On the northeastern edge of the Black Rock playa, twenty-odd miles outside of Gerlach, five men stand listlessly around a brand-new work truck. It is a GMC 2500 HD, white, extended cab; there are less than a thousand miles on the odometer. It has been parked in the middle of a dry wash for almost a month, sunk to its axles in playa mud. Rain has fallen sporadically in that interval, filling with sediment all the ruts of the previous rescue attempts. The presence of these five men marks the third such attempt. It is stuck but good. “Well, I’d say we moved it about eight feet across the wash today,” says one of the dirt-caked men, a resigned attempt at humor. “And two feet down, into the mud,” says another. “Don’t sell yourself short now.”
Although it has been weeks since rain last fell—weeks of triple-digit heat and howling anabatic wind—the truck remains mired in mud and wet clay. Underneath a seemingly sere layer of playa lies damp earth, oil slick and anaerobically dark. There must a spring nearby, someone says, stating the obvious. The crust on the banks of the wash is dry, crumbly sand; something is flowing beneath the channel. It is an underground seepage, four to sixteen inches down and invisible from afar, spreading out for hundreds of yards. It may go for miles, no one knows. To an 8,000-pound truck, it is a football field of flypaper, an enormous, insidiously dust-frosted glue trap.
They have spent the better part of a day attempting to free the vehicle. They use jacks, shovels, plywood for traction, even an ATV with a bungee cord. Progress—if it can be called that—is measured in inches, in playa-churned feet. “We have to build a road of plywood for it to get onto that dry bank,” one man avers, one of two leader-types present. The other three are peons, diggers, gofers, greenhorns. They assemble this “road of plywood,” placing pieces under the jacked-up tires in parallel tracks. The plywood sinks into the wash, splintering under the truck’s weight. This plan, in three repeated steps, brings the truck to the edge of the bank. It wedges there, stubborn, mulish. There is some verbal head-scratching. “Now we have to reverse at an angle, to get out of the mud we’ve already tore up,” avers the other leader-type, as if this were the natural complement to the first plan. The mashed-up wood is salvaged, repositioned. The ATV is attached, via bungee, to the truck’s rear bumper, ostensibly to add a thousand more pounds of yank. “Ready…set…go!” The ATV whines, the truck roars, mud flies up but everything else remains in place. “Shit, I really thought we would’ve had it there,” says one leader-type to the other, shaking his head. The other shakes his head too, but is silent.
The sky is overcast, threatening rain. “I see a squall line over there,” someone says. Then, from one of the leader-types: “If I feel so much as a single drop of rain, we are packing up and running back to the trucks. I do not want any more trucks stuck out here.” After one more abortive attempt, the rain is a moot point. The truck, slightly displaced, is still stuck, and the mud and clay surrounding it moiled beyond hope. The other two trucks are a mile or so away. Two men hop on the ATV, the other three walk. Following the channel’s sinuous path toward the trucks, someone remarks, At least it was cloudy today—think of how miserable it would’ve been in direct sun. It would’ve been horrible, replies another, and there is a general, nodding concurrence.
Driving back to Gerlach along one of the plyways, the greenhorn behind the wheel comments on the flatness of the playa, the sheer improbable hugeness of it. It is his first experience plying the expanse. “I can’t believe you can drive pretty much anywhere on this thing. As fast as you want. It’s pretty sweet.” Sitting in the passenger seat is another greenhorn, the one whose work truck remains axle-deep in playa mud. “I’m kind of sick of it, actually,” he says glumly, staring out the window. A thundercell looms large to the south. “I just want my damn truck back.”