In Search of the Holy Gale
Lost on the Black Rock .. ✈️ US TRAVEL
Gerlach, Nevada, pop. 34. Not a destination really, not in any sense of the word. I am heading north on Rte. 447, and Gerlach is on the way to … well … nowhere, really. Unless you have a date on the Black Rock.
About 6 miles north of the now defunct town of Empire, Gerlach rises up out of the heat, a quivering mirage on the horizon. The two-lane highway takes a sharp zig to the west coming into town, and a sharp zag to the north on the way out. If you’re only passing through this dusty little settlement, it takes about as long as a good sneeze.
In Gerlach you can find a gas station, a place to buy ice and propane, a post office, a motel, a cafe and three bars. In the old 1970s-style cafe, a delicious traditional breakfast is served up friendly – the kind of breakfast offered back in the days when no one even knew what cholesterol and carbohydrates were.
The saloon has slightly gone to seed, but it has just what you’d expect – a genial, welcoming proprietor, padded swivel stools, a few slot machines, and a couple of inveterate morning drinkers hunched over the bar, nursing headaches. As for the hotel, I’d like to recommend it … but I can’t. Sure, you can sleep there, if you really need a bed and are not of a fastidious nature, but, frankly, after spending just one night, I think I can safely say you’d do as well to sleep in the back seat of an abandoned 1955 Packard by the side of the highway. Just my opinion, though, so check it out.
After a cup of coffee and a fried egg sandwich in the cafe, I continue about three miles north on Route 34, speeding past the turn off to Planet X pottery, until I find the nondescript open gateway I am looking for. A right turn takes me down onto the wide, flat, dry lake bed. Once on the playa, there is no road. A lot of tire tracks mar the dusty alkali surface, all heading off in different directions like a giant exploding asterisk. Apparently one can aim in any direction out here.
On a Tuesday in June, the Black Rock is hotter than a frog in a frying pan. I see no one and nothing but straggly bunches of scrub scattered around the verge, and mountains on three sides. A 100 - mile view stretches from the tracks of the Union Pacific railway that mark the south boundary, up toward the northeast between the Calico Hills and the Jackson Mountains, to the Black Rock Range that marks the upper border. I am told that I could drive straight east from here and find a dirt road that would take me up to Trego Hot Springs, but I am not going in that direction today. However, if I do accidentally end up there, at least I will know I have totally gone the wrong way and will need to turn back.
My boy has given me very spare instructions as to how to find their large encampment, “Look toward the mountains to the northeast. Find Black Rock Point, aim the car in that direction, drive about fifteen miles and you will find us.” Really? I am aiming for a rock? That’s it? No road? No signs? The needle on my internal anxiety meter flutters and begins to rise.
In front of me, two hundred square miles of empty playa shimmer like water in the rising heat. I point myself in a north-easterly direction, according to the plastic compass on my keyring ( I am seventy-five years old – that is as high tech as I get, ) and put my car in gear. No road, no signs, no landmarks, no problem. I set my course on nothing but a hazy black point of rock standing out on the distant horizon as my point of reference, and launch myself into the unknown.
I have never in my life been in so much open, empty space with so little guidance in my entire life. It is scary and liberating at the same time. After a few minutes, I am inexplicably tempted to stomp on the accelerator and make a few figure-eights, since I totally can and no one is watching. Instead, I notice that there are some deeper tire tracks running parallel with my own chosen trajectory, but about twenty five feet to my left. People have gone this way before — maybe they knew where they were going! I swerve and bump on over to settle down into this other set of tracks, wiping the sweat off my face with my sleeve. Okay. Now we are talking!
I drive with an exhilarating frisson of fear and excitement, gripping the steering wheel, letting my eyes wander over this vast, lonely expanse, staying in the shallow tire ruts. There are no people or other vehicles, nothing is moving out here except the cyclone of yellow dust that billows up from behind my tires.
After a long half hour, I approach some low hillocks of rock and brush that I believe are what my boy called the Dead Dog Dunes – probably the one and only recognizable feature in the area. He said it would only take about ten minutes to get here from the gate, but maybe he wasn’t anticipating the tentative speed at which his timorous mother would be driving. I skirt around them and continue on, my course corrected now toward true north. So far so good.
The flatness of the Black Rock playa represents the dry bed of Lake Lahontan, an ancient lake that filled many of the basins in northwestern Nevada 15,000 years ago. The playa is an ever-changing, dynamic, delicately-balanced ecosystem that includes long dry spells, strong winds, and intermittent flooding by salty alkaline water during periods of high rainfall.
It is usually wet during the winter and early spring, when deep mud often makes vehicle travel impossible. However, a heavy rain is a good thing, as it settles and smoothes the playa; the following summer the surface is then relatively durable. With frequent flooding, the playa surface is firm and flat, and the winds cause minimal erosion. Naturally, when the lake bed is dry and hard, its remoteness attracts off-road vehicles, small owner-built airplanes, rocketry, and racing activity for various types of vehicles, such as land sailers.
When the playa does not flood for several years in a row, the surface can transform from a hard-packed, sturdy surface to one that is soft and loose, with puffy, powdery soil and ever-changing ripples and gouges. Sadly, heavy car and truck traffic across it when it is in this condition, causes serious ecological damage that takes years for nature to repair.
I have been driving for nearly two hours now, though my boy predicted it would take me only about forty minutes to find the camp. I am in no hurry — I am loving this wholly new experience. I continue north, scanning the horizon for the large encampment of land sailors who celebrate The Holy Gale here every year in mid-June. It is the annual regatta of SASSASS – the Sunny Acres Sipping, Sailing and Soaring Society, a large western association of fun-loving, but ecologically conscious, dirt-boat enthusiasts.
The SASSASS membership spans four loyal generations, from age 6 to 90, all good friends, and all passionate about the sport. Some have been part of this sailing organization since its inception in the early 1970s. They converge here from Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Wisconsin, Oregon and California. Their sleek, silent dirt-boats have three wheels and a sail. Their only power is wind. And, while sailboats on water can go no more than the speed of the wind, able dirt-boat pilots can get land sailers up to speeds as much as five times that of the wind. Speeds of almost 80 m.p.h. have been reported on The Black Rock.
I am just about to send up a flare so that someone will find me and bring me in, when I spy, faintly materializing in the distance off to the west, what looks like a pyramid. No … several pyramids! No, wait a minute. Sails. They are sails! The north-bound tire tracks I have been traveling in are about two miles farther east than I should be, but on seeing the colorful sails floating in a mid-air mirage above the desert, I know I have found the Holy Gale. I execute a quick turn west, crossing over myriad scattered tire tracks, and fly as if shot from a bow.
I unclench my white-knuckled fingers from the steering wheel and step out of a dust-camouflaged car. Sweat-drenched, crumpled and grateful, I am welcomed with a couple of frosty Margaritas made in the SASSASS cement-mixer, affectionately known as the Sassassinator. Man, I love these people.
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