Not more than forty-eight hours after the journey began, I found myself in a gay park in Salina, Kansas. When I say “gay,” I don’t mean “happy,” or “gay” in a pejorative sense. I mean, this was a city park where closeted gay men went to…well, be gay. Joe insisted that the Days Inn was too expensive, and had taken the night clerk’s word that this park was a safe and legal place to camp for the night.
Something didn’t feel right when we pulled in, though. Cars kept circling the picnic area. I was too exhausted to care; I just wanted to pitch the tent and go to sleep, but Joe, in an uncharacteristic act of responsibility, went to scope out the place.
“No problem,” he said when he returned. “Get this—it’s a gay park. I just went up and talked to some guys giving each other massages on the picnic tables.”
“That’s fabulous,” I said, and sneezed.
“I’m gonna go talk to this guy Jim, OK?” Joe said, cracking open a beer. “Hey, if your allergies are that bad, why don’t you take something?”
“I did,” I said crossly. “It’s not working.”
“Oh. Well, put on one of the respirators.”
This was one of the many times during our trip westward and back that I’d look at Joe as if he were insane. “I would,” I replied, raising my eyebrows, “but then I’d have to ask myself why I’m in a gay park in the middle of Kansas wearing a respirator. Which is something I’d rather not ask myself.”
I didn’t know the answer to that question. Or, rather, I knew the answer and didn’t want to face it. The truth was, I was in a gay park in the middle of Kansas because I was so weak, needy, and dependent on my boyfriend that I couldn’t stand the thought of letting him go to Burning Man without me. So here we were, bound for the Burning Man arts festival in Nevada, toting a month’s worth of Kashi cereal and soymilk, camping gear, two bikes, two pairs of goggles and respirators (in case of dust storms), one suitcase full of normal clothes, another suitcase full of ridiculous clothes no man should ever wear, and a fifteen-foot-long stuffed snake. I should mention that all of these belongings were crammed into a Honda Civic hatchback with cow-print seat covers, a severely dented rear fender, and one working headlight. Joe was stopped multiple times for the non-functional headlight—three, to be exact. I pointed out that it was very easy to pick up a bulb at a car parts store and install it oneself, or even to stop by a Jiffy Lube, but he thought his solution—kicking the headlight repeatedly until it came on—was easier.
The cashier at the Wal-Mart in Elko, where we stocked up on supplies before leaving civilization, sized us up when we told her where we were headed. “You two don’t look like Burning Man types,” she observed. “People run around nekkid out there, you know. And two years ago, a girl got kilt.”
My eyes widened. Joe grabbed my arm and ushered me away, assuring me that the girl’s death was an accident; she got drunk and fell off an art car, which then ran over her.
I had no idea what I was getting into, but I had no choice but to be ready.
We were at Burning Man for only six days, but they felt like the longest six days of my life. In six days, I had one shower, which I took “nekkid,” in front of anyone who happened to be passing by. The days were sweltering and the nights cold. I had to ride a bike to get everywhere, including the port-a-potties. I was afraid to go out alone because I couldn’t find my way around. Instead of being laid out like a grid, Black Rock City was laid out like a giant clock, and when I asked where something was, I might hear, “Oh, that’s at 8:00 and Elysium.” I guess this layout makes sense if you keep in mind that the people who designed it and the people who were meant to navigate it all consider smoking weed to be The One True Path to Brilliance. Their logic eluded me. Plus, my bike didn’t work. Every three or four revolutions the chain would lock up, and I’d wobble and fall over. We got stuck in two dust storms. I’m thankful that there are no photos of me in my goggles and respirator, like an alien version of Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz, pedaling furiously to shelter amid the rising dust.
Our first night there, we rode our bikes down to see The Man, the large wooden structure that gets torched at the festival’s end—hence the name “Burning Man.” That year The Man was built upon the roof of a “fun house.” What made the house “fun” was having to navigate its labyrinthine bowels in complete darkness, except for strobe lights illuminating disturbing pieces of art. I have nightmares about things like this—getting lost, ever searching, unable to escape or find what I need to find. I hated the trick doors and dead ends. I found my way out only by following Joe’s every move, and was surprised when I suddenly felt the night air. We were on the roof. In front of me was a long pole, like a fireman’s pole, leading to the ground.
“Come on!” Joe was yelling up at me.
“I don’t want to!” I yelled back. “I’m afraid!”
“It’s OK! Nothing will happen! Just grab it and slide down!”
I looked behind me. It was either jump for the pole, or find my way back out of the “fun” house—alone.
At the bottom was none other than creepy Neal, encouraging me to jump. “You won’t get hurt!” he yelled. “I’ll catch you!”
His offer did not encourage me. Neal was fifty years old, tall and bony, with hair down to his waist. Right then, he was wearing jeans that were threadbare along their entire front, and had a red bandanna, which he termed a “balldanna,” loosely tied around his genitals. I closed my eyes. I’d had many strange dreams in my lifetime, but in a shining example of truth being stranger than fiction, never in my dreams had I been in a funhouse in the desert, about to slide down a firepole into the arms of a drug dealer in a crotch bandanna and matching fedora.
I took a breath, screamed, jumped, and clung to the pole. My feet hit the ground. I’m alive! I thought.
I’m a “mind” person, not a “body” person, but Joe did not respect this. Forcing me to ride a non-functional bike around Black Rock City and to slide down a firepole were the least of his demands. He thought nothing of climbing rickety scaffolding to “see the stars,” or hopping onto a giant seesaw that would catapult us into the air. Besides my fear of heights, I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that 99% of the structures beneath me were probably constructed by potheads with sunstroke, so how safe could they really be?
“Radical expression” is the catchphrase at Burning Man. In other words, the festival is filled with people who think that riding around naked on a bicycle with your cock painted makes you an artist. I witnessed some cool art installations and thousands of interesting people in various types of dress or degrees of undress, but none of it was worth braving the heat, the cold, the dust, or especially Neal, who was all too eager to camp next to us. By day six, I would have been happy to learn that I’d never have to see Neal again in my lifetime, but Joe informed me that Neal would be leaving Burning Man with us. Apparently, Neal had wheedled Joe into giving him a ride to his next home, a commune in northern California. Since we were still quite a way from northern California, that meant he would be joining us in Reno and in Tahoe, where I had planned to decompress from Freakville. Even more troubling was the logistical question of how we were going to transport Neal and all of his possessions in the Civic hatchback. I argued against the plan. I told Joe that Neal was old enough to be responsible for himself.
“Abby, just because someone is dispossessed doesn’t mean he should be at the mercy of others,” Joe countered. He was always using this socially-conscious crapspeak with me.
“He’s not ‘dispossessed’!” I shrieked. “He’s a fifty-year-old drug dealer! His not having a vehicle or a place to live are consequences of his choices. Let him figure out how to get where he needs to go!”
Later that day, I was squished against the dashboard because Neal’s six-foot-four frame was crammed behind me into a back seat that we didn’t have to begin with, but had created especially for him. A bow of frayed twine hung next to my ear, reminding me that all of Neal’s possessions were tied precariously on the roof. As we rolled out of the Black Rock Desert and into the nearest town of Gerlach, I was still pondering the strange contradictions of Burning Man—why alcohol was free yet ice cost money, and why anyone would bother to bring a pair of fuzzy boots into a desert. I was also thinking of a lone, soggy, foil-wrapped chocolate heart at the bottom of our cooler—the only piece of chocolate I’d seen in a couple of weeks. I would have eaten it already had it not been hallucinogenic. Joe and Neal had tried to talk me into eating it, but I’d refused on principle: I had enough mental problems without imagining that I was being attacked by a dragon. (This is what Phil, the Canadian who camped next to us, saw when he’d taken mushrooms. According to him, the experience was “awesome.”)
Behind me, Neal twitched and complained. “I’m cramping up back here!” he called out, even though my ear was no more than ten inches from his mouth. “I need to get out! I need to get out!”
I slammed down my notebook, where I was writing a particularly acerbic letter to a friend back home, and glared at Joe.
“I’m serious, man! My legs are cramping! Owwwwww! It hurts so bad!”
Joe stopped the car and I maneuvered out of the front seat so that Sasquatch could extricate himself, unfold his gangly limbs, and drink a packet of Emergen-C to relieve his cramped muscles. To say that there was tension between Joe and me at this point would be an understatement.
When we got to Reno, we checked into The Golden Phoenix. I took a shower to wash off all the radical expression and liberally applied lotion that was inadequate in replacing the moisture I’d lost; my skin was still scaly. It took almost twenty minutes to get a comb all the way through my hair, which had already begun to dread up.
The three of us spent the night in Reno, during which time Neal was a thorough pain in the ass. In retrospect, I should have left those two clowns alone in the casino, locked my hotel room door, and slept the sleep of the innocent. As it was, Neal was constantly knocking on the door and calling our room, usually to discuss his sexual exploits at Burning Man. There had been a mention that Neal might be able to hitch a ride from another burner who was California-bound and had also stopped in Reno for the night. I remained hopeful.
The next morning, we met in the hotel diner for breakfast. Neal was late, which made me nervous, as I was anxious to set out for Tahoe. “I really need some eggs,” he said, as he finally arrived and slid into the seat opposite us. “Hey, have you ever had your whole hand in a vagina?”
At that point, something inside me snapped, but as I was trapped in a booth in a diner, I had little recourse but to imitate the coping mechanism of a student with autism I’d once taught. So, I extended my fingers, stiffened my hands, repeatedly jabbed at my own temples, and yelled, “OVERLOAD! OVERLOAD!”
“Abby, stop it!” Joe said.
“Did I say something bad?” Neal asked. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Ignoring him, I turned to Joe and began punctuating my speech by slamming my fork onto the metal table. “If he doesn’t shut up, the line ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’ is gonna take on a whole new meaning!”
It was decided that Neal would proceed to California with his alternate chauffeur.
I spent three more weeks traveling the country with Joe. Many times during the long rides I’d scroll through the photos on my camera, but once I returned home and uploaded them onto my computer, I was able to see details that I’d missed. I remember posing for photo number 93. It was our last day at Burning Man, and I wanted an artsy shot of myself in the desert—my experience with radical expression encapsulated in a single photo. There I stood, in a faux-hippie tie-dyed halter top from JC Penney, looking off into the distance with a contemplative and slightly tortured expression, my skin bronzed, my hair blowing in the desert wind.
And off to my left, in the background, was Neal, wearing knee socks and nothing else, holding one leg in the air and leaning forward, exposing his naked ass to the camera. I’ve practiced yoga for years and am not sure what this is called—whatever “flying drug dealer” is in Sanskrit, I guess.
Miss Gulch photo at cyclelicio.us.com. All other photos by me. Thanks to Vagabondage Press, who published this essay in a slightly different format in their literary magazine.