35 miles south of Nixon, Nevada
I was on the road to Black Rock City and hadn’t reached the town of Nixon when I saw my first flash of The Fear. What was I doing out here with a car full of camping gear and 16 days worth of drugs, food, and water? The only directive I had was “Go to Burning Man,” and the open road of Nevada State Route 447 gave me plenty of time to ponder my pilgrimage. What would it mean? What would I gain? What would I lose? I entered this affair armed with one piece of wisdom: No Expectations. This should be one of the Ten Principles that guides the whole ordeal, but speaking as a rookie, what did I know?
I took stock of my situation. For the last six months, I had been living out of my car—a 2001 ice white Camry affectionately named Great White. During this period of houselessness, I worked from cafes and libraries. I’ve been a “freelance cartographer” for the last five years, and I still could do my job and send maps and figures to the mining companies while on the road. Quality hours each day, hunched over a laptop, my back twisted into the goblinesque data processing position. My body screams at me every day to stop. When I don’t, I’m rewarded with tight tension and pain in the lower back and upper shoulders. While the work is somewhat rewarding, I’m still feeling the long slow drain on the soul that’s leaving me feeling very unsatisfied.
Generally, it is a good gig. But lately I had been getting sick of the culture of the mining industry. It runs in bust/boom cycles and I had the finances to match it. In my worst drought, I possessed less than nothing: $20,000 dollars in bad credit card debt with -$20 in checking. There were a few weeks in Seattle where I was incapable of putting even a quarter into a homeless man’s alms cup.
Having survived that, I turned a corner when I landed a whale of a mapping contract. It was a big project that had already suffered a comical series of personnel and budget issues. Contract inked, I was back in the money and buckled down to claw my finances to even.
Lately, work was slow. I was getting small, one shot projects with half-rate junior exploration companies. The work was Sisyphean in nature—if Sisyphus had to pull a rock up a hill every day while inputting data into Excel. It called into question why I do this kind of work in the first place.
All the while, I’m caught in the loop of wanting more than I have. As of the moment, I could not accrue the assets to build the American Dream. Specifically, the purchase of a home: that 2,800 square-foot plywood box with a white picket fence on a .08 acre lot. Health insurance was an unaffordable luxury compared to the $13 I beamed to Netflix every month for entertainment. This is an expense over which I would sweat bullets and feel extreme guilt. With more money came more problems: I owed the IRS $13,000—payable in one lump sum no later than midnight April 15th. Still, after paying taxes, I had to shake off bad credit card debt. Once that piper got paid, I had an insignificant amount of money in my “retirement plan” IRA. This is what my parents and grandparents endlessly push and peddle as a good idea. Currently, I would describe my retirement plan as “work until the day I die.”
I was struggling to choose the lifestyle I want to lead. It’s a strange boundary to be skirting. A choice between a drifter’s life or digging in and making a down payment on a house I don’t want. Which would it be?
For now, I was embracing transience and I had the freedom to disappear from the grid. I could plunge into obscurity for a two-week long vacation in the Nevada desert. I called it a “retreat” to my coworkers and clients, as I was looking to Black Rock City to get away from my known world. I was here in Nevada to get my shit together and reboot. And yet, here I was, less than one hundred miles away from this soon-to-be city in the desert, wondering if the whole idea was a huge mistake. I felt the creep of panic flood into elbows and numb my arms.
I heard reports of an overzealous police force busting pilgrims on the road to Black Rock City. Cops were pulling folks over for charges that sounded like superficial nonsense. Alleged offences such as: one-mile over the speed limit, one-mile under the speed limit, bike rack obscuring license plate, bike rack obscuring rear view, too many stickers on windows, offensive bumper stickers, and underinflated tires. All these tenuous charges came with an attempt to get the spooked drivers to relent to 45 to 60 minute long vehicle searches. I was paranoid and on my guard as I crossed through the first speed trap. The 70mph sprint of State Route 447 lurched into a slow zone at the Nixon town limits. I had a buffer of a quarter mile between me and the next vehicle in either direction. But the moment I hit the first posted 25 mile-per-hour marker, a large white truck swooped in behind me.
Festooned with floodlights and bristling with radio antenna, the government rig closed distance. I could feel the cop breathing down my neck. He tailgated me to within 18 inches, but I didn’t flinch. I knew I’d been marked, and el federale was sizing me up. I still had to scrub off a lot of speed. I downshifted again and Great White revved her engine into the red edge of her torque band. My speedometer reported 29 miles-per-hour and I rode hard on the brakes. This was going to be close. I didn’t want the fed to hassle me and give me a ticket for my obvious infraction. And I especially didn’t want the search team pouring over my car. I wasn’t completely stupid—I stashed my contraband in one of Great White’s smuggling compartments. Still, A creeping fear crawled into my headspace. A cop, frothing at the mouth, forces me to consent to a search while the drug dog picks up on the scent of copious amount of ganja. Remain calm. Hands at 10 and 2. Steel yourself. The B.I.A. truck stuck to my bumper for one full white-knuckle mile. The moment I cleared his jurisdiction, the pig whipped a tight U-turn and blasted south, back on his patrol to pick off a different mark. I saw the fed disappear in the rear-view mirror, I felt like a smuggler running a blockade. No jail time for me today, but I knew it was only a matter of time before the cop would flash the lights and accost a different traveller.