There are deserts, and then there is the Black Rock Desert, a completely barren playa (dry lake bed) stretching across the northwest corner of Nevada, 380 mi/610 km northwest of Las Vegas. Nothing of any size lives there—no plants or animals. It's an expanse of glaring white silt, completely level for more than 25 mi/40 km. In the past, wagon trains rolled through this area heading for canyon passages to the west. More recently (in the 1980s and 1990s), several land-speed records have been set on this wide-open stretch of earth.
The small town of Gerlach (100 mi/160 km north of Reno) sits at the south end of the Black Rock Desert and is the most common point of entry into this minimalist landscape. A roadside display there indicates points of interest, including the pioneers' route along the Lassen-Applegate Trail. Nearby is the only gas station in the region: Use it. A full tank of gas, as well as a good map, extra tires and belts and plenty of food and water, are crucial commodities in the Black Rock Desert. A high-clearance or four-wheel-drive vehicle also comes in handy.
But no matter what you're driving, stay out of the Black Rock if there's any chance of rain or snow: Any moisture on the playa's surface creates impassable, vehicle-swallowing silt that dries like concrete . The driest conditions occur late spring-fall, but always inquire in Gerlach about road conditions before you set out.
Once you're properly equipped, head into the abyss. You may see distant clouds of dust kicked up by off-road vehicles. You might also spot groups of glider aircraft and land-sailers (small sailboats on wheels) riding the desert wind. Or you may see nothing at all, which is a big part of the attraction: The feeling that comes from such a wide-open and empty place is hard to explain, but it draws some hearty souls like a magnet.
There are some things to see, however. For an extraordinary display of folk art, drive Doobie Road (just north of Gerlach and also called Guru Avenue or Wonder Road), where you'll see rocks decorated with words of wit and wisdom, a tepee topped with cow skulls and Graceland West, a monument to Elvis. Farther north, along the western flank of the Black Rock Desert, the Lassen/Applegate Trail continues past Fly Creek and through High Rock Canyon, where some of the pioneers left their names carved on the canyon walls. Little has changed there since they passed through more than a century ago.
Every year around Labor Day Weekend, the Black Rock Desert is the site of the Burning Man Project, during which a city of 30,000-50,000 people is created in the middle of nowhere for one week. It's part hippie-style gathering, part performance art, part pagan ritual, part something out of a Mad Max movie. The event culminates in the burning of a 40-ft-/12-m-tall effigy. If you decide to attend, you'll need plenty of water, lots of survival supplies and a ticket (even anarchic gatherings cost money these days). Clothing is optional. http://www.burningman.com.
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