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

Friday, September 05, 2014

Burning Man: The Exodus

My alarm went off in the tent at 4:01. I could still hear music pounding throughout Black Rock City, but it was strangely muted. My nose was cold. I wiggled out of the warm sleeping bag and dressed quickly. My plan was to leave at 5 a.m. and avoid the inevitable traffic when tens of thousands of Burners try to leave the desert along a single access road at the same time. Holding my rolled sleeping bag, I stepped out of the tent and looked up at Orion in the clear desert sky. I stuffed the sleeping bag into the car, then put a quilt in the front passenger seat. Then I woke Benny and hustled him into the car and wrapped him up. He snuggled sleepily into the quilt. Quickly I broke down the tent in the dark, my hands lit by the headamp on my forehead. I shoved everything into the car, climbed into the driver's seat, said a short prayer, and turned the keys. The car started immediately. I almost cried with relief. The desert's alkaline dust can play hell with a battery.

Softly I drove toward 5:30, then turned left. The way was spottily lit in primary neon colors. I rolled past sleeping camps and turned right, and yes, there was the line. I followed the departing cars and RVs, creeping through the camp much like the way I entered. We easily rolled through the gate and crunched onto the graveled path. Soon I turned on County Road 34. I felt like bursting into tears again. I’d done it. I’d taken Benny to Burning Man and gotten safely out again. Now I just had to drive 90 miles through the desert to Interstate 80. Benny rolled toward the car door and slept on.

It was a quiet, dull drive in the dark, and I could only see the black outlines of mountains on the edges. I was nervous driving here, even with the long comforting red line of taillights before me. What if I got a flat or the car overheated or stalled? A million things could go wrong. We passed quietly through Gerlach, through the Pyramid Lake Indian reservation and after an eternity, we joined I-80.

I was so tired, having slept only a few hours, but neither Benny or I wanted to break our trip. We stopped for lunch at a little diner in the Sierra Nevadas, where the waitress admired our Burning Man t-shirts and asked for stories. Then we pushed on, joining surprisingly smooth-flowing traffic onto the Bay Bridge and then finally ... finally ... pulling into our own driveway. We were home.

Even now, nearly a week later, it's hard to sum up how I feel about this trip. It was so wonderful and so awful, so easy and so hard, so surprising and confusing and comforting all at once. I'm not kidding myself that I was anything more than a spectator; we were only there for two days, camping in Kidsville, tucked in our tent by 11 each night.

But we were there — we drove out there, just the two of us in our little Fit. I didn't bring one thing I wasn't glad to have and we lacked for nothing that we needed. By any measure this trip was a success. Those fussy, perfectionist tendencies that drive myself and everyone around me crazy came into their own at Burning Man. And I, Christine — a daydreamer who constantly misses her subway stop, a person who can't walk across the room without tripping, someone who practically needs a map to navigate her own neighborhood — brought a 10-year-old on her first trip to Burning Man and returned safe and sound. Not even a sunburn. It's tremendously empowering. And there's always next year. The Man burns in 364 days!

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