I drove the Cavalier around a corner, following the road, and suddenly the car stopped with a WOOMF sound. I was stuck in a deep pit of sand. I tried gunning the engine, forwards and backwards, but it was no good. The car wasn’t moving. I was stuck. Well, hell, I thought. The cellphone battery was almost dead again, so I turned it back on and called AAA.
After giving them all my information and telling them where I was, they told me some shocking news. The girl said AAA will not tow a stuck car if it’s more than 100 feet from pavement. What? They couldn’t help me. What?!? I’d always counted on AAA to be the last line of defense, my knight in shining armor, and now my guardian angel was telling me they would not be coming out to help. Instead, the AAA girl gave me the phone numbers for independent towing companies in the area. So, I called a company in Yerlington—no answer. I tried Fernley. The girl there told me they won’t go off pavement, either. She suggested I put some bushes under the wheels for traction. So, I tore some bushes out of the ground (sorry, Lahontan) and tried that, but the car didn’t move. I then tried to dig the car out. I had a folding shovel, but it was buried under all my stuff in the trunk.
So, I used the lid from one of my tubs. In the dark, with only my flashlight, I shoveled sand out from under my car for two hours. Under the sand was just more sand. My flashlight got choked with sand and wouldn’t work anymore after a while. After digging and digging, it looked like my car had bottomed-out on some hard ground and was stuck like a turtle. I started up the phone again and tried to call for help again. The towing company in Silver Springs never answered. I finally got hold of somebody in Fallon. They said they could get me out, but they were closed until 8 AM Sunday morning. For a job like that, the guy continued, they charged $150 an hour, and it "sounded like a four-hour job" to him. He said to call back in the morning.
So there I was, stuck in a sand pit miles from anyone facing a $600 tow truck bill. It’s funny, the thing I felt worst about at the time was that I’d miss out on the Green Dot training Sunday morning. I had chosen Lahontan to camp at because, among other things, it had showers. When I went to the bathroom to recharge my cellphone, I discovered the showers were out of order. Above, moonlight poked through black clouds. I had nothing to do but wait, and worry about where the hell I was going to come up with $600. Sprinkles spattered across the windshield, and I thought Great, how much more will it cost to pull me out of wet sand?
It got cold. I pulled one of my sleeping bags from the back seat and covered myself. I tried to sleep sitting up, but it wasn’t working. I managed to doze off for a few minutes at a time, but then I’d wake up again. Through a break in the clouds, I saw a single star wink in the darkness. I looked up and said, God, I could really use a miracle right about now…
It was a dismal Sunday morning. I was up at 5 AM. Dawn was a grey splash against a cold, heartless sky. Dark, stormy clouds rolled overhead.  The Sun poked through the clouds, then hid its face. I got out and walked around. There wasn’t much I could do. I walked down near the lake, and spotted a camp with tents and about three vehicles. One of the vehicles was a huge, black pickup. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by asking them for help. So, I waited for them to wake up. Five thirty came, then six, then six thirty. A dog barked. Seven passed. I heard a cough, and the sound of a kid laughing. At 7:30, I walked up to the tents and called out “Hello? Hello?” A sleepy lady came out, and I told her I was stuck in the sand. Could they please help me? A younger girl came out to help. The lady fired up this big Dodge truck/tank and pulled a huge log chain out of the back. We got it hooked up under the back bumper. Just then, wouldn’t you know it, the park ranger drove by! He waved and drove on. The nice lady fired up the Dodge, and in moments I was free! I was mobile again! It felt like a the weight of the world had fallen off me. I couldn’t thank her enough. When she went back to her camp, she said, “Have a good day!” I called back, “It’s getting better by the minute!”
I drove up to the bathrooms, because that’s where the big water spigot was, and I filled up my water jugs. I thought I might make Green Dot training after all. By 8 AM, I was on the road out of Lahontan and headed for Burning Man… except, as soon as I got out on the highway, the dashboard ETS OFF light flashed on. And then, the CHECK ENGINE light came on. That couldn’t be good. I pulled over at the Shell station in Silver Springs. Just then, my friend Chester sent a text to see how I was. He looked it up online and found out t the ETS OFF meant the electronic traction system was malfunction. He thought spinning the wheels while I was trying to get out of the dune threw the computer off, and driving it may clear itself out. I called AAA and spoke to a mechanic. After I told him about my awful night, he thought that sand might have gotten up in the engine, clogging one of the sensors. Driving the car, or taking it through a car wash with a good undercarriage wash, might clear it up. Three different mechanics said it was “probably okay.” Chester assured me “You’ll be fine.” Nevertheless, I was a nervous wreck when I got back in the car and headed across the rolling hills towards Fernley.
It was raining when I got to Fernley. In all the years I’d been going to Burning Man, I’d never seen it rain in Fernley. I actually had to turn on the heat. I stopped at the Love’s Truck Stop and filled up with gas ($2.93 a gallon). It was 11:17 when I turned up Highway 447, towards Gerlach. It was raining hard when I passed the Nixon Store. I figured that should settle the dust a little.
There was sand in my hair! It must have gotten there while I was trying to dig out the car. Did I sleep with sand in my hair? Even though it was Sunday, there was a lot of traffic on the road. A line of RVs and trucks cut my speed to 40 MPH. I finally got around them about the time Green Dot training would be over. The air was very cool. I was glad I packed long underwear. The acceleration on the Cavalier felt a little off; of course, I had 14 gallons of water in the back seat. A little over an hour after leaving Fernley, the playa came into view. The rain had made the playa more of a manila color. I was able to pick up BMIR.
There were lots of vehicles parked at the Empire Store when I rolled through. It was 12:41 when I rolled through Gerlach. Bruno’s Motel was full of BLM Ranger vehicles. Roadside vendors were selling goggles and tarps. Several people were holding up signs, looking for tickets. I had 8 more miles to go. Heading out of Gerlach, there was a steady stream of cars behind me. Ahead, off in the playa, I could see the outline of Black Rock City. I had an awful headache. I finally came to the gravel road and pulled off the pavement. I’d been worried about this part of the trip, the rough, corduroy gravel road between the highway and the playa, but after the night I’d had it was a breeze.
On the playa, the road had been split up into 7 lanes, for traffic control. Mine was the only car going between the cones. Ahead, I saw the guard tower marking the Gate, and I spotted the Will Call office. There was only one other car in the huge parking lot when I pulled up and stopped. I asked the guy “How’s it going?” when I went up to the window. “Great. Windy. Cold,” he replied. He checked my ID, gave me my ticket and said, “Have a good time rangering!” I had my ticket!
The car was idling funny when I drove it around towards the Gate. A girl called Valium looked my car over, to be sure I wasn’t trying to sneak anybody in, and then waved me on. Along the inner road, I read quotes by Jane Jacobs posted on the fenceposts. Ahead, I could see the Man, high atop the tower. At the Greeter station, the greeters smiled and gave me a big hug. I really needed a hug right about then. I knew where I was headed: Silicon Village, 8 O’clock and Edinburgh. But I had to make a quick stop first. I turned right and headed for the 3 O’clock street. I drove up it and stopped at Ranger Outpost Berlin. There were a lot of people there, and a couple of art cars. I asked about Green Dot training, and it was confirmed that I’d missed it. But, somebody said there might be another training session on Tuesday. I felt encouraged.
I turned the car around and headed for Silicon Village. It looked like there was already a ton of people on the playa—early arrivals. As I passed Poly Paradise, I realized the city map was different that year; not all the roads went all the way around. I got to Edinburgh and found Hair of the Dog. Mark gave me a big hug and a Korean beer to welcome me. Steph was there, too, and I got another hug. It was nice to sit and not be moving (or digging sand in the dark, for that matter). The sky was still overcast, but it had stopped raining and had brightened up a little.
I met Sunburn Sarah and got a kiss from her. She was camped just across the internal access road from me. Steph got me placed back near the corner of the main road. Once I got settled in, I helped put the bar together and raise the shade structure. I used water from my canteen to wash my hair and face. There was an All Hands on Deck meeting that afternoon at Ranger HQ. I almost put on my Ranger shirt for it, but I didn’t feel comfortable wearing it when I wasn’t on duty. I rode my bike to Center Camp, where I spotted another Ranger headed for the meeting, so I just followed him.
It was pretty crowded under the shade structure at HQ. Most folks were in costume, but then, it was shift change, too. Many were not in Ranger gear, such as the young man in the stylish black evening dress. Rangers Tool and Tulsa got up to give a talk. (It was funny that Tulsa & I live in the same town, more or less, but we never see each other.) I saw Rangers Scoutmaster, Bourbon, Twinjammer, and Kimistry gave me a big hug. They just went over some basics of radio protocol, changes in command, and new procedures that had changed since the previous year. For one thing, the Gate was already open—they weren’t going to wait until midnight. It made sense to start letting people in while it was still daylight. Standing there listening, I realized how fatigued I was. It had been a very long, very stressful 24 hours. I would’ve liked to have hung out with everyone, but after the meeting I just wanted to lie down.

I rode my bike back to HOTD. Mark was very proud the bar was up and running and serving drinks, and it was just Sunday afternoon. “A new record!” He got me a cold beer. I was able to start relaxing. I’d bought a flag to connect to my bike, but the only way it would connect made it almost impossible to dismount the bike without tripping my leg. The flag was a bad idea and I removed it. Back at my tent, I set up the stove and cooked a big bowl of rice. I could tell I wasn’t thinking straight. I ate every grain of rice, drank a second can of beer, rolled out my sleeping bag and crawled into bed. It was right at sunset. All over the playa, people started  spontaneously howling at the Sun as it fell behind the western mountains. Inside my tent, I pulled off the boots I’d been wearing for 32 straight hours and fell fast asleep…

I remember hearing car engines, thumping techno music, someone asking if they were with Hair of the Dog, and then running off the squatter… The music was loud when I woke up in the middle of the night freezing. The air was bitterly cold. My teeth were chattering as I pulled on my hoodie and draped a blanket over my sleeping bag. I was asleep again almost immediately…
Prologue Aug. 26  Aug. 27 Aug. 28 Aug. 29
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Monday
The Long Road Home  Epilogue
Original content (c)opyright 2010 by Tim Frayser
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