Fire-eaters at Burning Man. Wiki-Commons image

The Burning Man, El Capitan And Vegas

(“Orphan” notes, some of which made it into publication.)

Sept. 9, 2006 — it is 9:30 p.m. in the brightly lighted parking lot of Foothills Ranch Casino. One of those little hip-pocket hangouts for locals with which Vegas away from the Strip is so abundantly endowed. This one is on Rancho Drive, miles and miles from the tourists. How on earth to describe how I got here; what I am doing here; what I’ve seen, felt, experienced?

If I made a list of places I would never willingly choose to be, Vegas would rank very high. Perhaps nudged out by Bangkok or Boston, but not by much. N. says I should look at Vegas with a Hiassen eye and write it that way. But Hiassen, for all his satire, clearly loves Florida. I see very little here to love.

It is almost down to ninety degrees tonight and feels mild. In so short a time does the human body begin to adjust to triple-digit insult. The first few days, dragging out to get groceries and such, furnace heat hammered me into the ground. I moved like an old, old man. I have been exposed to triple-digit temperatures since we hit Medford, Ore. We left Medford at dusk for Klamath Falls, following a tip by a couple we met in a Medford restaurant that the back road into California was a better trip than I-5.

There was a raining, chilly respite, towing the U-Haul through the midnight mountain pass. Klamath Falls had pulled in the sidewalks, so we headed south on 299. There was more traffic than I expected on rural state roads in the witching hour. The many odd vehicles, laden with lashed-on camping gear, looked like a hippie or gypsy migration out of the nineteen-sixties. As they blew by the Bronco at high speed, glimpses of wild-haired occupants in strange clothing added to the strangeness. I caught a whiff of marijuana on their slipstreams.

The eerie processional had drawn the attention of the California Highway Patrol. Several cruisers slipped by us almost surreptitiously. Not even looking at us, they seemed to stalk the speeders, like sleek sharks after a shoal of bait-fish. But I saw no traffic stops.

We reached Alturas, a small Northeast California town in Modoc County, elevation 4370 and cool. The attendant at the one open gas station explained what we were observing. The peculiar parade was en route to something called “The Burning Man,” a strange desert rendezvous held every August at Black Rock Desert. Wherever that was.

She pointed to a rump-sprung, corroded old Winnebago motor home at the gas pumps. A huge stuffed dummy leaned against the passenger window, staring blankly. None of the charisma of Ray Bolger playing Scarecrow on the Yellow Brick Road. Pretty odd people, the attendant said.

“Just mumbling.” I could not possibly bring up Washington Irving’s New York scarecrow, transformed to flesh and blood by a witch so he could romance a maiden with whom he fell in love. The witch warned he would revert to clothing stuffed with straw if he ever let his pipe go out. He would call out “A coal for my pipe,” and the witch’s familiar would magically light him up. But unlucky in love, he let his pipe go out.

If I tried to explain him, the attendant would think me even odder than the Black Rock Desert pilgrims.

We lost the spooky cavalcade north of Reno, as they peeled off for their destination, and slept through the day in a Reno motel to duck the heat. When I awoke late afternoon, a guy was painting curbs; the temperature was still above one hundred. The green paint dried almost before he finished a brush stroke. Lindy Bell the calico travel queen sat on the window air conditioner to watch him work, and accept plaudits from passers-by.

At rest stops we would put her little litter box down on the floorboards. She would delicately do her business before going for a walk with her mistress — a cat walking daintily on a leash! Horses out of their trailer to stretch their legs made her eyes pop. There were no alien life forms that big at the Puget Sound chowder house where she spent her feral, carefree youth. Then a cat lady “rescued” and more or less socialized her. For her mistress, she eased the pain from the death of previous feline companions.

Lindy adapted to the unexpected road trip better than me. I never thought I would have to deal with U-Haul again. A 6x12 trailer behind the white Bronco my son traded me for the Camry I got in my father’s will settlement. Ironically, he flew to Vegas a couple years ago to buy it. It came with a heavy-duty air conditioner retrofitted by “Friendly Ford” in Vegas, cold enough to defeat triple-digit heat. The old reliable Ford straight six, with five tall gears, moved the laden U-Haul with little strain. Even the night we ran over a dead donkey invisible on the black highway.

I thought I was done with U-Hauls. I thought I was done spending time in states where I had no desire to be. But here I am. Las Vegas. N. had been out ill fighting her diabetes, had it stabilized and went back to her bank job in Seattle. For one week things seemed normal. Then word came down they were closing the call center and transferring operations to Vegas. Generous relocation bonus for those who chose to go; unemployment for those who didn’t. I had finally been approved for a Seattle Section 8 apartment; she could have stayed with me. But she didn’t want to be unemployed. She wanted to go with the bank, convinced she would shine in the new environment and her career would flourish. And she wanted me to drive her possessions there.

When she sets her mind to a thing she is a whirlwind; she located and secured, by phone, a fancy Summerlin apartment within walking distance of her job. Hired a crew to load the trailer. Used her relocation money to fund the trip. But she reckoned without the heat and toxic dust; walking was out of the question with her asthma. She was in the ER within two days. Who knew Vegas was the asthma capital of the nation?

When she recovered I drove her to work — five minutes — and had breakfast at Burger King. Then Lindy Bell and I had the place to ourselves. I could write until five and then pick her up — that’s why she made the Hiassen comment. The Summerlin apartment complex is very upscale. We enjoyed the lighted pool on mild nights. But Vegas is not for me. She told me today bank customers calling the center were coming home from the Puyallup State Fair. Don’t be sad, she said. I felt like screaming. How did I let myself get into this fix? As I write this she is in the Foothills pounding slots and flirting with the blonde bartender with the silicon wonder breasts. I guess they pinged each other’s gaydar, a term I never knew before. I wonder if I will ever have sex in the twenty-first century?

Summerlin, a suburb of Vegas. Wikmedia Commons image.

The Muckleshoot Casino in Washington was her gambling Waterloo. If she is not addicted, she is close to it. The incessant gambling scares me. I regret introducing her to to casino life; I had a cordial back story with the tribe and wanted to sample their scrumptious buffets. She found the Foothills before we were even out of our motel here and into her apartment. I won $100 the first night, lost $40 back and quit. Tonight I dropped $25 and came out here to try to write impressions of the road trip, already blurring.

The weird motorcycle rider in a lonely pre-dawn gas station south of Reno. Talking about a “kamikaze rabbit” that ran under his big touring bike. He is on a long tour to forget “the bitch” who wanted a divorce; I wondered if he left her body behind.

The dead burro, black on black, thump-thump and gone before I could touch the brakes. Walking back to make sure it was dead. Sturdy Bronco unfazed and the trailer undamaged. I had a weird, almost-passing-out episode south of Reno, in pitch-dark that soaked up my headlights.

I slept like the dead in Hawthorne. Lindy the Travel Queen romped over the beds and sat on another air conditioner to watch the world go by. N. — what else — pounded the slots incessantly, pausing only to bring me a huge ham steak with all the trimmings from the casino restaurant, which revived me. But the fainting episode spooked me and we dawdled in Hawthorne another day.

If you could find a shaded breezeway, it was almost cool. The people were friendly. The slot machines were loose. The food was inexpensive and good. El Capitan is the town center. Sun-wizened desert rats and sunburned personnel from the local military base meet, drink, play cards and eat.

The little weekly paper reported a “transient” found shot dead; no details. About another traveler, killed in a rollover on that black highway:“the family who accompanied him on the trip went on by bus.” No names, no details.

Departing Hawthorne, I saw hillsides full of Ordnance bunkers disguised as grassy hillocks above the lake. It was like something from an end-of-the-world movie. And strongly resembled Hitler’s camouflaged V-2 bunkers in Germany. The U.S. Advanced Weapons Command tinkered with warheads inside those while my Military Police company stood guard with live ammo, in another lifetime.

In the black night, Vegas finally showed far away, a flat table-land of neon that seemed spread out as LA in another of my lifetimes. The apartment and her job are in Summerlin, a “planned community” grafted onto raw desert in the northern Vegas suburbs; the apartment complex is a “gated community” behind high adobe walls. Tile roofs, tennis courts and heavily watered decorative vegetation, desert oasis next to a golf course.

Summerlin Library is dedicated to Howard Hughes. Full of memorabilia of his exploits, from the Spruce Goose to Jane Russell’s peekaboo bra in The Outlaw, designed with aerospace skill. N’s luxury apartment boasts a “Roman” tub big enough to play in, useless in my case, and abundant amenities.

Mojave hills enclosing Vegas, from the Summerlin highway. WikiMedia Commons image.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.