Thursday, October 14, 2004

Burning Man 2004 9: Utah/Wyoming/Denver

Climbing the mountains to get into Wyoming and, eventually, Colorado isn't quite as scary as descending them in Salt Lake, not least because you know you don't have to see Salt Lake again. The steep climb is a real drag for a lot of vehicles, but with the huge motor the van had in it, and the lack of weight in the trailer, I did OK.

I did get a rather nasty shock before leaving Utah, though: while filling up with gas and checking the trailer tires, it occurred to me that I hadn't checked the OIL all trip long. Now, this van is new enough that there's no way it should be burning oil, but given my troubles with employees back home, I figured I'd better check shit out. The only thing worse than having a blowout at midnight outside of Lovelock Nevada would be blowing up the motor on the van someplace in the high mountains between SLC and the Wyoming line. They're nice people up there, but it's cold, and they go to bed early.

Sure enough, the van was barely registering on the dipstick, as far as I could tell. Furthermore, the dipstick was literally five feet long--in fact, it was one dipstick attached to another dipstick. This is rather awkward for one guy to handle, especially when I had lost most sense of depth due to lack of sleep somewhere back around...oh, Saturday night, most likely. My problem, once I got a read I was comfortable with, was that I didn't know what sort of oil we'd been using, and I'm not conversant enough with motor oils to be confident in my choices. I agonized in a Flying J Travel Plaza for a bit, and then made the call to the mechanic back home. As expected, no answer. I circled the beef jerky for a bit, looked at the sunglasses and porn, and then realized I was getting some Looks from other patrons and the staff.

One of the saddest things about leaving the Burn is the gradual decline in the number of playa covered vehicles you see headed your way. In Wadsworth, Burner cars (and other conveyances) probably outnumber Wadsworth resident cars by 30 or 40 to one. By the time you hit Winnemucca, it's probably about even, and by the time I passed Salt Lake, the only Burner cars I saw were sleeping in rest stops. It's then I always start to decompress and realize that I don't LIKE talking to strangers...or rather, I like strangers, but when my nerves are all stretched out and sensitized by a week with the coolest people on the planet, it's hard to reconcile myself with the idea of rejection. Which probably wouldn't happen, but you can't tell--I was lookin' pretty rough, and feeling like six miles of rough road, so I just slept in the van, or checked tires and moved on.

So by the time I left Salt Lake and had to deal with the Oil Problem, I was in a very attenuated Burner territory. They didn't LIKE me here. I was WEIRD, and weird is BAD when you're a fat old woman running a cash register at a truck stop. I hurriedly bought 4 quarts of what I thought was pretty close to the right stuff, dumped it (carefully) into the oil reservoir, checked it, and fled.

But, my little ferret of a brain chittered, why was the oil so low? Had it been low from the start? Or had it, in fact, been burned? Sheesh...another thing to add to my checklist.

Things began to get weird as I climbed the steep grades east and north of Salt Lake. The traffic was awful, my driving was getting bad as I became more tired and less able to control what was, really, a pretty big rig. But, just as in the rest of Utah, there is no place to pull off the road--just mountains and a kind of sick joke of a shoulder. Time crawled by. I began to smell something funny coming in the vents, almost like plastic or oil burning. This was very alarming, although the temp gauge hadn't really moved. Or had it? Was it broken? Fuck. Screw it--there was NO WAY to pull off the road, so I just bit my lip and drove on, convinced that the next second would see a rod thrown through the block, somewhere in the middle of a steep, steep incline.

Which didn't happen--I reached the top and promptly exited, finding myself at a rustic old store we'd visited coming back in 2002, which was locked up tight but had all night gas pumps. I checked oil, tires, and dumped my trashcan, and gassed up my only half-empty tank. It was COLD, kids, and I was miserable on all levels. I was NOT making good time, and I missed my home (both of them), and I was very, very worried about the mechanical integrity of just about everything in the van and trailer, and I was so goddamn tired I couldn't even look in the mirrors because I couldn't keep a perspective on what I was seeing--just a jumble of red and yellow lights, which could be my running lights, or could be foglights of a car next to me. I was, simply put, a mess.

But I was determined to sleep in Wyoming, not Utah, so off I set, only to become convinced by the next exit that I had a flat tire on the trailer. I pulled off, and found no flat. I found the onramp, drove on (downhill this time, finally), and two exits later stopped at a gas station to check the oil. Four exits after that, the van developed a mystery shimmy that turned out to be my imagination, and at the next rest stop I became convinced (again) that I had a tire problem on the trailer.

Shit, I thought, this is why I'm not getting anywhere. I'm stopping every 10 minutes to check on something. The tire's not defective. The driver's defective. So finally, I slept. I slept filthy, covered in playa dusted red fake fur, with my hair in knots and starting up from sleep every 15 minutes as the van cooled off, metal popping and pinging as it shrunk, sounding for all the world like someone breaking in to the trailer to steal...something. I slept like a baby, curled up in the too-small backseat of the van, half dressed and with a neck crick that wouldn't quit, and I look back on that sleep as one of my most fulfilling sleeps of all time.

I woke up with the sun rising around me. Stiff and slightly disoriented, I scrambled into the front seat and immediately had the uncontrollable urge to go around the back of the trailer and make sure no one had cut the locks and robbed it during the night, which wouldn't have been that big a deal (since what was left was almost all trash) except that I was sure they wouldn't have bothered to put the gate back up. So I got out in the cold anyway--of course, still intact.

The drive through Wyoming was without major incident except for a growing sense of disconnection with both worlds: the world of Burning Man, or the Way It Ought To Be, was receding rapidly, and soon I saw Burner cars no more frequently than I did, say, Volkswagens. On the other hand, driving long distances with no sleep doesn't do you any favors when it comes to reintegrating with the rest of the population, which phenomenon is exacerbated by the extreme loneliness of the terrain in Wyoming. But as I approached Cheyenne, I felt good--I had no map, but I knew I was getting close to a waypoint, if not a third home. Plus, it was Wednesday, which meant I still had three days to make it back to Oklahoma and have some semblance of downtime before returning to the real world. So I soldiered on, and parked in front of Diablo's place sometime in the early afternoon. The only Burner I'd seen of any magnitude was the swing truck, a massive 2 ton truck with a rotating set of swings that circled it--very fun, but now all packed up and plainly pushing to get home. I didn't even honk.

Soon: My first night away from home.


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