Sunday, September 19, 2010

BRC to Yosemite: Hitchhiking and Serendipity

Since Yosemite National Park is literally on the way from Black Rock City (the name of the temporary city in the desert where Burning Man is held) to Los Angeles (where I had to go to catch a flight back east), I had planned to spend 3 days in the park before leaving the golden state. Because the four hippie-style painted buses I had taken up to Burning Man were not leaving for LA until early monday morning, it made sense for me to try and hitchhike out of BRC to Yosemite sunday afternoon in order to maximize my time in the park.  

I had to laugh at myself as I stood out on the dusty playa under the weight of my bags, holding a sign reading "395 South to Mono Lake", hoping one of the thousands of cars of burners leaving that Sunday would be generous enough to pick up a stowaway. Sure enough, after about a half hour, an RV pulled onto the side of the road, and a child wearing a dragon-shaped hat popped out of the window and told me to hop on in. And so it was that I successfully hitched my first ride.  

The dragon-capped child was an 11 year old named Izzy and as I dumped my bags onto the floor of the RV, Izzy's father and my new chauffeur, Frank the Hippie, assured me that I had "caught the right ride, man." Frank, a dreadlocked man aged 50, offered me an orange and introduced his other son, 9 year old Dee, who smiled and proceeded to ask question after question about my Burning Man experience.  

It wasn't long until I realized my ride to Yosemite was going to be anything but seamless. As the traffic to leave Black Rock City slowed us to a halt, Frank informed me that he had been having some trouble with the RV, and that the battery might not be able to sustain a prolonged stoppage. As we sat in traffic, I offered to go exploring through the line of cars, and leaving all of my belongings in the care of Frank and the kids, I went searching for a Burning Man volunteer to see if we could somehow jump the line.  

I walked up the 7 lanes of stopped vehicles for about 3/4 of a mile and saw neither a person with authority to deal with our situation, nor an end to the traffic-jam. As I began contemplating walking back to my ride, the cars started moving, stirring up an intense dust storm. With visibility down to about 5-10 feet, I walked slowly back in the direction I had come, beginning to realize the terrible mistake I had made. Not only was I walking blindly through traffic in a dust-storm, without my goggles or anything to cover my nose and mouth, but because it was nearly impossible to see the cars passing mere feet away, there was the possibility I would miss Frank's car and be stranded, choking and blind from dust without anything but the clothing I was wearing. Trekking back carrying a large orange traffic cone so I might avoid an unexpected run-in with a car full of hippies, I cursed my rash decision to leave Frank. Some very kind and concerned burners stopped and offered me a bandana for my face and a jug of water, which I took with intense gratitude. Still, my worries intensified as I was passed by a bright yellow van, a vehicle I had noted on my way out as being behind Frank's RV in the line. Ironically, my only hope now was the Frank's RV had in fact broken down.  

I continued walking and finally, through the dust, I spotted stalled Frank's RV. Rejoice!! As the dust began to settle, the completely dust-caked reflection in the car mirror showed a man who looked like he had bathed in baking powder, laughing and shaking his head. I washed the playa out of my eyes and hair, and went around to see if I could help Frank jump the RV.  

As a New Yorker, I'm about as unfamiliar with automotive maintenance as can be, but I was told our problem was that the vehicle needed a new battery. AAA told us there were 350 cars broken down on the road out of BRC, and we would have to wait. And so we did. On the side of the dirt "road". For 10 hours.  

It was well past dark and somewhere around 2 in the morning when I awoke to spot 4 painted buses I recognized as being from my camp. I remembered that one of my campmates, Lester, had a car battery he had been using on the playa, so I ran across the lanes of traffic and ventured into the back of one of the buses, to the bed that I had slept in on the way up to Burning Man.  

Noah: "Lester... you up?. Lester, wake up." 
Lester: "Huh? What? Noah???" 
Jeff: "Noah??? What the hell?" 
Merriliee: "Is that Noah? Hi Noah!"  

As I messengered a car battery between from the buses that continued creeping up the line towards the exit and Frank's broken down RV, I weighed my options. I could cut my losses and grab my bags and jump back with my camp now on their way out, or stick it out with Frank and the kids. Enjoying the adventure thus far and feeling bad about leaving the family that had been so kind in picking me up, I decided not to leave Frank stranded and alone with the his boys. As I delivered Frank's $90 to Lester in payment for the battery, I thanked him and then watched as my most reliable ride out of Burning Man drove on down the road without me.

Lester's battery was the fix we needed (temporarily) and Frank decided that rather than battle the now 4-5 hours of traffic out of Burning Man, we would return to Black Rock City and spend the night. So after waking up very early the next morning in Frank's RV, we set out once again to leave the playa, only to again, break down on the line out. Trying to keep my sense of humor, I recruited as many burners as possible to push the RV the final mile or so out of the traffic jam (fyi - RV's are heavy!), where we got our final jump and got the RV running down a real, traffic-less road. We were home free!!!  

Until about an hour later when we ran out of petrol gas. While Frank tried to figure out whether the RV was refusing to start because of the lack of gas or the dead battery, I decided our time together had finally run its course. Fortuitously, the gas tank had hit E about 150 yards from a gas station (that didn't carry Petrol), and so every car of burners with California plates that entered the rest station was greeted by a very dirty Noah asking if they were going south.  

After about an hour I had my ride. I felt pretty awful leaving Frank and the kids, especially because the kids seemed so upset about it, but they were getting no farther than Reno that day and I had no choice but to move on.  

Ride #2 was David, Jenny and Valeska from Santa Barbara, who shared not only their functioning transportation, but also a sarcastic-but-kind sense of humor that I could not have enjoyed more. I'm not sure D, J and V were actually going my way to begin with, but they agreed to alter their route to help out a fellow burner in need.  

So I had lost a day, but I was back on track and moving through the mountains of California to a soundtrack of laughs and great conversation. Traveling down 395, David received a call on his cell phone that he said he had to take. As he pulled over to the side of the road so he could discuss without distraction, Valeska pointed out four painted buses that were stopped in an auto-repair shop on the side of 395. Yep. Laughing, I walked back to find my campmates, who should have been in Los Angeles by now. One of the buses had now broken down for a variety of reasons, one of which was a dead battery. A dead battery, they of course no longer had a replacement for, because Lester had sold Frank his. In any case, they weren't going anywhere so quickly, and many campmates, including Jeff, had already checked into a motel for the night.  

Others were trying to find a shortcut home. I had cut across a field to reach my campmates, so I didn't see Lester and his girlfriend Ani who were standing on the side of 395 trying to hitchhike back to LA. I missed the conversation between them and my new friends who had turned around to drive back and pick me up, but I was told it went something like this.  

Lester: "Thanks for stopping. You guys have room for two to LA?" 
David: "Sorry, your spot's already been taken by Noah." 
Lester: "What? By Noah? Like, Noah?? Is he in there?" 
David: "No, we bludgeoned him, left him on the side of the road and stole his bags."  

I must admit that up until this point, I could not help but think that had I only taken the easy route and left with my camp to begin with, or left Frank and jumped back in the buses early when I had the opportunity early monday morning, I would have been in better shape. So while I certainly wasn't happy to see my camp in distress, I couldn't help but laugh at how things had turned out. I gave Lester and Ani a hug, told them to pass one on to my buddy Jeff who was already in the motel, and got back in my ride.  

An hour or so later, we arrived in Lee Vinings, which was where I was slated to say goodbye to D, J and V, as I could stay in a motel and take public transport into Yosemite in the morning. Dropping me off, David was kind enough to look around a bit to try and get me set up, and as we explored the visitor's center, David noticed a man being told he would not be able to camp in the park this time of year without a reservation. As we went back to the car and began unloading my bags, this man asked if we were burners. We said yes, and he revealed that he was also a burner, looking to spend a few days in Yosemite. Well HELLLLLOOOOO Shlomo, welcome to the story!  

Since I was coming off a week of camping in the dusty playa, I had figured I'd be ready for a little "pampering" and before leaving for California, I had reserved in Yosemite a tent cabin with 2 proper beds, since Jeff thought he might be joining for some hiking and nature-loving. Jeff had bailed, and so I had an extra bed to spare. I happened to have the very thing Shlomo needed most in the world at that moment - a place to sleep in Yosemite - and he had what I needed most - a car.  

I had gotten on really well with D, J and V and so was sorry to leave them, but after some smiles and laughs about the whole ordeal, I said my goodbyes and got in the car with my new friend Shlomo for a trip into Yosemite.  

Not only was Shlomo's car invaluable in providing access to portions of the park that would otherwise be inaccessible, but because I was not relying on public transport into the park, it saved me a day. And so I arrived at my Yosemite lodgings right on schedule, with a roommate to share the cost of the lodgings and a new friend to hike with.  

Then I spent 3 days in the park, and it was awesome.


  1. i cant help but think there will be vaguely similar stories like this over the next few months.

    safe travels my friend

  2. I was going to have my attorney type up my notes from Burning Man... ya know, what with all the talk of bludgeoning and battery... But I believe your blog just about covers it! Guess I'll buy a ticket to BRC next year with my legal savings. Thanks Noah. oh, wait, there's still those events related to wheelchair-lap-dance-girl...