By August 30th, 2001 I was five days into an epic week-plus-a-day at the world’s craziest gathering of wackiness, the Burning Man Festival. The event takes place in Black Rock Desert, an ancient seabed north of Reno, Nevada that is one of the flattest places on the planet. And contrary to what you may suspect it would not be a good proving ground for Flat-Earthers because when you stand there gazing at the immense flatness you can actually see the curvature of the Earth with the naked eye. Check it out, from the Nevada government website:
“The Black Rock Desert is dominated by the playa remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan and is one of the largest, flattest places on earth, over 25 miles long and, at its widest, 15 miles. The Playa has a silt base as much as 10,000 feet thick and is so barren that surface curvature is evident…the Playa accommodated the successful supersonic land speed attempt by the British SSC Thrust jet car on October 15, 1997, for the official record of 763 MPH or Mach 1.02.”
For eight days you never go uphill or downhill. Driving on it is awesome (It’s like boating, but smoother), especially when you’re going really fast (okay, not Mach 1.02 or anything) with the Road Warriors (yes, the Road Warriors). Which brings me to the single story I will relate in this episode, a tale which may or may not have occurred precisely on August 30th, but probably did:
The coming together of Burning Man attendees creates Black Rock City, a crescent-shaped temporary bundle of self-sustaining civilization in the middle of a vast, empty desert. Several times throughout the week I would find myself near the edge of our bohemian city where I would stare confounded at a light far off in the distant desert. I had heard rumours that it was this, that, or the other thing as some Burners would occasionally opt to install their creations separate from the rest of the popup city. Regardless, one evening I decided to venture out onto the playa to discover for myself what the mysterious light in the distance was.
For my journey I was accompanied by one of the seven Canadians I had found to camp with for the duration, a BC-based young professional actor named Ben. The two of us set out as dusk was settling in and we walked and walked towards the light until it finally grew into a structure which turned out to be – believe it or not – a rather busy nightclub that featured a live jazz trio. They had a grand piano in there and everything, and all of it out in the middle of nothing.
Ben and I found a pair of seats at the bar and sat down for a song or two, but unfortunately the gift-economy exchange rate way out there in the playa was not so favourable; turned out the trinkets and baubles we pulled from our pockets weren’t enough to get more than a single round of drinks, so after twenty minutes we left. As we readied ourselves for the long walk back to our Camp we noticed another light even farther out in the desert. It was a light so faint that it looked like a star on the horizon. Now, what could that be? We had already come this far so we easily decided to turn away from Black Rock City and walk even farther. This time we walked, walked, walked, walked, and walked! I mean, it was far, man. Of course, being on such a large tract of featureless land our sense of distance had been kneecapped and what looked like a mile or so away was probably triple that or more. My gosh, we walked.
Fortunately the playa in 2001 had been mostly solid, with just an inch or two of white powdery sand coating the ground like icing sugar. Apparently some years the fine sand is ankle-deep or worse, making walking or cycling a difficult endeavour at best. This year the walking was good, lest we never would have made it.
Amazingly enough, halfway out we found an eensie-weensie tiny little bit of trash on the ground and Ben leaned over and picked it up. It was a tiny scrap of foil, and inside that foil was piece of paper with a little strange design. We were amazed that we had found something so small and profound in the middle of an unthinkably large, empty desert and in the dark no less. Ben had never seen such a strangle little design before. We decided to take it as a sign, a sign that helped us to carry on heartily towards our twinkling destination, feeling increasingly no longer hardly nonplussed about the entire endeavour at all. BM is so full of miracles.
After several hours we finally arrived at the twinkling light of mystery. It was an art installation, a large and beautiful bonsai tree made out of rough-sawn two-by-eight planks and decorated with a dozen candle-lit Chinese lanterns. We found about twenty people gathered around the tree with just as many bicycles scattered around. Clearly we were the only ones crazy enough to have walked out this far, and here we were without any water. Walking back was going to be a problem.
As we were putting off starting our death march back through the desert we saw even more lights on the playa, but these ones were moving! After a few minutes of tracking the lights they loomed close enough that we could hear the engines, and shortly the Peaceful Tree of Om was pierced with the arrival of the Road Warriors, a crew of thirty or so members of Beyond Thunderdome Camp who were decked out in astoundingly authentic Road Warrior gear – haircuts, tattoos, and all – riding three gritty, muscular vehicles that looked like they came straight out of the movie. I mean they looked so real!
As the Road Warriors dismounted and mingled grunting around the tree I grabbed Ben. “This is our chance to hitch a ride,” I said, and I led him over to the front of a roofless mutated Jeep where we sat ourselves down. My logic was that the Road Warriors would have to engage us in order to depart, at which time we could plead for a lift. It was a plan that might have worked had I not accidentally sat us down behind the Jeep instead of in front of it. Hey, it was dark out.
In short order the rowdy Road Warriors tired of the tranquility of the tree-dwellers and they crowded into their cars and started pulling away. As the Jeep surprised me by starting to pull away I jumped up flapping my arms, somehow grabbing someone’s attention. They stopped. “What?!?” growled a Road Warrior.
“Hey man,” I said with a little wave, all smiles. “Could you guys maybe give me and my friend a ride back to the edge of town?”
“No!” Grunt, grunt, grunt…
“But we walked all the way out here, and I’m not sure we could make it back,” I continued, all happy-friendly-like.
“You don’t have bikes?” the guy said gruffly, looking around while his friends were busily getting impatient with the whole exchange.
“Nope,” I answered, smiling with a shrug.
“Still…no!” he spat, turning around and motioning to the driver.
“And we didn’t even bring any water!” I cried after them, blindly throwing my last Hail Mary.
“Aw, really?!?” the guy said, turning his leather, chain, and spike-clad torso back towards us. By his tone I could tell that his humanity and instinct to help his fellow Burners had beaten down the fictional character he was portraying. “All right,” he said in a pitying voice that was stricken with clear disappointment at his empathy’s victory. “Hop on,” he barked, turning back around
You didn’t have to ask us twice! A couple of spiky Road Warriors clinging to the back bumper shifted to make room for us and we sprang up and held on tight.
The seats of the Jeep were packed full and another half-dozen Road Warriors were riding the bumpers and the running boards, and all of them were screaming like manic banshees on speed. Their enthusiasm and authenticity instantly transported my consciousness into the manic world of The Road Warriors as we sped together through the immaculately flat, barren desert like we were on a high-velocity hydroplane ride. There were no roads and no need for any with nary a blip or a bump on the ground anywhere. Our three vehicles raced each other weaving left and right, zig-zagging together across the playa with absolute lateral freedom of movement while the inhabitants of each car roared at each another, swinging chains and raising their fists like teenaged gang-bangers psyching themselves up for a turf war. The level of the suspension of my disbelief was palpable as I stood on that back bumper and held on for my life. When we finally arrived back at the edge of Black Rock City Ben and I dismounted and they roared off in a cloud of misty dust. We stood gaping mutely at each other with our jaws hanging loosely and our souls both shaken and stirred.
My goodness it was just so damn fun, I can’t even begin to adequately describe it! It was ten minutes of uninhibited wild-eyed glee that still stands as one of my life’s greatest experiences.
As was Burning Man as a whole, rife as it was with unforeseeable moments of glorious unbridled joy such as this one.