Friday, January 30, 2004

Burning Man 10: Glossary of Terms

Visualize a horseshoe, points up. Think about the bottom of that horseshoe. That's Center Camp. Now imagine that horseshoe is a mile or so across from side to side (inside, that is), and imagine 23 thousand people are living and performing on that horseshoe. It's a terrible analogy, but that's the basic shape of the camp, and that's how many people were there. I heard. Rumors fly more quickly there than anywhere on the planet, I think.

Center Camp nominally the locus of activity at Burning Man. It's the only place that serves coffee and sells ice (profits are donated to the nearby town), and it's big and shady and comfortable. There's at least one stage, which has a variety of acts, some of which I think just spontaneously generated out of playa dust and too much beer. There's some art, including one that figures slightly in a story I may write shortly. It appeared to be some sort of foam rubber igloo, painted blue and green, with an entry low enough to make you crawl. The reason, it turns out, is to keep the ambient light low--the inside (apparently-I was too dazzled by the rest of the place to get inside) was blacklit and covered with stars and zodiacal signs.

All in all, Center Camp is a good place to just relax, if you've been wandering around and were tired of walking, which a lot of people are at one point or another. In fact, it becomes a goal in and of itself--"let's walk this street all the way to Center Camp" means you'll see several hundred pieces of art/performances/weird people, and probably a hundred more if you walk the same street back. Because everyone's promenading. It's all weird, all the time.

But Center Camp being a high traffic area means the camps around them are high traffic too. Imagine an almost complete circle outside a complete circle, the complete circle being Center Camp itself. Since this is such a prominent area, those camps are regulated by the BMOrg(anization). To get a spot, you must submit a plan for your camp several months before the event, detailing what you plan to do. If you're accepted, you've got it made--and more importantly, you can suck off of the power grid that powers Center Camp. In case you haven't figured this out, we were one of those fortunate camps.

The gift economy bears explaining as well. It's practiced in many forms around the city, but the most important thing you need to know is that money is not allowed. Purchasing something won't get you thrown out, but it's guaranteed to get you razzed (and ostracized in certain extreme camps). It's also not exactly a barter system, although in most cases this is what it devolves into. To the untrained eye, though, that's exactly what it is. One person wants something, and offers something in return. This is what the Boyscouts taught us.

See, the Boyscouts didn't bring any water. They brought beer. Which they traded for water. Brilliant, because they had a Costco card, which gets you cheap beer, in both senses of the phrase. Coors Light, I think, which isn't my favorite. At least, it wasn't at the start of the week.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Burning Man 9: Setup, and The Boyscouts

I had no problems getting my ticket, which just shows that worrying WORKS, dammit! After this, we approached the Greeter's station, intent on our first official contact with that which is Burning Man. The stuff in the parking lot was nice, and the people at the ticket booth were friendly, but we were finally about to enter the Burning Dragon, I remember thinking. Later on, I found out they had one of those, too. Literally.

The Greeters are an admirable lot, especially those who operate during the wee hours of the morning. It's damn cold out there, and while there are people coming in at 4am, I expect those folks aren't very much fun. Greeters, it seems to me, perform several functions:

1) Welcome you home, which sounds corny until you've been through post event decompression. Once you wake up every day for the first week back at home wondering how your tent got square, and how come it hasn't been blown over yet, you begin to think of the Burn as home.

2) Give you valuable information about the current state of services, The Man, maps, and anything major in the news (busts, big accidents, fashion shows, etc).

3) Supply first timers with an inkling of just what exactly is going on here. These are the people who show you it's OK to let your freak flag fly, or at least help you begin to find and unfurl it. They're the ones who cadge beers, pinch your nipples, and in general give you the lift you need to begin meshing with the community as a whole. They'll also help get you set up, if you've been given a spot on the map to camp in (as we were).

We found our plot, with assistance from one of the Org, just before dark. We had just enough time to set up our tents and find the food and whiskey before it got dark (and cold). This, my friends, is when the first ripple occurred.

Remember, back in Burning Man 3 (or 4, hell, I don't even remember), when I talked in very specific terms about the Tent Situation? Well, unfortunately, Dan and I didn't speak in nearly so specific a term, which led to the following conversation, beginning when Dan began to help me set up my tent.

J: "Where's your tent?"

D: "I thought you brought the tent?"

J: "Yes, I brought MY tent. Where's yours?"

D: "I thought you said you were taking care of the tent?!"

J: "Yes, I took care of my tent....but...."

After thinking long and hard post-event, I came to the conclusion that we probably shouldn't have planned the whole thing drunk on the kitchen floor. Luckily, I'd bought a big enough tent for two people, so it wasn't that awkward. To Dan's credit, he did sleep on a couch in Center Camp most nights, when we slept at all. And disappointingly, there was only one (slight) chance that I could have had company in that tent anyway--which occurred on the night that it rained, and Dan was in there, so that didn't work.

So, tent set up, we were met by the first of our neighbors, a group of freaks called "Pulse." The Pulse people were a really together bunch of party goers from the Bay Area, if I remember right. They were basically a raver camp without the big dance floor and PA, but their decor was great--a lot of heart shaped stuff, and a big gazebo with lots of blood-corpuscule shaped pillows. Really well done camp, complete with shower and RV. Our first interaction with them was when they wanted to know how much power we'd need. Dan, of course, looks at me. I, I'm ashamed to admit, didn't know a watt from an amp at that point (although I'm a little better now), so I just guessed. I guessed high, which was better than guessing low, and we ceded the unused plugs back to them the next morning.

Pulse was to our right, facing the camp. I was never really sure what was on our left--I suspect Media Mecca, or one of the actual Burning Man "official" sites. A public service building, something like that. Behind us, an empty spot (on Sunday night, anyway). To the left of that empty spot, our new friends, the Black Rock City Speedway.

These guys were great. They were former BRC Rangers (something like cops, only more interested in keeping everyone safe from things like fires and speeding art cars than busting people for flagrant dope smoking), and had obviously been coming for several years. I immediately pegged them as big children, which is just fine with me, and my impression wasn't mitigated one bit when I found out they'd brought out all their RC cars to play with. Granted, they'd race RC cars with anyone who evinced interest, and in this way they were about as interactive a camp as you could get. Which was one of the major criteria for getting a spot in Center Camp--big interactivity.

These guys, hereinafter referred to as The Boyscouts, which nickname derived from the twisted mind of either Robert or TwinA, also gave us our first example of the "gift economy" we'd been hearing so much about.

But now that I read back on this, I think I've left some shit out. Next post will be an explanation of some of the terms, camp layout, and the arrival of Cosmo and Mr. E.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Let's Take A Break

Man, that driving was hard on a brother, even just writing about it. Things will get easier, I promise, and I also promise I won't write in nearly so much detail about the trip back, although I will hit the highlights.

Thanks again to Wayne for sending folk here. I wish I could figure out this whole sidebar thing, and I'd permalink him. Since I can't (figure it out), though, his blog is here. I swear, after I finish _Finnegan's Wake_ I'll go find an HTML book.

And I guess thanks to you guys who come by and read what I'm writing. You've almost got me convinced you like it.

The more I read back on this story, that is the Burning Man story, the more dissatisfied I am with it. There are a lot of events that don't really come through like I want them to, but since I'm writing it quickly (I am at work, after all) I barely skim for spelling and grammar before posting it. I think I'm trying to get the skeleton of it out and whole. If enough people tell me they like it, I think I'll take it and flesh it out a little bit. Offline, that is. I don't know. Let's get through the crucible that is the Nevada desert first.

This is a strange medium to work in, for me. Usually I'm more of an oral storyteller, and I can adjust the content of the stories to the audience. In this blog, I've really got no control over who reads it, so I'm having to find ways to gloss over some awkward points (that is, points that may embarrass people I don't want to embarrass) without taking away from the momentum of the narrative. That's difficult--I'm wishing more and more for time to rewrite this shit, but I can't, so I'm promising myself if I think it's worth it, I'll rewrite it once it's all down on "paper." I just hope Blogger doesn't eat off the front of it before I get done with the end of it.

Just finished reading _The Great Gatsby_ last night, for the first time since high school (or maybe junior high). I liked it far more this time than last. If I had any sort of artistic ability, I'd whip up some sort of dock with a green lantern and get it tattooed on me somewhere. That's how cool I thought it was.

I do have a complaint about it, though. I purchased "THE AUTHORIZED TEXT," which put me on notice that there would most likely be a preface by the author then probably a preface by the publisher or one of Fitzgerald's agents/family/editors about what's different, or what makes this edition better. So I skipped that. I've found that if I start reading there, by the time I get to the story itself I've completely lost interest, or maybe my expectations have grown too outlandish for the actual story to keep me awake. I've decided to read the fucking story first, then if I like it go back and read the stuff.

My complaint is that they put stuff both at the front AND after the end of the actual text. This may not be a big deal to a lot of people, but it's awful to me, because I'm one who keeps thumbing the pages remaining and thinking about how long the author's got to wrap things up. In essence, Fitzgerald killed the guy off and closed the book about 20 pages before I expected it. This sucks, kids. It reminds me of _Clockwork Orange_, when I strugged to contextualize and define all those fucked up words (droogs, krovvy, and viddy, remember), then found out the last fifteen pages of that specific edition was a fucking glossary of terms. How angry was I, on how many levels?

So fellas, put the extraneous shit either in the front or the back, not both. And tell me which end I should ignore. Some sort of notation on the spine or cover would be fine with me. Thanks.

Burning Man 8: The Last Leg

By now, you must be almost as glad we're almost to Burning Man as we were. I'll skip the rest of the drive on I80, because I slept most of the way through it, and I'm sure Dan will email me if there's something interesting. Suffice it to say that we hit the exit for the twin metropoli of Fernley and Wadsworth. It's kind of a screwy place, especially when you've been driving interstates for two days, but with the help of a local policeman/sheriff, we were on our way up the last road to Burning Man.

Let's take a minute to reflect on the oddity of Salt Lake City again. SLC's a huge city, and a beautiful one, even at night. The police there are no doubt professional, courteous, and kind. The Washoe Country sheriff's office patrols the highways and byways of an area that's not quite as unpleasant as it sounds, but is still pretty damn unpleasant. There are lots of mines, and miners, and bars, and domiciles I really can't help but call shacks. In essence, a town that looks like it can get rough at times. The people were, without exception, nice people, but we didn't meet any of them til well after this event. So my point is, why were we so much more willing to stop and talk to a cop (asking directions to Burning Man, for chrissake) in Wadsworth NV than we were in SLC Utah? Weird stuff. Maybe I'll expand on that later.

Anyway, there was a reprise of the excitement we first experienced when hitting the road in Oklahoma, a sense that there were no more fuckups to be made, and pretty soon we'd be where we were going. I was so happy to be off the interstate, in fact, that I completely forgot to be nervous about meeting all these artists and helping them do something I'd never in the world thought I'd be helping with. There was a lot of joking and laughing (slightly giddy laughter, too) and pointing out the windows and the beginnings of a discussion about what things would be like.

An hour and a half later, we're back to the way we were before--tired, mumbling guys who are both leaning close to the dash to see where we're going. We knew we weren't lost--there's no way to get lost. We certainly knew we hadn't passed it...we just hadn't realized it was so far off the beaten track. Or interstate.

It wouldn't have mattered much if we hadn't been racing the daylight to get there before dark. You pass within a quarter mile of Pyramid Lake, which is beautiful (and also, incidentally, one of the biggest pelican rookeries in the world), and there are lots of interesting geological and horticultural things to keep your mind busy. It's also free range cattle land, so there are also a lot of cattle guards and actual free range cattle standing on/near/within sight of the road. This is dangerous as all hell, if you're driving (especially at night), so SLOW THE FUCK DOWN if you're driving after dark. The shoulders of the road (nominally State Highway 447, if I remember right) are soft or nonexistent, and it's hilly country, so there's a) nowhere to swerve if you come up on a cow (or something) in the road, and b) no way to see very far ahead in the first place. I REPEAT: slow down. People don't die on the road every year, but I know several fatalities have occurred over the years.

So we kept it around 40 (or less, when the grades were too steep). After an eternity, it seemed, we approached Gerlach, officially the last town before Burning Man. That's when we started seeing Burners. The gas stations and the store and the shoulders of the road were covered with RV's, mutated cars, motorcycles, cop cars, hippies, goths, and the occasional bemused local who forgot what week it was. The town was/is small. I had the feeling that I saw more people parked waiting for gas and buying last minute items than the town normally supports through the entire year. And the event didn't even officially start til Monday.

I'd like to reiterate that the people of Gerlach and Empire (and even Nixon and Wadsworth/Fernley) have never been anything other than kind, helpful, and pleasant to everyone I know who's been. This was a little surprising to me, since if this sort of crowd showed up in Oklahoma, they would have been arrested on some kind of charge posthaste. Granted, there's been some trouble lately with the Zoning Board in the area, but I'll leave that for the BMOrg to tell you about.

We crawled through town, dodging buses, people, dogs and tumbleweeds (well, not really tumbleweeds, but it COULD HAPPEN, dammit), and hit the other side. And there, a few miles away, was the playa.

It's huge. It's much, much bigger than I thought it would be, and it was flat and featureless and dead white. I think it's around 200 square miles, if I remember right, but that doesn't do it justice. We drove 30 minutes before we even SAW the BM front gate--that may help out a little bit.

But that's what we did. We drove, and saw the sign, and turned off onto the desert floor for the first time.

The playa is, like I said, actually a giant alkali lake bed, which actually still gets some ponding on it during the winter months. It looks a lot like a cracked, dried Oklahoma lakebed, except it was white, whereas Oklahoma's is red. And huge, if I haven't made that painfully clear.

At this point, I began to worry about my ticket. We were in the middle of chaos, with campers, trucks, art cars, buses, RV's and various other vehicles competing to see which could cover the Greeters (the first bunch of people you meet when you come in, who welcome you home and give you a map and directions) with the most fine white dust. There were also a couple of people directing traffic, which was rather confusing because we didn't want to go where they pointed, but rather to the ticket counter...which was a small oasis of (relative) calm. Dan and I got out of the car, cracked a beer, and turned around to see a half dozen of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. They had an ice chest full of beer, a battery operated CD player, and not much in the way of clothing. Topless, in fact. They were, however, dancing like mad and punctuating things with reassuring rebel yells and shouts of "where's the pipe?"

At this point, I realized everything was going to be OK.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Burning Man 7: Jungoed

Jungoed, or How We Almost Missed Burning Man. Or maybe How We Almost Died In the Desert.

When last we saw our intrepid loonies, they were fiddling about Elko NV. I'm going to skip a bit of the driving, as well as the last Walmart stop (where we took on all the water and did the last of our shopping). I was pretty close to exhausted at this point (that is, I was holding on by my fingernails, mainly because I was sure we were getting close), so I don't remember a lot. I do remember how low the truck was riding BEFORE the water got put on, and my refusal to drive it anymore after we'd loaded it down with several hundred pounds of water. Dan loves his truck, and I wasn't going to be the one to break it.

So, we find ourselves in scenic Winnemucca on Sunday midmorning. Winnemucca serves as the jumping off point for the fabled "shortcut to Burning Man," which apparently takes quite a bit of time off your journey.

Now, the website very explicitly discourages you from taking the shortcut. The version I just linked to has been rewritten a few times to make it seem more dangerous. They're right. The old website had a lot more detail about the Jungo, although even back in 2000 they recommended against taking it.

As far as I know, there are no maps of the Jungo Road. The only reason we were able to even find the entrance was because I'd read the directions five hundred times before we left--but even if I hadn't forgotten my printed matter, there's no map. And there are no directions, either. I suppose you might be able to fiddle around with the net and find enough satellite photos of the area to piece together a route. If that's the case, good luck, but I won't wait up for you at Center Camp.

We entered the Road with a full tank of gas and high spirits, ignoring the CW that says avoid shortcuts, because we knew better. And I still think we know better than most people--but we were outclassed by the sheer expanse of Nevada.

I think the Jungo is really a network of mining roads, which are similar to (but much worse than) oil lease roads here in Oklahoma and Texas. They're gravel where they're not washed out completely, they're washboarded, and they're in the middle of nowhere. There are no maps. There are no signs. The only people you see are miners and guys shooting at jackrabbits, neither of which group looked particularly open to giving us directions.

After an hour or so on the Road, with no appreciable change in scenery, and an alarming number of turn off's and intersections, we decided that this was a bad idea, and that we should probably head back. Ultimately, we decided to turn back when we had half a tank of gas left, just to say we gave it our best shot.

To our credit, we didn't get lost. I still don't think it was a bad idea, on its face, just an idea that didn't have all the facts to inform it. We turned around a little before the halfway point on the gas tank, which was smart, too. And ultimately, we made it almost all the way back to town before disaster struck.

In the form of a flat tire. There was a spare, miraculously, and even more miraculously none of the tire changing implements were buried under a thousand pounds of gear. But it was a back tire, so getting the damn thing jacked up was a two person job. Getting the lug nuts busted off was a 20 minute ordeal, one that had me thinking about how long we could live out here with the food and water (and acid) in the truck, and culminating in a reasonably good Hulk impersonation by Dan (which impersonation finally got the lugnuts off), followed by a 10 minute discussion of tire dimensions and long term effects on the other tires, if the spare wasn't the same size as the other three. Dan was convinced it wasn't, and I don't really know enough about tires to check, and besides I was about to fall down and go to sleep by the side of the road.

For those of you playing the game, it was then Sunday, around 1pm. I had managed no more than four hours of sleep between Friday morning and that final crisis on a rough gravel road three states away. I was running on fumes, and we hadn't even gotten to Burning Man yet.

In fact, there was some worry that we wouldn't make it At All, or at least not on Sunday. Dan didn't want to drive much on the interstate with the tires the way they were, but neither of us were convinced that we could find a tire shop open on Sunday, in Winnemucca. Luckily, and please be aware how hard it is for me to say this, there's a Wal Mart in town, and we had no choice. Dan agonized a bit more about whether to just buy one, or two, or have them rotated, or repaired, or several other things (If you haven't guessed, Dan worries like other people breathe). The tire techs advised him, and I found out later also pointed out that all that was unneccessary, since all the tires were the same size after all. I slept on my feet, leaning against the door Dan would have to leave so he wouldn't forget to wake me up.

Surprisingly enough, we were out of Winnemucca by midafternoon, and I was finally down for the count. I remember very little of that long, tedious drive (frustratingly the opposite direction of where we needed to be), except mountains and the occasional BRRRAPP! whenever Dan slipped off onto the shoulder. He woke me as we were getting off of the interstate, on what would be the last leg of the journey. Sheesh. We're almost there, kids. Is anyone still with me?

Burning Man 6: On the Road (Utah-Elko)

I immediately figured out that there was no way to get comfortable and sleep upright in Dan's Ford Ranger pickup. Of course, we didn't think about pillows or anything useful for the trip, so I kept trying to cradle my head in the seat belt strap, which worked OK until Dan had to make a turn, which was often. As a result, it felt like I had just drifted off to sleep when Dan shook me awake and said he needed a navigator. We were just entering Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City is, most times, easy to navigate. At least, I judge that to be true from the map we had. I80 just runs right through the middle of it, and there's a loop that runs around the south half of town and meets up on the other side. Dan was confused because I-80 was completely shut down, which neither of us to this day understand. It was 4 in the morning, and both of were groggy (but still happy with each other and what we were doing), but I managed to get us onto the loop around town, then nodded off with an admonition to "just turn west on I80 when you see it again."

Five minutes later, I was shaken awake again. I opened my bleary eyes to a line of police flares and orange barricades completely across the highway. We didn't see anyone, and we didn't see any signs indicating detour, but it was obvious to us that we couldn't proceed further. We were forced to exit the highway, and promptly became lost.

Whatever you've heard about Salt Lake City, how it's unnaturally clean and the people are nice in an almost Stepford fashion, forget it. It's much worse than that. After a few minutes of driving around in a blur, we began to sense that we didn't belong. I had long hair, red eyes and no shirt on. Dan looked like an escaped convict, with a shaved head and a denim shirt with the sleeves ripped off. And a crazed glint in his eye, to boot. We became convinced (just by driving a few blocks through town) that we would be arrested on sight, or at the very least intensely (but politely) questioned.

It took us half an hour of driving around to establish a) there were no detour signs and b) not much in that area of SLC is open at 4am. There's also not much of a night life, incidentally, because we spent that entire half hour driving around looking for someone to give us directions out of town.

At the end of that time, we came upon a skateboard guy unloading a bunch of milk from the back of a truck into a convenience store. We got garbled (but polite) directions from him, which I promptly discarded because they didn't agree with what I could tell from the map, and left him waving at us in the parking lot, halogen security light glinting from his nose ring. It was just too weird. Technically, he was just like us. When we discussed it later, we discovered that we both felt odd around him because he was a clean and neat and SANE version of us. His jeans didn't have holes in them. His Black Flag Tshirt might have been tucked in. And his hair and face were clean. Very strange.

Being navigator, I took control and decided safe/sure beat fast at this point. We drove west on the first big street we could find, and 20 minutes after meeting the Nice Punk we were back on the loop. 15 minutes after that, we were on I80 again.

About halfway to the Nevada line, we stopped by mutual consent and too a leak. I looked up, and almost fell over backwards. I'd never seen that many stars in my life. It was stunning, in part because I'd never thought to look up at the sky, and in fact I was probably just stretching my neck to begin with. So there we stood, silent, staring up into the cosmos, dicks in hand, until an approaching car rang us back to reality.

I got to thinking about it once we got back in the car and started driving again. It's a really bad metaphor, but hey, I was tired, and had nothing else to do. My recent life=driving, looking at the ground. No stars. On the way to Burning Man=seeing the stars, recognizing that maybe there was something left for me to do in the world. Or maybe recognizing there was something WORTH doing. A combination of both, I reckon. Again, I was tired.

I don't remember when exactly I started driving again--I think after we stopped for gas the next time. Dan slept again (I have no idea how he does it), and I did a lot of radio changing (and singing), while drinking lots of Coca-Cola to stay awake. Which was extremely difficult. Shortly after we crossed into Nevada, I began hallucinating huge trees with large black horned apes hanging from the branches. Over the road. That, my friends, was fun. But we drove. It was Sunday morning, around 5am. As each wave of sleep deprivation hallucinations swept over me (spiders in the road was another common feature), my hand would creep over to Dan...then creep back. I don't know why I didn't wake him-maybe it was because he probably wouldn't be able to drive, and I didn't want to feel like I HAD to do it. Maybe because if I got killed by someone falling asleep at the wheel, I wanted to be the one responsible. Plus, the spiders in the road were kind of cool. And the horned apes skinned cats as I drove beneath the tree branches.

Finally, I realized that I could see things without the aid of headlights. My first experience with Northern Nevada crept up behind me, banishing the spiders and trees and monkeys and revealing the most desolate landscape I'd ever seen. And it stayed at the top of the list for almost 24 hours, when I laid eyes on the playa for the first time.

Driving in the wee hours is really difficult for me to do. However, if I can drive through it and see the sun, I'm good for another day (or most of a day). By rights, then, I should have let Dan sleep. But I couldn't. I'd defeated the horned apes and spiders and the SLC PD, and we were in the goddam desert, which means we had to be close. I woke him just as we entered Elko, Nevada.

There's a painting by Ralph Steadman that residents of Nevada have told me is completely apropros for Elko. It's a picture of a guy who's possibly just blown his brains out of the top of his head. The eyes are perfect black circles, the jaw slack, and there's blood (paint) everywhere. That, my friends, is what happens if you hang out in Elko too long. I was impressed.

There's nothing that says "Nevada" like small town casinos at daybreak. The town drag (technically, the "business district") consisted of washed out looking motels, gas stations that somehow conveyed the sense of total abandonment yet were obviously still in operation, and casinos that seemed weathered and faded, despite the neon that was everywhere. The street lights blinked yellow, or maybe red. And there wasn't a soul around at 6am on a Sunday morning.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Burning Man 5: On the Road (Wyoming-Utah)

Surprisingly enough, the mountains didn't get really bad until we started heading westbound on I80. That's where you've got to bite the bullet and actually Cross The Mountains, whereas I think we just skirted the foothills in Denver. Not sure, though. I was pretty tired.

Dan woke up shortly after we hit Cheyenne, and pretty well stayed awake for most of the next few hours. We'd stopped in Denver and picked up an audio copy of Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, which I love and Dan started to shortly. There's a school of thought (of which I am a member) that thinks East Coast people don't like Steinbeck. He's too sentimental, his characters don't have depth. West Coast (or, since I'm centrally located) folks don't mind that. In my experience, obviously, that's generally true. Liz doesn't really care for him, and she's about as East Coast as they come. Plus, I like to razz on the Right Coast people about elitist pretentions.

Anyway, the book is a series of stories written around a huge road trip that Steinbeck did with his dog (If I get any emails asking what the dog's name was, I'm smacking you). Good stuff for a trip halfway 'cross country, and Dan ate it up. So did I, and frankly, we both ate up the countryside as well. It's a whole different world to a flatlander like me, and I could see myself living up there if I could get internet access and wouldn't have to drive in the snow. We spent a lot of time mulling over these sort of wooden...fences...that were placed at intervals on either side of the road. I'm convinced they're to keep snow from drifting over the highway, but no one else seems happy with that explanation. Maybe I should ask Troy N.

Finally, we topped out on the Continental Divide. There was/is some sort of memorial/national park/hysterical marker there, but I'll be damned if I can find any reference to it anywhere on my map. Anyway, that was the first time we were out of the car since, well, Denver.

In Oklahoma, late August gets you 104 degrees during the day. That's what I remember thinking at the time, although I heard it got up to 108 while I was away. By the time we hit the Divide and got out to take a piss, it was daylight and about 48 degrees. In August, I swear to god. For me, that's when it started to sink in that maybe there was actually more to the world than more places which, stripped of all smoke and mirrors, were actually just Oklahoma. Sounds sad, but it's true.

We dicked around for a few minutes, then got back in the car and headed west. Dan was up, but I still had a few hours left in me, so I was driving. The sun was still up, somehow, although I could see it starting to set.

Now, let me tell you something about Ford cars and light trucks. I like them OK (there's a great big ol' argument down here about which is better, Ford or Chevy). Dan had a nice Ford Ranger (still does, I reckon), which served his needs very well driving around Houston doing whatever it was that Dan was doing in Houston. Houston is flatland, for those of you who've never been there. Oklahoma City is flatland. So are KC and St Louis and Chicago, for what that's worth. Even loaded down, there were no problems for him in our part of the world.

And then we hit Wyoming. Or more accurately, we sorta coasted on into Wyoming, and then rolled back a bit. Dude. Those are mountains. And Edward (the truck-don't ask me) did his best, but it was rough. Long steep grades, steep enough that they'd give semi's special lanes to drive in because they slowed down so much. So did we. We used the trucker lanes, because no matter how we tried to hit those inclines, we'd always drop down to about forty by the time we hit the top. Then, of course, we could go as fast as we wanted, but we were pretty heavily loaded and the roads weren't Kansas roads (which were fondly recalled, because they were at least STRAIGHT). Then, ominous developments:

1) Trucker lanes on the DOWNHILL SIDES of the mountains. Well, not really lanes--they were big ramps (later, we saw some sand/gravel pits) for semi drivers whose brakes had failed to drive up on so they didn't careen off the edge of the mountain and die. I salute the highway engineers who came up with this idea. It's great. We need more. But there's nothing quite like being on the downhill side of a 4 or 5 mile incline, seeing one of those big ramps, and wondering just what exactly is coming down the mountain behind you?? Lots of that. I was getting punchy, and so was Dan.

And then

2) It started to rain. Hard. The sky went black. We were on one of the twistiest roads I've ever seen, and I couldn't see more than a hundred feet ahead of me. And we were being passed by semis. Dozens of them, it felt like. Actually, it felt like HUNDREDS, by the time it was over with, but I'm trying to keep some sense of perspective. Granted, they were probably much more familiar with that road than I was, and definitely could see better (being higher up), but it was still scary as hell. To tell you the truth, the only reason I didn't stop on the side of the road was I kept picturing one of those trucks ambling out of his lane and cannoning us out through the guardrail like a pool ball. To make matters worse, an Arlo Guthrie song was stuck in my head, too. It's called "I Don't Want A Pickle," and as Arlo will tell you, it's a song he wrote after driving his motorcycle off a cliff in the mountains. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he had been in the same area. Let me tell you, I missed Kansas back then.

Thankfully, that only went on for an hour or so. And we were losing altitude. Shortly after that, somewhere around 11pm, we stopped for food and drink (jerky and Coke, if I remember right). I made a prank phone call to one of the guys back home, telling him we'd been run off the road by a semi and he would have to come get us. Yeesh. Now that I think about it, maybe Dan should have been driving.

But I soldiered on, for a ways, until we hit Evanston, on the Utah line. By the time we stopped and switched places, I'd driven over 1100 miles in about 19 hours. I was zonked. I was, in fact, sore--the muscles in my back and shoulders were aching from waiting for that fucking semi to slam into the rear of us at any second. More road food, back to the truck, and I began to understand why Dan had such a hard time sleeping.

Next: On the Road (Utah-Nevada)

Burning Man 4: On the Road (Texas - Wyoming)

By now you should have a pretty good idea of all the people and equipment we were going to need out there in the desert [quick note: I keep calling it a desert, but it's really a dry lakebed]. Where was I?

Oh, yeah. The plan was for Pugh to leave Houston Friday around 5pm and arrive here that night. I automatically shifted that back about five hours, not because Dan's not punctual, but because I know how rarely things take off on time. Plus, I was ready, so it was really no skin off my nose if he showed up early.

John and Levi appeared to see us off, as did a couple of other people, and everyone but me had a great time drinking. They had such a good time, in fact, that they kept me awake, until someone had the grand idea of hitting a bar closeby. Thankfully, that gave me a smidgen of shuteye, which I clutched greedily, since we weren't really sure how long it would take to get out there. As it happened, the guys were so out of sync that the first person to leave for the bar came home about an hour after the last person had left. Consequently, I got an hour of sleep. The guy who woke me (who will remain nameless) promptly took my spot on my bed and began snoring. The rest of my time at home was spent directing drunks to soft spots and checking/rechecking my gear. And looking out the front door.

Finally at 5am Dan Pugh arrived. This was Saturday morning, mind you, and we were tentatively supposed to arrive on site on Sunday afternoon/evening. Dan and I did our normal capering dance, then he whipped out a great big bottle of Jack Daniels with which to toast our departure. We couldn't get anyone to wake up and drink any (in fact, we couldn't get anyone to wake up), so back into the gear it went. An anticlimax I would have been pissed about had I not been so ready to get on the road. I took the wheel, after we loaded my stuff. Dan is a very effective packer, even once he's been on the road for six or eight hours and working with one hand holding a flashlight.

We were in Wichita before I realized I'd forgotten all the directions at home. We had an atlas, and some pretty good memories (as you can imagine, we'd pored over maps and directions hundreds of times waiting for it to happen), but nothing on paper. This wouldn't really have been an issue, except for a whole chapter later on I'll title "Jungoed." Watch for it.

The first leg of the trip was good--we had the CD player out, Dan has some very cool music I hadn't heard (and vice-versa, I think), and we hadn't seen each other in a long time. He was whipped, but stayed conscious long enough to get us through the FUCKED UP interchange in Wichita. I hope they fired the goddamn civil engineer that's responsible for THAT thing. The only thing going for it is that once you pass where you should have gotten off, there's a relatively simple cutback you can take a few miles to the north.

I drove almost all the way to Salina KS before Dan conked out. Salina is where we turned west, towards Denver. Two observations about Kansas:

1) Kansas is a dull, dull place to drive. On the whole, the roads are good, and there's not a damn thing to see except for minivans and semis, so the six hours from here to KC feels like about 10. It's so bad we actually prefer to take the longer route through Missouri, because it's somewhat interesting. But we weren't going to KC.

2) Up until we hit Nevada, the only thing worse than the Oklahoma-Kansas City drive was the Salinas KS to the Colorado Line drive. The roads are drawn with a straight edge, all the towns look exactly the same, and for all I know are placed at definite intervals along the interstate. I found myself wondering about what sort of rocks lined the shoulder of the road. Of course, Dan slept through this part.

Sometime after lunch, Dan woke up and we parked for a bite to eat. I forget the name of the town, but it had a really nice Family Restaurant, complete with white checkered curtains and chicken fried steak (and meatloaf!). The waitress there was cute, in the way only a Kansas goth girl working in a Family Restaurant can be, and had that "I want to get out of Kansas" look in her eye that I see so often (in slightly varied form) in the eyes of young people here. She was disappointed, though--we didn't pick her up. We didn't have room!

I'm bringing up the first stop for several reasons:

1) To remind Dan of the poignancy of that sweet girl's desire to get the hell out of Dodge (although it wasn't Dodge). And the curtains.

2) To point out that this is the last actual meal we'll eat for the next two weeks. The next best thing we had before I got back home was a meal from Burger King in Tonopah NV. The rest of the journey was beef jerky and Sun Chips.

3) To introduce another element into the story, the stops at various Wal Mart (boo! hiss!) and hardware stores to pick up stuff we'd forgotten.

So we went into Wal-Mart, in this case. I don't remember what all we got, but somehow it got added to the load. The truck was starting to squat under the weight, and we hadn't even gotten to the mountains yet. I was a little apprehensive about this, because I'd never actually driven in the Rockies before, but Dan didn't seem too worried, so I let it go.

On the road we went, and off to sleep Pugh went again. I began to ruminate on how arbitrary state lines are in so many cases. What's the difference between western Kansas and eastern Colorado? There is none. There's more difference between western and eastern Oklahoma than there is those two states. Until we hit the mountains, anyway.

The only thing I could remember about Denver is that we had to change highways, and a huge interchange called The Mousetrap. Dan had lived in Denver (or around Denver) much more recently than I had, which isn't saying much, but he seemed very confident we wouldn't die or get lost. And we didn't--even in rush hour. Despite the shortcomings of their highway planners, their sign-coordinators are stellar.

Dan conked out again just north of Denver, leaving me to drive to Wyoming (yee haw!). By the time I hit the Wyoming Line, I'd been driving for 13 hours, and hadn't slept (except for that hour the night before) in 36. I was good, though-and Dan needed the rest.

Next: On the Road (Wyoming - Nevada)

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Burning Man 3: The Structures

I swear, we're going to get on the road any time now (the next installment, but bear with me).

The idea for the camp was a pair of eight foot cubes made out of PVC pipe (2 1/2" or 3"). Two sides of each cube would be covered in scrim, which would allow the fellas to rear project their film loops and slides from a distance away. Pugh was in charge of the cubes, Cosmo the scrim.

Since I had access to a metal fabricator (hereinafter Welder Tim), I fiddled around with ideas for shade structures. Winds are a real problem out there, so I took this pretty seriously. What I wound up with was a couple of very heavy canvas tarps, two collapsible stands that served as central supports, and four seven or eight foot metal posts that could be driven into the ground. Oh, and a nice two part flagpole, which is still functional (or was last time I saw it, ahem).

The general idea was to plant the four posts at the corners of the shade/living structure, cover them with the tarp, and prop up the middles with the collapsible ones. This was a good enough theory--just not quite sturdy enough for playa winds.

I also had about 25 stakes made, for guying down the corners of structures and holding down tents. Warning for those planning to attend: throw away the stakes that came with your tent. They're useless. Get some rebar, unless you can have nice ones custom made on the cheap like me.

Ethan had found a design for a PVC-and-parachute shade structure. This was supposed to be a really lightweight and effective shade structure, which it was, until the wind came up. I'm still not a big fan of parachutes unless they're very firmly attached to something big and metal (and itself staked down mercilessly).

So! We had food, water, shade and art. What's left? Ah yes, drugs, alcohol, and condoms.

Well, condoms are pretty self explanatory. Booze, well, booze tends to dehydrate, and I tend to drink A LOT once I get I was prepared to spend a week without tipple. I figured it's better to not have any beer than to run out midweek, right?

By the time we got down to the drugs, it was nearly too late. Acid was going strong here at the time, but as usual I couldn't get my hands on any until the week before. By the time it was roundly "tested," I had about 80 tabs left. This was on blotter, for ease of transport--in fact, I hid it inside my garage door opener, which was in turn clipped to Dan's sun visor. He didn't even ask any questions, although there was a brief moment when we arrived during which I thought I was going to have to smash it, since I hadn't brought a Phillips head screwdriver with me. More on that later.

Next: On The Road (Texas through Wyoming)

Burning Man #2: People, Food and Water

I'd committed to going, against my better judgement. I had some money, and I had quite a bit of free credit (something you really have to watch on cross country journeys), and I began to feel like I was about to start an adventure. Which I was, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

The group was simple enough. There were only four of us, in a small space in Center Camp. The conspirators:

Ethan: Hep California documentary film maker and all around visual artist. Went to art school with Dan. Knew Cosmo. Did not know me.

Cosmo: Another film maker and visual artist from CA. I can't imagine a school that could have taught Cosmo to do what he does. Knew Ethan. Did not know me or Dan.

Dan: Abusive, drunken stepfather of Little Orphan Annie. Visual and multimedia artist with an unfortunate fetish for tools. Knew Ethan and me. Did not know Cosmo.

Me: You know me. The only non-artist (even, at that time, a sort of anti-artist) of the bunch. At the time, I thought I was brought along mostly to tote stuff around and plug stuff in. Knew Dan. Didn't know Cosmo or Ethan.

That's the crew. As you can see, Cosmo and I were at a slight disadvantage, just knowing one other person. If I knew then what I knew now, there's no way in hell you'd get me into the desert with two people I didn't know and Dan Pugh. It just wouldn't happen.

But anyway...I imagine I was a bit of a problem for Ethan and Cosmo as well, because I didn't check email and had no clue what a listserve was. Any and all communication from the camp to me came through Dan, who must have taken good notes because we did most of our planning late at night, with suspiciously slurred speech. The legend has it that we were actually at bars in different cities, scribbling on napkins and such. I don't know where Pugh was, but I was mostly lying naked on the kitchen floor, since that was the coolest room in the house.

And I made no notes, yo. I was along for the ride. As long as I had enough to eat and drink, and enough illicits to get me through, I was completely willing to tote bundles and trench extension cords. Visual artistry? Not interested--already done enough acid, you won't crash my brain, no matter how fucked up your imagery is.

I'd committed later than the deadline for tickets through the mail, so I had one placed at Will Call, three states and thirteen hundred miles away (in the middle of the desert, don't forget). This was a little bit of a stretch for me: driving all that way with nothing to show that I'd paid them $200 already. Just to be safe, I stopped at an ATM in Kansas and got $200 more in cash--almost the last of it.

I spent a couple of good weekends tooling around town throwing my credit card at various camping and military surplus vendors, making sure that I had enough supplies. That was fun. I personally chose to go with MRE rations and collapsible water containers. You can't beat MRE's--there's a good variety, every one of them can be eaten directly out of the package with a spoon, and to cook them all you have to do (at least in the desert) is throw them on the hood of your car for half an hour. The packaging isn't recycleable, I don't think, but there's not much left after you've eaten it, anyway.

Which brings me to a good point: packaging. I was smart enough to figure this out without being told, mostly because I knew the size of Dan's truck (small) and I knew his tool fetish. This means I would have a minimum of space to pack in, so I spent an afternoon shucking packaging from everything I'd bought. This a) cut the volume at least in half, and b) reduced the amount of trash we had to haul off by quite a bit as well. Trash is not fun at all, even with the best of organization, so anything you can do to minimize it, the better. ALL trash (and everything else, for that matter) gets hauled away (by you) at the end of the week, so if you can leave it on your living room floor instead of driving it both ways, you'd best do so.

And really, who needs packaging? What's a cereal box but a label for the bag it contains? Leave the fucker At Home. Bring the bag. MRE's are cardboard boxes that contain the meal (also in a container) and a little bag full of potentially useful crap. I imagine that stuff's handy to have around if you're in combat, but for my purposes, no. So, no more cardboard box, no more tiny cellophane bags full of instant coffee and Chiclets and matches. Envelopes of food and a good spoon. Oh, and those little bottles of Tabasco. I love those.

The water was another issue. I purchased enough 5 gal collapsible plastic jugs for me to drink and bathe out of for a week, going by the published guideline of 2 gal/person/day. This, incidentally, I threw out the following year, as we used about half of the water we brought, and wouldn't have used that much had Pugh not washed his feet four times a day. But for the first time, definitely 2 gal/day.

Finally, a word about the sleeping situation. Dan asked me specifically if I "had a tent." I told him no, that I didn't have a tent, but not to worry because I'm sure I could round up something. In fact, I bought a fairly nice one, with a little extra room in case I happened upon one of those lusty playa ladies I'd been reading so much about (lots of BM legends include serious drugs and/or wild sex--not that this is what Burning The Man is about, but some people look for any excuse to party). I even purchased a queen sized air mattress. I was set, now.

Burning Man #1

In the spring of 2000, I was pretty well convinced that I had seen everything I was likely to see in my lifetime. That is, I knew pretty much every permutation of traffic on NW Expressway, I'd drank every kind of beer in Byron's Liquor Warehouse, and I'd even pretty well figured out the types of women I should stay away from.

The days of crazy hedonism were gone, in other words. After a couple of really bad experiences getting drunk or drug addled in other cities, I'd decided that God had given up on protecting this specific drunk, so I'd best stay home if I was going to be doing any more of that type of stuff. In other words, time to grow up a little bit and recognize that the law of averages (not to mention karma) meant I was about to get into some serious trouble (either legally or physically).

So, I was content to putter around the house and refuse invitations to keg parties, orgies, and zombie film fests. I was working my ass off, making lots of money, and in general trying to keep my head down.

Then, Dan called me. Being, I firmly believe, still on the right side of the law of averages, he continued to have an optimistic view of the world (and what we could accomplish in it). I was ready to buy the minivan, I guess you could say. Dan had gotten suckered into going to Burning Man, which for those not in the know is way the fuck away from Oklahoma, in the NW corner of Nevada. Since it wasn't really practical for him to go by himself (come to think about it, there's really nothing practical about doing it, at all), he caught me when I was drunk and not really paying attention and got me to commit to going with him.

Bear in mind that Dan is a tricky fucker, and I generally err on the side of courtesy, especially when I've been drinking. And he knows this, the bastard, so I'd pretty much been signed up with little more than "it'll be fun-go read the website tomorrow." It required more than a week off of work, in the summer, which as you can imagine is a bad time for me.

So, after reading about it, I decided it really wasn't something I could do. In other words, I chickened out--mainly because of the nearly 2 weeks I'd need off of work, but also because, well, this was exactly the sort of trip I had convinced myself we couldn't do anymore. There was enough driving alone to worry me to death--and then there was the desert, and the problem that I didn't know any of these folk at all.

But Dan lived in Houston, and we didn't really talk that often, and I wasn't terribly proud of having to back out, so I failed to notify him that I couldn't go. A few weeks passed, and apparently ol' Dan was sucked deeper into the confusing yet exhilarating (you won't know til you try it) preparations for doing it--or at least that's what I was led to believe.

I'm easily guilted, too. This event is what made me realize it, in fact. Suffice it to be said that Dan poked and prodded and cajoled until I came back around and committed. Again. I asked for the time off, then started seriously looking into what needed to be done. It was around June 15th.

End Part 1.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Burning Man Peoples

I'm completely changing the topic of this post--if this one was previously your favorite post by me, please feel free to kick me in the nuts next time you see me.

If you're new to this (and I hope you are), here's a bit of an explanation:

I really like to write, but I've always had a short attention span. This means that much of my life has been spent writing the beginnings of things and then losing interest--and then, given my lifestyle, losing what I'd written completely. Until recently, stories were something you told when you were in jail, or waiting for a bus, or (have mercy) attempting to impress a woman. Enter The Moth. And enter the blog.

The first showed me that people still want to hear stories, and the second allowed me to write things in installments (which keeps me from losing interest, since each piece is complete in and of itself) and absorb comments and encouragement on a nearly daily basis.

So what you're (hopefully) about to read is my first serious attempt at writing in about 10 years. Apologies if it's a little awkward at first--bear in mind that a) this is literally first draft stuff, and b) that I'm painfully, debilitatingly shy, and even typing something for a blog was initially enough to make my brain skitter around in my head like a rat on acid.

If you like what you read, please don't be afraid to post comments. The majority of the Burning Man story doesn't have comments because I didn't have comments enabled when it was written--but I'm a freakin' Burner, and I want to know what works and what doesn't. What you think is right, and what you think I'm off target with.

Thanks for reading.