The BLM’s Black Rock Station is located a half-mile outside of Gerlach, on a triangular piece of land demarcated by Highway 447 to the south, County Road 34 to the east, and Transfer Road to the west. Transfer Road is named for a transfer station that sits directly across the street from the BLM station. It is essentially a dump, where garbage is deposited by locals and eventually trucked away to someplace else. The two stations are neighbors; one provides information pertaining to the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon-Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, the other provides a receptacle for waste. There is a group of ravens that breakfast at the transfer station. Sometimes I spot a lone human employee sorting through trash there, too, but she doesn’t appear to be eating anything.
Approximately 425,000 people live in Washoe County, Nevada, a 6,551-square-mile strip along the state’s western edge. Some 200 of those people can be found in Gerlach. An additional three can be found at the Black Rock Station, from now until at least October: myself, my boss Zach, and my coworker Ryan. Throughout the summer, a rotation of firefighting crews from the Winnemucca Fire District stay at the station for week-long intervals, each a three- to four-man outfit with a lime-green fire engine. And for special events—such as the recent “Fourth of Juplaya” celebration and Burning Man in August—law enforcement officers from the Department of the Interior also base their operations out of the station. It can go from a quiet, somewhat lonely outpost in the desert to one full of dirty, sweaty, cursing, belching, gun-toting men in no time at all.
The Black Rock Station is only two years old. A fenced compound of two brownish buildings, a massive garage (for several vehicles, including the fire engine), a solar-panelized carport, and a suite of camper-trailers lined up on a gravel lot, the station’s outward appearance suggests strict, vaguely militaristic utility. (“That’s the visitor center?” said one Gerlach resident, after I had given my place of employment, “I thought that was a prison.” To be fair, I have occasionally seen supervised crews of convicts clad in striped jumpsuits working near the transfer station.) The dormitory-style housing is even called “the barracks.” All of the furnishings appear brand new, or just slightly, sparingly used. There is an administrative wing with perpetually vacant meeting rooms, a visitor center with few visitors, a couple of neglected propane grills, and two pristine picnic tables out back, bordering a long-dormant fire pit full of cigarette butts. In the ultra-modern kitchen, the seven-thousand-dollar ice machine churns out Cordilleran sheets of cubes, calving them into a massive bin with shattering clangor. The buildings are a thermostatic 72 degrees within; walking out into the 90-degree heat can feel like opening an oven door.
When the firefighters aren’t fighting fires, they’re watching movies on the 42-inch flatscreen. When the law enforcement officers aren’t enforcing the law, they’re doing the same. This is only a mild exaggeration. Sometimes these guys are making food—the fire crew from Lovelock, for instance, made family-style dinners each night they stayed in the barracks—or sometimes they’re eating food, but in both cases the TV is invariably on, blaring. “How about ‘Casino Royale’?” asks firefighter Shane to his crewmates one night, as they ready a bacon-wrapped sausage meatloaf for the oven. Everybody says they’ve seen it. “I mean, just for background noise, you know.” Shane is blonde, curly-haired, cherub-faced, a six-year veteran of Winnemucca Fire and a five-year Burning Man devotee, or “burner.” When I ask Shane about his Burning Man experiences, his crew boss, Kory, chides with mock seriousness, “Uh oh, guys, we’ve got a burner in our midst.” Shane just smiles into his meatloaf, shaking his head. It’s apparently too much to explain, at least in the present company.
No alcohol is allowed on the premises. It is, for all intents and purposes, a teetotal establishment, a dry frat, a bastion of temperance in an otherwise sin-filled state. Thus, pilgrimages to Bruno’s—Gerlach’s preeminent watering hole— occur with enough regularity as to not raise eyebrows among the station’s inhabitants.
John, a law enforcement officer stationed here for the holiday weekend, is a man of morning ritual. Each day his rises at seven or so and walks from his trailer to the barracks, where he starts the coffeemaker and puts on a movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s one he’s previously seen; on the contrary, “some of these I watch dozens of times,” he says. Silver hair cropped close, clad in shorts, flip flops and wire-rim glasses, John takes his off-duty time seriously, putting his feet up while drinking cup after cup of coffee, eyes glued to the screen. He’s taken to calling me “Howard,” as in Howard Stern, after the radio personality I supposedly bear some resemblance to. He’s fond of referring to the Black Rock area’s varied riffraff as “knuckleheads”: knuckleheads who drive onto the wet playa and mire themselves, knuckleheads who camp too close to the many hot springs, knuckleheads that smoke crystal methamphetamine and absentmindedly leave their pipes out in plain sight. John apprises me of a recurring problem near the increasingly crowded hot springs, one perpetrated by men of the wizened, sun-baked sort. Called “low-balling,” it involves a man wearing a t-shirt and hat while soaking in the springs. When said man is asked to remove himself from the water—say, because he left his meth pipe on a nearby rock—it becomes immediately apparent that he was enjoying his soak sans pants, sans any underwear whatsoever. Why go only bottomless? I ask. “You see, they wear shirts and hats so they don’t get sunburnt, soaking all day like that,” John says. His face takes on a grim expression. “There should really be a sign at those springs, a diagram of a nutsack with a line through it—‘No low-balling.’”
Not everyone’s as enthralled with the idiot box, though. Take James, the firefighter from Fort McDermitt who would devour sci-fi thrillers and murder mysteries like a yearning hausfrau burning through Fifty Shades of Grey. Or Peter, from the same crew, a three-tour Iraq veteran who joined Ryan and I at the bar one night and regaled us with conspiracy theories. “I went to school and got a degree in philosophy, but I think of my education as just a tool in my toolbox, to help me figure out stuff on my own,” he told us that night. “There’s so much out there that they don’t want you to know.” Tall, goateed and gangly, slightly stooped in posture, he chain-smoked cigarettes and touted vegetarianism for its “pH-balancing” qualities. When his crew took leave for McDermitt, Peter gave me his leftover veggies: portabella mushrooms, bell peppers, half an onion, an avocado, and an acorn squash.
It is sad to see them go; one week is scarcely enough time to become even comfortable with strangers, let alone convivial. Walking into the barracks one night, not long after the Lovelock crew had returned from fighting fire near the California border, I stopped and sniffed the air. “Whoa, is something burning? I smell smoke.” Kory and crew, too tired to even change out of their clothes, couldn’t even muster a chuckle at my naivete. Says Kory, ash-streaked and weary-eyed, “I think that’s us.”
In a few days a DirectTV dish is scheduled to be installed at the barracks—orders from the bigwigs in Reno. Let the boob tubing begin.