Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Radical Rituals: My Week at Burning Man - 2017

Boots that have been in the  airport whiteout- symbol of my week

August 26, Saturday

I am going to Burning Man! If you know nothing of the Festival, mosey over to the website, https://burningman.org/event/brc/ as this blog assumes you have a rudimentary knowledge of what happens on the Playa.  And believe me, what happens on the playa stays on the playa!
This will be my third visit, but the last one was in 2004.  A lot has changed. Instead of 35,000 “Burners,” there will be 70,000.  Due to unforeseen circumstances, I will not be staying overnight in Black Rock City, but in the hamlet of Gerlach, Nevada, about ten dusty miles away.
Why am I here?  Sentiment, impulse, a writer’s curiosity, and the need to discover that I am not really too old for this experience.  Or am I?

Slots at Reno Airport 
To make the plane, I arose at 5:00 a.m. My endless flight to Reno from Boston stops in Denver and Las Vegas. I landed a couple of hours ago. Number one picked me up, and now it is 10:00 pm Boston time.
I am waiting for him in the parking lot of a pizza joint In Fernley, Nevada. He’s buying an uncooked pie for some guys who are working on a car. Or a truck. Or something. These guys are seventy-seven miles away. We stop for dinner at the Black Bear Diner here in Fernley, a town down the road from Reno where there is a Tesla plant, and an Amazon warehouse.
Dinner at the Black Bear Diner, Fernley, NV

 I eat a juicy burger for dinner after munching a huge hot dog for lunch. For me, traveling always means junk food.
We’ve visited two supermarkets, where I staggered around staring at my grocery list and wondering what the hell I was thinking about with all these “ingredients” to pick up. We still have to get gas to make the trek through the desert. The Walmart parking lot is a sea of campers. Burners are spending the night there before the gates open to Burning Man tomorrow.

My son’s ancient red pickup truck is loaded to the gills with luggage, garden stuff, groceries, several old tires, and three enormous bags of clean laundry. The sun has settled behind the bare hills. The hot wind blows through the windows of the pickup, which has no air conditioning.  I feel like an old desert rat already. We are part of a seventy-seven mile caravan of campers, trucks and mutant vehicles driving from Fernley to Gerlach. Consulting a Northern Nevada map will demonstrate the vastness of the Nevada desert and the lack of towns and people in these parts.  There is even open range, which means no fences to keep in the cows.  Each cow must require twenty acres, because there isn’t much grazing in this desert. Occasionally one drives over a cattle guard. Everything I see, hear, and smell tells me I am almost three thousand miles from New England.

We move across the desert at a pace of thirty-five to fifty miles per hour. Top of Form
 Bottom of Form
Now the air is cooler and the smell of the green sage growing by the side of the road fills the truck.  Green sage smells like the West. I see more stars than a Boston sky will ever produce_ and a waxing moon. The world is black except for the stars and red lights of the campers, vans, cars and trucks moving ahead of us.  Onward.

Suddenly, the horizon glows with lights. Black Rock City is visible across 20 miles of desert. This is crazy.  From prior experience, I know that crazy will be the watchword of the week. I can get suburban sane at home.  

We cruise through Empire, Nevada, site of the only small general store for miles. A mass of campers lines both sides of the road. The hamlet rocks with a gigantic garage sale, food booths and people milling.   Beside the road stands a row of porta-johns, which will become a familiar and welcome site. We drive into Gerlach (a few miles further) with ever more campers in our strange procession. A huge line of now-dusty vehicles snake into the town’s sole gas station.
We unload the truck in the dark at my son’s little place on Dogwood Street.  The bags of laundry nearly fill the small living room.  I get the tiny but cozy bedroom and decline weed (now legal here). I have been awake for over twenty-one hours and am vaguely coherent. I eat another donut to make a matched pair with the one I ate at Logan at six a.m. More sugar, fat and starch, fueling a bit of energy. Time to call it a day. Or a night. Or something! Until mañana!
Top of Form
Bottom of Form

August 27, Sunday
This morning, we used the new pizza stone and peel to bake the pizza on the Weber kettle. The dough was too soft but we had a salvageable mess. The guys at the gas station were so grateful and could not believe we had gifted them a delicious, if a bit odd-looking pizza. Our good deed for the day. We put away three huge bags of clean laundry. My son and his friend who is temporarily living in the motor home in the yard are fixing a golf cart to transport us about the playa.  This is taking longer than anyone anticipated, but we seem to be on “Burning Man Time” already. 
The yard with historic structure in background. Sage plant in foreground. 
 Before I know it, we are cooking dinner on the grill. In the primitive kitchen, I steam some potatoes and made a fruit salad of blackberries and the native plums (small but tasty).  Grilled beef, pork and red peppers complete the menu. Bon Appétit!
August 28, Monday 
At long last, tomorrow we go to the playa, AKA Black Rock City. This area was once a huge prehistoric lake and the playa, now an alkali desert, must have been the flat lake bottom.  It is still wet and squishy in the spring. Surrounded by bare-looking mountains, the playa is huge and the city of 70,000 temporary residents and the acres of artwork, the Man himself, the temple are all dwarfed by the Black Rock Desert.  You could fit 700,000 onto the playa and there would still be room.  Like outer space, it is vast.  Playa means beach in Spanish, and the playa does look like a gigantic beach, with sand as fine as powder.

I make a giant bowl of coleslaw, using a recipe from the web that I have to get on my phone.  Have never cooked from my phone before and it is challenging to cook in strange kitchen, but I manage. I am getting acclimated to the dry desert air and the crazy-hot daytime temperatures.  Spotty Wi-Fi.  Making do. The hellish day finally cools down.
My favorite evening activity is to pour some rum into a glass with ice and sit on the deck when the day begins to cool off. Take my book along, of course. The air is soft and the sky is big and there is no noise. The dove’s fly around and the two feral cats who hang out in the back yard slink by giving me cautious glances. I have not yet seen the quail, but they are here. The whole world seems peaceful, and I know that is not true, but it is pretty to think so. As ever, a procession of vehicles still weaves its way into own and down the road into Black Rock City where they create the enormous dust cloud we see from miles away. It's a scene.
Vehicle on the road to Burning Man

My 2017 Burning Man Ticket

August 29, Tuesday 

We get a late start and drive to the playa and wait in line to show our tickets, have them scanned and take the  (five mph) dusty road into Black Rock City, heading straight for the cocktail party at the airport where my son frequently camps when he stays in the city for the festival.
Black Rock City Airport Sticker
Would you believe no one told me that today is tutu Tuesday! I’m both over-dressed and under-dressed with shorts and T-shirt and 30+ year-old hiking boots. No tutu for me his year, but many men have donned tutus. Good sports, all. A better look is the male kilt, not Scottish. It's in a dark color with pleats, just below the knee, a masculine look.  The sturdy fabric looks like something from Carrhart.  Later I find out they are called "Utilikilts."  Many men wear them.

We are enjoying refreshments from the airport bar (Bar Cofefe)  until dinner is served.  Yes, there is an airport at Burning Man and this year they even have a control tower.  Planes land and take off on the playa in a big cloud of dust.  Semi-commercial flights ferry Burners in and out.  Generous pilots offer scenic flights over the playa and Black Rock City.  There is even an opportunity to join the Mile High Club, and plenty of Burners take advantage of it.

We test out the golf cart, which starts with a powerful lurch forward.  This will be very hair-raising when navigating through a bunch of people and bicycles with a potential for godawful mayhem. In spite of all the prep, I don’t think the golf cart is going to work. 
Leaving the party, I go into the porta-john, (there must be 5,000 of them at Burning Man, even out on the far reaches of the playa.) The john rated four out of four in cleanliness, but I stepped outside into a whiteout. Dust had been blowing, but nothing like this. I was cowering from the wind on the lee side of the johns, and wondering how long it would last when #1 son arrived to lead me back to the cocktail party. You cannot imagine how white and hoary we were. You cannot imagine how weird my hair was, stiff with alkali dust and the same pale beige color.  You cannot imagine how many times I had to clean my ears to get the alkali dust out.

We have thunder and lightning with a few drops of rain falling, and then the sky clears.  Near dusk, two fighter planes buzzed the playa.  Probably Navy. They knew exactly where they were and what they were doing, which was putting on a show. They rolled and swooped and dived.  It was very cool, just as the sun was setting.
Black Rock City Airport at Sunset

At dinner, I sit next to a woman in a black bra and black panties. Another woman, just married, wore pasties. I kept thinking “The Bride Wore Pasties” would make a great title for a story. In few days I won't even notice this stuff.

Late in the evening on the way back to Gerlach, we see red flames on a far hillside.  Looks like a fire. Started by lightning, my son says. He knows all about the desert and the town and Nevada history and geography.  This will be his twenty-fourth time at Burning Man, so he is my guru.    
My Burning Man Guru

August 30, Wednesday
 Smoke from fire south of here provides dramatic evening sky and a lot of concern about the fire, which is 100 percent, uncontained. No bandwidth makes getting news problematic.
In the evening, we drive up into the hills above town to survey the situation.  Smoke to the north and smoke to the south.

Later, we find out the main road between here and Reno has been closed because of the fire. We are virtually trapped unless you want to drive back to Reno by way of Idaho. This also means people flocking to the festival in midweek are stuck on the two-lane road all night_with the coyotes and the rattlesnakes and the smell of burning sage. Fortunately for the stranded people, the hundred degree heat cools to seventy at night.
We decide not to go to the playa tonight.  Ooops!  We just lost power. Situation is a little tense. The west is still wild.

In the middle of the night the whole dwelling shakes as the train rumbles through Gerlach with hundreds of cars carrying coal from Gillette, Wyoming heading West.  I wrote a poem about this after once of my visits to the town.
In Gerlach, Nevada
In the middle of a September night
A slide whistle player tooted along the street
A cheerful sound, whistling in the dark.

Somewhat later, the train trundled through the night
In the shadow of the Black Rock,
Past the old water tower,
Shaking the single-wide
Racing West
And I slept again.

Still later, but before dawn
In the hills north of town,
The coyotes howled.
A lonesome sound.

And I slept again
Into the September morning
In Gerlach, Nevada

August 31,Thursday

My son and his friend chop down a dead tree and haul the wood off to the dump, remove any flammable debris from the yard and wet the property down, trying to prepare for the fire reaching this town.  We fill up the tank with gas, an adventure because the pumps aren’t working.  Most people leave the gas line, but soon an older man with uncombed hair, pajama bottoms and house shoes, scurries up to the pumps.  My son says he will know how to fix them.  The man fiddles around for fifteen minutes, and lo, the gas flows again.  We have to pay with cash, but are relieved to have a full tank of gas in case the fire encroaches. The whole town smells of smoke.  The fixer greets my son, jokes about his garb, and heads for home again, and maybe back to bed.
Smoke from Wild Fires over Gerlach

While everyone is working, I cook, because that is how I can help and what I am able to do.  I have cooked on sailboats, after hurricanes (with no power), in under-equipped kitchens. I’ve fed family and friends for decades.  Today I make pancakes from scratch to go with the black raspberry compote. We have no oven, just burners, (ha! ha! A pun!) I augment the black raspberry sauce with Disaronno, an Italian amaretto found hiding in the cabinet. I like it better than Amaretto—it’s more complex.  

 The berries are from the food bank that leaves food at the senior center.  Not only is there a senior center, but a senior bus to Reno and the seniors will get a free tour of the art on the Playa. This town, with no store but three bars is affordable, hence the retirees.  One wonders what the seniors will think of the denizens of Black Rock City, and vice-versa.

September 1, Friday

We finally finish the fire-preparation chores and drive to the city. The Playa by day defines the words “hot” and “dusty.” Yesterday, we had the haze from the fires, and it persists to make the mountains less visible. We stop at the DMV (department of mutant vehicles) to get a handicap pass for the pickup, because no way can I ride a bike or trek across the miles of alkali, and the golf cart is deemed dangerous. Thirteen years ago at Burning Man, I had several bike “incidents.” (I fell off twice and crashed on the soft dirt).  The heat just pounds at me.  I am never without a water bottle. 
What would possess anyone (mostly men) to ride bikes naked under such conditions? I cringed just imagining naked biking at one hundred degrees. The topless women seem more sensible. Actually, many of the women are wearing pasties, not just the bride.  And body paint. I am obviously one of the few females here with no tan, and that doesn’t change due to a hat, long-sleeved shirts and sunscreen. We run into the DPW parade yesterday, always a raucous affair with lots of attitude, especially from the women. They are tough and beautiful, an interesting combination.
Art Installation on the Playa

A Victrola, one of the many art installations; it played old-timey music

Son playing drums at a stop-and-play drum installation

Photo of a Mutant Vehicle

                                                                                    * **

We are at another cocktail party.  I suspect most everyone but me has smoked weed, which as been the occasion all week except when I took a couple of hits to be social. The fact is, I haven’t smoked dope since the 1970s and not very much then.  Truth to tell, I am leery of the much stronger stuff now available. I would not want to mortify my son with bizarre behavior, so I’m content to be the wallflower at the orgy, so to speak.

At this party, most of the men and some of the women are wearing little black dresses. It’s really cool as the men as so easy in their attire.  My son says most of them are software gurus from San Francisco.  For the life of me I cannot imagine Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in a little black dress, but how would I know?  The appetizers are quite tasty and a couple is making crepes on a grill.  The wine needs ice cubes.  Everyone knows everyone else and a man remembers me from thirteen years ago, and even remembers when my granddaughter was here as a tiny tot. 
I am sitting next to a guy writing in a notebook. I ask if he is a writer.  He says yes.  From what he says, I suspect that he is a literary writer. I confess to being a (horrors!) genre writer.  A few minutes later he gets up and leaves.
A naked man comes to the party.  He has an accent, which I cannot determine.  He is he only naked person at the party and looks completely out of place.  Better he were on a bike on the playa with all the other naked men.   The guys in their black dresses are much more interesting.  How weird this place is.  How weird am I to come here?
Top of Form
Bottom of Form

September 2, Saturday. Tonight the Man Burns!
Art Car With Techno. You can't help but dance.

Me with a new friend; everyone in a great mood

 For the Burn, I am wearing party clothes: an ancient Ralph Lauren silk skirt with a handkerchief hem, and a black top.  And hiking boots. The alkali dust is very hard on hands and feet. It permeates the very shaft of one’s hair.  We are at yet another cocktail party.  When I ask for rum and ice, the bar tender fills a to-go cup half full of rum and adds a lot of ice.  Yikes!  I keep telling myself to go slow, but the heat makes you want to drink.  Around nine p.m., I am still nursing my well-diluted drink.  We drive through the throngs heading out to the playa where the Man stands alone, waiting. We dodge through costumed people and gaudily lighted bicycles. Artwork on the playa is even more stunning lit up at night. I take too many blurry photos.  The art cars are more impressive in the darkness, some belching flames and all of them lit with colored lights. I try to capture the spouting fire, the lights, the people, the fire dancers, and the whole apocalyptic scene. The techno beat (alternating with a bit of rap) is so loud its vibrates in your chest and you become one with it. I may  (as usual) be the only person here not stoned, but I am definitely rummed. In spite of a huge law enforcement presence, everyone (almost) is inhaling.

Fireworks with Art Car in Foreground

This year’s Man doesn’t loom over the desert. He seems a more moderate size, and is ensconced in a kind of Asian temple.  When he raises his arms, it’s a signal for the ceremony to start. The immense crowd hoots and screams. The fire dancers perform.  Finally, the fireworks commence and then the flames shoot up around the man. 

Man Burns

 He burns slower, too, and the Asian temple (for lack of better words) burns slowly, as well. The heat from the fire blasts our faces although we are a ways back. Finally the structure begins to collapse, and finally we leave, dodging our way past art cars, cyclists and pedestrians (some without lights).  We look at some more art installations, and leave by the back gate.
A few hundred yards down the road, coming toward us, are three girls on bicycles without lights.  They loom into the pickup’s beams and my son and I have a collective panic attack because the riders were impossible to see.  The road is full of playa dust and visibility is bad. What were they thinking?  They have even missed the Burn.
By now, you may be lusting after the entire Burning Man experience, not just my personal view.
Here it is, and it’s beautiful:
This is a sanitized version without the pounding sun, the pulsing techno, the naked men on bikes, and the dust in your eyes and ears and hair. The far distances of the playa are pictured, but not the navy jets roaring overhead, the whiteout, the smoke from the fires the booze, the dope, the clueless cycling girls and the whole crazy carnival of feeling drunk on life.

September 3 , Sunday
A fellow burner stopped by with the horrible news from last night.
For most of the Burn, we were at least a football field away, and the heat was still uncomfortable. At the end of the ceremony, when the structure of the man's platform was burning white hot and falling into the enormous fire, a forty-one year old man, evading all the Rangers and firemen standing guard, charged into the flames as the structure collapsed. Firemen risking their lives pulled him out of the pyre, and a nearby ambulance rushed the man to a helicopter and he was airlifted to a burn unit. He died a few hours later. Spectators in the area are traumatized, as are the emergency personnel. The theme of this year's festival is Radical Rituals and perhaps this was on his mind. Drugs may have also played a part in his terrible decision. I am speculating without knowledge. We saw the ambulances on the playa but due to the daytime heat, bicycle accidents and other conditions, ambulances are not an uncommon sight. 70,000 souls make Black Rock City a big, bizarre happening. No one may ever know what was in this lost man’s mind to make him immolate himself in the flames.

We share an eggs and bacon brunch with the bearer of bad tidings.  There is little to say, as speculation is fruitless.  
Time in the desert offers plenty of time to read, and I just finished a nonfiction book, "The Boys On The Bus," by Timothy Crouse. It's about the press and the 1972 election. The view from then to now offers what has changed and what hasn't and what needs to in our political system. It may be out of print. Highly recommend.
Finishing the book kept my mind off the tragedy at the Burn.

Sitting in the quiet cooling evening with my rum, a fraction of yesterday's cocktail party quotient, I try to digest the past week’s experiences, but they are a muddle. The quail visit the yard, fuss at the feral cats and run down the street. I start another book, a novel, Baja Oklahoma, by Dan Jenkins. Too many characters in first chapter. Head reeling, but I persist. 
Quail wander through the  town
Everyone began trekking off the playa today, and I wonder if we will get company for dinner. Being on Burning Man time, it doesn't much matter. The larder has burgers and pork tenderloin and coleslaw and baked beans. Peach-plum compote for dessert.  I can fry up the steamed potatoes.  No large effort required.  Today’s temperature like the rest of the week: one hundred degrees.  Not one but two groups of company arrive.  One young man is dehydrated.  We feed and water him.  They leave and the next bunch arrives.  Dinner is served at midnight.  Everyone embarrassingly grateful, one of the rewards of cooking.  We go to bed at 2:15, which is 5:15 in Boston.   How will I ever adjust back to Eastern Time?  And the “real” world?
Top of Form
Bottom of Form

September  5, Tuesday 
On Tuesday we crossed the desert to Reno. A steady stream of cars and campers still coming out of Black Rock City. A few crazy people passed on double-yellow lines and on hills, giving the normal drivers (us) heart failure. We passed the area where the fire had burned and burned and burned. I think I read 89,000 acres. We saw where it jumped the road and finally where it burnt out.
 Stopped in Nixon at the Indian (Paiute) store for snacks. Cupcakes, powdered sugar donuts, the worst of the worst. Washed them down with V-8 juice. The body needed salt after a long drive in the heat with no AC.
 We swung around beautiful Pyramid Lake. People camping and swimming in the blue, blue water.  Like a miracle in the desert. On into Reno past the wild horse rescue ranch that held few horses. Last time I drove by there, the population was huge.
A Wild West dust storm welcomed us to Reno. Not playa dust but grit, old papers, boxes and everything not nailed down blowing all over the road, parking lots, everywhere.
We stayed at the Peppermill where the lobby is full of Burners. Lots of decompression parties* and people frolicking in the pool. The thing is, after a week on the playa, decompression is a necessity, not an option.
The hotel was nice. The room was a little too "gold," making me think of #45, but the bathroom had a lighted makeup mirror, an amenity I appreciate, so that trumped the gilt.  

* A decompression party, decom or decomp is a local reunion for Burning Man participants to help ease themselves back into everyday society after the "big event".

September 6, Wednesday
At 4:30 this morning, I got up to catch an early plane back to Boston. Delayed in Indianapolis and landed at Logan around 8:00 p.m. Long, long, day. Dozed on the plane and finished reading Baja Oklahoma. Damned funny book. Always embarrassing to laugh out loud (by oneself) in public. I did.

September 7, Thursday 

Today, there still seems to be an odd distance between me and the world. Not enough decompression, but the world doesn't wait. Loads of laundry, and all the stuff you do after a longish trip. One cat was mildly put out and snubbed me. The other cat gave me a nip on the hand and then turned loving.   
So it was a hell of a week with the good, the bad, and everything in between.  I survived another Burning Man. Not  too old, actually, but with unexpected fires, whiteouts, road closures, and death, I am weary. Now back to reality.

Top of Form

Get  Festival Madness on Amazon or at the Cottonwood Bookstore in Reno. 

Bottom of Form

Saturday, August 19, 2017

When you are stumped on moving a plot line forward, what do you do to reinvigorate your imagination?

Ah! Excellent topic this month, the “stuck” plot. In my experience, when you are “stumped” in your story, it’s because something is wrong with the plot. If you try to analyze what’s wrong, and come up with nothing, it’s time to step away and regroup.
Flee the house and the computer. 
Botanic Garden Montreal

Get into nature with a long walk, maybe someplace new or to your favorite park or Audubon preserve.  There is something about using your own feet to cover ground and look at trees, water, birds, critters or flowers that is a very human experience, by which I mean that people have been doing this—walking through nature for millennia.  No idea why, but it does something to the mind. It loosens it.
Montreal Botanic
   If you’re not a nature lover, visit one of your city’s museums.The paintings are stories made with ink and color, the sculptures tell a story in metal or clay. Photography may also inspire you. Walk around, look at art. Become inspired.

Think about your setting. Is it as vibrant as possible? Is the reader always right in the scene? Could it contribute something new to the story?
View from Whitney Museum New York City

Your characters? Look at people. Listen to them talk. Are your characters fully developed or do they need more work?  
A face with character!
But if you are “stuck,” it’s probably the plot.  If you are a “pantser,” which means writing from the seat of your pants with no outline, jump ahead in the story if you can.  Maybe writing a new scene will inform the one you’re finding so stale. If you have an outline or have sketched out your story, you can jump ahead and write one of the “big” scenes. Really dig into it. You can return to the “stuck” scene later.
Another idea! Do some research. Maybe you don’t know enough about what you are trying to write. Possibly knowing more about the situation (again think setting and characters, too) will help you move forward. 
Congo Mask - MFA Boston

Go to a movie, a good movie, not an “explosion” movie. Find something you would never think to, maybe at an art house.  Let yourself get lost in it.
Yet another idea!  Go to a concert.  I find chamber music or something classical sets my mind loose, but you may prefer pop or rock of country.   
Tanglewood Shed at Concert Time

Maybe the scene you’re stuck on doesn’t really belong in your story.  Can you skip it? Is it in the right point of view?  Visualize it in your head. Is there drama? Conflict? Is the plot moving forward? Or is this just filler that you don’t need?  

Watch Out for Rattlesnakes on Restroom Floor  - San Gabriel Mountains - CA

The writers below also have interesting thoughts on this topic: