Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Burning Man: Journey to Black Rock City

For me, Burning Man was not vacation, or a fun weekend away or even a camping trip.

It was an expedition, a journey to a harsh place where winds blew dust at 80 miles an hour and the pitiless sun baked the ancient lakebed until the ground cracked. There was no natural water or shelter. Obviously this was no ordinary party. By holding this event in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, they were making a statement. I was a little hazy on what exactly the statement was, but it had something to do with what they called "radical self-reliance." Well, to spend a week in a place like that (it made Death Valley look like Eden), you had to practice radical self-reliance or you'd find yourself gasping out your last on the playa, dressed only in silver hot pants and a pink wig.

Actually that's not fair, because another big thing about Burning Man is the sense of community. No money changes hands, except for coffee and ice. Everything else is traded or freely given. But still, I didn't plan to head out there without provisions. I'd been reading an memoir called "Cold Oceans" by a guy who kayaked along Cape Horn and braved the Northwest Passage. He said an expedition's success takes preparation, determination and the right mindset. (Although he failed in both those expeditions and nearly got eaten by a polar bear, so maybe he wasn't the best role model.)

I had the determination, but wasn't so sure about the mindset. I'm not very good at adopting the right attitude for success. I don't think I've ever approached anything with the right mindset. I'm generally more of a rail-against-an-unjust-world kind of gal. But I'd do my best.

One thing I had down, though, was the preparation. I had two distinct advantages here -- first of all, I was joining my friend Andrea's camp, which was already established. And secondly, I was a rabid researcher. The average Burning Man packing list contained 200 items, from bandanas to glow sticks to vinegar. I packed eight gallons of water, three plastic bins of food, a cooler, a tent, sleeping bags, face masks, bandannas, ski goggles, a first aid kit and a big tube of sunblock. I even brought cotton swabs to dab our nostrils with lotion. (That dust is no joke; on Friday, the day we arrived, we were caught in a dust storm on the playa and another kid got a nosebleed.) I brought warm clothes, cool clothes, dozens of socks. I even had the perfect sunhat — a cowboy hat I'd bought at a Giants Dugout store. I’m not a Giants fan (sorry), so I just tugged off the little orange SF carelessly glued to the front and I was set.

Burning Man is waaaaay out there, and I don’t just mean the culture. You leave Interstate 80 and drive nearly 90 miles north into the Black Rock Desert’s playa, or alkali flats. It’s actually a dried-up lakebed of the ancient Lake Lahontan. It’s so flat there that land-speed records have been set on the playa.

By noon on Thursday, I'd finished packing and was loading the car. Andrea kept texting me from Burning Man (She couldn’t call from the playa, but she could text.) Bring apples, she wrote. Bring wheat bread, potato chips, parmesan cheese and maybe some pickles. Don’t forget the watermelon. Ron and I installed the bike rack and shoved the bikes on. I kept running into the apartment for last-minute items. Did we have cleaning wipes and where the hell was my pink lei? What happened to the earplugs and Benny’s cape? Did I have my cell phone charger? The neon hair spray?

Sitting in outbound traffic on the Bay Bridge, I clenched the steering wheel, nervously running over last-minute lists in my mind. Benny sat in the backseat next to the cooler and read his “Underland” book about a kid who falls through a hole in his laundry room and meets a bunch of giant talking bugs and rats.

We spent the night in Reno and hit the road the next morning at 5 a.m. I'd barely slept a wink. Benny dozed in the back; I peered at the lightening sky and had second, third, fourth thoughts about this whole enterprise. What was I doing? What was I taking Benny into? I actually had my phone in my hand, ready to text Andrea. Can't come. So sorry.  I’d blame it on illness car trouble, a knife fight in Reno, anything.

No, I couldn't chicken out now.  So I drove on. We left Interstate 80 at Wadsworth and turned north. Seventy-five miles on Nevada road 447. The mountains were a bleak, washed-out orange. We drove past dusty little towns and Indian taco stands on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation.  I bought a Sierra Mist at a taco stand and a toothbrush for Benny at a tiny market in Gerlach. There were few vehicles around, just the occasional pickup truck —  very little to tell me I was on the right road and not just headed out into the empty desert. Finally I reached a sign “Burning Man, turn right” and soon the Fit was rocking on gravel, the bikes swaying in my rearview mirror. I drove through the Gate and creeped toward Black Rock City at 10 miles per hour.

Two friendly young people — a girl with a head of braids of different colors and  a shaved-head guy in a black kilt — stopped my car. I presented my ticket, feeling triumphant. I had left little to chance when it came to this ticket. Earlier that week, Andrea had forgotten her tickets at home, and they didn’t realize it until they were almost to Reno. So the family camped near Truckee and Andrea drove back to San Francisco through Wednesday night, took a nap, then drove back.

Determined to take no risk, I had shoved my Burning Man ticket into an envelope labeled “Mom’s waffle recipe” and put in the car’s glove compartment. There, I thought. If someone steals my car and likes breakfast food, they get to go to Burning Man, too.

I probably looked a little freaked at Black Rock City's Gate because the girl asked with a big smile: “Is it your first time? Ring the bell!” I pulled my goggles on, got out of the car — staggering at the wind and heat — and hit the bell with a metal rod. I got a hug for that, and suddenly felt all Burny and powerful. The guy in the kilt just looked at me and said: “Your goggles are upside down.”

Once inside, I consulted the map. The temporary city, created for nearly 70,000 people,  is a partial circle, its spokes like the hands of clock, bisected by roads named after letters.
The giant wicker man loomed above us, the highest point on the flat landscape. I nosed my car between half-naked bicyclists wearing lizard heads and angel wings, or gold wigs and silver vests. A man in a tiger suit (wasn't he hot?) stood outside a long line of port-a-potties.

I followed a giant rolling spider down 5:30, looking for Kidsville, a family-friendly camp located at 5:30 and G.  Benny bounced in the back seat, pointing at a little car shaped like a old-fashioned red telephone. Finally I pulled into my tiny parking spot.And there was the sign, "Welcome Christine and Benny," just where it was supposed to be. I’d made it!

To be continued:
Burning Man: How Can a Place be Radical Anti-Establishment if I'm There?

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