The playa in fall

fall playa 002 copyWe were traveling along Route 80, and for once, Reno seemed almost pretty, or at least the parts of it you see from the highway. In summer you can’t believe how ugly it is, the  big brown  hills of sun-blasted dirt.  But now you were noticing the scattered trees, leaves glowing bright yellow in the slanting noonday sun.

We had to be up in Reno for a couple of days, and we had the chance to squeeze in a side trip to the playa, and we took it. It seemed wrong never to have experienced the Black Rock Desert when there wasn’t a festival going on, and we were determined to rectify the situation.

Now the car is full of playa dust again, and it couldn’t smell sweeter.

Parts of the journey felt familiar. You felt the tightness in your stomach as you left the interstate at Wadsworth and headed out across the Indian land. There wouldn’t be any art or any music or any fire waiting for you at your destination, and all the amazing people weren’t going to be there, either, but it didn’t matter.  You felt the pull. It was just going to be you and the desert and the dust.

fall playa 001 copyBurning Man has always had a quality of aloneness to it. Yes, you are surrounded by 40,000 like-minded souls, and one of the reasons you go is to feel connection and community. But still, there are times when you are alone with yourself, and if you haven’t felt that sense of being a single, solitary person, even in the middle of that  huge party, maybe you haven’t gotten all there is to get at Burning Man. People come to escape the loneliness, but it finds them there, too. Moments, in between,  it finds you.

There were no black Nevada Highway Patrol cars lurking around, but still you slowed down in Nixon and Empire and then finally Gerlach.  Yellow highway signs reminded you to be cautious, because cattle might be crossing the road. This is an open range, after all.

But even  the spectacularly gorgeous fall day couldn’t make Gerlach seem anything but desolate. There was no crowd at the gas station, just the attendant, who was walking out in front of the pumps, hands plunged into the pockets of his denim overalls, and he was kicking pebbles as he shuffled along. It seemed an act of resignation. “This is what my life is,” he could be saying. “It’s lonesome and dull, and winter is coming on.”

It’s 55 degrees, not 105, and although the afternoon will warm up a bit, there’s a chill in the air.

fall playa 003 copyThe desert floor  looked different in the late fall. The surface seemed smoother and paler, like the salts from recent rains had risen to the surface. There was a delicate crust,  like a water truck had soaked the entire site, and everyone decided not to walk on it, just let it dry naturally. The crust is light and flaky and easily disturbed. Fragile.

And it made you wonder as you stood at the place where there had been flags and cones to guide you to Black Rock City. Did we really leave no trace?

It would appear so. Random tracks led off in all directions at the entrance to the desert, but these were from the random and occasional off-roaders who reclaim the desert after we’re gone. Everything looked clean and undisturbed.

But before you take any bows for conscientiousness and cleanliness, though, you’d want to hear from the Playa Restoration crew, which spent so many long weeks after the event making sure that things were left as we found them. (And as the JackRabbit Speaks has noted, Burning Man did pass the federal inspection standard of no more than a foot of MOOP for every acre surveyed.) I did my own little survey, out where I thought Center Camp had been. I walked maybe 30 yards in a rough circle, looking for anything that wasn’t native. I found two very small pieces of black plastic, and a tiny silver bauble that made me wonder what kind of costume it had fallen off of.
fall playa 004 copy
Out in the middle of the playa now, there was only silence. No wind, no dust, just silence. Things looked as they no doubt have looked for thousands of years. Peaceful. Timeless. Beautiful.

It made sense to head out across the playa, following slightly-worn tracks left by vehicles much better equipped for the desert than mine. There are signs at every desert entry warning that the playa becomes impassible when it is wet, and you should take those warnings seriously. But today the conditions were perfect; there had been rain to tamp everything down, and now it seemed fine to be barreling across the playa floor, out past where the perimeter fence would have been, hitting a fast-for-me but still pretty tame 60 mph, watching the huge dust plume stretching out behind.

I went to the base of the mountain you see to the southeast of Black Rock City and looked for the railroad crossing. I knew that’s where the Trego Hot Springs were, and I knew that the Frog Hot Springs were over there too.  As I crossed the railroad tracks, I noted the shotgun spray on the crossing sign and remembered again that yep, this is the wild West alright.

I never did find Trego, but I double-backed and found the Frog springs. There were plenty of signs of use: A wooden ladder descending into the first spring, and a fire pit, and a table, and a beat-up old stove that had seen plenty of fires.

The water was clear, warm and beafall playa 005 copyutiful. The nestling of trees surrounding the springs were turning gold, too, just like the ones outside Reno.

On my way out I noticed that someone had carved six-inch-high letters, deeply and seemingly angrily, into the permanently open wooden fence at the entrance to the springs. The letters spelled out  “homewrecker.”  I wondered about what had gone on there, who had hooked up with whom. But when I thought about the person who was blaming the hot springs for whatever had happened, I thought that the anger was misdirected. Whatever had happened didn’t have anything to do with the springs. My guess was that the situation was, as the health insurance people like to say, a pre-existing condition.

I tried to retrace my path across the desert, to go back exactly the way I had come in, but it was futile. There were too many random tracks, and it was easy to get waylaid. But there was plenty of light, and it was easy to figure out where I had to go.

By the time I finally reached the highway and headed back to Gerlach, the dust the car had raised had already settled. The desert was smooth and calm again.

Smooth and calm.  A good description of the overall mood. I’d had a couple of hours out there in the vastness, but now I wanted a couple of weeks.

fall playa 006 copy

About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

17 Comments on “The playa in fall

  • Erick C. says:

    beautiful john! the desert always carries the spirit.

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  • Dean says:

    This might stun you, but some of us don’t find tiny places “dull”, and don’t think the big brown hills of sunblasted dirt are “ugly”.

    Your milage may vary?

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  • John Curley says:

    Hi Dean;

    I didn’t mean to equate “tiny” with “dull,” but I’m guessing my biases were revealed.

    As for the hills, well, you’re welcome to them. :)

    Thanks for taking the time to read, and to write. It’s much appreciated.

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  • JV says:

    I’m with Dean; I think Reno’s natural surroundings are gorgeous. Like a moonscape.

    I’ve always wanted to make a trip to Black Rock Desert outside of Burning Man. Thanks for the post.

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  • Andie Grace says:

    I’d like to go on record and state that I happen to find those particular hills rather beautiful too. Thanks for the post, John!

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  • Will Chase says:

    to each his own, i reckon … i personally think those hills are durn pretty. and you’re right … there’s nothing quite like the playa in the off-season, that’s for sure. wonderful post john, thanks!

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  • effin grea says:

    I think many of you may have focused in on the wrong message. If the only thing that you got out of this wonderful post (and a good idea) is that John hates brown hills and small towns then you should re-read the post and purchase your ticket as soon as possiable as you need a reminder that everyone has there own likes, dislikes, and sees beauty in differant places and things. i feel for me one of the many wonderful things about BM culture is that ( again for me) it is a culture of acceptance, tolerance, non judgemental, and NON Defensivness. I can’t wait to go home and be reminded of that for another year.( as some of you also need to be)

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  • JV says:

    effin grea, you are a master of irony.

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  • Rezl says:

    This was great, thanks for writing. :)

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  • PelekitN says:

    Thank you for the lovely post and pictures. It’s always a journey returning to a place, smell or sensation of experience. In the end, it’s only the memory you keep with you…but the awareness you gain is priceless!

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  • Lonestoner says:

    Good stuff!

    For me, the desolation of Gerlach and the Playa in the off season is what draws me back there time and time again. I find it oddly comforting, being in that place with few people and no cell phones, it helps me to press the “pause” button on on Life’s trials and tribulations.

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  • Darleen Fay says:

    I have not actually had the opportunity to experience la playa, at any time, in the fall or to experience burning man, yet. I can’t wait to someday get that experience. I just recently found out about burningman…. wish I had the time to take to visit. Maybe someday!!!!!

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  • lenny mu says:

    It happend!!!
    This year was my virgin burn.
    I absorbed the spirit and when I got home it simmered.

    Recently I joined an exercise group, but had to drop out because of back issues. I had paid for an extra session in advance.

    When they asked me if I wanted my money back or if I wanted to join a session in the spring…..IT happened…….

    I was back at Burning Man. I simply told them to use my money to help some one who could not afford to pay. No, they could not say who donated the money, donations for recognition are NOT gifts.

    Whoever you are benefiting, enjoy!!!

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  • Brian S says:

    Nice work, John. Nice.

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  • jason d says:

    thank you. a wonderful read.

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  • Considering attempting Burning Man 2010 your post helped me more than much other information about the event itself, thanks John from Barcelona, Spain.

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  • Gary Walker says:

    John, you wrote a beautiful piece about post- Burning Man. I have never been to the festival, nor did I even know about it. (I have been on a different planet, called Italy and France for the last 20 years.) Now I am the manager of a hotel in Mariposa, the western gateway to Yosemite.

    Last week, a Sonia from Marseilles visited the hotel, full of Burning Man tales. Such an enchantress! I felt compelled to write a poem about her, which follows. If the poem warrants merit, can anyone on this blog suggest an appropriate “home” for it among the tree of Burning Man web branches & leaves?

    Thanks in advance. –Gary

    Sonia and the Burning Man

    A Sonia, where comes an angel, fallen from on High,
    Materialized – SHAZAM! — before my registering Post
    In uniform of backpack and glimmering of Eye
    To query room and friendship at the Inn of the Host.

    She had come from the land of a Burning Man,
    She spun visions in words drawn from living Dream.
    In exchange I traced stars on a hill built in Sand
    Of constellations presaging all that she had Seen.

    Gifting, a Sonia sang to me Encore:
    Her mutant cars, as if from Mars, danced in a Faustian Past,
    Where casual sex and psychic drugs drew to a rocky Shore,
    Until I begged my inner crew to lash me to the Mast.

    That night I bid a Sonia self passage back to Sleep,
    That night I tossed restless in her turbulence of Plans.
    All stiff, alone, vexed to the bone by thoughts I should not Keep,
    That night, all through that night, lay waste a Burning Man.

    Mariposa, 2010-09-09, updated to 2010-09-13, a6

    SONIA (etymology):



    SIREN (a Sonia’s Faustian side):


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