July 11, 2005

The Void

This weekend I took a long road trip with fellow Portland blogger Asher Abrams into the heart of the West’s Empty Quarter – the Black Rock Desert in Northwestern Nevada. It is the hinterlands of the hinterlands, the desert of the desert. It is the nearest thing you will find on this Earth to a void.

Black Rock Desert Void.jpg

Native Americans steered clear of this place. White settlers feared and loathed the treacherous crossing. Today a certain kind of person (like me) feels drawn to it from even five hundred miles away.

I go to places like this for utterly contradictory reasons. (I’m human, what can I say?) It’s partly a yearning for danger that comes from spending so much time in a pampered, cushy, Pacific Northwest city. People vanish into the Black Rock every year. Their cars get stuck, they get lost, and they die. (You try walking out of there from the center. No, actually, don't.) Venturing out into the back of beyond, where there are absolutely no cell phones, police officers, fire departments, hotels, restaurants, bottled water, helping hands – civilization, in other words – adds a bit of frisson to a life spent mostly inside a bubble where The World is kept at bay.

Black Rock Desert Earth.jpg

I’m also drawn by a yearning for peace from the stress of the city. It takes energy to live in a city, even a comfy yuppified city like Portland. You don’t realize how much energy it actually takes until you go to a timeless place where nothing exists except earth and sky. Not even radio waves or cell phone signals exist in the Black Rock Desert. Money doesn’t exist there. Mortgage payments don’t exist there. Neither does the blogosphere, George W. Bush, Al Qaeda, or even the 21st Century.

The city is at once both stressful and luxurious. The Black Rock Desert is hostile, yet peaceful. The city is artificial and civilized. The desert is elemental and wild.

Anything that exists however temporarily in the desert – the tiniest pebble, a stray dime, a bottlecap, a book, a person, a car – suddenly becomes spectacularly significant. Everything is huge up close in a void.

Black Rock Desert Book.jpg

Black Rock Desert Dime.jpg

Yet from any kind of distance at all, everything becomes miniscule. Below is a picture of Asher. See if you can find him. He was only 500 feet from me when I snapped the picture. Yet he might as well have been in his own solar system. I was no larger.

Black Rock Desert Asher.jpg

When the two of us got out of the car we instinctively walked in separate directions. A place like the Black Rock Desert can only be faced alone. (Unless, that is, you’re at the Burning Man festival, but the desert is then transformed into something else.) Conversation disrupts the whole point of it. The void is a place to face your own thoughts and to ponder eternity in absolute silence.

Black Rock Desert Feet.jpg

We also visited Pyramid Lake. I first saw this lake from the air when I flew down to Los Angeles last September. I was looking for Lake Tahoe and I couldn’t find it. It must have been directly below me, and you can’t quite look straight down from an airplane. I saw Pyramid Lake instead, although I hadn’t yet heard of it and I did not yet know its name. There is was, a shimmering blue inland sea in the middle of the Nevada desert. How unlikely, I thought, since the “lakes” of Nevada tend to be alkaline hardpans. I decided I would figure out which lake I was looking at from the air, then go look at it later from the ground.

Pyramid Lake From Air.JPG
(Photo via Google Earth, viewed from 30 miles above the ground.)

It was every bit as surprising on the ground as it was from the air. It is enormous, like an inland sea. Amazingly blue (I foolishly neglected to photograph it at the right time, when the sun was shining brilliantly on it) and almost completely devoid of any obnoxious Nevada development whatsoever. It’s on a Paiute Indian Reservation. It looks like for once the Indians weren’t shunted onto the bad land. Nevada is full of bad land to live on (and great land to visit when you’re looking for solitude) but Pyramid Lake is a jewel.

Pyramid Lake 2.jpg

Pyramid Lake 1.jpg

Asher has lived in Portland for five years, but he doesn’t own a car. Until we set out he had seen almost nothing of Oregon. And he had never set foot in Nevada. See his blog for a terrific travel diary of our trip through virgin eyes.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 11, 2005 02:43 AM

And here I was just happy to catch the sunrise this morning out my 4th-floor apartment window. There's something deep down in me that despises the west coast, Michael. I think of LA and all the glitz and glamour of it, and I figure that's the last place on earth I'd ever want to live. I know Portland is not at all like LA, but the mental image of Hollywood and Hair Metal is a bit overwhelming at times. You're quickly redeeming that other coast for me, though. I guess I should thank you for that.

A favorite professor of mine is on a one-man mission to relocate me to Portland after I graduate, by the way. Says he loves the place, thinks it would be a perfect fit for me, and most of all...needs someone to crash with when he's out there. Who knows, right?

Posted by: Grant McEntire at July 11, 2005 05:06 AM

Michael, great photos! Thanks for the link.

Posted by: Asher Abrams - Dreams Into Lightning at July 11, 2005 05:44 AM

Your photo of the tiny Asher in the desert reminded me of a traditional greeting used by the Kung Bushman of the Kalahari (I can't find a reference to it online, so I'll have to do this from memory): "I saw you from afar and I am dying of thirst."

Posted by: neo-neocon at July 11, 2005 06:47 AM

Many thanks for the photos. Even after six years in Oregon, I still long for the solitude of Pyramid Lake (or relative solitude -- we would often encounter fishermen, even in January).

Posted by: Shelley at July 11, 2005 07:26 AM

Nice photos, thanks for sharing.

Thanks for the Firefly recommendation; got the DVD from Amazon and watched the first two DVDs this weekend. Better than I expected it to be (there's almost nothing on TV worth watching imo), and lo and behold the video format was anamorphic widescreen, so it fills my DLP screen. The gf likes it too, but apparently they're cursing in Mandarin and not Cantonese because she doesn't understand it. Looking forward to the movie.

Posted by: TallDave at July 11, 2005 08:10 AM

Great pix and story, Michael, but what's with the sandals and dark socks? Is that an Oregon thing?

Posted by: Gene at July 11, 2005 11:15 AM

I am so glad you made it down there. Isn't it amazing? I was there during Burning Man last year (coincidentally), but it was still peaceful and desolate north of Black Rock City.

I can't quite tell from Asher's travelogue which way you guys came in, but it sounds like it from the south up through Gerlach. Is that right?

We went in from the north through Susanville and Cedarville then down through Soldier Meadows (where we stayed at a guest ranch). You guys didn't make it up that far (about 50 miles north of Gerlach), did you?

I also hope you got a drink at Bruno's, though it was only by chance and to find a phone that we went in there. Bruno's an Italian immigrant who has operated a bar, restaurant, and motel in town for just about forever. He's in his 80's now I think and he still tends bar.

I've got a bunch of pics from down that way here and here. I think this one best captures the vast emptiness of the playa.

Posted by: Nathan at July 11, 2005 11:24 AM

Great write-up and cool pictures (both cool and 'cool'!) - that is cool as in temperature-wise, as compared to the Rub' al-Khali desrt in Saudi, an area bigger than the state of Texas, and unvisited until 1931 by any Westerner. It's called, with good reason, the Empty Quarter, and is a part of the Arabian Peninsula on which it almost never rains, where midsummer temperatures have been officially recorded at 126° Fahrenheit, and across which, in the spring, sand-carrying shamals out of the north are known to blow for 40 days without stopping. Black Rock looks cool and 'huggy' by comparison! Still, your pics and words make me want to visit!

Posted by: Kyle at July 11, 2005 01:11 PM

Cool pics. I wonder how close you were to Fly Geyser. According to the "trip report" of that site (on 2nd page of pictures), they spent that same night in Black Rock.

Posted by: cardeblu at July 11, 2005 01:51 PM

Not Susanville, Alturas.

Anyway, here's the ranch house I stayed at there. It's got some hot springs just down the road, it's close to the Emigrant Trail, and the family that runs the place is great.

This site has some good info as well.

Posted by: Nathan at July 11, 2005 02:37 PM

I toyed with the idea of attending Burning Man more than once, but came to accept that if I did no amount of body paint or costume could make me look like anything other than the wholly out of place "others" that stand out in the photographs posted in galleries all over the web.

I'll stick with cannon parties in the Mojave. When the weekend winds down, we usually just burn the thrift store couch somebody brought out.

Not quite the same, true, but we have a good time.

Posted by: TmjUtah at July 11, 2005 07:37 PM

Great pictures. I strongly recommend that you continue to visit new places like these at least once a month to keep a check on your sanity. The world has its problems but it's still a wonderful place, regardless of what others will tell you. Ignore them and enjoy.

Posted by: markytom at July 11, 2005 08:20 PM

Native Americans steered clear of this place.

There is an interesting legend around Chicago to the effect that the same is true of the site of the Cabrini Green housing project. Not because it was inhospitable, but because of what we would more recently have called bad vibes.

Posted by: triticale at July 11, 2005 09:49 PM

I made a wrong turn in Susanville last year and ended up on the weirdest road trip of my life. Directions from the map the saloon gal made were to turn right at the railroad tracks then left at the tree and then go up the hill to the power pole and then down for a couple more hours. Passed all kinds of dead animals and shit.

Posted by: d-rod at July 11, 2005 10:24 PM

Great fotos -- when is your Travel e-book coming out? (To be popular and get you an advance on another book?) [Bruce Chatwin has still not been replaced.]

The void is a place to face your own thoughts and to ponder eternity in absolute silence.
Sounds like prayer; or meditation. Prolly why enviromentalist Deep Greens are more like true believing fundamentalists.

Not much green in a desert.
"The ocean is a desert with its life underground,
and the perfect disguise, above."

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at July 12, 2005 12:17 AM
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