|Part 1 of this saga is here.
|Part 7 of this saga is here.
|Part 2 of this saga is here.
|Part 8 of this saga is here.
|Part 3 of this saga is here.
|Part 9 of this saga is here.
|Part 4 of this saga is here.
|Part 10 of this saga is here.
|Part 5 of this saga is here.
|Part 11 of this saga is here.
|Part 6 of this saga is here.
|Part 12 of this saga is here.
In ther North American continent is a state called Nevada. In that state is a desert. This desert has the rather ominous name of Black Rock Desert, and it’s noteworthy for two things: rich hippies who get together once a year to have sex, do drugs, and build implausible things; and for being one of the most inhospitable places North America has to offer. The latter fact may bear some relationship to the former, as it is, I gather, only sex and drugs that make the place bearable.
In the 1800s, people came to this place in search of riches. Most of them found only pain. Some of them found lead, and presumably also pain.
In my various attempts to research ghost towns online, I came across a reference to Leadville, an abandoned mining town high in the mountains in Black Rock Desert, not too far from Gerlach. Google Earth showed the place quite plainly, and it seemed interesting, so with considerable optimism we set off two chaosbunnies in a 1992 Ford van.
Black Rock Desert is, as it turns out, no place for two chaosbunnies in a 1992 Ford van.
I told Siri to navigate us to the ruins, having given up on Google Maps, which had plainly shown it knows fuckall about turn-of-the-century mining roads. We headed down a long, straight paved road into the desert, me driving, Bunny drinking tea.
“Turn here,” Siri said. There was a conspicuous lack of place to turn–nothing but straight road and fence. I turned around.
“Turn here,” Siri said. The road onto which we were supposed to turn continued in its stubborn failure to exist.
“Turn here,” Siri insisted.
“Maybe Siri doesn’t know where we are,” Bunny suggested.
I kept going. Eventually, after quite a lot of faffing, we discovered the road Siri expected us to turn on, about half a mile from where Siri thought it was.
I say “road.” Of course, I jest. The thing we ended up turning onto was less road than two narrow rutted tracks through desert wasteland. Still, we’d managed to take the Adventure Van into some unlikely places before, so off we went.
And went. And went. And went. The
road trail rutted track was narrow enough and rough enough that we were forced to move at about five miles an hour or else risk breaking an axle, and the remains of Leadville was some considerable distance into high desert. We drive along for an hour or two, and started heading up, the road trail rutted track hugging the edge of a mountain that rose abruptly from the desert floor.
We didn’t realize we were playing a game with the desert–a game the desert was determined to win.
We continued climbing, up and up, until we just…didn’t any more.
The van didn’t break down, precisely. The engine kept revving, but the van simply stopped moving. The tires didn’t spin, the van just…stopped. Even in low gear, the engine turned but the wheels didn’t.
I shut off the engine to keep from burning up the transmission, which would have left us well and truly buggered. The road kept getting steeper ahead of us, leaving the inescapable conclusion that we were not going to be visiting Leadville.
We both got out, Bunny looking perhaps a bit more grumpy than I.
From our vantage point, we could see the “road” we’d driven in on. I say “road” in scare quotes because, while it was much more a road than the one leading to Susanville, it still wasn’t what any reasonable person would describe as a proper road at all, though there certainly was quite a lot of it.
That left us with the not inconsiderable task of getting back down. You know that scene near the beginning of the movie Serenity, where the spaceship Serentiy is making reentry and part of the heat shield falls off, and Mal says “just get us on the ground” and Wash responds with “That part’ll happen pretty definitely”? It was a bit like that. I knew we could get the van off the mountain; I just hoped we could do it without arriving in disassociated condition.
My first thought was to put the van in reverse and back down the mountain. I knew turning around was a non-starter, what with the narrowness of the road and the steep cliff on the side and all, but, thought I, that’s why they invented reverse, right?
The desert had other ideas.
The ground was soft and the incline was steep and we were carrying luggage on a rack sticking out the back of the van, and these things all conspired to cause the back of the van to dig into the ground as soon as I tried backing it up.
So with forward, backward, and turning around all off the table as options, that left little choice save “pray for a miracle,” “learn to fly,” “unload all of our gear from the van, take the luggage rack off the back, and try again,” and “wait out here to die.”
Bunny and I aren’t particularly inclined toward miracles, we’d opted to take the van and leave the X-wing fighter at home, and Bunny seemed to have very strong feelings about not dying out in the middle of the desert, so with some resignation and a bit of grumbling, we started unloading the van. Half an hour later, we’d offloaded hundreds of pounds of stuff and carried it down the mountain a bit to where the road, such as it was, widened enough to, with a bit of maneuvering. we thought er could turn the van around, provided we didn’t have a morbid fear of death.
That just left backing the van down the road without tipping off the side and arriving at ground level in disassociated condition. I will save you the descriptions of the white-knuckle bits of that endeavor, as there are plenty of white-knuckle bits still to come in future installments of this story, and instead just say that by dint of much agony and a few close brushes with an untimely demise, we were able to get the Adventure Van back down off the mountain, loaded up once more with gear, and pointed in more or less the right direction, whereupon we left the desert the same way we came in: slowly, and with great concern over the possibility of a broken axle.
Back on the road again, we beat a retreat from the desert. As we left the boundaries of Black Rock Desert, I squinted off into the distance. “Is that water?” I said. Bunny made a skeptical noise. I stopped the van and got out to look. It looked a bit like water, maybe, but it seemed…I don’t know, dryer somehow.
It was, as it turns out, salt, not water. There is collectively not enough water in this picture to drown a gnat.
Final score: Black Rock Desert 1, chaosbunnies in an ancient Ford van 0.
We set off down the road, wallowing in the misery of our defeat and drinking tea. As the sun set, we made camp on the side of the road, still wallowing in the misery of our defeat. Bunny made pasta to go with our wallowing, and we resolved to make it to Bodie, the next (and last) ghost town on our itinerary, the following day.
The following morning, we were up
bright and early before noon, and headed off toward California. The day was clear, and the promise of success loomed in–
“Hey, what’s that?” I said.
“Looks like a billboard, maybe?” Bunny said.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “Is that–?”
I pulled over. It was.
For those of you born after the advent of the Internet and broadband, there was once a thing called a “drive in.” Imagine a movie theater–no, not like that, a theater with only one screen. Outside. With a big parking lot in front of it. You would drive your car there and sit in it while you watched the movie. A little speaker about the same size and quality of a fast-food drive-through speaker was mounted at each parking space, but we people didn’t care because you didn’t go to a drive-in to watch the movie, you went to a drive-in to make out and/or have sex in the back of the car while a movie played somewhere in your general vicinity.
Changing demographics have not been kind to the drive-in industry.
We got out and poked around a bit. When this drive-in was abandoned, it happened all at once, it seemed.
Drive-ins had a small shack where the projection equipment was housed, and where the employees made popcorn. Before the movie started out, people in silly hats would come to your car and ask if you wanted popcorn. Then they’d run to the projection shack, make your popcorn, take it out to you, and let you get on with having sex.
We picked our way across a a field littered with broken glass and bits of rebar and electrical cable to the projection shack, which was an absolute catastrophe.
In a previous life, I was once a movie theater projectionist (at a regular theater, not a drive-in). To be fair, the projection booth I worked in wasn’t really a whole lot more tidy or organized than this.
I felt weirdly nostalgic, picking through the rubble of the projection booth. There was a fine layer of dust over everything, so it didn’t look like anyone visited frequently. Not even the local greasers with their pompadours and their muscle cars seem like they can be arsed to come out here all that often.
The concession stand was separated from the projection booth by a wall that ran down the length of the projection shack, without a door through it; the projection booth had its own door, and you couldn’t go from the concession stand to the projection booth. This seems to be typical from what I remember of my movie theater days. The projectionist occupies the most lofty stratum of the theater employee hierarchy, and the booth is his castle; riffraff like ticket sellers and concession workers aren’t permitted in his domain.
There was one lonely piece of graffiti in the concession stand, scrawled without any genuine effort at artistic merit on what was left of the popcorn machine. Honestly, the neighborhood truants, delinquents, and hoodlums really seemed to be phoning it in.
We made our way back to the van and headed off toward Bodie, which would prove to be the shining jewel of the trip. I have much to say about Bodie, and many many pictures. Those will wait for the next installment.