America by Air: Pyramid Lake

Jimmy Hamilton
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Another reader with another amazing view adds another state to the series:

I see on your site that you don’t have a photo taken in Nevada. This is Pyramid Lake, about 30 miles north of Reno. The lake is out in the middle of the desert.  I took the photo from a 1955 Cessna 180. (Sorry about the reflections in the window.)

Coincidentally I’m headed out to that part of the Nevada desert in less than a month, to attend Burning Man for the first time. If you happen to have a good aerial photo above Black Rock City, please send it our way.

Another funny coincidence: The only two photos of Pyramid Lake available in the Atlantic archives are this one from 1867 and the one seen to the right, which was captured by an Atlantic reader and posted by a friend I’m going to Burning Man with—in a blog post about the spirituality of shrooms.

Here’s a bit more about the lake:

Pyramid Lake is fed by the Truckee River, which is mostly the outflow from Lake Tahoe. The Truckee River enters Pyramid Lake at its southern end. Pyramid Lake has no outlet, with water leaving only by evaporation, or sub-surface seepage (an endorheic lake). The lake has about 10% of the area of the Great Salt Lake, but it has about 25% more volume. The salinity is approximately 1/6 that of sea water. …

Pyramid Lake was used as a stand-in for the Sea of Galilee in the 1965 biblical film, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Also, in 1961, part of The Misfits was filmed nearby.

If you’re one of the misfits who’s attended Burning Man and have any good anecdotes or advice to share, please drop me a note. Update from reader Jim, who has tons of helpful advice:

Reserve a cheap bike at the Walmart in Reno and leave it with someone when Burning Man is over.

Take some white vinegar to mix with your water to counteract the alkali when washing your feet, or anything that’s covered with the lake bed dust. Take foot cream or you may crack. Wash feet frequently. 

Get a medium quality dust mask (one not too hot). I use swim goggles because they seal the best. Wear them around your neck at all times in case a dust storm blows, which happens all the time. 

Your vehicle will likely never quite yield the dust no matter how you try to clean.  Alkali sticks to oil, and frankly the entire world seems to be coated with a film of oil even if you don’t notice. I took a tent, and I brought it back to the Ozarks and put it in a clear flowing stream for hours, but it was still coated with dust when it dried.

I took a garden sprayer, the kind you pump up to spray. I used that to shower off (you must have a tarp to catch the water or you will violate a rule not to drain water in the desert). Although I sometimes raced naked to the water truck with soap in hand. Your wet feet will cake up like a baked potato when you walk back, but it peels off. 

Don’t be ashamed to pee in a wide mouth jug at night and walk it to a porta-potty naked in the morning. No one cares.

If you are in the front row during a big temple or “man” burn, it will get hot and you may feel trapped at the front. The spiraling hot white tornadoes that come out of the big burns will not reach you although they seem to be coming out toward the crowd.

People swept through and stole bicycles on the last night, so beware there are sociopaths who will take your bike if you don’t lock it.  I felt embarrassed to keep locking my bike the second time I went, but I kept mine while others lost theirs.   

If you want to stay in touch with friends, bring walkie talkies. With all the people there, the channels are pretty crowded, but you can always take a radio with different bandwidth than family radio channels. Try buying some cheap marine radios or radios used on industrial worksites with UHF. Hell, CB might work too.

Take a hand drum of some sort so you can participate in drum circles. Irish tams are like big tambourines and travel well. Bring gifts—any kind. I took gallons of mixed nuts and little paper bowls which I filled and left (a few) at all the bars from which I drank. All drinks are free, so you want something to give back.

Carry a pen and little spiral notebook. You may meet people you want to look up later. You may never see them again at the Burn. 

Video cams are frowned up.  You are there to make art, not to collect pics of naked people. 

I think of Burning Man as a combo of a circus, Fellini movie, and a gay parade.  You’ll never forget it. I will be at Lake Powell starting Labor Day weekend on a houseboat—the perfect experience after the Burn (although I am not going this year). Diving into deep clean water will never feel so exquisite.