If you look at the Northwestern corner of Nevada, you’ll see that it’s bounded on the south by Interstate 80. Depending on the map you’re looking at, you may or may not see any roads at all in this quadrant. If you do, what the map is showing you are all gravel roads, with the exception of state route 447, which in turn converts to gravel at Gerlach.
Normally, Gerlach has a couple of hundred inhabitants in and around town (maybe). There’s a gas station, a small motel, a bar (of course with slots, this being Nevada, and that’s about it. But that’s enough to make Gerlach the hub of this neck of the woods (except, of course, there are no woods -- too dry), with only a handful of isolated ranches scattered across the whole corner of the state like buckshot. Stop at Bruno’s Texaco before you leave Gerlach, and take a look at the small photo tucked away on the back wall. You’ll see Bill, the man in charge, and a very impressive mountain sheep he’s just taken. If you look carefully down the mountain behind Bill in the picture, you’ll see the Gerlach. Probably Bruno’s Texaco as well, if you look hard enough. You have to be pretty isolated to shoot a mountain sheep in your back yard.
That all changes once a year, when the Burning Man countercultural festival brings tens of thousands of folks out into Black Rock Desert, one of the endless alkali lake beds that firm up after the snow melt sinks into the playa and the temperatures climb through the roof, spinning dust devils aimlessly off into the middle distance. Once, these lakebeds were part of an enormous, post-glacial lake. Only Pyramid Lake remains today, sixty-two miles south of Gerlach, with its impossibly blue waters and startling flocks of white pelicans, interrupting the earth tones of the desert with its surreal waters.
Gerlach also has its time in the sun at erratic intervals when rocket car racing (for who knows what reason) becomes hot again. Decades ago, when Craig Breedlove was setting land speed records, these races were held on the Bonneville Salt Flats. But when rains softened the Bonneville site over twenty years ago, the contest was moved to Black Rock Desert, where the races have stayed ever since, and where a British team broke the speed of sound for the first time on wheels in 1997.
The rocket racing days are gone, at least for now. But as I headed north out of Gerlach on the dusty, gravel road on Saturday, I saw that high times were on the way again: three tractor trailers, each with a full load, crossed my lane and hurtled out onto the playa, raising a storm of alkali dust behind them that mushroomed and swirled high up into the air. As the caravan thundered off into the distance, I pulled over and craned my neck to see what in the world needed to be delivered to the middle of an alkali lake.
Each truck was stacked five wide and two deep with Porta-Pottis in most of the colors of the rainbow.
The time for Burning Man had clearly come again.