Zone Trip #4

“Zone Trip #4” by P Segal

The caravan of ill-assorted vehicles assembled at the baseball diamond in Golden Gate Park as a late-summer dusk promised a fine night for entering the unknown. Our ringleader, John Law, would drive the huge Ryder truck always rented for our larger absurdist escapades. It would be hours before we’d actually get into the vehicles and begin. As always, when a Cacophony Society Zone Trip called adventurers to leave San Francisco, the stragglers came late, and the last-minute preparations detained us further.

This Zone Trip was different from most; usually, when a Cacophony member proposed an excursion of this kind, the participants had no idea where they would be spending the weekend. This was the element we liked best, the surprise of going somewhere completely unexpected. We might find ourselves on a tour of the mid-California missions, or at a convention of spiritualists who received their messages from other planets. Wherever we went, that place was the weekend’s Zone of the Unknown. This time, everyone needed to know in advance; our destination was wild terrain, where there would be no food or water, and the weather could be blisteringly hot or miserably cold within a single day. Unlike most Zone Trips, this one would take us beyond easy grasp of a Motel Six, restaurants or corner stores, to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. What we didn’t know, on that balmy night in 1990, was what we would make of this weekend.

Most of our Cacophony exploits did not take up an entire weekend, but just a few hours. We would do midnight walking tours of the Oakland storm drains, in full formal dress and hip waders, write a novel in the fashion of the Exquisite Corpse, play midnight urban golf, read from our favorite works of fiction by candlelight during a midnight stroll through the park, climb bridges or have cocktails in some urban wasteland. Most of the events were purely for amusement, but one of them, my own event, gathered a group of 40 people together to read Proust. John Law staged a counter-event to mine, the Charles Bukowski Support Group, that met at the racetrack, or in sleazy bars.

This time, our joint adventure had a purpose. In the back of the 30-foot long Ryder truck, the disassembled figure of a man, with a wooden exoskeleton and a Japanese lantern head, awaited its demise at the desert. When the figure was assembled, it towered to 40 feet above the ground. It would rise in the sublime emptiness of the Black Rock, and stand for two days. On the third day, at nightfall, it would be burned.

Four years before, our friends Larry Harvey and Jerry James had cobbled together a much less impressive figure, a haphazard man of only ten feet. On Memorial Day weekend, they had taken this figure down to Baker Beach in the city. As the sky transmuted from Maxfield Parrish blue to a deep Persian, they ignited the figure, and watched it burn against the glints of light on the evening water.

The flaming construction drew people from all over the beach. Everyone responded to the archetype, man struggling against the powers of destruction, and watched with equal fascination until only embers remained. Larry and Jerry, observing the crowd’s fascination, decided that the next year they would build a bigger and more beautiful structure. In rebuilding the man, they would turn this archetype of struggle and defeat into a celebration of life, death and renewal.

For three years, on the Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend, Larry and Jerry brought an increasingly ingenious man to the beach. The Cacophony Society was always well represented in the crowd that came to see it, and as the man grew larger, Cacophony’s most qualified members worked security for the project. Their task was to circle the cliffs surrounding the beach, armed with walkie-talkies, and inform the ocean-side crew if the police were coming. Like so many Cacophony events, this one broke a few rules; if caught, one of us would glibly keep us all out of jail.

In 1990, the fourth year of this tradition, there had been no rain, and residents in the area grew wary of fires. The well-to-do, in their cliff-top Seacliff residences over Baker Beach, where the south tower of The Golden Gate Bridge was rooted offshore, had come to expect that on the Sunday of this weekend, those strange people would be having another Satanic ritual on the beach. The police were called, of course, and Cacophony security saw them coming. The officers approached the hard way, climbing down the steep cliff. John Law rushed to meet them.

John always began interactions with the authorities with utmost civility. “Well, I suppose you’re wondering what we’re doing,” he continued, chuckling amiably. “This is an annual art event, usually much smaller. We like to burn it, but this year we’re deeply concerned about potential fire hazards.” Relieved that their perps were merely socially-conscious artists, and not satanic, they told us not to burn it, and left. The crowd, of course, pushed for immolation.

“Burn it, burn it!” they chanted. Larry retreated into deep reverie.

I tugged on his sleeve, trying to get his attention. His cogitations are vast and visible. “Larry,” I said, whether he heard me or not, “Let’s take it to the Black Rock.”

“Larry,” John Law said, after dispatching the authorities, “I think we should take the man to the Black Rock Desert.”

The contemplative artist, known for his piercing wit and verbal acuity, looked up at John and said, “What?”

That summer, Cacophonists planned Zone Trip #4, the adventure of The Burning Man. Those of us who’d experienced the Black Rock tried to prepare everyone for a wilderness experience unlike anything else they’d ever seen. As we often did for our bigger adventures, like sneaking a hundred people into an abandoned building for a theatrical, post-apocalyptic cocktail party, we rented the huge, yellow Ryder truck. In it would be the wooden figure and the tables, tents, rugs and tools we would need for the event.

We warned everyone to bring at least four gallons of water with them, and enough food for four days. We made lists of essentials, like sleeping bags, tents, head covering, garments for all weather, sunscreen, and beer. We knew in advance that the difficulty of this trip would limit the number of people willing to go. At the Black Rock Desert, a person could walk endlessly without seeing anything or anyone, but after a day without water, they would simply die.

By 11 o’clock that night, at the baseball diamond in the park, the last trips to the all-night Walgreens and markets had been made. John and I conferred as the unexpectedly large group climbed into their questionably road-worthy vehicles.

“Did you get a head count?” John asked me.

“Yes, I counted eighty-nine. More than I expected.”

“Good. I counted eighty-nine, too. We want to make sure that we leave with as many people as we came. You know what I mean.”

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

“It’s the best idea we ever had!” John laughed maniacally and slapped the side of the truck.

We all gossiped and dreamed, driving through the foothills of the Sierras after midnight. Around us, the black forest stood in silhouette against the dark gray sky, surreal and enveloping. Sometimes we rode in silence, hearing only the chunk-chunk of the road beneath our tires, and seeing, in our minds’ eyes, the Black Rock ahead.

Around four in the morning, we pulled into the parking lot of Circus Circus in Reno. The caravan trailed behind, happy to get off the road and have one last semi-civilized hour before we reached our destination. John and I, and our friends who had been there before, warned the rest that once at the desert, we would hardly sleep or eat. Our party of eighty-nine had diminished by the time we reached the casino’s all-night coffee shop. Half of the travelers were sleeping through the Reno stop, and a fair percentage opted to drink their meals and play roulette or craps instead.

We made short work of rubber eggs and polyethylene sandwiches, and got back on the road. Right outside of Reno, a tiny, rutted highway goes left and north from the freeway. We would be driving a hundred miles on this road, through cattle country. Cow warnings appeared, but no lights, convenience stores, houses or signs announcing civilization ahead. Nothing appeared at all, except sagebrush burned black by the night, and the long, meandering dashes of white separating the two lanes of traffic, or no traffic at all. Not a single pair of headlights suggested that there was anyplace ahead to come from, as though our caravan approached the void.

I opened the passenger window and rested the back of my head on the window frame. Above, every galaxy in the universe seemed to vie for space in the sky. In a place where electricity had no use, universal light tinted the night gray. “Unbelievable!” I shouted to my friends, above the grinding din of the vehicle and wind in my face.

As always on Cacophony missions, we obeyed the traffic regulations; we were odd enough, and had no need of attracting any unwanted attention. Even out here, there was the possibility that around some bend, or behind some sagebrush, a highway patrol car waited patiently to make some money for the state. We kept to the speed limit, and drove well over an hour. One hundred miles from Reno, we saw the very first sign suggesting that human habitation lay ahead: the flagrant misnomer, Empire, 7 miles.

Empire, population 246, boasted the only store within a hundred miles, and a corporate mine, the source of a major ingredient in wallboard. All the residents of Empire worked there, or at the store, which was closed. We passed through this moribund hamlet, and soon after, saw another sign: Gerlach, 5 miles.

In Gerlach, population 234, we counted one casino, 5 bars, no churches and no stores. It did have a gas station, and we would all stop there on the way out to fill up for the ride home. At this hour, shortly before dawn, the gas station was closed. Everyone in the caravan consulted odometers. We were going to drive 23.7 miles out of town, and look for the pile of tires off to the side of the road.

The false dawn covered the bumpy road before Empire with a gray light that brought the endless sagebrush and distant purple hills in sharp focus, but as the last vestiges of civilization slipped behind us in sleepy Gerlach, the first real light came over the horizon. The road, now smooth and flat, rounded a bend, and off to our right, the inconceivable playa of the Black Rock Desert gleamed and twisted with dawn mirages.

“This is the only place I’ve ever been,” I said, “Where there was absolutely nothing.”

“Four hundred square miles of absolutely nothing. Not a pebble, or a drop of water, weed or a cactus. No wildlife. The biggest nothing in North America,” my friend said gleefully. “And almost absolutely flat.”

“And my favorite part, not a single bug.”

The increasing light revealed the fullness of nothingness; the dawn mirages now showed themselves as shadows in the surface, which was flat, but not entirely. Where the clay playa floor lost all its moisture to the sun, the cracking surface rose or fell a fraction of an inch at each rupture. We kept our eyes on the odometer. Up ahead we saw the tires, and slowed down.

Trucks that had gone out earlier to find the best dry ground left rutted tire tracks to guide us to the pre-ordained spot. This desert, once a gigantic inland lake, Lake Lahontan, flooded every winter, becoming a lake once again. In spring, it dried out. By late summer, the entire surface was the dry, cracked clay we had all seen in car commercials; in some places, however, the cracked clay concealed an oozing subterranean morass of mud, a very bad place to camp. We were headed for terra firma, 5 miles in, and 3 miles to the north.

The caravan wobbled over the edge of the road, following the tire tracks heading to our destination. As we sailed along the desert floor, kicking up gigantic flumes of dust behind us, Michael Michael, the slim, silver-haired Texan who would become the playa’s Danger Ranger, pulled up beside us. “Stop!” he yelled through his open window.

We stopped and got out of our vehicles. Michael took a stick out of his car and walked along, marking a long, straight line on the playa floor. This was an old Cacophony tradition of entry into an unknown territory. When the line was long enough to accommodate everyone, eighty-nine people joined hands, and as one, stepped across the line and into The Zone.