I: Procuring the Ticket
35 miles south of Nixon, Nevada
I hadn’t reached the town of Nixon when I saw my first flash of The Fear. What was I doing out here with a car full of camping gear and 16 days worth of drugs, food, and water on the road to the fourth largest and most ephemeral city in Nevada? The only directive I had was “Go to Black Rock City,” and the open road of Nevada State Route 447 gave me plenty of time to ponder my pilgrimage. What would it mean? What would I gain? What would I lose? I entered this affair armed with one piece of wisdom: No Expectations. This should be listed as one of the Ten Principles that guides the whole ordeal, but speaking as a rookie, what did I know?
I took stock of my situation: I had been living out of my car—a 2001 ice white Camry affectionately named Great White—for the last six months after explosively abandoning my relationship and cozy living space in West Seattle. In the meantime, while I sorted through my emotional fallout, I worked as a consulting cartographer from anywhere—in cafés and libraries—sending maps and figures to mining companies so they could more precisely exploit the Earth and wriggle free of their obligations to be good stewards of the environment. I’ve been on this “freelance cartographer” kick for the last five years and I’m beginning to feel the long slow drain on the soul as I spend quality daylight hours hunched over a black laptop, fingers and back curled into the data processing position, my body screaming at me to stop working each day, and when I don’t, I’m rewarded with tight tension and pain in the lower back and upper shoulders.
While it is generally a good gig, I had been getting sick of the culture of the mining industry. It runs in bust/boom cycles and I had the finances to match it. In my worst drought, I possessed less than nothing: $20,000 dollars in bad credit card debt with -$20 in checking. There were a few weeks in Seattle where I was physically incapable of putting even a quarter into a homeless man’s alms cup.
Surviving that, I turned a corner when I landed a whale of a mapping contract. I was contacted to bail out a project that had already suffered a somewhat comical series of personnel and budget issues. I was back in the money and buckled down to claw my finances to even.
However, lately, work was slow. Small, one shot projects with half-rate junior exploration companies wheeling and dealing their barren resource rights back and forth, endlessly accumulating and subsequently losing their data. The work was Sisyphean in nature—if Sisyphus had to pull a rock up a hill every day while inputting data into Excel—and it called into question why I do this kind of work in the first place.
All this while I was caught in the loop of forking over huge chunks of this monthly income to a greedy landlord. As such, I could not accrue the assets to build the American Dream—specifically, the purchase of a home: that 2,800 square-foot plywood box with a white picket fence on a .08 acre lot. Health insurance was an unaffordable luxury compared to the $13 I automatically sent to Netflix every month for entertainment over which I would sweat bullets and feel extreme guilt. With more money came more problems: I owed the IRS $13,000—payable in one lump sum no later than midnight April 15th—and after shaking off that bad debt to credit card companies, I had accrued a hilariously infantile amount of money in my “retirement plan” that my parents and grandparents endlessly push and peddle as a “good idea.” Currently, I would describe my retirement plan as “work until the day I die.”
Still, I was struggling to choose the lifestyle I want to lead. It’s a strange boundary to be skirting—a choice between the drifter’s life of Alexander Supertramp and going Into The Wild, or digging into the reserve of willpower and adopting the mentality of a young Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross and Always Be Closing. Which would it be?
For now I was happily half-assing transience and work and I had the freedom to disappear from the grid and into obscurity for a two-week long vacation in the Nevada desert. I called it a “retreat” to my co-workers and clients as I was looking to Black Rock City to get away from my known world. I wanted to remove myself from the burden and tangle of a company I crudely ran in a sole proprietorship, straighten some ethical guidelines that had gotten kinked during my high-time in Seattle, and take some time to recalibrate my moral compass. In essence, I was here in Nevada to get my shit together and reboot. And yet… here I was, less than one hundred miles away from this soon-to-be city in the desert, wondering if the whole thing was a huge mistake, feeling the creep of panic flood into elbows and numb my arms.
I heard reports of an overzealous police force busting pilgrims on the road to Black Rock City for reasons ranging from nonsense to utter bullshit. Charges such as one-mile over the speed limit, one-mile under the speed limit, bike rack obscuring license plate, bike rack obscuring rear view, unsecured loads, too many stickers on rear window, offensive stickers on rear window, underinflated tires, hands deviating from 10 and 2 (or 3 and 9). All these tenuous charges were accompanied by an attempt to get the spooked drivers to relent to 45 to 60 minute long vehicle searches. Law enforcement drove trucks branded with the Bureau of Indian Affairs logo, but the officers looked like rookies fresh from the FBI academy in Quantico, travelling in units of four plus one drug-sniffing canine. I was on my guard and highly paranoid as I crossed through the first speed trap as the 70mph sprint quickly slows into a 25 zone. I had a buffer of a quarter mile between me and the next vehicle in either direction. Once I hit the first posted 25 mile-per-hour marker, immediately a large white truck swooped in behind me.
Festooned with floodlights and bristling with radio antenna, the government rig closed distance and the cop tailgated me to within about 18 inches. I could feel the cop breathing down my neck. I didn’t flinch. I knew I was marked, and el federale was sizing me up. My car’s engine revved into the middle of its torque band as I downshifted again to try to slow from freeway to school-zone speeds over a one-thousand foot stretch. My speedometer reported 29 miles-per-hour and I rode hard on the brakes to scrub off more speed. This was going to be close. I didn’t want the fed to hassle me and give me a ticket for my obvious infraction of less than five miles-per-hour over the posted speed limit, and I especially didn’t want the search team pouring over my car. I had stashed my narcotics in one of Great White’s smuggling compartments, but a creeping fear crawled into my headspace in which I would be forced by a cop, frothing at the mouth, to consent to a search while the drug dog picks up on the scent of the copious amount of ganja hidden in the wheelwell.
One white-knuckle mile later, the pig turned down a side road and whipped a tight U, ready to cruise south and try to pick off a different mark. I let loose a sigh of relief when I saw the fed wheel off and I felt like a smuggler running a blockade. No jail time for me today, but I knew it was only a matter of time before the cop would flash the lights and accost a different traveller.
My total drive time from Reno to the playa was only two hours, but the lonely ride with no air conditioning across empty lake basins and over barren mountain ranges—all while actively evading the ever present law enforcement—made the ordeal feel like a full day’s journey. A few more turns on Highway 447 through the tiny village of Gerlach and at long last I arrive at the long, dusty serpentine Gate Road—the only access between the real world and the playa city—and this 3-mile long, multi-lane road to Black Rock City was nearly empty save for a dozen cars and U-Haul trucks—the first wave of many waves that will venture into the city over the next week. The speed was posted at 10 miles per hour—an effort to keep the dust down—but few on the Gate Road obey it. Everyone here knew they had survived their taxing journeys and were far too excited to keep their feet off the gas pedal. Besides, the vast, empty sodic flat looked so open, like an airfield and racetrack rolled flat into a crusty white mirror, and I could sense that the aging man in his cherry red Prius, aggressively speeding ahead of me, wanted to wind up that 99 horsepower electric engine and rip across the open playa and set his land speed record.
I merged out of Gate traffic to the will call parking lot. Paperwork in hand, I approached the Box Office—an air conditioned shipping container with a shaded area to queue underneath—to get my ticket. The container faced west-southwest and had a wooden shade structure built with cleanly roped off queue. The people in line were all friendly, chatting and mingling, and many of them sharing their near-miss stories with law enforcement. By my estimate, they were pulling over every 5th to 8th vehicle and insisting on searches of every passenger and every hidden crevice. These are your federal tax dollars at work: setting up dozens of cops like highwaymen bandits in the speed trap of a tiny Reservation town on a poorly maintained state route, harassing 20-12% of the weary travellers heading into the city.
The people standing in this line came out here early to build. They were on teams tasked to create something, be it city infrastructure or art or both. This was not their first burn. They were experienced and exceedingly calm, as if they were in line for a roller coaster they’d been riding all afternoon. There was only one ticket window open and the short line moved at a slow but steady pace as the these intrepid people were processed and given their credentials. When my turn came, I stepped under the humming green glow of the cannibalized traffic light illuminating Window 1.
Through it, I was greeted by a lithe, dark-haired girl. She wore big square glasses, a black tank-top, a necklace with toy block letters that spelled CON*QUESO. She made a big smile as I shoved my pile of confirmation papers and government issued ID through the slot. For whatever reason, I was nervous. Was this enough? Was I in the right line? Would they let me in? Her expression quickly turned sour as she processed my paperwork. Her tablet reported some grim news—my credentials were not supposed to allow me in until Monday, a full 48 hours away. I felt gut shot. This is it, I thought, this is how the adventure ends before it begins. Improper paperwork at the city gates would send me back to Gerlach and into a spiral of self-pity that would likely culminate in heavy drug abuse and reckless choices. I sagged from the window and accepted my fate.
“Let me see what I can do,” she said calmly. She pulled a radio from the charger and squawked into it with CB speak, complete with callsigns and trucker jargon. I moved away from the spot in front of the window where perfumed, 66℉ conditioned air flooded into the 98℉ dust of the un-humid high desert. I glanced back at the waiting line. I had been standing with others in the line for thirty minutes, but my turn at the single open Box Office window had taken at least that long. The mirthful conversation from earlier had turned into a more somber, contemplative “why in the fuck is this guy taking so long?”
I stepped aside and tried to make myself small and unnoticeable. A few more folks walked to the window and within moments walked away with ticket and vehicle pass in hand. These early arrivals were also getting adorned with an official credential wristband, wearing it as proudly as an Olympian with a gold medallion. I could hear more commotion from my perch outside the Box Office and the loud crackle of a CB radio. I heard a voice in box office reply: “Yep, I see it right here. Yep. Yep. 10-4. Thanks, Joy. Con Queso out.”
Her soft hand beckoned me back to the window. She wore a big, sheepish smile as she admitted her mistake: My pre-approved ticket was hidden in the drawer the whole time. We shared a few sentences worth of mildly flirtatious banter before she handed it over and was profusely nice about it, apologizing for the delay. I appreciated her effort, and thought fondly that there was someone on the inside of the city that was looking out for me. I had my ticket and work visa, and while BRC may be an all inclusive community, the immigration laws at the border are draconian. I thanked the diligence and friendliness of the girl at the box office window and I was free to enter the city.