Maybe I should title my post journey interruptus, since my first attempt at reaching Burning Man was squelched by the need to hurry home and pack up valuables in case our house was burned down by one of the forest fires raging near us in Southern Oregon.
By Wednesday, Peggy and I had done what we could to secure our home, made up our minds on what to take, and decided that escaping the smoke was our next priority. It was laying in thick, refusing to go away, limiting our vision, and, much worse, settling into our lungs. Peggy was heading to Sacramento to stay at her sister’s and visit with her 97-year-old mom. I would resume my journey to Burning Man.
We wished our house well. I wandered around inside saying goodbye to treasures— memories that dated back decades— and then went outside to wish the beautiful surrounding forest good luck. So far, the fires had been kind, cleaning out the debris under the trees while, for the most part, leaving the trees to prosper. Forest fires are a natural part of ecology, a natural means of keeping forests healthy. I suspect Smokey Bear would shed half his hair over this thought.
We gave each other a final hug and headed out for our different destinations.
Not to keep you in suspense, our house still stands. On Thursday, a week ago, the Level 1 alert went to a Level 2: “You should be packed up and out.” Neighbors reported on seeing the flames creep over the ridges and make their way down toward out homes. But so far, we haven’t received a Level 3, “Get out now!” message. The firefighters made a valiant effort at slowing down and stopping the fire’s advance with very limited resources. (Resources are limited because the whole West seems to be burning. Teams are moved rapidly from one fire to the next depending on needs.)
My second effort at driving to Burning Man was more successful. I didn’t even stop in the small town of Cedarville where I had turned around the first time. The road makes its way south out of town down through Surprise Valley, which is a surprise because it has water, and then jogs east out into the Nevada desert on lonely Highway 447 toward Gerlach. I must have passed all of four cars on my 60 plus miles of driving through the Black Rock Desert. At Gerlach, a left jog on Highway 34 for eight miles took me out to the entrance road to Burning Man.
I swear that vehicles escaping from Black Rock City breathe a hefty sigh of relief when they finally reach Highway 147. I watched as a few came out, hit a bump, and exploded in dust, like a dog shaking off water. And then it was my turn to drive in over the dusty, bumpy, dirt road. Here’s the thing, it isn’t that long, maybe five miles, but it can take five hours to drive over during peak hours. Put in perspective, that’s about the same amount of time it took me to drive the 280 miles from Medford to Gerlach.
Almost everyone who attends Burning Man, from virgin to veteran, has a story to tell about the experience. There are several factors that can cause delays. The number of people entering or leaving in a given period is the primary one. Put several thousand people on the road at the same time and it can make driving over a LA freeway at rush hour seem positively delightful. BMORG, the Burning Man Organization, doesn’t help. It is so paranoid about someone slipping in without paying that every vehicle entering is searched from top to bottom. I had to get out and open the back door of my van (admittedly, there is room to store a bicycle pump or a very small midget) and then let the ticket checker in to look under my bed and in the bathroom. It took ten minutes. Multiply that by several thousand.
Speed limits make sense. It’s 10 miles per hour on the road in and 5 miles per hour in Black Rock City. There are numerous police around to enforce the law. Bumpy roads add their own speed limit. This year featured the mother of all washboards. I watched an RV in front of me bounce around like Jell-O during an earthquake.
The weather is always a factor. Massive dust storms are natural, and the vehicles whip up their own, given that the dust on the road is often several inches deep. Close to zero visibility is possible. More than once, I’ve driven from traffic cone to traffic cone hoping that they wouldn’t disappear altogether. Then I hoped the next one would appear beside me, and not under the tires of my van.
Rain stops everything. The fine dust turns into a sticky clay that gloms on to vehicle tires, bike tires and shoes— inches thick. Vehicles are required to stop, and who would want to walk or bike in the stuff. Peggy and I once waited on our way in for three hours as the road dried out enough for people to drive over it. A massive party developed. People were dancing on top of RVs and entertainers were performing on the road. Garbage bags tied over feet provided a solution for those who chose to walk around. We had good books to read, which we always carry, just in case.
I hate to mention this, but a Nevada forest fire helped me on the way in this year. It actually blocked traffic on Highway 147 from Interstate 80, which is the main way into Burning Man. I could see the clouds of smoke roiling up in the distance. With minimal traffic, it only took an hour and a half to reach Black Rock City!
The wind was whipping up a dust storm when I arrived. My lungs started screaming at me. I had just subjected them to a week of smoke in Oregon and now they had to deal with Playa dust. They were not happy. I grabbed the first vacant space I found, which was at 6th and L and then took out my camera to photograph the disappearing camp next to me. I had arrived at the Kingdom of Dust.
NEXT POST: Some general observations on Burning Man 2017… and lots of photos.