about the California and Nevada deserts. As with this trip, they take people to places that are off the travel radar.
Our destination was the northwest edge of the 30-by-10-mile lake bed, at the foot of a rolling stretch of mountains called the Black Rock Range, where we were to embark on a three-day backpacking trip. The best way to get to the trail head is to drive straight across the lake bed, or playa, as it's called. We had stopped in the middle, just to experience what it's like to stand in the center of this large, unbroken plain.
"It's a mirage effect," said Bob Ellis, the 61-year-old leader of our trip, referring to the floating trucks that were coming toward us, then vanishing into their own dust as they passed. "At long distances, the bottoms of things get lost in the curvature of the light, so they look like they're suspended in space."
Thanks partly to the efforts of desert activists such as Ellis and to the attention Burning Man has brought to the area, the Black Rock Desert and much of the surrounding countryside was given protected status in 2000 as the 760,000-acre Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. Its name is a bit misleading. Black rocks are uncommon in this landscape. The name comes from a single rock formation on the west side of the lake bed that 19th century explorers used as a navigation landmark.
The lake bed is the heart of the conservation area. Its massive size and almost perfect smoothness made it ideal for the counterculture artists of Burning Man who needed a place to spread out after the festival grew too large for its San Francisco setting. The festival moved here more than a decade ago, and it has grown so large that each year it becomes the fourth largest city in Nevada.
The area is also attractive to record chasers: The land speed record was set on the Black Rock Playa in 1997, when British driver Andy Green broke the sound barrier, hitting a top speed of more than 763 mph in a jet-propelled car.
At the far more humdrum speed of 50 mph, our group continued on, making a beeline across the powdery clay of the lake bed toward Big Mountain, formerly called Paiute or Pahute Peak?at 8,618 feet, the highest summit in the Black Rock Range.
The members of our group came from a variety of backgrounds: a nuclear medicine technician, a yoga instructor, a financial advisor and people of other stripes, most in their 30s or 40s. Many were drawn to the trip because of their passion for desert exploration and by images they had seen of Burning Man.
From the middle of the lake bed, it took half an hour to drive to our trail head in Clapper Canyon, named for Edward Clapper, partner of noted 19th century explorer Peter Lassen. Both men were killed near the mouth of the canyon in 1859, the mystery surrounding their slaying never solved. There was no water in the canyon or anywhere along our three-day route, so we had to carry our own?a gallon per person per day, about 25 pounds for each of us. That, besides food, sleeping bags and other gear, made for heavy packs.
The load and 80-degree temperature?typical for a spring day in this area?meant tough going that first day. There is no trail through the canyon, so we had to pick our way over boulders and through brush.
A mile into the canyon we came upon the almost perfect skeleton of a male bighorn sheep?legs, rib cage, skull and full-curl antlers, all intact.
We continued up the canyon and a couple of miles farther came to a cave formed by the erosion of soft underground soils. Nearly 100 feet deep and 20 feet tall, it opened to the south wall of Clapper Canyon. It was cool inside, a good place to eat lunch and get out of the sun, intense despite the relatively mild temperatures. We lingered almost an hour, munching on salami, cheese, nuts, dried fruit and other backpacker staples.
After lunch we continued climbing up the canyon. The plan was to get far enough up the south flank of Big Mountain to put its summit within hiking distance for the next day. As the afternoon wore on, the wind started to pick up, gusting with increasing force until it was blowing at 20 to 30 mph. High winds are common in this area, and Ellis, fortunately, had planned for them. He chose a sheltered site for camping, a miniature valley between a small knoll and the main part of the mountain, a little more than five miles from the mouth of Clapper Canyon. It was a wonderful, well-protected spot.
We set up camp, then lay on the knoll and stared up at the deep blue desert sky, pondering brilliant white clouds as they sailed by like mammoth Rorschach blots. "Look at that one," said Nick Vasquez, a 36-year-old nuclear medicine technician from the Bay Area. "It looks like a ... huge lung X-ray, stretched across the sky."
My dinner that night was a repetition of lunch. On short weekend backpack trips like this, I rarely take a stove, forsaking hot food for a lighter pack, but several other people in the group prepared elaborate meals: Japanese noodles with fresh shiitake mushrooms, and couscous with dried vegetables and fresh Parmesan cheese.
We slept outside our tents that night. We were more than 6,000 feet above sea level, and as the stars came out, temperatures dropped to the low 40s. I zipped my down sleeping bag all the way up, pulled the drawstring tight around my face and fell asleep watching Ursa Major swirl through the inky blackness of the endless sky.
Ellis woke us early the next morning for a long hike to the top of Big Mountain, seven miles and 2,500 vertical feet away. The elevation meant heat would not be a problem. In fact, as we headed up the peak's south ridge, the wind started to blow again, and it became clear that staying warm would be the main challenge that day. The view started to open up behind us, the full stretch of the Black Rock playa and a seemingly endless series of mountain ranges to the south, a spectacular vista soon matched by equally dramatic views to the east and west.
Halfway up the ridge we saw a herd of wild mustangs, almost 200 strong, grazing on a small plateau about a quarter-mile west. We watched them for several minutes, until something startled them?perhaps the scent of a mountain lion, perhaps the scent of us?and they broke into a full gallop, charging off the plateau, seeming to capture for a few glorious moments the vestiges of everything that's still wild in the American West.
After almost three hours of hiking, we reached the summit of Big Mountain. Northwestern Nevada and northeastern California swirled around us, a vista so incredible that we admired it for almost an hour. But the wind was blowing harder than ever, and it was starting to take its toll. Although the temperature was in the 50s, the wind made it feel 20 degrees colder.
Trekking back down the mountain, our group started to spread out, and for a while I was hiking alone. It was a nice feeling, just me, the wind and all those miles of open space.
The feeling ended abruptly when I stepped a little too close to a 4-foot-long prairie rattlesnake, camouflaged in the desert scrub. I was well out of range, but the snake struck anyway, and I jumped. When I landed, it coiled up and hissed at me, ready to strike again. I stood there at a safe distance, studying the intricate patterns in its skin, the blackness of its eyes and forked tongue, marveling at how something so dangerous could be so beautiful. I stayed almost 20 minutes, and it never budged. When I walked away, it was still coiled, ready to strike.
We turned in early that night, tired from the hike and the wind. Thankfully, the walk back to the cars the next morning was easy, all downhill with packs that weighed about half what they had on our first day because most of our food and water were gone.
"Hot springs, anyone?" Ellis asked as we loaded our packs into the cars. A collective "Excuse me?" rose from the group, all of us somewhat struck by the possibility of soaking in hot water. Besides being achy, none of us had bathed for three days.
Ellis led our three-vehicle convoy down from the trail head, winding around on dirt roads until we came to a small parking lot. It wasn't until we walked over to the row of cattails on the far end that we could see the water, the size of a small pond and deep enough for swimming.
It was one of the most inviting natural hot springs I've ever seen. Ellis quickly stripped off his clothes, allaying any apprehensions about doing so, and slipped into the 90-degree water. The rest of us followed his lead, and there we all were, a dozen strangers, naked in our own oasis, dragonflies buzzing around our heads, some people swimming, some just floating on their backs, staring up at the swirl of clear sky above. We soaked for almost an hour, and when we finally climbed back into the desert sun, I don't think any of us had ever felt cleaner.
Later, as we drove back across the playa on our return home, I asked Ellis about the first time he came to the Black Rock Desert. "It was 1991," he said. "I'd never been on a playa before. I just couldn't believe it. Something is triggered when I get on a big open spot like this. I generally try to express it as a release. I feel things getting pulled out of me in all directions. Whatever it is?the urban pressures of living in a city, or just the stress of daily life?you get out here and you feel those things getting pulled out of you.
"The space is different. The size of things is different. We don't get to see that anywhere else."
I thought about that as we drove along the dry lake bed, eventually coming upon the site of the Burning Man Festival, the place where a small city capable of housing 20,000 people would be constructed and dismantled. It would be a huge endeavor, spectacular enough to draw people from the far corners of the country, even the world. As we drove by, I turned and looked back at the playa, all that emptiness, the mile upon mile of flatness, with the Black Rock Range silhouetted on the horizon. I thought about the feeling of being out there alone, as we had experienced it, and what it would be like to be there with thousands of people. I wondered whether any of those festival-goers would know what they were missing.
Eric Rorer is a freelance writer and photographer living in Los Angeles.
Visit Idaho The people are great