I stood apart from the tents and vehicles and took one last look at the majestic starscape above me. There's nothing quite like a night sky in the desert. It can be humbling and invigorating at the same time. I started up Satori, then with only the parking lights on, carefully inched my way out from between the other vehicles. I headed down Five O'Clock Street towards the outside of Black Rock City, then worked my way over to the main road. All was quiet. It was just after 5 AM local time, Monday, September 6th. I didn't even encounter another car until I was almost to the main road. Unlike 2003, when I was stuck in a traffic jam for an hour getting out of Black Rock City, I was out on the highway within 16 minutes. There was an RV ahead of me on the pavement, and what looked like a little toy airplane blew off the roof and under my car.
The first hint of dawn was blushing the edge of the eastern horizon. From the road, I could see something zooming across the playa, causing a wake of dust like the Roadrunner in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. When it got to the pavement, I saw it was a BLM Ranger vehicle; it passed the cars ahead of me and disappeared. Gerlach was very quiet when I passed through. The residents must think people going to Burning Man are absolutely insane. They got to see 35,000 people go through their sleepy, little town before Saturday night, and all of them go back through by Monday evening. It was about 6 AM when I hit the main highway beyond Gerlach, and I pretty much had the whole road to myself... but not quite. Dotted along the road were cars, RV's and other vehicles– Burners who had left in the middle of the night, then parked beyond Gerlach to sleep beside the road until morning. I'd pass one lone car, then miles later pass five or six all bunched together. One of the RV's I passed was called the Ganesh Express; I recognized it from a nearby camp. At Empire, several cars were parked at the lone gas station. Nothing was open, but I availed myself of the portable toilets. They had toilet paper! It's the little pleasures in life that mean the most...
The sun was up by the time I got to Nixon, where it was kind of a tradition for me to stop at the general store for a Hot Pocket and a Pepsi. They were ready for exiting Burners, with all kinds of merchandise for sale. I was tempted to get one of their Burning Man t-shirts, but I didn't care for any of the designs. As I drove through Nixon, I noticed the town had a Church Street and a State Street... but neither intersected. Church and State were pretty separate... When I arrived down the road in Fernley, I stopped at the truck stop. From there, I was able to get through to home on my cellphone. I spoke to my wife for the first time in a week. It had rained in Broken Arrow the night before. In the truck stop restroom, I washed up at the sink. I looked at myself in the mirror. With my matted hair, week-old beard and dusty, filthy clothes, I looked like a grizzled old prospector straight out of the Sierra Nevadas. In the parking lot, a guy came up to me, saying he had a bag of hash he didn't want to take home. He was wanting to sell it, but I declined, adding I was a little pyrophobic, anyway. He did a double take, and pointed out I'd just come from Burning Man. "It's an issue I'm working on," I explained. He seemed amused.
It was just after 8 AM local time when I got on Interstate 80 headed west towards Reno. The highway follows the Truckee River valley, which would probably be a pretty little valley if it didn't have an interstate highway barreling through it. Within the hour, I'd past Reno, found some mountains and crossed the border into California! I was in another state I'd never been in before. I would've stopped to take a picture at the border, but the traffic was too busy. As I entered the Tahoe National Forest, I found an oldies station on the radio. I found myself driving into the high forest singing "American Pie" at the top of my lungs. I was on the Alan S. Hart Freeway. The highway climbed into the mountains. Tall, stately trees stood proudly on dauntless ridges. I passed a lake, and I was minding my own business when a pickup with a motorcycle in back swerved over from the outside lane, directly at me. I had to slam on my brakes to get out of his way. As he passed, he blared his horn and gave me the finger, then rushed off down the road. I have no idea why he did that. The incident left me a little shook up. Welcome to California.
I got off at the next exit, which took me to Donner Lake. Instead of a national park, I found an affluent little housing community surrounding the lake. The houses all had names on them, like the houses on the Outer Banks: "Greensleeves," "Witt's End," etc. Rich cars and snazzy restaurants. At the sole convenience store, I saw the only Bush stickers I'd seen since leaving Broken Arrow. I got a candy bar, just so I could say I ate something at Donner Pass. If there was a monument to the tragedy of the settlers going through Donner Pass, I didn't see it. The road away from the lake climbed up the mountain to the pass. Breathtaking views escaped me as I tried to focus on driving. Near the top, a curving bridge spanned a gorge, and I saw rock climbers practicing on short, roadside slopes. The winding road took me five miles up the mountain, past the not-as-expensive sections of the neighborhood. A house by the road had a familiar site: an army surplus parachute used as a canopy for the back porch. At Donner Summit, I stopped for some gas, and paid the most my whole trip: $2.39 a gallon.
I rejoined Interstate 80 just past there, and suddenly the traffic had turned bumper-to-bumper. Coming down from the mountains, elevations descended steadily lower as I headed towards the coast, like one long slope. I stopped in Colifax for a pit stop, then made it to Sacramento by noon local time. A sign on the highway directed traffic going to San Francisco to use the "Left 5 Lanes." I couldn't recall ever seeing a 5-lane road before. I passed an impressive light rail station which ran along the interstate. Going over the Sacramento River bridge, I could see the skyline of the city off to the south. Off to the north, I passed mountains. It was just after 1 PM local time when I passed the Napa exit. A bumper sticker on the car ahead of me read, "I brake for hovering mallards." The closer I got to San Francisco, the more hectic the traffic got.
I got excited when I saw water on the horizon, but it wasn't the Pacific-- it was San Pablo Bay. I took a picture of the Zampa Memorial Bridge as I went over it. My original plan was to take one bridge across the Bay, go across the Golden Gate Bridge, maybe stop at the Presidio, then take the third bridge back across and continue to San Leandro. One mixed exit derailed that plan, so I just continued down the road. Off on the horizon, I could see the silhouette of the Golden Gate. Down the highway, I got a glimpse of it again, but there was something big and dark underneath it... Alcatraz! It was Alcatraz! I was going down the expressway, certain I was lost, when I suddenly passed a sign saying I was in San Leandro. I took the next exit, and stopped at a convenience store for some gas. That's where I called my friend Dawn's house, and spoke with her husband Troy for the first time. It turns out I was only about a mile from their house. Within minutes I was pulling up to their little house on the corner. I'd made it to the Rabbit Warren.
Troy met me at the door, and he looked just like the pictures Dawn had been sending me for years. Dawn came out of the back room. We had not seen each other for years, but she still had the same twinkle in her eye. She came up and gave me a big hug– I was straight out of a week in the desert, dusty and grungy and smelling like I don't know what, and she gave me a big hug anyway. We sat and talked, and I brought in the duffel bag of stuff I'd brought them: toilet paper, rabbit food, a toy for their son, and the rock I'd found off the road in Colorado. They arranged for me to sleep in their son's room, and I went upstairs to take a much-needed shower. The hot shower felt... sooooo.... goooooood..... When I rejoined them downstairs, I said, "Okay, you guys are in my will now."
Dawn was burning songs from a book of CD's onto her laptop. She wanted
to have an "eclectic mix" of random music playing while she wrote her novel.
So far, she had about 12,000 songs saved on her hard drive. Supper was
pasta with cheese, and we ate out on her back yard patio. I met her cats,
Oberon and Willow. She showed me her garden, which was producing way too
many tomatoes, and her little fish pond. It was a nice house, although
a little too close to an elementary school; the crossing guard whistles
woke her up every morning. Dawn's mom was living with them; I had not seen
her since about 1979. I got to meet her husband Lon, too. Both Lon and
Troy were great guys. After supper, Dawn and I talked about old times.
By then, it was late, and 48 hours of almost continuous action with only
two hours of sleep suddenly caught up with me. I excused myself and went
upstairs to bed. All kinds of thoughts swirled through my head, but it
didn't take me long at all to fall asleep.