The Phoenix One Journals Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America
Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Armed with a new transmission, we headed for Gerlach, Nevada. "The only thing in Gerlach is Bruno's," said everyone we talked to, and they weren't far from right. Bruno owns the motel, the bar, the restaurant, and the gas station. Knowing that we were headed into a zone without any of these amenities, we stopped at the gas station and topped up our tanks.
Just beyond Gerlach, a lone green street sign stands by the highway. It marks the beginning of Guru Drive, a local wonder we'd been forewarned to look for by Mark Helmlinger, who has done lots of exploring in the less traveled parts of Nevada. Guru Drive is the magnum opus of Duane "Dooby" Williams, the Guru of Gerlach. Hundreds
The Guru's Television... Hey! The Phoenix is on the air!
of stones carved with his wit, wisdom, political views, and philosophy line the half-mile stretch of dirt road. In addition, there are shrines to Elvis and Aphrodite, a wedding chapel, the "desert broadcasting system" hut, a teepee where you can leave your hangups, a weather station, and enough cairns and sculptures to keep you busy reading and marveling for days. If you'd like to take a virtual tour, and maybe even find a virtual paperweight for your virtual desktop, click here.
The Black Rock Playa at sunset
From Guru Drive, we continued north along the edge of the Black Rock playa, or dry lake bed. It's the largest such expanse in the United States, and, thanks to its size and rock-hard surface, it was the site where the land speed record was set in 1993. The lake is also the site of the Burning Man gathering, an event that drew 15,000 people this year over Labor Day weekend.
We skirted the edge of the playa, and when we came to the point where a road led straight out over the lake bed, we realized we'd have to take the high road. Water glistened on the surface, and deep muddy ruts bore witness to the struggle other vehicles had already faced.
The dirt road we were already on followed a contour line on the western slope of the lake, and before the sun went down, we stopped for the night on a bluff with a glorious view overlooking the playa.
The next morning, we continued up the side of the lake bed, hoping that we might find the north end dry enough to drive on. There's a hot spring out in the middle, and the only way to get to it is over the playa. Our foray was short. Even though the surface of the lake was dry and cracked, the sky was gray and cloudy. As much as I wanted to find the hot springs, Mark's common sense won out. He had no intention of getting marooned in the middle of America's largest mudhole.
We ensconced ourselves in mud anyway, as it turned out. As we continued north to Summit Lake, the road got wetter and wetter. The tires flung mud as high as the roof. By the time we'd made our way down Little Idaho Canyon to Knott Creek Ranch and emerged onto paved road near the Oregon border, the Phoenix was encased in three colors of adobe, and she was making an alarming noise every time we turned left.
Heading south on highway 140, we drove to Winnemucca and stopped in a truck stop. The driver in the big rig parked next to us helped Mark discover the source of the alarming noise. Somehow, we'd ripped one side of our bumper off. It would take a welder to fix it.
Wild burros near Knott Creek Ranch
We fell asleep to a symphony of diesel engines, and when we awoke, we drove a few blocks to a truck wash. The mud had hardened to the same concrete-like hardness as the lake bed, and after an hour and a roll of quarters, we'd removed about three-quarters of it, enough, we hoped, that a welder could find the bumper.
Mark had found a welding shop in the Winnemucca telephone book, and we arrived at the same moment as one of the welders, Rod Armstrong.
Master welder at work
He set to work on the bumper immediately, and finished just as John Glenn was ready to be fired into space. He and his friend Chip Kilpack joined Mark and me for a cup of coffee in the Phoenix. We all watched the space shuttle blast off from Cape Canaveral, and then we blasted off, too.
The weather was still threatening, and although dirt roads beckoned at every turn, we decided we'd stick to paved highways. We took Interstate 80 west toward Reno, stopping at Imlay after catching site of an unusual three-story structure that turned out to be Thunder Mountain, a remarkable work rendered in concrete, bottles, old car bodies, railroad ties, bits of machinery, tree branches, and whatever else its creator laid his hands on. Click here for pictures.
The Black Rock Desert is disarmingly beautiful, full of color and contrast and endless vistas. Before we re-entered civilization, we paused to watch a herd of wild burros feed in a golden meadow. Two enormous birds, black with white heads, soared over us as we descended from Summit Lake. Deer watched us from a hillside. The taller mountains in the Black Rock Range were covered with snow, and throughout the area, steaming geysers revealed the geothermic activity we'd come to explore. Best of all, the Black Rock Desert is a true wilderness. How do I know? You won't find a trace of a cellular telephone signal until you get to Winnemucca!
Virginia City, Nevada
November 1, 1998