It was flat, and bone-dry. I rode across the endless, featureless plain, Drifter leaving a long, straight gash in the surface of the cracked sand. I was doing about sixty, but it could've been any speed; didn't seem to matter. There were mountains far behind and mountains far ahead, but all around me was wind-scorched sand. There were small rough patches, and once a salt crust, but otherwise there was nothing.
The sun was falling behind the Calico Mountains to the west when I killed the motorcycle's engine and dismounted, pulled off my helmet. A steady wind whistled across the Black Rock Playa, a thousand square miles of desert lakebed. The wind was warm, but cooling as twilight settled in. I laid out a tarp and a sleeping bag, drinking a beer as I watched the last light fade from the playa. One nice thing about a thousand square miles of nothing is that you don't have to think too hard about where you want to camp; one barren patch of sand is pretty much as good as another.
I stayed awake for a long while, watching the stars come out. Out here in the desert the night sky is endless, layers and layers of stars; the bright ones you can make out even through the haze of light in the city, and the dimmer ones that you can't, and out here there was more and more and more, even past those. I live and work in San Francisco, blanketed in lights and fog. There's a lot to love about the city, but you can't see the stars there.
The wind was sharper now, strong and cold, howling as it twisted through Drifter's metal frame. I lay silently in my sleeping bag. I felt very small, alone with the empty plain and the full black sky. The guy who'd told me about this place said you could find yourself out here. I thought about that, and my mind wandered across why I'd traveled west in the first place. I guess I'd come for the same reason restless, maybe a little bit reckless young men had been coming west for hundreds of years: seeking fortune and a challenge, probably in truth looking for adventure more than anything else. I think some of it was just simple pride; people always told me how stupid I was growing up, and I guess part of me figured there's no better way to prove those assholes wrong then to go to one of the best schools in the world in a difficult, technical subject most people've never even heard of.
When I really reflect on it, though, that isn't most of it. Mostly, I'd come because I really believed I could create something amazing if I did. It's a deep-down belief, kept down where I think quietly, genuinely spiritual people hold their faith tight, rolled up hard so you don't talk about it, and all the cynicism of the world can't touch it. I'm a cynic myself, about most things. I guess I'm sort of a professional skeptic; scientific training's like that. But I'd traveled west because I believed I could build a fountain of youth, that would make all other things possible. Because if you're determined enough, all you really need is time, right?
It was still bitter cold when dawn broke. I roused slowly, ate a couple pop tarts and drank some water as I packed away my tarp and bag, tying everything onto the cycle with a motley assortment of bungee cords. I put on my dirt-streaked boots and gloves, an extra shirt and a scarf, then strapped on my helmet and roared off towards the sun.
Thirty miles later, I pulled the cycle down into a lower gear and drifted across the sand. I was way the hell out in this thousand-mile wasteland. The clerk back in the tiny desert town of Empire had warned me that cell phones didn't work out on the playa; I'd done my research about this place before coming, and I knew that already. I'd also read about how common it was for people to get stuck in a patch of wet sand, or boiled alive in the hot springs dotting the playa, run out of gas or puncture their radiator or just plain get lost, out here on the endless empty flat. I told a few people that I was coming out here, and I got this sort of, "You nuts?" reaction from them. From those that know me well enough to know that I am a little nuts, instead I got a little bit of resigned, hope-you-don't-die-out-there worry. What people never seem to get, though, is that it's precisely the risk that makes this worthwhile, but you've got to distinguish between stupid risk and necessary risk. I'm careful as I can be with Drifter, maintaining as well as I can and checking fluid levels every time I mount up. I don't race on the freeways or try and pull stupid stunts in the dirt. I carry spare plugs, a patch kit, a tool set, a multimeter, quick-set epoxy, a tire gauge and foot pump, and all the rest that you're supposed to haul around with you. I get rid of the stupid risk as much as I can, but the necessary risk of riding a motorcycle alone into the blank remains. And I think a lot of the reason a journey like this can mean something is because of this risk. I've got everything at stake; there's no safety net. Here, it's just me and my motorcycle and the wasteland.
The sand gets deeper as I drift closer to the eastern edge of the playa, and the thumping growl of Drifter's big single cylinder shifts into a sharp whine as I open up the throttle in low gear. Traction's still good, but the sand dune is just too damn deep, and Drifter's too heavy and there's too much pressure in her tires for real dune riding. I'm switching between second and first gear, and then suddenly the cycle's stuck, and I'm halfway to toppling over. The rear wheel's lost traction, buried a good ten inches into the loose sand, and the front's looking shaky. Realizing there's a real chance of getting stranded out here in these dunes, I pull the transmission down into first and twist the throttle hard. Drifter drags herself through the sand trap by inches, the engine screaming, and then with a triumphant roar she's free, I'm free, and in second gear, then third, racing across the playa again, away from the dunes.
Across the old train tracks on the playa's east border, where the sandy barrens turn to arid scrubland, I park the cycle. The early morning air's lost some of its bite, but it's still chilly. There's a tall, lone hill to the side of the road, too steep and rocky for riding. By the time I've climbed to the top, I'm sweating through my scarf, and I stop at the summit to get my bearings, take a few pictures. Up here, the wasteland is beautiful, and you can see forever. There's a dirt track I can see, wandering out away from the playa, through the sagebrush and out to the horizon...
The track's hard-packed dirt and sand, with two ruts carved in it by four-wheelers, and I make great time at first. There's plenty of twists and bumps on the trail, but Drifter's got a solid grip on the hard-pack, and I hardly need to use my boots to guide her at all. I'm getting close to fifty miles out, now, and I start to think about heading back. I have a 50/50 rule for regular riding, when I know for sure where I'm going and where the roads lead, and a thirds rule for when I'm exploring like this: third of my gas going out, a third coming back, and a third for getting lost. It's worked well so far. Drifter's got more than a 150-mile range in ideal conditions, but sand riding drains gas quickly. The trail below me's going a bit soft, and I'm finding I've got to fight to keep the cycle level. The front wheel jerks alarmingly from side to side as the traction gets weaker in the looser sand, and I pull up through the sagebrush to keep from falling. There's a long green patch maybe five miles ahead that I'd really like to check out, so I keep pushing forward, but eventually I realize that the sand's just too loose and I'm making no progress, and in danger of laying the bike down. I turned around, and had barely started back, when I hit a particularly soft patch of the trail, and jerked my handlebars helplessly as I lost all traction. Drifter toppled over gracelessly, planting me on my side. I lay stunned in the sand for a moment, listening to the engine putter to a halt, then quit. I felt a hard pressure on my left ankle, wedged between the cycle's frame and the ground. After a couple false starts, I yanked my leg free of the bike, and wrestled her back upright. I caught my breath for a moment, took a long drink of water, then hit the ignition.
I grit my teeth, setting Drifter on her side stand. I stared down the empty dirt track, breathing hard, swallowing. The starter had lit up just fine, but the engine hadn't caught. I remembered this sort of bullshit all too well from my days of struggling with the old Nighthawk's electrical system. I gave the frame a cursory examination; no obvious damage. The sand was soft, after all: that's what had caused the problem in the first place. Cursing, I hit the ignition again, and experienced a flood of elation when she sputtered to life. I twisted the throttle, giddy with relief, and had only gone about five miles down the road when I hit another super-soft sand drift and promptly ate shit again. This time the cycle slammed down onto my right ankle, and I hastily scrambled to my feet before the engine could cut out again, pulled her upright, and roared down the dirt road, back towards the playa.
Forty-something miles later found me back on the paved county road. I rode slowly into Gerlach and parked outside the local diner/motel/saloon, Bruno's. I walked in, and felt everyone in the place staring at me. I guess I probably looked a little strange. My leather jacket, boots, and jeans were crusted with pale dirt and sand, and I was sticky with sweat and dried sweat, hair all matted and spiked from the helmet. Every wrinkle in my hands was filled with the pale sand or dark grease from my cycle's engine. My heavy riding boots clunked loudly as I tried not to stare back, and walked calmly to a seat at the bar. I held back a laugh when I saw it was only 10:30 in the morning; no wonder these people were looking at me so odd. I had orange juice and eggs.
Afterward, I talked to a couple of younger folks outside, a couple from Indiana who were helping get Black Rock City set up for the annual Burning Man festival held out on the playa. The guy shook his head at me when I told him I'd been camping and dirt biking out on the playa. "You should ride with someone else, man," he said. "This place, this weather's just crazy...you could really get in trouble out there in the desert by yourself."
"Lay off, Kevin," the woman, Nicole, told him, laughing. "I think this guy knows what he's doing."
Kevin shrugged. "Yeah, I'm a safety Nazi, I guess."
I grinned at him. "No worries. You're right; I ought to ride with a buddy. Thanks for looking out."
They invited me to a picnic the Burning Man people were holding by the water tower. I thanked them, and said if I was still in town at 5, I'd be glad to come. "I may have to head back to San Francisco before then, though," I added. "Bit of a ride."
"Yeah," Kevin agreed. I shook hands with them both, and we said a few more pleasantries, I think all aware that we weren't going to be seeing each other again.
After fueling up and draining out a bit of excess oil from the engine, I headed back out. This time I kept riding up the county road, out to where it heads off into the hills and Soldier Meadows Road branches off from it, stays right along the playa's edge. The road was dirt and gravel, but fast. I wasn't sure where I was going, exactly, but I figured I'd just keep following this road until I found something interesting or started getting worried about gas. As it turned out, I found something interesting right as I started getting worried about gas: there was a sign on the side of the road for Wagner Springs. I hadn't gotten any good pictures of a hot spring yet, so I figured I'd check this one out. A short while later, I heard the sound of a dog barking and pulled up to a barbed-wire fence. An old woman stood on the other side, giving me a look that was frank, but not hostile. I killed the motor to quiet the dog down, and dismounted.
"Hi," I greeted her, setting my helmet on the cycle's seat. I offered my hand. "I'm Jack."
She smiled back, shook my hand. She was old, but spry enough, with skin like old leather, and her eyes were bright. "I'm Josie."
Turns out she's a surveyor, and lives out here three months of the year. Her little trailer's in a patch of green supported by the several warm springs, and the artesian well, in the area. Most of the rest of this land's public BLM land, but she's on a patch of private property she rents from the Soldier Meadows Ranch. We sit in the shade and talk for a while. She's real sharp, though her hearing's a bit bad, and she whistles when she talks. She talks about the land and the ranchers, the hunters and the Burning Man people and the environmentalists, for whom she reserves a special brand of scorn. Apparently the BLM's closed off a lot of the land she used to love to travel on, turned it into a conservation area.
She sighs. "What good is that? I can't walk that far. They've shut out everyone but the young and healthy."
I hadn't thought about it that way. She goes on about the environmentalists, and thinks its insane that the gray wolf has been reintroduced to the West. "Hunters spent hundreds of years killing off the wolves, and they've gone and reimported them from Mexico," she grumbles, shaking her head. "Where's the sense in that?"
I've got no answer for her. I don't know much about it; I suppose it's got something to do with the health of the ecosystems, but I don't really know.
After a while, I fill up my water supplies with the clean artesian water she's got around back of her trailer, and I'm off again, back down to Soldier Meadows Road, then highway 34, then all the way back through the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco. I arrive around midnight, and stumble up the stairs to my apartment, exhausted. My roommate Kyle's still up.
"Figured you were dead," he comments.
"No," I say, too tired for wit. "No, I made it."