Somewhere in the Multiverse someone is building the Man. Not just A Man but THE Man. Or are they?! This is Part 2 in a series of updates posted by Caveat as he follows the tangled trail as an agent of the Philosophical Center. Read all the posts here.
The plane ride from Brazil to Alaska was that special kind of hell that only happens when a multi-billion dollar corporation provides “customer service.”
But the worst part was when I fell asleep. I had the dream again. The dream where I’m back on playa, stuck in the year I went six weeks without a shower. You never forget something like that. It’s burned into your mind, makes you wake up in a cold sweat, screaming obscenities at anyone who has the misfortune to love you. If only my ride hadn’t left early. If only I’d been able to find a friend with an RV. If only I hadn’t been in deep playa when the dust storm hit …
If you’re going to build a giant wooden Man and burn it without anyone in your global community being the wiser, Alaska is a pretty good bet. It’s got scenic natural beauty that’s largely unseen. Over 600,000 square miles, much of it pristine wilderness, and a population smaller than the city of San Francisco. And it’s in the United States, so, no messy details with international borders, either, which is a plus – especially these days.
With three Kimba Standridges spotted outside of Juneau, it looked like the Project was setting up shop.
Wait, is the plural form of Kimba Standridge “Kimba Standridges,” or “Kimbas Standridge?” The Multiverse raises so many questions. Everybody thought Stuart was a genius for coming up with this theme. Not me. The minute it was announced, you could hear the hands of the Doomsday Clock ticking another second closer to midnight. We were playing with forces we couldn’t possibly understand.
Three Kimbas is a lot of firepower, you don’t just fly them into Alaska because you like the salmon. But what’s even more interesting is that they were outside of Juneau.
“There might be some wordplay there,” Stuart had told me after I emailed him my expense report. “They’re in Juneau … and our Communications Director, Megan Miller, her radio handle on playa is ‘Juno’ … and Megan is from Alaska. And guess where she and her husband Zac are ‘vacationing’ right now?”
I whistled through my teeth. “So three Man base build leads, the Communications Director, and an operations manager, are all in Alaska right now?”
“It’s being kept quiet, but it’s real,” Stuart said.
“With that much firepower there all at once, they’re either building a Man or they’re holding one hell of a diversity seminar.”
“Actually, that’s possible,” Stuart said. “We really haven’t been as good on issues of indiginous cultures as we could have been, so, we’re always looking for ways to improve our cultural competence.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, and the office book club just read White Fragility and really learned something about the systemic mechanics of oppression.”
“It’s not the book club, it’s a different group focused specifically on diversity initiatives …”
“I’m a James Baldwin man myself. If you haven’t read The Fire Next Time, you’re just blowing smoke. Look, do you want me to go to Alaska and look for a Man build or not?”
There was a long pause. “Three Kimbas Standridge,” he finally said. “It’s a pricey flight, but I can’t afford for you not to go.”
That wasn’t my problem. The one thing I wasn’t worried about was getting paid. The ladies in accounting like me. We used to hang out, back when people hung out. I wish Lila hadn’t moved to Seattle, but that’s the way life goes.
The plane landed and I checked my messages and saw that one of the Kimbas had left a comment on my last post. Dammit – they’re on to me sooner than I’d expected. I might have just blown this whole operation.
But you have a right to know.
Once I got off the plane I had to change universes. I’ll explain how that works later. Right now, all you need to know is that the universe they’re in has cleaner oceans but dirtier skies, and a crack on the moon that looks like an Egyptian hieroglyphic. In this universe, that crack caused H.P. Lovecraft to write about how Cthulhu’s sunken city of R’lyeh was embedded deep in the moon, not at the bottom of the sea, and someday we will all see him wake up and descend upon us all. But in this universe there is no South Park episode where Cthulhu destroys Burning Man. So everything kind of balances out.
Oh, also, in this universe, piranhas can fly.
All right, so, they know I’m coming, but they don’t know where I am. If they’re setting up the Man they could be anywhere in the wilderness around Juneau.
I needed to get started, but first … I checked into a hotel and took a long shower. When I have the dreams, it’s the only way I can sleep peacefully again. Someday, someday, I’ll be able to leave those hellish weeks in the past where they belong.
The next morning there was a package waiting for me, special delivery, from Stuart. A little insurance policy, in case things went sideways. There was a time when that would have been a cyanide pill, but we’re doing much better now
There was no way I could just walk around the wilderness and hope to stumble into a Man build. But for an operation like this, it’s much easier to track their supply lines. Why stay close to a city like Juneau at all, instead of going deep into the wilderness? Because you might need a hardware store. And you’ll want a liquor store. And maybe you’ll want to get your mail. And you might need to get heavy equipment to your site. Also, hospitals are nice to have around, just in case.
Nobody at Burning Man who knew would tell me where the Man build was. Hell, I didn’t even know who knew. But did I mention I’m close to the accountants? A quick call to Lily told me what hardware store in Juneau we were seeing expenses for. And once I knew that, it was just a matter of staking the place out, and waiting.
Kimba had been busy. I very much doubt a diversity seminar needs this many power tools. But, on the other hand, I really don’t know that much about native cultures. I shouldn’t make assumptions. One of the things I discovered studying Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, India, back in the day, was the degree to which some cultures simply don’t have the common western distinction between the sacred abstract and the profane mundane. Why wouldn’t monks wear sports sneakers? It was a fascinating field of study. We shouldn’t make assumptions.
The other thing I learned, studying Tibetan Buddhism in India? Never turn your back on Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. He’s faster than he looks, and always has a ritual blessing concealed up his sleeve.
I sat at a coffee shop across from the hardware store, and waited.
Stakeouts are a long game. It took two days before two guys drove up in a truck with one bumper sticker that said “you’re doing it wrong” and another that said “First Camp problems.” They parked in front of the store. One was wearing a DPW jacket and the other a coat covered in Temple Crew patches. Yep, these were my guys.
As they walked in, I put my paper down, crossed the street, and put a GPS tracker underneath the truck. Then I walked back to the coffee shop, and waited. They emerged 45 minutes later, carrying boxes of screws, nails, pipes, chain, and God knows what else. They were either building a Man or a bomb. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
They drove away. I gave them a little distance, then got in my rental car and followed.
The back roads in Alaska aren’t like the back roads in Nevada, but they’re more alike than you’d think. This was rough riding, but at least the hitchikers all looked like they wanted to kill me instead of tell me about The Secret Law of Attraction.
I followed them along the main road and then off some trails, out to what looked like a work camp a good 70 miles out of town. It’s hard to imagine anybody stumbling across this place by accident. I stopped my car a quarter mile away, and crept the rest of the way in on foot.
There was plenty of wood, plenty of work benches, lots of activity, I’d estimate a crew of somewhere between 20-30. It looked like the early stages of a Man build crew … but there was no heavy machinery, nothing industrial. Did that mean they were going old school? Or that it just hadn’t arrived yet?
The smart play was to walk away and come back late at night, get a good look at whatever was at the center of camp, see if it looked like a golden spike. If I caught a break, this could be a piece of cake …
Then, behind me, a man’s voice, loud enough for a whole work camp to hear: “Hi Caveat!”
I grimaced and exhaled. “Hi, Zac,” I said as I turned. There he was, Zac Cirivello, operations manager, the husband of Juno from Juneau, all the way up north. I knew him back when he was a wet behind the ears communications aide at Media Mecca. I helped him out of a few jams, back in the day … but somehow, the kid was always able to get the drop on me. Every damn time.
He had some guys with him, too. Burly looking DPW types, all with multi-tools in easy reach.
“It’s good to see you, man!” Zac said. “We got a tip off to be on the lookout for you. I love your work, I don’t want to criticize it at all, it’s such a gift to the community, thank you … really, thank you … but … should you really be posting about your secret mission? I just … it seems like that defeats the point.”
“I don’t take edits,” I growled. But he had a point, and I knew it.
“Don’t have to tell me that!” he said.
“Since you’re here, how about you show me the golden spike,” I said.
He gave me a pained look. “Is that really what you think we’re doing?”
“Three Kimbas …” I said.
“We’re friends!” Zac said. “And, honestly, I’m a little hurt that you wouldn’t think that maybe we have our own thing going on? I have interests outside of Burning Man. We like to build stuff! You know that. And this is where Megan’s from … I just … it feels a little depersonalizing for you to think that if I’m building something it must be Burning Man related. I’m … I have a pretty well rounded life.”
“No you don’t.”
“Well, I’m trying to. I really am. You know how much time Burning Man sucks up …”
“Yeah, I feel you there. So what have you got going on.”
“It’s a personal project,” he said. “You’ll see it all. You’re going to be staying with us a while. Until the Multiverse theme is over. I’ve got you a trailer. You want to see your trailer? And a radio …”
“I don’t go on comm!” I snapped. “No radio! Not since 2012. I swore never again, and I meant it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But, we’ve got pretty strict orders to keep you here and give you a radio. But, you can sing around the fire at night if you want to. Would you like that? We’re all pretty excited about that.”
“If this is a personal project, why are you taking orders?”
“Ah, it … you know … Burning Man kind of creeps into everything … come on, take the radio …”
I took a deep breath. “Zac, don’t make me do something we’ll both regret.”
Around him, the build crew tensed.
“I feel the same way, Caveat,” Zac said.
He held the radio out to me, menacingly.
I reached to my belt, and pulled.
“He’s got a laminate!” someone shouted. “BMID!”
I held it out. They backed away.
Zac blinked. “Wait, how did you …”
I stepped forward, back towards my car.
“It’s loaded!” someone else hissed. “It’s got everything …”
Stuart had figured I’d need this. I hate laminates almost as much as radios, but I knew it would even the odds.
I took another step away.
“Guys,” Zac said, “stop him …”
“I dunno,” one of them said, “it says he can go wherever he wants …”
“The laminate’s not actually important!” Zac shouted.
They stared at him in horror. “That’s not what HR told us …” one of them muttered.
“Oh, Jesus …” Zac said.
I made a run for it.
“It wasn’t like this in the old days, was it?” Zac shouted after me. “We used to be able to just grab people and stuff them in a trailer without having to look at their paperwork, right? Because that’s what I signed up for!”
Yeah, me too.
I made it to my car and gunned it. The real work of being a philosopher is never having to need a laminate, but, being fast on the draw has still saved my ass plenty of times. If you can’t outsmart the bureaucrats, stay out of the bureaucracy.