One of my favorite parts of Burning Man has always been a little camp-within-our-camp, created by a manic bunch of guys from southern California. VW Bus Camp doesn’t have much shared infrastructure, but many of us will get early-access permits just so we can help build the Leopard Lounge. This has been going on for about ten years.
So, this trailer shows up on Saturday before the event opens, and in about four hours, a dozen volunteers carpet a big chunk of playa, put up a dozen pop-up shade structures, pound rebar into the ground and strap it all down. Then rolls of bamboo partitions are zip-tied to make walls, plastic palm trees are rolled out, the bar is assembled, lounge chairs and couches spread out, and sound equipment set up. The result is a fabulous pop-up place with live music, tequila shots, foot rubs and rooms for massage and energy work. We all donate tequila, foot massages, bartending, and musical skills to make it happen.
Here is a little snippet from 2019, a chill afternoon on a hot dusty day. Eric drives the live music, usually from keyboards, while Bingo and Sean tend bar and a bunch of folks are getting foot care.
Click to watch the show, and please forgive my crappy video skills!
This year was special, as we had some fabulous musicians drop in on Friday. A fellow from Ecuador named Louder picked up the guitar, and a classical pianist named Pink Tea started singing and playing keyboards and drums. One of our camp mates sang, drummed, and pulled out his box of harmonicas. Another added scatty backup vocals. The place was in full swing when the rain started, and the show ripped on into the evening as the playa got muddy and folks sheltered in place. The guitar had to stop around 6pm when the ground got so wet that players were getting shocked.
Here are links to movies I shot. It was one of my best afternoons ever on the playa. (Right-click to download).
Alas, an era of our camp is ending, as Eric decided that this was the last appearance of the Leopard Lounge. Perhaps it was the double rainbow that appeared at sunset, I heard Eric say that there was one the first year that they brought the Lounge to the playa. Perhaps it was the reality of dealing with so much mud. Regardless, as the lounge was disassembled the next day, the crew gave away carpets and fake plants. Bamboo partitions were torn apart, and soon hundreds of people in our part of Black Rock City were making their way through muddy streets with bamboo walking sticks. We’re starting to talk about what we might do next year, perhaps creating a bar.
So, I’ll miss you Leopard Lounge, and the magic you made. Eric, Art, Mike, Mark, Solo and the others, thank you for bringing this to our camp for so many years. Bingo, Sean, Tater, Sherrie, Dave, Martyna, Busboy Bob, Donna Lee, Dawn & Teco, Shannon, JC and everyone else who helped make this happen…I so appreciate how you all showed up.
That’s what the greeters say when you finally get to the gate, and it feels true. For the sixth time, I was back to That Thing In The Desert. Again our trusty Westy, Mojave, has carried us without problems from home to Lassen (where we store our Burning Man gear), and then across the Nevada desert on dirt highways to arrive early on Friday. Jen came along for the first time since 2018, her seventh burn, and we cheerfully and easily set up our camp, complete with so much aluminet that someone referred to our camp as “The Tiara”. We were tucked in right at 4 & E, across the street from the Alternate Energy Zone tower. Here we are the first night, celebrating with vino.
Arriving early let us enjoy a quiet Black Rock City, even as traffic picked up on Saturday, with camp construction noises all around. The Leopard Lounge showed up midday, nearly everyone pitched in for set up, and was rolling with live music and tequila by evening. Our camp filled over the next two days, as dozens of VW buses came in. A core group brought shade structure pieces, and assembled Rosie’s Retreat, a large common space where we had events all week And we had a somewhat international crew this year, with a neighbors from Poland, Oz, Sierra Leon, and a couple from Beijing. (Zhen generously shared some of his photos with me, which are mixed in below).
Clearly, Jen is having a good time, and so am I! The activities at Rosie’s Retreat include some great presentations on olive oil and wine, Bus Camp history, plant enthogenics, Mother’s High Tea, and the annual tie-dye event, which was very well attended.
And then of course, there is the artwork on the playa, my favorite part.
This was my second year as a Ranger, and I ended up doing four shifts. The high point was helping two folks in the Ranger Sanctuary (a protected quiet place) re-locate to new camps. And helping a nearby camp handle a medical emergency when someone got very dehydrated.
Of course, everything changed on Friday afternoon, as rain started to fall and the playa mud got too deep for walking. The Leopard Lounge had an exceptional afternoon with a variety of guest performers, until the damp made it impossible to play. We sacked out early, and awoke Saturday to a muddy wonderland. Our plans for a Saturday departure were trashed, the gates were closed and it was impossible to move except by walking barefoot, or with plastic bags or socks on your feet. Anything else accumulated so much mud (boots, bikes, etc.) that you became stuck in place.
Life in Bus Camp continued in a pretty normal way through the muddy weekend, with two exceptions. First, we ran out of tequila (although someone came by and gifted us a bottle on Monday 🙂 The second was more serious — the mud made it impossible to service the porta potties, and we all had to adapt. Fortunately, someone in the neighborhood put signs on the porta potties telling people to pee in bottles, so the porta potties wouldn’t get filled up…and that worked perfectly. Our part of the city never had a problem. And we had ample empty water bottles (and a 5-gallon bucket for emergencies, which we never needed).
One of the other Rangers in camp had a radio, so I called in and went on duty. The AEZ tower next door became an info hub, as they had free wifi, so I hung out around there. Dozens of folks came by asking about the weather, exodus, the Man burn, and I shared what I knew from other Rangers.
As the mud started to dry, walking became easier. Sunday morning we got out to see more artwork, and and found some of it was already being disassembled. But the skies were spectacular.
Then of course it rained again, but lightly. We could see how quickly everything was drying out, and Monday afternoon we packed up our camp in preparation for departure. The exodus was in full swing, we saw plenty of folks leaving. At about 12:40, planes started landing at the airport, so clearly the runway had become usable again. And there was a steady flow of aircraft all afternoon as some of the wealthier attendees got out of dodge.
We stayed for the Man burn Monday night. Rather than join the madness, we found a nice spot on the playa a half-mile away, next to a parked vehicle. We hung out for an hour, watching the fireworks and activities until finally the Man became a huge fireball. Spectacular, as always.
We arose Tuesday at 5am to load up the van, and headed out at sunrise. Our exodus was easy, as it took 2 hours to reach the gate. The drive back to Lassen was uneventful. Even cleanup was relatively easy, as we had far less dust than other years. We did have a very muddy carpet, and won’t be bringing that to the playa again. And our new shade canopy was a resounding success, making set up and tear down a lot easier.
So, it was the wettest year ever. I feel happy I got to participate. It was the last year of the Leopard Lounge, and our camp will feel different next year without it. As always, I wonder what I missed — there is too much going on to catch more than a tiny fraction. But I loved the art work, being a Ranger, and making our camp delightful regardless of the weather. Every time we come here we get better at it.
After a three-year hiatus, Burning Man happened again this year. I eagerly prepared early, not knowing if I would get a ticket, or what I would experience. I have learned that clear resolve and intention makes things happen, so I’ve been acting for months on the assumption I would get there. To be sure, I did. I had 12 days on the playa, experienced joy and exhaustion, clarity, inebriation, dawn, heat, dust, learning and teaching, responsibility, delight, connection, isolation. It was all things hoped for, and many that could not be anticipated.
Most of all, ‘That Thing In The Desert’ is not a destination, but a journey. I had the intention to become a Black Rock Ranger this time, and one of my friends needed a hexayurt delivered to our camp before the event formally started. A month ago, a sage friends shared that one of my guides was telling me to “look upon this journey as a “vision quest”, and to make sure that “my masculine and feminine were in balance”. And so the journey took form.
If you haven’t been to Black Rock City, then it’s hard to understand what Rangers are: experienced, compassionate and trained burners with radios and access to resources. They are first responders to everything: pointing out the nearest porta-potties, calling medical aid, dealing with consent violations, drug ODs, whatever. In a sense, the journey began here, because in the spring I attended online and in-person classes.
I also got the idea to bring cloth patches to my friends in VW Bus Camp this year, and worked on the design early this summer. From a past camp project, a motto came into being, “There is great pleasure camping with tequila”. I did the drawing, and my partner Jen did the color scheme and contributed the agave plant.
I ended up getting 200 of them made, in two sizes, and handed them out everywhere. They were popular, and I still have some left, so please let me know if you want one!
The third prelude was the VW Hexayurt adventure. One of our camp members needed a place to stay, and one of our other members had a hexayurt shaped like a VW bus, build some years ago. I volunteered to transport it from Nevada City, CA to our camp. About 15 pieces of foam insulation, cut to fit together with tape, plus a home-made swamp cooler in a Rubbermaid container. It made a neat 100-lb stack on the roof rack, including a piece of plywood and some lumber to protect the panels. This will be the shelter for our campmate Heather Winfrey and her husband Jerald, who are traveling without bus this year. Heather has been dealing with a very serious cancer for the last few months, and they need every luxury we can afford them.
I set off from home on Tuesday, August 23rd, with a stop at an Oak Dance fire ritual with friends in the east bay. Though I wasn’t expecting it, the ritual reoriented me, I knew I was on a vision quest. From the moment I left the fire, my trip took on a curious, spacious, serendipitous feel, a quiet and deep heart space, and I realized how much I needed a solitary journey. After spending the night at a friend’s place in Sacramento, I stopped in Nevada City to load up the hexayurt, as you see in the photos. That night I was up at the cabin in Lassen, pulling out all the paraphernalia that would make camp comfortable on the playa…shade pop-up, solar lights, 7-gallon jugs of water, tarps, window insulation, bicycles, c/hairs, rebar anchors, ratchet straps. It’s now a pretty tidy and organized pile, with the tarps, shade net, anchors and hammer in a big duffle bag on the roof (so I can get them on arrival) and other gear in two big bins. I take a leisurely full day to pack, then head east through Susanville and across the desert early Friday.
It’s four hours from my cabin to BRC. The gate takes a couple of hours, and then I’m in!
Arriving midday on Friday, it’s not very crowded. I screw a big tarp down to the playa, park the van on one half, erect and strap down the pop-up, insulate the windows, and throw netting over the whole thing to add shade. Add bamboo mats, a carpet, table and chairs, and it’s feeling like home. By evening, it’s margarita time.
The hexayurt got unloaded first, of course. On Saturday, a group of us got together to assemble it, complete with a battery-operated swamp cooler. It was all ready to go by the time that Heather and Jerald arrived.
This turned out to be a very dusty year, and we have lots of wind and limited visibility nearly every afternoon, sometimes at night too. Cleaning is a major daily chore.
More than anything, I’m here for the art. The playa always offers a rich display of creativity.
The fourth theme for this burn was Rangering. I joined the Black Rock Rangers this year, going through online and in-person training earlier in the year. My second day on the playa, I did a ten-hour shift to complete training. Rangers are basically just burners with radios and extra awareness. It’s a little like being an off-duty cop, EMT and therapist all in one.
I really enjoyed Rangering. The alpha training shift was very tiring, and the real scenarios we used for practice were intense, some of them very scary. My regular six-hour shift was moderately busy, we had to deal with a couple of folks in melt-down situations, but mostly we were just answering questions and being helpful. The Rangers I met are good people, exceptionally capable, humorous and dedicated. The stuff that happens at Burning Man is like any city of 80,000 people…raised by an order of magnitude. For example, there is an 80-bed hospital, and at one point all the beds were full. This year we saw a LOT of e-bikes and motorized scooters, some traveling at 30 mph (totally illegal, all vehicles are limited to 5 mph). Of course there were collisions and broken bones, though I did not hear of anyone dying in a traffic accident.
After 11 full days, it’s time to go. Cleaning and packing takes a while, my guests were gone before the Man burned Saturday night, which was smart thinking on their part. Departure from the event is tricky, as there are huge bursts of traffic throughout Labor Day weekend. I left on Monday afternoon, which was a huge mistake. It took ten hours for me to get to the highway, a bit after midnight. I should have spent the night, hung out with the few folks still in camp, and left in the morning. I would have gotten home just as fast.
This was such a solitary trip, even with all my cheerful and engaging camp mates. It is oddly humbling to feel so completely at home in such an extreme place. I had a lot of good, thoughtful solo time. I met people, coached and massaged people, served tequila, smoked and drank, talked VW’s and life endlessly, and wish I’d explored more. I perhaps saw half the artwork, watched the burns from a distance, did not go out into the psychedelic colorful craziness of the middle of the night, did not go to any of the dance camps, fall in love, or get seriously drunk. Something deep has been moving inside me this year, and my time in the desert feels rich in only the way deep stillness brings. Wendell Barry wrote:
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.
Geek, TravelComments Off on defecting from bimmer world
I’ve been an unabashed fan of BMWs for more than 40 years, however the last two years of owning an E70 X5 have cured me of much enthusiasm. While the black SUV has been supremely comfortable, it has proven to be an expensive investment for every day driving. In 20,000 miles of ownership, I’ve replaced the tailgate latch ($1500), front axle half-shaft ($1500), rear brakes ($1000), battery ($440), emergency brake switch, outside air temperature sensor…some of this is normal maintenance for sure, but the cost of standard items like brakes and battery is really painful. Things are failing that should never be a problem in the first 60,000 miles of a vehicle’s life.
So I sold her to another enthusiast, and never intend to buy a BMW newer than about 2007 ever again. Jen’s 2007 328xi has been a trooper, quick, reliable and comfortable with more than 200K miles, and my 1997 528i has been the same. The older cars are fairly easy to work on, parts are not expensive, and most of all, they just work. Every time I was in my mechanic’s shop for X5 work, I heard another story about X5 issues as he talked to customers on the phone. Control module failures, astronomical costs for things wearing out or breaking early (Ignition coils at 70K miles, catalytic converter at 120K miles!?!) I got the message.
I need a pickup truck again, as I prepare for work on the cabin up near Lassen. My last truck (Roy, a dear 1994 Ford that always felt like a pile of parts heading in the same direction) has been gone for many years, and the state of the art has definitely moved forward. Having owned a 2001 Honda CRV once upon a time, I’m drawn to another Honda, and after a lot of research, I find a low-miles 2017 Ridgeline for sale in southern California.
This truck is a revelation. It has all the comfort and features of the X5, all-wheel drive with more cargo space and better mileage. It has plenty of power yet runs on regular gas, which will save me hundreds of dollars a year. It’s fully integrated with my iPhone. It’s a Honda, I expect superb reliability.
Now I’ve left the army of people driving black SUVs, and joined the endless ranks of white pickup truck owners. It’s a different kind of anonymity on the road. But I can throw a pile of firewood in the back without worrying about it, it’s easy to see why the USA is full of pickup trucks.
By the way, it’s time for our annual fire-safety land clearing in the neighborhood, and the goat herd is back, happily munching away at everything they can reach. The photo of the truck captures some of the charm of living in a temporary barnyard.
It seems that our longer trips with our Westy camper are fated to become Adventures, and we’ve had a rather entertaining two weeks on the latest. Jen was traveling to Santa Fe, NM for a retreat, when Mz. Parker’s engine abruptly shut down on Highway 58 east of Mojave. The proverbial “middle of nowhere”. She shared a couple of photos with me, and when I saw the crank pulley resting on the muffler like this, with the serpentine belt hanging, I knew this was more than a simple roadside fix. In between us, we found a VW-enabled shop 50 miles away in Victorville, and she got a tow.
Jen was able to rent an SUV, and continue on her journey. Meanwhile, I’ve got to figure out what to do. Astute readers may remember that I nearly got stranded on my way to Burning Man in 2019, when her water pump broke. That ended up taking a week in a shop in Chico, for a new timing belt & water pump. I’m a good mechanic, but these kinds of failures are not easy to fix, especially when I’m 500 miles away.
Jen could not restart the engine at all, though it turned over ok. Any engine geeks out there are probably groaning like I was…the broken pulley and loss of water pump and alternator should not keep the engine from starting. Something Bad Has Happened, and my best guess is the (recently replaced) timing belt has broken, causing the pistons and valves in the engine to collide violently. We call this a “grenaded” engine, because the inside is filled with broken metal bits, like a detonated hand grenade. Perhaps the sudden stoppage of moving parts put stress on the crank pulley, and caused the bolt to snap. I’ll find out when the engine is removed.
This is a 2004 Jetta engine conversion, with parts from South Africa that have been unobtainable for more than a dozen years. Hardly anyone knows how to work on them. So I start shopping for a $12-17K Subaru engine conversion, when a miracle occurs. I call a Westy shop in San Diego that JUST HAPPENS to have a used replacement engine for our baby. 65K miles, reconditioned, at a cost that is a small fraction of the Subaru upgrade. Probably the only one in the continent. Serendipity saves the day! So I drive 8-1/2 hours south last Thursday, pick up the motor, deliver it to Victorville on Friday, and meet Jen as she returns from her Santa Fe trip.
After a delightful evening visiting friends from half a lifetime ago in San Diego (and discovering the amazing renovation of the downtown area!) the engine and I land in Victorville, Jen and I reconnect, and head down to Desert Hot Springs for a much-needed weekend getaway at our favorite resort. We are restored by the sacred combination of tequila and hot mineral water.
Now home after a 1200-mile trip, we await the transplant operation. It’s going to take two weeks, as the shop (and every shop in southern CA) is slammed with more work than they can handle. Sometime later this month, one of us will figure out a way to get to Victorville and bring our baby home. Meanwhile, with a new heart going in, we feel it’s time to rename her…Mz. Parker no longer seems to fit. We are now calling her “Mojave”.
Ah, Mormon country. I’ve been at at my stepsister’s home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for a couple of days catching up and visiting her and her family. This is the northernmost point of my journey. Camille and Michael are a quirky and liberal couple, in a low-key but generally-conservative town. They tell me more west coast folks are moving into the area, so it’s not as redneck as it was 35 years ago when I first visited. In any case, I have to share a local story, and explain the photos above.
Down the street from their house is a park, and a Mormon church. In the park is a twin 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft cannon from World War II. Back in the 1980’s, it was apparently fully operational, and kids could climb on it, crank the wheels and aim it. Perhaps you can guess where this is going. Some kids managed to pour gunpowder down a cannon barrel, along with some big rocks, aim it directly at the church steeple, and fire it. If you look closely at the last photo, you will see masonry repair on the center of the steeple. The town promptly disabled all the cranks, leaving it pointed directly at the church steeple for all eternity. I wonder how the church-goers feel about that? Another legend of the wild west is born.
For two days, we hung out and talked and listened and talked some more. I love these people, and hadn’t seen them in 3 years, since Jen and I traveled up to visit for the solar eclipse of 2017. But I need to return home on October 7th, and so I took off westward on the morning of the 5th to blitz back to California. I drove straight west across vast lava fields, through Craters of the Moon National Monument and past old wagon trails from the mid-1800’s. Crossing the Snake River, I sped across eastern Oregon, through Burns to US 395, then down past Lakeport and Goose Lake towards Lassen.
Now I’m approaching my home turf. I arrive in Susanville just after dark, and complete my 800-mile day by driving west on Highway 36 through Chester to Mill Creek, and my cabin up in the mountains. 14 hours on the road. I’m tired and happy, this has been the long day I knew I would need do in order to get home when promised. After dinner and a couple of margaritas, I’m in my own comfy bed for the night. I have a full day to relax at the cabin tomorrow.
I need to shut the cabin down for the winter, as freezing temperatures are approaching and, at 4900 feet in elevation, the cabin is going to get some feet of snow soon. The squirrels built a nest in storage space upstairs, and I take several hours cleaning it out, throwing away junk I will never use…old faucets and paint, broken children’s toys, ratty blankets. Finally on my last morning, I drain the water heater, pack the perishables from the refrigerator into my insulated bag, drain the plumbing, and lock up. My four-hour drive home is familiar and uneventful, and I’m happy to see Jen after all my private space and time.
Here is the full trip map. 3800 miles, 17 days, no road kills, no mechanical problems or issues of any kind. Obsidian the X5 is a wonderful, spacious and comfortable traveling companion.
I wish I could share something brilliant and conclusive after this trip, but I’m mostly left with a series of impressions and feelings. People are definitely dealing with the virus in very different ways across the different states. Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are all having serious outbreaks, yet many people still wander around without masks and public opinion is deeply split, almost entirely along political lines. I am puzzled (and a little amused) that medical decisions and political beliefs seem tied together. It’s interesting that the current flavor of American conservatism shows up in both ways. And I was surprised to feel unsafe in some of the places I visited — I fear the Trump supporters, I don’t understand their thinking, and I don’t trust them to behave in compassionate and neighborly ways.
The land looked familiar (from prior trips) yet felt very different to me this time. I’m sure that says more about me than about the land. My last few years of training in energy work have deeply shifted my perception of the world around me, and it was a pleasure to feel the sacredness of places, like Yellowstone and the Tetons, Shiprock, Santa Fe, the Sonoran desert. It was also a bit horrifying to feel places that have been spoiled, altered and/or paved over. I’m getting more used to living in a world of feeling, with much less thought distracting my attention. This is a good thing.
Santa Fe is the easternmost spot on my journey, and from here, I’m heading north and west. Shannon wanted to visit her family ancestral lands near Shiprock, NM, and I was only too happy to tag along. So we packed up and set off in our SUVs, up through Abiquiu, the area where Georgia O’Keeffe created some of her most remarkable art work. Abiquiu is a very small town, and it looks a little dilapidated these days. Still photogenic, though.
I wonder what the Piñon Saloon was like in it’s heyday? Such is my sense of humor, I found the sign on this church’s cross quite amusing. We stopped at Lake Abiquiu for lunch, a spot where Shannon’s family would frequently travel to let the kids loose on a Sunday. The lake is very low, it’s clear the land is experiencing a severe water shortage.
New Mexico Highways 96 and 44 and US 64 wend up into the northwest corner of the state, through Farmington, where Shannon’s grandparents lived. Shiprock is a bit further west, and as we approach the town, an iconic rock peak emerges from the desert.
This looks strangely familiar, even though I’m not aware of driving through this area before. Then it hits me, my family drove to Shiprock when I was 4 years old. It’s an odd story — my father worked for the US Geological Survey, and was assigned to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona in the fall of 1962 to monitor sediment flows in the Colorado River after Glen Canyon Dam was completed. We stayed in a tiny adobe hut there for six weeks, a 2 hour drive from the nearest trading post in the Navajo reservation. One weekend, my dad wanted to drive further on out to see Shiprock, so we not only picked up groceries, we went east perhaps an extra hundred miles. I now remember seeing the strange rock formation, and the surprising dejá-vu experience is rather eerie. Shannon and I drive out across the desert several miles to reach the base of the rock itself.
Shortly after we cross the state line, the open arid desert gives way to more mountains and trees. Why is it that the feeling of the land changes so abruptly when we cross a state line? I’ve seen this over and over in my travels, how the same landscape both feels different and changes quickly. We arrive in Durango in time for dinner, where we meet a mutual friend, and then part company after almost a week together. I find a nice little private motel on the north side of town, and tuck in for the night.
This is the first time I’ve had a chance to explore Durango, so the next morning I’m out walking the downtown area, shopping and tasting some local wines. I chat with the vintner about my desire to head north, and he makes several great suggestions. By early afternoon, I’ve wandered up US 550 through spectacular mountains and aspen forests changing color, into the town of Ouray.
Now THIS is a fun place, quirky, friendly and charming, I find a fine lunch in a saloon with the coolest bar chairs I’ve ever seen, then pick up a few items at the local hardware store. Again, the proprietor is only too happy to fill my ear with suggestions about places to drive and explore, as I’m planning to camp tonight. I just happen to park in front of one of the most interesting buildings I’ve seen. Who is the Ouray Alchemist (note the name in the stonework over the shop)? Did he build this building? And does he live in the space above his shop? The mysteries are unsolved, I have no way to find out as the shop is closed.
I’ve never been to Telluride, home of bluegrass and jazz festivals, and this is a perfect opportunity. Driving up to Ridgway and west through Placerville, I find the one-way-in-and-out road and drive in. As it turns out, Telluride is a lot like Aspen, it’s an expensive commercial oasis full of people from other places. I ask around, and learn that everyone in the shops has come from somewhere else. I also learn that nearly the entire town is owned by one corporation, explaining the feeling of the place. I don’t dawdle, I head back out toward the real parts of Colorado. About 20 miles west of town, before I hit the highway, I turn up one of the forest roads and find a cute little quiet campground while it’s still light. I can even have a campfire. This is Perfect. (FYI, turn south on 57P Road a few miles to the Fall Creek Recreation Site!)
The October 1st morning is freezing cold, though I was completely snug in my sleeping bag and blankets. Both tent and ground are crunchy with frost, and I make coffee quickly. It takes me about ten minutes to pack up, and I am on the road back towards Ridgway and points north. In Olathe, a sign points up a hill toward a winery, and I cannot resist. Wine tasting in the morning could turn into a very bad habit for me, but what the hell, I’m on vacation. Much to my surprise, this small farm makes quite an excellent sauvignon blanc, and a very pleasing rosé, so I buy a few bottles.
Driving on through Montrose. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps the French-is name suggested something exotic, but I’m not particularly impressed. Montrose is a plain little town, with no discernible character. Perhaps I didn’t explore enough (though I did buy a really nice kitchen knife as a gift for my stepsister!) In any case, I head on towards Grand Junction and the Colorado River. The country is getting drier as I drive north, less mountainous and more like the high Rockies in Wyoming. Grand Junction is basically a gigantic train depot with an interstate running through it, so I don’t stop, and take a short eastward zag on I-70 to Rifle. Along the way, I spot a motorcyclist at the side of the road, and stop to lend a hand. He fortunately had just enough cell coverage to call a shop in Grand Junction, so I keep him company until a van arrived to pick him and his bike up. I love to see folks doing long trips on a bike, and he was in the middle of an excursion from the midwest out to the west coast and back.
From Rifle, I choose the back roads up to Rock Spring, Wyoming. This is my nicest afternoon of driving on the whole trip so far. First of all, in the plains near Rio Blanco, I see road signs marking the beginning and end of the Big Sandy National Forest…100 yards apart, bracketing the only tree in sight. Someone has a sense of humor! At Meeker, the highway becomes a dirt road up through the tiny spots of Price Creek, Maybell, and Sunbeam. For well over a hundred miles, I see almost no one, perhaps two pickup trucks, no houses, ranches or trees. But I get spectacular views, lovely mountains, and spot both antelope and grouse near the road. The dirt highway crosses into Wyoming, and after 30 more miles, I see my first signs of civilization since noon.
Just before sunset I drive past a petroleum processing plant, over one last hill, and into Rock Creek. Now this town is spooky. It feels both corporate and Mormon at the same time. The profusion of Trump signs and the complete lack of any visible humans gives no desire to stop, even though the older center of town looks interesting. I drive right through out to I-80, where I find a chain hotel for the night. Much to my surprise, the hotel has a really good Mexican restaurant, full of local Latino families. This feels like home, washing away the weird vibe of the town itself, and I feast on excellent spicy enchiladas.
US 187 goes up towards Jackson, one of my favorite places to visit. The next day I’m out early, and by mid-morning I’m seeing the Grand Tetons in the distance.
As I get closer, I’m feeling the spirit and power of the land more and more, and I’m remembering how special the entire area around Yellowstone park is. Perhaps it’s the geologic hot spot underneath, I don’t know, but the felt sense of the land delights me to my core. When I arrive near the mountains, I see mile after mile of burned forest, and after a few construction delays, land in Jackson for lunch.
Jackson Hole is a hoot. It has a touristy vacation-y vibe, yet the locals are friendly, easy going and fun. There is a mixture of long time residents and visitors, and a sense of humor about it. I wander into a place called the The Local Restaurant and Bar, find a superb lunch, discover a new whiskey, and hang out chatting up the bartender and (indeed) some locals. Before I get too intoxicated, I head back to the trusty X5, and drive over the hills westward to Victor, Idaho for another hotel evening.
If there is one thing I’m learning, it’s that I have to be careful making sweeping generalizations about towns, states or cultures. Small towns everywhere have lots of Trump signs — except Santa Fe, Durango, Ouray, Jackson and Victor. Every place along an interstate is careful about wearing masks, and though I hate the roadside culture next to our superhighways, I also find it safe and reassuring when I’m in Trump country. Places that attract tourists, like Santa Fe and Jackson, require everyone to wear masks everywhere.
I’m also learning that my black SUV is pretty anonymous. I was expecting some crap somewhere about driving a BMW from California, but there has been nary a peep. Until I bought the X5, I hadn’t really noticed how many black SUVs are on the road, and now I feel like a pine cone in a pine forest. I’m enjoying my invisibility.
It has been a beautiful five days of driving, since I left Santa Fe. Southwestern Colorado and the Jackson Hole area are liberal, pretty, warm and friendly. I could live here too.
Day two is chilly, and I am hiding in my snug sleeping bag as dawn breaks. Finally my desire for coffee and a hot soak gets the better of me, and I emerge into the frosty air and fire up the stove. I will say all the smoke makes for pretty sunrises. Even better, my strategy of planting the intake hose underwater in the hot tub paid off, as the temperature is perfect.
Yes, I’m traveling with a digital thermometer.
Breaking camp early, I’m on to Highway 6 down the Long Valley Caldera, site of perhaps the largest volcanic eruption in North America. 7600 centuries ago, the explosion covered the continent in ash as far as the Mississippi River. I head east on 266 up through the mountains past the ancient bristlecone pine forest. Again, no traffic on a road that is occasionally only one lane. I see six cars and trucks in a hundred miles. This is starting to feel like an adventure. Finally!
Today, the desert feels suddenly familiar, as though I never left. The vast stretches along the Nevada border are relaxing and scenic, and the lack of traffic brings a secret feeling of delight and exploration. I stop to check out the ruins of a mining town called Palmetto, then reach US 95 and take it straight down through Las Vegas into Arizona, through Kingman and south to Phoenix. As expected, Arizona is hot, 98 to 104°F most of the afternoon. The X5 is eerily quiet, comfortable and cool. As I expected, the tiny town of Wickenberg is a riot of Trump signs (including one of these!), no one wears masks even though COVID is rampaging through Arizona at the moment. I amuse myself while gassing up by searching for Wickenberg on the inter tubes, and of course, I find The Patriots of Wickenberg first thing. Sigh. As I approach Phoenix, iconic saguaro cacti start appearing, and I’m entering the Sonoran desert of my childhood.
After dining out and a quiet night in a hotel, I’m heading down towards Tucson, to visit my sister at her little paradise out in the middle of the desert. When I was a kid, the only thing out here were Strategic Air Command ICBM bases, with nuclear warheads poised to rain destruction anywhere on the planet. Now decommissioned, there are houses and ranches scattered across this especially-lush and mostly-untouched landscape. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
This is the southernmost point of my loop around the west, and I feel happy and nostalgic when I take my leave the next day, crossing parts of central Arizona I haven’t seen since I was a young man. Local roads and US Highway 60 take me northeast, through the Globe, the Salt River valley, and Show Low, another hotbed of Trump signs. There was actually a state-sponsored sign outside of town headlined “Stop the spread of COVID”, then listing four steps you can take with no mention of wearing a mask. It did say to “Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze”. Yeah, like that will help. No wonder Arizona has one of the highest infection rates in the world right now.
Regardless, the country is beautiful, and my senses are delighted. So is my mind — I was a geophysics major in college.
Emerging into mesa country, I followed US 191 and Highway 61 into New Mexico and Zuni indian lands. 191 is one of my favorite highways, as further south it twists through spectacular canyons and the copper mining town of Morenci on the eastern side of Arizona. It used to be called US 666, until some Christian group raised a ruckus about it, and a hapless government official caved and renamed it.
Now I’m within striking range of my next destination, Santa Fe. The empty road weaves across mesas, around outcrops, through reservation land, and past spectacular cliffs and arches.
Arriving at sunset at our dear friend Shannon’s house, my day of sensory delights is capped by New Mexico’s signature riot of color in the sky. I’m saturated, feeling like my eyeballs need to re-integrate with the rest of my body. It’s completely peaceful and quiet, though I’m only a few blocks away from the central plaza in town. I could live here.
Sheltering in place for 6 months has been good, but it’s time for an exploration. I’m learning that this is a good and necessary part of my soul, both the comfort and security of my home with Jen, and traveling out into the world. We usually do it together…aaaand we (or certainly I) need some time apart. So I’ve concocted a trip, to visit friends and family, in a big circular loop down through the desert to Arizona and New Mexico, and then north to Idaho. I’ve set aside two weeks, and am now spending my first night sitting at a campsite all by myself, with a hot tub, at 6000 feet.
My vehicle this time is a 2013 BMW X5, newly acquired after selling my Mini Cooper and our Jeep Cherokee. The X5 is the most luxurious thing I’ve ever owned, a modern, quiet and capable piece of German engineering, 5000 pounds and 300 horsepower, with leather seats and more convenient widgets than I can comprehend. She is black with tinted windows, a somewhat Darth Vader-like vehicle with tons of room. A friend suggested the name “Obsidian”, which just works. She calls one to competence, just like the mineral, and every meaning and association with the short name “Obi” works for me. I have a trusty companion on this adventure. Jen snapped this photo just before I started today, firewood, camping gear, water, computer…and my favorite hat, jeans, comfy cotton. I will be adventuring in Trump Country, my friends, and I need an anonymous western presence. And…this is pretty essentially me, I’ve always dressed this way, old habits from my Arizona upbringing.
The best laid plans…I was going to take California Highway 4 to 120, then head east across the mountains to Benton Hot Springs. The first part and the end of the day all worked out fine, but I missed the turnoff to 120, and crossed the Sierras on Highway 4. Not a problem, it just means I’ll arrive close to sunset. This is a remarkable cross section of the state: one travels through the delta over levies and bridges, seeing boats on waterways and small institutions offering food, drinks and live bait, interspersed with almond orchards and a few small towns. Then there is a confusing series of onramps, multilane highways and off-ramps that pop you over and through Stockton, back onto twisty two-lane roads east across the valley. More orchards, rolling brown hills with cattle, then Highway 4 takes you into the Sierras. I don’t think I’ve driven it all the way through before. The road is narrow, like 1-1/2 lanes, as it goes through towering Ponderosa pine up and up, into granite reality. There was little traffic, and Doc Watson on the stereo couldn’t alleviate my awareness of quiet and sadness in the land. This year has been tough on all of us, and the loss of Ruth Bader Gisburg and the coming election create a lot of fear and anxiety in almost all of the people I know and love.
Past forest fires have left a lot of scars, and current fires fill the air with haze. I drove through 50 miles of burnt forest. Ebbets and Monitor passes are over 8000 feet high, with stunted trees transitioning to high desert. The usual vast vista was barely visible through the smoke. With no cell coverage, I was relying on the compass (in the rear view mirror, how cool is that?) to assure me I was heading east. Dropping down to US 395, I cruised south from Topaz through Bridgeport, finally reaching Lee Vining and the barely-visible Mono Lake, to rejoin Highway 120 and head east. As I drive south, the smoke gets heavier until the Sierras themselves are hard to see, and the setting sun illuminates dark drifting clouds of smoke everywhere.
I turn east on Highway 120, where the smoke and the smell of burnt forest gets heavier. Finally after cresting a ridge, the air starts to clear as it gets darker after sunset. The last dozen miles to my camp site are a relief, as I can see the landscape again, and breathe normally.
Now I’m nestled into Benton Hot Springs for the night, a new place for me. It’s beautifully quiet, with widely separated campsites mostly populated by couples. I hear a child laughing in the distance, and an infant crying for a bit, while folk talk and laugh and splash in the hot tubs a hundred yards away. Conditions are so dry I can’t use the fire pit, so I dive in to my excessive camping supplies, silently eat dinner and fix a margarita, thoughtful.
So far the trip has been a journey down and in. The air is dry and clear, and the tub is warm enough to use, but not hot. I move the sprinkler that delivers hot water so it’s under the surface, for maximum heating. Crickets provide background music, while a blood-red crescent moon descends over the mountains I can no longer see in the darkness. It feels both good and a little sad to come to extreme stillness after a half day of driving. When I was younger, these adventures always felt exciting at the beginning, with scarcely a thought of what I was leaving behind. Now, I find myself feeling both the separation from home and the pleasure of solitude. One of the benefits of getting older, I guess — we can experience several feelings at the same time. I wonder what lies ahead.
This was my fourth year at Burning Man, my first solo trip, and my first art build. Last year at this time, Jen an I were wiped out after nine days on the playa, and the noise and chaos at the end of the week as ten thousand party peeps arrived for the weekend. This year, I left Saturday morning, feeling replete and happy. And really dusty.
This is how we have camped the last couple of times. Actually a photo from 2018, it looked pretty much the same this year, except I was packed in on all sides by other Westys (here is what it looked like in 2015). The popup shade structure is quick and easy, and the shade netting totally helps with wind, privacy and temperature. I added more solar lights this year, so home was easy to find at 3am.
The art project was Purr Pods, by Paige Tascher, one of my campmates. I worked on it with her for 3 months. Three welded steel cats, with LED lighting, illuminated eyes and hearts, and sound transducers and touch sensors. They each had separate personalities, with sounds recorded from Paige’s cat collection. Touching them elicited purring sound and vibration, plus entertaining yowls and mews. The project was a total hit, appearing in a “ten best art pieces” article. Here are some pics of the build, the truck that took them to the playa, and finally a video.
On their way to the playa.
Saturday, just before the general admission opened. All ready for the week ahead!
Alas, I had to miss the final build on the playa. On my way up (via our cabin in Lassen) the water pump blew in Mz Parker. I limped the final 25 miles to the cabin, started tearing the engine down to remove and replace the water pump…
…and discovered that the water pump (right photo, black thing in the center) body extends underneath the timing belt cover (gray thing on the right). Requiring removal of the exhaust system, exhaust manifold, timing belt cover, belt and sprockets. At that point, I called a tow truck, and found a good shop down in Chico do to the surgery. So instead of arriving on Tuesday, five days early, I didn’t get there until Saturday, just before it opened.
(The three day adventure in Chico was a whole experience of it’s own — I arrived too late to rent a car, hiked most of the way across town to one of the last hotel rooms available, lived out of a small backpack for a couple of days, and finally borrowed a Westy from the shop to go back up to the cabin while they finished the work.)
Saturday I headed east early, through Chester and Susanville, took my 66-mile dirt road shortcut from Susanville to Gerlach, and arrived midday. The Purr Pods were all set up, so all I could do was set up camp, and pull out several liters of frozen margaritas for my camp mates.
Art work was fabulous this year. Here is the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance, made of piano innards and full of sacred geometry. Absolutely beautiful, full of thoughtful feelings and soft sounds.
My eight days were a curious mixture of freedom and loneliness, pleasure and service, with a liberal sprinkling of tequila, music and laughter. It was my first burn without Jen, so most of my experiences were solitary. It always takes me a little time to settle into myself when traveling solo, even surrounded by friends and familiar faces. By my third day, emerging from the Westy at dawn, I realized that it felt like I’d been there for a year. Perhaps our nomadic selves are never far away; I’ve had this feeling on backpacking trips as well.
The serendipity of Burning Man is always astounding — a friend of a friend camped with me in a tent, and somehow I knew when she was driving up, walking right out to greet her, even though I had never met her before and had no idea what kind of car she had. I did a lot of energy work and massage that seemed to be just what was needed, and had many amazing and deep conversations with strangers that illuminated both of us in profound ways. That’s the magic of the playa.
I love VW Bus Camp, and our pop-up village of self-sufficient iconoclasts. Unlike many camps, we have no shared infrastructure or dues (though someone did bring a very artistic shower device for all to use!) We had the Leopard Lounge set up again this year, a place of music, tequila and foot rubs. I spent time there each day, socializing, resting, doing energy work on visitors and soaking up the spontaneity.
Here is another little video. Eric is playing Johnny Cash, Bingo handing out tequila shots, and a crew of volunteers play percussion and give foot rubs.
By Saturday, I felt complete, so I packed up camp and headed west across the desert at midday. Dusty, happy, unshaven, thoughtful and full of feeling. I will be back next year, this is too good to miss.