This morning, Frank Lloyd Bear and I decided to use our coronavirus quarantine time productively. We sat down to record the first couple of chapters of The Joyful Bear. The book has 31 chapters, some of them hilariously short, so we expect to be done in a couple of weeks.
Five years ago, I marched in my first Martin Luther King Day parade in Brunswick, Georgia. I found myself immersed in a joyful celebration of black culture that most white people don’t experience, and I have always treasured the photos and memories from that day.
A couple of years later, I photographed a similar parade in Clearwater, Florida. I wondered why it was so small, even though the community was bigger. I’ve since learned that nearby St. Petersburg boasts one of the oldest and biggest MLK events in the nation, so Clearwater is strictly a neighborhood event.
I considered driving to St. Pete this year, but bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Instead, I drove to Cherry Harris park, just a few miles from my home, and used my camera to capture the beautiful faces of the parade as well as the people who live along the route.
Thank you to everyone who attended the march and allowed me to photograph your smiling faces! Please send me an email if you’d like a higher resolution copy of one of these photos (free).
A couple of years back, I got tired of trying to keep up with over 120 linnear feet of mural space at Burning Man. It was time for a new solution, something I could paint at home and either ship or carry to Nevada.
The following painted panels are my solution. There are now 21 of them, each about 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall. In 2018, my theme was an encounter between DMV Hotties and Burgins. This year’s theme was “The Gift,” and it depicts gifts I have given, received, or witnessed.
I am honored to also display these panels at Alchemy 2019 and AfterBurn 2018 and 2019.
If you’ve followed my past travels along “the Mother Road” you might recall that Highway 66 was officially dismantled, with I-40 using much of its roadbed. However, there are many short bits of Historical Route 66 that run through towns along the route. I find thought-provoking gems on the old, weed-choked sections, like this ruin that I found west of Tucumcari, New Mexico. Artists and poets had left their mark on it.
People in Florida don’t usually know about Burning Man. When it comes up in conversation, I have a chance to position it as “a gigantic arts event,” “an experimental temporary city,” or “a campout in the desert with 75,000 people.”
However, driving across Nevada this year, I discovered a different kind of people: Those who think they know about it, and are 100% wrong.
At a rest area north of Las Vegas, I stopped to fill my water bottle. An older fellow in a truck rolled down his window and started hollering at me. “The water here is not drinkable! It’s full of mercury and lead! You should go across the street (there was a gas station over there) and buy bottled water!”
As the truck drove off, I noticed a young man cleaning the restrooms watching the encounter. I walked over to him and asked his opinion. “They test the water here,” he said, shrugging. “I drink it all the time. But be careful — it comes out really fast.”
He wandered over as I was filling the bottle, and somehow, it came up that I was heading to Burning Man. “It’s getting really big out there, isn’t it? I heard you guys have Burger King and McDonald’s out there now.”
“Well, no,” I answered. “Have you ever heard about decommodification?” He shook his head at the big word, and I launched into a description of what it was really like. “There’s nothing for sale out there, except for ice, and in one place, coffee. We practice gifting, so you might find someone giving away hamburgers, but nobody selling them. Some people give away jewelry.” I touched one of my earrings, which featured the Burning Man logo. “There are even bars that give away free alcohol.”
I could see from the look on his face that he was skeptical. He’d probably seen the Instagram photos of supermodels, and he was thinking, “I clean bathrooms for a living. I don’t belong at Burning Man.” Then a stranger pulls up in a van and tells him it’s a magical place in the desert with free food and booze, and he’s very welcome there.
I can see that overcoming the misconceptions will be an uphill battle.
A couple of days later, I stopped in Reno, where I had new tires installed and bought about a hundred dollars worth of provisions. On my way out of town, I made an additional stop at Wal-Mart for about a dozen forgotten items.
Evidently, this store had a problem with theft, because many items were in locked cases. The bicycle tire and tube I needed were among them, so a clerk got them out and then walked to the cashier with me. She placed them on a shelf behind the cashier and bid me good day.
Ahead of me were three young men with tattoos and four shopping carts. From their conversation, I discovered that they were buying all the supplies for a theme camp. It took the cashier over 45 minutes to ring up their $900 order, and all I could do was wait patiently.
Finally, they left and he turned to me, shaking his head. “Wow, those Burners…they’re weird.”
I smiled at him, saying gently, “Don’t make fun of us, now!”
I thought his jaw was going to hit the conveyor belt. “Y-you?” he stammered. “I didn’t know there were ol- um, um, older people out there. Is it true the tickets are $500?”
I nodded, adding that there were some discounted tickets available.
“You mean, like a senior discount?”
I was in a good mood, so I didn’t smack him or call for his manager. I was still laughing when I reached the playa, three hours later.
The number one question asked at Burning Man is “How many Burns have you been to?”
When it was time to leave Burning Man, the three-hour trip took took ten hours. Half of those were “pulsing” on the playa, where the cars are grouped and let out onto the road in batches. Rather than sitting alone with the engine idling, you can turn off the car, walk around, chat with folks, and pass out the last of your dusty Oreos.
During one pulse, I was sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open. A young man walked up carrying a stick with a butterfly on the end of it. Holding it out like a microphone, he asked me to give my best Chewbacca imitation! That was probably the best conversation-starter ever.
He then asked us the number one question, so I told him it was Stig’s first. “Mine, too!” he said. They compared notes about the life-changing experience.
Whenever this happened, I would sit back and enjoy the encounter. If it was a veteran, Stig got a super-warm welcome, like he was now an initiate of a very special club. If it was another first-timer, they shared feelings that only first-timers can understand.
Eventually, the fellow with the butterfly looked at me. Was it my first Burn, too?
I chuckled, because it was so far from the truth. “It’s my thirteenth,” I said. Like the kid in Wal-Mart, he was blown away with astonishment. And then he had a million questions. What was it like when I started? What did I think of it now? What had I learned? Had it changed me?
I couldn’t answer all his questions in such a short conversation, but I was honored by his respect. I found myself thinking that if I stop going, it will be OK — folks like him will keep the spirit alive.
After dropping Stig at the airport and catching up on 15 hours of sleep in Java Mike’s hotel room, I pointed Muffie the Van eastward on US 50, the “loneliest road in the USA.” There were few cars and fewer towns, so I topped up the tank whenever I saw a gas station. At one such stop, in the old-west mining town of Eureka, a fellow driving a propane truck walked up to me and asked, “So, how was Burning Man?”
We both started laughing at his question, because despite wearing “normal” clothes and having taken two baths and two showers, there was no way to hide my Burner status. The dust-covered camper and four bicycles were a dead giveaway.
The propane driver’s name was Bob, and he was about my age. He admitted to wishing he could go. “But my adventurous spirit left me about four years ago.”
“I think you should go,” I told him. “Your adventurous spirit is out on the playa, waiting for you.”
I told Bob that you are never too old to go, and there have to be a few responsible folks like us out there to keep the place safe. “Besides,” I pointed to his truck, “we burn a TON of propane!”
I felt like a one-woman mission, traveling the country to overcome Burning Man misconceptions. No, it’s not just young, sexy people with money. Everyone is welcome. Especially you.
The legendary Bill Brown once defined the modern frontier as any place more than two hours from the interstate. If you look at a map of the US, there’s still a lot of frontier to conquer.
Crossing Mississippi on US 49, I saw gas prices as low as $2.11. To my dismay, the tank was full when I saw that price, and by the time it was getting low, gas was over $2.35. So when I saw $2.24 at a nondescript gas station, I decided to make a U-turn.
I filled the tank and washed the windshield, but I still needed a restroom and a receipt, so I stepped into the mini-mart, where the woman behind the counter greeted me with, “If you ever decide to sell that van, you should let me know!” I admitted that I’d only had it for two days, so she was going to have to wait a while.
There was something unexpected about finding Janet at Fastmart #09 in Magee, Mississippi. She didn’t have a local accent, so I asked where she was from. The list included New York, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, but she dreamed of traveling in a rig like mine, a follower of the #vanlife movement.
At one point in our lively conversation, I mentioned Strangers Have the Best Candy, and her eyes widened. She reached across the counter, grabbed a big bunch of candy, and pressed it into my hand. “Here you go!” she said, laughing.
Janet had the look of “what am I doing here, of all places?” that I see when I look into the mirror in Dunedin, Florida. Her husband’s family ties had led them there in that flow of life that picks us up, swirls us around, and drops us off in unexpected frontiers, like Magee and Wichita Falls, Texas.
After I passed through Dallas on a Sunday morning, I started a long northwest trek on US 287, with fields and ranchlands on either side. I had passed through Wichita Falls when I realized it was time to stop for the day, but there was nothing ahead for hours. So I turned around, returning to the KOA north of town.
The place was tidy and well-appointed, but the woman running it apologized for its condition. It was under new ownership, and they were working the kinks out.
There was something about Tina that spoke of a broader experience, so I inquired about where she was from. It turned out she was from my old neighborhood, between Havelock and Beaufort, North Carolina!
We had another interesting trait in common: We both had retired too young. She and her husband retired and built their dream house, but sitting and drinking coffee as they gazed at the water wasn’t as fulfilling as they expected. The retired folks in their community were much older than they were, and it was hard to connect. They decided to try full-time RVing instead and set off across the country.
Then the opportunity to rebuild this business turned up, and all of a sudden, they were living on the frontier in Wichita Falls, Texas. Running a KOA campground, rebuilding and expanding it will provide lots of interesting challenges. But six months had barely given them a taste of the traveling life, and I wondered if Tina, like Janet and I, asks herself, “what am I doing here, of all places?”
There’s a story in Strangers Have the Best Candy about a lady who lived literally just up the road from Tina’s dream house in North Carolina. Belle had never driven outside her own county, but she ran a farm stand and strawberry farm on Highway 101. She taught me the important lesson that you don’t have to travel to meet interesting strangers. They will come to you, even on the frontier.
When I look into the mirror and ask, “What am I doing here, of all places?” I’ll remember that.