"Oh, but if I were younger, I'd be working my way up that thing, you know it!" said Thompson, one of 10 senior citizens who took a Burning Man art tour from the air-conditioned comfort of a Washoe County Senior Services shuttle van.
The seniors boarded in Gerlach, 12 miles away - the town nearest to the Black Rock Desert, where 40,000 people have parked RVs and pitched tents for the annual weeklong gathering, which culminates tonight with the burning of a 40-foot wooden man.
The elder visitors unwrapped cameras and leaned toward the windows to get shots of the costumed revelers and more than 180 sculptures displayed in the desert.
As they peered out at dancing crowds and gliding art cars shaped like ships, Victorian houses and an illuminated "funky chicken," they drew just as many stares from revelers who did double-takes at the gray-haired caravan.
"We always look forward to this. Gerlach can be a boring place, but things cease to be boring when Burning Man comes," Thompson said as she accepted a handmade keychain shaped like a peace symbol from a girl in pink fishnets and body paint.
Burning Man also donates money to the community, she said, for things such as solar lights for the high school and $1,000 to the senior center.
"How do they get all this stuff out here?" someone wanted to know.
Cranes, semitrucks and trailers, explained tour guide Yomi Ayeni of London, who has been to Burning Man 12 times.
"Many of these sculptures you see have been on display around the world, and while some artists are funded by Burning Man, most spend their own money," he said.
"Burning Man is quite participatory - if you want to get out and touch, climb or ride something, just let us know," Ayeni said.
Just then, the shuttle was enveloped in an enormous dust cloud, forcing 79-year-old driver Don Wardle to stop and wait for it to pass. The seniors strained harder to see.
"I'm not going out there," declared one.
When the dust cleared, the bus came to "The Temple," a three-story wooden structure shaped like a lotus or large artichoke, a spot designed as a sacred space. Inside, visitors had left mementos and written messages to their deceased loved ones.
Anita Bell, 51, scanned the walls:
"Grandma Anne Carnahan, RIP. I will always be your noodle boy."
"I don't know if I can let go."
"So long, my love."
Up, up and away
Next stop on the tour was a 33-foot-tall aluminum space rocket, the "Raygun Gothic Rocketship," built by a team of Oakland artists to look like something Buck Rogers would have landed on the playa.
Artists David Shulman and Nathaniel Taylor boarded the senior van to explain their ship had interior decks, life-size crew quarters, scanners, flight controls and a pilot's chair. They planned to "launch" it later in the week, which really meant sounding a World War II air raid siren and then lighting a bunch of fireworks.
"That siren is loud," Shulman said. "You'll be able to hear it in Gerlach."
A collective "oooh!" went up inside the shuttle.
En route to see "Key Note," a sculpture of a man made from padlocks, the shuttle got stopped for speeding by a Black Rock Ranger - Burning Man's self-made police force. A woman in a ranger uniform boarded to ask Wardle to please slow it down.
"What?" he said, leaning closer to hear.
His speedometer was broken, but he told her he couldn't have been doing more than 10 mph. As soon as she left, he took off at the same speed headed for the wooden Burning Man.
Toni Lucchesi, 72, put a handkerchief over her nose and mouth as her husband, Joe, guided her through the dust storm to see the Man.
David Gordon of Belmont held out a plastic container of cubed mango and offered the Lucchesis toothpicks. Burning Man exists on a gift economy - nothing except ice and coffee is sold at the event, forcing participants to rely on their wits and the generosity of others to survive in a harsh desert environment.
"Oh, yes, thanks!" Toni Lucchesi said.
Gordon made a beeline for the seniors with his gift when he saw them exit the shuttle.
"It's awesome they are here and their hearts are open to exploring Burning Man, to learn that it's not what you hear: a big party of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll," Gordon said. "I hope they have a good time and are treated well because they are our elders. We stand on their shoulders."
Back in the shuttle, tour guide assistant Rosalie Barns could sense the crowd had had its fill of dust.
"How many of you like cocktails?" she asked.
And with that, Wardle turned the van in the direction of Fur Bar - a camp with a shaded lounge and strawberry daiquiris.
E-mail Meredith May at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, September 11, 2009
Unlikely tourists take a gander at Burning Man