Michael Totten

The Void

This weekend I took a long road trip with fellow Portland blogger Asher Abrams into the heart of the West’s Empty Quarter — the Black Rock Desert in Northwestern Nevada. It is the hinterlands of the hinterlands, the desert of the desert. It is the nearest thing you will find on this Earth to a void.
Black Rock Desert Void.jpg
Native Americans steered clear of this place. White settlers feared and loathed the treacherous crossing. Today a certain kind of person (like me) feels drawn to it from even five hundred miles away.
I go to places like this for utterly contradictory reasons. (I’m human, what can I say?) It’s partly a yearning for danger that comes from spending so much time in a pampered, cushy, Pacific Northwest city. People vanish into the Black Rock every year. Their cars get stuck, they get lost, and they die. (You try walking out of there from the center. No, actually, don’t.) Venturing out into the back of beyond, where there are absolutely no cell phones, police officers, fire departments, hotels, restaurants, bottled water, helping hands — civilization, in other words — adds a bit of frisson to a life spent mostly inside a bubble where The World is kept at bay.
Black Rock Desert Earth.jpg
I’m also drawn by a yearning for peace from the stress of the city. It takes energy to live in a city, even a comfy yuppified city like Portland. You don’t realize how much energy it actually takes until you go to a timeless place where nothing exists except earth and sky. Not even radio waves or cell phone signals exist in the Black Rock Desert. Money doesn’t exist there. Mortgage payments don’t exist there. Neither does the blogosphere, George W. Bush, Al Qaeda, or even the 21st Century.
The city is at once both stressful and luxurious. The Black Rock Desert is hostile, yet peaceful. The city is artificial and civilized. The desert is elemental and wild.
Anything that exists however temporarily in the desert — the tiniest pebble, a stray dime, a bottlecap, a book, a person, a car — suddenly becomes spectacularly significant. Everything is huge up close in a void.
Black Rock Desert Book.jpg
Black Rock Desert Dime.jpg
Yet from any kind of distance at all, everything becomes miniscule. Below is a picture of Asher. See if you can find him. He was only 500 feet from me when I snapped the picture. Yet he might as well have been in his own solar system. I was no larger.
Black Rock Desert Asher.jpg
When the two of us got out of the car we instinctively walked in separate directions. A place like the Black Rock Desert can only be faced alone. (Unless, that is, you’re at the Burning Man festival, but the desert is then transformed into something else.) Conversation disrupts the whole point of it. The void is a place to face your own thoughts and to ponder eternity in absolute silence.
Black Rock Desert Feet.jpg
We also visited Pyramid Lake. I first saw this lake from the air when I flew down to Los Angeles last September. I was looking for Lake Tahoe and I couldn’t find it. It must have been directly below me, and you can’t quite look straight down from an airplane. I saw Pyramid Lake instead, although I hadn’t yet heard of it and I did not yet know its name. There is was, a shimmering blue inland sea in the middle of the Nevada desert. How unlikely, I thought, since the “lakes” of Nevada tend to be alkaline hardpans. I decided I would figure out which lake I was looking at from the air, then go look at it later from the ground.
Pyramid Lake From Air.JPG
(Photo via Google Earth, viewed from 30 miles above the ground.)
It was every bit as surprising on the ground as it was from the air. It is enormous, like an inland sea. Amazingly blue (I foolishly neglected to photograph it at the right time, when the sun was shining brilliantly on it) and almost completely devoid of any obnoxious Nevada development whatsoever. It’s on a Paiute Indian Reservation. It looks like for once the Indians weren’t shunted onto the bad land. Nevada is full of bad land to live on (and great land to visit when you’re looking for solitude) but Pyramid Lake is a jewel.
Pyramid Lake 2.jpg
Pyramid Lake 1.jpg
Asher has lived in Portland for five years, but he doesn’t own a car. Until we set out he had seen almost nothing of Oregon. And he had never set foot in Nevada. See his blog for a terrific travel diary of our trip through virgin eyes.