<em>Safety Third! says the cheery slogan on the pseudo-doctor’s white coat. Get me off this fucking table. Not that I’m in a position to complain. I signed up, or so Ratface tells me. That must be why I’m dressed as Marie Antoinette. We (that’s me and Skywalker) loaded up half a ton of perishable food that’s gradually turning to probiotic slime in the heat, bought rusty bicycles off a guy at a stall on the Venice boardwalk, and drove north out of LA into the Nevada desert, to the most inhospitable environment we could find, an immense white salt-flat bounded by jagged mountains. Nothing lives here. Not a snake, not an insect. It’s earth, simplified, a smooth plane (of consistency), a vast crazy-paved stage-set for the mass games.
Because we are not alone. It’s not just that there’s intelligent life on other planets, or ghosts in the machine, or bats in the belfry or more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. There are 40,000 others here. Actual testably-non-hypothetical people; bodies, which need ice and coffee and sunscreen and socks and are going to get their needs met, without access to mallspace or retail of any kind. They call it a city, though it’s more like a shanty town or a bustee or a boomtown mining camp; Lagos meets Morningstar meets the Slabs meets Jonestown with fewer light refreshments. Rickety architecture: yurts and wickiups and marquees and giant seesaws and Bucky domes; RV’s, space-age cubes, inflatables and scaffolding enclosures, ramadas and sweatlodges and miles of parachute silk billowing in the breeze. There’s a rocket and any number of steampunk derricks and a three storey astroturf-covered deathslide that you chuck yourself down on a flour sack, one of those five a.m. good ideas that breaks limbs at the rate of three or four a day. No money on site, no facilities, bring everything you need to survive and thrive and deal with sudden throw-down zero-visibility dust-storms. A post-holocaust rave fantasy for anyone who can afford a $200 ticket, a mass gathering of dehydrated globo-boho-wannabe nomads with great tits, all game for the ultimate test of sanity and centredness – taking a shit in a porta-potty swimming in terrifying hippy effluent whilst high on the most radical molecules yet devised by the minds of Stanford-dropout entheogen chemists. It’s an expensive simulation, an experiment in new forms of leisure and moneyless exchange, a potlatch economy devised by and for (let’s be honest) a relatively privileged crowd of utopians. But right now there’s a dude in some kind of rat make-up, a dick-like prosthetic pink snout poking out from under his leprechaun hat. He’s got a Mary Poppins Cockney accent. He’s here, he says, ‘poking into things’. It’s like something out of the class-war subtext of Wind in the Willows. He needs to leave me the fuck alone.
Kappy wears black silk martial-arts pajamas, a flashing illuminated pendant and a sheep mask. Sometimes the mask is perched at a jaunty angle on the top of his head, giving him an impish appearance; sometimes it covers his face, twin red LEDs lighting up the eye-sockets. Two modes: merry prankster and sinister sheep-god. He has the pill in his palm. Thing is, he says, I’ve had it for a while. Not sure it’ll still work. Now there’s a classic opening line. What we’re talking about here are substances only known by chemical acronyms, whispered about in Humboldt County hot tubs, formulae jotted down in notebooks and refined by men with beards and advanced degrees and serious, punishing meditation routines; phenethylamines we have known and loved, members of the mythical ‘magic six’. There’s stuff that takes you to an alternate pre-existent reality for fifteen minutes, to converse with non-organic entities who seem only mildly disturbed that you’ve dropped out of the sky to watch them unicycling about with their witty banners. Other stuff takes two hours to come on, then explodes in your mind like a cosmic hollow-point bullet, expanding to fill the universe, then creating enormous psychic exit wounds, out of which reality gushes in great dark red floods. Once you drop, you can’t stop. You’re booked in. And whichever side of the sheep-mask you find, impish or implacable, it is what it is. That’s more profound than it sounds. You have to deal with the cock-rat or the dust that gets into everything, every fold of skin, every crack and follicle, or the dude with the giant tuba-like megaphone, the one who never looked up passive-aggressive in the dictionary and really, really wants you to broadcast your tripping thoughts through the 200-watt speaker duct-taped to his back. ‘Shirtcocker!’ he shouts at Sexx Ed, who’s dressed in ‘normal’ clothes that in this context make him look like a Levittown golf dad circa 1958, but who’s got pants on – admittedly they are terrible plaid shorts with a huge rip in them out of which his cock could potentially poke, but nevertheless he is not technically a shirtcocker, not one of those guys who are revelling in their first ever chance to be naked in the vicinity of hot women, but who are prudent enough about desert skincare to cover their lobstery backs and shoulders with, preferably, a nice blue button-down, beneath which their members can peep out inquisitively, hoping against hope for a look or touch or a little lick or suck or any other action whatsoever. The epithet is hence unfair. But we’ve no time to argue semantics. We’re going over there. Where? There. See that pyramid? Yes, we are going forth to the pulsing pyramid with the eye on top to deal with them all: old primal hippies with steel wool for pubic hair and mother Ganga trapped in their top-knots; straight-edge vegan badasses facing down the flesh-eaters; sweltering goths in factor 2000 sunscreen; dykes on bikes; lost surfers; S&M masters in self-oiling chaps looking for co-eds to spider-gag; wash-board-stomached yoga queens; body-dysmorphic glamour models; aromatherapists, ufologists, ontologists, oncologists and endless nameless lightly alternative folk with hemp waistcoats and unfortunate quasi-ethnic tattoos. There will be suburban candy-ravers, all cowboy hats, fluffy boots and bikinis; there will be party-boys in wraparound shades throwing the horns; we already met a flock of British furries, who travelled twelve hours in cattle class to yiff with those cute cos-play kitties, small town lads wearing explorer hats and kilts, carrying laminated pictures of their characters, who have blue manes, giant manga eyes and unicorn horns. We will meet them all. And we will love them. Or at least share water. And listen to them talk about how Szechuan pepper makes everything taste like lemon.
And just when you’re at your highest and lost in some bad nineties Hollywood version of an underground rave, all fire jugglers and plastic punks and low-calorie techno-metal music, and a close encounter with carbon-fibre ant-like entities possessing no human feelings whatsoever would feel like a relief, would feel like a nice cup of tea and a sit down compared to this ridiculous blank are-we-having-fun-yet temple of the lobotomised damned, then you run into something properly odd – giant multistoreyed structures composed of ineffable filigreed light, or a charming old Nevada retiree couple who look like Evil Knievel and his missus if they’d been wrapped in silver foil and pegged out in a Golden Valley trailer park since 1977: skin like badly-cured cowhide, mullets and matching moustaches and denim jerkins bristling with souvenir pins, the pair of them handing out trays of toxic Danishes to the deranged trippers of early morn in an old fashioned gesture of western hospitality. So you hop on a teapot and listen to this chick called Moon or June or Spoon who wants to tell you you’ve a beautiful aura, but doesn’t want to discuss her RL non-existence as a dental technician in Las Cruces, and doesn’t seem to understand when you insist that reality’s more interesting than her past lives as a Renaissance Fair princess or witch or Voodoo futuristic seer, and actually gets off the Soul Train or the Dragon or the Fluffy Bus or Magic Carpet or whatever you’re riding on, and runs screaming into the night rather than carry on the conversation, which makes you feel bad, but at least it gives you something to look at: you can see her a long way off because, like you, like everybody in this pitch dark desert, she’s festooned with glowsticks and LEDs and bike lights and reflectors, because that’s the only way you’re not going to get run over by some loon piloting a giant steel catfish, powered by compost and tofu run-off, a catfish which actually breathes fire and goes nought-to-twenty in less time than you can get your googly eyes to focus and probably spends the rest of the year lurking in a Reno storage unit, ready for its fifteen minutes of fishy fame. And once the poor dental technician’s no more than a winking point of light on the horizon, you forward roll into the next scene, which is packed with hula-hooping convoy queens, horny skaters, pirates, steampunks, lounge lizards, cosmonauts, psychonauts, human computers, riverboat gamblers, serious ethnobotanists boiling up MAO-inhibitors so they can get back in touch with their spirit animals, cocktail shakers, shy busking violinists, penny-farthing roadhogs, superheroes, hedge wizards, cheesy trance DJs with feathered caps and bolero jackets, undercover Hollywood directors, handjob gurus, off-duty stuntmen and Nevada law enforcement, wandering through the encampment in full Stormtrooper gear, semi-automatics at the ready in case someone gets an erection near their arses. In the back of a particularly dark tent you run into Quetzalcoatl in full regalia looking for hearts to cut out, three geologists who want to talk about basin and range formations and a crew of naked wannabe Hindus chanting ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama’ (here I like to imagine my conservative aunties slipping out of their saris to sing a few verses of ‘To Be A Pilgrim’), and finally, when you’re sacked out somewhere silky and comfortable (let’s say a yurt) and you’ve got to smugly thinking, like the optimistic fool you are, that your head is in some small way together, there comes the wetsuit guy, this guy who seems very definitely official, who strides up, all beard and waders and grey insulating performance fabric, and wishes everyone a gruff good morning, causing the beautiful and damned lolling about on the soft furnishings to straighten their spines momentarily, in case they have to deal with The Man in some fashion, perhaps a representative from the Port Authority (but wait, says a very small voice in your head, aren’t we in . . . kind of a dry place? Kind of . . . a desert?) and he throws a sack down on the couch, which is probably an important official delivery that someone will need to sign for, and starts doing something very technical and boring with tape and a hammer and bits of wire, which seems to be stressing him out because he’s cursing under his breath and you wish he’d go deal with his dealings elsewhere, until he opens the sack and out spills a mess of tentacles and your head melts again, for he is no Port Authority Straight Guy, but an octopus-man, and he finishes fixing his costume and slips it on, and yes sir, yes indeed he now has eight arms to wiggle with and so, most joyfully, he boogies away into the night.