Day 64 (5/21): Black Rock Desert; hot springs

We’re finally in Black Rock Desert!  This is one of the main milestones of the trip and the place I’ve been anticipating especially eagerly, with warm and familiar feeling after the three times I’ve been here for Burning Man.

The 65 miles between Pyramid Lake and here flew by quickly, but in great anticipation.  It’s a straight-line south-north stretch in the long and narrow valley that contains the dry Lake Winnemucca.  I’ve always thought that Winnemucca had similar origins to the Lahontan Lake playa in Black Rock Desert, but turns out that it dried up as recently as the 1930s — not thousands of years ago — after the Truckee River was dammed near Fernley.

Masha drove her car ahead to Gerlach and I cycled alone on the pristine and empty desert road.  At one point I saw a herd of cows and did my usual silly shouting routine.  I abruptly stopped it, though, when passing close to a bull with sharp horns I realized that he was outside the fenced range.  I almost became a matador on a bicycle and my heart pounded with adrenaline for a minute there.

The dark, overcast skies were threateningly close to unleashing a storm, but the storm never materialized.

Anyway, we’ll spend two days here.  We buy groceries in Empire, drink a couple of beers in Gerlach, I store my bicycle in the back room at Bruno’s bar, and we drive east along the south edge of the playa to Frog Pond hot springs.  Our 12 mile drive is deliberate and slow, to avoid puncturing the car’s tires on the sharp gravel.

It’s interesting how the two villages, Empire and Gerlach, survive in this remote corner of Nevada in such close proximity to each other (6 miles apart).  They partition all commerce and thus complement each other instead of competing.  Gerlach has the gas station, motel, restaurant, club, and train station.  Empire — the grocery store and cement factory.  Also of note:  Bruno owns pretty much every business in Gerlach.

It’s an afternoon of surprises.  I’ve heard about the area hot springs but always thought they were a secret well-kept by the locals.  However, as soon as I ask about hot springs, the workers at the Empire store eagerly give me and Masha reviews, detailed directions, and advice on the safest way to drive there without getting stranded on the dirt roads.  We get to the hot springs and there’s another surprise.  The place is perfect — everything is clean, someone has stacked plenty of firewood, there’s an artfully designed burn barrel, the water is warm and inviting, the views amazing.  And yet, it’s completely wild, that is, there are no signs, gates, rangers — or tourists for that mater!  Masha and I are in paradise alone!

Windy evening.  It’s getting chilly.  Heavy mist moves in low over the playa and we can’t tell whether it’s snow, rain, or fog.  We open some beers and whisky, make a roaring fire, and dive naked into the delicious thermal pool.  Pretty soon it gets dark and the rain begins.  Heaven!

Tiny fish float around us and peck on our skin.  It’s a little yucky at first, but once you let go, the sensation can even be pleasant.  A scab on my elbow attracts them.  We look closer and realize that like a school of miniature piranhas they tear little pieces of the scab and actually swallow them.  Masha is grossed out but I’m not.

It looks like we’re going to spend the night alone, but we spot a widening circle of light on the nearby cottonwood from an approaching car’s headlights.  Masha gets scared (her usual fear of strangers in the desert), but I hold her tight and tell her that it’s probably some tourists like us.  Only our heads are above water; we shush and wait.  A guy pulls in, opens the trunk, pulls out firewood and puts some into our fire.  He doesn’t seem to notice our car and the fact that we have a fire going — that’s how matter-of-factly he’s moving about the site. He doesn’t see us in the darkness.

“Hey, what’s your name?” I shout out.

“Hm… Rick.”

“Are you shy around naked women?”

“Hm… No.”

“Then get undressed and get in.”

“Hm… Okay.”

Now there’s three of us; we share our hot spring, food, and alcohol with Rick and spend a pleasant night together by the fire.  Rick has not been to Burning Man, but knows a lot about these parts and the playa and gives us useful intel for tomorrow — we’ll attempt to get over the rail track and find a way onto the southern portion of the playa in our car.

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