The Journey West: Beatty to Black Rock City
I dreamed I was hearing music: “The world is black / The world is white / it turns by day and then by night…” I went back to sleep and dreamed about an old boarding house or motel. An old lady with an oxygen tank rolled it to the lobby couch and sat down. She just came back from a date. “So, did he get lucky with you?” someone asked. She indignantly adjusted the line running to her nose and said, “He was gonna give me fishing rights on his land--!” 

The clunk! of a cottonwood seedpod woke me up. The sky was just starting to light up for the day. Across the road, sunlight already fell on the hilltops beyond. Birds were already awake, chirping happily. I went to the bathroom. A thermometer on a tree said it was 63 degrees out. One of the trailers that had been parked in the campground was gone. 

When I saw Sixtoe, he said the guy in that trailer had pulled out early that morning. That might’ve been the music I heard. The trailer guy had gone to the hot springs several times the day before, so Sixtoe imagined he got very relaxed and had a good night’s sleep. 

I took a hot shower and packed up to leave. It was Monday, August 25, opening day for Burning Man. In fact, Becka was already there; she and her friends had planned to leave Las Vegas and wait at the Gate when it opened at midnight. The hot springs and campground were up for sale. There was a closed bar on the property, up facing the highway. I wondered if opening it back up would help the campground do better business, or just attract the riff-raff. I said goodbye to Sixtoe and shook his hand. I admitted going to Burning Man was a little crazy, but argued that people needed a little crazy in their lives. “Naw,” he replied. “The world is crazy—you need a little normal.”

I hit the road just before 7:30 in the morning. The air was cool and pleasant. It was 88 miles to Tonopah. I passed a school bus parked near Boiling Pot Road. It was the first day of school for Nevada kids. My cellphone woke up enough to tell me I had no service. Most of Nevada turned out to be dead space for my phone. It was quiet on Highway 95; hardly any traffic at all. I did pass a car parked alongside the road, and got a quick glimpse of a bundled-up sleeping bag, a flash of blonde hair peeking out from within. Burners. About 20 miles down the road I passed the Shady Lady brothel. Not long afterwards, I passed a 5-acre ranch next to the road, boarded-up and for sale. I seemed to remember it had been another brothel, and it was a sad statement on the economy when brothels were forced to close down.

I came over a hill, and passed through fields of yucca plants. It was like orchards of them. I remembered there had been a few down that road, but now they were all over the place. Amongst the yucca plants was a tiny roadside memorial to someone named Stevie: a little cross, some rocks, a handful of flowers. About an hour out of the campsite I crossed over the Goldfield Summit, 6.097 feet elevation. The old mining town of Goldfield lay just beyond. It was the site of the Yucca Mountain Oversight Project offices. An RV park advertised $8 a night camping. I stopped to get a picture of an old arch. I still had another 28 miles to Tonopah. Back on the highway, the scale of the Nevada landscape became overwhelming.

Vast miles of flat land rose gently like the swell of an ocean current to break against craggy mountains in the distance. It can be humbling to realize the hairline on the horizon is actually the highway you’re traveling on. In Tonopah, I got some gasoline, the first time I paid more than $4 a gallon for gas ($4.09, though the most expensive place in town was selling it for $4.39 a gallon). When I went in to pay, the clerk asked, “Which pump?” Mine was the only car at the pumps. Downtown Tonopah had several statues and monuments to their mining history. Outside of town, it was another 41 miles to Coaldale Junction. A sign demanded “Headlights next 100 miles.” A white lizard started at me from the yellow line in the road. A vehicle carrying 12-foot poles on its roof passed me; a Burner with a teepee? On the radio, I found a station playing an Eric Clapton concert, recorded live. The long, straight Nevada highways rolled on and on. I’d been down these roads before. Just before 10 AM, I crossed a summit near the ghost town of Candelaria. It was at the intersection of Highway 95 and Highway 360 that I once again passed Graffiti Junction, the jumble of odd concrete shapes covered with spray paint. It looked bigger than I remembered it.

Down the road, I went through the little town of Mina, where a sign warned “No explosive-laden vehicles allowed.” The town’s grocery store was the Hard Rock Market, down the street from a house built with a large boat. It was also the home of the Wildcat Ranch brothel. I was 116 miles from Reno. Ten miles down the road, I was leaving the little town of Luning when I saw red and blue lights behind me. I was being stopped by the police! An officer named Hagedorn said I was speeding: 55 in a 35 MPH zone. I saw the speed limit signs as I came into town, and said I figured once I got out of town, the speed limit would go back up. He said the speed limit “increments up,” meaning it’s 35 through town, then 45 for a few blocks, then 55, and so on until the road goes out of town. He let me off with a warning. Obviously, every cop in Nevada was not at Burning Man.

About a half hour after leaving Mina, the blue waters of Walker Lake came into view. I rolled into Hawthorne, home of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. Hawthorne is proud of its history with army ordinance. One of the city parks has sculptures made out of diffused bombs. The cheapest gas in town was $3.95 a gallon. I seemed to be spending much more on gas than I expected, possibly because my mileage was not so good. Was it because of all the ethanol everyone was putting in their gas? The ice-blue waters of Walker Lake were beautiful, but I didn’t see any boats out on the water at all. Nobody was at the marina. At all the lakeside campgrounds, every spot I passed was completely empty. I passed a street called King Arthur Court. Just outside Schurtz, I had to do a double-take as I passed a shoe tree alongside the road! I had fond memories of the Nevada Shoe Tree on Highway 50, but this one was new to me.

A sign told me I was 39 miles from Fallon. Plants alongside the road winked at me in rosy reds and pea greens. I kinda went into a zone, watching the miles click by. The landscape got greener as I got closer to Fallon, which I reached just before 12:30. The Wal-Mart wasn’t where I remembered it used to be. I stopped for supplies, then headed on towards Fernley. It was 97 degrees out. I saw a sign for the Lincoln Highway.
When I got to Fernley, I went under the train overpass and stopped at the truck stop. The place was packed with Burners, tanking up on gas ($3.62 a gallon) before heading into the desert. I made a voice post to my LiveJournal, got some last-minute supplies, and headed out on the last leg. In Wadsworth, traffic slowed down to a crawl as everyone on the road respectfully passed the two Nevada Highway Patrol cars parked alongside the road. There was a bus behind me that looked like he had a dozen bicycles piled up on the roof. I was in the middle of a group of about two dozen vehicles of all shapes and sizes, snaking our way down the highway. Our speed was about 45 MPH. I passed a girl on a bicycle, who seemed to be biking to Burning Man. Just before 2 PM, Pyramid Lake came into view. There were more cops at the famous Nixon Store. Just outside Nixon, the wind picked up. I could see whitecaps over on Pyramid Lake. Above, high, feathery clouds hung over the mountains. I passed a slow trailer-hauling truck, and then the green bus with the bicycles passed me. The green bus seemed to know how to get around traffic, so I stayed close behind it. I was able to speed up for another 10 miles until I came up behind another rolling road block.

Thirty miles out of Fernley, my cellphone lost service. An RV was parked beside the road, its driver sitting in a lawn chair reading something. When the green bus passed, the wind was like a cannon shot, blowing the driver’s hat off into the bushes. Traffic slowed and then ground to a halt as a sign declared “accident ahead.” It looked like a trailer-load of gear had become detached and ran off the road. There was a trail of deep gouges in the asphalt. Traffic sped up again. Highway 447 to Gerlach is a long, lonely, boring road; it occurred to me it would be much better with Burma Shave signs.

As I got closer to Empire, I noticed what looked like smoke from a forest fire climbing from behind the mountains to the west. There were dozens of vehicles stopped at the Empire store; I thought I saw my friend Celebration, whom I met at Interfuse. That was where I finally started picking up BMIR, the Burning Man radio station. Outside of Empire, I realized the smoke I’d seen was actually a tremendous dust cloud. I thought, Holy Christ, that’s gotta be five thousand feet high! It looked like it was heading straight for Black Rock City. 
I wasn’t even to Gerlach yet, and I was already searching through my gear for my goggles. Traffic came to a stop again on the stretch outside Gerlach. We were stopped for so long, people were getting out of their cars to check their gear. The line of cars behind me went on for miles. I pulled around the green bus and crossed the railroad tracks outside Gerlach. Down the tracks, a train was coming, which I figured would slow everyone down even more. A string of RV’s were lined up alongside the road, waiting for their turn at the town’s only gas station. As I went through town, a sign said I was 9 miles from the festival. Dust was heavy in the air. Visibility was down to about 1 mile. I couldn’t remember it being that bad before. The dust obscured any view of the city, way off on the playa.
Traffic stopped again for a southbound car in the ditch. Blue smoke rolled out of an RV on the side of the road. As I passed, a guy with a fire extinguisher was spraying the underside of the vehicle. I thought he was having a bad day… until I saw the thick cloud of billowing black smoke ahead. A camper trailer was engulfed in flames! The contents had gotten so hot the camper had cracked apart like an egg. The owner stood off to the side, hands on hips, helpless to do anything but watch. Hot, red sparks sprayed across the road as I passed. At 3:51, a half hour after going through Gerlach, I finally turned off the asphalt and onto the gravel road leading out into the playa...
A few months before the event, I brought up the topic of photography on a Burning Man website. I was surprised at the level of hostility towards photographers. I admit the tone of my original post was confrontational-- for which I later apologized-- but even taking that into account, responses ran about 10-to-1 against people with cameras at Burning Man. I had no idea people felt so strongly about having their picture taken. I'm used to taking pictures at renaissance faires and science fiction conventions-- places where people spend months putting together costumes and are usually delighted to have their pictures taken.    

A woman cited the "Girls Gone Wild" videos and responded that people do stuff at Burning Man that they wouldn't want the world to know about. She said published photos of someone doing certain things could "ruin their life." It is granted that some people can be jerks, and some people with cameras can be jerks, but that doesn't mean everyone with a camera is a jerk out to ruin your life.  (And personally speaking, if you're doing something that could "ruin" your life --regardless if it's at Burning Man or not-- I don't think it's the photographer's behavior that needs to be in question.)     
One guy online complained that cameras at the event "ruined his experience," but what about the photographer's experience? People with cameras paid for their tickets, too. If someone loved to take photos, shouldn't taking photos be allowed to be part of his Burning Man experience? Much of Burning Man was about "radical self-expression." If painters and dancers are encouraged to express themselves through their art, why not photographers? The Burning Man ticket itself says you risk serious injury or death just by attending-- why is the risk of being photographed so much worse? In 2007, when the Man was torched early in an act of arson, lots of people could have been hurt... but dozens of people on Tribe.Net actually supported the action, and praised the arsonist's act of "radical self-expression",  saying the expectation of anything at Burning Man-- even safety-- was naive. (The arsonist wasn't so funny when he tried to torch a church a few months later.)    

The point that seemed to be made was that people's privacy needed to be respected. Everyone should be polite. I'm all for that. I wasn't talking about sticking a camera down somebody's pants or anything... But sometimes, something amazing and beautiful happens right in front of you, and there's only a split-second to catch it on film. It's a false assumption that the only good photograph is a posed photograph. There's not always time to ask someone if it's okay to take their picture. Asking first might be the polite thing to do, but sometimes there's no time.    

I mean, look at this iconic picture at the right. This was taken in Times Square on the day Japan surrerendered at the end of World War II. Two people kissing on an historic day: a spur-of-the-moment, impulsive act of joy -- and a once in a lifetime chance to capture that image. It's inspired photographers for decades. Can you imagine the phographer waiting until afterwards, as the two people were walking away, and saying, "Um, excuse me, could you two people go back and do that again so I could take your picture...?" It would be too late by then. The moment would have passed forever. (Or worse: imagine one of the those people not wanting their picture taken, and forcing the photographer to destroy the historic image.)   

I looked up the law, and according to what I found, it's legal to take pictures of people pretty much anywhere --except at military installations (for security reasons) and in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, like a bedroom or bathroom. That's acceptable. So if you're out on the street, out in the open in a public area, it should be okay to take pictures without asking. In a public area where amazing things are happening, it's a reasonable expectation that somebody might and probably will take your picture. In fact, the law says that if people harass a photographer about taking pictures, they can be subject to arrest.   

The argument that Burning Man is a "private" event and not subject to such laws is hogwash. How can anything with forty thousand people be "private?" This isn't a kegger at Uncle Frank's house we're talking about-- it's Burning Man! How can it be "private" when tickets are sold to the public? Even the first of the Ten Principles of Burning Man states: "Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community." That would include people with cameras, wouldn't it?   
One person online brought up the issue of "art bias" towards photography: folks with cameras were pressured to ask permission and register their equipment and sign all sorts of legal documents just so they could take pictures-- but painters, sculptors and sketch artists had no such restrictions. Those people were free to express themselves with their art, but not photographers. Others online said the idea of an "art bias" towards photographers was ridiculous...  Well, I wanted to see for myself. Instead of photos, I'm going to post scans of the sketchess and cartoons I drew during the event. I wanted to see how people treated artists. I looked on it as a challenge, to test my limited artistic skills, and to add a new dimension to my Burning Man experience.  Proceed to the Sketchbook part of my trip report for the results...

Las Vegas to Beatty 
The Journey West
The Sketchbook
The Journey East
Broken Arrow to Albuquerque
Black Rock City to Provo
Albuquerque to Las Vegas
Provo to Pueblo
Las Vegas to Beatty
Pueblo to Broken Arrow
 Beatty to Black Rock City
Photographer's Rights 
Photography Hall of Shame 
Camera Debate on Tribe.Net 
Funeral Mountains 
Alfred Eisenstaedt 
Walker River Indian Reservation 
All original content copyright 2008 by Tim Frayser.
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