Ye Olde Archives » OPINION: Peter Eichenberger

Tripping through Burning Man on the way to build tree houses

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I am lying in a bed. I can feel her hip upon which my left hand rests lightly. The room is warm and faintly lit, gentle breeze--a home smell. Then a percussive sheeeeiiiiip--a blast of air--and the room is gone, evaporated by a six-engine Union Pacific freight hissing and rumbling north toward Portland. The woman's hip is the pocket of my heavy oilskin, the room, an iron and oak baggage cart under which I lie swaddled in carpet padding pulled out of a shopping cart behind the train station in Eugene, Ore.

The train passed as I crawled out, dragging my bindle. The door to the station opened and a woman in a bulletproof plastic Amtrak outfit stuck her head out.

"Just getting my stuff," I explain before she has a chance to wonder.

"Are you riding the train?"

"Yes."

She smiles--relief.

Forty-five minutes later: 5:32 a.m., Coach 6, Train 500--the Cascade--regally glides north along the Willamette valley on the way to Portland and a final leg of the trip--for the time.

I was going to go to the convention in New York, swear I was. But the closer I got to the day, me pricing gas masks and rubber boots, I finally decided, "Ainchu had enough of that Coke or Pepsi shuck-and-jive, baby?" So while everybody zigged, I zagged and my buds and I hit--literally--the Oregon trail, the path of which, I found out, crosses northwestern Nevada and the site of Burning Man, coincidentally most of the way to a long-considered destination.

This is a mission I have a number of reasons to be on: First, to get some head space, to rest my eyes on the serrated western geology--6,600-foot canyons, whole mountains made of obsidian, and a real blue sky, away from the all-too-familiar, flat, milky, East Coast milieu; second, a job building a tree house in an impossibly green Pacific rain forest; third, to scout Portland, often compared to Raleigh, and file reports on how the self-proclaimed "City that Works" does it.

And then there's Leah Roberts. The dear, sweet, lost kid whose Jeep was found wrecked on a logging road in Washington. She said goodbye to me in Raleigh in 2000, left a note and vanished into the great wide open. I have a deep, unexplainable need, a hunger, to walk that road even though I know the story will likely end there unresolved--a hole at the end of the world.

And that's how I found myself under a baggage cart at four in the morning in a town where I'd never been--my pile of crap dumped unceremoniously at Amtrak by some hippie-hatin' Burners with whom I'd cut a deal for a ride--until I busted them welching, their beat-up school bus trundling toward a dusty horizon, me pursuing and catching them--on foot. A Buster Keaton moment.

"You awful hard on an old man," I gasped leaping on the bus--more Steve McQueen, less Buster. Ditch me in the desert, will yuh? Now that the Burn's over, forget about all that peace and love shit, right, brother? Two weeks in the most forbidding climate short of Antarctica, dodging every vice known'll tend to make a man orn'ry.

The train is new, all glistening green and cream livery, unblemished interior, and big, wide, sparking windows looking out at sunrise over the Cascades as we click and rumble north.

I catch a sight of myself in a reflective surface. Shocking. A sight from another century--unshaven, long oilskin caked in silt, dusty Stetson shorn of lining and band, ruined boots, cementacious hair.

Burning Man--the world's largest art project in the Black Rock Desert of northwestern Nevada*. The rule is this: If you don't like fucked-up, don't go. Drugs. Sex. Fuel. Mad Max meets the Midway--on Acid.

"Respect the art," the sign said. "It can kill you."

The dusty, dangerous, fire-powered madness ain't for everyone. Every system is challenged. Bike lights, bike bells, watches--preconceptions--all succumbed to the playa's scouring, acrid, 75-mph blasts of flour-fine alkali dust. The only thing that survived was a 40-year-old, dumb-as-a-hammer Nikon.

Anarchy. But even amid anarchy and the desert, there are rules. Bring water or die. Don't litter. Prepare for temperatures ranging from 40 to 110. No guns. Use extreme caution around incendiaries. Use your judgment if offered any--um--party favors. Don't drink from unknown containers. And no pistachios or feather boas.

"This is what sustainability can look like," the kid said as a fireball of propane split the night. As long as the ice doesn't run out, right?

After days of this, the bizarre, off-world landscape alone tends to blur the distinction between waking life and the dream world. And then there's the toys folks drag in--a 40-foot roadster: two crusty, riveted, rocket-shaped nacelles connected by a slab of steel, a nightmarish cross between the Batmobile and an H-bomb. Lucifer's flower car.

"Petaluma," said Mike, when asked from where it rose. Any trouble? "Nope. Cops are afraid of it." Or T, who rode a giant steel lizard--from Houston.

And then, a ride in a Cessna commandeered from Black Rock International, the temporary airport ("clothing optional landings permitted") climbing up, up, up above the five-mile diameter site, the billowing nylon tents, the flags and banners--a strange, living, breathing city of 35,000 replete with 24-hour cafes, nitrous joints, VW bus cum tiki bars, pagan goddesses, prison-eyed road hippies, drifters, dance dungeons, orgy pits--and a life-sized wooden rocking horse out in the middle of nowhere. It's a long way from Mayberry. Falwell would spit blood out of his eyes.

None of it makes a bit of sense. Sometimes things don't have to.

Party? Spectacle? Religion? All. None. But when the temple, that intricate, graceful, lovingly assembled tower of tinder-dry wood factory waste, exploded into a 200-foot cathedral of flame, 10,000 people assembled in eerie silence and no one made a peep. That's power.

And at the end of it all, after the temple burn and dancing all night at Club 4 and Lush, Monday, dawn, as the sun cracked the tortured mountains, I am with Carole, Cary, Bryant and our new friend Crash (a computer or drug allusion, I can't recall), drinking wine at a flame-spewing, two-story Sadlack's rolling across the desert. We don't know where we are going. And it doesn't really matter.

I had earlier queried the owner/driver/bartender about his attempt to ignite the vehicle/bar with a roofing torch.

"I dunno. Got this torch, y'see. Umm, you know, it--things change. Needed it."

I am at rest, safely spit out in a place of great beauty--the deep forest outside a small town I call Enigma, Ore. While I bathed (in an outdoor tub), Mt. Hood looming behind the 150-foot Douglas firs, a great, goose-like honking heralded the approach of a raven the size of a vulture floating through the trees. Stellar's jays squabbled in the blackberries. I lay there and shut my head off.

I was all wound up to write something pissy about the off-key, wheezing crescendo that the government-formerly-known-as-democracy has withered away to, but lying in the bathtub, y'know, I realized that I didn't have it in me. Big deal. Systems fail. The ceding/seizure of the American people's consent, the true sovereign power--legitimate government--is just another heartbreaking example.

From the tub, afterwards, washed off my body, I collected, bagged and, for the record, weighed a quantity of hair and beige/grey dust: 14 grams.

And the larger paradox is that while any attempt at external control, government, is doomed, no control doesn't work, either. Liberty vs. Freedom. Either way, my beloved, feckless, flawed, maddened anthropoidal bruvahs and sistahs--you sometimes end up with pistachio shells on the playa and wrecked Jeeps on logging roads.

And what to replace this loss of faith? Anarchy? Nope. Doesn't work--even on the playa. I'd suggest not no rules so much as self rule, autarky, actually. To choose the direction of one's own life. A nation of one. There are only a few rules and you don't have to learn them--they are in you. Be conscious of the results of what you choose, and if you have any heart at all, you can't go wrong.

Cling to whatever comforting, time-worn fairy tales you need to get you through the next month or so. Me, I'm not playing three-card monte anymore. I'm climbing a tree in Oregon and waiting for the dust to settle, surrounded by the people of Freak Mountain (.com--check it out) here in a place where it is impossible to ignore the only thing that endures--the land itself in its solemn, silent wisdom--there before the moon rose and there after the last star winks out.

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