You can’t step in the same river twice

I was on the road to Alchemy, the Georgia regional Burning Man festival. Several people I had never met before told me I should go on Saturday night. I thought about it on Sunday. Monday morning I had decided to go. By Tuesday afternoon, the Squid Wagon and I were underway across North Carolina.

After a long drive on mostly two-lane roads, I ended up on I-95 heading South. Traffic wasn’t very bad and I was talking on my cell phone. (Gee, I used to hate those people…so much for moral superiority!) I had seen a couple billboards but didn’t really pay attention to them. Then I saw the giant sombrero tower. I interrupted the conversation with “Oh my god, I have to stop now.” and then made my way toward the exit. I said goodbye and then found a place to park.

About five years ago, Meps and I went to South of the Border, and found some much-needed levity. A bit over a year ago, we stopped in and got a few interesting things for Burning Man. By this time, I knew I was at the mother load of kitsch, and must stop and look for inspiration.

Some things don’t change. They still had inflatable space aliens. They still had tasteless stuff. There were still feral cats running around the property. The employees still seem jaded at all the silly kitsch surrounding them. Or maybe they never had a sense of humor anyhow? There still weren’t many other customers there.

Other things are different. The inflatable space aliens are only in three colors now; no pink ones anymore. I didn’t have anybody to point out the best goofy stuff to, and nobody was pointing it out to me. In fact, nobody was smiling or laughing there. Now I’m wondering if I was smiling enough when I was there.

I bought a couple things, then got some food, and went back on the road.

The next day I made it to Columbia. I proceeded to spend most of the day trying to find thrift stores on almost every side of the city, looking to find more costume clothing. Plus the party store. And a really cool costume shop called Hip-Wa-Zee.

But I’d been there before too. Meps and I and her father and a friend in Columbia had all spent a day driving around most of these places, looking for costume bits and other Burning Man stuff. This time when I scored, there was nobody to share it with. And this time I was getting half-lost driving around a strange town, rather than having a native take us from place to place.

So even if it was going up the same river, it was a different place this time. And, of course, the thrift shops had completely different merchandise than last time! I got some great stuff, although I still think the dragon print shirt I got last time is the best costume I’ve purchased in the entire state!

But as I continued upstream, I entered a different part of the river system, and things really started to change. This time, I wasn’t going to Nevada, I was going to Georgia. On the road to Burning Man, it started to feel like we were salmon returning from the sea, and all going upstream to the same destination at the same time. The closer you get, the more frequently you see people obviously heading in with you.

On my way in, I got lost going into and then through the last town, and finally made it to the gate of the event. And realized that I had not once seen another vehicle that I could clearly identify as going to Alchemy with me. If I had been driving to Burning Man, I wouldn’t have had any trouble guessing the last four turns because so much traffic was obviously going to the same place, and it would have been easy to follow.

Then I was in the event, and looking to the present, not the past–being part of the stream that others were walking through, and wading in myself as well.