My First Burn, part 1

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I’m writing a techno thriller novel.

Well, I say I’m writing it. The truth is, the idea for it sprang up in 1990 and now, 22 years later, I’ve only got 50 pages or so. But lately the pace of writing is increasing, though I still vacillate between being excited about it, and wondering why in the world I’m spending precious time on a hobby that will most likely go nowhere.

Anyway, the novel needed a location where some scientists would do their work. It had to be a secret place, but large enough to contain the industrial-scale fabrications they were inventing. One of the things I like about this writing project is how it causes me to detour from the writing itself as I research the material. Sitting on an overstuffed leather chair, iPad in my lap and broadband Internet all about me, it’s an easy and enjoyable task, researching. But that night I had no idea how far afield this detour would take me.

So I opened up Google Maps and stared at the North American continent. If I were leading this group of scientists and needed a remote and expansive location, where would I go?  As I surveyed Montana, Wyoming and Nevada though the Gorilla glass of the iPad, I remembered something about some alternative festival that happened in some really remote region. I didn’t know anything about it, but I did remember the name. It was called Burning Man.

I switched to Safari and continued my exploration. Typing “Burning Man” into Google yielded dozens of hits. But I was only looking for where it was held. Three hours later, even though Burning Man was less than two weeks away, I had purchased a ticket through eBay (the original tickets were sold out), nabbed a round-trip flight using frequent flyer miles (unheard of on such short notice!), and booked a bus from the Reno airport to the site, a barren stretch of high desert in Nevada 130 miles north of Reno. Something was compelling me to make this happen and the stars were lining up to make it possible.
I was 56 and going to perhaps the most flamboyant festival in one of the most inhospitable environments in the world. Why?  I think it had a lot to do with what I would be doing a few days later.

I was never the real parenting type. I had an incredible amount of fun in my 20’s and 30’s, and didn’t marry Linda until I was 35. We had one daughter, Melissa, when Linda and I were both 38. I was busy being self employed and Linda did most of the parenting. Business was good and we had the luxury of Linda not needing to work. We were the furthest thing from traditional people, but before we knew it, we wound up in suburbia with the wife raising the kid and the husband working long hours.

Twenty years later we were divorced. Melissa had emotional and social challenges, and that strain, together with my penchant for taking every job that came our way and Linda’s resentment, just blew the romance out of the marriage. Once that vanished, the friendship starting dissolving too.

Linda and I were separated four years before the divorce was final. During that time, I parented more than I had ever done before. All through high school, Melissa stayed with us each equal amounts, one week with Mom, the next week with Dad. This eased the burden on Linda, but the weight lifted from her was transferred to me.

We were living in Fairfax County, the high-achieving suburb of Washington, D.C., where most kids have iPhones by their 12th birthday. Melissa’s high school school was given a rank by U.S. News and World Report of 123. This, out of more than 26,000 schools nationwide.

But high school sucked for Melissa.

It began in the womb. Sometime during Linda’s pregnancy, Melissa had a stroke, but we didn’t know this until the day in third grade when Missi had a grand mal seizure in school. That day, the MRI showed evidence of a prior stroke that had happened in-utero 8 years earlier. It was shocking, but not wholly surprising. We finally had an explanation for Melissa’s emotional outbursts and social awkwardness. We finally knew why Melissa had no friends. The same brain damage that caused her to have epilepsy also caused emotional problems.

So high school really sucked for Melissa.

Which is why it was so sweet, in just a few hours time, to put together all the pieces to go to Burning Man. Because between the time I started parenting Melissa full time every other week, right up until the night I bought those tickets, I had put in three years of hard work. And in five days I was going to drive my daughter to college.

For most parents in our neck of the woods, college is a totally normal and expected development. For Linda, Melissa and myself, it was monumental. During the last year of high school, Melissa decided she wanted to attend VCU Arts, the art department of Virginia Commonwealth University; the school that U.S. News and World Report rated as the number one public arts school on the country. Friends or not, she wanted to do what other kids in our privileged community do. She wanted to excel.

For more than a year, I worked tirelessly to help her achieve her dream. When she had a panic attack and didn’t complete her ACT college test, I found her a tutor. I went to all the parent meetings, helped Melissa keep track of her assignments and turned off the Internet when she wasn’t studying for her tests. I brainstormed with her as she wrote her college essay and assembled a video showing her community achievements on behalf of the Epilepsy Foundation as part of her application package.

In the end, her hard work and mine paid off. Melissa got accepted to VCU!

So here I was, sitting in my overstuffed leather chair pretending to write a novel with my daughter upstairs PACKING FOR COLLEGE! And I come across a web page telling me Burning Man is happening in two weeks. I pass it by as I look for information on where it’s held; that’s all I was looking for. Then, I go back to that page.

Could I do it? In just two weeks? Of course not.

Because I’m the kind of guy who buys air tickets and hotel reservations nine months out, that’s why. Because my calendar is never clear for a full week when the week is only 12 days away. Because although I like to be spontaneous, when it comes to vacations, I love more the assurance of putting everything in place way ahead of time.

But could I do it?

KennyReff2012-3I opened the calendar app, scrolled to August 27 and starred at the week ahead. I scrolled to the next week and back to the previous week to make sure I was looking at the right days. Unbelievably, they were clear. The event had been sold out for months, but a ticket on eBay was coming due in 20 minutes. I placed the bid and won. Forty minutes later I had round-trip air for nothing. I was committed to Burning Man.

I have traveled an awful lot. I’ve probably been to more than 30 of these United States, done 90% of the Caribbean islands multiple times, backpacked through Europe, skied in Switzerland, hiked wilderness refuges in Canada, partied in Mexico and trekked to South Africa. With all that experience, except for getting my air nine months early, I spend little time preparing for a trip. I don’t read Fodor’s or Google the Internet in search of how to spend my days away. Aside from having a room lined up, I much prefer to explore and discover along the way.

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But damn, you don’t want to do that at Burning Man.

Of course, I didn’t know this the night I bought the ticket in my cozy chair. It wasn’t until a day or two later that I decided to further explore the website. Before I knew it, I had spent two full evenings reading its content and scanning other blogs, articles and videos. I’ll try to condense those nights of research into a few points:

  • Burning Man is an “annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance,” say the organizers. Nothing exists in this spot before the week of the gathering, and nothing is left afterwards. This is by design and is necessary, because the site takes place on federal land requiring a permit that stipulates that nothing be left behind.
  • The site is 130 miles north of Reno in the Nevada desert. It is routinely 100 to 110 degrees during the day, then drops 60 degrees by evening. Overnight lows can be in the low 40’s. The playa is the remains of an ancient lake bed, and is often buffeted by 40 to 60 MPH winds, which create dust storms and sandstorms that can blind you if you are not wearing protective gear. The air is so arid that you need to drink a gallon of water a day to stay hydrated. Like a car in summer, the trapped air inside your tent can reach 150 degrees during the day. For this reason, you need an additional shade shelter. Your tent and shade shelter need to be fastened into the hard desert floor with rebar, steel rods that are used in construction. Anything less will allow your shelter to be ripped up by the high winds and taken on a desert ride into infinity.

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  • No commercialization is allowed at all. There are no vendors for food, tee-shirts or frozen drinks. In addition, even campers are not allowed to sell anything. Nor can you barter. However, gifting is strongly encouraged, and as people gift one another in ways big and small, everyone’s needs – and more – are met.
  • Only two things are provided by the organization: a grid of streets and porta- potties. And only two things are sold by the organization: ice and coffee. This means you must bring everything you need to survive for a week. Water, food, sleeping shelter, shade shelter, sunblock, moisturizers, tools, lights, stove, clothing, costumes.

Oh, and a bicycle.

  • Burning Man spans seven square miles. This year, 52,000 attended. During its existence, it is known as Black Rock City, and even has its own airstrip.

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  • Except for special motorized art exhibits, no driving is allowed on the playa once you’ve gotten to your camp site. The preferred method of transport is a beat up, old bike. You want to be able to ride, because there is so much to see.
  • Burning Man is about so many things, but art and self expression are foremost. A lot of people band together as a group and drive up from California or other western states in motorcades. Others create massive works of art that require trucks to transport. But some come in groups of two or three in a single car. Some come alone, flying in to Reno and making their way to the desert. That’s me.

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I spent the next few nights at home reading about the art installations, numbering in the hundreds. Some of the largest ones are 40 feet high and have taken the better part of a year to create. All will be burned at the conclusion of the gathering, as is the custom. It forces you to live in the moment, appreciate and love, because everything dies in the end.

I also read about theme camps, where bands of people organize ahead of time to build a large camp with shelter andh some kind of service, entertainment or enlightenment provided for free to anyone who stops by. There are camps on poetry and counseling, yoga and massage, music and video, dancing and drinking, cooking and eating.

KennyReff2012-8I read the Ten Principles, including radical inclusion, decommodification, gifting and radical self expression. Anyone is welcome, nothing may be sold or marketed, outright gifting (not barter) is encouraged and you may express yourself in any way you like, so long as others are not harmed.

I read about the burning of the Man, where on the Saturday night before Labor Day, the centerpiece work of art – that of a man rising close to 100 feet off the desert floor, will be burned to the ground. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1986, when the first event was held on a beach in San Francisco, and didn’t have a name. The Man was eight feet high and 20 people were in attendance. Burning Man has happened every single year since then, growing each year.

So, after spending hours upon hours reading about this amazing, enticing event held in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, I am ready to requisition my provisions.

I am ready to go to Amazon.com

The first challenge I faced was how to get all my shit to my camp. I learned that the minimum amount of water yoKennyReff2012-9u need for drinking, cooking and sponge baths was 1.5 gallons per day. I’m arriving late Monday night and leaving Sunday afternoon. I round it up a bit and realize I need 10 gallons of water. Of course, I also need a tent, some kind of additional shade, a sleeping mat and bag, and food for all this time. Then, there’s the camera, iPod, cigars, rum and wild clothing. It adds up in a hurry.

I look and look for posts on how people deal with this problem if you’re flying in and taking a bus to the site. No luck. Either there’s very few people that go to this thing from the East coast, or when they do, they don’t live to write about it. Or maybe they just camp right where the bus drops them. But not me. Turns out, Burning Man is one big-ass party. It’s going to be very loud, day and night. I read numerous warnings to bring ear plugs if I want to get any sleep. However, I also learn about one area they’ve set aside for walk-in campers only. No cars, no RVs, no semi’s loaded with rave sound systems. That’s my spot.

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Only problem is, it’s a full mile from where the bus will drop me off.

The solution, I figure, is a heavy duty wagon. A few clicks later and I’ve found a steel wagon with 10″ rubber tires that can haul 400 pounds and weighs 45. Its weight is important… I plan to check it as luggage on the flights to Reno, and the baggage limit is 50 pounds.

I also find a nice 2-person tent. It’s light and sets up easily. But when it arrives, I realize that although it has a rain cover that envelopes the whole thing, the tent has two screen windows that do not have coverings to zip them closed. I have a passing concern about the sandstorms I’ve read about. But the rain cover does extend down to the ground and covers the windows. It isn’t until I’m eating lunch in Houston on my layover on the way to Reno that I read about the conditions this year. People are saying its the driest summer in 30 years and that the dust storms will be worse than ever. Will my rain cover keep the sand and dust from coming in through the windows?

But this concern hasn’t crossed my mind on the day the tent arrives. I also take delivery of a large box of freeze-dried food. Enough food for a full week, three meals a day, it says. We’ve got freeze-dried granola with bananas and milk for breakfast, freeze-dried chili for lunch, freeze-dried beef stroganoff for dinner and freeze-dried peach cobbler for desert. Wow. Wonder how it will all taste.

As I sort through all the stuff I need for the trip, I realize the challenge is keeping my checked luggage to a minimum. The wagon is already one piece. I figure I’ll get all the rest of it in two more cases. Then, I decide I better check on the luggage rates. Holy shit, United wants $100 for the third checked bag! Oh, oh. Gotta make it all fit in just one checked bag and a carry on.

Over the next three days, I play around with a myriad of configurations to try to get all this stuff into one checked bag and one carry on. This doesn’t include the water, propane and bicycle, which I am picking up in Reno. Still, it is daunting. In the end, I find myself walking up to the departing gate with a carry on bag that is clearly too large, a fold-up chair, a 15-pound shade shelter and a stuffed backpack!

 

 DAY ONE

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My outbound flight is from Washington, D.C., the preeminent haven of pasties. I don’t think they’ve even seen a backpack come to the gate before, much less this. After some discussion and bartering with the gate agents, we settle on me paying that additional $100 so they can check the “carry on” bag. In return, they let me take on my other items, which still count four.

I try to sleep on the plane. It’s a 6am flight to Houston and I got up at 3am. I had a banana smoothie instead of coffee just so I could sleep. But it doesn’t come. Too many thoughts are swirling around in my head. What happens if the wagon doesn’t make the connection? What happens if any of the bags don’t make it?

We finally land and I head to a restaurant to have my last real meal for a week. I order steak and eggs, savoring each bite. And finally, I read some of the Burning Man newsletters that I subscribed too. It is then that I read about the current weather conditions and dust storms. One author says, “If you don’t have a tent that seals completely, twice over, you will end up a dusty mess and you will never get it off.” The post also urges you to put anything of value, like cameras or iPods, in a zip lock bag and don’t take it out unless there’s no wind. My thoughts turn to those stupid screen windows on my brand new tent. Will the rain cover keep the dust and sand out?

I’ve got one more stop in civilization. Once I land in Reno, my plan is to take a taxi to Walmart, which is two miles away. There, my new $88 Huffy bicycle and white basket await me, prepaid. (This was another thing that took hours of work to figure out. All the bike places mentioned by Burning Man and the bus company were sold out). This is where I also plan to buy 10 gallons of water, propane, rum, and if I’m lucky, some kind of mixer for the rum that won’t taste awful after being baked in a tent at 150 degrees day after day.

I finish lunch and head to the connecting flight. All of a sudden, a little bit of Burning Man is upon me. As I approach the gate, I see girls with orange hair and men wearing silk scarves. I see beat up backpacks and hiking boots, water bottles and smiles. People are clustered, talking in small groups. I overhear “60 miles per hour”. Were they talking about the winds?

KennyReff2012-11I am shocked at the scene and my eyes tear up. I must have made a thousand flight connections in my life and never once has much changed between the first flight and the second. This time, it is different. This time, it’s a flight to Burning Man.

As I write these words on the plane, the captain has come on the PA to announce our descent into Reno. I open up the window blind and see the Nevada desert below. It is various shades of brown. You can see mountain ranges and valleys, but all of it – high and low – is the color of dirt.

 

Miraculously, all my checked items arrive, even the 45 pound steel wagon, making its way down the luggage belt.

KennyReff2012-12Next stop, Walmart.

I lock all my items together with a cable lock and head out to grab a cab for the two mile ride. The first thing I notice as I enter the taxi and bus area at the airport is a woman with a well-made sign that says “I need a ride to Burning Man.” I ask her if she knows about the bus that comes in a couple of hours. She says she does, but she’s not sure if it’s sold out. And she can’t call because she’s from Chile and her cell phone doesn’t work here. Before I can answer, a couple of others volunteer their phones and someone else looks up the number for the bus company. In three minutes, she’s got a reservation.

I mention to the group that I’m going off to Walmart for a bike. Does anyone want to split a taxi? Someone tells me that there’s a free shuttle to a casino that comes every 15 minutes and it’s a short walk to Walmart from there. Another guys says he’ll join me. We hop the shuttle and get dropped at the casino, but the Walmart is nowhere to be found.

KennyReff2012-13We ask a guy where it is, and he says it’s across the other side of the highway. Hop in the back of his pickup and he’ll take us there. In DC, you’d get arrested for riding in the back of a pickup! The two of us pick up bicycles. My friend decides to bike back to the airport. I take a taxi. I have a feeling the next week is going to be grueling. Why bust my chops now?

Back at the airport, the place is teaming with burners awaiting the “To Flame” bus. Only one bus was scheduled initially. But now, it’s been upped to three. Then the announcement comes. Only one carry on up top and one bigger item in the luggage area below. What??? Here we go again.

While waiting with everyone taking the bus, we get to talking about who is staying where on the playa. People describe the camps they’re in and it dawns on me that this is why no one has written about how to get to Burning Man if you’re flying in on your own. No one goes solo if you’re flying! All of them have friends that are already there. They have all paid fees to be part of a camp that supplies shelter and food. All they need to bring is their clothes!

I look at my 45 pound steel wagon and sigh. It’s my first lesson of Burning Man. I know it won’t be the last.

But you know what? The people around me, after hearing that I’m doing this solo, volunteer to say they’re with me, so we can split the bags, suitcase, shade shelter, chair and wagon between us. Problem solved. And I have a feeling it won’t be the last problem solved by those I meet.

We finally board the bus and all the stuff makes it on without a problem. Next stop… Save Mart! This is a planned stop for the bus so that people can buy their 10 gallons of water per person (which weighs close to 100 pounds), and other last minute items they might need.

As we pull up, I see a fenced off area with dozens and dozens of palettes filled with 2.5 gallon containers of water. There are also about a hundred really beat up bikes coated in dirt. Water: $5 for 5 gallons. Beat up bike: $50.

The three buses unload and 130 burners descend on the Save Mart. Boas and fishnets, high heels and hiking boots, feathers and leather. After all these years, the employees and locals know all about Burning Man. They are as friendly and welcoming as they are amused. I’m sure it must be great entertainment for them. And good for the economy too. Turns out, the Burners have a great reputation in Reno.

KennyReff2012-14We load back onto the bus and begin our 130 mile drive to Black Rock City, the official name of the temporary city that rises at Burning Man. After a brief delay due to Reno’s rush hour, we are out the open desert. Highway 447 winds up along the valley.

KennyReff2012-15Mountains come and go on either side of us. The sun is low in the sky, casting a red hue over the brown soil. The sky is deep blue, not a cloud to be seen. The shadows are long and… and the girl sitting next to me has just completed sewing some kind of colorful fluffy material to a black bra, holds it up for all to see, and takes a bow among the applause.  She makes sure to mention t me that she won’t be wearing the shirt under it once she’s on the playa, of course.

Amazingly, we make it to the main gates in just about three hours, encountering hardly any traffic at all. This is a shock to everyone, including the bus driver, who says it took nine hours the day before. But our luck runs out once we’re through the main gate. It turns out that some camps have set up in the turn-around zone at the bus depot which could cause the buses to get stuck if they entered. It takes two full hours for them to work out a solution, which is simply to drop us off somewhere else. During the wait, some people with hardly anything to carry jump ship. I gotta sit and wait it out.

I’m finally off the bus around 2:00am. I load everything onto the wagon for the very first time and begin my trek to the walk-in camping area, a mile away.

I make it about one hundred feet.

This wagon is heavy! The playa is supporting it, but with 100 pounds of water, plus everything else, its just too heavy to pull a mile. I decide to camp right where I am for the night. In the morning, I’ll figure out what to do. It will do for a few hours. I suffer a fitful sleep that night. I had been awake 23 hours before I got to lay down. The air is thin at 4000 feet, and I’m pretty excited, I guess. I wake up three times and need to pee far more than my pee bottle will hold.

Note to self… get a larger pee bottle.

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(Continue to Part 2)

 

11 Responses to My First Burn, part 1

  1. smashy bones says:

    I’m pretty impressed to see that you made it there by airplane and managed to bring all you needed. I’d like to try the same thing someday. The wagon is a great idea. Did that shade thing withstand the wind?
    I’m keen to try BM solo someday.

    • KennyReff says:

      Like I said, it’s definitely a challenge to do that when you’re flying in. But it was pretty cool to do it solo and have 100% freedom and control of your day. I also loved camping in the walk-in area. And yes, that shade thing totally held up and it was a very windy year in 2012. You just need those 12″ steel stakes. For $80, it worked well.

  2. Ah, Virgin Burner loses his cherry. Nice. Might be interested in what Ray Bradbury had to say about writing a Novel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_W-r7ABrMYU . BTW, totally cool that your daughter got into art school.

  3. Zehlia de Souza says:

    Thanks for this blog–I enjoyed it tremendously. It’s on my bucket list to go to Burning Man, but I don’t know if I will ever be able to, so I really enjoy the vicarious experience of your description and photos.

  4. Andrew Knight says:

    Incredible story! Now I see why themed camps are so vital. Looks like I’ll be winging it like you!

    • Kenny Reff says:

      When I returned from Burning Man last year I found that there’s a really vibrant local burner community here in the Washington, DC area. It’s been great getting to know them and as a result, I’m camping with a 50-person theme camp called DC Not Washington. This time, it will be 180 degrees from last year! For instance, as part of the dues, you get space for your stuff on a huge cargo container that is driven out by truck and is waiting for you at the camp when you arrive. So I will hardly be roughing it this year.

      I’m trading the tranquility and beauty of the walk-in area for camaraderie. In a few weeks I’ll know which I value more.

      • Kenny says:

        OK, so now Burning Man 2013 is past and I know which I value more… beauty or camaraderie. The winner is, decisively, camaraderie! Having a group of friends was really wonderful. In a few weeks, I hope to post a memoir of my second burn.

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