To cross the playa is to traverse eons, each step grounded in geologic time. During the Pleistocene, around 12,700 years ago, a massive lake covered almost all of the Black Rock Desert to depths of 500 feet or more, spanning nearly 8,500 square miles from basin to flooded basin. Lake Lahontan swelled in that cooler, wetter climate, waxing as the continent-wide glaciers waned. Mammoths and giant camels drank of its crystalline waters, and conifer forests ringed its shores. Lahontan was one of the largest lakes in North America at the time, a brimful, alkaline bath lapping at the region’s numerous mountain ranges, leaving a series of distinct high-water marks on the barren cliffsides as, slowly but surely over several thousand years, it receded.
As the climate warmed, basin-bound Lahontan shrank, evaporating away until only its deepest pools remained. Pyramid and Walker Lake are the liquid vestiges of this Pleistocene behemoth, but Lahontan’s signal watermark on the land is the vast, arid emptiness it left behind. The Black Rock playa, superimposing the lakebed for some 110,000 acres, is the geologic equivalent of a landfill; it is the concrete apron poured over Lahontan’s tomb.
Eroded sediment from the surrounding ranges filled Lahontan’s basins, borne on wind or river current or washed down by intermittent and sometimes torrential rain. Because the basins have no outlet to larger bodies of water, all the precipitation either seeps into the ground or, as is more often the case, dries up in the desert heat. Salts and other minerals, abandoned by evaporation, accumulate to toxic levels, inhibiting the growth of all but the most halophytic organisms. Even many salt-tolerant plant species find the playa uninhabitable, due to the prevalence of selenium and other poisonous heavy metals sluiced from the hills.
Over millennia, as rocks, gravel, and sand tumbled down to the lakebed, larger clasts settled out first around the perimeter, while smaller particles—like clay and dirt, for instance—washed out onto the gradually leveling interior. Today the playa is composed almost entirely of this clayey, alkaline silt—at 35 miles long and 12 miles wide, it is a sea of gray-white silt, almost devoid of life, flat as a crepe. Heat mirages distort its surface; shimmering antipodes of mountain and sky bamboozle the squinting observer. When the playa is dry, it is hardpan, unyielding, broken into billions of perfectly tessellated polygons. When wet, it is a treacherous, oil-slick morass, and that’s when people get stranded.
Every year, on the “Fourth of Juplaya,” people from Gerlach and the surrounding settlements gather on the playa to drink copiously, ride UTVs, watch and ignite fireworks, shoot at propane tanks with rifles, and generally have fun, northwestern Nevada style. Here in town, revelers had been showing up—in trucks, vans, RVs, campers—since Monday or Tuesday, driving their vehicles north and out onto the lakebed, carving plyways across its vastitude and setting up camps in preparation for the show. Despite the enthusiastic turnout, Mother Nature seemed determined to dampen spirits. In a classic one-upmanship sort of ploy, she preempted Gerlach’s event with a pyrotechnic display of her own, hurling lightning bolts and setting small fires across the state early in the week. Thunderstorms had rolled in Tuesday and Wednesday night, dumping an unseasonal amount of rain on Washoe and Pershing counties: almost an inch and a half over two days, in a region known to receive around seven inches a year. There were areas of standing water on the lakebed Thursday morning—the ghost of Lahontan arisen. In short, no one had any business plying the playa on the Fourth, but ply they did.
Since I am new to the area and eager to immerse myself in local culture, I accepted an invitation by Friends of Black Rock to attend a “Fourth of Juplaya” barbeque about 16 miles outside town. The day was warm, clear, breezy, in no way indicative of impending deluge. More storms were forecast in the evening, but to look at the cloudless horizon, their arrival seemed implausible at best. At 5:30 I got on my bicycle and headed north on County Road 34, toward the 12-mile playa access point. By then the sky to the south and west had turned ominously dark; the northerly wind had picked up. It began to rain eight miles out—big, pelting drops—and I started doubting my resolve. At 12-Mile the sky opened up, unleashing a desert monsoon over the playa, and I just stood astride my bike and stared up at the clouds, wincing. There was no way I could ride through that mire. I considered hitchhiking on a truck.
Within a few minutes one such truck pulled up. A tall bearded guy jumped out to lock his hubcaps for four-wheeled drive. He glanced over at me, and before I could state my case he asked, “You want a beer?” He made a tippling gesture with his right hand, sort of like a “hang-loose” sign but with the thumb pointing toward the mouth. “Um, sure…thanks!” He reached into a cooler and handed me a Tecate. I started explaining where I was headed, but he cut me off, saying, “Oh no, we’re not going to their thing. We’re going way off that way.” He pointed northeast, which was precisely where I wanted to be. I got the sense that this was a consolation beer, in exchange for their reluctance to give me a ride. “But you can go up to Soldier Meadows Road, just over that hill, and drop down onto the playa pretty much right next to where they’ll be at. The turnoff’s just another mile down the road.” I thanked him again for the beer and directions. “There’s supposed to be a fireworks show tonight, but who knows,” he said, and then he drove off onto the playa, swerving in the mud.
I took the gravelly, sandy Soldier Meadows Road for a bumpy four miles, riding through freshets the color of mocha as thunder boomed overhead. Returning later along this route seemed unlikely, if not impossible. I reached the playa to find it awash with runoff, utterly impassable to anything but skimboards. Rain continued to come down in sheets, gushing from the hills. It would be dark in an hour. I took off my cleats, pounded my Tecate, and turned around. Through a combination of walking barefoot through the muckiest parts and riding crazily along newly formed streamsides, I made it most of the way back to the 34 junction, where by sheer dumb luck I ran into Lacey, a local bartender, and her husband Travis, returning from scoping out firework-viewing spots. “What, you just ride your bike down dirt roads in thunderstorms?” Lacey asked, once she recognized me under the caked-on mud. “That’s pretty weird.” She helped me load my bike into the back of his truck. “Give this guy a beer, Lacey, he needs one,” Travis said, and I was summarily handed my second consolation beer of the night, a PBR. Driving back into Gerlach, we passed at least a dozen cars stranded on the playa. The odd firework burst in the low-clouded darkness, answered by a flash of lightning and a rumble of thunder. “Happy Fourth of fucking Juplaya,” Travis said, laughing, and drained his beer.