Good Days at Black Rock | Travel | Smithsonian
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Good Days at Black Rock

A once quiet desert in Nevada has become a center for supersonic cars, rockets with big plans and one of the most freewheeling festivals anywhere

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The Black Rock Desert is not a name that most people recognize; fewer have seen it firsthand. But some of the events transpiring here might sound familiar: the site of the world's first supersonic land speed record, and the no-holds-barred Burning Man Project, an annual arts festival. It's a place with elbow room, one of the biggest flat spots on earth.

It's mainly the desert's plain, the playa or flat area between the mountain ranges, that is attracting crowds of the crowd-weary. The land’s caretaker, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, tries hard to balance conservation of the playa with its increasing popularity as a place to be. Its 150 square miles is devoid of vegetation and surrounded by brushy, rocky ground. But it is a special place to an elite class of car builders because it’s broad and flat enough for cars to hit supersonic speeds. Once a year it attracts an eclectic group of revelers, who dress up (or undress) for the Burning Man Project, a six-day event that is a kind of amalgamation of performance art, Mardi Gras and Woodstock. It’s also home to the tiny town of Gerlach, whose down-to-earth inhabitants understand that survival on the desert requires common sense. It’s where rocket builders convene, a place to cruise in a landsailing rig or sail above on the breeze in a hot-air balloon.

In late October the crowds disperse and a shallow lake forms and grows until it covers all the low ground. It won't surrender to dry land until May or June, scrubbing away all the footprints and tire tracks. This is how the playa takes control at the end of each year.

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