Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Burning Man Chronicles-Part 2

Ladies and Gentleman, today there will be no crashing planes into buildings. Yes, 6 years ago on a Tuesday in September that’s what was going on here in New York City. Explosions, buildings crumbling into dust, clouds of smoke and ash all over the place, absolute madness on a clear blue day. Well this Tuesday we have a somber, rainy, muggy day. I’m not one for reflecting on that day or wringing my hands in grief, life goes on, a bit changed, but it goes on.
Speaking of dust and explosions, let me go back to Burning Man before that is all a distant memory. The culmination of this arts festival/hippy love fest in the Nevada desert is the burning of a giant wooden man on Saturday night. The man himself was burned early this year by a disgruntled veteran burner who was upset with the way things were changing on the playa. But they rebuilt him in time for Saturday night’s torching. I was surprised at how small he was perched up there on his pyre of large logs. Still, when he went up in flames it was impressive. Not to be upstaged, the oil derrick of the “Crude Awakening” exhibit was torched as well Saturday night in a gigantic ball of fire, the largest explosion to date at Burning Man. After a fantastic fireworks display, this 100 ft or so wooden structure was immolated with four giant blow torches in a matter of moments. The throngs of people looking on howl and screamed with excitement, hooting and hollering across the dark Playa. It actually threw me back to that Tuesday 6 yrs ago when I watched the second plane crash through the south tower of the World Trade Center, the force of the explosion pushing heat against my face there on the Lower East Side. Impressive as it was, it was more disturbing than exciting for me. Guess for as much as life goes on, that day is still with me.
Another part of Burning Man are the giant dust storms that sweep across the ancient lakebed getting dirt everywhere and blocking out all the art exhibits across the Playa. You can see them creeping across the giant open space and you hurry to get your goggles and dust mask on. Winds whip up to 100 miles an hour and the fine dust gets everywhere imaginable. The wise advice is to hunker down in your tent or at the closest camp to provide you shelter until the storm finishes. Sure that’s the logical thing to do but many, yours truly among them, found it extremely fun and liberating to get out and run around during the dust storms. There were drumming circles that would drum away during dust storms so whenever we were enshrouded in a giant dust cloud, the drums could be heard all over Burning Rock City, calling the brave out to bang and dance around. If you’re not up for dealing with the dust and dirt, then Burning Man is not the place for you. One must embrace in order to survive. Of course, these dust storms wreak havoc on rental cars (and everything else). My mom and sister-in-law took care to hide the evidence of where I took the rental car by giving it a good washing before I returned it. Even back in New York at LaGuardia, you know who on your flight was at Burning Man for their bags are covered in the dust. Always a great conversation starter. Post-dust storm one day, we had a little rain show (which equals mud), after which there appeared in the sky a fantastic, full double rainbow. Of course this rare phenomenon sent all the burners screaming and yelling out onto the Playa to photograph it. It was an amazing surprise event for us all.
So now after more than a week since the big burn, we are all back in our little New York routines; Pete, Jackie, Marshal, and the rest. We all feel connected by this incredible adventure and recount stories from the week over meals and drinks. Some of already have plans afoot for one year from now returning to the Playa for more fun. Until that next time, we all bask in the after glow of the burn.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Tioga Toomey's Whoa Nellie Deli

Coming down I-395 South about 2 hrs from Reno, there’s a must stop place to eat. Driving along Mono Lake through the town of Lee Vining you’ll come to the 120 turnoff to go into Yosemite (the eastern side). Also known as the Tioga Pass, it is a busy route in the spring and summer as vacationers explore the High Sierras and take a drive into one of the most famous National Parks in the US. Right there on your left is the Tioga Gas Mart/Mobile. Believe it or not, inside you’ll have one of the best meals of your life served up with good humour at Tioga Toomey’s Whoa Nellie Deli. Now you could call this entry a plug for my baby brother’s restaurant and, in part it is, but if my brother Matt was just dishing out hot dogs and hamburgers, I probably wouldn’t put him on my blog. You want juicy pork chops with a berry glaze and a side of garlic mashed potatoes and spaghetti squash? How about some crunchy lobster taquitos with fresh tomatillo sauce? Or a meaty dose of venison encrusted with pepper and walnuts with a brown sauce to bring out all its gamey flavors? Well head down to Tioga Toomey’s Whoa Nellie Deli for some great food and drink for a reasonable price. Plus you get a great view of Mono Lake from the outdoor seating area. Some nights you’ll even get a band playing. So what are you waiting for? Get in the car and head out west! Sunset over the lake, a glass of wine and a sumptuous dinner served by a great guy and his staff and dress code is casual—who can beat that?? But don’t dawdle for they close up on October 28th, when the Tioga Pass closes for the winter. If you don’t make however, there’s always next year. They open for business in April when the snow melts, bears come out of hibernation and the pass reopens. If you do stop by, tell them Tom, Matt Toomey’s big brother, sent you.

The Burning Man Chronicles-Part 1

Coming to you live from Lee Vining, Ca! No I cannot say that I am coming to you live from Black Rock City, NV, home of Burning Man for I have already passed through that place. Yes I tried to come to you live from Burning Man but it didn’t happen. Burning Man is like Brigadoon, the winds and dust storms part for a week on an ancient lake bed in northern Nevada, an entire city of happy folk appear in all sorts of garb, doing all sorts of interesting things and then it disappears back into the blinding dust storms. One is caught up in all the exciting goings on around Black Rock City (BRC) that they lose all thought of the outside world. Cellphones don’t work, no Internet connection, no newspapers besides the dailies recanting events around town. Part of me wanted to blog while in the moment but I was more into being in the moment with my fellow BRC citizens and blogging could wait.
Burning Man, already an institution to many and I’m sure many people around the country as well as the world have heard of it (so I won’t go into huge details). An arts festival in the middle of the high desert in Nevada, an experiment in communal living, a giant dance party, a week long drug fest, a week long sex party—everyone interprets Burning Man in their own way. To my Christian brother it’s “that pagan thing in the desert”, to other outsiders it’s that festival where everyone goes around naked caked in body paint and mud, a site of untold hedonism. It is what you want it to be. But instead of labeling Burning Man, it’s better to go and experience it with your own eyes.
Burning Man is one of those things on my list of things to do before I die. I came to this event completely void of expectations (but with a tent, a sleeping bag, costumes and gallons of water), like a book with no words in it that would write itself as the week evolved. Everyday was a new experience as I got on a bike a rode off across the ancient lakebed to a different adventure, new people and good times.
I stayed at “Astor Place Reimagined”, Pete and Jackie’s uber deluxe NYC camp where Astor Place, that famous downtown communal spot, was rebuilt on the Playa at Burning Man. It was great to sit on the stoop with a cup of coffee and watch the sun rise, all sorts of BRC citizens cruising by on their bikes either going home from all night partying or starting their day, saying good morning to them all, some stopping to sit and chat, others to spray paint graffiti on the subway entrance.
Now some people at BRC feel that one needs to do massive amounts of drugs to properly experience Burning Man. I’m not of that ilk—not that there’s anything wrong with it, just my drug days are over and I don’t need to have a temporary altered state to enjoy something. Still, others do and that’s OK, for Burning Man means something different for everyone.
For me Burning Man was all about community and acceptance. It has that San Francisco groove (as I call it) that welcomes everyone in to be part of something special. It’s that same feeling that drew me to San Francisco in the first place. No pressures to fit into a mold, no judgements, just free to be you and me (and not hurt anyone in the process). Driving down to Matt’s house in Lee Vining, I passed many a burner in a dirt-caked automobile and even though we didn’t know each other, we are connected because of this event. I am now part of a larger community.
The highlights of BM were many. Probably the best memory I have of the week was a giant flying carpet driving around the Playa on Sunday morning, crowded with all night partiers who were swaying to the gentle Commodores tune “Easy Like Sunday Morning”. As we were busy taking down Astor Place, this giant carpet on wheels cruised by, everyone waving their arms and shouting “Good Morning” to us. Other highlights include the two semi trucks welded together, the Monkeys—a giant zoetrope run by bicycle and drum power, the Crude Awakening exhibit—five giant metal human forms worshipping to a giant oil derrick (which was exploded in a mass of huge flames on Saturday night), the art cars—a variety of creative modes of transportation which carried people all around the Playa: giant cats, fish, a Chinese junk, a huge boom box that blared music, a stage coach with moving horses and the Roller Boogie skating rink where I relearned to roller skate.
During the day the Playa had a feeling of vastness but when night fell, it was an illuminated fairground crowded with art cars, bicyclers, flame throwing machines and all sorts of activities. Like a giant carnival in a black sea, people whizzed about from one thing to another all night long. Some partied on the floating double decker boats that rolled around the Playa, some yelled and screamed at Thunderdome where people jumped around suspended from bungee lines wacking the shit out of each other with foam bats (very un Burning Man but fun all the same). There was Dance, Dance Immolation! Where you could dance to a tune jumping from one lit up not to another on a giant keyboard. If you missed, you get a shot from the flame thrower (of course you were dancing in a giant flame proof suit). The creativity was endless and inspirational as well. If I do this event again, I already have my art car imagined: a huge tea pot on wheels that will carry people about serving tea at various points along the playa. Back at camp we’ll hold tea dances, every day a new kind of dance. Maybe in a few years time. For now I relish in the afterglow of a fantastic week of community, new friends and inspiration.