of weeks ago I took the turn into winter and enjoyed a snowshoe trek on
Slide Mountain. But last weekend it was time to turn the other direction,
up into the Black Rock Desert to explore the springtime temperatures and
other thermal features of the Empty Quarter.
Judy, who transplanted herself here from Illinois by way of Connecticut,
has been a Nevadan long enough to evolve into a four wheel driver. Thus
we were able to approach the desert country with the freedom to explore.
It is liberating for someone like myself, used to the constraints of pavement,
to ignore the niceties of a proper U-turn and simply loop around into
the sagebrush to reverse direction.
After driving east on I-80 for 30 miles, we turned north onto highway
447 which cuts through the Pyramid Lake Paiute reservation. Signs warn
that any stopping while on the route requires the purchase of a day-use
permit from the tribal store. Slowing down to view the scenery, apparently,
is OK. Leaving the reservation we begin 80 miles of horizon to horizon
straight road. Here, if the steering wheel were only wired to the cruise
control, it would be possible to take a nap for an hour or so.
Most of the valleys of the Empty Quarter sit on what was once the floor
of a vast shallow inland sea, Lake Lahontan. On its long-ago tropical
shores a Jurassic Park flourished. Now the baked flat expanse of the lakebed
playa shimmers in the distance, heat waves in the desert air giving a
persuasive illusion of cool blue streaks of water. I told Judy that the
water seemed too real for a mirage. She assured me that my eyes were deceiving
me. But driving closer it became clear that we were experiencing the rare
mind-altering phenomenon of the “double mirage.” The winter
rains has actually filled pools of water in the sands of the playa. The
“double mirage” event was soon to be followed by an equally
astonishing “double Indian” encounter, but that’s another
story, to be told on the next page.