Odyssey – Burning Man 1

September 3rd, 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.

Entry Filed under: Odyssey