I had breakfast in a cozy Battle Mountain diner to the sound of slots, and took off along I-80. At Winnemucca, I found a supermarket and stocked up on food supplies and an ice chest. Expecting to be at BM for only a few days, I bought a couple of 4-packs of Red Bull, 3 take-out sandwiches, and 5 gallons of water. There are plenty of camps giving out various kinds of free food at BM, so I figured that ought to hold me.
The recommended route to Black Rock City (near Gerlach, NV) is down I-80 to Fernley and 75 miles north up route 447. But I spied some roads straight across the desert to Gerlach, and plotted out a more direct route on the iPhone, cutting off about 100 miles. Seemed simple enough - leave I-80 at Imlay, follow Pioneer Road till it meets NV Route 49 and on to Gerlach.
Pioneer Road turned out to be a dirt-gravel road, but I figured it was do-able. Of course, the quality of the road deteriorated significantly once I'd traveled a few miles, and I had to hold the speed down below 20 mph most of the time. I'd find a "smooth" stretch, get the speed up to around 20, and hit a piece corrugated with rivulets which set the whole car shaking as though it were on some kind of factory endurance test machine. It sounded like every single screw and bolt in the old thing was being vibrated out of its place. But I was determined to press on, no matter how long it took. This "desert" is really more like high prairie, sprinkled with sagebrush, and the road twisted in many tight turns as it climbed up and down intervening mountains. The view was fantastic, and it was a thrill to be away from the traffic (and all civilization). But thoughts of survival started to press in upon me, as the likelihood of breaking down seemed to grow to inevitable. "Let's see, I have 3 days of food, a tent, so I can survive out here if I get stuck (though there's no telling how many days it might be before anyone passes on this route!)". Then I remembered the bicycle in the back seat - of course, any trouble, I'll just bike back to some town for help.
The iPhone, which has been such a help on this trip, really saved me on this adventure. When you ask for directions, it saves all the steps along the way and the local road views associated with each, so even out there with no access at all, I was able to step through the directions for the many turns required. There are many small "roads" out there along the way (most looking like nothing more than driveways to non-existent houses), and no directional signs or road names.
So it was a matter of following directions like "turn right - 2.3 mi; turn left - 8 mi; etc). The direction of the sun kept me somewhat oriented, but after a couple of hours I had no idea of whether I was on the right path or off on an extended detour. And the dust! The land is covered with a fine layer of dry dust which gets kicked up at any speed, covering everything in the car. And though these are referred to as "gravel" roads, it's not the kind of little gravel you see back east or in driveways - these were jagged rocks up to 2-3 inches across; so the decision to have bought new front tires and leave the old balding rear tires in place felt like a mistake, as the possibility of a puncture plagued my mind. Yes, with front-wheel drive, you're only dragging the rear wheels along, but you do need them inflated to move! At one point, I came upon a gully across the road which seemed certain to be impassable except by 4-wheel-drive vehicles. I had no choice but to chance it, summoned up my courage (madness) and eased my way through. I scraped bottom pretty badly, but it sounded like solid frame hitting the ground, not sheet metal which would have indicated ripping the gas tank. But this was getting crazier by the moment.
I finally reached a T-junction which seemed to be NV-49, the final run to Gerlach. I had thought state "highways" were all paved, but this too was the same kind of gravel road; and I wasn't sure it was NV-49, it just seemed like a good guess out there with the iPhone in my lap.
After a time on that, I seemed to be getting to Playa country when the dirt road disappeared with a dry lake bed in front of me, the "road" indicated only by a few tire tracks across this mini-playa. At least it provided a short break in the intense vibration, but only for a while. Then, over a hill, I viewed a large expanse of desert in the distance, which could be the Black Rock Desert of Burning Man. If the road curved leftward, I knew I was on the right path; if it went right, I was all wrong. It curved to the left, and I knew I had somehow taken all the correct turns and forks along the way from Imlay! Still constrained to 15-20 mph, I was now going along the south edge of the huge playa on which Black Rock City is situated.
After a long time, I could see the structures and tiny vehicles of Burning Man off in the distance. How I longed to cross the land between, but it was rough brush-covered prairie, and I could see the railroad line parallel to the road, which couldn't be crossed even if the intervening prairie were passable. So it took another 45 minutes to get past Burning Man and over to Gerlach, where I joined the procession of vehicles which had followed the normal route up from Fernley.
This harrowing adventure was made possible by the iPhone and Google. These guys are amazing - not only have they stocked their databases with countless coordinates, directions, and street views, but they apparently researched this route enough to describe the route from Imlay to Gerlach as "101 miles - 4 hrs 25 mins". I usually use this feature to estimate distances and times, but reduce the time estimate, figuring they take speed limits into account. But this wasn't a matter of legal speed limits - some Google person must have driven this awful road and timed it, as it took me just about 4 hrs 45 mins to get across. I should have realized the road didn't have a 25 mph "speed limit" - or that it was limited by condition, not by law. I had considered asking someone at Imlay about the route to Gerlach before setting out, but nah, I don't ask directions, I find out myself. Well, I found out the hard way this time.
So it around 6PM when I approached Black Rock City on the road up from Gerlach. There was no traffic on the road as there was last year, no long line until I got off the highway and on line for the ticket takers. I had already experienced enough dust to last me, and I knew I had more in store on the Playa. But it was good to back around people again and close to my goal.