Tuesday, January 27, 2004

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.


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