Saturday, October 09, 2004

Burning Man 2004 8: UTAH!

Like a James Michener novel gone bad, I give you: Everything Wrong With Utah.

Now, let's get this straight from the outset--it's not the PEOPLE from Utah I don't like. Some very good friends of mine are either from Utah or have relatives from Utah, so let's be clear that I'm not attempting to denigrate anyone because of where they're from.

That said, I hate Utah. But that will come clear in the narrative, I'm sure.

Wendover is basically the last stop in Nevada if you want to piss some of your money away, or, from the perspective of a gamblin' fool from Utah, the nearest place to get your blackjack on. You guys know those tattoo and porn shops just across the OK line in Gainesville? Imagine those being big ass casinos, and being huddled so close to the Utah line that there's actually a line painted in the street to designate the crossing point (since there are NO RIVERS out there). Imagine naked greed, in 50 thousand candlewatts and 9 different colors. That's what Utah does to people who live nearby.

Wendover exists in a small bowl, as I've said, and as I drove up out of it on the eastern side, I saw the next six hours of my life, all laid out flat and white under the setting sun. It was, in fact, quite beautiful, and if I hadn't been completely and utterly focused on getting through it, I would have stopped to take some video.

Coming out of the mountains to the west, at sunset, is quite picturesque. Western Utah really is a plain, and the road is straight (more on this later), and to someone who is slightly sleep deprived to begin with, it seems the whole state, from horizon to horizon, is covered in salt flats. I can hypothesize that at one point the entire region was covered by a huge Dead Sea, and some giant cataclysm ultimately drained most of it away, probably fucking up most of New Mexico at the same time. I don't know--but imagine salt flats so white and extensive that they hurt to look at when the sun shines on them. Imagine a plain so flat and featureless that there's very little sense of movement, a plain so devoid of character that the highway planners arrowed straight for Salt Lake City, as if to avoid spending any more time than they absolutely had to.

But it reflects the sunset perfectly, and if you squint your eyes right, it's like the playa's big, mutated cousin. The sunset, for me, was a kind of last meal before the nightmarish run through the heart of Mormon country.

The whole environment is confusing to me--there's salt, or what looks like salt, everywhere, except where there's water. This water stands in pools, and in big catch basins between the east and westbound lanes of the interstate. It goes on until it hits mountains, to the north, east and west, and as far as I know, indefinitely to the south.

If this was a small area, I'd be compelled to actually like it. It really is extraordinary, like a lunar plain, and sunsets or sunrises while in the middle of it are a sight to behold.

But it's not small---I just consulted a map, and it's exactly 120 miles from Wendover to SLC, which seems awfully small compared to actually being there, but I could be wrong. It's big, and it's almost completely featureless, and there's nothing to do except keep it between the lines and not fall asleep. In fact, the majority of the things you'll see in western Utah are highways signs. And the preponderance of highway signs are signs that tell you to pull over if you're sleepy. The problem with that, I've found, is that if you don't feel comfortable sleeping on the shoulder of the highway, you're kind of screwed, because the surrounding country is all covered in pools of water at times, so there's really no place to build a rest stop or turnout.

So I bit my tongue to stay awake. I sang songs, I listened to the radio, when I could get it, I composed emails in my head to the girl in SF who I'd probably never see again. It didn't work. I found myself concentrating very intensely on one area of my vision (like, say, the passenger side mirror) for a few minutes, then realizing I couldn't remember the last time I looked out the windshield, which scared me even more...but there was no place to stop, bubba, and I had a schedule to keep.

Crosswinds were playing with the van and trailer and thus, my tender head, and I was being passed quite regularly by large semis, which the trailer liked even less. When I wasn't watching the swaying of the trailer running lights, I'd try to get a sense of what was ahead of me--but aside from the occasional oncoming car and overtaking speed freak in a tractor trailer, I appeared to be alone. Time began to turn into a gel, which I struggled through while doing my best to avoid a full on acid flashback.

Funny how those things never occur at a good time, isn't it? I mean, with the paucity of good trip in this country, you should at least be able to rely on your own spinal fluid to remind you of those halcyon days of the mid nineties, right? But NO! It's always when I've got something better to do, like not drive off into a saltwater filled ditch in the middle of nowhere. But there it was.

I don't know what I was doing when I first noticed the yellow lights up ahead. They were closer than I liked, so I suppose I had been looking in one of my mirrors, but you can't really jerk the wheel when you're in such a high profile vehicle. I eased over a little more quickly than was safe, anyway, because I couldn't figure out what the hell sort of vehicle was parked on the shoulder of the road.

And just as I zipped by, I noticed three things:

1) The rotating yellow lights lit up the word "AMBULANCE" on a vehicle that I can only describe as some sort of weird amalgamate of trash truck, highway striper, and Space Cowboys art car.

2) Leaping from the cab of this truck was what I can only assume was a paramedic, squarely into the lane I had just vacated.

3) A motorcycle, and driver, parked directly in front of the ambulance, details indistinguishable.

I have no idea what the fuck it was all about. I don't know if Utah has monstrous, Star Wars lookin' ambulances for a reason, or why they've got yellow lights instead of blue and red. I don't know the story of the accident, if it was an accident, and I'm extremely worried that paramedics just leap out of vehicles without checking to see if the lane is clear first.

My heart was about to burst, but I could see, waaaaay up ahead, the lights of what had to be Salt Lake. I figured I could make it--shit, I HAD to make it. There was no place safe to pull off the road, especially not with what I'd just seen.

An eternity later, I hit the city.

Salt Lake City has two interstates that cross in the middle of town. I-80 is east/west, I-15 north/south. But for reasons unknown to me, they don't actually cross each other anywhere. 80 eastbound empties into 15 southbound, which can be pretty exciting all in itself, and after a few miles of signs notifying you that you're suddenly on a different fucking interstate, headed not for Evanston WY but for goddamn PROVO, you can do a quick exit onto the headwaters of 80 east again, while I presume the same thing holds true for 80 westbound. It was daylight, and a week and a half earlier, that I did the westbound thing, and while the traffic was shitty (no one should think that because you're a conformist Mormon you adhere to speed limits or basic road courtesy any more than your average New York cabbie, because it's not true), I never felt lost.

Now, be aware that this is how things are supposed to work in SLC. A theory, if you will. That is, something that may or may not be provable by experiment. I say this because my man Dan and I had a horrible experience the last time we came through there, during BM 2000 (pertinent post is here). If you're too damn lazy to read the whole thing, let me just say that we were shunted off of I80 westbound onto a huge loop, with no direction or no real reason why, and then 20 minutes later were shunted off the loop, and directly into a Stepford Wives in the Desert version of hell. Again, no signage, except for something which basically said "Get Off the Goddamn Highway, Now," complete with cop cars, barricades and flares. I was halfway convinced it was some sort of chemical spill or accident, until I arrived in SLC this year and found out that this sort of behavior is de rigeur for the highway department around there. Again, poor or NO signage, cop cars, flares, and more barricades and flashing orange lights than my rapidly softening brain could handle.

So off I went, to Provo Utah (or at least in that general direction). I had the wit to get off the highway pretty quickly, assuming that I would be able to bear west a mile or two then head back north and find the interstate I needed. This turned out to be true, although there was some nasty backtracking and a lot of foul language directed at whatever group pretends to train the people who are doing whatever they're doing to travelers in Utah. People in Boston, I hear, give you bad directions on purpose, because they're dicks. I don't mind that, because I don't ask directions from strangers--but Salt Lake City is probably the only city I've ever been in where the whole damn Public Works department is out to ruin your day.

So, after losing nearly an hour driving down creepily clean streets, I was shat back into the effluence leaving SLC to the east, gibbering and shaking my fist at anything in a reflective vest, and dreading the mountain passes ahead.


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