Tuesday, September 21, 2010

School Bus Retirement... continued!

Previously, we learned just what happens to that dear 'ol school bus, which used to take you to school in the morning, after its job is given to a newer, younger, hipper version. The workaholics continue to ply their trade in South and Central America (sometimes dying there); others are committed to continuing education, so they end up in South Dakota's Custer State Park, teaching tourists about Crazy Horse; the beach bums will go run their own surf camps in Costa Rica, and the ones who just can't let go of the adrenaline rush, join the Demolition Derby in places like Monroe.

Are there other options? Why, yes - some really are artists and hippies at heart, and they've got a place to call home in retirement too: Black Rock City in the Nevada desert! At least for one week out of the year they do anyway...

The Reel Mobile - we be jamming out on the Playa

The Space Bus - honestly, this one looks too much like a normal bus to be here!

On the way to San Francisco - can't tell if this was an Art Car or just somebody's way to transport everything to and from, but definitely a Burning Man vehicle!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Did I Say Done?

Well, actually there was just one more last stop - after Burning Man, I chose not to return straight to Seattle, instead I headed to San Francisco for a couple of days of recuperation

Looking happy, but exhausted, dusty... mind blown; want sleep, need shower

Now, San Francisco is beautiful, it's exciting - it's full of interesting places to see, fascinating people to meet, I've got a bunch of friends living there...

View onto San Francisco from the bay

The iconic Transamerica Pyramid defines the San Francisco skyline

And as a result, this wasn't going to be my first time in San Francisco - most recently I'd been here just about a year ago, on my great railroad journey up the Pacific Coast. So between being relatively familiar with the place, and still trying re-integrate myself into the real world, I didn't particularly feel like playing tourist was to be my primary goal here - it fit in safely somewhere right behind resting/showering/catching my breath and meeting up with friends. However, by Day 2, I was feeling mildly recovered (physically anyway - mind remained a bit cloudy for at least another week), and the little tourist voice in the back of my head started singing its song again... it actually just kept saying one word over and over: Alcatraz!

The Rock! It may be the best know of San Francisco's attractions, and I'd kept missing it on each of the previous visits

Not sure how much I need to say about Alcatraz - it's only the most famous (and infamous) of American prisons, and it was in operation for a mere 29 years (1934-1963). It housed some of the most famous and notorious convicts of its day - starting with Al Capone back in the 30's. Noone is known to have successfully escaped. If you are curious to learn more, I recommend a trip to San Francisco and a visit to the Rock - the audio tour gives you a pretty good account of the island's history, including the times before, after, and of course, during its time as a Federal prison. The tour is quite well put together, and I actually found the narrative a lot more interesting than most audio guides of this sort. Some things I knew (life in America's most secure prison wasn't a whole lot of fun, but nobody is known to have successfully escaped), some I suspected (the island started life as a fortification for the San Francisco Bay back in the mid-19th century), and some I'd been completely oblivious of (The Rock was a site of an intense native American protest back in the 70's, lasting over a year, and while the Native Americans failed to get custody of Alcatraz, the incident did, apparently, accelerate the programs to transfer more tribal lands back to their original, tribal owners... who have since proceeded to erect gleaming, shining casinos on said tribal lands... but I digress...).

So, as I said, if you want the full history of the place, I recommend a visit, or you can at least start with the wikipedia page. I'll just do pictures and highlights of what I saw:

The main penitentiary building was a large, if fairly bleak-looking structure

Life inside was, well, rather spartan

I had chosen to spend my second day of recovery in San Francisco at a four star hotel downtown. The inmates here got a 5x9 foot cell, including a toilet, a sink, a table, and a cot

Even the lighthouse on Alcatraz somehow looks dramatic! It could just be dramatic bits I remember from The Rock, the movie (does it seem like Sean Connery's career is coming up a lot on the blog?)

The man's watching you! Did I mention noone had successfully escaped? There were inmates who had made it to the fence (and were promptly shot for their troubles). Others had made it all the way to the water (and drowned). I think there are two whose whereabouts are unknown - presumed drowned... or escaped to South America!

These days, Alcatraz is actually the domain of the National Park service, which surprised me, as there's not much of a park here. They do maintain and protect the Rock's greenery, and apparently the island is an important nesting habitat for several species of birds in the Bay...

All in all, I spent about three hours on the island, roaming about, taking in the narrative, observing the very multi-cultured collection of tourists on the island, and watching the weather undergo a dramatic transformation from standard Bay Area gray to sunny, with dramatic blue skies. By 6, I was back in the comforts of my hotel, living the high life some more - they provide a Napa Valley wine tasting every evening... but still somewhat in between the dusty mirage of Black Rock City (most of my clothes still covered in a thick layer of dust) and the real world (I did have a wonderful shower, and was excited to be less than 24 hours away from being back home in Seattle). That evening, I went out to meet Eric and Kristine for dinner nearby

And documented said encounter using the camera on my iPhone... which left quite a bit to be desired in terms of photo quality

The following morning, it was time to complete the last leg of the journey and fly back to Seattle... or so went the plan anyway. I examined my tickets again in the morning - they definitely said I was departing from the Oakland airport at 1 PM. I should arrive an hour early... I checked the BART schedules - it would take an hour to get there. I should also get some lunch beforehand - there's this great little sushi boat restaurant just nearby in Union Square... mmm, sushi. Well, somewhere in the middle of all that, my mind clearly flipped back into Burning Man mode, where time doesn't exist (and I avoided wearing a watch as much as I could) and an hour was lost. Because if your flight's at 1, you should be at the airport 12, and so, you should get on the subway at 11. Instead, I scouted out a train schedule for leaving the city at 12 and settled in for lunch at 11... Lunch was delicious! And at 11:45, I arrived back in my room, stared at my ticket, then at the clock, then at the ticket some more... forced brain to do some basic math... Oh Fuck! Well, the subway/bus was going to get me there in an hour for about $7, time to see how a $70 taxi will do! I told the concierge I needed a taxi to the Oakland airport. He went outside, rounded up a taxi, and told the driver to take me to the airport... Note the slight discrepancy there... Starting to drive towards the San Francisco airport instead of Oakland cost another ten minutes, which I didn't really have... Finally, we pulled up at the Oakland terminal at about 12:35. At least the ride was interesting - the driver had been in Vietnam during the war, as a civilian contractor and had fascinating stories from the time that he was getting published... He also complained about all the Pakistani cab drivers in the Bay Area... I chimed in complaining about the drivers in general all over India. We had a good rapport... and then I paid and took off on a dead run into the airport. Skipping the details, but I made my flight with, oh about 2 minutes to spare. How my bags managed to get onboard, I have no idea, but there they were looking at me on the carousel back in Seattle, just as I was asking the Southwest claims agent whether or not he thought they'd be on the next flight... So, all in all, disaster averted - delicious lunch eaten, interesting conversation with a cab driver had, and Seattle successfully reached! Just a bit of stress mixed in along the way...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Going out in a blaze of Burning Glory ... Man

Burning Man defies explanation - I feel words will absolutely, utterly fail to do it justice. Trying to get a grasp on it, without having gone, pictures will only mislead and confuse - the place is simply too enormous, too vast, too diverse to capture in any photograph. But, it is absolutely amazing. From the setting in the middle of a hot, barren, and foreboding Nevada desert, to all the very, very different people who come to witness it, to all the amazing and ridiculous art installations, and to its final culmination on Saturday and Sunday nights when the Man and the Temple burn - no matter where you turn, where you look, you never fail to be surprised, to see something downright amazing, never-failingly absolutely unique going on.

Just a few of the things that happened in Black Rock City - in no particular order, in no way suggesting that these are special, this is just what is likely to happen to you at Burning Man - normal parts of 'every day life' here, which make the place as unique and amazing as it is. I watched water burn, I rode a mutant city bus with a large ship installed on top of it, I walked a tight rope, I was shocked by one Joule of energy, which I had myself generated, I stripped off my clothes to do a dance in exchange for an early morning mimosa, I watched people fight in the ThunderDome, I climbed a tower that would've been deemed exceedingly dangerous to be climbed anywhere outside of Black Rock City, I found the fence in the middle of the night, then walked along it looking for corners, finally finding a movie theater in the middle of the desert, and settling in to watch the sun rise at a nearby bus stop ... where an hour later, a bus came by to pick us up, delivering the happiest moment of the week. I slept for an average of three hours a night, I inhaled an inordinate amount of dust from the air every day, I didn't shower, I watched my deodorant actually melt... I was ready to leave when Sunday rolled around, yet I was eager to go back as soon as we were confronted with civilization outside of Black Rock City. I felt free, unrestrained and happy the whole time there! I hung out with some of the most wonderful and interesting people you'll find anywhere on this planet...

We arrived late Tuesday night after a full day drive from Portland, Oregon. Our driver, the dominatrix (yes, that is her actual profession... seemed completely natural, unsurprising, and downright par for the course for this place) pulled up to the gate, presented all of our tickets and shared that she had two BM virgins on board - Laurie and I marched out, feeling just a little bewildered, each rang the gong, then proceeded to roll around in the dust, making a Playa angel and becoming one with the environment. A gigantic yellow moon hung low over us looking in on the spectacle, as an hour long cavalcade of cars was lining up for entry - on Sunday night, the wait had been six grueling hours(!). We found a parking spot on the outskirts of the sprawling Metropolis and wandered into the heart of town. Kyoto street to the center actually felt a lot closer than I had imagined, then rational thoughts ceased to be formed - we rode the Surly Bird around the Playa, passing a brightly lit Butterfly car and a preening Prey Mantis showing off the incredible detail its designers had dedicated to it. We saw The Man, holding its high and central position over the Playa. Laurie and I, the virgins, quietly tried to take it all in - I was absorbing the spectacle slowly, rationally, not feeling overwhelmed just yet, simply finding the scene around us astounding, ridiculous, bewildering. By the time we returned to the RV and went to sleep at 3 in the morning, the crowds had not thinned out at all, the music had not quieted down a single decibel, and the bright, screaming lights in the middle of this desert, a completely desolate piece of land for 51 out of the 52 weeks of the year, did not dim one bit.

The following morning, our happy Portland RV crew split up and we each went to our respective camps. I found Camp Caribbean, met Irina, proceeded to set up my tent ... which suddenly seemed awfully insufficient to house me and all of my things... a week's worth of food, water, clothing, and more. Irina and I headed off to explore the Metropolis in day light - and now, it really begins to blow your mind - there was just too much going on all around! The center of the Playa was closer than I had expected, but the encampment seemed to sprawl forever all around it. The landscape was dotted with insane art cars, incomprehensible, yet often gorgeous, art pieces ... camps that had their own decorations, their own entertainment options, their own food and drink, all of which they were ready to share with you. There's no money on the Playa - you bring things and you share them with the rest of the Black Rock City population, freely and happily. And in the end, free and happy were the strongest emotions that were on display here - you can do anything you want and you, and everyone around you, will be happy about it!

The Paradox in the desert - late Saturday night, the Man was set to burn! The biggest party in this week of partying over-indulgence, and its biggest oxymoron - we had all gathered to camp in this wild and desolate place, supplying all of our own food, water, power, garbage collection, and on this night, 50,000 people had gathered in the middle of the Playa, looking up at The Man, and surrounded by all the sites and sounds of civilization that you should never expect out here! The Man was surrounded by a ring of Art Cars, their music blaring loudly, their lights shining brightly, the drinks on board flowing freely. It was the one party that brought all of us together, making us feel like we weren't in the wild desert at all, but instead at an ornate celebration of our freedom, our freedom to incinerate the very symbol of the place that we had all come to see. Then the fireworks went off, blanketing the statue in their high-tech trails, making you forget about the desert setting that much more, until the flames were unleashed, and leapt up towards the statue, bringing with them a sense of wild nature here in the middle of the night on the Playa; consuming the giant statue in a matter of twenty minutes. The following night, the Temple followed the Man in its fiery course... but the Temple is the spiritual centerpiece of the Playa, and the setting was dramatically different - the Art Cars still patrolled in the background, but the sound systems were off, the lights subdued, the crowds relatively quiet... right up until the last of the Temple tumbled down onto the pile of ashes and glowing ambers, and a primal scream was unleashed... And then we got up and headed back for our camps and vehicles as it was time to leave. For those staying the night, the City remained vibrantly awash in light and sound, drawing in anyone still with the strength and endurance for another night of mayhem.

And finally, Evone, Steve, and I were in our U-Haul truck heading out of the City and on through the night towards San Francisco. Passing the entrance gates in short order, and then, thrust into a continuous traffic jam waiting, struggling to get back onto the paved roads, almost as if the real world was balking at letting us back in. For the three of us it went something like this: we'd pull up to the car in front of us and stop, waiting for it to move again. Which it would do some five to ten minutes later. Which was plenty of time for all three of us to fall asleep. Now, there would be some hundred feet of open dirt between us and the car ahead and either Evone would wake up first and get us up there, or one of Steve and I would wake up, nudge Evone, and we'd go. Rinse and repeat for some three hours until we finally hit the highway and were able to continuously move again, which seemed to help keep Evone focused and awake (while letting Steve and I simply pass out). The Denny's stop in Reno at 4:30 in the morning (along with every other car that had left Black Rock City that night) was a God-send!

Overall, what can I say about the Burning Man experience? In some ways, it did meet some of my expectations - I'm not entirely comfortable dealing with large crowds of people, and being thrust into a crowd of [mostly] strangers, fifty thousand strong, was a bit of a shock. On the other hand, in a lot of ways it exceeded a lot of my expectations - the over-riding feeling I got from everyone there was that of being happy and free, which was amazing, and made it easy and comfortable to get along with these thousands of happy and free strangers. The art, I also hadn't expected (how could you, really!?) - there's so much of of it ... everywhere and all around, it's incredible, astoundingly detailed and brilliantly designed, and all marvelously well fitting with the theme of the Metropolis (the Playa art tour was one of my favorite experiences of the week). As for all the expected downsides - the dust, the heat, the cold at night, the lack of showers? This didn't really register - maybe it was the lack of sleep (leading to lack of focus... or was it the alcohol that led to the constant lack of focus?), maybe I was just used to harsh conditions from places like Mongolia, Egypt, Nepal, Bolivia, etc, but I was able to take the harsh environment in stride... Not to say that I enjoyed the harshness of it - the first shower back in the real world, upon reaching San Francisco, felt like the most wonderful, healing, relaxing, profoundly existential experience, but, while there, I felt I could handle the intense conditions the desert threw at us. So, will there be a sequel next year? Much too early to tell - I'm intrigued about going back into that foreboding environment, meeting again the amazing people I had met this year, and finding more new ones... Then again, I might actually have a real job by next year, so will I be able to just take a week off? Will I want to go through the nightmare of logistics and planning again? What about the dust, heat, desolation, etc... conditions were actually far milder than normal this year? I don't know yet - I made up mind to go all of two weeks prior to the start this year, I'll probably let it go just about that long again next year!

Pictures... They still certainly fail to put anything into proper perspective, but that didn't keep me from taking lots of them. Instead of posting a bunch here, I'll just redirect you to the two photo albums already up on Facebook:

Click above for my main Burning Man album (or follow this link: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=32264&id=100001212465813&l=ee701544cb)

And click this picture for an album full of just the Black Rock City art (link here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2078570&id=1046387715&l=a6da389a9a)