First stop was Dollar Tree. A longer visit deepened our initial astonishment. How could all these things possibly be a dollar? Why would you ever shop anywhere else? Is it actually safe to use a $1 steak knife, or eat $1 chili? Would a $1 hands-free kit for a mobile phone actually work, or is there a company which has realised that they could actually make a business model from lowered expectations, relying on the fact that while you can't make a working hands-free kit for a dollar, no-one would expect you to be able to. You'll sell a few to the curious or optimistic, and they won't return them because it would be more than a dollar's-worth of effort, and because in the back of their heads is the sense that it is ludicrous to say "I paid a dollar for this hands-free kit, and it doesn't work."
Anyway, we loaded up on everything for which the price held more promise than threat, a tricky assessment which varied from person to person. Dad risked big tins of chili and beef, the rest of us were unwilling to contemplate anything more processed than noodles and tinned fruit. We also filled the floor of the RV with many gallon bottles of dollar water. This proved a prescient move, as we left the drug store next door after a 20 minute booze 'n' pills (purchasing) spree to see some fellow burners loading all Dollar Tree's remaining water - hundreds of bottles - into a groaning van.
Our final stop was the very belly of The Beast itself: Walmart. bluedevi and I loaded up on a carefully-judged mix of essential and frivolous foods, mr_snips checked out the camping supplies, and Dad returned with a gun. My expression on seeing this (I imagine a mixture of horror, mortification, and fatalistic acceptance) engendered great hilarity in my companions. It was, of course, only a spring-powered rifle that fired metal shot, but nevertheless, our party was now that bit more American, i.e. we were packing heat.
Exhausted by our frenzy of consumerism (surely our last before we were to be embraced by Burning Man's 'gifting economy') we returned to our Hilton RV park for the evening. As we drove we amused ourselves by identifying the vehicles of likely fellow Burners, utilising characteristics as subtle as a discrete sticker or wacky sleeping-bag colour, or as blatant as being a knackered old bus full of goddamn hippies with 'Burning Man Or Bust' daubed across the tailgate. Our senses, honed thus, were drawn immediately to a nearby guest in the park: a bright yellow school bus. Wandering over we found our suspicions confirmed, as we were instantly invited in by Jeff and Tom, two stereotypical old truckers who had gutted the inside of the bus and converted into a spacious traveling living room and bar.
These guys were friendly and open enough to be a little unnerving to us, retaining, as we had, our British reserve. They plied us with beer, potato salad, Canadian whiskey, and rumours. They began by dispelling some misconceptions about Burning Man (machine guns are regularly used, the Hell's Angels run it, there were 77 deaths last year) none of which we actually held. They also showed us their photos of previous years, which were enlightening. I think we all developed a deeper insight into how a money-free 'gifting economy' might work, as a common feature emerged from said photos. That feature was, not to put too fine a point on it, tits. Lots of tits. The confident prediction that the souvenir shop dude had made yesterday was already fulfilled: I was seeing naked people, some of whom were showing every sign of being on drugs. It seemed that Jeff and Tom stocked a free bar throughout Burning Man, and in return enjoyed the opportunity to view, photo and hug (and who dared speculate what else?) a wide selection of naked breasts. From the expressions in the photos, all participants were happy with this exchange. This ameliorated, but failed to entirely dispel, our unease about these characters; but to give them their due they were friendly, jovial and generous, and in all probability neither perverts nor serial killers. We promised to come and find them at the festival, and headed out to the hotel for dinner.
We dined at Asiana, a perfectly-named generic oriental restaurant on the casino floor. As in all these restaurants, TVs in each corner of the room offered an incomprehensible bingo-esque game to ensure that one's need for food didn't interfere with one's opportunity to hemorrhage money. The demographic of casino and trailer parks was odd, the two main parties being Burners and The American Veterans Association. The groups didn't seem to interact much, perhaps lacking a common language.
After a pleasant meal and chat, we returned to the RV to find we had new next-door neighbours: more Burners, improbably named Rocky, Kandy (I incredulously confirmed the spelling with her), and another guy whose name was rather overshadowed by those two. None of us were at our most coherent, but I gather that they were together for the first time, having met in some manner of pagan on-line community. Again, they were pleasant open people who, perhaps for those very reasons, made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Their good humour seemed a little brittle and forced, but maybe that was simply due to the circumstances of their meeting. Or maybe I was simply being too uptight for cultural or personal reasons. If so, surely I should be making the most of such feelings, because in under 24 hours I would be at Burning Man where, I was confident, my mind would be blown, freed and at one with all. Not necessarily in that order.