Snapshots Taken At A Low Point

I had a little downtime in San Francisco. Staying with family, visiting with friends. Eating, sleeping and drinking a lot. In a way, it was a difficult stop travelling, because everybody else was in ordinary time, and I’m still in non-ordinary time. I’m not used to scheduling my day in the way everybody else does. I wanted to visit with everyone, and I wanted to leave at the same time. After two weeks I hit the road, and swooped through some very varied scenery. Here are some snapshots of my progress.

Snapshot: Rock Creek Lake

Driving South from Mono Lake, I decide to camp near the town of Tom’s Place. I pull off and begin the ascent into the Eastern Sierra. I drive around a corner and suddenly there was a hillside covered in yellow and orange quaking aspen. I have driven out of Summer of the valley straight into the Fall of the mountains. The aspen peek out from under the pines, a vibrant understory, a layer of underpainting, a bright silk scarf at the neck of a green shirt. I decide that this would be a great place to ride. I find a stable up near where I camped, and the next day, I take a four hour ride on a large black mule named Ray. I keep whistling “15 miles on the Erie Canal” unconsciously, but none of my riding companions seem to notice. Ray doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. We ascend up through the glowing stands of aspen, into the pines and long, golden/green meadows that stretch up to abrupt grey peaks, dusted now with snow. The air is crisp and thin (we’re at 10,000 feet), and the sky is blue. I reach forward and pat Ray on his warm black neck. His fur feels stubbly and dusty under my palm.

Snapshot: Below Towne Pass

I am driving up the grade into the Panamint Range, which is the steep range of mountains on the west side of Death Valley. It is early in the morning – about 8:00. There are many signs warning about the danger of overheating your engine, but I figure at this time of the year and at this time of the morning I should have no problem. The temperature gauge mounts, and I keep an eye on the temperature light. The gauge has gotten about two thirds of the way up – higher than I’ve ever had it before, but still in reasonable range I think. Suddenly, there’s a rude buzzing, and then the oil pressure light starts blinking. Oil Pressure? I was prepared for the temperature warning light, not the oil pressure light. Have I blown a seal of some sort? I pull into a turnout, my bowels clenched in anxiety. Now I am suffering not only from low oil pressure, but also from high anal pressure. I walk up the hill from the turnout, looking for some cover, but the hill offers no contours, and the vegetation is about a foot high max. Squatting up there, I would be the most conspicuous landmark on the hill, and this is a popular turnout. Other tourists pull in, looking at me questioningly. I trudge back to the van, still fully freighted.

I check the oil, and the level is fine, as is the level of coolant. I call my mechanic, but as this is Sunday, he isn’t there. I decide to let the van cool down for a while. After a half hour or so, I start it back up, and the oil light no longer flashes. Very, very slowly I ascend to the summit, and then glide down into Death Valley.

Snapshot: Salt Creek, Death Valley

The Salt Creek Interpretive Trail in Death Valley seems like an elaborate practical joke. There is a boardwalk smelling of creosote, and a series of signs describing the riverine environment and its inhabitants, only there is no water, just a baked cracked stream bed. The first sign talks about how unusual it is too find water in this environment. “Smell the water” it urges, the command seemingly an exercise in imagination. On I tromp along the boardwalk and its cheery, delusional analysis of the water that has boiled off in the heat and the creatures that have fled. I pass stalwart German tourists turning pink in the heat. I am tormented by a huge persistent horse fly. I dutifully walk the entire trail, and find only a few lizards and some mud. If this is the only home of the rare and endangered Death Valley pupfish then I can state with confidence that it is extinct.

[Note to alarmed environmentalists. I talked with a ranger at the visitor center, and he told me that although Salt Creek was dried up at this time of year, that further up the valley there is a lake that feeds the stream which still has water and pupfish in it. However any pupfish that linger in the creek and get caught in its shrinking puddles get baked to death in the mud. Death Valley pupfish en croute.]

Snapshot: Badwater

Badwater will undoubtedly rank as the low point to my trip. It sits in the middle of a huge expanse of desert, and consists of a tepid alkali puddle, and a sign which reads “Badwater, elevation –282”. The tourists hardy enough to brave the heat to come here park their cars at the turnout, then walk down the small incline to the sign. Each group or individual poses by the sign and asks the last person to pose by the sign to take their pictures. I have my picture taken there, too. It’s hard to grasp the concept of being 282 feet below sea level. I’ve been 90 feet below sea level before, but at the time I was underwater.

A woman next to me says “Oh look” and points back to the cliff behind the turnout. It is a red jumble of stone, sunscorched, the life baked out of it, and it rears over the road. Tilting my head back, I can make out a small hand lettered white sign, about 300 feet up. The sign reads “Sea level”

Snapshot: Sunset on Artist Drive

It is getting toward sunset, and I have decided to take the van down Artist Drive on the advice of a helpful ranger. The name Artist Drive conjures up the vision of black clad bohemians hunched over their pads in a small café, their fingers stained with nicotine, scribbling furiously. But Artist Drive in Death Valley is so named for the colorful rock formations that line the road. At sunset, the light mellows toward gold, and the colors in the rocks begin to glow. I come upon a large ridge – a wall of stone, flat topped, dominating the space over the road, filling the eye. The face of the wall is adorned with irregular columns, interspersed with fans of sand that have washed down. The light has caught it full on, and it reverberates with the color of a great orchestral brass chord. It is a Handel trumpet concerto with full throated organ accompaniment. It has the otherworldly glow of 19th century landscape painting. The colors of the cliff face intensify as the sun sinks toward the far mountains, gold and rose, honey and wine. I leave before the inexorable shadows creep up from the base, leaving a single illuminated peak, a shout at the end of day.

Snapshot: At the Liberace Museum

In Las Vegas, I have decided to visit the Liberace museum. I watch a video of the maestro (in one scene he is wearing sequined red white and blue hotpants for the bicentennial) and stroll past rhinestone encrusted cars and pianos, to the hall where his spangled besequined costumes are on display. Here is a cape and suit with so many beads and bangles on them that the thing weighs 200 lbs. Here is the worlds largest rhinestone. I’m totally inspired. What a flaming fag he was! And so lovable. Here was a man so totally over the top that the top disappeared, and he was in orbit, a planet unto himself.

I am reminded of a quote I heard from the gnostic gospel. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you hold back what is within you, what you hold back will destroy you.”. It’s clear that Liberace held nothing back. He was comfortable with who he was, and the whole museum is a tribute to his elaboration of himself, taking things to whatever absurd extreme he deemed appropriate. The video made it clear that he did not take himself seriously, but that he did take seriously his connection to his audience. He loved them, and wanted them to feel that love. He wandered among them like some bespangled and fruity latter day saint.

I was struck by the contrast between the Liberace museum and the Picasso Museum in Paris. The Picasso Museum is overwhelming. Room after room of masterworks in every medium imaginable. A dizzying array of styles. One has the sense of a ferocious self-confidence, and an unwillingness to stop at a point that was merely comfortable. Picasso constantly pushes forward, challenges, reinvents. Picasso moves outward, questing, aggressive. Liberace elaborates the inward, absurd, humorous, comfortable. Picasso the ardent heterosexual, Liberace the coy homosexual. Picasso the challenge to growth and development, Liberace the challenge of self-acceptance and liberation.

Somehow, it seems like it would be more fun to have Liberace as a friend than Picasso.


Lightly Singed

It is night in the desert, and my companions and I have arrived at what looks like a giant black windsock with pictures of Mr. Bill swirling down the inside as if into a vortex. “Shall we climb through?” I ask. “Why not?” says Doug, his stock answer. I take off my shoes and crawl in on all fours, shoes clutched in my right hand. I work my way forward, and the windsock closes in, the fabric of the cone pressing in on me, all blackness. Now my shoulders are jammed up against the narrowing sides, but I push ahead, and now my hips are caught. Another shove forward and I am beyond the constriction and into a tube of material that feels like spandex. I keep pushing forward, shoving my shoes ahead of me, but it’s hard to tell whether I am moving forward relative to the cloth or simply stretching the fabric ahead with me. Move, stretch, push, and the tension of the fabric on my body increases. Finally, my hands reach the end of the fabric, and I pull through and tumble out onto the hardpacked dust of the desert floor. I look back and here comes Adam wriggling through, and then Doug, looking like something from Mummenschanz coming out of a pastry decorator. All three of us stand up and look back. The great soft cone of the windsock lies flaccid on the desert floor. The moon has risen behind the black mountains and peers through clouds, casting silvery blue light across the cracked earth. “We’re in a Dali painting!” says Adam. Welcome to Burning Man.

That first night stands out the most clearly for me in my Burning Man experience. At first I rode my bicycle with my headlight on, but then I realized that there was nothing to hit, and switched the light off to soar through the dimness. We skimmed the playa, the open landscape illuminated by starlight, unexpected monumental art installations mushrooming out of the gloaming. “Should we check this out?” “Why not?”.

We found a huge windchime 30 feet high, and stood under it, swinging on the rope to pull the clapper into the tubes above. We climbed up the pyramid on which the Man stands and discovered that if one of us held on to a neon tube and another touched the back of his hand, we could transfer an electric charge

We crossed paths with an art car, cruising its lonely way out in the middle of the playa. It had its cabin lights on, throwing a yellow glow into the inky night, and we could see the driver and his lovely, dark companion lit up as if they were on a small stage. The car speakers broadcast “Girl from Ipanema”, Astrid Gilberto singing her slanty notes out into the darkness, and we circled, moths around its flame, or comets around a great slow moving planet.

One of our number, John, had been there for a few days, and knew about an installation far out on the playa that he wanted to show us. He turned his bike into the night and receded from us, a will-o-the-wisp, sometimes his headlamp visible, sometimes only the reflectors on his wheels. We followed him as best we could until we saw a dim light flickering yellow, As we rode toward it, it never seemed to get any closer. At last we arrived. It was a large installation, a lifesize fishing boat. The glow was from a 50 gallon trash barrel with a fire burning inside. Shapes had been cut from the side of the drum to create fiery pictures. The boat’s creator, Jenny, was there bent over a book that she was constructing. It was a book of various parts screwed, pasted and bent – sort of Mad Max meets Griffin and Sabine. She was trying to use a cigar case for the book’s spine. We clambered over the boat, up the canting deck and lay down looking up at the stars, bright and clear overhead. Far from Burning Man and the amplified music and flashing lights it was lovely and peaceful.

Burning Man is held in the Black Rock Desert about 90 miles northeast of Reno. The Black Rock Desert is essentially a huge dry lake bed. It has that look – cracked like alligator hide with a hard surface that you can drive a truck across. This baked surface is called the playa. It crumbles into an alkaline dust that invades eyes, nose, and throat and dries and cracks the feet.

In the middle of Black Rock City  (as the encampment is called) stands the Man himself, maybe 50 feet high, his wooden armature clothed in red and yellow neon, standing on a pyramid of bales of straw. Around him the “city”, a compound of tents, tarps, and cars, is laid out in a series concentric rings, each named for a planet. Mercury, the closest ring, has a diameter of perhaps ½ mile, so that the Man stands at least ¼ mile distant from any camp. Radiating out from the Man are a series of spoke roads, each named by a half hour time on the clock, six o’clock being the top of the camp, and 12:00 o’clock the vacant land at the bottom. There are no camps between 10:00 and 2:00 – that’s all open land. It’s pretty easy to find your way around. I was camped at “Saturn at 5:00” which means I was on the sixth ring at the second spoke road from the top of Black Rock City.

Black Rock City has a very spread out feel, a sort of Art Los Angeles, with lots of cars and tents parked all over, here and there a cool camp like a hip little club open to the public. Most of the open camps are on Mercury, the main drag, but there are plenty of others scattered about on the outer rings.

The spread out nature of the place and the huge open space in the center create a feeling of spaciousness, almost remoteness, to a lot of the installations. In fact, the weirdness is almost passive – you have to go out and visit it. It might come trooping past your door in the form of floats and oddly attired or non-attired and painted folks, but it almost never came into camp uninvited. You can always find a place to retreat.

The environment of Burning Man is quite harsh. Days, the sun beats down like a hammer, temperatures reaching the 100’s. At night the temperatures plummet, reaching down into the 40’s. Winds can whip up fiercely, sometimes carrying the playa dust with them in blinding dust storms. I saw some dust devils sweep through camp like small tornadoes, ripping up tarps and tossing them skyward. The organizers provide nothing but porta-potties for the guests. You have to bring your own water, food, shelter. The only thing for sale is ice and coffee.

To me it seems absolutely imperative that you find a community of some sort. There are many theme camps and village scattered throughout the City. I got the impression that most were organized well beforehand. I came to Burning Man not knowing where I would camp. As I drove through the front gate and onto the dusty playa, a man wearing only a sarong waved at me and said, “come to VW bus camp!” This was Jim who mostly hung around nude, his lordly penis pierced in a manner which I think I would have found uncomfortable. I pulled my bus into VW bus camp just in time to be handed a cocktail. The camp was discussing what type of nighttime journeys would be made when. I’d found my crowd!

That’s how I came to be riding my new garage sale bike ($10 in Missoula!) through a more then ordinarily luminsecent night with a posse of new companions.

I felt very fortunate to have found the camp. There was a communal lounge there with dangling chinese lanterns and a massage table. There was also a communal sun shower set up, basically a black water bag hanging from a tall tripod. There were new friends to venture out with, or to retreat home to for a meal and some slow conversation under a shade awning.

VW bus camp was full of single white guys in their vans. Many had variations of my own story – quit work, not sure what’s next, travelling around the country in their van, looking for authentic experience and some sort of signpost to the next stage of life. Everybody was pretty independent, but was in that camp to find a bit of community. They were great companions for Burning Man.

In fact, the population of Burning Man seemed mostly male with a strong gay contingent, and overwhelmingly white. At camp we discussed why the population should be so white, but never came up with an explanation besides that perhaps members of minority culture tend to either spend there time assimilating with the majority culture, or maintaining their own traditional cultures. The majority culture doesn’t worry about assimilating or sticking to roots and can spend its time being plain old eccentric.

There were several different styles of public art at Burning Man. There were the unmanned standalones that I have mentioned above (the wind chimes, the ship, etc.). Then there were the discos, raves, blaring night clubs. There were various performers – fire jugglers, the Cirque de Flambe and others. There were a number of participatory camps – the Costco Soulmate outlet, the Penis Painting camp, the body hair removal camp (anything below the neck) , Camp Sunscreen where you could apply sunscreen to others and have it applied to you. Finally there were the monumental structures that were meant to have one great showing and then burn on Friday and Saturday nights. These were the most disappointing to me. By their very grandeur, they drew crowds which made it hard to see what was going on, and once they were set ablaze, they stayed that way for a long time and, to my mind, ceased to be interesting.

The daytime character and the nighttime character of Burning Man are quite different. During the day, the sun beats down, and folks move slowly, retreating to the shade of their camps. You can see across the playa, the wind rippling banners catch the sun, and the haphazard structures have a Mad Max look. Nudity and body paint are the rule. It becomes commonplace to view a fat blue man riding a bicycle slowly across the desert. Elaborate umbrellas, diaphanous clothing, large hats, codpieces all are midday garb. Since the camp is so spread out, rolling conveyances are the subject of great ingenuity. I saw many variations on bicycles – double height bikes with two frames welded together, bicycles with flapping wings, a freight train of twelve bicycles welded together, a bicycle that you had to pedal backwards to go forward. There were rolling carts like magic carpets and flying saucers, cars like a dragonfly, or huge buffaloes, and rolling bars with car stools for a dozen.

At night, the temperature plummet and the population swaddles up. The playa is pitch dark except for the moon and stars and any lighting that the humans have brought. Then the game is all about illumination. People wear glowlights in all sorts of creative ways. I saw a group which had glowlight stick figures fastened onto their black clothing so that at a distance you could see only stick figures strolling through the dark. A group of four had come with suits of laser lights, each in a different configuration. Most impressive of all were the neon artists. There were neon headresses and canes, and many pieces of neon which cycled through various shapes to simulate movement – these usually attached to bikes. There was a galloping neon horse, a jumping kangaroo (with a soundtrack that went “boing”) followed by a joey, a flapping flock of birds, and myriad gliding fish. I even saw a three dimensional neon stingray that undulated through space. Across the empty dark space of the playa lights floated and winked. It reminded me of the deepest part of the sea where the fish are bioluminescent .

The camps that were dedicated to music and dancing really kicked in at night, raves held in high tents or dusty spaces enclosed by tarps, lights flashing and strobing, sound blaring. Here the light created a cozy, intimate setting, sometimes with couches strewn about. It seemed like a living room until you looked down and saw the cracked beige playa, not the wall to wall carpet. The music continued well until dawn.

The experience of the night and day were so dissimilar that it was often disconcerting to revisit the place of your nighttime revels during the day. Large unilluminated structures disappeared at night, so that landmarks clearly visible during the day were invisible at night. Details inconspicuous during the day could achieve great prominence by their illumination at night. Without the benefit of scale, everything seemed further away at night. At night, you only got to see what you were meant to see, that which was illuminated. During the day all the haphazard machinery of illusion was bared to the pitiless light.

The energy of the night is relentless. For the week or two before Burning Man, I had been going to sleep early and rising early, but at Burning Man, I found several of my night trips take me to the dawn, the horizon brightening through the rainbow, the distant hills taking on features and folds, and finally being stroked by those ancient rosy fingers. Back to the van, exhausted, to sleep for only several hours until the sun stoked the inside to furnace heat and drove me out to breakfast and a slow moving day. By Friday I was pretty well spent. The onslaught of the huge weekend crowds was hard to take, and several of my bus camp companions fled.

The nature of the population of Black Rock City changed quite a bit in the 6 days that I was there. On Tuesday, the crowds had not yet really arrived – there were perhaps 4,000 people there out of thee 20,000 or so that would be there at the peak of festivities. Many of the artists who had created installations had arrived weeks earlier. Now they hung about desiccated and dusty. I met one who called himself Smoke Daddy and looked like a desert hermit, his face narrow and parched, a beard clinging to his gaunt cheekbones, his eyes gleaming with inspiration. He pulled a piece of jerky from the inside of his shirt and gnawed on it.

By Thursday nights the crowds were rolling in thick and fast. All that night and into the dawn a line of headlights came snaking down the highway, kicking dust across the playa. A lot of these folks were the Mardi Gras types for whom a big floppy top hat makes a statement about just how wild they are.

The burning of the Man on Saturday night was pretty anticlimactic. The event went off painfully slowly. A huge crowd had gathered in the dark, primed for the catharsis of conflagration. And stood. And stood. It appeared that there was some technical difficulty. The Man is supposed to raise his arms prior to burning, but the arms remained obstinately lowered. The neon flickered on, then off again. Various people scurried about, climbing on the man, yanking on ropes. No announcements were made (I don’t think they have a PA around him) The crowd grew more and more impatient, calling for burning “At least burn an arm!” “Burn the lighting director” “Okay, we’re all here now, you can burn him”.

Finally the chest of the Man erupted into showers of fireworks. A blaze started, leaping up to his head, another starting in the pyramid of straw licked around his legs. After he collapsed in a shower of sparks, the crowd moved in to dance around the fire. I moved in, too, although I didn’t feel moved to dance. No, for me, the ecstasy of the evening was not drawn to the monumental fire, but to the smaller, more intimate setting where I found some old San Francisco friends playing afro-caribbean music. I got out on the dance floor and danced to my heart’s content there, even getting on to the stage to play conga for a bit. I saw the dawn come up that night, too.

I had heard so many stories about how wild Burning Man was that I had arrived with some trepidation. Would I get rocked off my center by this ocean of non-ordinary-reality stimuli? As it turned out, no. Despite the extremes of climate, despite the night trips out to the land of illusory nights, the ragged, sleep-deprived days, the ecstatic dance, I never felt that I lost my center at all. I knew who I was and where I was, and did not feel any problem with swimming my own way through a rollicking sea of stimuli. One of my posse, newer on his journey than myself told me “I feel like I’ve found my people, and yet I feel constrained, like somehow I’m not able to fully participate”. I think I know where he was coming from – with so many people in outrageous drag bicycling their body-painted way around the playa it could be easy to feel like some sort of fuddy-duddy if you weren’t attired like that. But I didn’t buy into that self-criticism. I knew that I wasn’t going naked not because of some body image hangup, but because I did not want to burn my winky. I was fine with where I was, how I was attired, and how I was experiencing the whole event. I’m plenty unusual on the inside, and felt no need to push all that uniqueness to the outside right then. Perhaps another time…

I left Burning Man spent, content, ready to bathe and sleep. I think I’d like to return sometime, but perhaps next time with some sort of project to build and/or perform. Seeya on the playa.