A Week in the Desert

In retrospect, I was not prepared.

To recap how I got here: I tried all year to get tickets to Burning Man. Didn’t work. Gave up hope. Through random chance (and kindness) I managed to meet a group of people heading to Burning Man. I Met them two weeks before we had to leave. And the rest, as they say, is history. As this post will recount.

The group of Burning Man virgins I was to head down with all agreed to meet up and pack the RV’s on Friday, starting around 4pm, with the intention of leaving at 10pm sharp. This would allow us to arrive before noon Saturday and have the rest of the day to set up camp, pitch tents, get our bearings, set up the dome, all that.

The reality was far more chaotic. People filtered in from four until midnight. We didn’t actually leave until after 1 am. One surprised member of the troop commented “Oh, you guys were serious about leaving at 10? Hold on, I haven’t started packing.” This was, as I understand it, at nearly 10pm.

We packed an inordinate amount of booze.

And food.

And bikes, chairs, tents, carpeting, PVC, rolls of spandex, tools, sunscreen, throw pillows, hanging paper lanterns. And glowing things. My god the sheer number of glow sticks, EL wire, and glow in the dark do-dads. We filled two RV’s and two trailers, as well as the trucks hauling them.

Only the essentials, please.

We even loaded up a six foot tall welded steel heart.

Bike racks: not just for bikes anymore.

We drove all night, our caravan of RV’s and trucks with trailers. We stopped frequently for gas. Or food. Or regrouping. Night turned to daybreak, then crawled forward to noon and beyond. In the heat of the day we hit Gerlach; last stop before the vast empty desert. In Gerlach we topped off with fuel to last the week, and took on water.

If you are to spend a week in the desert, you must have water. Burning man recommends 1.5 gallons per person per day. We had eighteen people for nine days.

I did some quick napkin math, and while I’m not very good with numbers, my calculations showed we needed precisely: one crap-ton (metric) of water. Luckily one of the camp members had somehow found a giant “water cube”, which was basically a five-foot cubed monstrosity of a holding tank, braced with aluminum bars. More napkin math revealed that while this would indeed hold a metric crap-ton of water, the weight of said water might be a little more than the axle of the u-haul trailer was prepared to shoulder. After much deliberation and shifting of some of the contents in the trailer to arrange the cube squarely over the axel, the agreement was to fill it “mostly” full, and pray everything worked out. So long as the truck could still drive we’d be okay.

So we sped off down the single-lane road towards the empty desert. In our eagerness, our RV might have been piloted a little more aggressively than expected. The coolers shimmied across the floor of our RV, knocking urgently on the door, trying to make a break with our cold beer and food.

Then suddenly we were there. The single-lane paved road brought us to the edge of a vast, flat, empty expanse, like a lakebed long-since dried, white and dusty and featureless. This emptiness was dotted with orange traffic cones which neatly marked out a plethora of lanes winding into the distance.

Since we were there on early passes, the lanes were not filled with cars yet. However, we couldn’t careen wildly about the playa, as the speed limit posted admonished us to keep it down around 5 mph, so as to keep the generation of dust clouds to a minimum. We crawled patiently through the heat until we found the rest of the early birds; lines of cars waiting to get in. The lines were long enough we couldn’t actually see any gate or line of demarcation that would let us know we had arrived.

So we waited.

Every ten minutes or so the cars would move.  Between this time everyone got out and mingled with people from other cars, checking out each other’s outfits or what strangeness was strapped to each other’s vehicles for use later in the week.

An hour of so later our tickets were inspected, our early passes reviewed, and we were given wrist bands to mark the fact that we were allowed in.  The bands were bright red with black, gothic lettering:

“Work Hard.  Don’t Do Stupid Shit.”

A fitting motto, yet a surprising one given Burning Man’s perception from the uninitiated as a hedonistic, hippie-ish playground.  Nobody talks about the work that goes into it.

Next we were caught out as virgins.  We received a welcoming speech at the line between Burning Man and The Rest of the World.  We were welcomed home.  We crawled through the dust to ring a bell and proclaim loudly that we were no longer virgins.  Thusly baptized (and disabused of any thoughts of keeping ourselves in any way clean to start this adventure), we found our site and were shown around the boundaries by a “placer”.

At this point we had about one hour of daylight remaining. So we set about taking care of the priorities: food hastily eaten, tents roughly erected, but most importantly: bikes lit up.

To explain for those who have not been to Burning Man: you are in a desert at night, which means there is no light. If you are moving around, you need to be lit up or Bad Things will happen. People will run into you. You will run into people who don’t see you coming. If you are part of a group, you will become a roving damage field. Bad Things.

So we lit our bikes with battery-powered rope lights, chemical glow sticks, dangling lanterns. And we lit ourselves up too, threading glowing things through our clothes, hats, and shoes. Thusly prepared we ventured out en masse to the playa. This would become a nightly ritual that would never get old. Sadly, pictures can’t do it justice (at least not from my crappy camera):

Playa at night. Got it? Yep, didn’t think so.

Riding across a darkened flat desert, cool wind rushing by you, amid a sea of lights, sound, and occasional jets of fire, turns out to be a spectacular way to pass a night. And we would do this every night because it is simply amazing. Even without a plan of where to go, you could see something in the distance, fly over to check it out, and invariably you would end up at something spectacular. A roving dance party in the desert. An interactive art installation. A fire-breathing machine. Some combination of all three.

A lit stage in the background. Various madness in the foreground.

Next time I must bring a camera that is capable of nighttime photography instead of my poor little phone camera. We returned to camp after 2am. And that would be the earliest we ever returned for the rest of the week.

The following morning, I was awakened by the unexpected intrusion of Sheena Easton into my tent.  Apparently one of the camps near us decided that “My Baby Takes The Morning Train” might make a perfect alarm clock.  This was not the “oontz-oontz” experience I had been promised.  By 8:30 the tent’s greenhouse properties were in full effect and I was thus left with a choice of either getting up or dying in a puddle of my own sweat.

So we rose, gather for breakfast, and planned our fist day on the playa.  But not before we saw our first desert fish:

A fish. In the desert. Sure, why not?

Our camp site was large, and climbing on top of the RV’s gave an excellent view of both it and the rest of Burning Man.

The camp site
Dust devil on the march.

So, first order of business was to get the camp constructed, build the dome and all that. However, the encroaching sun reminded us that if we didn’t rapidly construct something to provide us a retreat from it we would regret it. So shade become the priority.

Shade: a precious commodity.
The common area, which would shift with the sun until every chair was piled under a tiny spot of shade.

With shade constructed, and our camp common area established, the real work could begin in earnest.

Let’s build a dome in the desert.

A few of the guys had actually stayed up late, after everyone had gone to sleep and threaded all the branches we brought down into the steel heart to make it more awesome.

My heart is a work in progress

With enough people working, constructing a thirty foot dome and decorating it, complete with sound system, carpet, throw pillows, and a giant beating heart decorated with leather souvenir bracelets goes pretty quickly.

The fully operational battlestation. Err… heart.

Once we had the dome and our common area constructed, our attentions turned to experiencing all that Burning Man had to offer. And here is where days blend into one another and I fail to take any pictures to help distinguish or document the days. So instead of giving a day-by-day, I’ll try to summarize what boils to the top for me.

We quickly learned there is too much going on for you to possibly see everything. You won’t be able to even attend all the things that sound extremely interesting, never mind the “kind of interesting”, “slightly curious”, “intriguing but rather scary and intimidating” or even the “wouldn’t normally, but what the hell” options. There is a guide book that lists everything going on every day at every hour. It’s daunting. Most of us ended up wandering around and seeing what we ran into.

Which is not a bad approach, as it turns out.

We quickly made friends with our neighboring camps, especially the Shady Lady Saloon, which contributed to the community by holding happy hour every afternoon with custom created bourbon drinks, a new one each day and each one lovely.  The camp just up the street, Spank The Monkey, offered to instruct you on how to either give or receive a good spanking.  Up from that was the “Department of Collections” which had a wall of things or experiences they were collecting.  We planned to partner with the Shady Lady camp to earn the “30 Person Cinnamon Roll (group hug)” item, but someone beat us to it.

And the madness went on from there.  Yoga classes, tattoo stamping stations, football viewing parties (most unexpected), climbing structures, movie walls, and many, many places to have a drink and get to know people.

In between all this, we offered our own camp to people.

Step into my office.

A heart that would pulse light in time with your own heartbeat if you put your finger on a sensor.  Leather bracelets to take away as keepsakes.  A place to sit and relax, listen to music, or even perform some if the mood took you.  Also a good launching place for our camp madness each night.

Everything is perfectly normal here. Just another Tuesday.

We even hosted a guided bike ride around several points of interest on the playa, complete with liquid refreshment in the form of the finest (not really) bagged wine one can purchase (Franzia, natch). This was, of course, called the Tour De Franzia, and the bags of wine were well received.

Count the things wrong with this picture.

Some experiences that stand out for me:

  • Climbing a plexiglass pyramid at night, looking around at the view of the lights on the playa from the top.
  • Finding a massive array of discs in the ground that light up when you jump on them.  Proceeding to leap from one to the next in an attempt to get them all to change color.
  • The Space Cowboy’s saloon, hanging out on second floor, looking out over the railing at the massive Burning Man experience go by all night.
  • Climbing into a giant spinning steel globe, and alternating climbing down to push it around, or sitting in it while others pushed, like an elevated grown-up merry-go-round.
  • A giant tesla coil that made music by alternating the intensity of the crackling lightning that erupted in the gap, a singularly impressive sight at night.
  • Riding an art car around in the wee hours of the night, stopping at art installations, dancing, relaxing, exploring.
  • Paint cannons that blast you with your choice of color (leaving you to figure out how you will deal with suddenly being covered in paint yet without ready access to a shower).
More colorful than the dust one is normally covered in.

The days and nights eventually took on some semblance of pattern.  We would explore in small groups during the day, gather for a group dinner at night (no shortage of amazing food), recount stories from the day, and call out nighttime destinations.  After dinner and clean-up, we would proceed out in a massive lit mounted calvary.  Trying to keep eighteen people on bikes together through a nighttime ride through the streets of the playa was a unique challenge, and invariably we splintered into satellite groups.  We would run into each other throughout the night a surprising amount of times though, given there were sixty five thousand other people there too.

And the mornings would take on a certain pattern as well

Sheena Easton at 8am like clockwork.

Forced out of the tent by 8:30.

A walk to the port-a-potties where along the way a man with a megaphone would offer some morning jab at you.

This would be followed by a group breakfast to recount the adventures from the previous night, then the forming of small groups to explore for the day.

Eventually the week marched on, and the three burns that mark the close of Burning Man were upon us.  The first was the burning of “Embrace”, which was the first-ever day time burn.  We chose to watch this from atop the RV’s since none of us actually slept the night before and just couldn’t bring ourselves to be too far from our beds.  I do wish I would have made myself go close up as the experience looks to be totally unique.

Sunrise is better in a pink onesie. And with your friend the bear, of course.
The bear finds your exhaustion unacceptable.
The burn! Less impressive from this distance…

Here’s what I missed by not being up close and personal with this one.  It is particularly amazing to see the dust devils spawned from the heat of the burn:

This being the first burn, it was sad and shocking to realize that this amazing sculpture was just gone.  One day you could walk up in it, look out from the eyes, marvel at all the work it took to construct it.  The next: it’s just gone.

The second burn was The Man himself.  We gathered the entire camp for this.  We sat in front of the man along with everyone else.  Sixty Five thousand people in one place.  It was remarkable that when people started sitting, everyone followed suit to ensure the people behind them had a decent view.  Art cars ringed the gathering, jets of fire shot out at random intervals.  Booming music played from every part of the ring that formed around The Man.

The Man’s arms were raised.  Fireworks went off and people cheered.  The man burned.  And burned.  The woman next to me and I shouted a discussion over the music while we watched it burn; her reasons for coming, what this meant to her, my reasons, our takeaways.  It took a long time.  Here it is reduced to one minute.

It was a big thing to watch this construct that not only took a massive amount of effort to construct, but also represented the colossal amount of work, time, emotion, expectations, and dreams people put into burning man, burn up into the night.  The message for me: doing good work is what matters, not the remains of your work.  The outcome is secondary, and ultimately temporary; doing the work is the important part.

Our camp originally wanted to stay for the third burn: the Temple.  After The Man burnt, we all agreed we would have one more epic night, strike the camp in the morning and head out before the infamous Exodus got too bad (it’s notorious to wait for hours in line as sixty-five thousand people all try to enter a one-lane road to Gerlach).  So we had an epic night.  And we all collapsed late in our tents and RV’s.

And at 8 am Sheena Easton reminded us that her baby was, indeed, taking the morning train.

And the sun pushed us out of our tents.

And the dome came down quickly.  As did the shade structure, all our tents, the sound system, and the throw pillows.  We packed the RV’s and the trailers and the trucks.  We handed out water to other camps as we drained what was left of the mighty water cube.  We picked up all aspects of our camp, no matter how tiny to ensure we would follow the Leave No Trace principle.

Our departure was slightly delayed by one of our camp members not showing up, but we left one car behind for him and the rest took off.  Exodus was an hour or two before we were again on paved roads.  We drove through afternoon, then into night, finally arriving back into Portland around three am.

And as great as Burning Man was, the shower and clean bed I experienced were pretty damn fine as well.

So a few notes now that I have had time to process Burning Man.

People have many pre-conceived notions of what Burning Man is.  A drug fest.  A hippie commune.  A sex party.  A playground for Bay Area Billionaires.  An experimental society.  An art project.  None of these are really accurate.  If you go looking for something, you will probably find it at Burning Man.  But you will find both more than you expected, and perhaps less in some ways as well.

To live for a week in a place that has no economy other than gifting is hard to describe.  The interactions and behavior this engenders is completely amazing, and a total antidote from the horrible feed of news that comes at you the rest of the year.  Nobody is trying to get ahead, keep up with the Joneses, or accumulate.  People give things, and both parties in that exchange feel great and are better off for the interaction.  I came out thinking the human race might just be okay after all.

Unlike any event or festival you might have attended, there are no trash cans, no facilities other than port-a-potties, no real central authority to talk to or rely on.  Despite this, there is no trash anywhere.  I saw no rowdy altercations or poor behavior necessitating security or authority to intervene.  Everyone took care of themselves and got along fine, all sixty-plus-thousand of us.  A friend reminded me that this is not a festival, it’s a community.  Everyone has skin in the game, and that’s probably a large part of why things just work.

There are two ways to attend Burning Man: you can drive down, pitch a tent or park an RV, and experience all that the place has to offer.  You will have an amazing time.  Or you can form a group (or join one like I was lucky enough to), put in the work and participate in the community.  I got so much more out of this second aspect than I expected, and cannot ever attend in any other way now.

And I will go back.  Oh yes.  I will return.

In closing, here’s a great video summary by another Burning Man virgin this year:

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