August 27th, 2006

Red googles matching eyes

Burning Man 2: Closer

We were driving out of the RV park when we ran into something: a moral dilemma. As late arrivals we hadn't yet paid for our stay, and the site's rudimentary infrastructure had nothing to stop us from breezing out and away for free.

So we were faced with a choice: save much needed money (for (Dad and bluedevi at least were on the skint side), or do The Right Thing? Needless to say(?), the outcome was never really in doubt, and we got out and wandered over to the ranger/receptionist's cabin/booth. Our good deed was rewarded by the gratifying revelation that our night had cost a total of six dollars, a sum that we couldn't possibly begrudge our life-saving sanctuary.

We retraced our steps to the diner that had provided us with succor and directions the previous night, and breakfasted on vast burittos and coffees. Thus fortified, we set course for Reno. It was a long day's drive, but at least these highways were worthy of the name. The scenery was breathtaking as we wound up through the mountains, looking down on tiny railways clinging to sheer slopes like steam-punk ivy.

Once again it was late and we were flagging by the time we arrived in Reno, and we feared a repeat of our previous epic quest for shelter. Indeed, many of the parks we passed on the route in seemed to stop taking admissions after dark. We found our way to our (arbitrarily chosen) choice in the shadow of the vast Hilton Hotel, but our hearts sank as we saw a sign announcing 'No Vacancies'. However, we optimistically investigated the reception area and found that, though it was closed, they had a self-check-in facility and a couple spaces apparently available. We grabbed one, left Dad to nap after his hard day's drive, and wandered towards the hotel intrigued by a sign proclaiming (ordering?) only 'Fun Quest'.

The first thing we saw on entering the building was a wedding chapel, discretely tucked in by the doors where one might expect to find a toilet. The second thing was the object of our quest: a misleadingly-named arcade area. This was a double disappointment, having been neither much of a quest, nor any fun. We passed by, rebuffed not so much by the metal detector and security guard at the entrance as by what we could see of the interior. mr_snips and bluedevi decided to stop for a meal, but I drifted on. The Fun Quest may have been at an end, but my quest for fun had only just begun.

The ground floor of the hotel was a bit like a mall from which any and all desirable items had been fastidiously deleted. The remaining shops sold nothing but ugly souvenirs: toxic-looking candy; golf-related flim-flam; and t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming allegiance to America in general, Reno specifically, gambling, fishing and/or Jesus. Everywhere was inexplicably open. Everywhere was all-too-explicably empty. Questing on, I drifted into Snowind, which looked initially as if it might be a useful outdoor-gear shop. In fact, in keeping with the theme of the other shops, it sold everything such a shop would sell except useful outdoor-gear: flimsy bags, impractical jackets and unpleasant hats.

Curiosity satisfied by the briefest of circumlocutory mooches, I was leaving when the in-store music finished creeping up behind my consciousness and starting a synchopated tapping on its shoulder. It was lo-fi, poetic rap; incongruously edgy in such a profoundly bland venue. My steps slowed, and my head started bobbing.

"It kicks in in a second", said the skinny teenager (an indie-kid, if Americaland has such a tribe) slouched behind the counter. I waited. It did. "Buck 65?" I asked. "Nope. He's a local guy, Sage Francis". We stood companionably either side of the counter, nodding along.
"You here on holiday?"
"Yep. Burning Man."
This was my first experience of the magic these words held, as he instantly perked up. "Have you been before?"
"First time."
"Oh, man, you are gonna have such a trip. I'm working this year but I've been before. It's just... incredible."
"Any advice on what to take?"
"Water. Lots of water. Seriously, if you're wondering whether to take another shirt or something, don't. Take more water instead."
"Cheers. I guess I just don't know what to expect to see there."
"It's so much fun. You'll see..." a pause as he selected the quintessential Burning Man experience, "...naked people. On drugs."
In this assertion he was absolutely correct. In fact, we were to see some before the festival even began...

Mulling this over, I strolled onwards and up an escalator into a disorientatingly different world. This floor was busy, and - holy shit - it was garish. I'd found the casino floor. I stood paralysed for a moment by sheer information density. So many flickering lights, flashing words, demanding chimes; attempts to entice that smeared together into an incapacitating interference pattern, redoubled from the mirrors in every wall and metal coating every surface.

Once I got my mental filters recalibrated I was able to think again, and began to suspect that this effect was deliberate. This would explain the astonishing dullness of the mall below: it was intended to be dull; sensory deprivation to lower your defenses so the casino could sucker-punch you right in the synapses. Having recovered, I took a turn across the floor. I weaved effortlessly between machines and through drifting shoals of the elderly like I was moving in bullet-time, surrounded but apart, inside the loop. Before this mood dissipated I let myself get sucked into the vortex of an escalator and floated back to the RV, quest fulfilled.

Rejuvenated by our various activities we felt up to a preliminary investigation of Reno, so piled back into the RV and set out. Our vestigial goals were two-fold:
1) Identify suitable shops for tomorrow's supply-gathering expedition
2) Discover the location of the casino whose billboards boasted 'A dog and a draft for a buck and a half'. This slogan - its faux-naif charm, Owenian para-rhyme or sheer transcendental shittiness - had taken inexplicable root in our brains, and even those of us who had already eaten would not feel truly satisfied until they had partaken of this worryingly excellent bargain.

As we set out we could see vast and garish lights in the distance, to which we were drawn like moths to a particularly glittery flame. Much like moths, our navigation was crap and we circled around for quite some time without actually getting nearer. We did, however, spot DollarTree, whose offer of 'everything for a dollar' proved irresistible.

The 10 minutes we spent there before it closed were more than enough to convince us that here was the answer, not only to all our needs, but to the needs of any reasonable human. Dollar energy drinks (containing 'horny goat weed')! Dollar Pringles (with jokes on each one in blue ink)! Dollar motivational stickers (offering bargain-basement encouragement such as 'Good try' and 'You did it')! Dollar glow sticks! They were even handing out lists of the Burning Man essentials that we could find in their store. Laden with impulse purchases too cheap to have engendered any manner of cost-benefit analysis, we headed back into the night.

It had been a long day. We were still jet-lagged yet over-excited. DollarTree was behind us, and bright lights, loose slots and a distressingly cheap meal lay before. None of this fully explains how we managed to get back in the RV, drive for a few miles, then pull over to case another strip mall; and only then realise that we'd left the fucking boot open. In retrospect it had been kind of noisy. And drafty. And... well... our minds boggled. Somehow we had neither lost any luggage nor gained any police attention. Taking this as a sign that Lady Luck was on our side (where a lesser (or less dazed and confused) party might have taken it as a demand for an early night) we struck back out towards downtown. This time we found it, and parked the RV so that we could head into the light.

bluedevi was particularly taken by the very shininess of every casino. I saw cold, cold neon in hot, hot pink; she clearly saw The Biggest Glowsticks Ever. She was, however, able to resist plunging head-first into the nearest light and instead joined us in Fun Quest II: Downtown. As we walked and talked, seeds germinated which were to later develop into Shiny Duality Theory: the recognition that shiny does not necessarily equal good, and that glowsticks and glitter have a sinister shadow (albeit an equally bright one). The prismatic hellscape that was downtown Reno was clearly Bad Shiny. We ventured in undaunted.

It's amazing how quickly the human mind adapts. After about 20 minutes, our horrified fascination had ablated, and we were looking for something actively entertaining. We found some:

  • The souvenir t-shirt depicting 3 cowboys with 'The Original Dept. Of Homeland Security' afforded some distraction. Are they seriously drawing an analogy between a trigger-happy lynch mob and their current government's anti-terrorism branch? Is this gormless patriotism, or dangerous satire?

  • The wedding chapel with matching 'bride' and 'groom' baseball caps in the window. Do people really exist who could wear such things without irony? Do we even have enough shared language to communicate with such people?

  • The vast array of slot machines, all basically identical but for their themes. Is that 'I Dream Of Jeannie' machine as new as it looks? Who is making these things and why? Is 'The Dark Side of the Force' too honest a theme?

Eventually, dogged (ho ho) persistence brought us to the hallowed hall that offered the meal that had haunted our dreams. We skipped eagerly over the threshold, each clutching our one hundred and fifty cents. The offer was, of course, a lie. The guy in the food booth downstairs sent us upstairs, where the kitchen was closed for an indefinite period. Disappointed but not - if we were to be honest - especially disillusioned, we choked down some merely quite cheap beer and fried food, and returned to the RV and thence the park.