Caravansary: Burning Man, 2014. The (almost) Full Story. Part 1
As I begin decompressing from my first trip to Burning man and imagining my second trip to Black Rock City next summer, I reflect on my first “Burn.” I’d taken notes and shot thousands of photos, and felt like sharing this to bridge the time between that amazing experience and the adventure that waits in summer, 2015.
I have always been frustrated when I asked friends and acquaintances that had been to Burning Man to tell me what it was like. Typically, there is an uncomfortable pause followed by a blank stare and a few mumbled words forming partial sentences. The story was almost always the same, “I have no idea how to explain Burning Man. You’ll just have to go and experience it for yourself. It’s just amazing, and I can tell you this, it changed my life.”
I knew what I had to do. After a few phone calls, learning how to purchase tickets, and some strategic planning, a group of four of us began organizing our trip to burning man. As the planning unfolded and I learned more, I realized there was a unique connection between the project I’d been working on and this amazing experience of going to burning man. I started filling out the application for a media pass so I could shoot photos, write, and thus launch the blog and share Burning Man as part of it all. I was selected to receive a media pass and it all started to come together.
Burning Man changed me. It changed my life. Once I was “home”, (ironically, a term Burners use to welcome you to Black Rock City rather than back to your "normal" place of residence), I understood what everyone was struggling with when trying to explain it to me before. How do I explain my experience? How do I even begin to share what Burning Man is? I have no idea. As I sit to write this post, my mind is wandering back to the experience I emerged from only a few months ago. It’s as if I’ve been in a dreamland so completely unique and important, I’ve had a hard time relating to “here” in the “default world” as experienced burners call our regular, day to day world outside the perimeter of Black Rock City. I experienced a utopia, a magical place. But, was it really just a place? Not really. It was an experience. The people made the experience. The place made the experience. My thoughts and introspection made the experience. Burning Man is far too complex, amazing, and diverse for me to explain through a single story. With that said, I’ll do my best to share it with you.
And so it began.
After a twelve hour day of driving from Phoenix, Arizona, we were excited to be in Northern Nevada only 240 miles away from the gates of Black Rock City (BRC) for our first Burning Man experience. We were a rag-tag group consisting of yours truly, my friend and business partner Paul, a good friend from the neighborhood, and her great friend from Denver. It was to be all of our first “burn”, as the experienced Burning Man followers frequently called it. After a long day of driving, we found a wacky hotel in a small town and decided to stay so we’d be rested and have a fresh start for the last couple hours drive in to set up camp at BRC. All were in good spirits and excited to see this thing called Burning Man in the Black Rock City that grows from the middle of a prehistoric lakebed in a desolate part of Northern Nevada. With taxidermy bears and slot machines in the lobby, we felt as though we were on the set of a Quentin Terantino movie and just didn’t know it was part of the plan before arriving in this weird (to say the least) place. After insuring we weren’t at a metaphorical "Bates Motel", we headed to the lobby bar/casino/restaurant/smoking/catch all room to find a drink. After a couple solid pours at the bar, it was lights out for me.
We woke and found a gas station with coffee. It was the best gas station coffee ever! Or, at least it seemed that way after cruising around the old silver mining town desperately searching for caffeine to help us on our way to BRC. The drive was going to be great. And short!
As we approached a small town along the road to the Black Rock City gates, something strange happened. Traffic began to build and hundreds of cars began to slow and form a literal parking lot on the two-lane highway. In true adventurer fashion, we opened the doors to the jeep and our unofficial DJ of the trip plugged in her iPhone and started playing a great EDM (Electronic Dance Music) play list, effectively turning our car into a DJ booth and the highway into a dance floor. People exited their cars asking if anyone knew what the heck was going on, and proceeded to join us on the side of the road dancing as we waited for traffic to move. We assumed there was an accident, or something along that line, and traffic would start to move again soon.
The dance party on Nevada Highway 447 lasted a lot longer than we ever thought possible. Traffic moved a few hundred yards every 20 or 30 minutes, then back to a dead stop. We were so amped to get to Burning Man! But it soon became obvious what we were in store for. We were stuck for hours. I’ve never seen anything like it actually. The 240-mile last leg of our trip took us approximately 14 hours to complete. And, then it got “worse”. We arrived at the entrance to BRC behind what looked like an ocean of cars, trucks, motorhomes, and trailers. The traffic jam continued.
Slowly advancing as a wave of dusty vehicles across the massive expanse of this white, barren lakebed, we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel…well, it wasn’t a tunnel, but you get the point. This wave of vehicles was bringing the caravan to the waypoint we called Burning Man. We were informed at the gate that we had to go to a will call area and get our tickets before passing into Black Rock City. Ok, sweet, we’re exhausted, hungry, and ready to get out of the car after 12 hours, so, no biggie…the line will be fun!
The line at Will Call was not really a line. It was more like the crowd in front of a stage at Coachella or something. Holy crap, there were so many people. We all stood there meeting dozens of weary travellers stuck with the same fate as us. I remember thinking, “why am I doing this again? I’m tired and this has become a real pain in the ass”. The line to get our tickets took us another 6 hours.
We made it to the front gate of Black Rock City, tickets in hand at 335 AM, 18 hours after leaving the hotel for our 240-mile drive.
We were greeted at the gate by a kind, jovial gentleman. He was awfully happy for 345 in the morning! He asked us to get out of the car and asked where we were from. He looked at our tickets then proceeded to explain what was next on our journey. The speed limit on the “Playa” and throughout all of Black Rock City was 5 mph. We were informed to be careful and not go even a little more or we’d be cited by the BLM officers patrolling the “city”.
Then, completely to my surprise, the kind gentleman staffing the entrance gate informed us that since we were Burning Man Virgins, there was a traditional ceremony for us to experience prior to passing through the gates. After his explanation, I began wondering if I should have taken a right off the highway and just stayed in Vegas for a week! You mean I have to roll around on the ground in front of everyone in this crappy, white, dust? I have to cover my clothing in this insane dust? Wait, then I have to walk over to the suspended bell and hit it as hard as I can with this length of steel rod and yell as loud as I can “I’m not a virgin”! You have got to be kidding me! Well, when in Rome, right?
Covered in dust, we returned to the comfort of our road trip vehicle and began the journey to find our camp. It was pitch black, and aside from our headlights and a few neon flashy, "blinky" things on tents and vehicles, we were relying on a map and directions from a friend of a friend of one of the people traveling with us. We were going to stay at the skydiving camp. We found our camp and began setting up tents. It was 415 AM. We had been awake for 22 hours. I was wondering what the hell I was doing here. It started to rain. Not just any rain, mind you. This was a serious deluge from the heavens. I was thinking; “here we are in tents, on a dusty, prehistoric dry lakebed, getting hammered by rain. Sweet.”
When I awoke the next morning, something happened. I was exhausted and soaked (thank you crappy rain fly on my tent), thirsty, and hungry. But, that didn’t matter. There was something else going on. I could feel it. I wasn’t sure what it was, but all of the crap we went through to get here suddenly seemed insignificant. The energy of this place was intense. It was palpable. Everyone in our group stumbled out of our soaked tents and looked at one another as if we had just gone on a vision quest. Good hell, what a commute!
The first person we met was a seemingly mellow guy. He walked over from another tent in the camp and introduced himself. “Hi! Welcome to Burning Man. I’m Dirk. Do you need anything?” Geez, the neighbors are cool around here! After a short chat, Dirk learned that it was the first “Burn” for all of us and gave us some suggestions for getting around and sorting through Black Rock City including a great class on the "road system". He’s from Berlin, Germany, an avid skydiver, and this was his second Burn.
The first day on the “Playa”.
We spent a few hours setting up camp. There were 3 tents and a pop up awning serving as the hub of our sub-camp. We were camping with Burning Sky, the skydiving group that one of our friends was part of. Coolers, water, drinks, food, bikes, decorations, and lights…check. It was time for me to figure out how these roads worked. Honestly, it was time for me to figure out what the hell I just got myself into! Media Mecca was located at Center Camp. Ok, that sounds great! I have to go there and register my gear as well as sign my agreement to shoot photographs at Burning Man. I had been accepted to photograph and share my experience at BRC and launch my project from Burning Man. There were a few details. Media Mecca? Ok, that sounds interesting. Where in the?....What in the?.... is Media Mecca. I’m at 5 and D. So, a quick review of the road system was in order. Thank you, Dirk. BRC is organized by main “streets” organized around the Center Camp. There’s three o’clock, six o’clock, and nine o’clock with the increments in between serving as Center Camp “out” roads. Next came the letters. Starting at Center Camp and fanning out toward the outward border of Black Rock City were roads labeled A, B, C, D and so on. It started making sense. If I needed to get to a camp at 9 and C, and I was at 415 and B…I better carry some food and water. It was going to be a bit of a ride. Check. I hopped on my bike to ride over to Media Mecca to register my camera and get my Media Pass. The road system was perfectly organized and intuitive. It was truly amazing. It was on the ride I finally realized the sheer scope of this place. I have never seen anything like it. I’m still in shock.
I arrived at Media Mecca and met the great staff there. What an interesting cast of characters! After being welcomed and registering to receive my media pass, I enjoyed 2 hours of conversation with people I’d never met. I was amazed at how natural the conversations went. “We have an Art Car tour for media leaving at 3. You should join us!” Well, I most certainly will.
Paul was volunteering with the Emergency Services Division (ESD) of Black Rock City and, thanks to his connections, contributions, and volunteer work, we had the opportunity to buy into the meal plan at one of the large camps. Sweet. Let’s do lunch. The camp was extensive and well organized. These are the guys and girls that were on the Playa at BRC to help anyone who found themselves in a medical predicament. Cool folks. Had a great chat with an ER doc from Central California and enjoyed a salad and apple with some cold iced tea. I learned there were dozens of EMTs, Paramedics, Nurses, Physician Assistants, Nurse Practitioners, and Physicians staffing various response vehicles and an “urgent care”. Oh, the “urgent care” is called Rampart! Now that brings me back. Gage and DeSoto, Squad 51, Rampart…Emergency 51, the show from the 70’s that likely was the unconscious inspiration for me to become a firefighter/paramedic. Holy moly, I’m feeling old. I digress.
Next it was back to Media Mecca for the art car tour. What the hell is and art car anyway?
A little background information would be apropos at this point. Once you’re on the Playa, at Black Rock City, your car, truck, or giant suburban gas guzzling grocery getter must remain parked unless you’re leaving Burning Man. The only vehicles driving around are infrastructure related vehicles such as public works, emergency services, and porta potty maintenance vehicles. Well, there are 2 more categories, Mutant Vehicles and Art Cars. So, here’s the deal, if you create a Mutant Vehicle, you have to register it at the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles). Hilarious. Art Cars are huge vehicles that take several people out to the art installations that span the Playa for miles. These vehicles have impressive sound systems, lighting, and dance floors. This was another page in the chapter of “I’ve never seen anything like this before”. These things were incredible! The Art Car that took us on the tour was a three level vehicle complete with dance floors, a killer sound system, and DJ booth. We drove around the Playa looking at all the exhibits and watching Burners ride, walk, moon walk, dance, and move about using every other form of human locomotion one could dream up. What a ride. Great tunes, great people, great sights. The enormity of Black Rock City was again etched in my mind. After our tour, we returned to Media Mecca and I was inspired to go meet people and check out this amazing micro universe.
Walking for miles.
I walked for hours. The sheer level of over stimulation was a rush. There were so many things to take in and the energy was buzzing. I was walking around with a camera and forgot from time to time I was supposed to be shooting photos! Thousands of people, camps, bicycles, Mutant Vehicles…where the hell do I even start?! So, I had a drink. Or three. And I just let it unfold.
My first camp experience was at the Desperado Camp. This was my first “Theme Camp” which is expected to be visually stimulating, interactive, and include events or service per Burning Man’s official “Theme Camp Criteria” link. Theme camps and Villages form the interactive nature of Black Rock City. I noticed an interesting character and thought I’d ask if I could shoot a few photos. As I approached the camp, several people walked up to me with their arms open and smiles on their dusty faces. After a few hugs and a refill of my beverage transportation and consumption device (AKA, cup) I began another new adventure. The Desperado camp folks were hilarious. We talked and shared stories and met a few passers by. This led to a game of, wait for it…wait for it…Playa corn hole. My friends, I could not make this up. I’m playing Corn Hole with a bunch of dusty peeps, in various states of dress (or lack thereof), in the middle of a dry, prehistoric lakebed, with a DJ planning some EDM, and a fully functioning bar gifted to Black Rock City by the Desperados camp. My stop for a photo turned into a two-hour layover inclusive of dancing, DJs, drinks, and a group of new friends, some of whom I still keep in touch with. So, think about that. It really speaks to one of the amazing aspects of the nature and Ethos of Burning Man. You stumble across some strangers and, when you leave a bit later, you have new friends. Alas, it was time to continue the walk.
My walk from the Desperado Camp was like a walk through a movie bordering on what I’d consider describing as a hallucination. Simply by virtue of its existence, it was apparently expanding everyone’s consciousness, including my own. I’ve never seen so many creative and interesting people, outfits that appear to have been inspired from a hybrid screening of Dr. Seuss and Mad Max, combined with the palpable energy of sheer joy and radical aliveness. Everyone is just that. Alive. It’s truly incredible to witness.
I finally arrived at Center Camp. Just when I thought I’d seen it all. Wait, no, I never thought that at Burning Man. It was impossible to see it all, do it all, and experience it all. I digress.
Center Camp is the hub made up of Center Camp Café, and surrounded by camps such as the Media Mecca, Arctica, and a panoply of other spots serving up more of the wonderful experience of Burning Man. There isn’t any running water, electricity, or typical “comforts” of home at BRC unless you bring it yourself or share it with someone else who did. You can only buy 2 things at burning man, ice and coffee. Everything else is shared and received through gifting. It’s truly one of the most amazing parts of the experience. There’s a saying in BRC, “The Playa Provides”. And, it truly does. The serendipities and synchronicities boggle the mind. Arctica is where you can buy ice. Man, does that ever help. Make sure you have a way to carry it back to your camp though…or your arms are going to feel like you just finished 2 back-to-back cross fit workouts on the surface of the sun. How I know this you ask? Did I mention I walked to Center Camp the first day? Yup, lesson learned. The second item available for purchase is a nice cup of coffee at the Center Camp Café. Coffee never tasted so good. Again, you’re going to have to trust me on that one.
After returning to our camp, freezing from carrying ice and ready for something to eat, it all really hit me. This place was so fantastic, significant, and so important. I knew I to pay attention there and try to learn how to share it back home. There was a special energy that transcended peoples petty differences and, in contrast, supports their uniqueness, creativity, and dreams. Our first full night at burning man would be an introspective one. We sat around the camp and share stories of how each other’s day had unfolded. Our mini sub-camp had grown by 6 people and we had a lot to share. We all agreed on one thing. It was difficult to get here. The situation at will call was challenging for everyone. And, that many hours driving and waiting seemed so terrible and frustrating while we were "in it". But, as we sat around reflecting on the experiences thus far, we all realized that if it had been too easy, it wouldn't have felt as powerful now. It parallels life in that way. There's something about having to really dig in and work to have something. The effort all seemed not only worth it, but part of it. This was already a great Adventure. I couldn't even imagine what awaited us.