April 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
Building that canoe was one of the most profound experiences of my long life. I built it from nothing but junk at Burning Man in 2002 which was my 5th year out there. I didn’t even have the idea to make it until I was about half way through the 14 hour drive from LA to the vast Black Rock Desert.
It turned out to be one sweet ride. The theme that year was The Floating World, the best one for boat cars I think, as the playa feels so much like the ocean msot of the time anyway – although Larry, the one of founders who picks the themes, meant it more like transcendence, but the rabble took it more to mean pirates. Arrgh!
My first day on the playa that year happened to also be my dear darling daughter’s first day at Vassar. With my youngest out of the nest, and at my ex’s insistence, my last call before I fell off the default world and into the isolated sea of the playa, was to my realtor to finalize the listing of the houses (the Quiet House and the Noisy House) I had built with my own hands 10 years before. I had heaped my little pick-up truck impossible high with a huge pile of flotsam left over from various sets and gags I had built over the years in my work as a production designer, and which I had stored on our property – soon to be someone else’s.
I was utterly lost in grief and wept most of the way up I-5, doing mental R&D of what sort of vehicle I might be able to cobble together from the random junk in the bed of my truck to take my mind off the loss and sadness. I had also brought as many of my crazy-vast selection of tools as would fit, and so the very first thing I did after I arrived on the playa was to build a shop, mostly out of a gold and silver painted set I had built for the Local Emmy Awards show. I had been designing the shop in my head as well, and in just a couple of hours, I had a pretty great little scene, that ended up becoming the service station for several dozen art cars that year.
I hung up the blue prints from my Noisy House, and the Little Mermaid poster my daughter had hung on our bathroom door, and started covering them with wistful tear-stained remembrances and prayers: “Fly high little bird”, “Stand tall old friend”, sappy shit like that.
And then I started digging and building, cutting and welding obsessively, sobbing, cursing, bleeding, and just work, work, working for four days. 14 hours, 18 hours a day I worked, I slept, I worked, hacking that crazy canoe car together. There is a zen saying, “chop wood, carry water” that is one of the primary touchstones of my mental health, so I chopped and carried my ass off.
It ended up with three different sized wheels, an air cleaner made our of a water bottle, the stuffing from a sleeping bag and a tee-shirt sleeve, a juice can for a muffler, and running lights based on the inland water’s rules of the road.
I was somewhat amazed at how beautiful the chassis was when I got it all finished, I hadn’t even had to damage the canoe, which remained seaworthy, and was excited to take it out for a ride, but the damned motor wouldn’t start, would just not start. It had been running when, 25 years before, I had crashed the motorcycle it came from, so I had expected it to run, and spent a half a day checking and rechecking all its components.
I finally guessed that its piston rings were probably stuck, and the only way to get it to run, would be to tear it completely apart. So there in the dirt and the desert, a hundred miles from any parts, I tore it down. The rings were indeed stuck and so for two hours, with a can of WD 40, my swiss army knife and some brandy for solvent, I pick and poked at the fragile little things, until I got them free. I cleaned it all up with the brandy, made a gasket out of some paper towels and silicone seal, and put it back together.
It ran like a top and was a completely surprising delight to drive, it would go 35 mph and you could throw the tiller over and it would cough up a rooster tail of playa dust and scream off in the opposite direction. But it also could idle along at a walking pace among a crowd on the Esplanade. I steered just like a boat with a big caster as a tail wheel, and could even carry a couple of passengers. Somehow, what was just a rudely hacked together pile of junk, had ended up an amazingly sublime, and completely elegant and functional canoe car.
After my first ride across the playa to the other side of town (it was by now Friday night and Black Rock City was in full swing) my spirit was utterly released, I was in that floating world, flying across a sea of dust. My grief had been completely choked-off by the pain, fatigue and thrill of those four days that I had been channeling MacGuyver and Charles Eames. I was Manic, proud and paddling along, far above the world that I had known before that evening
Two guys who had been stopping by my shop watching me build it and had money on it whether it would ever run. The older guy said I had a shot, the younger said no way. Dozens of folks had tried to reassure me or dissuade me, telling me how hard it is to get anything to work out there, how guys who spend weeks working in town before they come out, couldn’t get their stuff to work. They were well-meaning I guess, all trying to save this poor Sisyphus who was covered in grease and burns and cuts from a fool’s errand.
When the older guy won his bet and returned after taking a drive, his eyes were bright, wide and leaking tears. “Awesome, just fucking awesome.” he gasped as he gave me a huge hug. As the de riguer at Burning Man, he went back to his bike to retrieve some gift schwag, and returned with, of all things, a stainless steel vaginal speculum. He winked, used it to make an animated duck mouth and said “The ladies love it” (in his dreams.)
The rule with Mutated Vehicles is that they should serve the community, and so one is expected to give folks rides, as did many times. One couple who I had happened to give rides to a number of times, and who had come back to the playa to end a relationship that had started there, finally gave me two Viagra as their gift. Guess they didn’t need them anymore. But, WTF, celibate guy awash in grief and broken hearts having his nose rubbed in forgotten lust. It felt like ironic fate as just the appropriately surreal frosting on my floating cake.
On Monday, with the city mostly empty and all the big burns now finished, as I began to approach the difficult task of tearing down my shop, I decided to make one last naked, high-speed run out along the trash fence in the deep playa. I was descending and trying, in my speeding canoe, to stay aloft in that floating world a little longer. I crouched down to streamline, wound out the little motor, reaching over to richen up the mix a bit, trying to see, on her final voyage just what she had in her. At about 40 mph, I hit a little dune, got crossed up and airborne, and was pitched out onto the playa.
As I lay there in the dust, my startled fear slowly changed to profound satisfaction, and I just laid there on the playa in the sun, grinning, filthy, joyful, and stunned in appreciation at the near absence of any sense of grief or loss in that moment. Just soaking in the sun and feeling the warm earth on my back, I suddenly had this wacky vision of myself dancing around my burning shop, naked with a raging hard-on.
I am a fat man, fatter then than now, and not especially filled with a positive body image, so this vision seemed particularly absurd to me, particularly unthinkable. But then I thought, fuck, this is Burning Man, I really could dance around my burning shop naked with a raging hard on, and the thought, just the thought of it, blew my mind, and between it and the triumph of that canoe, I felt more certain, sure of myself, than I think I have ever been at any other moment in my life
So I righted my dear little canoe, and headed back to my shop. As I had never done before, I didn’t put my clothes back on as I reentered the mostly deserted city, and still naked, tore down my shop, and took the blue prints, Ariel in her castle, the silver walls and all rest, and hauled it out where I piled it on top of the ashes of a boat some folks from the Netherlands had burned the night before.
I had always planned to burn the shop, and so had invited some folks, the Viagra couple among them, to come see my old life go up in smoke. As the sun set, I downed both of those viagra with a shot of tequila someone in the neighboring camp had, and when it was finally dark, went back out to the burn site. In front of a 20 or so friends and strangers, I poured gas on the pile and set it ablaze. I did not get hard and I did not dance, but I did cry my eyes out and get some of the warmest and most sincere hugs I had ever gotten from my artist friends. When it was in full flagration, I tossed in that stupid speculum.