So as you know, I’ve been back from Burning Man for nearly a week, but my travel schedule during that time got so hectic I had to stop blogging. I came home to a broken air conditioner, miscellaneous plumbing crises, and a catering event, so I’m JUST now starting to come up for air and get the rest of the journey chronicled. Because…what a journey it was!
We leave the wonders of the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff for Vegas. Normally I do everything in my power to avoid Las Vegas in my travels, but we need a cheap hotel room where we can dye our hair, and Ross has never seen Vegas before, and I always take a bit of perverse pleasure in seeing a rational human encounter this city that represents the worst of our culture.
We check into some $25 hole a few blocks off the strip and head in search of dinner. Unfortunately, it’s 3:00am and Gordon Ramsay Steak is closed:
One of these days, Gordon, I will eat at one of your restaurants! I’m actually VERY eager to eat at a Ramsay location. I don’t get upset about dramatically overpriced food if the quality of the ingredients is excellent and the execution and service are flawless. I am potently eager to have the GR dining experience to see if it lives up to the hype! Maybe next time, Gordon.
After a whirlwind tour of the strip, so Ross can gawk at the stunning architecture and witness the stupendous excess of this city that has no right to exist in the desert, sucking up precious water and electricity so that people can empty their pockets into slot machines and watch over-priced shows, we head back to the hotel room for a Burning Man ritual…the hair dye.
At Burning Man, you need to look “weird” or people look at you funny. One simple way to do this is to show up with pink or blue hair. So we begin the hours-long transformation:
With my hair pinked, Ross’s hair blued and his beard pinked, there is only 1 task remaining before we resume the journey:
Those little symbols represent “The Man,” which is symbol of the whole event. And in the week or so before Burning Man takes place, you start seeing this on cars, moving vans, 18-wheelers, RVs, campers, bicycles, and backpacks all across the country…on interstates and backroads…as 65,000 people begin their journey “home.” After you’ve been to the event a time or two, you actually do start thinking of it as home. You have a family there…maybe it’s a family you only see once a year, but they are like family to you. It’s the place where society functions as it’s SUPPOSED to. With everyone sharing selflessly, loving and accepting everyone for exactly who they are. No one is naive enough to think that Burning Man could exist all year. But one week of Utopia is better than what most folks get in a year. So people come to think of Burning Man as home, and as I start seeing the symbol on vehicles on the road around me and at gas stations, I start to get misty eyed. Another great thing is that you can walk up to ANYONE with this symbol on their car, give them a huge hug, and they are instantly a friend. Eager to help with whatever you need. Even though you’ve never met them.
Northwesterly we drive, into the bleak, barren deserts of Nevada. We pass the site where the country was going to store its nuclear waste…way out in the middle of nowhere on Yucca Mountain. We pass a rock on which is painted, “Shady Lady brothel – 23 miles.” Prostitution is legal and regulated in a few counties in Nevada, but it’s still very bizarre to see this sign…way out in the middle of nowhere.
As we approach the California border on a lonely road on which we pass only 3 cars in an hour, we crest a hill to an overwhelming sight:
A monsoon storm is sweeping the edge of the White Mountains where they descend to the Mojave desert, kicking up a vast dust storm and bathing each mountain in a different light. We pull over and stare, mouths open. Ross climbs a nearby hill and begins photographing next to a Joshua tree. The entire scene changes, moment by moment. Thunder echoes off the distant peaks and rumbles across the valley, and I can feel it in my chest when it hits. We watch the storm for nearly an hour…it’s more captivating than any movie. Then we drive up into those mountains. And I do mean UP. Up, up, up, up, towing a heavy trailer behind us. My little car tugs like a champ, but eventually we have to leave the trailer on the side of the road because the grades are getting steeper and the curves sharper. Until we top out above 10,000 feet in the Inyo National Forest, which protects the oldest trees on earth.
The bristlecone pine trees grow only in the American Southwest at elevations above 10,000 feet…far higher than any other tree grows. They only grow on desert mountains that lie in the rain shadow of other mountain ranges, so these trees sip a mere 3 or 4 inches of rain each year. They grow slowly. Their wood is hard, and gets blasted by howling winds, eroding it into fantastic shapes. We’ve arrived at the Methuselah grove, in which are the 2 oldest trees on planet earth…over 5,000 years old.
Disclaimer: There are trees on the planet whose ROOTS are older than the bristlecone pines. Some types of clonal trees in Scandinavia are a few thousand years older than the bristlecones, but the actual tree you see above the ground is far younger. Only the roots are that old, they send up a new trunk every few hundred years. But the wood I’m touching in this photo is well over 4,000 years old. This tree was alive when the Great Pyramids were being built. Have you ever touched a living thing that old? Call me emotional, but I cry a bit. Enjoy this short exploration of the bristlecone grove:
We reluctantly head back down to the trailer, because the day is fleeting. The sunset over the Long Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada stops us in our tracks, though:
Looks like rain tonight! Only a hot spring can soak away the aches and grumbles of a damp night in a tent during the rain, so after a quick bite at a diner in Lone Pine, we head to the Keough hot ditch. Not a very appealing name, huh? In fact, the name alone kept me away from this hot spring for years, even though it’s less than a mile off Highway 395, which I drive every year to Burning Man. But a “hot ditch” just didn’t sound appealing to me. Still, I’m pulling a trailer this year, so I’m sort of relegated to the hot springs close to the highway, so we give Keough hot ditch a try.
W-O-W!!! A river of crystal clear, naturally hot water dances out of the Sierras and cascades through pool after pool on its way down into the desert. This is no ditch…it’s paradise! Room for HUNDREDS of people to soak, should the hot spring ever be so unfortunate as to attract that many.
We set up the tent well away from the hot river, so we don’t get disturbed by late night partiers, and spend an hour or two soaking our cares away as the moon rises over the distant White Mountains. We think about those amazing trees hiding up there, silently witnessing the march of human civilization. The partiers inevitably arrive, so we hit the sack, preferring to soak in the solitary hours of the early morning.
After a quick morning soak, we head into Bishop, CA for breakfast. I LOVE Bishop. Actually, I love all the little historic frontier towns on the eastern slope of the Sierras. I could live there. In Bishop we stop at the Petite Pantry, a bizarrely named Sonoran restaurant serving up the best breakfast in the valley. Jay, the owner, welcomes us and our weirdly-colored hair.
“Buenos Dias, Pepes! Come in, come in. Here, sit at this table. I already have homemade chips out for you, flour and corn, whichever you like. Sit down, Pepes. Let me bring you some cafe.”
Jay, it turns out, is not only the owner…he is the server…and the chef. He brings us an extensive menu of Sonoran classics as well as American classics. And I get adventurous.
“I see you have chile verde on the menu, so can I order the chicken fried steak and biscuits and gravy, but instead of cream gravy on the steak and biscuits, can you put your chile verde?”
Jay looks at me a little weird. Which isn’t weird, because I have pink hair.
“Crazy gringo. Of course I can do that for you.”
Ten minutes later, and Jay parades my plate of wonderment around the restaurant before delivering it, saying, “Crazy gringo with pink hair in there don’t know whether he’s Mexican or white! He wants chicken fried steak but with chile verde on top!”
All the regulars laugh with him, and the plates land in front of me:
That’s a LOT of food. Some of the regulars wander over to see what it looks like…or what the person who ordered it looks like. I dive in. And it.is.d.i.v.i.n.e.
But it’s a lot. And there’s no way I can eat it all. Jay is busy taking orders and cooking, so I figure I’ll save him some effort and dart into the kitchen for a to-go box, so I can wrap up my food. He slaps my hand just as I’m reaching for the box.
“Are you crazy, Pepe? Why you gonna put that in a box that has to go in the trash? Think, Pepe! Make a burrito out of it!”
He spreads out the two biggest flour tortillas I’ve seen in my entire life and invites me to scrape my plate clean onto the tortillas.
I am just beginning to digest the brilliance of this concept, when Jay notices me folding in both ends of the burrito, rather than the traditional Mexican way of leaving one end open. He hollers to his guests:
“Crazy gringo thinks he’s making a giant egg roll, now!”
Everyone laughs again. Jay loads us up with a gallon bag of homemade chips, and a QUART of his fiery homemade salsa…you know, to go with the 3 pound burrito I just made with our leftovers. He demands a photo with the crazy pink haired gringo:
…and then he sends us on our way.
This is a great story, of course, but it really is a distillation of what food means to me. Jay isn’t a trained chef. He’s making the foods his mother and grandmother made. But he is the master of his domain. He greets each guest the same way, whether they’ve been eating at his restaurant for 20 years, or whether they’re a weird pink-haired gringo wandering in from the desert hot springs. He COMMUNES with his guests, even from the kitchen window when he’s back there cooking up their order. Jay has found a way to do what I imagined I could never do, if I became the chef-owner of my own restaurant. I had nightmares of being stuck back in a kitchen, churning out the same food each night, never even able to see the faces of the people I was cooking for. Jay, you have a magical place there in Bishop. You’re a lucky man. I know exactly how hard you work. And the smile on your face reveals exactly how much you love every minute of it. Dining at the Petite Pantry was a highlight of my entire 3 weeks. If you find yourself on Highway 395 east of the Sierras, DO NOT PASS UP Petite Pantry in Bishop.
From Bishop we head north into the Long Valley Caldera, an ancient volcano now occupied by dozens of amazing hot springs. I’ve explored many, but this time I hit a few new ones, and find a winner in Crowley, or Wild Willy’s hot spring:
The hot springs out here have the most stunning views of ANY I’ve found in the world. The high Sierras run down one side of the valley, with the White Mountains on the other. Soaking in thermal water in this valley is just indescribable. (And yes, for those who don’t know, I religiously believe in soaking naturally in nature. Swimsuits seem like a perversion in sacred places like this.)
Then it’s north to Mono Lake, that other-worldly inland salt sea you saw pictures of in National Geographic when you were a kid. It’s a very weird place. I’ve been many times, but my goal for this time was to actually swim in the lake. I’ve never swum in anything saltier than the ocean, and I’ve always wanted to feel that extra buoyancy. They say it’s impossible to sink. Enjoy:
We’re already running late for our rendezvous in Reno with the Burning Man setup crew, so we head north, but get waylaid in Lee Vining, the town on the shore of Mono Lake where the Tioga Pass road comes down from Yosemite, by a freak hail storm:
We chase the hailstorm north toward Reno:
And make a quick stop just north of Bridgeport to wash off the salt from Mono Lake in the Fales hot springs:
This lovely soaking pool is right on Highway 395, though most people drive right past it and have no idea it’s there. It’s the perfect place to rinse off after a Mono Lake swim.
Eventually we make it to a VERY smokey Reno. The fires in Yosemite have sent their smoke directly over this city. Ashes the size of my hand are floating in the brown air, and it smells like a burning landfill. We head to the storage unit where our camp’s infrastructure spends 51 weeks a year, and the early entry crew, headed up by Stewart the Aussie and Devananda (both guys who, in their day jobs, basically make the internet work for all of us) are packing the contents of the vast unit into a large moving truck with Tetris-like precision:
Tomorrow, all this stuff will be carted into the vast Black Rock desert and assembled into a home for 30 people. Camp Potluck. But now…sleep.