BURNING MAN


Getting to Black Rock City, a.k.a. Burning Man
August 28, Day 41.

Today I awake before dawn, as is my habit on travel days. By first light I’ve completed final preparations and hitch up the trailer. I always feel a little guilty because the noise of my diesel  must surely rouse other campers from their slumber. Slowly I thread my way through the winding, narrow roads of the campground until I reach the highway, where I can settle in to do the real long-distance driving that I love.

It’s less than 400 miles to Burning Man, just outside the little town of Gerlach, Nevada. Though that’s an easy day’s drive, my plan is to break it into two legs by spending the night in or around Alturas, California, thereby setting myself up for a quick two-hour run to The Burn  tomorrow morning. When I reach Alturas, the town is swarming with Burners stocking up on water, groceries, gas, and liquor. The veterans appear to be continuing to Burning Man today, rather than staging for a run tomorrow.

Supposedly, no one is allowed into Burning Man until 12:01 a.m. on Monday, so I question the rationale for driving straight through and waiting at the gate in a long line, as opposed to settling down here for the night. But taking my cue from the old-timers, I decide to continue all the way to Burning Man this evening.

Driving  south from Alturas, the very last town before Gerlach is Cedarville California, 90 miles to the north. Cedarville is a quaint hamlet, much like Comfort, Texas—a few shops on Main Street and not much else. But the enterprising citizens of Cedarville have turned this day into an event. The old folks are all sitting under the trees on lawn chairs in front of the post office, chatting and enjoying the parade of weird people and strangely decorated vehicles passing through. The more entrepreneurial among them have set up hot dog stands, T-shirt racks, a band and even an ice cream parlor on the sidewalks along the road. It’s a special annual day in the life of their community.

The drive from Cedarville is almost like a stately procession. It's a narrow winding road with a speed limit is 55, but the long line of cars seems content to trundle along at 40 mph, spaced an even 50 yards apart, knowing that at the end of their drive they face a long wait at the BM gate anyway. So there is this slow motorcade, stretching, for all I know, the entire 90 miles between Cedarville and Gerlach.

Just at dusk, I pass through Gerlach and drive the last nine miles to Burning Man. There, the line of cars is divided into six lanes marked by traffic cones as it proceeds onto the desert “playa,” the flat, alkali, dry lakebed where Burning Man takes place. For the next three and a half hours I inch forward about two car lengths at a time, shut off the engine and wait for 10 minutes, then start up and repeat.

There are three checkpoints I have to go through before I can enter Black Rock City, the name by which the Burning Man site is known. First, an attendant simply checks to see if have my ticket. Then more inching forward. Second, they do a check of the vehicle, which in my case includes the trailer. They enter it, check the rooms, look in the closet, etc. until they’re satisfied there aren’t any stowaways onboard. At $320 a ticket, the temptation to sneak someone in would certainly present itself. More inching forward, endlessly. The third checkpoint is the “greeters.”  They ask me to get out of my truck and about four of them cheerily hug me and welcome me to Burning Man. Then they ask if I’m “virgin,” which means is this my first Burning Man? I answer “Yes,” knowing that there’s some ritual in store for first-timers.

the man

The Man

Shrieking with glee and shouting “Virgin! Virgin!,” seven or eight greeters form a ring around, me holding hands. Now, I’m told, we’re going to play Ring Around the Rosy—and guess who gets to fall down, they ask? They enthusiastically sing the nursery rhyme, skipping in a circle around me. When they sing “all fall down,” I plop to the ground, trying to be a good sport. “No, no,” they exclaim. “Flat!” So I have to lay flat on my back; then they tell me to make a dust angel, like we used to do in the snow as children. Finishing that, I’m about to get up. “No, roll over on your stomach,” they order. “Now swim!” So I perform a vigorous breast-stroke in the dust.

the man at night

The Man at night, lit with neon

Of course by the time the ritual is over, I’m completely covered with the talc-fine powder of the playa, from which there will be no escape for a week. The stuff is literally like baby powder, without the pleasant fragrance. I’ve been baptized.

By now it’s 12:10 a.m. August 29th—Monday morning. Finally back in my truck, I’m free to find a camping spot anywhere on the 25 square miles allocated for Black Rock City. Scores of other vehicles are also roaming the playa, stirring up dust to near zero visibility. There are signs designating different sectors of the playa but they’re impossible to read through the dust and darkness. By sheer luck, I locate a sign near where I’m to meet Gary and Samuel, my brother-in-law and nephew, later today. I stop, climb into the camper without even unhitching it, and fall asleep directly.

Plain Geometry (and yes, that's a pun)
August 29/Day 42.

a cloud of vehicles

Vehicles extend for thousands of yards in both directions...this is just a sliver

The stream of vehicles entering the playa continues unabated all night and throughout the next day, virtually bumper-to-bumper. In fact, people keep arriving all week.

To understand the sheer scope of this operation, it helps to get an overview of how it’s laid out. The basic plan of Black Rock City is a series of 12 geometrically perfect 270 degree concentric arcs. The inner arc is named Esplanade. The rest of the arcs are given names in alphabetical order, A-L. I’m camped on the outer arc, named Liminal.

Access to the arcs is via radial streets, starting at 6 o’clock, the bottom center. Then there are radials, like spokes of a wheel, every 15 minutes starting at 6 o’clock at the bottom, then to the left 6:15, 6:30, 6:45, etc. To the right the radials are at 6:45, 7:00, 7:45, on so on. From the one tip of the outer arc, Liminal, to the opposite tip of Liminal, I’m told, is five miles.

Upon entering the playa the road makes a “Y” fork at the 6 o’clock position. I assume, just by the laws of chance, that half the vehicles take the left fork and the other half choose the right fork. There is an unbroken line of vehicles that lasts all night long entering the left fork and progressing onto Liminal, passing my campsite, from where they move via the radials into the inner arcs. The same would be true for vehicles turning right onto Liminal.

Your truly in desert survival mode

Yours truly in desert survival mode

Well, having dispensed with the technicalities of city layout, today is my first full day on the playa. I can see that the dust is already prodigious, so I don the military-style goggles Drake lent me, a desert hat and a respirator I picked up along the way. I spend the morning riding my bicycle randomly around the streets of  Black Rock City.

Let me say at the outset that the only word I can think of to describe Black Rock City is—indescribable. I’m quite certain nothing remotely comparable exists on the planet. There’s no frame of reference, no similarity I can allude to that would hint at the variety, scope, energy and just plain weirdness of this place. It would be like trying to describe the color green to a blind person. There are all kinds of people, from young hipsters, to old hippies who never left the fold, from college kids to New Age flotsam. Some arrive in very old, beat up, psychedelically painted RVs, others in their million dollar Prevost motorhomes. Some live in large tent structures put together by groups of friends, some sleep under tarps.

Your truly in desert survival mode

Double-decker mutant vehicle

In some ways it seems like a family reunion straight from the movie Mad Max. Dress, or the lack thereof, is dictated solely by one’s imagination and daring. There are colorful, long flowing garments and garments that appear to be made from fabric art, or yarn threads artfully draped. The first naked person I see is an elderly gray-haired gentleman riding a bike. There are bare-breasted young women, but I see no sign of ogling or (excuse me) tittering among the crowd. Here’s an obese woman in a tutu and bikini top, a kind of self-mockery; there’s a young man wearing nothing but a vest and a feather tied to his penis. It’s all simply a given; a natural part of the human panorama. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, in addition to my hat, goggles and respirator, I’m wearing…a pair of cargo shorts that wouldn’t be out of place at the mall.

rickshaw

A whimsical mode of transportation

So-called “art” or "mutant" vehicles roam the playa, driven by spectres wearing tattered costumes and dreadlocks. Small one-person vehicles with three wheels and electric motors can be seen alongside an actual 60-odd foot Bertram luxury yacht whose hull has been cut away to fit onto a truck chassis. Another looks like a 20-foot tall cross between a Victorian nightmare and a Rube Goldberg octopus. At the operator’s direction, it shoots jets of fire with a loud WHOOSH from each of its gigantic tentacles as they pulse up and down surrealistically.

I could go on and on, yet even I haven’t begun to see it all.

land yacht

Adrift on the playa

Sometime around mid-day, while I’m off riding my bike, Gary and Samuel show up and start setting up their camp across the road from me. I assist as much as I can but I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish, so I’m not much help.

Finally, when it gets dark—and I wasn’t expecting this—everything I saw during daylight is lit up with colored lights in the most fantastic display imaginable. I’m awestruck at the sheer degree of unbridled creativity that’s apparent in these projects. Surely some of the most uninhibitedly creative people in the country are here. And not just artists; many of these pieces are so elaborate they require the collaboration of electricians, welders, carpenters, engineers, financiers—and dreamers.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

NOTE: Some time after returning home, I discovered the following pictures that can say what a thousand words of plain geometry cannot. So, for those (including me) who weren’t able to follow my painfully labored description of Black Rock City as attempted above:

aerial view of black rock city

High


And, courtesy of the European Space Agency:

satellite image of black rock city

Higher


Just remember, a week earlier none of this existed. A week later, none remained.

A Little Dust-up
August 30/Day 43.

The amount of incoming traffic hasn’t dwindled yet. Thousands of cars and RVs have ground the delicate crust of the playa into an ever-finer dust that billows into the air with each passing vehicle and then is carried by the wind across Black Rock City like a thick, unbreatheable fog. I’m forced again to wear my respirator and goggles. Nevertheless I ride my bike for several hours, never tiring of the kaleidoscope of sights the playa presents itself to me.

trojan horse

Trojan Horse by day

At last I turn toward camp. Gary has put the finishing touches on his campsite and he and Samuel are ready for their first sortie into the City. I retreat to the windless and relatively dustless interior of my camper as they leave. Not five minutes later their friend, Dale, whom they’ve been expecting, shows up. I go over and introduce myself; soon he decides to walk into the City where, by chance, he runs into Gary and Samuel among the tens of thousands of people milling around.

trojan horse

...by dust

Before I realize the time has gone the sun slips behind the mountains to our west and darkness sets in. The wind has calmed and the playa is clear, so I ride off on my bike again, bringing my tripod and camera to experiment with some night photography (not very successfully, unfortunately.)

I get about a mile and a half from camp when suddenly the wind begins a ferocious assault on the City. Without my goggles and respirator I can barely see or breathe.

trojan horse

...and by night

Heading against the wind, in the general direction of my camp, my eyes fill with dust, causing them to tear up. The wind is so intense that the tears blow straight back over my ears rather than down my cheeks. I can feel my throat filling with dust and can hardly breathe. Riding the bike is out of the question, so I get off and slowly push it with one hand, trying to shield my face with the other. As I reach each intersection I carefully read the street signs by lifting the front of the bike and using its headlight for illumination, determining which direction I need to take to find 6:30 and Liminal. When I finally reach my trailer, I drop the bike and burst into the camper, out of the cursed wind. Glancing in the mirror I see a dust-colored ghost.

I take a quick shower; the water is the color of café au lait as it swirls down the drain.

The next thing I know it’s Wednesday morning.

Another Day, Another Dust Storm
August 31/Day 44.

My street is named Liminal (for the “L” arc), and it forms the outermost of the concentric series of arcs that make up Black Rock City. When a new vehicle enters the City speeding over the limit of 5 mph, or commits some other infraction, right here is generally where the police catch up to them and pull them over. I’ve witnessed it a half-dozen times already today. Usually they call in drug-sniffing dogs, which are fascinating to watch in action. It appears that several people have been ticketed for minor possession of drugs or open containers of alcohol, but I’ve yet to see anyone hauled away in handcuffs. Unlike California, where many Burners are from, Nevada’s drug laws are quite strict. For example, California’s so-called “medical marijuana card” is not honored in Nevada. At any rate, getting pulled over is a tough way to begin your Burner experience.

sailing

Today is very windy, perhaps more so than yesterday, and at times the visibility is zero. During a whiteout, I can breathe normally through my respirator but of course vision is restricted even with the goggles, though they do keep the dust out of my eyes. It’s an eerie experience to be riding my bicycle over the vast expanse of playa, hearing loud music coming from an indeterminate direction in the distance, but otherwise completely enshrouded in my own cocoon of dust. From time to time I happen upon one of the huge art pieces, which suddenly looms up in front of me, vague and shadowy, only 15 feet before my eyes. There’s almost the sensation of floating weightless; look up, down or all around and I’m enveloped in the same whitish powder without boundary.

The dust is pervasive and corrosive. After only two days of riding my bicycle on the playa I can feel the bearings grinding. It gets in the derailleur, the wheel hubs, the pedal crank—everywhere. I’m actually surprised that more of it hasn’t sifted into the camper.

sailing

Not only is the dust brutal on mechanical devices, it desiccates skin, especially my feet. Since I’ve been wearing flip-flops the whole time, my feet itch and feel like lizard skin. I’d forgotten the recommendation to bring vinegar to the playa to counteract the alkaline dust so prevalent here, and so famously hard on bare feet. Fortunately I remember that Jane sent one of her Votre Vu products with me—the one called “On Holiday,” a body lotion that gets sucked right in the second it touches my poor feet. But the “On Holiday” works, probably much better than vinegar…and it certainly beats the smell.

During the few short periods of relatively unobstructed visibility I take some pictures, furtively, both because some people here find it offensive to be photographed (usually those with no clothes) and because I want to expose my camera to as little dust as possible. In some ways Black Rock City is like Glacier, Yellowstone, or any of the places I’ve been on this trip: first, there’s just too much that begs to be photographed and, second, no photo can convey the experience of being there.

This evening as dusk begins to settle in, the wind, that’s been southerly since I got here, veers hard to the west, blowing, I’d guess, at least 40 mph and tossing a whole fresh batch of dust into the air. Vehicles are still entering the playa in an unbroken line, but from 30 feet away all I can see through the camper windows is their oncoming headlights. Everything else is shrouded.

As dusk turns to dark, the wind is howling like a banshee outside my camper. We have blizzard conditions.

The Billion Bunny March
September 1/Day 45.

This morning the dust has settled and the air is clear and cool, with just a slight breeze coming from the northeast. I take to my bike, not even bothering to bring along the goggles and respirator, only water.

cinema

Cinema at the edge of the world

I revisit many of the art installations I could see yesterday only through the dust, and I ride all the way to the “outer playa,” an area extending about a mile beyond the temple and bounded by orange industrial fencing whose construction was mandated by the BLM, the government agency responsible for much of the public land in Nevada. Even out at this distance there are unexpected art installations. One is a cinema about the size of a large shipping container that actually screens movies, popcorn and all.

two costumed people

My greatest fascination, though, is with the people. Many are dressed in the most elaborate and outlandish costumes imaginable. One committed Burner named Chip Conley is the executive chairman of a company that operates a number of boutique hotels throughout California. Others are artists, dental hygienists, bankers, and so on. The general rule at Burning Man, however, is anonymity. It’s a place where people can come to try out their alter-egos, where the social norms of the so-call “default world” don’t apply.

To many, Burning Man is the outward manifestation of an inner acculturation that has its roots in a New Age ethos. I’m surprised, for example, at the number of toddlers I see happily tagging along with their obviously committed parents, who are consciously exposing their children to a lifestyle that will mold them as thoroughly as consistent Sunday school did me—perhaps more so because of its profound immediacy.

costumes

Another ineluctable characteristic of Black Rock City is its evanescence. It appears virtually instantly once a year on the playa, offset a few miles by the BLM in order to allow the desert to be reclaimed fully by natural forces. One day there is nothing; the next there is a community of 50,000 people, complete with infrastructure such as sanitation, medical care, police, an airport, newspaper, etc.

costumes

Understated elegance

Next week it will all vanish. Volunteers will remain for up to a month cleaning up MOOP (Matter Out of Place) which ranges from bicycles to ice chests to the smallest piece of plastic left in the sand. Metal detectors will sweep the area, locating tent stakes, coins, lids from cans, etc. By the time the winter rains have come and gone, all traces of the City will be obliterated and the desert will again be pristine. The impermanence of the city alone makes the experience almost magical.  Now you see it; now you don’t.

One of the basic tenets of Black rock City is self-reliance; you must bring all your own food, water, shelter and other necessities. Any need you have you are expected to barter for, or have “gifted” to you. Use of cash is not forbidden, but is seriously frowned upon. Finally, you are expected to clean up after yourself, to remove everything from your campsite when you leave, trash and all. Not everyone follows this cardinal rule perfectly, but enough do that the BLM has so far permitted Burning Man to return year after year.

dale, samuel, gary

Dale, Samuel and Gary. And to think he used to be a....uh, nevermind.

Last night Samuel, Gary and his longtime friend Dale, and I went to the Billion Bunny March. In this annual event, thousands of Black Rock citizens don bunny costumes, or at least bunny ears, and converge on a geodesic dome about 20 feet high to re-enact the battle in the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome where, to quote, “Two men enter, one man leaves.” In the playa version the paraphrase is “Two bunnies enter, four bunnies leave,” a comic reference to the reproductive capacity of rabbits. At any rate, a mock battle ensues with combatants suspended by bungee cords within the dome, flailing away at each other with foam rubber bats until a winner is declared. I know it sounds weird. It is.

bunny girls

Sparkle-bunnies

The spectacle continues until a pro-carrot contingent, which shows up seemingly out of nowhere, begins to protest that they are not food for bunnies. Then a wolf splinter group intercedes and begins to chase the rabbits. All very silly, to be sure, nevertheless on a certain level a reenactment of the dog-eat-dog “default” world.

Strangely, I end the day feeling lonely and a little depressed, in spite of the fun. There’s nothing that makes me feel more alone than to be among a crowd of people, no matter how good-natured and accepting they may be. By myself on a mountain trail, or somewhere solitary in the vastness of a desert, I never feel that sense of loneliness that sometimes overwhelms me in a throng of people.

Who the...?

On the Playa
September 2/Day 46.

costumes

Today is much like yesterday. I ride my bike to Center Camp, the Esplanade, to watch the garish parade of fantastically costumed people. The theater of it never seems to lose its fascination. Sometimes I find a spot on the shady side of a structure and just sit for an hour, watching as the parade goes by. As a newbie to Burning Man, I hadn’t expected the elaborate nature of many of the costumes and I stand out in the crowd as underdressed for the occasion, wearing only my cowboy boots, cargo shorts and a cowboy hat. Oh well, at least I’m comfortable…

costumes

A few Segways were runnuing around

As a non-drinker, there’s really not a lot for me to do besides watch from the outside. Many of the camps (you might call them booths) serve alcohol in some form as their main theme. There are all kinds of fruit smoothies, with vodka; coke and rum, pre-mixed in large 5-gallon containers; lemonade and fruit punch, spiked; commercial beer and home brew, all served with a heavy dose of small-talk and chatter, which I might be better at if I were to sip a few drinks.

trojan horse

Then there are camps whose theme is women’s issues, homosexuality, bi-racial couples, various forms of yoga, fetishes involving a hierarchy of weirdness, body painting, speed-dating, on and on…. When entering Burning Man I was given a booklet with literally hundreds of counter-culture activities, none of which particularly interests me.

trojan horse

Critical Tits

One activity that my brother-in-law convinces me to attend (it isn’t too difficult) is called “Critical Tits.” It involves hundreds of women, young and old, riding their bikes topless from The Man to the Esplanade, through a half-mile gauntlet of cheering spectators. At the end of their ride, the participants have their own women-only get together. As they ride by, it’s obvious they’re having as much fun as anyone else.

Toward evening—and I’ve noticed this before—the City is filled with the exotic smells of cooking. As I ride up and down the different streets I often wish I knew just what was on the menu, it smells so delicious.

two costumed people

Aw, what a great dad...

I go back to the trailer for a little rest but soon hop on my bike to ride back out to the playa to see the lights. There are fireworks, brightly lit bicycles, creatively designed body lights, the fire-breathing machines roaming around, sometimes challenging each other to whimsical contests of fire prowess. But the main spectacle I want to see is the burning of the huge horse, perhaps 40 feet tall, reminiscent of the Trojan Horse of mythology (you can revisit the pictures by scrolling up on this page.) I thought the burn was to take place at 10:00 p.m. and waited nearby for half an hour, along with many others, before being told the burn wouldn’t be until 12:00 a.m. Cold, tired and dusty, I decide not to try to kill two hours more just waiting, so I head back to camp and am soon asleep.

Day of the Burn
September 3/Day 47.

Tonight The Man burns. This morning some traffic is already beginning to exit the playa, probably to avoid the inevitable crushing exodus post-burn, but also because people are just plain worn out and tired of the dust, or they’ve witnessed the burn before.

I’m ready to evacuate too; to get up in the pine trees at Lake Tahoe and out of the dust. The playa has a severe beauty all its own and I would like someday to revisit it in its natural state, which would be minus approximately 49,924 people, the official census as of 12:00 p.m. Thursday. The BLM has set a limit of 50,000 participants, but there is talk that limit may be raised to 70,000.

trojan horse

Burning Man is many things, from whimsical to concrete, from stunning to mundane. As I think I’ve mentioned, sometimes groups of people who may have only met online form a “theme camp.” There seem to be hundreds of them, some quite elaborate and some barely noticeable. The names often reflect their creativity. I saw one camp with canvas covering shading an area as large as a basketball court. The interior was furnished with old broken-down couches, chairs and pillows. The name was “The Shack of Sit.” Another, a bar, was named more profanely “The Immaculate Consumption.” There are weddings taking place and there are parties to help plan a wedding during next year’s Burning Man.

Since the BLM doesn’t permit the dumping of water on the playa and because there are thousands of people who would give practically anything to rinse the playa dust off their bodies, open shower camps are a popular theme. These consist of a large square made of 2×6 boards, about 10 feet on a side, lined with black plastic sheeting so the runoff water is captured and evaporated by the sun. In the center is a slightly raised platform on which to stand, and there’s a normal fresh water showerhead with solar heated water. Right out in the open in front of anyone who happens by, men and women strip and shower.

nude male bikerr

Nudity is not a big deal in Black Rock City, probably because it’s not a BIG DEAL. Just as an estimate, I’d guess 5% walk around or ride their bikes completely nude. Perhaps as many as 10% of women go topless. The numbers are large enough that they’re noticeable in the crowd—but also large enough that soon nobody pays much attention. In any case, the nudists seem totally unselfconscious about it.

The Burn
Still September 3/Day 47.

My plan is to hang back a bit and rest today, Burn Day. I’ll ride up to center camp, but only for a couple of hours. Then after relaxing a bit back at camp, I’ll make my way to The Man to experience the event’s climax and namesake—The Burning Man.

I’ve been warned that the stampede to exit the playa the morning after the Burn is at least as exasperating as the wait to get in. Cleverly (so I think) I decide to leave immediately after the Burn, drive approximately 70 miles to Interstate 80, pull over, and catch some sleep at a rest stop.

The Burn begins at 9:00 p.m. At 8:30 Gary, Samuel and I start toward it, walking even though it’s a mile away because the press of people will be so dense that maneuvering with a bicycle will be impossible.

A swarm of people from all over Black Rock City is streaming in the same direction. By the time we get to The Man, the art vehicles have formed a ring around him, their lights flickering and music blaring at full power. Among the vehicles, a crowd has begun to form around a large rope safety ring that encircles the Man; the throng grows deeper by the minute. Inside the ring, which is perhaps 300 yards in diameter, hundreds of dancers twirling firebrands move in sync to techo-industrial music that’s so loud it rattles my ribs. Meanwhile, scores of laser lights sweep the sky above, penetrating and illuminating the dust that rises overhead.

After half an hour, the fire dancers stop, douse their fires, and clear the center ring. Abruptly, a huge display of fireworks begins, emanating from near the base of The Man. The fireworks are continuous, spectacular and extend throughout the burn. The crowd rises to a frenzy of excitement, whistling, cheering, screaming in anticipation.

Suddenly, the Man is aflame. His arms, legs and torso are all catching on fire and soon he is fully engulfed. Then, unexpectedly, huge explosions erupt, one, two, then three in a row, each with its own color of fire and smoke. The percussion of the explosions reverberates through the crowd, intensifying their delirious cheering. Then another explosion, larger than the ones before, and The Man becomes a pyramid of fire, his skeleton barely visible among the soaring flames. At last, after what seems like an impossibly long time, one of his arms falls flaming to the earth. A loud cheer! Then, at last, the other falls. Finally the entire structure crumples to the ground in a ball of flames so intense it feels like the sun on my face, though I’m over a hundred yards away.

Now some of the crowd begins to melt away, among them me. I say my farewells to Gary and Samuel and head for my truck. I’ve already prepared the camper for travel. All I have to do is start the engine and drive to the exit, as hundreds are already doing.

The Afterburn
September 4/Day 48.

The chaotic mass of vehicles heading toward the exit is forced to funnel down into a single file before it enters the county road that leads away from Black Rock City. Dust rises so thick it’s nearly impossible to see the tail lights of the vehicle in front of me. Slowly we merge from eight, to four, to two, then finally to one lane; it takes an hour; it’s 1 :00 a.m. Sunday.

Once on the road, an unbroken line of tail lights extends in front of me to a disappearing point, and likewise a line of headlights in my rearview mirror.

I travel about 40 miles when suddenly a large metallic object appears to bounce from under the car ahead of me. With no time to react, it slams into the undercarriage of my truck with a sickening clatter, then passes under the trailer knocking a large cloud of playa dust loose from the wheel well. I think it’s caused a blowout but after a few seconds I can feel that the tires are all intact.

A half mile down the road, however, my engine dies. I panic because the road has no shoulder, only soft sand and sagebrush. Heading uphill, I coast for as long as I can before finding a likely place to pull off the highway. When I hit the sand I stop almost instantly, with the back of my trailer still blocking half the traffic lane.

This is a dangerous situation. To pass me, my lane of southbound traffic is crossing into the oncoming lane near the crest of the hill. Though sparse, northbound traffic is primed for a headon collision. Think! Think!

I turn on my four-way flashers and grab the strobe flashlight Jane insists that I carry in the truck. I ease myself out of the driver’s seat and onto the highway, waving the strobe at oncoming traffic. Luckily, I bought a set of three hazard triangles before I left on the trip. Where are they? Ah, I find them in the basement of the trailer. Hurriedly I set them out, then step away from the road into the sagebrush a safe distance.

My cell phone says, “No Service.” After all, this is practically the definition of “middle of nowhere.” There is absolutely nothing I can do but rely on the kindness of strangers. Hundreds of cars pass me by. I wait for an hour, helpless, until finally a Nevada Highway Patrol officer pulls up behind the trailer and turns his flashers on. I’ve never been happier to see a cop in my life. He calls in another patrol unit to set up a warning over the crest of the hill. I talk to him.

“Yeah,” he says, “You hit a bicycle that fell off the back of a car.” (Almost all the cars are carrying bikes.) “I pulled what was left of it off the road.”

Officer Jorgenson is his name. He radios the dispatcher to send a heavy wrecker out to haul my rig. We wait an hour and a half before it finally arrives from Reno, long enough that we get to be pretty good pals.

After a lengthy process of properly hitching my rig to the wrecker and removing my truck’s driveshaft so it can be towed without damage to the transmission, we’re on the road. It’s about 70 miles and $500 to Reno. Before we get there, I’m pretty good friends with Duane, too.

We arrive at a Ford dealership about 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning. Duane drops my rig and me off behind a warehouse next to the dealer. During the long ride, I learn that Monday is Labor Day (I’ve been pretty out of touch) so I’m thinking it will be Tuesday at the earliest before a mechanic can look at my truck. That’s when Duane tells me the dealer has an 11 day backup in the diesel department. It’s still dark when he drives away. Not having any idea where I am, or what kind of neighborhood surrounds me, for the second time on my trip I slide a clip into the Glock and lay it within easy reach. By daybreak I’m fully depressed, nearly in tears, and sick to my stomach over the whole thing.

Later in the day I venture out, carefully checking my surroundings like a mouse watching for the cat. Graffiti.  Overgrown weeds. Faded “for rent” signs. I am not comfortable with this.

Immobilized, I wait for dark and the blessing of sleep, which I’ve had none of for 36 hours.

Intermezzo - Two Days in Hell
September 5/Day 49.

By Monday morning I’m feeling a little more optimistic. I decide to crawl around under the truck to see if I can locate any damage, but find nothing obvious. Nevertheless, I keep looking. My intuition, as well as some long-established online friends I message through my iPhone tether, tells me there has to be something wrong with the fuel system. Inch by agonizing inch I examine the fuel lines, fuel filter, water separator and electric wires that comprise the undercarriage fuel system.

At last I find a crack in an electrical connector leading to a component that tells the driver if there’s water in the diesel fuel. I pull it free, pick away the loosened bits of splintered plastic shielding around it, and firmly reinsert it.

Crawling slowly out from under the truck (I’m way too old for this shit) I get in the driver’s seat and crank the engine. I keep cranking it for 30 seconds, maybe a minute—after all, what have I got to lose?

She catches! After running rough for half a minute, she settles into the steady diesel rumble I know and love so well. I let her idle for an hour, stepping up to punch the accelerator every ten minutes or so, testing her. Then I use the considerable length of the asphalt parking lot as a drag strip, making several runs up and down with the trailer in tow. I feel nothing amiss.

I call Jane, my chief mechanic and encourager; after consulting with her I decide to make a modified run to Lake Tahoe through Carson City, where there’s another Ford dealer, just in case….

Everything goes well. I stop in Carson City for fuel and notice at the next pump an obvious Burner couple (you can tell by the dust coating everything) who left Black Rock City a day later than I did. We get to chatting and I tell my tale of woe, how if I had stayed like they did none of this would have happened, blah, blah, blah. Bless her heart, the young woman comes over and gives me a long, heartfelt hug. “It’s all good,” she says.

And it is. Tonight I’m sitting in beautiful Fallen Leaf Campground on Lake Tahoe, feeling confident and content. The past two days have been some of my most harrowing in memory, but they’re behind me now.

 

Bonus Posts

Beautiful pictures from Burning Man, plus an incredible claim by Time Magazine

Here are two very fine collections of photos from Burning Man (not taken by me):

Scott London: www.scottlondon.com/photo/burningman2011/index.html

Ales Prikryl: www.flickr.com/photos/colorstream/

Also, Time Magazine has included Burning Man in its book Great Places of History: Civilization’s 100 Most Important Sites.

Burning Man: The complete drama in 5 minutes

From the folks over at Gawker, a time-lapse video of Burning Man from set-up to MOOP removal:

http://gawker.com/5849545/the-craziness-of-burning-man-in-5-minutes

I thought I’d had enough, but now I want to go again next year.

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