Even in the absence of all the weird that is Burning Man, Black Rock is a strange place, with a quirky history tied to its geologic past and present-day geography. The most recognizable geographic feature of the region is the asphalt-parking-lot-flat Black Rock Playa, which occupies over 200 of the Desert’s 1000 square miles. Collectively known to locals and burners as “the playa,” the flat land of the desert is a cracked white/tan silt plain that has a surface as flat and hard as concrete. It is so long and so flat, that the edges of it aren’t visible across its wide-open expanse due to the curvature of the earth, just as ships disappear from view on the open ocean at distances of greater than 3 miles (actually a distance of 3.856 times the square root of the height of the observer).
The playa is so hard that the world’s fastest car rocketed across it at more than 766 miles an hour in 1997, which still stands as the world land speed record. The specially built “car” called Thrust SSC which actually looks like a steering wheel strapped to two gigantic Rolls Royce jet engines, was the first car ever to break the sound barrier. While most of us don’t drive 700 miles an hour when we are out there, you can easily do 70+ if you’re careful and watch out for sand dunes and other vehicles.
(turn down the volume if you’re at work, there’s some exultant swearing when they rip a hole in the sound barrier)
How did the playa get there? In ancient times about 12,000 years ago during what’s known as the “Sehoo highstand” when the earth’s climate was much warmer and wetter than today’s, an enormous lake filled most of northern Nevada. This great lake was called Lake Lahontan. Check out how much of Nevada was once underwater in this map:
If you look carefully on the mountains that form the sides of the Black Rock desert or Pyramid Lake, you can still see evidence of the water that filled the basins. Tens of thousands of years of wind-whipped storm waves crashed on the shorelines of Lake Lahontan, and as the lake dried up when the Earth’s climate changed, or the extension of the Basin and Range province dropped the valley down relative to the mountain rims (or some combination of both), the water level dropped, and new terraces were cut into the rocks on the shores of the lake.
Today the desert is dry most of the time. During wetter years, the winter snows that fall in the mountains surrounding the playa are more voluminous than others, and their meltwater fills the playa with water. This year a sizeable lake filled the middle of the Black Rock playa. I’ve always heard rumors about “shrimp” swimming in the lake that fills up the playa in the spring. As luck would have it, This was a 50-year winter in the Sierra and Northwestern Nevada, meaning that we had a really, really wet winter the likes of which our region hasn’t had in a long time. Last weekend when I was out camping and photographing in the Black Rock, I actually saw some of these creatures as the winter’s water was still standing on the playa when I approached it at sunset on Saturday July 29th. You can see former Unofficial cameraman Greg Martin standing in the lake here taking video footage. Hey Greg, I can’t believe you’re a professional photographer – I’m so much better than you!
Surrounding Greg’s feet were millions of little tadpole shrimp creatures (brownish dots in the picture), swimming in the water and trying to get away from the flocks of seagulls that were feasting upon them. These tadpole shrimp are not like the ones that swim in your shrimp cocktail at Red Lobster. The Black Rock creatures are called triops, or Triops longicaudatus to be exact. Triops are one of the oldest animal species continually in existence, having lived virtually unchanged for more than 70 million years. This classifies them as a “living fossil” meaning that their present form perfectly matches that of ancient preserved specimens of the same species found throughout North and South America in the geologic record.
Triops lie dormant in the dry lakebed of the Black Rock playa for up to 20 years. When the rains come and they hatch, they are typically all either males or females, and they employ hermaphroditic reproductive techniques to generate more eggs. Triops eggs grow through a series of stages, shedding their exoskeletons at each stage, and they reach maturity in approximately eight days. Instead of breathing oxygen through gills as fish do, they filter it from the water with gill-like structures on their legs. They live for 20-90 days if the ephemeral pools last that long, eating detritus from the bottoms of the pool in which they swim, or even each other. The Japanese utilize them to eat undesirable organisms in their rice paddies, and people here in America employ them to consume the eggs of the mosquito subspecies that carries the West Nile Virus. As far as I can tell, no one in Black Rock has figured a use for them yet.
If you’re one of the many people here in Tahoe who will be heading out to the Black Rock desert in a few weeks to get weird at Burning Man, you owe it to yourself to go back out to the desert after BRC disappears into the dust. The desert holds mysteries that are worth the work it takes to travel out there and survive in the harsh environment. And besides, you never need a ticket to go camping in Black Rock.