I lit out from Reno I was trailed by twenty hounds Didn’t get to sleep that night Till the morning came around I set out running but I take my time A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine If I get home before daylight I might get some sleep tonight -words by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia
The guy at the front of the Reno Trader Joe’s checkout line catches my eye and chuckles “A thousand bucks man. Eight days worth of Burning Man chow. For our whole camp. Crazy.” He and his buddy slap down their credit cards on what seems an impossible amount of food to consume in those days, even for people hardlining for some organic, free-range style munchies. The girls and I have just come off seven days backpacking where we carried all our food on our backs. I can’t wrap my brain around nine-plus grocery carts getting stuffed into the back of a VW bus.We snake our way through Reno, hit I-80, turn our backs to California, and drop into the heart of the Great Basin. To drive across the great basin is to trace a line across a surreal ocean bed, an open air aquarium of crumbling vistas and twisted forms slowly becoming sand in the heat and wind.
At Fernley, vehicles peel off north towards Black Rock City and Burning Man another couple hundred miles north into the heart of the desert. Fifty-thousand pouring in from all over, though mainly the coast. Burning Man has its roots on Baker Beach in San Francisco. But they’ve exiled themselves from the coast, like Old Testament prophets and desert monks, seeking something out here they believe doesn’t exist under the soft twilight of a Pacific breeze. Where they driven out by zoning regulations, possession laws and the general wet blanket of civilization, or were they pulled here by some magnetic force in this seismic rupture, drawn to land that outstrips their ecstatic rituals of disappearance and erasure?
In Battle Mountain, we’re awash in a sea of Harley’s returning from some nostalgia tour of the coast, Pale Riders of Altamont and Oakland and Bass Lake. I pull alongside one of them (photo above). He has a skull attached to his bike just in front of his right knee, a bottle of something behind his back I can’t make out, and what looks like a large filet knife attached to this belt, of the kind my grandfather used to gut Muskies and Northern Pike in a more vegetal part of the country. His hands have slipped from his chopper bars down to where he is hunched over, leaning into the somnambulistic rhythms of another day on the road.
The skull, a mememto mori we all recognize, has another meaning in biker culture, that of an apotropaic origin—an amulet to ward off evil—a metaphysical “knock on wood.” Its been passed down from the Greeks, from the Chtonic cults, worshippers of the earth and the earthy subterranean deities. Goddesses like Persephone dragged into the underworld, plagued by the memory of her former life, and yet returning each spring in the grand cycle the Greeks bequeathed to us. And I cannot help but think, as this skull and its rider speed across this subterranean moonscape, that there is something that connects him to the dancers in the desert, that there is a line that connects Burning Man to Sturgis even if the participants wouldn’t admit to it. As I watch him out of the corner of my eye, I realize that his bike is a triumph of forgetting over memory, of continual loss rather than return, an amnesiac intoxication with an impossible-to-reach destination somewhere further on, out of reach, and drawing him ever forward.
We pull side by-side into Elko, with its still verdant mountains standing almost in defiance of the furnace below as though Persephone herself has kissed them. These hills, last refuge of the Basques who came across the ocean and the desert in search of the lush Sierra of California and its gold. They found instead a million sheep and a livestock monopoly moving east into the wide open basin and range country. In these mountains above Elko, they spent their summers alone, carving lost dreams into the aspens. You can still walk among these trees, these arborglyphs, and read the carvings that tell of thwarted desire, grief, and longing.
We turn north for Jackpot and the Columbia Plateau at Wells. The light fades into darkness. Truck lights decay into red lines and spectral flashes bouncing off the unending fibrillation of my eyes and a carnage-blanketed windshield.
Outside Jackpot, near the Nevada-Idaho line, I pull over into what looks to be an abandoned rest area to stretch and shake it off. I stare into the sky and watch a single lonely jet high above heading east. I’ve heard that jets no longer move through the sky in anyway we normally think—through thrust and propulsion driving themselves forward—but rather create a continuous vacuum, a continuous erasure of the space and resistance in front of them that sucks them forward. They literally drag themselves through space, sucked forever into a vortex of their own making. I have no idea if this is true. Tonight I don’t care. I watch the jet trail off in the distance and smile, standing out here under a billion stars, a long way from home, a long way from anywhere, falling further and further into the void of America.