Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Introduction to Black Rock City

As the line crept towards the entrance gate, the little light shifted from post-dusk red to moon-white. I heard a bell ring occasionally, wondering what it could be. When the ticket-taker asked and found that it was our first time, he told us to pull over, "Virgins! - We've got some talking to do." Seemingly overflowing with joy, he went through all the camp regulations and warnings I had read on the website (burningman.com), then invited us out of the car for the initiation ceremony. As all virgins, we each had to bang a hanging gong with a metal pipe and shout, which we did, receiving welcome hugs in return and best wishes for our stay. "These people remind me of Christians" was my cynical reaction. For the long crawl to Black Rock City, I turned up the music (XM channel Fungus-53, the best punk station ever). Out came Suicidal Tendencies' "We're The Original Hippie-Killers," perfect for my rebellious mood. But that was followed by Social Distortion's "Reach For The Sky," whose chorus "Make it last, 'cause tomorrow may never come" restored perspective to my mind and renewed my determination to have a great time here, no matter what kind of "hippies" I encountered.

The camp we had joined, Starlight Express (centered around the wedding party), was at 7:30 & G (radial avenues out from the center were labeled like clock hours, circular ring avenues were alphabetical), so by following the little unlit signs at intersections we were miraculously able to locate the camp. Gosia's friends Alex and Ajna from Sausalito had an RV, where Gosia also stayed, while I found an empty spot nearby and pitched my pup tent by the light of the moon. At 'G', we were 7 avenues out from the center Playa and the inner Esplanade, so the lights and sounds were somewhat distant, and the full moon cast an awesome light on the vast playa floor.

After a long day, I fueled up on Red Bull for the body and mushrooms for the mind, and set off on foot to see what this Burning Man was all about. I soon found myself in a totally alternate reality. I felt like the only person at a Halloween party without a costume. Walking along the avenues was like being in the midst of a parade (think Mermaid Parade), with every person and bicycle decorated with lights and/or costumes, and hundreds of motorized vehicles of all sizes converted into fantasy machines. Most theme camps along the way blasted music of all kinds, and the lights grew more dazzling as I approached the center ring (Esplanade). One camp set back from the "street" had a metal frame structure about 20' high x 40' wide supporting canvases illuminated green, with a couple of video screens playing nature videos, as disco music blasted from huge speakers. I stopped and danced for a while, and three little vehicles joined me. Think of a little toy tractor, large wheels in rear, smaller in front, and a lever to do instant "wheelies" (one had two additional small "training wheels" at the back to prevent back flips). Cover this with a cupcake with a hole in the top for a human head to protrude. So these 3 little motorized cupcakes with giggling drivers came scooting onto the dance floor (an area of sand), doing quick wheelies, racing around in tight circles, then sped off again after a while down the avenue. This is just one small example of the kind of thing that kept on happening throughout, a constant bombardment of creativity unleashed in far-out fantasy vehicles ranging from scooters to golf carts to cars and buses.

Once I got to the Esplanade, the extent of the circular city came into view. An indescribably vast array of lights and sounds around the ring, like a World's Fair with a Las Vegas flavor. And out in the central playa, hundreds of bicycles racing around, their lights making them appear like fireflies, in between many larger mutant vehicles, trucks and buses, brightly lit and blasting music. Out on the playa, there was a ring of about 16 tubes about 15' tall facing the sky, occasionally shooting towers of flame, emitting a big "thwoomp" sound with each burst. I climbed a ramp to a platform in the center of the ring, and the computer-controlled device set them off in rapid succession one at a time around the circle, producing a dazzling ring of fire and rotating "thwoomp" ingition sounds.

I wandered for a few hours, continuously dazzled by the weird vehicles and people, and heard some shouting "to The Man for the lunar eclipse"! I remembered that the full moon was going to enter the earth's shadow around 2AM, and had no interest in watching that from the dazzling playa with a bunch of shouting Burners, so I headed back to my camp for some darkness. By chance, I had pitched the tent with the door facing the moon, so I lay down on my sleeping bag with the flap open, and watched the moon disappear and turn red far from the central insanity. In a span of only a few hours, I had gotten a glimpse of the scope and scale of Burning Man, and understood why "Virgins" are labeled as such, as there's no way for anyone who hasn't been there to grasp what it's all about. But it was wonderful to be able to turn it all off, and go to sleep with a lunar eclipse shining down on me in the middle of this desert.

The Final Approach

The Burning Man vehicles of the previous night were gone Monday morning. The smirk and shaking head overcame me again, lamenting how everyone else was on their way while we had to go off and try to buy survival essentials for the coming week. I savored my last breakfast at the local diner like a condemned man, and we finally located a massive Wal-Mart in hopes of acquiring essential gear. My spirits finally picked up somewhat in Wal-Mart, where we encountered numerous cool-looking people from various far-off places also shopping for supplies. $200 later, we'd gotten a bicycle, some dried foods and other items, and I felt a little more prepared, and along the drive on I-80 back to Fernley where we'd turn north towards Black Rock City (BRC), there were plenty of other BM vehicles in sight. At Fernley, we located a supermarket and picked up some perishable foods for the first few days, and set off on state highway 447 north to Gerlach, the last outpost before the playa. I really did slow down to 25 mph going through Wadsworth, right behind an airstream trailer, but we must've started to pick up speed when it looked like the town was "over" instead of waiting for the next speed sign, and a squad car pulled us both over. The cop was pleasant enough, and we were lucky he clocked me at 44 mph, since 20 mph over the limit would have meant an automatic reckless driving violation also; so I "got off easy" with only a $170 fine to mail in. I watched the speedometer really closely from then on.

On the 75-mile drive north we joined a caravan of BM vehicles, and I couldn't help but feel the anticipation swell inside me as I headed into this unknown adventure with so many others. At the last near-non-town before Gerlach, Empire NV (big sign over the gas station - WELCOME TO NOWHERE), many others were also stopped for gas and water, and shopping at an impromptu vintage clothing store set up adjacent to the gas station. The festival spirit was steadily growing in me, and I found myself looking forward to the playa on the remaining miles to the site. The sun was near setting as the long line stopped many times on the little county road out of Gerlach, and I chatted with others while stopped. When I told another driver it was my first time, I was identified as a "virgin", and got my first welcome hug of the week from the dude. I had feared some scorn would be directed at my gas-guzzling car by attendees of the Green-themed fest, but this guy admired the Caddy, even saying he had planned to buy a camper for next year but thought he might get a big convertible instead!

The sun was setting behind the mountains by the time we took the turnoff onto the Black Rock Desert and joined the mile-long line for the entry gate. The line of cars crept along at 5 mph, each vehicle keeping its distance from the one before in order to avoid ingesting the cloud of dust the wheels kicked up. We were diverted onto a line for tickets, where I picked up my prepaid $280 will-call ticket, and bought another for Gosia at the "door" price of $350. Returning to the car, we were greeted by a hippie-looking type, who welcomed us and asked if we wanted any shrooms. So, this was to be just like I'd heard! No thanks (he could've been a cop). After creeping 1/2 mile back to join the entry gate line, we crept along to the gate as dusk fell and the full moon appeared over the opposite mountains.

getting to burning man

Monday, August 27, 2007

Across Nevada: BM-1

Opening the motel room door Sunday morning and stepping into the intense Nevada heat, I couldn't avoid the renewed sense of dread about Burning Man - what the hell are we doing, going out into the desert and exposing our bodies to this heat for a week??? But I kept reminding myself that I had made the choice to check out this new experience, and did my best to maintain a P.M.A. about it all. After a bit of Google map research, I decided it made sense to follow I-80 a little further west past the BM turnoff and spend Sunday night in Reno, where there are some Target and Wal-Mart stores where we could do our last-minute shopping for supplies. You might expect that after all the hills and plains and plains and hills of all the other states we drive through, the long trek through Nevada would be uninteresting; but no, the terrain of Nevada has its own character, with the high desert hills and vast barren expanses of desert. With the non-functional fuel gauge, I'd gotten used to keeping an eye on the odometer; but I learned once again the importance of also remembering that last mileage I wrote down at the last gas fill-up, when we ran out of gas again. Quite fortunately, just a couple of miles outside of Battle Mountain, where we were able to refuel, and stopped for lunch. In Reno, the second largest casino center after Vegas, a couple of motels with no Wi-fi recommended the Days Inn, so we pulled in there for the night, and I caught up on the last web stuff before heading into the void. There were quite a number of other Burning Man vehicles parked at the motel, identifiable by the tents, bikes, and other piled-on equipment, and I felt so unprepared to head into the desert with so little preparation, but kept trusting my ability to make the best of any situation.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

26.08 UT Wendover- NV Reno

Onwards to Nevada

Having spent an extra day in the Denver area, we had only the weekend left to get to Burning Man by Monday, so we got off to a fairly early start, hoping to reach Salt Lake City by Saturday night. Tomek had urged me to take I-70 for a most beautiful ride through the mountains, and he was certainly right. The tracks of AMTRAK's California Zephyr line, laid down in the 19th century, follow the White River closely, and I-70 snakes through this canyon supported by concrete extensions to the canyon walls as there's no room for another roadbed on the natural sloping rock. Stopping at a river access point, we watched rafters launching on their river trips, and the AMTRAK train went by across the river. At this gorgeous point I was startled to receive a cell phone call about some web site server issue I would have to deal with tonight, definitely a clash of realities! Descending from these mountains into the high plains of Utah, we turned north on a US highway to head up towards Salt Lake City. It seemed just a bit early to stop as we passed Provo on the approach to SLC, so we thought we'd make the westward turn at SLC and find a place to stay along I-80 on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. Another lesson in doing your research - shortly after turning westward at SLC on a state highway, we passed miles and miles of pure nothing; in the dark we were aware of vast areas of white to either side, apparently some foretaste of the dry salt lake beds, but there were NO lodging services until the state border about 100 miles away. So when we stopped for gas, I picked up a large Red Bull, my first encounter with that drink and its ability to keep you going. We finally arrived at Wendover, Utah around midnight, right on the UT-NV border. We passed a few inexpensive motels on entering the town, but kept looking for one with Internet access. Crossing what turned out to be the border brought us into West Wendover, NV, where the same street is now lined with casino hotels, a mini-Las Vegas. I had completely forgotten that this is what Nevada towns do, offer the gambling life as close to the border as possible. I just wasn't in the mood to enter the Vegas experience, exhausted and in need of Wi-Fi, so we found a motel on the Utah side of town and settled in for the night after 13 hours on the road. With the help of the Red Bull, I stayed up til 5 AM dealing with a server relocation on my multiple porn sites, ensuring uninterrupted operation.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

25.08 CO Silverthorne - UT Wendover

Polish Rockies

Friday the 23rd we met Gosia's Polish friends at a townhouse in Denver. Tomek came over to the US a few years ago, and after getting a green card via marriage and working in Rocky Mountain resorts, saved enough to get a loan and buy this townhouse, which he rents to a few friends to cover mortgage payments. Great to see a guy from the former Soviet-controlled country living out the American dream. We arranged to meet the guys later on up in Silverthorne where they live, and drove on up into the mountains, about 60 miles west of Denver. Up at 9000 ft, the air was really too thin, and the Caddy wasn't happy with the reduced oxygen, sputtering on startup and climbing hills like an old VW bug. I turned the air filter cover upside down on the advice of a local mechanic, creating an open space where more air could get in, which seemed to help a little. Silverthorne is one of those upscale Rocky Mountain towns where people buy second homes, and go mostly to ski - the kind of place SouthPark pokes fun at. We passed the time in a local restaurant, where the conversation at neighboring tables seemed to revolve around real estate deals. When the boys came up and met us, we hung out in their bachelor pad a while, and then all piled into the Caddy to go to a bar where they worked. I was unaware of these plans, as was surrounded by 3 guys and a gal speaking Polish; kind of like the feeling I get in one of my local Greenpoint restaurants when they've got their TV station on - I like the sound of the language, but not one syllable makes any sense to me. OK, following Tomek's directions, we got to another town called Copper Mountain, where their resort is located. The resort is designed to resemble a replica of an Alpine village, little streets with charming little buildings, a little pond, colored lights strung from the building frames - but of course the whole place was deserted except for the staff since it was off-season. While the Poles had their free drinks in the empty bar, I stood outside gazing at the empty streets, the mountain peaks, the stars and moon above. And speakers above the door of every empty building gently filled the air with musak, which happened to be Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here - a totally surreal setting, in an absurd giggly sort of way. We hung out at another bar with more of the local staff, played some pool, and the non-drivers had more drinks, then headed back to the mountain pad. The temperature really drops at night at that altitude, but I kept the top down all the way, and the Polish dudes in the back seat never let on that they were freezing their asses off, whooping it up all the way in the huge American pimp-mobile.

Friday, August 24, 2007

24.08 CO Denver - Silverthorne

Hills and Prairie - To Denver

Thursday morning the rain had stopped, things were drying, and we had a lovely breakfast in the restaurant of The Bavarian Inn. I was still adjusting to being in "the mountains" after all the days of feeling the plains open up around us. It felt like we had reached the Rockies, but I knew better, that these pine-covered slopes were "only" the Black Hills of South Dakota - but a long way from The Catskills. As we descended from the hills on a two-lane US highway we crossed over in Wyoming, which brought across the meaning of "Big Country." Music (CD): Corb Lund Band - No Roads Here and Short Native Grasses (Praries Of Alberta); the wide prairies continue right on up into Alberta, where he's from, and he was the perfect accompaniment to Wyoming.

Stopping in Cheyenne WY, I called my friend Frederic in Denver, but it was a bad number. Headed down anyway, figuring I'd figure something out. On the drive, I considered the 393 area code I'd dialed, realized it was just a typo away from Denver's 303 code, so I reached him when we got to Denver. When I'd last seen him 8 years ago, he was the Colorado training center for AVID video editors, but now he runs the Colorado Film School which he created. He was doing a faculty meeting, which we sat in on. For the free food, but I got a look at their production organization website interface for student projects, and their dazzling collection of the latest Mac Quad-core editing workstations. We took a break from the meeting to hook up with Gosia's friend Tomek, from her home town in Poland, and a couple of his friends; made plans to spend more time together Friday. We went back and hung out with Frederic, talking and drinking wine for hours at his home afterward; so great to catch up on the 20-year friendship after so long. Couldn't get Wi-fi to work, so I had a rare non-computer day. Crashed in sleeping bags on futons on his living room floor.

Thursday, August 23, 2007