Take a right at Bolivia

I survived “Burning Chicken.” No gunshot wounds, no heatstroke, and I didn’t get lost or starve. That alone is a success. But I didn’t expect it to be so goddamned much fun.

A little background: I belong to a private internet forum hosted by a longtime friend. There are about 10 of us there, mostly from my undergraduate college years plus a few freaks I’ve met along the way. It’s an interesting group: overeducated and underemployed geeks is perhaps the best way to characterize us collectively.

About six months ago or so, one of the group suggested some kind of gathering in the desert. There’s “Burning Man,” but that’s someone else’s idea. He suggested a private gathering that still embodies its freaky, subculture aesthetic. But there was a bigger reason to make it private: guns. About half the group members are way into guns. I’m not into guns, but I’m not averse to them either.

So Burning Chicken was born. The next thing we needed was a place. Nevada has more relaxed gun laws, so that was a good choice. One of the group is a geology professor who had been out to a remote area of the Nevada desert to study the effects of a massive 1954 earthquake there. So he suggested the location — Dixie Valley — about as far from civilization as you can get in America.

Dixie Valley, as viewed from Job Canyon

Dixie Valley, as viewed from Job Canyon

The plan was to synchronize four vehicles from three locations — Merced, the North Bay, and Salt Lake City — to converge in Fallon, NV. The rendezvous was successful and we stocked up on supplies, food, water, and beer and caravanned for the final 70 mile stretch into nowhere. We finally arrived in the “area” around 6 pm. On the map, there’s a landmark called “Bolivia,” but there’s nothing physically there. Not even a sign. Nothing telling you that you’ve arrived in this “Bolivia” and nothing directing you go Dixie. The highway ends and becomes gravel, and there are several other dirt and gravel roads leading in different directions. There was one right turn. We took it.

After some time, our geologist guide said “There it is!” “It” was a 50-by-50 feet or so area of dirt next to one surprising feature – a swimming hole. The Dixie area is full of artesian wells that were tapped when it used to be an actual town inhabited by actual humans. These wells are spread out and continually flowing, adding a surprising amount of greenery to the valley. The swimming hole was a godsend. When it got too hot, we’d jump in the pond for a swim and a bio-degradable bath.

I was impressed with everyone’s preparation. Collectively, we had three sturdy canopies for shelter from the sun during the day, four tents, and eight comfortable chairs. We had many lanterns and propane stoves, ample firewood, and all the necessary sustenance. We set up camp, ate sausages, fruit, and potato salad, and had a nice fire.

Someone had earlier noted that it was a new moon that night. About an hour after the sun went down, someone else noticed the sky. My God, it’s full of stars. We killed the lanterns and turned our chairs away from the fire and spent the rest of the night staring skyward. It was so crystal clear and you could see at such distance, it seemed as though there was as much white as black out there. The vivid white stroke of the Milky Way painted across the sky was breathtaking. We easily found Jupiter and Mars. One of the guys took out binoculars and, after a while, said he could see the moons of Jupiter. None of us believed him until I took the binocs and saw them with my own eyes. It was amazing – three moons in a straight line orbiting Jupiter.

The next day everyone got up early and we headed out for our first day of shooting before we even had breakfast. We loaded ammo and then loaded ourselves into one of the trucks. Our destination was Job Canyon, back on the other side of the main road and up toward the fault line that divides the mountains from the valley. Our geologist gave us a bit of history on the place. A million years or so ago, the valley used to be a huge lake, even sort of an ocean. Since then, the valley has been sinking while the mountains have been rising. In 1954, there was a significant punctuation of this activity. In a single earthquake, the mountains and valley separated by some three meters. You can see the fault line from a distance, like a stripe cutting across the landscape as far as you can see.

We were all directed to take one rifle and one pistol each. I was a little nervous. I’ve shot two guns in my life – a 22-calibur pistol and a 22-cal rifle. But this day, I was handed an AK-47 and a SIG Sauer P220. The AK was the first weapon I tried. My friend showed me how to load it, where the safety is, how to cock it, how to fire, and how to responsibly interact with it. I was the only non-gun person there, so everyone casually stopped to watch me learn. I did what I was taught and then fired. I expected a kick, which was not too bad, but what I didn’t expect was the feeling of power. There’s a tremendous amount of energy expelled from rifles like these. I can see how people of a certain personality (not necessarily mine) might become attached to such a feeling. The AK seemed to be aiming high, and I couldn’t quite get the targeting right. But it was fun. Then I shot the SIG pistol. As with the AK, I was shown how to use every aspect of it in great detail, focusing particularly on safety and etiquette. I thought I would like pistols better. I liked the feeling in my hand and the portability aspect of it. But after the first shot, my hand was shaking, which made it difficult to aim. I have kind of smallish wrists and this was a heavy gun. And I’m sure the nerves didn’t help. Later I shot a Marlin Model 25 – the aiming was perfect, I liked the bolt action, and it was lighter.

We got back to camp that afternoon and I cooked up a scramble for everyone. After eating, I suggested we go down the road in the opposite direction toward an area I’d found on the first day. I had been exploring and found three military tents, plus a town hall type building and a shack. It was a surreal site. So I went back with others to explore in greater detail. I thought it might have been remnants of the original town, and later modified to serve the military. I was told, however, that it was not part of the town, but was built specifically for targeting by Navy pilots. Apparently, the town of Dixie was fully functional at one point. Then the military bought it and kicked everyone out. Now the old ghost town of Dixie is used as target practice. There’s no actual strafing or bombing going on. It’s all computer-based – same thing as actual combat, but with no live ammunition. Good thing for us.

Camo tents in Dixie

Camo tents in Dixie

Later that day, much to our surprise, we got visitors. Four people – we assume a pair of husbands and wives – showed up on ATVs. It was a little weird to see outsiders, but we welcomed them. We offered them beer and chatted for a bit. They noticed the guns. “Good to see people from California with guns,” one of them said. One of our group is Palestinian. One of their group said “Are you Arab?” and he said yes, he was. There was a second or two of awkward silence, but then we resumed the small talk. The four of them were out there hunting coyotes, who were attacking their sheep. We were on BLM land, which can be rented for livestock or other such uses. They all live up the highway some distance, but hell if I know where that could possibly be. They told us a bit about the history of the place, we chatted a bit more, and then they left.

A few of us did another excursion, this time to an abandoned anti-aircraft tank, also used as target practice. We climbed up it and it began to get dark. The mosquitos eventually chased us away. We settled into night number two, which was a lot of fun. We had a master ribs BBQer with us, so the food was amazing. We drank copious amounts of Budweiser and Sierra Nevada and stayed up late being debaucherous and silly. There was one late-night excursion back to the AA gun, but I was asleep by then.

AA gun in Dixie

AA gun in Dixie

The next day was a lazy one for me. I again made breakfast and then the rest of the group went to scout out a new place to shoot. They found one not much further past the “settlement” I had found. Half the group went to set up targets and the rest of us stayed behind and napped under one of the canopies. The wind was particularly aggressive, which was nice. I zoned out with my iPod and slept in tiny little bits here and there.

There was another shoot at dusk. The sun went behind the mountains and we again piled in the truck. There was an indefinable stone ruin from the old town and an overturned, shot-up station wagon. This time, I was given an AR-15, which is similar to an M-16, insofar as I understand it. This rifle felt really nice – a good balance, a nice feel, and good energy. I railed away at a target, but it was getting too dark to see where I’d hit. Someone used tracer bullets, which was really cool. There’s something in them – phosphorous maybe – that keeps the bullet lit red while it travels. Someone else shot up some tanarite, which explodes on impact. And that was pretty much the sum of my shooting. I also had opportunities at other times to shoot other guns. Aside from those I mentioned, I shot a Colt 1911 and some .22 cal pistol whose name escapes me.

And then came the ceremonial burning of the chicken. Our geologist found a chicken piñata to bring along, one sporting a sweet and innocent smile. I figured out a way to rig up the poor bastard so he’d hang above the fire pit. After a meal of pork ribs, rib-eye steak, and corn, we lit the chicken and went to sleep soon after. With that, “Burning Chicken” was over, no one got shot, and it was a great time. Aside from having a nice getaway with friends, it was good for me to learn a little more about guns. They’re part of American culture. They still freak me out a little. But part of the appeal is that if all goes to shit in this fragile society, and you’re left to your own means of survival, it’s better to know them then not know them. Now at least, if someone hands me one in a critical situation, I’ll know what to do.

Before the burn

The burn

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One Response to “Take a right at Bolivia”

  1. Is there any significance to the fact that the chicken wore a pink dress and hairbow?

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