Gate Road

The lonely ride across empty lake basins and over barren mountain ranges felt like a full day’s journey.

With the tiny village of Gerlach behind me, I arrived at the mouth of the serpentine Gate Road. This is only access between the real world and the playa city. Now, more than a week before The Event, this 3-mile long multi-lane road to Black Rock City was quiet and empty. I took the final turn and Great White’s wheels left the black tarmac and rolled onto the chalky lake bed. The posted speed was 10 miles per hour, so I kept Great White in second gear and let her creep. My path to the city was clear, coned off, and flagged with little red pennants rippling in the desert’s breeze. The vast sodic basin looked so open, like an airfield and racetrack rolled flat onto a crusty white mirror.

I can see why The City insisted on such slow speeds. Even at a snail’s pace, Great White kicked up a huge billow of brown dust and the southwest winds blasted it downwind. A swelling dust cloud overtook me, and a cherry-red Prius emerged from it to trundle ahead. I caught a glimpse of the aging man flaunting the rules. My guess was that he wanted to whip that 99 horsepower electric engine up and rip across the open playa and set his land speed record. I let him speed ahead as we approached The Gate. This was the toothy maw of Black Rock City and functioned as its security. I idled along in a short line of cars before a denim-clad, red-bearded Australian man directed me to head into Will Call before he would let me in.

I merged out of this Gate traffic to the will call parking lot. Already feeling the sweaty pins of anxiety, I gathered my documents and receipts and printed-out emails and climbed out of Great White. I walked along the cracked playa lake bed for the first time ever as I approached the Box Office. Wooden 6″x6″ posts sunk into the ground supported a heavy tarp shade and cleanly roped off queue. Paperwork in hand, I walked underneath the shaded area. The people in line were friendly, chatting and mingling, and many of them sharing their near-miss stories with law enforcement. From the scenes they described, it was as if there were dozens of cops set up like highwaymen bandits in the speed trap of a tiny Reservation town. By my estimate, they were pulling over every 5th to 8th vehicle and insisting on searches of every passenger and hidden crevice. Having survived their ordeals, the people standing in this line were here early and eager 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 calm, as if they were in line for a roller coaster they’d been riding all afternoon. The short line moved at a slow but steady pace as the these intrepid people were processed and given their credentials through the only open ticket window.

When my turn came, I stepped under the humming green glow of the cannibalized traffic light illuminating Window 1. Through it, a lithe, dark-haired girl greeted me. 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 me. 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 in 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 cooed. 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℉ air flooded into the desert dry. I glanced back at the waiting line. I had been standing with others in the line for thirty minutes, but my single turn at the one 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 wristbands, wearing them as proudly as Olympians. I could hear the loud crackle of a CB radio from my perch outside the Box Office window. A voice replied: “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 sheepish smile as she admitted her mistake: My pre-approved ticket was hidden in plain sight. We shared a few sentences of 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 in the city looking out for me. I had my ticket and work visa. 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 with that I was free to enter the city.