A few weeks ago, an estimated 30,000 people — filthy, dust-covered, dreadlocked people — gathered at Big Summit Prairie, deep in Oregon’s Ochoco National Forest for Oregon Eclipse 2017†, a Burning Man-style festival of art and music centered around the total solar eclipse, at a site directly in the path of totality. Despite a firm vow never to attend Burning Man or anything like it, I was there. Glad I came and even gladder to leave, this is my story.
When Steve Bramucci invited me to Oregon to watch the solar eclipse, he was vague on the details. A once-in-a-generation total solar eclipse, surely that’s worth driving to Oregon for, right? He made it sound like a little party in a park — bands, sunshine, maybe some food trucks. Or maybe I only heard what I wanted to. It wasn’t until a few days before we were set to leave that I realized I was basically going to Burning Man. That’s kind of Steve’s MO, giving me just enough details that I’m intrigued, but not so many that I’ll get cold feet and back out. He knows that by the time I understand the full picture I’ll already be committed. I won’t lie, it works.
I’m decidedly a non-festival person. Possibly my favorite week of the year is the week of Burning Man, when San Francisco, where I live, is refreshingly free of Burners. I try to avoid white people with dreadlocks as a general rule, and music festivals are their Hajj. In fact if I could isolate a single reason I agreed to come, it was the allure of an obviously bad idea. In my mind, once an idea reaches a kind of critical mass of terrible, it comes back around to being good again. Call it ironic, I think it’s more morbid curiosity. If I do something I’d normally not be caught dead doing, could I witness the afterlife?
The website promised “a new collaborative environment transcending nation, language, and creed. In a fragmented world, creating opportunities for the gathering of community is the most noble task we can think of and we do so with the intention to create new relationships and partnerships, visions and ideas that we could not have come up with our own.”
Like virtually everything aimed at millennials, it was preposterously high-minded and entirely vague. It could just as well have been copy for shared workspaces, or vegan mayo.
Oregon Eclipse 2017 is a destination event. The site is far from populated areas and cut off from phone reception which takes all who come further away from the default world of meetings, commutes, and daily grind.
Most people in attendance will travel a great distance and make a great commitment to share in this experience. These are the people who we wish to commune with. Dedicated, authentic seekers of awe and truth and beauty.
A more succinct version would read “DO DRUGS. GET NAKED. SLEEP IN THE DIRT.” It’d probably be more effective, too. But the target demo seemed to understand it just fine, like some kind of rave hippie dog whistle.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. First we had to get there. Prineville, Oregon, the nearest town to Big Summit Prairie (and still a good 90 minutes away), is about nine hours from San Francisco. Which seemed downright tolerable compared to my traveling companions’ drives. Steve and Amanda Miller from Uproxx Video had been driving since LA by the time they picked me up — a six or seven hour drive assuming ideal conditions and speeding.
I took over driving duties once they arrived and got us over the Oregon border before letting Steve take over in the wee hours of the morning. Oregon really doesn’t get enough credit for being mostly barren wilderness. Not to mention the fact that they have one of those laws where you can’t pump your own gas, so even when you can find a station after midnight, most aren’t open. I finally found one after two or three failed freeway exits, and Steve took over. A few hours later I awoke violently to the feeling of rumble strips (which that part of Oregon helpfully provides on both shoulder and centerline) to see Steve leaned all the way forward in his seat, blinking blearily and trying to shake away the drowsiness.
“I think I might need to pull over for a nap,” he mumbled vaguely.
I told Steve I could take over if he needed and almost instantly fell back asleep, the threat of a violent wreck notwithstanding. I awoke again a bit later with no real conception of how much time had elapsed, to the sound of thumping in the bed of our Chevy Silverado. We were stopped at another gas station. It was starting to get light out, and Steve, it seems, had picked up hitchhikers. They’d hooked up with a ride share on Craigslist but it had only taken them as far as Prineville. How this information had passed between them and our driver, I don’t know. Now the truck’s doors were open, exposing us to the crisp dawn air of the high desert, and I was freezing. I considered grabbing my jacket, but it was now buried under two giggling strangers and 100 pounds worth of their gear. Hitchhikers? What the fuck? It occurred to me then, not for the first time, that Steve might not be the best traveling companion, seeing as how I’m the type of person who chooses movie seats based on how far away they are from other people, and Steve is the type of person who invites complete strangers to sit on our food.