Friday, September 19, 2008

Exodus And Decompression

4pm, Sunday 7th September

We made it out alive, sanity intact. That was certainly an overwhelming experience out in the desert there. We have retreated to the safety of San Francisco to recuperate and 'decompress'. I have had to hole myself up in the library here to give me a clear mind to put finger to keyboard. Having left Burning Man, we stayed Monday night in Reno, then finished the journey on Tuesday morning. The rest of the week has been a leisurely time in San Francisco, staying with a family friend of my girlfriend, a warm, generous chap with an apartment with a tremendous view over North-East SF. He works in the City Parks, managing a bunch of them, and is up at 5am most mornings doing so. Luckily, our small room in his cosy penthouse apartment has a door, and we sleep soundly through his exit every morning. Penthouse apartment, by the way, is my own moniker for top floor flat, although the views justify IMO the penthouse tag.

At this stage I suppose it would be appropriate to reflect on the good fortune we have had with our 'family connections'. Whilst this phrase conjures imagery of lofty occupational positions, in this context I mean friends of relatives, or relatives of friends. If I were to offer any advice so far from this trip, I would highly recommend anyone considering similar trips to research such potential links. We've found that at around 5 days the overstaying the welcome feeling begins to set in, although I am aware of the dangers of making general conclusions from 2 specific examples. I would like to think that our minimalist requirements - some floor space - have made our accomodation simple, and that having plenty to talk about made it enjoyable. Well, enough pontificatory musing, on with the action.

Leaving Burning Man was a pretty painless operation, a couple of hours from camp to tarmac, helped by restful air. The night previous we watched the Temple burn, and the storm afterwards made the trek across the playa cold and the air biting and opaque, when lit by torchlight. The photo from the last post is actually the Temple burning - Man burns Saturday, Temple burns Sunday - I was too wrapped up in the spectacle on Saturday to get any snaps... sorry. You'll just have to go see for yourself!

To conclude the lip theory experiment, I have positive results. Having applied no products to my lips in conditions that varied from 38C to 5C, no rain/snow and a little wind for 8 days, they are in tip-top shape. A 'cracking' result, I'm pleased to inform.

We stayed in a cheap, chain motel on Monday, washed all our clothes of the fine gypsum that encrusted every pore of everything we wore (which was, of course, everything), and washed our bodies likewise. My apologies go out to the cleaning staff at the motel. By the time of our arrival in San Francisco, we had assessed the impact of driving through fine dust storms on the car. Cosmetically, a thick film covered every possible crevice indoors and out - nothing that a carwash and a good hoover wouldn't sort. The liftgate lock wouldn't lock - $120 later that was sorted. And the stereo's ability to communicate in any way with either CDs or tapes was severely hampered. And, Eject seems a function alien to it at the moment. I decided that an early oil change would be wise, although we had done 3,500 miles anyway, and changed the air filter and oil filter at the same time.

view over Golden Gate bridge with SF in behind

OK, yawn, yawn, sorry, Friday our host showed us around SF. We picked up a sublime pizza foccacia at Liguria Bakery (at 1700 Stockton St, corner of Filbert St) - the only variety left by 10.30am - and drove around checking out the Art College, various cool parts of town, the Golden Gate Bridge, the headland to the North (with spectacular views of the city) and Baker and Ocean Beaches. Dinner at Café Gratitude was an unusually friendly (almost over the top - even by American standards) atmosphere with uniquely imaginative raw cuisine - quite unlike anywhere I've eaten - very tasty and left me feeling more satisfied than I imagined I would be.

Mural by Diego Rivera in SF Art College

Just before coming to the library, I happened across Bound Together, the Anarchist Bookstore on Haight Street. Haight St. used to be 'the place' back in the 60s with hippies everywhere, and now still has a high dose of charm, but feels a bit faded. Lots of cool thrift / charity shops with very cheap and cool second hand clothes. And this bookstore. I invested in 3 tomes - Violence by some guy, Days of War, Nights of Love by the CrimethInc Collective and a book on Cuban anarchism. Should keep me off the streets for a while. Had a good chat with a guy in there about social centres, squatting and collectives and there certainly exists a different take on revolutionary politics here than home, or at least how the politics are brought home, literally, to modes of living.

Squatting being criminally illegal in the States, there are no public squats in San Francisco. What squats there are, it's in the occupiers interests to keep out of public knowledge. He did mention that there are various collectives that do their own thing. Sounds fairly decentralised I guess then. Off to Sebastopol on the way to the Redwood National Park in Northern California tomorrow... the outstaying our welcome feeling is growing.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Man Down

Sunday 31st August, 9.30am

What a week. It's hard to try to put words to what I've experienced over the last week. But, seeing as I haven't learnt the art of mass telepathy yet, I'll try nonetheless. Last night we watched what we're all here for: to burn the man.

So the site is huge. We bought bikes, as advised, to get around. I picked up a sweet single-speed back-pedal-brake beach cruiser for under £50. The only trouble was that the dust storm on Monday left drifts of sand up to a foot deep in places. Whilst the feel of the place, with countless camps set up with bars and domes and marquees, reminded me of European teknivals, the site layout was a little more ordered. In fact, those good old Americans had devised a grid layout.

The 30ft wooden man sat atop a 3 story structure with a double-helix staircase, with viewing platforms at each level - all of which went up in smoke last night. Surrounding the man is the playa. 3 causeways (lit by lanterns at night) lead off from the man at 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock and 9 o'clock if you imagine you are looking from above. After just less than a mile from the man, these roads meet the Esplanade, the inner street of 8 concentric rings (from A to G) that begin at 2 o'clock and end at 10 o'clock, with spokes at each half hour on the clock. In each of these blocks are a collection of smaller and larger, organised and less-so, camps, doing their own thing: the American cultural fayre.

To complicate matters slightly, at 6 o'clock and Esplanade sits Center Camp. This is the only place where monetary transaction legitimately take place, where one can buy coffee and ice. Inside this huge circus marquee various crazy people hang out, there's a small stage with solo acts, lots of sofas and a beautifully calm and tranquil atmosphere. It's the chill-out camp. Which is ironic, given it's location in the centre of the site. But the effect that it has on the vibe of the whole place is incredible - it's like there is no main show - the sideshows are the real festival.

Then there's a couple of concentric rings around Center Camp that intersect A, B, 5:30, 6 and 6:30, which after the street signs at each intersection get taken when the man burns get really confusing at night! So, in summary, it's huge. There was no way we could possibly get to explore even a third of every camp (which is where all the fun happens).

Now with a bit of a background in free parties and teknivals, I mistakenly expected to find a cacophony of soundclashes of soundsystems everywhere. I think the reason why I expected this, rather than imagining more of a festival setup with more of a focus on things to see and do, was because of having vehicles on site. You drive your vehicle right onto your camp and incorporate it into your shelter structure, something I have only experienced at free parties or teknivals. Or at least in the designated campervan area, but certainly not right in the thick of it.

Of course there are some pretty big systems. They're around the 2 o'clock and 10 o'clock edges. But the amazing thing is that the majority of the soundsystems are moving! They go around on mutant vehicles a.k.a. art cars. There's pirate ships all over the place, and all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures and beasts that you can ride in or on. And they drive around the whole place, so some of the best fun I've had is just jumping on an art car as it passes camp and seeing where it takes me.

Food is an interesting one... there are various places kicking out a multitude of tasty snacks, usually at set times and with various degrees of ease to find. The trouble with the places that are well organised enough to get in the programme is that the queues are sometimes pretty sobering. We brought enough food to make a few meals - I made a fry-up on Wednesday with scambled eggs, spicy baked beans, fried onions and mushrooms and curried home fries (a.k.a. fried potatoes) - which those that know me is a timeless twist on a contemporary classic - and went down a treat.

Drink is a bit easier - there are bars at most camps, the general rule is that you need a cup to get a drink. I've had mojitos, ice cold beer, rum, bourbon... and some shady red wine... all of course for free. Some places like you to do something in return (donations, recieve a spanking, etc.) but I don't think that necessarily fits with the ethos of giving without expecting something directly in return. It's nice to give without expecting anything in return; equally it's nice to be given something without having to cough up something. That said, there is a place for barter over the market economy.

On Thursday I played a set at a bar on a corner near our camp. They had a sweet system that made me wonder if they kept to the 300W limit, but I don't think anyone complained - not at 6 in the evening. It was my first time playing a live set using Ableton Live - and it went amazingly! The technology worked (and vindicated my decision to lug my laptop and audio controller halfway across the world) for me and the tunes were lapped up - big up Stivs, Drugray, Fix and DJ C. I played again on another system yesterday at about 4pm, and the combination of technical issues, wrong tunes for the time of day, me being really drunk and overconfidence from the previous day's set amounted to a bit of a shambles. But that's the advantage of being 10,000 miles from anyone that knows you!

And then out on the playa there's loads of art everywhere to seek out. Trouble is, that anything further than the man or the temple doesn't really get seen, because it's such a mission to get to. Normally, apparently the playa is much more solid, making cycling a lot more pleasant.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Out To The Playa

Tuesday 26th August, 12 noon

Wow, what a day! Right now I'm sat in the back of Tony's dad's Dodge bus, who is our Canadian neighbour, our playa family. A good time to take stock and reflect on the last 24 hours. We've just finished making camp, by stringing 2 tarpaulins joined with cable ties across between the bus and our Jeep. It's quite low, but with a temperature of 37C / 99F, shade is golden. We got up at 9.30am this morning, awoken by the sun.

So yesterday we checked out of our motel, found lunch and headed out to find Black Rock City, 120 miles North-by-North-East of Reno (click for route). We filled up the tank and took the 80 East back the way we came for 28 miles. Here, we turned North and stopped at the petrol station, taking stock of the Burning Man folk who were heading the same way. Beautiful, excited, alive with the buzz of the prospect of that which I could not yet imagine. We hit the road to Gerlach with a tense sense of venturing out into the unknown.

I hadn't really been briefed on what to expect out here. I knew there was a festival in the desert. I'd never been to a desert before, so that was fairly meaningless, other than images conjured of hot and dry. My lips were beginning to feel the heat. I am going to test a theory |'ve heard that if you try to refrain from applying artificial substances to your lips, they naturally produce wax to protect them from the elements they face. I'll let you know how it goes. The other things I'd heard are that there is no market economy; no money to exchange for goods. So, we're fully stocked on water and food - ready to cook a few big meals and share, and hopefully others will do the same.

The route to Black Rock City past Pyramid Lake is so sublime the 'scenic route' sign smacks of superfluity. At 6000ft (2000m) elevation, we stand twice as high as the highest point in the UK, but not quite at the top of the Alps. The baking heat renders the soil barely able to sustain life - here and there are dotted trees and shrubs, underneath each of the former a structure takes advantage of the shade. A few settlements line the road, and a couple of Indian Reservations stand proudly in the midst of a strained history. We snaked through, slowed down by a procession closing up becoming a convoy. As we coasted to walking pace, I noticed the wind pick up gently. As I looked to the horizon to hope to make out the oncoming city of the desert, dust clouds obscured visibility beyond a couple of miles. By my calculations, Black Rock City was actually smack in the middle of the dust cloud.

We passed a caravan burnt out to a cinder. It reminded me of the guy we stopped a few days earlier driving with the hitchhikers at night, whose trailer safety chain was dragging along the tarmac, creating an effect like a sparkler. He was grateful. This guy looked less fortunate, the dry heat must've set his caravan up like a tinderbox.

We closed the windows, the dust picking up opacity and velocity to that of a fine morning mist. Still going walking pace, we began to stop occasionally. Then the duration of the stops outweighed the gos and we gradually ground to a halt. Later we found out that this was because they closed the gates because the eye of the dust storm as I'd calculated was causing chaos and they only opened them again after 10 hours - about 9pm. We inched forwards and left the tarmac for a gravel track, and in my excitement I switched to 4 wheel drive. The fine morning mist was becoming full whiteout, with visibility reducing to 50 metres at times. It seemed magical to be sitting in a queue of vehicles, piled high with bicycles, art and who-knows-what, waiting to be taken into a whiteout dust cloud that seemed to make the show and the spectacle as dramatic as could be wished for - but then it depends on whether you wish for semi-apocyliptic conditions I suppose.

As one lane split into 2, then 4, then 6, we took the right lane as directed for the 'will call' tickets - to be picked up on the gate - still inching forwards at 15 minute intervals. We filtered off to the right, and joined the last line of the back of a block of about 500 vehicles, parked away from the main queue. We collected our tickets, and walked back to the car. As I walked back from the toilets, I heard a shout of my name in an English accent. I turned, surprised to find myself standing at the front end of my friends' car, the only people here that I knew before, from my home city of Bristol. I hadn't imagined that finding my friends in a city of 70,000 people - before I'd even thought about looking - was going to be quite that easy!

We caught up on stories, and decided that the only way to get in on that night was going to be the break away from the block we were parked in, and rejoin the main queue. Within an hour, we had out tickets taken, the boot checked for food and water, and were at the greeters. As we were Burning Man virgins, we were initiated into this magical clique in the warmest, friendliest way. We were advised to embrace the dust and the playa, not to fight it.

We split with our friends, who were camped with "Shift", a camp of about 80 where private toilets, showers and 3 meals a day were provided by the camp (for $500!). We took another turn on the road, and another, and in pitch dark looked for a spot. We pulled in, had a quick survey and turned sideways to the prevailing wind. The Dodge bus with Tony, Rosa and Jonas pulled in just after us and we met our playa family. They too were virgins. We shared their cold beers and talked into the night.

Across The United States In Five Days

Monday 25th August, 11am

We made it to the Biggest Little City in the World. In 5 days, across the U.S. in 2800 miles (click here for the route map). That was some drive. 3 points of note: one, stopped in Chicago and met some nice people; two, picked up some hitchhikers; three, Salt Lake City. On a more general note, sleeping in the back of the Jeep with the seats down just about enables me to stretch out fully, diagonally across. My girlfriend is luckily several inches shorter so fits in beside snugly. Also, the back windows are blacked out adding some degree of privacy, which is nice in a truck rest stop.

So we left Trumansberg last Wednesday, stopping to buy a wheel nut that was missing. The first couple of days were fairly slow going, making it to Lake Erie on Wednesday night. Thursday evening we were passing Chicago and I couldn't resist working hard to convince my girlfriend to take a stop for a beer.

What's been great about this trip so far is how many song lyrics begin to fall into place and make sense on discovering their roots. Bombin' the L by the Fun Lovin' Criminals of course refers to the eLevated train that circuits downtown Chicago and the graffiti artists that frequent it. I found this out from a friendly couple we met just before we gave up looking for a bar at a random stop off the L. They were sitting outside this university building drinking wine out of plastic glasses. The lightbulb flashed above my head and we tracked the free bar down immediately. Our friends were also crashing this uni schmooze event and we hit it off. They later took us to a club on Clark St called Metro, for a dubstep night. Maybe it was just the DJ, but it seems like the style is much lighter, funkier, than dubstep at home. The same is true of the techno we've seen/heard so far.

Seeing our new friends insobriety coupled with the knowledge they were driving home was a chilling thought. I took stock of my 2 drinks over 3 hours and felt comfortable with this, but I can't help noticing that EVERYONE drinks and drives here. Everyone. I guess that having the infrastructure and road system of towns, cities and states built around the car makes alternative forms of transport lurk in the shadows. The primacy of the individual, freedom and choice is fairly axiomatic with the independence of the automobile. And when you're the driver, and drinking and driving is socially acceptable, walking really is a tough option to take. I guess that it comes back to one of my favourite chestnuts, normativity. Back at home, when cycling was the norm for me (I cycled everywhere), I would balk at those that offered me rides for short distances. But now, driving around everywhere, to walk anywhere just seems counterintuitive. I suppose this is why I want to try to show, even just for myself, that flying is not a norm that I want to be a part of my life and so to eliminate it altogether to prevent its creeping frequency becoming normalised and therefore legitimized.

Back on the road again that next day, we drove past a couple of guys walking along the Freeway (which I believe is illegal in Iowa). By the time I thought to pick them up, we were half a mile down the road. My conscience itched, and I got to scratch it only half an hour later in the next town. As we stopped to pick up some more bits and pieces, we saw them in the car park. They saw our New York plates and came over and asked for a ride to California. Well, we took them to the border, over 4 states and about 1600 miles.

Monty and Abel had been riding freight trains, got caught 6 miles before when we saw them on the road, then got picked up by State Troopers and taken to the next town. Monty's best tip was that to orientate yourself with a stationary train, the red lights indicate the back end of the train, that won't be coupled with before leaving. That way you can be sure to go in the right direction.

By Saturday, having crossed Nebraska (flat and boring - except for a majestic footbridge over the road) and Wyoming (beautiful mountains on the border in and out) in a day, we reached Salt Lake City. This heavily industrial city reeks of chemicals, and we passed through it fairly rapidly in order to 'camp' beside the lake just outside the city. After convincing our hitchhiker friends that we weren't going to strand them, they hunkered down in the sand as we tried to make ourselves comfortable in the Jeep.

The excitement grew as we crossed the Nevada border on Sunday morning, and blazed across to Reno. We arrived by dusk, having stocked up on rum, tequila and gin, and parted company with our hitchers. I feel dreadful that we missed our rendezvous with them afterwards - I must've forgotten to wind my pocketwatch as it was running half an hour slow making us late for our meeting under the big scary clown at 11. Monty, Abel if you read this, sorry guys, we were there, just a bit late!

So having checked in and out of the big posh hotel whose windows won't open, we got comfortable in a motel on the main drag. Very comfortable. There's nothing quite better after 5 days of driving than a bed that does Swedish massage for a quarter for 5 minutes. 5 minutes that seem like the longest, sweetest minutes. After getting up, I can't testify to the physical benefits of such massage, but its soothingness that induced a semi-meditative state relaxed me to a state that I felt comfortable in.

And while I'm on the "semi-" lingo, I apologise. For the anglophile reader, you must of course pronounce this sem-eye. One thing I really don't get - what is a semi-truck? Surely it's either a truck, or it's not. A semi-truck? Oh, I give up.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Road Is In Sight!

Monday 18th August, 7pm

After a turbulent few days of carhunting, a few breathless moments here and there and a lovely time catching up with old friends, we're nearly ready to leave Trumansburg in upstate New York in our '99 black Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Arriving by bus (click the link to see a route map), we were met at the bus station in Ithaca by a friend of mine from Amsterdam, where we were both born. It's amazing to see someone about 20 years after you last saw them, when that was when you were both knee high to grasshoppers, and sink a few beers together. It was also great to get out of the city and its nitty gritty.

taffy throwing at the local fayre (just after the demolition derby!)

We have ended up staying here a little longer than hoped, leaving less time to cross the States than I would have liked, given that I'm the only one driving. This is our sixth night here, and I'm also a bit apprehensive of outstaying our welcome, particularly as for the last four mornings we've said to our gracious host and friend's housemates that this really would be the last day - which wears a little thin after the third time.

So, after careful inspection of the New York State ID requirements list for the registration of vehicles, it appeared that a NYS Certificate of Title counts as 6 points. Basing our hopes on this, we began all over again looking for vehicles in the Ithaca area. Thankfully my friend lent me his pickup for the 2 days we scoured the area, without which we would really have been up the creek.

We got to a shortlist of 5 options - as long as would we would be able to register it. This was still a major hangup as it then appeared that the title I just mentioned needed to have my details printed on it, not only having bought a car in NYS and having the title signed over. Some saving grace came from the very kind propietor of a car dealership. Tony, having thrown a number of rather large concerts at his house, knows quite a few people in the area and took it upon himself to try to figure out what we could do to get registered.

The next red herring was to get a non-driver ID. So, off we trekked to the Sheriff's Office with the insurance papers as proof of address, which had by now arrived since I'd got insured for the Ranger pickup in New Jersey to my address here. Upon returning to Tony the next day, ID in hand, he informed us it wasn't going to do, as I needed State ID, not just County (the latter of which the Sheriff is responsible for).

Well, needless to say, we did manage to get the car registered. But only through a stroke of fortune, thanks to a nepotist link of Tony's. I *legally* got my ID signed off, and got the plates within minutes. Phew. But, the moral of this story is that AS A FOREIGNER, WITHOUT SOMETHING LINKING YOU OFFICIALLY TO NEW YORK STATE (or a friend with good contacts), YOU CANNOT GET A CAR REGISTERED HERE. Check this list out for items that you need.

So, as proud owners of our first car, we paid $5000 for a big black shiny gasguzzling beast. It's a 4x4. But this is what I campaigned against at home. The title of my blog refers to how I'm trying not to fly in order to minimize my carbon footprint. Am I now the biggest hypocrite walking the earth? Do I have any moral integrity remaining? Will I be able to sleep tonight, before setting off across the United States of America in hot pursuit of the American Dream?

Of course I can sleep at night. I have a car and it goes vroom. Well, it's only a 6 cylinder so it's not quite like those V8 monsters. And it does 20 miles per gallon. Which is better than 10. But not quite 30.

There's a whole load of stats and debates out there about flying vs driving, mpgs, and carbon use. I'm going to give my take on it, and welcome comments. I think that one person driving in a car is a bad and inefficient use of carbon. Four in a car is good. Hence, 2 in a car is borderline (which there is in our case). Second, it is easy to compare car mpg against plane mpg per passenger (assuming an average loading of the plane) - but this doesn't take into account how damaging the emissions are at the elevation at which they are released. At 30,000ft they do a LOT more damage. Third, I fight what battles I can by focussing on those that are winnable. I believe the aviation industry is unsustainable and consumer demand can stop the growth projections that fuel demand for more and bigger airports. I believe the net effect of standing up and loudly and proudly refusing to fly is a positive one with the potential to generate waves of reaction as other consider their own willingness to fly. Who knows. But for me, the sky is over the limit.