RENO – We had done that particular dance that anonymous museumgoers do – step back, shuffle over, mumble vague apologies, trade embarrassed smiles – before I finally felt compelled to speak.
"So, whattya think?"
It was a loaded question. The exhibit we were perusing, "Mutant Rides: Origin of a Species" at the National Automobile Museum, probably could best be appreciated, let alone described, only while under the influence of primo government-grade hallucinogens.
Given that it was a Tuesday morning, and this middle-aged woman next to me seemed sober as a librarian, my question had put her on the spot. Silently, we gazed upon a VW Beetle, circa late '60s, so transformed into a fragmented, surrealist objet d'art as to be nearly unrecognizable as a means of transport.
Finally, this stranger next to me (Lois Gleason of Portland, Ore., if you must know) uttered a single-word response that betrayed nothing, or maybe everything, about this display of wackiness in an otherwise stately museum gleaming with historic examples of vehicular craftsmanship.
I used the Journalism 101 trick of pausing and letting the silence linger. Lois, as expected, gamely filled the conversational void.
"I'm curious," she said. "All of these (cars) are from Burning Man, right? So, is this what Burning Man is all about?"
Whoa. Now there's a loaded question.
How does one categorize Burning Man, that yearly gathering in Nevada's Black Rock Desert that transforms an arid and unfecund landscape into a flourishing hothouse of creativity and unchecked weirdness?
"What's Burning Man about?" I repeat, stalling for time. "Well, it's kind of a whole uh, let's see, it's hard to define. Lots of art, lots of music, lots of cutting-edge culture, lots of drugs, lots of craziness."
That seemed to satisfy Lois.
"It is creative, without question," she said.
Those who have never been to Burning Man – and, this September, you may not get the chance since the event's popularity has spawned a lottery system for admission – can experience a taste of it vicariously in Reno through July 25.
On display are 10 tricked-out rides that may not necessarily be street legal but definitely are desert-tested on the Black Rock playa and, now, deemed gallery-worthy. They range from the whimsical to the wicked, the gaudy to the gargantuan.
"Couch Potato," a three-wheel golf cart transformed, thanks to be the miracle of rebar, chicken wire and papier-mâché, into a plump baked potato with a tacky plaid couch and a matching umbrella equipped with a mister for those hot Black Rock afternoons.
"Boss Hog," a hulking, ocher, spot-welded metal monstrosity with detachable ears and tusks that glow red when the lights are on. It doesn't look so much like a car as a parade float the cast of "Animal House" might devise. The only way to tell that this once was a conventional car is the metal "Volvo" label soldered on the side.
"Bunny Slippers," matching pink mobiles that maneuver like forklifts (there's both a left and right foot, by the way), made from deep-pile shag carpeting, featuring hydraulic twitching noses and eyes made from buttons.
"That one is just so cute," said Olivia Iverson, checking out the exhibit with her husband, Michael. "This makes me want to go to Burning Man."
"We're from Lodi," Michael interjected, "and we saw a bus (in town) once, like a school bus, all painted up different colors and arty."
"But nothing like this," Olivia added. "How can you even drive these things? I mean, like turning and parking them? They're so big."
Parallel parking is not much a problem in the expanse of Black Rock City, although there have been reports of art-car traffic jams that have harshed many a mellow.
The popularity of Burning Man's moveable artistic feasts can be traced to one man: Harrod Blank, the Picasso of art cars. Blank, guest curator of the Reno exhibit, was one of the first artists to use a car as a canvas. He's made several well-reviewed documentaries on the discipline and is widely credited as the spirit behind Burning Man's mutant vehicle fixation.
Blank's first and seminal work, "Oh My God," is on display here. It's the VW bug piece that rendered Lois and me speechless. And by itself it's worth the arduous trek over Donner Pass.
Painted like a beach ball, nearly every inch of space on the car (and the dashboard, to boot) is covered with kitschy Americana. The front fender features a cornucopia of waxed fruits and vegetables, a menagerie of characters ranging from Santa Claus to Lady Justice to what looks like the superhero Silver Surfer, and a number of roosters and rubber chickens. Hovering ominously on the hood: a globe.
Written on whatever open space is not occupied by bric-a-brac is the exclamatory "Oh My God," in at least 10 languages, from German to Portuguese to Chilean slang.
By whatever language, even Burning Man slang, the phrase is aptly put and goes a long way to answering Lois' existentially fraught question: "What is Burning Man about?"
MUTANT RIDES: ORIGIN OF A SPECIES
Where: National Automobile Museum, 10 South Lake St.,Reno, Nev.
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, through July 25
Cost: $10 general; $8 seniors (62-plus); $4 juniors (6-18)
Information: automuseum.org; (775) 333-9300