Uh oh …

Do we have time for a personal anecdote?

I hope so. I’ll apologize in advance for making this one more about me than the build, but eventually you’ll see the threads that bring it all back to Burning Man. … But if you get bored and want to come back another day, I understand. :)

So we had to make a trip to Reno to drop off a friend. Reno is, as you probably know, about 70 miles from Gerlach, across vast stretches of beautiful desert nothingness and Indian land.

We were about 10 miles outside of town, and it was about 20 seconds after I had said, “Gee,  we’re in good shape, this is going to work out fine,” when the engine warning lights lit up like a Christmas tree. “Check Engine Soon.” Temperature gauge buried in the red zone. Alternator indicator glowing red. And when I stepped on the gas, the engine revved, but no power reached the wheels.

Uh oh.

When I pulled over and opened the hood, there was oil everywhere. My expertise with car issues is, shall we say, limited, but it was clear even to me that something major had happened. And because I have AT&T, of course there was no cell service.

Aw crap.

So there we were in the middle of nowhere by the side of the road with the hood up and the oil dripping and the temperature rising, not a car in sight and no way of calling for help.

We were very definitely off the playa now, and the general good spirits of seeing so many people working so hard for a common purpose dried up faster than a water droplet in the desert dust. It was hard to be philosophical in that moment. But honestly, I should have known better than to despair.

About 10 minutes went by, and the very first car that appeared on the road pulled over. Out stepped a gray-haired man with a grizzled face and a very healthy handlebar mustache. He was a local, lived in tin-roof home a few miles down the road, and his name was Lloyd.

Lloyd and his Bronco

I was soon riding with Lloyd in the front of his old Ford Bronco, on the way back to Gerlach to see about a tow truck. “You know, as soon as they put a hook on the car, it’s going to cost you $100,” he said. I didn’t say anything. “I’ve got a better idea,” he said.

Lloyd’s brother Ray is also a local. And he lives just off Highway 448, just like Lloyd. In fact, we had just passed his place, hidden away at the bottom of the foothills of the Limbo Mountains. So Lloyd turned the Bronco around, and we went up to Ray’s place to make a call to Triple A.

We went up a long dirt road through the sagebrush. A bunch of dogs came running to check us out when we got to Ray’s house. “I guarantee you they will not hurt you,” Lloyd said. “I like dogs,” I said.

Ray’s pal Tom was out front, working on pieces of a car engine. “Tom’s one of the good guys,” Lloyd said, and judging by what Lloyd was doing, I figured he was a pretty good judge of character.

The flotsam and jetsam of a desert life was strewn all about the yard. Engine parts, random chairs, a toilet with the bowl filled with dirt and a giant succulent growing happily out of it. Tom got a phone and a piece of paper and a pen, and I called Triple A and …

Oh geez. My membership had expired three days ago.

But what did we learn earlier in the day? Do not despair. Lauren, the nice woman on the phone from Triple A, said that I could renew my membership. The only problem was, my level of membership only covered five miles of towing. After that, it’d be five dollars a mile. … So it was going to be $350 just to get the car to where it could be fixed (assuming, of course, that it COULD be fixed.)

But the day was developing a theme, and it held true. The nice woman from the Triple A said that not only could I renew my membership, but if I renewed at a higher level of coverage for an extra $20, that’d cover 200 miles of towing. Um, yes please.

So Lloyd and I climbed back in the Bronco and made our way down the dirt road from Ray’s place, and as we drove along, large birds, startled by the noise, flew up from the brush. “Chuckers,” Lloyd said. “Really good eating.” (Of course I didn’t know what a “chucker” was, so I had to ask him, and it’s a partridge, and it’s a very delicious game bird.)

Lloyd took me back to the car, and me, my friend and Lloyd waited for the truck from Reno. Turns out we had pulled over near Power Line Road, named for the huge electrical towers that were over our heads, carrying juice from Washington down to Southern California. They crackled and hissed in the desert heat. “Touch one of those lines and it’d be the last thing you remember,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd and Ray in the front yard at Tom's place

We got to talking a little bit.

Turns out Lloyd’s been a Burner from the beginning. He doesn’t stay out there, but he’s gone to out to the playa for the burning of the Man every year since the event has been in the desert.

“Do you know a guy named Flash?” Lloyd asked.

Yes I do, I said. If you know anything about Burning Man, you know about Flash. He’s one of the outsized characters  who’s been associated with the Burn from the very early years. He’s one of the people who got the event to the desert in the first place. He was once gunned down on the streets of Gerlach, the story goes, by a cook he had fired because she didn’t know how to make good fried chicken.

“Yeah, he was just out at my place yesterday,” Lloyd said. “Bought a trailer from me.

“He calls me Limbo Lloyd.”

And in my mind I could picture the scene, Flash laughing that laugh and telling Lloyd what a great person he was.

Turns out Limbo Lloyd knows Larry Harvey, too, and a bunch of other Burning Man folk. And his father, Judge Charley Carter, was the justice of the peace in Gerlach. And after his father passed away, his mother was elected to the same position. “You’re pretty much everything,” Lloyd said, “Judge, coroner … everything.”

So we talked and talked as we waited for the tow truck. Lloyd used to be a cobalt miner, and he pulled out a box filled with vials of the beautiful rock. I bought a couple. Lloyd talked about the wild horses that still roam the open range, and how he likes to sit out front and watch the big jackrabbits hopping and playing in his front yard. He’s a bit of a hunter, too. But he said,  “I haven’t gotten an antelope tag in 25 years of trying,” and that just seems so wrong. When a man needs meat to eat, he should be able to take it.

The tow truck showed up eventually, and we said our goodbyes to Limbo Lloyd. “You’re gonna stop by when you come back, right?” he asked. “I’ll show you what the land’s like around here.” I got his number, and I have a new friend in the desert.

So we’ll wrap this up quickly now, and thanks for your indulgence. The car’s serpentine belt had snapped, and when it snapped it also sliced through the oil cooler line and the transmission fluid line. It’s not going to be cheap, but the car’s going to get fixed. And even though the transmission lost all its fluid, I hadn’t driven far enough to cook it, so it looks like I won’t need a new one.

So I’ll see you when I get back out there. In the meantime, have a good weekend, and don’t despair. If my experience is any indication, there’s a burner out there, waiting to help.

A vial of cobalt stones that Lloyd has mined.

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

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