Friday, September 10, 2010

Adventures at Burning Man - First Night

I've been home several days and I'm still cleaning playa dust out of my camping gear and clothes. That stuff is everywhere! More like talcum powder than house-dust, it dissipates with the slightest breath and resettles softly on areas I already cleaned. Now I understand why people say, "Make peace with the dust." There really isn't much more you can do.

I've also been thinking about all the sights, sounds, textures, smells and experiences I felt out there on the playa, and trying to write it all down. This also seems like an impossible task. There is nothing like Burning Man, no comparison I can make. Even the environment feels like a far away planet. But I'll do my best to share what happened during my Burning Man adventure.

The adventure started before I got there. My car, a 1995 Honda Odyssey with 220,000 miles on her, overheated on the Donner grade (climbing the Sierras). I pulled over to the side of the road and waited for her to cool off, then checked the fluids. Everything looked okay. Two CHP officers checked on me and one said he'd be back later to make sure I wasn't still sitting there. After 20 minutes I started up the mountain again, only for the car to overheat AGAIN. I pulled over, let the car rest, drove for a bit, pulled over again, waited, drove, pulled over, waited, drove.... until at last I made it to a gas station 3 miles away, a process that took an hour and a half. At the gas station, I called AAA and tried not to cry. Then, two motor-homes pulled in to the parking lot, each with Burning Man symbols painted on the side. A man came up to my car and asked what was wrong.

"It keeps over heating."

"Did you check the fluids?" he asked.


After asking me how long I'd been sitting there, he opened the radiator cap and stuck his finger in. "Radiator's empty."

I was dumb struck! All this time, I'd been checking the overflow, not the actual radiator! I felt like a typical, car-stupid, "girl."

The man filled it with water and then left, just as the tow-truck arrived. The driver checked my car and since I didn't need a tow, offered to follow me up the rest of the grade "just in case." I tipped him for driving all the way out there and for making sure I made it up the mountain. When we got to Truckee, he turned off and I continued on to Burning Man. The car was running great, but I bought two containers of radiator fluid to make sure.

It is a long, long way to Burning Man. After making Reno I still had a two hour drive on a two lane road through the high desert. When at last I reached the gate to Black Rock City, the temporary city where Burning Man takes place, it was almost dark. I'd left home at 8 am and had been traveling for 12 hours. Sitting in my car, idling with thousands of others trying to get through the entrance, I tuned the radio to BMR (the Burning Man radio station) and watched the people around me as they excitedly chatted, smoked, shared a meal and introduced themselves to people waiting with them. A couple beside me waved and asked me if I was alone.

"No. I'm meeting my dad. He's already in camp."

"You're dad? Wow... That's neat. You don't look like a kid..." She faltered, as if suddenly embarrassed by implying I look old. "I mean, you're an adult, like us."

I decided to rescue her. "My dad is 62. He's been coming for years."

"That is so cool. You're lucky to have a dad into Burning Man."

Yeah, I am pretty lucky. How many people can claim they went to Burning Man with their 62 year old dad? There have been times growing up I'd wished a had a "typical dad," one that wouldn't embarrass me in front of my friends. But none of those non-embarrassing dads would ever go to Burning Man.

It took over an hour to get through the gate, and at last I made it to the "greeters." A very cute young man (there's some sweet eye-candy at Burning Man!) welcomed me, handed me a map and program of events, and then asked, "Have you been here before?" When I said no, he invited me to ring the bell.

Getting out of my car, I walked to a large, iron prayer bell and grabbed the medal rod he offered me. Then I rang that bell with all my might, making my arms shudder with the force. Everyone cheered and I laughed. At last, I was here!

But then I had to find my camp, and my dad. The city is laid out like a clock, with streets leading away from the center numbered (6:00, 6:30, 7:00, 7:30...) and the cross streets named after cities (Athens, Beirut, Cairo...). My camp was near 7:30 and Hanoi. It was night time. The streets were a sea of people and bicycles and every camp was lit up with Christmas lights and neon. I turned right on 7:30 then drove down the street hunting for Hanoi while at the same time trying not to kill any pedestrians. One person yelled, "Park your car!" Go to hell, I wanted to scream. I was tired, lost, and hungry and all I wanted to do was find my dad. Hanoi Street appeared and I turned left, then realized as I drove there was no way I'd ever find my dad's camp. None of the camps are marked. There are no addresses, just a sea of nondescript tents. "I guess I'll have to just park and sleep in the car and look for him when the sun comes up," I said to myself.

Then suddenly, my dad's face appeared at my window. He had bounced up to my car like a kid on Christmas morning, with a huge grin on his face. Sitting outside camp all evening in a lawn chair, he'd been watching for me. After directing me to our camp, he helped me set up my tent and get settled, then invited me on a walk to see the neighborhood. I was exhausted and nauseous with altitude sickness (Black Rock City is at 4500 feet), but eager to see some of the sights.

The very first walk through the city that night felt like I'd stepped into the heart of chaos. Competing sounds from a hundred different sources flooded my ears; flashes of colored light and blasts of fire slashed the darkness; people raced past on decorated bicycles with bells ringing loudly; art cars slowly drove by with people dancing to techno on the roofs; camps on either side were packed with people dancing, drinking, playing games, laughing, singing songs. The overall feeling of the city was madly happy. We walked down to the Esplanade which runs along the edge of the playa where the swirl of activity was even more frenetic and I watched as huge, glowing art cars moved across the dark playa like neon boats in a black sea. We walked back to our street, 7:30, and my dad pointed out MalMart, a huge six story structure people could climb to take in the view and dance. "That's our landmark. If you get lost, head to the Esplanada and look for MalMart. The landmarks change in this city, but I doubt MalMart will go away."

We walked back to camp and sat together under the starlight while I tried to eat my apple. It was almost midnight. The stars, so crisp and strong, were as incredible as the city. Eventually though, my body demanded I get some sleep. I crawled into my sleeping bag and put in ear plugs, which only helped block the roar of the city a little. Frank Sinatra sang in my mind, "I want to wake up, in a city that doesn't sleep..."


Confessions of a Closet Hoarder but you can call me Judy said...

Glad you got there safely. Sounds totally overwhelming! Car troubles on the road are rotten!

Kelley @ magnetoboldtoo said...

sounds totally amazing! Wish I was there!