Traffic seemed sparse for Memorial Day weekend. At the self-serve Shell station, a pair of BMW motorcycles readied for an overnight stay on the playa. Bruno's Restaurant, a Gerlach landmark, had its breakfast crowd, mostly locals and a handful of conspicuous outsiders. The locals mused about the mild spring weather and eavesdropped on the California trio lamenting the Golden State's deficit and the permit process for launching amateur rockets across the Black Rock Desert...
By 8:30 in the morning, an hour and a half's drive from home, a hearty Bruno's breakfast made sense. With our order underway, we turned to the route map. Between bites and a friendly exchange with the locals, we studied coordinates and marked the trail ahead.
According to plan, the group's base camp rested high in the Granite Mountains. The sun well up now, breakfast would be sizzling on Coleman stoves and campfires. This annual Memorial Day Run began 25 years ago with a group of four-wheeling friends from Fernley, Nevada. In the late '90s, the Hills Angels 4x4 Club members (www.hillsangels4x4.com) got an invite and have made the run ever since.
Check paid, along with a tip for the attentive waitress, we headed out to the Cherokee. Washed and polished to resist brush scratches, the XJ stood out among the dust-blanketed trucks and SUVs in the parking lot. In minutes, we would be stirring up our own share of alkaline silt.
Just north and east of town, the playa unfolds, a thousand square miles of stark, primeval lakebed. Alongside the road, the BLM's visitor kiosk shares details about the vast Black Rock Desert. To the northwest, the Granite Mountains rise steadily as State Route 34 skirts the desert floor. Seasoned drivers leave the highway at the Playa access, leaving long plumes of dust in their wake. For the Black Rock, saving time means driving the barren lakebed and avoiding the elliptical, manmade routes. Once familiar with the unique traction and drift of the desert, one quickly realizes why Craig Breedlove and others have chased land speed records across the Black Rock Desert Playa.
Caution: Rain and mud, ruts and drifts, the Black Rock's floor is seldom perfect. Pay attention to weather and local conditions before striking out across the Playa. Avoid winter treks and wet or stormy conditions. Stranded on this desert in summer is as risky today as it was for the pioneers 160 years ago!
The Black Rock Desert
Challenges are common for the Black Rock Desert. Historians describe the High Rock Canyon emigrant trails that brought settlers to Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley and the fields of California's Gold Rush. Although Captain John Fremont and his scout, Kit Carson, visited High Rock Canyon in 1844, they were not the first people to use the pass. Native Americans, the Paiute most recently, had frequented a trail through High Rock Canyon for eons. By 1846, the Applegate brothers explored this route as a safer way to get settlers into western Oregon's fertile valleys. Today, within the Bureau of Land Management's National Conservation Area, High Rock Canyon is accessible to recreational four-wheelers, equestrians, and hikers interested in tracing the path of the pioneers who scaled the canyon in wagons and on foot.