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A Burner Lexicon: Black Rock Desert

Posted in A Burner Lexicon, and Burning Man

When not home to a temporary city, the Black Rock Desert sees diverse uses including amateur rocket launches. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Black Rock Desert, –proper noun, Though today it is largely dry, dusty and lifeless, in ancient times the Black Rock Desert was under 500′ feet of water. Since drying out it has been home to Native Americans and an important, but treacherous route of Westward emigrant travelers making their journey across the United States to the budding state of California.

Railroad tracks cross the Black Rock, and its uses range from land speed records to amateur rocketry launches. Many, of course, first visit this desert when they attend Burning Man or related events like the Fourth of Juplaya. But these events take place on but a portion of the over 200 square miles of playa, which itself is only part of the 1,000 square miles which make up the entire Black Rock Desert. The Calico Mountains border the playa, enhancing the already otherworldly feel of the plateau on which the playa rests, almost 4,000 miles above sea level. Hot springs are found here, though they are closed to the public during festivals to protect their delicate ecosystem.

Its history as a lakebed makes it the country’s largest playa. The dry surface is covered with playa dust, an incredibly fine, powdery sand which gets into and onto everything possible during a participant’s visit to Black Rock City. Members of the Department of Public Works and other early arrivals send back intelligence on the state of the desert surface during the months and weeks leading up to the festival week. The city’s future citizens eagerly seek out these playa weather reports, which let them know the likely severity of dust storms and quality of bicycle riding.

Legend has it that in the days before trash fences and driving rules,  the desert is so expansive that couples would make out in the back of vans while their vehicles sped unattended across the playa.

The Black Rock Desert is a favorite of many nature lovers, some of whom founded the Friends of Black Rock in 1999.

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