Posts filed under 'Odyssey'
Dark comes quickly out here. In the time it takes to drive from the greeters to the outskirts of Black Rock City, our home for the next week, ambient sunlight dwindles, replaced by fire and glow sticks. We see from the map that the city is laid out in a near-circle with a rounded horseshoe-like shape. The streets that radiate out from the center are named after hours and half-hours. The long streets that go around the camp in concentric circles are supposed to be named after letters of the alphabet, arranged in ascending/descending order but are instead, confusingly, named after cars. We’re looking for friends who’ve arrived ahead of us and will be hanging out at 3:00 and Esplanade. We didn’t realize that the camp would cover nearly five square miles, and include close to 50,000 people.
We drive around the outer-most road for what feels like days until we spot a street sign for 3:00. It’s desolate at first, but the animation increases as we progress towards the center. People are out for the night dressed up as animals, vegetables and minerals; electronic music vibrates our car, flames shoot into the night sky and restaurants and nightclubs – architecture assembled from only those elements that could be packed in, and will be packed back out later – line the streets. By the time we realize there’s no hope of finding anyone in the dark, we’ve been swarmed by a group of over two dozen zombies who stagger down the road, fully costumed and made-up, attacking all non-zombified people in their way. For a moment I think I’ve lost Sam; he’s only been at Burning Man for 30 minutes and already he’s found his people.
Fortunately, we are soon discovered by a ranger who is sympathetic to our plight (“discovered” may be too generous a term, as we are parked at this point, baffled and amazed, in the middle of a major intersection). He drives ahead of us through the crowds, leading us to an empty campsite where we can stow our car while finding our friends on foot. We take off on a mission which leads into then away from the camp at 3:00 and Esplanade, then off to Center Camp in search of an information booth where campers can leave messages for friends. There are no cell phones out here, and no internet; communication is reduced to the essentials – speaking directly to one’s interlocutors, screaming their names into the wind, or leaving notes in places they are likely to frequent. Meanwhile, our friends have our place to sleep for the night, and we have all the food for the coming week. It feels a bit desperate – like we’ve intentionally abandoned our car in favor of walking aimlessly around a five-square-mile circus in the dark, hoping that every hay bale, every trapeze that emerges from the shadows might reveal people we know. But then I discover a note at the information booth – possibly the best note ever:
“R&S! We’re on Impala between 300 and 2:30 Streets, on left if coming from 3:00. White and grey El Monte RV. Impala is “I” street. Burning Man symbol in tape on back window. Not many other RVs nearby. Just past a red SUV and flaming torches. We’ll be there R&S don’t worry and plenty of space for the car. No matter how late just drive slowly and come to us.”
I aspire to write notes that are so resoundingly informative and comforting.
Following instructions, we find our way to the RV and into our friends’ hugs. The biggest shock of the night – bigger than the scope and scale of Burning Man, bigger than being attacked by wild zombies – comes when I look down and realize that my black flip flops have gone totally, completely white. Along with my legs from the knees down. Playa dust is invincible.
September 4th, 2008
The road to Burning Man is long; twelve hours long. We leave Los Angeles at 7:00 in the morning and spend most of the day flying up the middle of California, hurtling through Sacramento, and dragging through Reno at rush hour. Along the way we spot other potential Burners… you can recognize them by their back seats filled with camping gear, the bikes tied to the car, and sometimes, the Burning Man symbol etched into the dust on the windows. Or, as we later realized, you can recognize them because they’re the ones driving the pickup trucks with toppers, the thirty foot long RVs, and the rental trucks the size of a semi. At a gas station on the corner of I 80 and highway 447 a young man sidles up to me, shifty-eyed, asking if I know anyone who might want to buy a hookah.
The last hour and a half traverses high desert at an elevation of 4000 feet; hearty low-lying green brush covers the ground and rolling hills, tumble-weed clings to the fences, and a lake surprises off to the west. This is open range country, and we expect to find random cows around every turn in the highway.
Gerlach is a bend in the road, but on this particular day its gas stations and road side taco stands are clogged with Burners, many already in costume. Men wearing striped pants, vests and top hats amble down the road; women in skirts and bustiers sit cross-legged on benches. The police are high-energy, pulling over four vehicles in a two mile stretch.
After Gerlach we drive 11 miles before finally catching our first glimpse of the playa – a vast expanse of dust-like sand that used to be an ocean bed, but now exists as a highly alkaline, dust-storm prone desert. It’s beautiful in the twilight; an off-white, stone color that catches the sun and reflects it, glowing.
We drive onto the playa and navigate along a four-lane road that’s been fabricated out of string and orange plastic cones. At five miles an hour, the drive goes on forever and we are entertained and somewhat discomfited by poetry that’s been printed and adhered to stakes alongside the road. This year’s theme is the American Dream, and the poems reflects all the cynicism and disappointment such a title is meant to conjure in the context of a massive, avant-garde art party.
Once, we’re stopped by a woman in bikini briefs, a furry t-shirt and a staff badge who takes a look inside our car and waves us on. Later we stop outside of “will call” – a makeshift bunch of buildings filled with elated, beaming, dancing staff who hand over our tickets. Finally, we reach the greeters – a line of Burning Man officials charged with the task of initiating us into the coming week. We’re in line for a greeter who is taking forever with her initiates – she’s making them do pull-ups, run around in circles, give speeches – we can’t tell what else. We’re beckoned over into the line of another greeter wearing hot pants and a sequined bra who leans into the car, smelling faintly and pleasantly of wine, and asks if we’re virgins. We are, so she commands us out of the car, then instructs us to lie down on the ground and roll over once – just once – just to get over the fear of getting dirty on the playa. We do it – I even roll over twice for good measure – then realize that the playa dust has a strange sticky quality. We’re coated; anything that touched the ground is now thickly covered in playa. Our greeter hugs us both for a long second, and whispers “welcome home” into our ears. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but my eyes and heart apparently do, because her words immediately elicit tears and a smile.
September 3rd, 2008
We had a midnight picnic on the shore of the Irish Sea. A storm was on the way, and the sky filled to overflowing with heavy, silent, immobile clouds. Pervasive blackness erased the stars and moon, seeking out and filling up the cracks and corners that might have harbored reflected light. Even terrestrial illumination from the train station and seaside houses had been silently gobbled up by the night.
The sea was strangely silent; it rustled a bit from side to side, its movements irregular, muted and uncertain. There was no trace of wind.
We drank cava out of plastic cups and passed cheese around our circle, feeling for each other’s hands for secure placement, since we couldn’t see a thing. Our voices were loud and penetrating in the silence; we eventually started whispering, since anything more was in excess.
Midway through the picnic we noticed two brilliant points of light in the sky. They merged into one, then separated, then merged again, all while maintaining a graceful decent towards the earth. We finished the cava and leaned back on the rocky beach, waiting for the aliens to land.
February 14th, 2008
I haven’t done much literary musing lately, though certainly not for lack of subject matter. When last we met, we were watching Sam save a litter of baby puppies (I know it sounds redundant, but puppies might be infants, toddlers, or even adolescents, right?) from where they languished in darkness and anonymity under the porch of a log cabin in East Lynne Missouri. I am happy to report that the baby puppies are now adolescent puppies, the mother survived the double ignominy of constant, indiscriminate petting of herself and her offspring by a parade of strangers, and nearly being nursed to death by the eight aforementioned offspring who, within days, were collectively bigger in mass than her.
Meanwhile, Sam and I continued westward in our adventures. After Missouri, we stopped overnight in Denver, for a few days in Mesquite Nevada, then arrived in Los Angeles on the 28th of September. Our first stroke of magic was quickly forthcoming. The afternoon of our arrival we drove directly to a house in North Hollywood that had a master bedroom suite available for the month of October (thank you, CraigsList). We liked it, the current occupants gave it to us, we unloaded all of our earthly possessions from the car, and were on our way again – maybe 45 minutes later – with an address, a home, and a place for our stuff.
October went quickly, with trips to San Francisco and France taking up chunks of our respective time. When at home in “NoHo” we found an office at a local independent coffee shop with free WiFi for the computers, and started looking for jobs and our next place to live post-October. And, we struck gold again – Sam is now quite busy with graphic design and web work, and we’re settling into our new home in the West Los Angeles/Santa Monica area. We absolutely love our neighborhood; we bike to the ocean for sunsets, walk or bike to the office (local coffee shops), and have two organic grocery stores and a Trader Joe’s near-by. To make things even better, on our block I can get a pedicure for $10 and a massage from a local school of massage for $35. Heaven! Los Angeles is turning out to be great. We’re rarely on the highways (which is good, since “highway” is synonymous with “time warp” and it takes an hour to go five miles during rush hour), have clean air, and walk or bike to just about anything we need. I still meet people who don’t understand how we could just pick a city seemingly at random, with no jobs lined up, no family waiting, no apparent and compelling reason to go, and orchestrate a cross-country relocation. But so far, I have to say… I’m happy we followed our instincts. I’m sure rational reasons will present themselves later. As if living two miles from the Pacific, and around the corner from a school of massage wasn’t rational enough…
December 4th, 2006
East Lynne, Missouri: 2:00 AM and the moon is so full I think it’s trying to climb in through the bedroom window. Two floors down a batch of hungry and competitive two day old puppies are squeaking into the night. We’re staying with a friend who lives about ten minutes from where I grew up. She’s built a glorious cedar 21st century techno log cabin in the woods; there’s Wi-Fi on the porch that overlooks a pasture filled with a herd of horses and cows. Inside, there are stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, and Columbian Supremo coffee.
My friend’s dog had puppies the day before we got here, and chose a rather inconvenient spot; the babies are all the way underneath fourteen-foot deep wrap-around porch, up against the wall of the house – in other words, totally inaccessible. Sam set out to rescue the puppies, and was prepared to slide on his belly across all fourteen feet of dirt with about zero inches of clearance above his head… but then the puppies stopped making any noise and in a panic, we got out the hammer and pried off one of the floor boards. Turns out, the puppies were fine – just sleeping. There are eight of them, and they’re gorgeous, with little pink feet and tongues, and miniature baby features. The mother is looking a little dazed – she’s not very big, and feeding eight babies seems to be taking a toll on her. So we went to the vet and bought puppy formula to help the mother supplement her feedings. We had a puppy feeding party last night, where, somehow, all the boys ended up in the living room watching a car race and drinking beer, while the girls ended up in the garage, sitting on tractors, feeding babies with little bottles. Sam, in true form, wandered back and forth. I don’t think there’s anything cuter than hearing him talk about “baby puppies” with his French accent – unless it’s watching him bottle-feed a baby puppy while saying, gently, “come on man, eat!”
Tonight there are coyotes outside and puppies safely relocated inside, in the garage. At one point my friend’s boyfriend wryly observed that, in all likelihood, the puppies would have been just fine if we’d left them under the porch. Did they really need to be rescued, or did we just need excuses to pet puppies? To be fair, I should point out that the boys have been sneaking into the garage, one at a time, in isolation, to cuddle puppies…
September 10th, 2006
Rural, Missouri: Okay, that’s not really the name of a town but I wanted to write about an experience rather than a destination. We had our first sustained sunshine in weeks – maybe months – today as we drove across Illinois and Missouri. Rural Missouri is incredibly beautiful; thickly forested, layers of green on green, rolling hills. We played techno ambient music and I engaged in a little imaginative exercise – since we’re currently homeless and carrying everything we own, turtle-like, in our car, could we pull over here and set up housekeeping in the wilderness? With melodic bass gently vibrating the car, I imagined hours spent working as artists and writers, Wi-Fi on the porch and NetFlix in the mailbox, long hikes in the woods, the changing seasons, crisp white snow that stays white for months instead of hours, wood smoke… Then we turned off the MP3 player and listened to all of the local radio stations. Country music celebrating the war. Static. Country music about hardship and sacrifice. Static. It didn’t take long for me to fail my imaginative exercise, but I was stunned by what a difference the musical back drop made to my level of enthusiasm for an imaginary project.
There’s an experience Sam and I refer to as the “Grunge Elvis Phenomenon:” the last time we were in Las Vegas we walked up and down the strip visiting all of the different casinos. Outside of the Flamingo there was a middle-aged Elvis singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to a small crowd of avid listeners. We thought, “oh look, Elvis sings Nirvana” and continued on our way, never even thinking to take a photo. Of course once we left Vegas and started thinking about it, we really wished we had taken a photo. After all, anywhere other than the ‘Strip, our grunge Elvis would have been anything but blasé. We had a brush with the Grunge Elvis Phenomenon in Rural, Missouri too. We took a little winding road between interstates and went past some truly remarkable architecture: an old three-story farm house with a sign in the front yard advertising “Deli Sandwiches and Fresh Bait,” a completely burned out trailer leaning 45 degrees to the right, but with pristine white curtains swaying in the empty windows, and surrounded by jewel-bright greenery. Later there was a strange mobile home graveyard, with at least fifteen discarded trailers lined up next to each other, only kept upright by the support of other mobile homes packed tight on either side. It all seemed unremarkable at the time, but later I wondered how my imagination had normalized images I’d never seen before.
Driving past Columbia Sam and I both gave the imaginative exercise of living somewhere other than California a second try. There was a gorgeous, ripe, full moon shining into the car and flooding the woods with pale light. The exercise worked… until we crested a hill and I saw a bank of clouds spread out below us and thought, for a split second, that it looked like the Pacific. Then my stomach clenched and I felt such a sense of excitement and relief… I think it’s gotta be California, at least for now.
September 10th, 2006
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