When They Pry It from My Cold, Ironic Fingers:
Exploration & Explosions, a Nevada Desert Hipster Road Trip—March 2003

Blue hits again, Harry, Jeff, Blair
Blue hits again, Harry, Jeff, Blair

NOTE: Some of the activities documented in this photo album, like a lot of what goes on in the Black Rock Desert during the off season (when seven different government agencies aren’t there standing by to protect you from yourself), fall firmly in the “Don’t try this at home” area. Or even in the “Don’t do this at all” area. Seriously. Don’t do any of what you see here. You will get yourself killed. We had preparations and precautions which are not described here. And one of us almost got killed anyway.

Back in Spring 2003 I got wind that a bunch of folks I’d met through some fin de siècle attempts to revive the soggy corpse of the SF Cacophony Society were heading out for a road trip through northern Nevada, to do some exploration in the abandoned American Flats silver refinery in the hills outside Virginia City, and spend a day blowing things up out in the backcountry of the Black Rock Desert. The Black Rock Desert is most famous nowadays as the locale of the huge annual Burning Man Festival every September, but was happily empty in March and entirely suitable for shooting shotguns at propane tanks without any other human presence in the vicinity who might be concerned by the sounds of gunfire and explosions. Having at that point still only recently become disillusioned with SF’s hipster underground art scene, I was still on friendly terms with a few Cacophony folks, so, suspecting it might make for some neat photos or good stories afterwards, I finagled my way into a seat on the adventure.

First stop: the Lathrop, CA truck stop staged to look like a UFO has crashed into it. Then to Reno for dinner and a night at the Peppermill casino. As is customary for me in Nevada, I got food poisoning from the casino food, and wound up spending the late part of the night in the emergency room (not pictured).

Next afternoon, we headed out to the abandoned silver refinery ruins at American Flats in the hills near Virginia City, NV. As the group fanned out over the complex, I dropped underground and walked the sluice tunnels.

We hung out in Virginia City for a little while, then headed up to the remote desert outposts of Empire and Gerlach, NV.

We made first camp way out on the main playa (an ancient dry lake bed) of the Black Rock Desert. The Black Rock Desert is one of the the biggest, flattest places imaginable… an ancient lakebad so vast and flat that people have been known to put a rock on their accelerator and climb out to sunbathe on the hood of their moving car. It’s so featureless that the curvature of the earth is visible, and you can point your car and drive in a perfectly straight line for upwards of 30, 40 miles or more over dead-level ground and simply disappear behind the horizon.

Rick A. took advantage of the space to do some model rocketry.

The next morning, we set off for what I call the “back playa”. The Black Rock Desert is Y-shaped, and directly in the crook of the arms of the ‘Y’ sits the huge Black Rock and the beautiful but deadly Black Rock hot springs. Driving around a small dirt road behind the Black Rock will take you to one of the most remote, hidden parts of this remote area, a smaller playa nestled within some small hills.

Once there, we got down to the real business of the trip: blowing shit up. We set up an illicit backcountry shooting range, with propane gas tanks, brought especially for the purpose, as the targets. Harry, acting as rangemaster, set up a firing line and diligently made the group sit through a mandatory lecture on responsible gun handling and safety, to minimize the risk of personal injury as we set off huge fireballs by shooting at gas tanks with shotguns.

A few people brought other targets, too, such as the large pink stuffed Elmo doll brought by Danielle and Mikl-Em.

This next explosion photo, the last shot fired of the day, bears some explanation. As night fell and the playa had echoed with the sounds of explosions for quite some time, I fell into talking to some people as others continued to shoot. Suddenly, I heard what was, even for that afternoon, a very loud explosion. I turned towards the row of target tanks, about 300 feet from us, and saw an unusually large fireball… so large, I had time to think, “Wow. That’s big. I should take a picture”, raise my camera, frame up the shot, click the shutter, and still catch much of the fireball.

When I put down the camera and looked around, I noticed that everyone up and down the firing line had turned around, and was looking back, over their shoulders, in the opposite direction. Perhaps another three hundred feet behind us, maybe 600 feet from the tanks, was Mike B. He was crouched on the ground, and despite being a bigger guy, had curled himself into a very small ball. We ran out to him.

He said he’d been watching the firing range from afar when he saw the big explosion. In front of it, he saw a piece of metal, appearing to hang in the air… and get bigger… and bigger. He ducked, and the shredded, flattened remains of the tank sailed straight over him, right through the space where he’d been standing. We searched the desert floor and found it, another few hundred feet further, behind him.

Mike B. was a funny guy. It seemed like if anything bad was going to happen, it was going to happen to him. I always felt safer around him—over the course of the year or two I hung out with this crowd, I’d seen him be seriously injured in freak accidents, arrested, and once, physically attacked by a nearby thug who took offense at what really was a completely harmless public prank, as, each time, the rest of us stood around, often quite close, completely unharmed. In this case, fortunately, he was only shaken, not injured. In the end he posed for a smirking photo with the schrapnel that had almost taken him out.

Harry, unnerved, called an end to the activity. Apparently, there are limits.

We had a nice night camping out on the back playa, and, after a couple of pitstops to explore the scrubby desert landscape, left the next next morning, heading back out through Gerlach and Empire and down the long desert highway back to the confines of civilization.