We came into that land from the rich rolling green fields of the Midwest. The smell of cut hay and fresh manure drifted up through the vents as Jonas and I took long turns flying an airplane whose interior was so tight that sometimes it felt as if we were reclining side by side in dual coffins.
Over Nebraska, the land grew severe and a harder emptiness beckoned. Though we were still on its farthest edge, we could feel the whirling vortex of those vast spaces. Higher and higher we climbed into skies marked only by the smoke from range fires, until the last few scratchings of man were overblown by dust or overgrown by sage. Finally, we could see nothing man-made from horizon to horizon.
Look at any road map. It will show the entire United States, like a sad old bear, snared in a reinforced concrete net of interstate highways. But as you draw your finger out west to the 120th meridian, there's one spot at the 42nd parallel where it looks as if the bear could get a whole paw through. I-84 veers up toward Portland and I-80 dives toward San Francisco, leaving a great swath seemingly untouched. It was there that we had our compass set: the last empty place in the lower 48.
Though we felt increasingly lost, coming into Nevada's Great Basin upon a desolation so complete that neither eye nor airplane could measure it, we were intent on becoming more lost still. And on our second day out, we spotted our portal to Nowhere.
From 50 miles [80 kilometers], the first few white patches were so bright that we thought they must be water. Then we dove down to investigate and saw what appeared to be dry lakes.
We surveyed several small lake beds and selected one in the Black Rock Desert between Jungo and Sulphur, Nevada. It was about nine miles [14.5 kilometers] long and clear of obstacles except for a double row of greasewood bushes cutting across it at an angle. Again and again we flew over, inspecting carefully. If the surface was sand or loose dust, we'd bury our wheels going 90 [145 kilometers an hour], the plane would flip end over end, and . . . well, that would be bad.
I've worked on and off with my companion on this expedition, photographer Jonas Dovydenas, for years, and by now we don't need to say much when we're working. I know what he's going to do and mostly I know why, and sometimes I even know what he's thinking. On our third pass, we were both thinking the same thing: What can we see that will transform a deadly sinkhole into a hard, dry landing place?
Jonas skimmed low over the lakevery low nowand slowed down to minimize the blur, while I craned my neck to look. There was only one sign that we'd bet our lives on.
Neither of us discussed what we both knew: that since at least the big bang, Nature has been trying to make circles, as she did with Earth and moon and stars. But being infinitely patient, she had lost out to impetuous Weather, which dried circles into quick and dirty approximations and made hexagons instead.
"Hexagonal cracks," I said.
He put the gear down and dropped the flaps, and as the airplane settled, we felt the wheels touch a surface that was as smooth and hard as concrete. We both let out our breath as the plane rolled toward the line of head-high bushes.
It was a hot and windy afternoon as we tossed our gear out. We stood alone on alkali hardpack flat as a spirit level, bright as snow. And suddenly we were both seized by laughter: We'd done it. We had set down in the middle of Nowhere, right in the heart of America. Estimated population density: .04 persons per square mile [259 hectares], counting me and Jonas and our 50 square miles [12,950 hectares] of lake bed. And beyond the lake, more saltbush, sage, and cheatgrass. No rules, no fenceswe were as free as we were going to get in this life.
La-Z-Boys, brothels, prehistoric carvings, traces of Howard Hughesour airborne adventurers sifted a whole lot of something from nothing. Get the full story in the January/February 2001 issue. (Subscribe today.)
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