Burning Man

We found out we’d be attending Burning Man back in May of this year. It took no less than nine friends helping me in an attempt to get tickets in a “click the button at the right time” process that resulted in only one person being successful. Thanks to that person, my mate Rob in Canada, Dan, me and Ramsie would be making the pilgrimage to Black Rock City, somewhere north of Reno in Nevada.

Burning Man is not a festival. This is repeated and written on many publications and signs. Burning Man is a temporary city, an event made up of the contributions of its attendants. There is a team of people that are on-Playa from July, laying out the city with basic roads, the entry area, building the man, the temple and center camp and installing porta-pottys. A similar team remains behind after the event to do clean-up also, a combination of volunteers and paid workers. The “rest” is created by those that come to Burning Man. The temporary citizens of Black Rock City provide the entertainment, food, alcohol, art, shelter, education, classes, transport, gifts and services that makes Burning Man. It is the reason most cars entering the city are stacked to the brim with gear.

Not only do people provide, they are passionate about it! One camp providing snow cones and french fries each day had a spruker out on the road armed with a megaphone, directing people inside to get refreshments. Once on Playa, there is no money (except for the purchase of ice) and no trade so all of this is provided with nothing expected in return. Our contribution of a bicycle-towed chariot to offer people rides and a land sail to provide fun for people was something, but not a lot compared to the elaborate constructions and offerings we saw.

It’s a good thing tickets are sold so early because we spent weeks in preparation. First we built the chariot, then the land sail. With two bikes to take, we engineered a double-hitch bike rack for the front of Ramsie and even considered an extra hitch on the rear.

I borrowed water containers from friends so we could carry enough and there wasn’t an inch of kitchen drawer space left. We took two fridges, one full of beer, the other with food. She was packed to the brim by the time we got going, with the bed fully occupied with a giant bean bag I’d found on the side of the road a few days before departure. I’d had to fight for it since Dan wasn’t as impressed as I thought he’d be, but it would end up being pivotal to our comfort on the Playa.

We left they Bay on a Friday night and took our time, finding camp not far north of San Francisco and dumping stuff outside the car so we could crash.

The next morning, it was an easy drive north east from the Bay Area to Reno, where we dropped off Cleo for her own doggy-vacation, we met up with our friends Kathi and Shannon in the town of Fernley’s Walmart. We were definitely amongst burners here with most car parks occupied by rental RVs and others that were in various states of disrepair. It wasn’t hard to pick out K&S’s brand new Mercedes Sprinter van among the lot. We stocked up on a few last minute supplies then made temporary afternoon camp at Pyramid Lake, 60 miles south of Black Rock City. Dan picked the spot and while we expected to be sharing it with many of our fellow burners, we mostly had the rocky beach to ourselves.

We were treated to an absolutely gorgeous sunset made angry by the smoke of a forest fire burning nearby and we caught up over some snacks and beers. We hung out there until 9pm when Shannon decided it was an appropriate time to leave.

With night well and truly fallen, we could see the line of tail lights snaking its way north on the far side of the lake, exactly where we were headed. It was our goal to get to the entrance at 12:01am when gates opened. Get there sooner and risk being parked in a holding lot, delaying your entry. Later and you’d be stuck in lengthy traffic. It was a game and we were playing to win. The traffic moved slowly but consistently all the way to a dirt road….

The dirt road on BLM split the one lane traffic into about five lanes and we all crawled along. This was our first experience of the Playa’s dust, a feature of the landscape that will be with us for the rest of our lives.

We engaged in some delay tactics, stopping at porta-potties and they worked a treat, getting us about ten cars back from the front of the queue right on midnight when a giant fireball was sent into the sky, welcoming the citizens of Black Rock “home”. Unfortunately we had some issues with our tickets, having to collect them at will call because the mail system hadn’t worked. While others came and went with smiles and tickets, Shannon and I stood at a tiny service window looking into a shipping container where no less than seven people became involved in trying to find our tickets. There was definitely a breakdown somewhere, but in the end, we were welcomed in.

We were glad to be following Shannon and Kathi to our camp at 7:00-G because we were in a foreign land.

We found our spot at around 2:30am and parked the vans sort of where they needed to be, knowing we’d set up properly in the morning. Despite our exhaustion, Dan suggested a ride of our bikes out to see the Man and I was convinced. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of our Burn. The Playa was empty, only some artwork was complete and the Temple was untouched. We rode around the dusty flat, our eyes wide and taking it all in – a massive open space lit only by the people who occupied it.

We only slept a few hours that morning before we were woken up by our camp mates making arrangements. It took us most of the day to set up the vans, get shade and wind walls erected and learn our way around.

Over the next ten days, we experienced “our first burn”. The biggest adjustment the first couple of days was people’s dress. I would say about 5% of people were dressed “normally” (which included myself), everyone else was in some form of drag-style costume, lingerie, skimpy shorts or nothing at all. At first I didn’t think it was necessary, especially in this harsh environment to wear such silly attire, but eventually I understood that a large purpose of Burning Man is for you to be able to do whatever the hell you want. Turns out a lot of people want to dress-down! Didn’t mean that I had to though, I was doing what I wanted.

The conditions were the harshest I’ve ever experienced with extreme heat during the day and winds that would spread tonnes of dry, fine, white dust. We had two days without wind and we learned that we preferred the windy days to the still ones, happy to cop the dust for the temperature drop it brought with it. A couple of times out on the playa we experienced complete white-outs where we could only see a few feet in front of us, the sun almost blocked out from the dust. With snowboard goggles and neckerchiefs to cover our mouths, we were appropriately equipped to endure the storms. Every morning I would have a bird bath with our sink sat on top of a towel to catch the MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) and we managed to have a few bottle showers using our camp-neighbors’ shower-tent set up which was glorious.

It was much too hot to be in the van at all during the day which mostly meant early mornings and it was windows open during the night to try and cool the vessel down. That meant Ramsie was covered roof to wheels, floor to ceiling in Playa dust. Even now, weeks after the event, she still has a light coat – I think she will be a Burner van for the rest of her life. With all of our shade structures set up, camp was just bearable during the day but we didn’t spend much time there. We’d generally have brekkie – trying to have eggs a different way each day – then venture out on the Playa till lunch. We’d come back from whatever adventure we discovered and skull the chilled Camelbak of water in the fridge, eat lunch and chill for an hour or two before venturing out again. When sunset came around, we returned to camp for jumpers and dinner then out again to experience the night – when the Playa really came alive.

No Burn would be complete without an OTB (Over-The-Bars) crash… On our way out to explore the Playa one sunset, we came onto the esplanade into a particularly sandy bit of “road” and all of a sudden my front wheel locked up and I experienced the slowest endo of my life. Dan saw the whole thing from in front of me after I started yelling out, having no idea why this was happening! I was laughing by the time I hit the ground, the drink I’d been holding spread out on the playa along with the contents of my basket. Dan pulled the bike off me and we realized my jumper had worked its way through the grid of my basket and wedged itself between my front wheel and the frame, hence stopping me in my tracks.

Our second full day, thanks to an early night, we woke just as the sun was creating a glow on the horizon and, credit to Dan, he suggested we get up and experience a sunrise. We did just that, leaving our bikes behind and taking a stroll along the 7 o’clock street towards the Playa. Right as we got to the esplanade, the sun peaked over the horizon, right behind the man, something which I’m sure wasn’t an accident. It’s burning orange light threw long shadows on the artworks – the Playa was waking up, or going to sleep… After doing a bit of a circuit and making our way back, we saw multiple people wishing others “good night” having been out all evening partying doing who-knows-what.

The day that followed that sunrise was a particularly warm one so we kept our activities to a minimum. When evening threatened, we ventured for high ground. We knew about a scaffolding tower sitting about four stories tall right near our camp with a comfy-looking couch at its peak. We’d noticed it on our sunrise walk because we’d seen a woman having a great time with a man’s face between her legs – anything goes on the playa, hell, they’d probably met only a few hours before. Anyway, that couch was occupied with a group of people so we tried our luck at the nearby mustard tower. With more civilized stairs to get atop this larger platform that was just as high, it was a sweet spot. There were a couple people up there but we soon had the place to ourselves and so made ourselves comfortable on the huge beanbag, looking out at the man. We stayed up there for at least two hours, watching the night descend on the Playa. Like every other night, people howled like wolves as the sun dipped behind the mountains, a celebration call that the heat of the day was over and the night time festivities could begin. The transformation of the city from day to dark would have made a great time-lapse, but I was happy watching the real-time version with my own eyes. There was always something to watch from our vantage point.

One day we ventured out to “K” street where the elites were rumored to be camped, people like Elon Musk. While we didn’t see anyone rich and famous, we did see some extensive camp setups. There were sets of identical RVs lined up within inches of each other, all hooked up to massive generators to run their AC units. I’m sure people were paying top dollar to be a part of these camps and we never saw anyone because they were obviously all inside in the cool! On this excursion, we experienced “rain” on the Playa! A rare thing, it had been our first day with clouds in the sky and now this! We yelled out, putting our mouths to the sky, able to see individual drops coming down at us, barely enough to make an impression on the dry ground. The only evidence after the short sprinkle was specs on car windscreens.

Despite only a slight breeze, Dan was determined to get his landsail out for a ride and so we went to the outskirts of the city to suss out a spot. We’d been advised that the playa and esplanade was probably too populated and so found a great big space of dirt along the last row of camps where we’d be able to play. Just as we were touring the furthest street, we came along a camp that had what else but a bunch of land sails sitting out front! We pulled in and talked to the people lazing on couches and they welcomed us to the Black Rock Yacht Club. Their boards looked much bigger and stirdier than what Dan had built but they told us that their sails were taken off windsurfers same as his. There wasn’t a lot of action from the campers thanks to the lack of wind but that didn’t stop Dan, he was desperate to get on one of these things. The campers kindly offered him their easiest ride and off he went onto the flat land to get going. A few more people came up wanting to try and did their best in the conditions with no one having much success, except for one guy with sailing experience who hopped on one and promptly sailed across the desert with finesse. Huh?!

One late afternoon while Dan was sleeping off some day-drinking, I rode out to a dome on the esplanade for a quick-fire TED talk session. Shannon came with me and we found the small dome crowded when we arrived. I managed to sneak a spot on the floor and listened to the various talks, each paired with a powerpoint presentation with only 15 seconds allowed per slide, it really was a quick-fire round. We heard from a guy explaining how presidential elections have been rigged since the start of democracy, a scientist who got us all excited about the round numbers of the universe (radius of the earth, speed of light, distance to the moon), a lady who researches sexual pleasure in females, and a girl who grew up on a farm with emus. It was random, interesting and fast! A very cool format.

Probably the most outrageous thing we witnessed over the Burn was the Thunder Dome. I’d seen it at a distance before, noticing people situated all over this three-story high skeletal dome structure wondering what the hell it was. Now with Dan, we found it again and parked the bikes for a closer look. It was pretty much a copy of the 1985 Mad Max film feature, only the spiked clubs and chainsaws were replaced with padded baseball bats. People had climbed all up and over the dome to get a look into the centre at the action where two fighters were suspended from the hips by bungees to the roof. We climbed up to join them, looking down into the fighting pit. Once the fighters were strapped in, a “referee” (a man dressed in black leather, ridiculous boots with piercings and spikes all over) would wave his giant staff in the air drawing a huge circle. This was the signal for his helpers to pull the fighters back to the edge of the dome and hold them there until he let the staff drop. At this, the fighters would be released, swinging fast to the center of the dome and into each other, baseball bat weapons swinging, legs kicking and arms grabbing. It was insane. Fighters swung in and out of control, copping kicks to the face and bats to the body. A commentator heckled each fight which lasted about three rounds with the crowd determining an ultimate winner. There was no shortage of volunteers and it didn’t seem to matter who fought who. Girl on girl, guy on girl, tits out, pants off whatever.

The 747 plane was the biggest non-artwork structure on the Playa. Cut-off behind the exit doors and with only stubs for wings, this aircraft-turned-night club prominently sat on the Esplanade lit up all disco-like with noise emanating from it constantly. Dan managed to get inside one night when I had an early one, explaining a mostly empty interior with a few seats and an open-top dance floor where first-class once would have been. We talked to one of the camp members just before the plane was towed into the middle of the Playa for a party and he explained that it was stored on a ranch 15 miles away, a spot leased by the camp members. Each year they tow the plane in on the single-lane highway, stopping traffic in both directions. They obviously come in early!

One particularly hot day we ventured out to the playa with the mission of hitching a ride on an art car. Calling these things “cars” is a stretch, they actually have to go through an on-Playa DMV inspection which requires the vehicle to resemble a car or golf cart as little as possible. They are moving dance floors, discos, bars, party palaces, artworks. Most had hooks for bike storage at the rear, impressive light installations and massive sound systems.

Out on the dusty flat Playa, we spotted a large dragon on wheels and rolled up to the driver asking for a ride. A quick “sure” and a wave of his arm and we were on. We hung our bikes off the back and clambered up the layers of furs and cushions to the rear platform where only one other woman was sitting. With a stock of parasols on board, we shaded ourselves as our new friends took us into the deep Playa. They seemed to be out touring, stopping at any artwork they found intriguing and that was fine by us! We ventured all the way out to the trash fence, a construction-style plastic fence that represents the border of Black Rock City. So-named the trash fence because it is designed to catch any errant rubbish that might fly across the dust.

Out here there was still artwork to admire – a massive statue of a man and woman holding hands, all covered in chrome and an inconvenience store that our friends held up. Getting off the car, one of the guys armed with a parasol demanded we be given gas and candy by the people milling about the “store” that resembled a 7-Eleven. They all played along before we made a quick getaway. On our way back to the city, we were stopped by a woman who waved her arms standing directly infront of the car. Travelling at the mandated 5 mph speed limit it was no trouble to stop and when she yelled out “COLD BEER!” we understood the hold up and off we hopped! Not only did we receive ice cold beer, it came in a stubby cooler that read “Deep Playa Beer Delivery”. Just another Black Rock City contribution.

While I am not an art person, the artworks spread out over the Playa are something to behold. Not only were they unique pieces to look at, most of them were interactive or at least climbable – there to be experienced, not just admired. For instance, we sat and drank tea at a table two stories high with nothing but air beneath the chairs, Dan climbed atop the head of a giant mosaic’d alligator, we saw a woman perform on aerial silks hanging from a lit-up upside-down ice cream cone, we explored the various rooms and hallways of a hodge-podge building complete with both a windmill and clocktower called “The Folly”.

A lot of these artworks are designed to be burned and you can see that in their construction. Others, we learnt, are re-purposed in the real world like a 14-storey stained glass whale and its baby that are now in downtown Reno after being originally admired at the 2016 Burning Man. Not only was burning in mind, but fire was definitely a theme amongst some installations. During one of our first nights out on the Playa, we were drawn towards a big flame lighting up in the distance. We rode over to find a small crowd gathered around a large platform that was surrounded by large industrial fans. There was a small pilot light at the centre of the platform and while we saw three men in firesuits holding long rods, we could never have guessed what would come next. One of the suited men approached the platform with his rod and triggered a flow of petrol to come out of it at high pressure. This immediately ignited and the flames were sent into the air by the fans in a tight tornado. The noise, the power and the heat were immense as he made the tornado grow ever taller. The crowd stepped back when a second suited man added his gas rod to the mix, building up the flames even more creating a white-hot tornado. Woooow! A guy approached us explaining that our shocked and awed faces were hilarious and I completely believe him. I could not believe the magic of what I was seeing. Just as soon as it started, it was over, never to be seen again. That was part of the magic of Burning Man, there was no set schedule to these things but you never felt like you missed out because there was just so much going on.

The first real burn we witnessed was on Thursday night – The Birthday Cake. We’d seen pits of embers across the Playa of smaller burns we’d missed but word had spread about this one thanks to its size and rumoured firework show. We filled our night by bar-hopping and riding the Playa as we normally did but when midnight came we sat at the front of the perimeter pointing towards the 5-storey tall tiered-style cake. It looked as if it was made of thin paper but we’d seen people on the different levels on previous days so it was obviously structurally sound. Right on midnight, fireworks began going off on the cake, subtle at first, then louder, higher and more frequent. It was a beautiful show of sparks and just when I was thinking that it must be going to ignite itself from the fireworks, sparkler-style fireworks went off on every tier of the giant cake, so much so that you could no longer see the structure! The crowd roared and we started to see flames. The cake became a silhouette against the colour of the flames and with a sideways breeze, not only were ashes and embers being sent out towards the crowd, but fire tornadoes were forming – many of them, all following each other on the same path. About twenty minutes after the start of the show, the cake eventually began to crumble and fell to the side like a leaning tower of Piza before crashing to the ground accompanied by more cheers from the crowd. I actually felt sad to see it fall!

The Folly was to burn at midnight on Friday and so we cruised around the Playa until then. Having not visited the Temple since our first couple days, we thought we’d pay it another visit and it had become more sombre than before. There was hardly any space left to place some initials it was covered with goodbyes, memories and sorrows. People were hugging, some meditating, others sobbing as they said their goodbyes, it was a powerfully emotional place. Dan managed to find a space on the temple wall to say goodbye to someone and so we remained for a while, remembering. It was easy to find the Folly afterwards as a huge crowd had gathered along with a circle of art cars providing a perimeter to the impending burn. When it got going, we understood what it might have been like during the middle ages when villages were burned to eliminate enemies. Yes, most of Black Rock’s burns are orchestrated and accelerated by fuel, but it was incredible to see the absolute pace of a fire engulfing something once it really got going. This structure was an elaborate mini-village and after a few spot fires were started, the whole thing was down in about 15 minutes. Again, the heat was unbelievable, the white hot colour of the flames licking every crevice of the structure until it was nothing but smoldering embers on the ground.

8pm Saturday is the first time every resident of Black Rock City was in the same place, congregated around the object at the center of our city – The Man. We trailered in chairs on the chariot but they didn’t last long, since the crowd around us was sitting. Just as Shannon ran out of his tequila, a man approached us and asked if we’d like anything from the bar, opening his coat to reveal handles of most liquor types and mixers, graciously filling our cups. It was his first Burn and what a great contribution. We knew the start of the burn was upon us when the man slowly lifted his arms to cheers from the crowd. With his arms raised high, fireworks started the show, with flames following engulfing the platform first.

Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG

Before the man had a chance to really catch fire, we all heard a large BOOM and a huge fireball exploded right at his feet, setting the whole lot on fire in a second. That was a Burning Man-first, exploding the man!

As the statue turned to embers, Dan went off to find a bathroom and so I stayed put with lights on my beanie so he could find me again. Still I stood my ground when the perimeter security dispersed and the crowd emanated towards the man but I doubted Dan would find me. Next step was to go back to the bikes and hope he’d be there. I stood by our bikes, ringing his bell every now and then as a chance he might hear it if he was close by but there wasn’t much else I could do. After about an hour, I eventually saw him, looking like a desperate, lost 5-year old coming through the crowd. He’d become terribly disorientated because there was no giant man to navigate by anymore. It’s ok, he was found, we quickly went to find a bar.

Sunday, the last official day of the event, things started getting taken down. Having taken days to build the city, it was amazing how quickly it was all disappearing. It felt like we’d been in Black Rock for much more than just 9 days so it was weird when the “Glamcocks” camp was no longer on our corner, when the mustard tower got broken down and our favorite artworks became pits of embers. We spent most of the day breaking down camp, leaving the last shade structure until an hour before sunset. Cruising the Playa, it definitely felt like the end. There were fire pits burning for people to dispose of combustible trash and the beer offerings had become sparse. We visited the site of the man and though we missed the official funeral, we saw volunteers picking through the smoldering pit for MOOP. A quick visit to the Temple and we discovered it was already closed to visitors with volunteers standing in the bright white sun protecting it while they set it up for that night’s burn.

Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG

The Temple burn at sunset was a very different story from the man. This was a place of worship where people had laid out the contents of their hearts. There was no fireworks, no explosions. A small precision of people entered the temple and laid torches to the ground. The crowd was completely silent as flames started licking up the walls. Still we remained silent as the glow started warming our faces. Tears ran down peoples faces as they watched, others held their friends who were sobbing silently. Over the other side of the circle, a sudden cry broke out, whether it was a wail sorrow or joy, I don’t know, but it latched on and the noise grew around the circle until everyone in the crowd was screaming. Screaming in pain, in anger, or just to release. Not long after, the walls of the temple began to fall, slowly like dominoes, hardly making a sound when they hit the ground. Dan and I stayed together this time as the crowd gathered around the embers where we saw people praying, meditating and even a couple having sex right there on the ground!

The exodus from the city began shortly afterwards but we were not a part of it, per the advice of Kathi and Shannon, we planned to leave early Monday morning. After cruising the Playa one last time, we made some last preparations at camp before hitting the sack.

At 4am, Burning Man Traffic’s twitter feed told us that the wait time to exit the festival was over an hour but it was an improvement over the 3-4 hours it had been overnight so we made a move to leave. Poor Dan had a run-in with a sign on his bike, hurting his toe badly, but otherwise it was fairly seamless. Kathi was the new owner of my Burner bike so we had room on our rack to put our trash and so we were looking like full-Burners as we made our way out of the city.

It took us only 25 minutes to get onto the highway thanks to skilled lane-choosing on my behalf! We saw an RV in a ditch just before the highway and a van stopped on the highway which I’m sure would cause accidents later in the morning, but we were happy to be on our way. Dan slept as I drove the dark road away from our temporary city. Slowly, but surely, we were getting closer to real life.

Just before sunrise, we were at Pyramid Lake and we took the advice of a fellow burner to turn right, instead of following the rest of the crowd on the south-bound highway. Going full-circle, we stopped at Pyramid Lake exactly where we’d started our Burning Man journey and just as the sun peaked over the horizon, we crawled in the back for a nap.

Dan woke after an hour or two, no longer able to sleep thanks to the heat and the bugs, he’d already had a dip in the water and was keen to get on the road. He unsuccessfully tried to convince me to stay in the back with our giant beanbag, but I wanted to be upfront and so we drove into Reno, now excited for the next part of our trip, getting back with Cleo.

She’d had a great time and was as happy to see us as we were to see her. Our sitter had enjoyed her company and obviously looked after her well. When Cleo got into the van, she took a long look, seeing the dust-covered shitshow for what it was before resuming her normal position between us.

We went straight to the Truckee River running through town, the same place we’d hung out on our way up to Burning Man. We’d been dreaming of the flowing cold water in the depths of the dust storms and despite the cold, we got in and rubbed our skin sort-of clean. Dan got a better sleep on the grass in the shade, after which we got moving again, stealthily ditching our giant beanbag on the way.

By the time we got to Truckee, it was late in the afternoon and we realized we weren’t ready to go back to real life yet. Being the end of a holiday weekend, we also didn’t feel like sitting in traffic. So, I messaged my boss and we found a sweet camp up in the forest, completely alone, just as we liked it.

Burning Man was the experience of our lives and we can’t wait to get back there next year.

Some notes:

  • Many of these photos are not my own because it doesn’t feel right to carry your phone around the Playa. People are there to be whoever and whatever they want and there shouldn’t be a record of that.
  • There were 58 arrests over the 10 days and all but one of them were for drug possession. People definitely describe BM as a drug-fest and for some people, like our camp neighbors, it was, but like everything else about the Burn, it is what you want it to be.
  • Instead of police, there were rangers patrolling the Playa and I didn’t get the impression they were on the look out for wrongdoers, they were on the lookout for people who needed help.

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