I saw these guys on an RV in front of us on burn night 2013…I just ran across this in one of my folders and had forgotten all about it. Love, love, love everything about this shot and the story of how they’re all just laid back and watching from afar, while I watched from afar-ther. Away from all the craziness and the thousands of people down there as the Man burns. You can see the smoke and dust, flames and lasers in front of them.
Describing the drive across the Nevada emptiness – something you feel more than think. The comparative busyness of Arizona with its big highways and changeable scenery starts to fade east of Vegas. The bones of the land rise stealthily, underground stone serpents slithering just out of reach of your notice. The shadows become more blue, the sage and scrub brush more pervasive. There are no more trees, as if their entire race was obliterated here. Wait, no, a lonely pair of young cottonwoods have been planted as the wilting guards on either side of the burnt gash of a road leading to the blood-reds and pus-yellows of yet another strip mine. The earth bleeds and cries freely here and there is nothing and no one to comfort her. When there is an end-time, it will mirror this and we can say we saw the portents. Clouds stay high above the flatland, streaming down from a mile overhead, sometimes the rain reaches the ground to be blown violently across the road and fill the washes. The old-timer at the Hard Luck Store in Mina called these “gullywashers.” “We don’t want it to rain too much, not now,” he responded to my “But isn’t this nice?” His bleary blue eyes rolled over me to glare out at the thin freshly-washed strip of blacktop.
The smell of the rain is the smell of the dusty breath of the sagebrush, held for months in anticipation of this brief half-assed blessing. The colors and the light are like nowhere else. It’s as if, in death, the land deserves this heavenly illumination. As if the sky feels sorry for the stones it exposed, and drenches them in forgiving saturated color. If there is a place for the hills to have eyes, it is here. You can feel them on you all the time. You just hope the engine keeps running, and the air conditioner doesn’t give up.
We just got invited to a shotgun wedding in the park. She’s about 9 months along, 16 or 17 at the most. I say hell yeah!
There are two memories tied inextricably together in my mind, by tenuous flashing synapses deep within my cerebral cortex somewhere. I never think of one without the other, though I don’t know if they were chronologically close. It doesn’t matter, because the place the past lives is in our memory among the grey matter. There is no time besides now.
Elko is a little town hidden between the bare rocky breasts of the Ruby Mountains, way up Interstate 80 before you cross the flat white plains of the Great Salt Lake, if you’re traveling East. There’s a casino, because it’s Nevada, and some hard mountain people who may or may not be currently running from the law.
Dad got a job there as a tow truck driver, and we lived in our trailer on the tow lot just off the main drag through town. I don’t know how long we lived in Elko; it felt like forever and no time at all. Eventually, Dad would have pissed off whoever hired him and we hit the road, not looking back. While we were there, it felt like a precious gift that could be snatched away in a second. The mountains were brutal, to drivers who didn’t know them, and they killed with abandon, shaking cars off their ridges and becoming so black at night that people would just drive right off the interstate. The tow truck was busy, and the bounty that came with the cars towed in from the dark felt like the dreams I have now where I am shopping for hours, picking up treasure after treasure and loading myself down. I’m sad when I wake up, all that work and searching for nothing, for these empty arms. When people wreck, the detritus of their lives floats in a sea of sad, and they never come back for it. They don’t want the memories that seeing their car and the things they were traveling with would bring. We would find suitcases full of clothing, money under the seats, purses splashed with blood. Toys children had dropped as the car spun in slow circles before the terrible finality of impact. I would sit in cars smelling of their occupants’ perfume and stare at the starred windshield in front of me, imagine the blonde head that struck the glass and left two hairs. I would feel the car crumple, hear the shrieking of metal and smell burning rubber. I would be careful not to touch the bloodstains when they were present. A few times I asked Dad if the people had died, but mostly I didn’t want to know. I was happy to keep their things, and I didn’t feel a shred of moral ambiguity. We had learned right off the bat not to question gifts from the sky. When much of your time is spent on the road, you find things that have fallen from vehicles with exciting regularity. If we spied something that looked interesting, Dad would say “Hang on! Put your seatbelts on!” and swerve off at the next wide shoulder so he could jump out and run back to retrieve it. Sometimes it turned out to be trash. Other times it was a box from FedEx, or a wallet. We found a duffel bag once, with clothing and toothpaste, shoes and money. I carried with me an image of someone’s trip turning shitty when they arrived at their destination and realized they had nothing, and I wished I could give their things back to them.
Elko was quiet, and possessed the kind of communal geniality peculiar to many small towns. If you left people alone, they left you alone. I’m sure they talked about us, the travelers living at the junkyard. But we didn’t stand out in towns like that. There were others like us, traveling the back roads and staying until their time was up. Some of the wayward would settle in places like this, away from the big cities and welcoming the quiet accommodation, welcoming being left alone. Either you assimilated or you did not, and the town went on about its business.
Like most former gold-rush towns, Elko has little festivals and whatever they can throw together that might bring in tourists. There’s not much to do out there for work, unless you’re a hooker or a miner. I was reading in the trailer when Mom came in and grabbed my hand. “Come on, honey, they’re having a race! You need to run in the race!”
“But, Mom, I have my boots on!” I said, confused, startled, staring at my black cowboy boots as I was hustled across the street to where a festival was going on. Sure enough, there was the race line and there was a small crowd watching. Dad was standing there, looking back for me expectantly. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, because I only remember Rowdy then. Reno had to have been a baby, or hadn’t come along yet.
It had to have been Dad who sent Mom to get me. He had this image of me growing up to be a runner, and he would send me out to run laps around creosote bush courses that we mapped out beforehand. I would go and go, never getting tired. I was a fast little shit, too, until I got lazy and stopped running, preferring only to read somewhere as far away from my family as I could get. These days, I run because I like it and people think I’m crazy. Maybe Dad had something right.
Mom pushed me into the line of other kids. All of them towered over me. I was the littlest one out there. And I had on boots! I couldn’t run on cement with these boots on!
But BANG went the gun, and off we went. All I could see was the chalk finish line and a blur as I focused in front of me. I ran as fast as I could run, faster than I had ever run. My boots flew, I barely touched the ground. And then I was there, and I turned around. The only one there! The other kids were far behind me. I heard cheers, and a man handed me a silver dollar. “You win, girl,” he smiled at me. “Speed racer.”
The other memory is of swim class. Mom has always been a good swimmer, easily swimming laps with her strong little body moving like a seal. She wanted us to be, too, but we were rarely near water. I have always been the edge-swimmer, holding on to the side after dog-paddling for four breathless strokes.
I think we were in Fallon. Nevada again. We weren’t there long, because I only got to go to a few classes. Rowdy was there, too. Mom would drop us off for an hour at the pool, and two brave women would try to teach a group of little kids how to swim. I was on a kickboard, kicking along, and then I wasn’t. I stopped moving completely as I sank slowly to the bottom. Looking up, the light filtered through the water like blue stained glass, twinkling warmly. I didn’t know why I wasn’t trying to swim. It was so peaceful under there, so quiet with the sounds of the other swimmers dulled to whispers. I had held my breath, and wasn’t choking, so when strong arms reached down and pulled me away from the quiet I was angry. The woman threw me out of the water and another grabbed me, pounding my back. My breath was gone, so I couldn’t yell at them that I was fine, I was fine, there wasn’t any water in my lungs! I wished I was back there, back at the quiet bottom.
We used to roll in late at night, us kids pressed to the windows and staring at the beautiful lights, the Venus-fly-trap city surrounded by real life and the destitute.
I’d been to Vegas many times before I turned 21. I didn’t know the Vegas of the movies or the late-night sinners, though. I knew the Vegas of dark empty parking lots, seedy outskirts and Circus Circus.
It’s hard to describe the feeling I get disembarking from a plane in the airport there, with the omnipresent ching-ching-ching of the slots, the red-eyed smoking grannies tugging quilted bags full of lost hope, the weekend strippers in Juicy sweatpants and too much makeup. It’s a high, knowing I’ll have a story to tell when I leave, a bad-ass party weekend where I cut to the front of lines, floating around on youth and short skirts. But underneath that lies the knowledge that behind the shiny façade of the strip are the back-alleys off Fremont Street, and farther back in the city away from the tourist traps are the steak-house strip clubs open all night, where the fat old girls that can’t make money at the Spearmint Rhino play slots until 1 a.m. and barely look up when the front door creaks open. Behind the knowledge of my present youth lies the knowledge that it won’t last much longer.
The homeless shelters are packed full here, and most of the bums sleep in deserted buildings or behind the truck stop. We used to roll in late at night, us kids pressed to the windows and staring at the beautiful lights, the Venus-fly-trap city surrounded by real life and the destitute. We would park in truck stops or far back in the dark parking lots of the old hotels and casinos, the ones that no longer paid a security guard to kick out anyone who wasn’t spending. When we came in with a nice trailer, maybe the Airstream and a presentable-looking van, they left us alone anyway because we might be retirees traveling the country and even now inside the too-cold casinos, preserving minutes of what was left of our lives with whiskey and video poker.
Dad would disappear when we got there, maybe for a day or only for several hours if his luck didn’t hold. Now I know you get free drinks sitting at a blackjack table, though then I didn’t even think about what he was doing. What money did he use? Was that our welfare check reduced to shiny chips on the plush green table? But we didn’t think about that, not then. We thought about how hot it was waiting in a van, how the day dragged by punctuated by flies or hopefully a walk to the gas station for something cold to drink. Mom never wanted to leave the trailer, knowing he could walk back out and want to leave in a second, pissed off and taking the anger out on her if she wasn’t ready to go. Furious if she wasn’t there to watch our shit.
But sometimes, sometimes he was lucky and he came out smelling of a good cigar with a wide grin on his tanned face. He’d have on his nice clothes and just-shined boots, and a wad of money in his pocket. He’d say “Come on kids, we’re staying here tonight,” and joy! That meant a room with real beds, a TV, a shower! We’d haunt the hallways of Circus Circus, the garish colors and clowns everywhere, giant lollipops the size of your head- how do you eat those anyway? I remember the motorcycle spinning in the cage, I was sure there was no way the daredevil would stay on it, no way he would be able to slow down. I remember the trapeze artists high above our heads, remember wondering if that flimsy little net would keep them from dying broken among the crowds of upturned faces. And in the morning we would leave early, before it was hot, the day dawning sullen and the future not as bright as the one we’d just left behind.
I went into Circus Circus a few years ago with a girlfriend. The carpet smelled of old milk and too many years of cigarettes to be a place meant for kids. And it never was, of course – like anything in Vegas, a trap. A place to lose your money and drink, smoke and whore – this one was just decorated with childlike things. Looking over the railing in the center arena where the circus performers were, I saw piles of cigarette butts, inches of dirt and popcorn and probably vomit. The paint was peeling, the cocktail waitresses wore masked smiles but their eyes were full of hell. It was Fear and Loathing, and all I wanted were drugs to make it bearable.
People can be touchstones, as well as places. There are those who, when you reach out for them, are anchors in this constantly changing sea of time and place.
People can be touchstones, as well as places. There are those who, when you reach out for them, are anchors in this constantly changing sea of time and place. As the type of girl who always had my nose buried in a book, my preferred method of contact was writing letters. Besides not having a phone with which to just give people a call, it was always easier to express myself with time to think and a pen and paper in front of me, ideas coming more freely and no awkward half-formed social skills to rely on. It makes me sad that no one writes letters anymore, only because they meant so much to me through the years. There were people who wrote back to me, who stood as touchstones and took the time to make me feel as if I did have friends, as if I were not so alone, as if I were not strange. There was Heidi, the bookmobile lady in Mammoth Lakes, California, who was floored when this little wood-nymph child from the campground read every single summer program book on her list and wrote book reports for her to be proudly presented each time she parked the long white bus in its weekly spot. There was Jacci, my oldest and first friend and the only one my age. There were Wes and Elaine, the couple with their little ranch in the foothills of Nevada. They may have looked at me with pity, but they also had hopes for me. I know they knew that I would have to make my own chances in life, that starting out in life homeless too often leads to drug addiction, or jail, or hopeless-to-useless-to-nothing. I think they wondered what would happen to me, and that they wished they could help me succeed. They did, even if they don’t know it.
Driving to Burning Man for the first time on my own, I stopped at the Stagecoach casino off Highway 95 next to the gas station with an old photo of a little boy on its sign. As I entered the dark, smoke-scented bowels of the casino I saw my dad for a second with a beer in his hand, leaning against the bar in front of the ex-prostitute bartender with only a few teeth and none of her dignity left. I remembered the hopeful feeling I’d get when we rolled into Beatty after a long stint on the road, or after money had gotten tight and we needed a place where Dad could work for a while. Wes always gave him a job doing something on the ranch. He loved me, and he’d let me tag along to the chicken coop or would take me out to the greenhouse where I could pick fresh tomatoes warm from the vine. One time he bought me a purple Huffy mountain bike that I somehow held on to for years, across miles and states and while we had a place to stash it in the trailer. At some point, it was left when the trailer was left.
Wes and Elaine were right next door to a brothel with a crashed plane as a signpost. I’d always peer down the dirt road to the red building hidden in the trees and try to catch a glimpse of a whore. What was it like for those women? What would it be like to sell yourself all day?
I walked slowly through the casino, a dizzying sense of déjà-vu slowing my usually fast pace. A flash of me getting caught beneath a rickety merry-go-round and being dragged in a circle while the flesh tore from my thigh, the faint memory of Wes filming us kids playing in his front yard, my dad soaking in the hot springs at the Beatty trailer park. All of the letters through the years, the cow Wes named after me, the glances I would catch Elaine giving me that almost looked like jealousy. He had his own kids, but they were gone.
I sat in the café in the back of the Stagecoach and had coffee, listening to the servers chat about town gossip and stare at the tourists. I didn’t see much that had changed, but when I drove by the ranch I remembered Wes had died and Elaine had moved away. The place looked the same, the strong old cottonwoods rustling their coin-leaves over a bright spot in my childhood, over the earthy smell of the chickens and the peace I would feel there.