Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 12, 2005 Athens, Ohio.

In between van problems, I have been making my way slowly west. I got an email from a vanagonaut who’s also a Burner – a regular at Burning Man, that is. At the end of his email, he invited me to stop by Athens, Ohio and visit, if I was ever in that part of the country. Well, he may not have expected me to take him up on the offer a week later, but I did.

Athens is a pretty good town. And Bill wanted to show me its good and quirky spots. Which turned out to be the spots I would have picked out, too. The anarchist do-it-yourself bike repair shop. The university library with a computer room offering 24/7 internet access not only to students

Photo copyright Rick Egan

but to the whole Athens community. The old 19th century insane asylum on top of the hill, now partly converted to museum and gallery space, partly still to be renovated. We went into the gallery and looked at strange works of art made of porcelain, sets of figures in elaborate rooms, having improbable parties. The gallery was having a reception and open house, so we chatted a bit and snitched some hors d’oeuvres. We walked through a quiet old cemetery behind the building, where inmates in the asylum were buried

a century ago. Bill told me about the brick paved streets, product of the industry on which Athens was founded. We spent a while examining a car covered with small toys. The passers by were all mystified, but no one knew what it was about. We spent the morning on our laptops at the excellent local coffeehouse (Donkey Coffee), with free wifi and lovely coffee. Bill and his partner Theresa took me to dinner at the worker-owned Mexican restaurant. We rode over to a simply splendid bakery out in the country, redolent of yeast and sweet rolls, where Bill insisted on buying me a loaf of bread still warm from the oven.

Bill told me a lot about his view of Burning Man. He began going out of curiosity in 2001, and has gone regularly since then. He showed me the video he’d made about the event in his first year. I’d seen professional Burning Man videos in the past, but this was better. It showed ordinary people and their activities – hanging around their campsites or strolling around the playa in the overbearing sun. He had footage of people in the shade of the coffee tent. (Two items are provided by the organizers of Burning Man, ice and coffee. You go figure.) He had footage of people assembling structures that were later burned, people building works of art, people driving art cars, people on bicycles. At night he filmed people dancing in wild parties, and people carrying on in costumes laced with neon and glow-sticks. He filmed people in fanciful costumes and people in their underpants and people in pasties and high boots and people in everyday shorts and t-shirts. Bill wanted to share Burning Man with me, to encourage me to go, and to convey the experience as he has lived it.

The event has clearly touched him deeply, opened his eyes to the possibility for people to behave in completely different ways for a week in the desert, and he wanted me to understand that.

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Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.