spacer
The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God spacer The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God
The Man in the Desert
by Jonathan Olley
spacer
Feeling somewhat set apart from my fellow revellers and having the ignominy of becoming self aware, the alcohol and mushrooms having had their affect I felt I had no choice but to leave. After some wandering around lost in the dark I found my car, a large six cylinder Chrysler hire car that had become my mobile base camp on the Playa. The door swung shut with a solid clunk, I started the engine and without changing the direction the vehicle was facing, gunned the engine and took off into the night.
spacer
The thirteenth Burning Man festival, August 1996, a post Freudian identity crisis, the demise of primitive mythocentric religions and the sterility of corporate-controlled consumerism, gave birth to this bastard son of what might pass for an alternative American cultural experience. Typically over the top. Thirty miles from the hamlet of Gerlach a dusty collection of pre-fabs and mangy inhabitants wary of strangers on the edge of the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. The encampment is placed somewhere out on the Playa, a dry, million year old lake bed, treeless, waterless, perfectly flat and 400 square miles big. It is called Black Rock City and has become the temporary home to 10,000 armed slackers, hackers, hipsters, ravers, deadheads, artists, drag queens, techno-hippies, bikers, nudists, neo-pagans perverts and gun-freaks. There are a few dozen cops around, but they're outnumbered, outgunned and consequently, polite, tolerant and well behaved. In fact all but one of them is drunk. With a sound like an elephant butting a moving train a reveller in a jeep with a fifty calibre machine-gun on the roof is raising hell with the portaloos, lassoing them with a steel hawser and dragging them around with the hapless occupants still inside. Two sheriff's deputies watch and do nothing, just lean against their shiny new truck, arms folded, their inertia fed by a bottle of ice-cold Jack Daniels in a bucket at their feet. One of the portaloos splits open and a naked man spills out smeared in chemically treated excrement.
spacer
50, 60, 70 ,80, 90, 100 miles per hour, dead straight, hands in my lap, headlights off, a tower of churning dust billowing in the rear-view mirror miles long, resembling the condensing gases a jet liner leaves at high altitude. I felt I was an astronaut headed for oblivion, 'Ad Astra-Ad infinitum' I screamed above the roar of the tyres and the wind rushing past the open windows and promptly woke myself up. I took my foot off the throttle and the car eventually came to a halt, I could hear the repetitive bonging of the 'seatbelt unfastened audible warning', it grew louder and louder in the increasing quiet and so I switched the engine off. Silence but for the occasional pinging from the heated engine contracting to its cold state. I got out and took in the dark. I had a drink of water and felt better though it was still warm from the 110 degree heat of the day before. I pulled out the old and large retard parachute from the days when jet fighters used such things to slow their landing speed. It had cost me $25 in some surplus store in Albuquerque and was cheaper than a tent. I pulled it over the car and rummaged around in the boot for some tent pegs and a hammer and got busy making the chute into a sizeable tent. Richard in Albuquerque had warned me about the freaks I was intending to photograph at the festival. He had heard all about it and none of it was good. Before I left he insisted on lending me an old Lee Enfield .303 that had been manufactured under licence in Portugal sometime in the 1950s and a more recent version of a 'Betsy', a .45 Colt automatic pistol I could barely lift. These were going to be my protection. Though I had barely acknowledged them while on this trip I thought it prudent to locate them within easy reach while alone on the playa. I placed the rifle, made ready, under the car and the .45 in my sleeping bag but that proved to be too uncomfortable so I placed it classically under my pillow a jumper stuffed with socks and underpants.
spacer
Tired I fell asleep quickly. Hours later a feeling of discomfort woke me. I was also desperate for a piss so thought nothing of it. I clambered out of a slit I'd made in the chute, now billowing in a light cool breeze and glowing an iridescent white in the reflected moonlight. I walked a few feet from the billowing white dome and took a piss, the night air rustled around my balls and I quickly became chilled and scuttled back to the warmth of the sleeping bag. Just as I was getting my feet in I heard something which made me freeze. As I moved again the rustling of the bag drowned out the strange sound again. Again I froze determined not to make a sound. There, I heard it again, I stuck my head out of the slit, the moon had illuminated the desert so I could see for quite a distance but with no markers to show perspective or relative height it was extremely difficult to tell exactly how far. I can only equate it to scuba diving sitting on a sandy flat seabed in about ten or twenty metres of water, you have the feeling of being in a largish room depending on the levels of visibility but the walls always remain at a distance. The moon cast a surreal glow over the flat landscape as my eyes strained to see into the middle distance seeking where the faint sound had come from. Then I heard it, more loudly this time, a distinct if feeble 'hello-o'. My head still sticking out of the slit I reached blindly for the rifle, old but powerful and reliable, I had the bruises to prove it. I still could not see the source of the 'hello', but I had a direction and it was toward that I raised the muzzle of the weapon, the top of the foresight resting comfortably an inch below the horizon or in the mush where I though the land became sky.
spacer
Then I saw him, about a hundred yards or so away, though whenever I looked directly in his direction he disappeared. I would scan the periphery of my view and again I would pick him up and he would appear and disappear. In frustration I called out 'Hello', there was a pause and the call came back 'Hello-o'. I stood up and side-stepped out of the slit so my body was out from the tent-chute but my left hand held onto the stock of the rifle concealed inside the slit. I could see him now, a lighter object than the background, moving cautiously toward me, every now and then he would pause and peer as though he were having difficulty seeing. It was a full ten minutes before he plucked up enough courage to come to within speaking distance. I was faced with a man about my own age clean cut and looking reasonably fit, in a Harvard sweatshirt and flimsy shorts. I beckoned him over and realising I still had hold of the rifle I put it down on top of my sleeping bag, feeling pretty sure he had not seen it and not wanting to frighten him. I had forgotten where I had put the other weapon and that made me feel slightly uncomfortable.
spacer
He still wouldn't come close and seemed to be expecting hordes to let fly from the chute, rape and murder him and bury him in a hole in the desert. I explained I was on my own and offered him some water and held it out to him. Like a recently chastised dog he reluctantly came, took the bottled water from my hand and stepped back to what he obviously felt was a safe distance. Our conversation was brief, I asked him how he had got here as we were at least twenty or thirty miles from the encampment, the centre of which was a steel tower 50 feet high with a red aeronautical beacon on the top flashing like a lighthouse. This could be seen on the playa for about seven miles in any direction and was to be used by anyone lost out in the dark. But we were really far out and whereas I had water, fuel and food in a car, this guy had nothing, not even shoes. I attempted to persuade him to stay, if not stay to have some food, if not food to have a hat and a t-shirt. He resolutely refused but took my offer of two litres of bottled water and a plastic bag to carry them in. He had the air of a man in trouble, not the sort of physical trouble he was in, but a sort of vulnerability, as when the sniffer dog at an international airport sniffing newly arrived passengers from Amsterdam comes and sits at your feet. He was edgy and nervous. I did my best to be friendly and welcoming but still he would not stay and would take no food or clothing.
spacer
He wanted to get back to camp and needed directions. While I rummaged in the back for a compass he drank one of the bottles of water. I found the planet Venus, now low on the horizon and in the north, larger than the other stars and glowing red it was quite distinct and from where I had been earlier on in the evening I worked out that if he followed the red planet then he should make Black Rock City. The encampment, at least five miles wide, was a post apocalyptic shanty town of sprawling tents caravans SUV's, trucks, and converted busses he couldn't miss. I figured that by the time he got near it would be light and he would run into someone or something. And after refilling one of his now empty bottles we shook hands and he left quickly, heading off in the direction of the red star. I watched him leave and after a minute or so I could no longer make him out. I took another bearing just to be sure and continued to stare into the middle distance. The whole meeting was not longer than 20 minutes.
spacer
I couldn't sleep as I had become wired by this strange meeting and tossed and turned for the remainder of the night. In the morning it was still cool in the small amount of shade provided by the hire car and my tent contraption. I drank water and looked toward the direction of the encampment. There was nothing to see but for the slight curvature of the earth. The playa was cloaked in a gauzy mist of fine grey dust, coating the palate and clogging the eyes, spread out before me. I quickly packed up my kit and headed off in the car to see if I came across the strange man who had been so wary of me. His feet left no trail, not that I could see anyway. I experimented with my own feet on the playa and could only make a series of broken edges on the dried upturned hexagonalplates of cracked mud that form the floor of the prehistoric lakebed, and that didn't really amount to something I could follow. I never found him and drew blank expressions from anyone I asked. I even ran into a naked man out in the midday heat but it wasn't him.
spacer
Oddly there has not been a week gone by that I don't think about this meeting and what, if anything it might have meant. I wish that I had not let him go on alone and that I had broken camp and driven him back. I did suggest that if he became confused or lost that he was more than welcome to come back to the car and stay with me but I realise now how futile a suggestion that was. He would never have found me again.
spacer
spacer
home | information | issues | artists & writers | columns | reviews
spacer