April 2005

"Hey it's Jay," my cousin-in-law. "Hey Jay, what's up?," I respond into the phone. "I NEED to get outdoors," he said, "Bernadette is out of town on business and said we could use her Honda CRV." This would be a treat, the vehicle being an enabler, allowing us to get stuck in places we have not been able to get stuck in before. "She does not mind if we go to Death Valley, but I don't have that much time to spare." Living in the Bay Area, Jay and I are aware that a trip to Death Valley takes approximately 12 hours to get ensconced anywhere inside the park, not to mention the return trip. "What about Nevada?" My mind flashed back remembering two epic trips we had done previously. One trip to the Alta Toquima Wilderness in July of 1994 was highlighted by summiting 11,941 foot Mount Jefferson, hiking a two hundred foot sand dune at Sand Mountain, followed by a refreshing snorkeling session in Pyramid Lake. The second trip was an enjoyable stint to the Carson Sink in May of 2003 to see a lunar eclipse. I was a lie down as they say in the car business. "Nevada it is," I said, "but where?," knowing Nevada is the seventh largest state in the country comprising 109,825 square miles. "Always wanted to go to the Black Rock Desert," he responded. "Sounds good to me," I said. "Alright, you have two days to get ready, be here, (suburban San Jose) around 9:30 Thursday morning." "Done," was all I had to say.

Thursday arrives all too quickly as both of us do a rush job of packing. I arrived ninety minutes late. Turns out he had delays of his own and it was good timing. Out onto the open road we go. We hit Route I-80 and not wanting to unload ANYTHING out of the vehicle before our first camp is struck, we do fast food in Auburn for lunch. Earlier we were treated to an outstanding view of downtown Sacramento. It was one of those stunningly clear days with no wind, no fog and no clouds. The clarity of the azure blue sky permitted us to see a large swath of the Sierra crest as well as Mount Lassen. Sacramento never looked so good.

Continuing along at a nimble clip on I-80 we make good time. Starting in Auburn the topography begins to change rapidly, substituting vegetated rolling hills for the pancake flat Central Valley. My already good mood starts to elevate as I leave the urban world for the wild west. In Truckee the highway parallels the near capacity, stylish Truckee River, following it down the Eastern Sierra where it makes an abrupt ninety degree turn just outside of Fernley, Nevada before arriving at its terminus, Pyramid Lake. Missing the exit to 447 North due to a navigational error on the part of the co-pilot (me) we are forced to take the next exit. The mishap provides us with a drive-by tour of the town of Wadsworth before connecting with the highway. Wadsworth looks like one of those Western towns , charming in a Soweto kind of way.

Fleeing Wadsworth we are at Pyramid Lake before long, leaving the escort of the Truckee River near Nixon. Pyramid Lake is a sight to see. In the mid day sun it glistened with sparkling specular highlights. The shade of cobalt blue that it possesses is ever darker than the crystal clear sky. Stepping out of the CRV for some "documentation" photos I am struck by the sheer silence of the place. Living on Russian Hill in San Francisco next to a three story renovation project has recently made me sound sensitive. Now I could hear my own breathing! I quickly drop my "city" clothes in exchange for the high tech, non cotton desert wear that any REI addict would instantly recognize.

Arriving in the gypsum company town of Empire we get our first dose of The Burners. For the one percent of you that does not know who The Burners are, let me explain. They are the attendees of an annual, week long, hedonistic, clothing optional, art induced freak fest called Burning Man. Think Jerry's Kids (Garcia, not Lewis) meets art school meets nude beach sans water. Current attendance exceeds twenty thousand, its draw international having achieved cult status. The event crescendos with the burning in effigy of a large figure of a "man." It has its genesis on Ocean Beach in San Francisco over a decade ago, but is now held in the Black Rock Desert, in the summer. As a result those who go have to endure extreme heat, extreme wind, extreme playa dust, and extreme art. I have not been but the stories I've heard (and photos I've seen) from friends and foe are the kind that can only come from Black Rock City, as it is called. Empire possesses the last food store before Black Rock City. Adjacent to the store is a twenty foot tall Cat In The Hat (I said extreme art) who is holding a two foot replica of the "man", which is the icon of burning man. We leave Empire in the rear view and head to Gerlach.

In Gerlach we get gas at the only station in town. In fact should one consult the map you can easily see there is no gas for a BIG stretch. Those of us with Eastern roots still find this daunting. We are greeted by a rotund septuagenarian who I affectionately dub Gas Station Gus. He throws a furtive glance our way and says "credit card or cash?" Jay fills the tank and "pumps" Gus for some info, as I rummage through MY side of the CRV. Previous experience has proven that dividing the storage space of the vehicle longitudinally works well for gear and clothing location and helps to keep the peace. Tank full, we depart. "So what did you learn from Gus?" "He tried to send us to some ORGANIZED campground up the road," Jay says. "He thinks we are rookies and even told me not to drive on the playa, yea right!"

Just outside of town we pick up rd. 2048, a decent dirt road through the sage that provides us with access to the immense playa at Trego. Once on the playa, we set up Playa Camp with surgical precision. Jay with his minimalist bivy sac and me with a two man, three season tent. The vast open expanse of the playa and the surrounding mountains combine to make an "out of this world" feeling. We are both so impressed that we are speechless. The bottle of wine we share at dinner puts and end to that. After brief hikes under a one-third moon onto the playa and to watch a large train go by at close range we call it a night. Temperature is twenty degrees, wind is medium, mood is ecstatic.

Sunshine illuminates my tent earlier than I am accustomed to. I try to sleep as late as possible but to no avail. After Jay rallies and a quick oatmeal breakfast we break camp and head for the metropolis of Sulfur. Twenty minutes into the drive Jay yells out "Gorman, look!" Fifty feet in front of the CRV, seven pronghorns bound across the road in single file. At first their paint job causes them to stick out against the green sage. However as I watch them head off in the distance their coloration acts as a masterful camouflage. A short while later we spot a wild burro, a mammalian remnant of the buckaroos. The town of Sulfur sits below a behemoth mine, the immense terraces reflecting brightly in the morning sun. Kicking around the debris in Sulfur we come across an old steam furnace and several dozen old cars. The youngest of which is the the back half of a canary yellow Duster or Charger circa 1975. Both Don Johnson and Starsky and Hutch would be proud. During our tenure in Sulfur we spot two interlopers. One is a Railroad Inspector doing his rounds. The other is a dirt bike guy looking for suitable terrain to practice his craft. They will be the last people we will see for the next two and half days. Leaving the concrete jungle for this solitude is what we seek, however it still takes some getting used to. We take some photos, eat a power lunch, and then have a break out meeting as to where we are going. Being that this trip was spontaneous, our actual plans are nebulous. After a brief discussion we reach a quorum. We will drive along the edge of the playa, then across the playa to Black Rock Point and set up camp.

Always one to go off the trail, Jay decides it would be a good idea to take the utility pole access road instead of the road we came in on. I was game, after all we have an all wheel drive. Not long into the cruise we spot a raven cruising by. Then we notice her large nest in the crook of a utility pole. We note that the raven flies by the nest to the next utility pole in a effort to distract us from the nest. As we continue we spot eight more nests, most of which have a ravens sitting inside. This being spring we assume they have eggs or chicks they are attending to. It is noticeable how evenly spaced the nests are, approximately every twenty five utility poles or about a quarter mile or so.

One hour into the sojourn we are feeling confident, Jay exhibiting off road driving prowess. Suddenly without warning an old wooden bridge confronts us. Exiting the vehicle we walk across the structure. The prospect of getting stuck and the cost and embarrassment (not to mention Jay having to explain to his partner and owner of the vehicle why he took the bridge in the first place) of a subsequent extraction causes us to take the roundabout that other drivers confronted with this bridge have apparently made. One hour later we are at an access point to the playa.

Ahh the playa. Playa is Espanol for beach. This is a DRY lake bed, large, flat and hard as a rock. For anyone who likes to drive, this place is like riding a bicycle downhill with no brakes. Jays confidence builds as we cruise for time and distance. With the mountains so far off and the horizon nearly 360 degrees it seems like we are standing still. The fun meter is rising steadily when our mood is tempered by a paradigm shift. The playa is no longer dry as a bone. Jay wisely skirts ALL of the moist sections and points the CRV at Black Rock Point. We cruise for speed and distance and it happens again, this time worse. We get out of the vehicle and actually see WATER straight ahead. Alright so MAYBE Gas Station Gus knew what he was talking about. Do any of us ever listen to our parents? Jay wisely, yet reluctantly takes a right angle turn and heads for Soldier Meadows Road the primary dirt road along the nearest edge of the playa.

Back on a solid dirt road we set sail for Black Rock Point realizing that our route will now be longer in both distance and time. Cruising along we see four more of the stylish looking pronghorns. Eventually the road takes us into a region dotted with mining and ranching activities. One ranchers driveway proved to be distinctive. On the corner where his long driveway met the road was a type of shrine. It was comprised of a large bush decorated with small nic-nacks and three dead coyotes. Jay and I were befuddled. We discussed how this might come about. "First off you have to kill the coyote," I start in, "then you have to transport it here, and then carefully stage it the bush." "Never have a problem giving people directions to your house," Jay adds. "Just take a left at the rotting, smelling, well draped coyote carcasses, you can't miss it!" "I guess he REALLY doesn't like coyotes," I mused.

One hour and fifty miles later it is time to take the secondary dirt road, one that appears on the map but without a name. Earlier in the day we had agreed to stop and set up camp at six o'clock regardless of where we were. The idea was similar to the turn around times mountaineers evoke while climbing Everest for example. Another hour passes and we have gone six miles. The road quality deteriorated, and I was getting jostled side to side like being in a washing machine. My stomach hurt, my patience waining. Six PM arrives and we were still several hours from Black Rock Point. "Alright let's look for a suitable camp," Jay exclaimed. Six fifteen and we are on the dividing line between the sagebrush and the alkali flats. We stop just short of the alkali and once again set up camp in a blistering pace; this is Alkali Camp. Dinner, a mini hike under a building moon, thirty degree temps, and a long day of travel are enough for me and I head for the comfort of my therm-a-rest.

After a great nights sleep, I arise early, eat breakfast, clean up last nights dinner debris, pack my day pack and then start scouting routes up the various canyons in view. This all takes place with Jay happily snoring away. During this solemn moment I sat in my camp chair and was alone with my thoughts. No television, no radio, no IPOD, no telephone, no cable cars, no buses, no e-mail, no sound. The extreme silence allowed my mind to wonder. I thought of how beautiful, remote and stimulating the desert is. It seemed like Nirvana, right here in Nevada! NIRVADA! My attention then returned to the morning light reflecting off the mountains of the Black Rock Range directly overhead. They vary in a mixture of color and shapes. It reminds me of the color wheel at Benjamin Moore. I grab my camera and zip off a dozen shots.

Jay arises and is quick to rally. He recognizes that the weather is stellar, the location sublime, and a long hike is pending. The conditions are optimal. The night before it was decided that this was going to be an all day hike event, with no car time. "Look at that big crack in that mountain over there," I said pointing to a canyon about a quarter mile away. " Yea I saw that last night and it seems to be inviting us up there," Jay responded. "Then its settled, let's go."

We take the CRV the quarter mile to the trail head and it seriously needs to be cleaned by a pressure washer for cars with all the dirt and dust covering it. It will provide a landmark to spot from up on the ridge. Of course we have the GPS, but will only use it as backup. Walking up the wash to reach the canyon is tricky footing. The ground is strewn with rocks that range in size from marbles to basketballs. Hiking poles may be short on style points, long on geek points, but they work well in this setting. We are pumped that we have them with us. Forty five minutes later we are at the mouth of the canyon.

Entering into the canyon proper, the walls rapidly close in and get higher. We follow a vague game trail, spotting two fast horned toad lizards. I silently think to myself, horned toad lizards equal rattle snakes. A short while later a kestrel swoops by, screeching and flashing those Alice Cooper eyes. A few yards further we spot bobcat tracks. Close encounters with bobcats in Marin have made me certain what bobcat tracks look like. The tracks are not fresh and are going the opposite direction. It seems likely that the canyon would provide a bobcat with an efficient highway from one valley up and over to the next.

As we proceed we are faced with a decision. The canyon splits into two distinct passages. We opt to go left where it shortly dead ends. Being in the lead, I inch forward to see if we can climb on the walls to continue on to the other side. Then it happened. A large, fast flash of color and feathers erupts directly in front of me. I thought I might have a mio cardio infarction. "Whoa," I yelp, startled. "It's an owl," Jay proclaims with excitement . "Wow, I almost stepped on it," I state, my heart pounding rapidemente. Flying off it retreated to a rock ledge about forty feet away and sat there. I changed lenses and inchedforward for the shot. After what seemed like an eternity it flew to the opposite canyon wall. It was then that Jay observed, "look at the nest!" There, about ten feet below the owl was a finely constructed nest hanging on a sheer vertical wall. At that point we decided not to stress the avian fauna and slowly and quietly backed out of the canyon.

Exploring the other canyon passage we shortly encounter another owl. Unlike the previous one it takes to the wing at the first sight of human interlopers. Watching it gracefully and silently fly out of sight was beautiful. Suddenly the canyon has a wall of rocks too high and virtical for us to negotiate. We opt to climb a VERY steep side wall, skirt the rock fall and end up in on the canyon trail on the other side. In the process we flush the owl once again. Proceeding we shortly emerge from the canyon and find ourselves on a wind swept ridge.

The ridge view was well worth
the hike up the canyon. We see the snow covered, sawtooth edged mountains on the other side of the Black Rock Desert. As we soak in the view we both yearn to climb some of those mountains as well. "We have to come back here." "No kidding!" I say, not needing any convincing. We rested, ate lunch, hydrated and decided to set forth for regions less windy.

Departing, we choose an overland route instead of returning via the canyon. The ground is soft with various shades of sand. It is only now, after leaving the ridge do we realize that we are in some sort of badlands. The sand stretches far and wide and has colors of green, pink and white. It also undulates, so we pick what we think is a good line and head for a rock covered ridge. The actual going is tougher than anticipated. The large bulbous undulations make sight distances limited. You THINK you are going the right way until you crest an orb, only to see a better route. After a few more ups and downs than one would ask for we hit the bottom of the ridge where the rocks begin. Time to put it in billy goat gear as the ground goes vertical. It is only a short distance and we find ourselves on top the ridge in short order. Once again the views are spectacular. The wind is back and steady. We see several dust devils in the valley below, that appear to be three or four hundred feet in height. I silently wonder if our camp is being pounded. The wind eventually causes us to depart.

We can see the CRV and pick a line that while descending will put us on several ridges. We can see several large, well constructed cairns that we can use as landmarks, although in this terrain they seem superfluous. Passing by the third cairn Jay suddenly states "there is something in this one!" My mind quickly congers up its possible contents, gold, old coins, opals? Jay carefully removes one rock, noting its exact position and reaches inside extracting a small, partially rusted tin can. It says VELVET TOBACCO at the top, followed by pipe and cigarette tobacco lower down. Jay gives it a good shake and all we hear is the sound of powdered debris inside. "Oh well you never know what could be in here," Jay remarks. "You mean we are SUPPOSED to look inside of these." "I had no idea, it will be protocol from now on!" I exclaim. Jay carefully places the tin BACK inside and puts the rock back in its original position. A later check on e-Bay reveals that it is British in origin, from the fifties and worth about three dollars. Exciting find none the less. The one with the gold coins awaits us. We slowly descend to the vehicle dragging our feet not wanting this adventurous day to end. The wind is with us the whole way. 

Back in the CRV, one hundred yards from camp we spot the sleeping pad I use for insulation and padding in my camp chair. I jump out, grab it and walk back to camp searching for any other runaways. Once in camp I see that our chairs have been tossed but all else is good. The wind is still going and the sun setting so we both don our evening wear of down jackets and windproof breathable pants. Next task dinner.

As anyone who has even a small amount of camping experience knows, FOOD TAKES ON AN ADDED IMPORTANCE while in the wild, especially after hiking all day. I am in luck as Jay whips up one of the best camp dinners going. He serves steamed Hebrew National hot dogs, wrapped in STEAMED Trader Joe's hand made tortillas. It is warm in the hand and hot and juicy to the bite, perfectly complimented by the Anchor Steam beer he hands me. It is so good I think that Jay should be knighted! In my contentment I notice that the wind has stopped and it is close to forty degrees. I realize that I am eating dinner without my gloves on! The evening entertainment consists of a cruise though the alkali flats under a full half moon as Jay would say. One and a half hours later it is time for the rack. No wind is heard or felt.

I am forced from the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag by natures provocation. As I conclude the task I realize that the wind is raging. I crawl back into my down refuge to warm up. Sleep is not possible since the tent is flapping something fierce. Breaking camp proves challenging in the wind. We have fruit bars and OJ for breakfast opting not to cook. Inside the vehicle we stare at each with the unstated look of, now what? "We need to go to Gerlach for water, " Jay says breaking the silence, "and gas too." "No problem since hiking today would be nothing more than an endurance test."

Just over one hour and six agitator miles later we are mercifully back on Soldier Meadows Road. Driving by the coyote carcasses we soon find ourselves back in Gerlach only to discover there is NO WATER for sale in town. We spot a well placed sign alerting us that there is a store in Empire. In Empire I wave at the Cat In The Hat as I enter the store. Inside the second dose of The Burners is administered. There are Burning Man calenders, hats, tee shirts, post cards, mugs and books. I opt for water and one chocolate Moon Pie. I pay the svelte, brown eyed, brunette beauty at the register. I find myself smiling at her since she is not only the the first person other than jay I have seen in two and half days, she is the first WOMAN I have seen. Being in such a remote place I silently wonder how much attention she must generate. Next task is lunch and gas. Back to Gerlach.

Not wanting to dig through the well organized contents of the CRV for food we opt to do lunch at Bruno's Country Club and Casino on main street Gerlach. I pass on their "world famous ravioli" and inhale a cheeseburger instead. While chewing I learn that the grandson of our octogenarian server named Mary has a bet with local law enforcement. Turns out the law enforcement officer sitting at the next table bet the grandson two hundred dollars he would not win the state track meet. If the grandson loses he has to wash the officer's squad car for a month. "We came all the way from Reno just for the ravioli," pronounces a woman at the cash register. "Got a speeding ticket on the way up too," she continues her voice sounding as if she expected financial assistance in paying the fine. I grinned silently, thinking to myself that it turned out to be expensive world famous ravioli. This brief encounter with civilization has sated us and we head out to get gas.

We pull up to the pump and Gus greets us with "credit card or cash?" We fill up and hold another break out session. Seeing a flag across town that is at full sail we opt to go see the odd looking but beautiful Fly Geyser. The Fly Geyser is a continuously flowing, three pronged, hot water geyser that stands atop multi colored terraces created from the mineral deposits in the water. The geyser was formed in 1914 when a farmer was digging for water and it began to spout. When we arrive we see that it is on private land and is two hundred yards from the road. Cool sight to see even at that distance, besides it is still VERY WINDY out.

The decision was made to head to the Smoke Creek Desert traveling south west on Smoke Creek Road till we locate a suitable campsite. This plan will have us easing toward home. Shortly we discover we are back in ranching territory. We eventually locate a site for the night on a hillside a few miles from the main road. This is Ranch Camp. Stepping out of the CRV we both realize that it is too windy to set up camp, not to mention cook dinner. We confer and reach the consensus that the wind is not gusting but blowing steadily at about FIFTY miles per hour. I glance at the clock on the dashboard, it is just after five pm.

Two hours later Jay provides a stellar meal under the conditions. He serves prosciutto on a bagel, no cooking required. It tastes like a four star meal. We don our evening attire and drink a beer. The wind continues to shake the vehicle back and forth. We spend the night in the front seats, starting the engine every two hours for some heat. Despite the hardship, not one complaint is uttered from either of us, except when we step out to answer nature's call. We agree that the wind chill factor hovers near zero. We KNOW that Mother Nature is in charge, that we are only visitors in her realm and give her the respect she deserves, or in this case has demanded. Sunrise is a welcome sight knowing it will warm the vehicle, but the wind is STILL BLOWING! By nine o'clock the wind is substantially reduced. I calculate that I have had two whole hours of sleep. Another fruit bar and juice morning and we point the CRV south.

Before reaching the Smoke Creek Road we spot two eagles taking a lift on an updraft, and then soon pass an interesting rock outcropping. Pulling over to investigate we hear the screech of a falcon and watch as it disappears into its roost high up on the cliff face. The vertical walls are contrasted by the large automobile sized chunks of rock that have fallen off the wall. The lack of wind and the warm sun lift our tired spirits. Driving further south we are treated to two more falcons on the wing, one patient looking kingfisher, three well constructed beaver dams and several deer. Shortly we ascend out of the dessert and the terrain changes again. We cross the state line without documentation and find ourselves back in California.

We connect with RT 395, then 49, then 89. Somewhere outside of Sierraville it begins to snow, which continues on and off until we are below the Donner Summit. From Truckee it is a quick three hour cruise to Jay's place. I look at the clock on the dash again, it reads 6:30 pm. I explain to Jay that I am going to transfer the gear to my car and make the one hour drive home. "I understand," he says sympathetically. "Well, I just spent a day and a half in that front seat there," I remark, not hiding my excitement about being out of the CRV. "I need to sleep in my own bed tonight, not to mention take my first shower in four days!"

Pulling away I am aware that I am back in the concrete jungle. A smile comes across my face knowing I just had my third epic trip to NIRVADA. Only one question remains: when and where will the fourth one be? Stay tuned.

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