It helps that I’m on a bus with about 30 other Burners. We left Reno 90 minutes earlier on the Burning Man Express and cruised up the highway toward the town of Gerlach. The open highway was before us and we sped though the desolation of rural Nevada. Then, truly without warning, we came upon the traffic jam. We are now about 20 miles out, and for as far as we can see, our single lane forward is draped with vehicles at a complete standstill.
In true Burner fashion, everyone turns off their engines. We get off the bus and converse, stretch, jog and take pictures. No one minds the standstill.
After about an hour, the traffic starts moving. I’m pretty sure traffic coordinators are pulsing the flow as they do at the close of the event. Instead of crawling forward, burning petrol and mucking up the environment, we turn off the engines and wait until there are a few clear miles. Then we drive to the next position and rest again. Pulsing takes no longer than crawling, but it’s far smarter. And more enjoyable as well.
Burning Man has begun.
Some of us on the bus take advantage of one of the breaks to grab a group selfie. The sun is setting, the mountains are behind us, and there is some low vegetation close to the road, the last we would see for quite some time.
We climb back in the bus, and I hook up my iPhone to the radio system. I select Thievery Corporation, and within minutes a few of us are dancing in the aisles. Roman, Gabe and I are especially connecting, something we’d continue during the week to come. It’s something that’s really easy to do because this year I’m burning with a large theme camp called DC not Washington.
That’s the name of the camp, which is informed by the fact that those of us in the nation’s capital want the rest of the country to know that there’s more to Washington than monuments and the federal government. “It’s DC, not Washington”. It’s DC that has some of the best nightclubs in the country, some of the most vibrant neighborhoods and some of the coolest people. DC’s got that; not Washington.
Anyway, just like the people of DC, this camp has a reputation for being fun, yet seriously accomplished. The camp will have close to 50 people, a 3-story steel infrastructure with a 5-story viewing tower, a massive shade structure, two showers, a fully stocked kitchen with running water, and a roof-top bar with plenty of libations. It will host close to 30 events and workshops over the week. It will be glorious. It will be vibrant. And because it would be located in the heart of Black Rock City, it will be loud.
Last year, my first at Burning Man, I camped on my own in the quiet and beautiful Walk-in Camping Area. No cars or motorized vehicles of any kind allowed, the vast and commanding desert sprawling before me. I came not knowing a single person. I left having befriended many.
But after returning from Burning Man last year, it was a joy to discover that there are a whole lot of burners in DC. So last fall, I dove in. I went to meetings in restaurants and bars, joined dance parties, soaked in hot tubs in burner homes, attended meditation and yoga groups, rode in bike parties with portable 400 watt sound systems blasting EDM, and went to a 4-day regional burn within easy driving distance. By the time Burning Man came around again this year, I was talking almost daily with more than a dozen new friends over Facebook, messaging, phone and e-mail.
But, despite all that, when I was invited to join the DC not Washington camp, I hesitated.
I fondly remembered my solo adventure on the edge of the city. I enjoyed the beauty and the quiet. I savored sleeping in till 11am after partying till 4, rising on my own schedule and looking out at the desert mountains as I washed up and drank a prefect cup of coffee. And when I was ready to immerse myself in the city, I’d peddle into the beast on my bike once again.
Or, I could join DC not Washington and be part of a vibrant community. I’d be risking sleep. It wouldn’t be nearly as pretty. And though I certainly could, I wouldn’t choose to walk around naked. Beauty, privacy and quiet, verses the camaraderie of dozens of friends. In the end, the friends won out. Now, as we drive the last couple of miles through the dusty roads of Black Rock city, my thoughts turn to arriving at this large, thriving, impressive camp.
Only Mother Nature had other plans.
She decided that the challenge of the barren desert wasn’t nearly enough this year. She decided to throw in a bona fide hurricane.
To make the ambitious design a reality, an advance team of people worked to construct the camp prior to the start of Burning Man. Charles, Matt, Khady, Cobalt, Montana, Kara and others arrived on Monday, a full week before the official start of the festival. But the day after they arrived, the hurricane roared in.
Winds topped 70mph. Torrents of rain poured down. Thunder bellowed and lightening struck the playa. Canvas, Mylar and cotton structures collapsed. The storm was so violent that a massive steel pole supporting Center Camp bent. The hurricane set back construction of the entire city for days.
So when the rest of us arrive at midnight Sunday night, we find ourselves gazing upon a camp that was only partially complete. But its massive shade canopy and the kitchen were up, and that was enough. We quickly set up our tents in the shaded area and are then surprised to see dinner being served at 2am.
I say to our cook, Jim, “This is fantastic. I never expected to eat tonight.”
“Doesn’t matter the time,” he says matter-of-factly as he sets out the last of the large bowls filled with freshly prepared food. “We need dinner.”
This is the first of probably 20 massive meals that he and his wife, Christian, would prepare for the camp over the course of the week; a true gift to our community.
I awake Monday morning to the sound of heavy metal. But it isn’t music; it’s the sound of steel flooring being locked in place as construction of DCnW’s cube continues. Only now, the advance team has the entire camp at their disposal. So the first day at Burning Man this year consists of helping to erect our camp. Heather and Roman worked it all day long! The playa provides.
And a funny thing happens while spending this day at work. We bond even further. This is so often the case here; something that would normally be looked upon as a bummer is turned on its head. Negative becomes positive. Is this the karma of the playa, or is it that we shift our attitudes and perspective, because, well, we’re at Burning Man!
During the weeks leading up to the festival, I realized that DC not Washington would not be possible without the tireless efforts of its three leaders, Charles, Matt and Khady. Like everyone here, they are impressive and accomplished people. And like many here, I think their lives in the default world have been greatly influenced by their experiences on the playa. They’re all business when need be, but fun and irreverent when things are purring along. And always motivated by love and a true spirit of community.
So, as soon as everyone can be assembled, Charles explains the trash cycle. Burning Man is a Leave No Trace event. I think they coined the term, and it means what is says. You leave nothing behind. Even shower water must be evaporated on tarps.
After dinner that night, Ako, Neil and me bike into the playa to tour some of the art. Like a whole lot of folks in our camp, they are birgins, Burning Man virgins. It’s so much fun leading them through the city streets and watching their reaction as we enter the massive, open playa, huge art installations compelling our attention every way we turned.
Neil, a professional urban planner, is so taken with the experience over the week that he would later get permission from Burning Man to bring its principles to crowdsourced real estate planning. That happens a lot here. People see a better way for society to behave and want to bring it back to the default world.
And Ako changes as well. She’s probably in her early 40’s and is married with a teenage daughter. She wanted to come to Burning Man, but since it’s always on Labor Day weekend and right before the start of school, it’s not that easy if you’ve got kids at home. This is not the kind of “vacation” where you can just pack up to hone on Monday and be at school on Tuesday. Their solution was that Mom would go and Dad would stay home with their daughter. So Ako went off to Burning Man and stayed with DC not Washington, whose members she had only briefly met prior to this week.
What a joy it is to see her transform over the week! Each day, her style of dress is a little sexier, her smile a little wider. Weeks later I meet her husband who says the plan is to join her in two years, when their daughter is done with high school.
Over the course of the evening, the three of us spend a few hours biking around to various art installation on the playa, including our own DCnW CORE project, part of the Circle of Regional Effigies, which create a ring of art that surrounds the man a few hundred yards out. This year, there are 24 wooden art installations chosen to represent regions around the world. It’s an honor to be selected, and the DCnW camp is host to the DC CORE team who constructed it over many months.
Standing before us is a 20-foot pyramid with the Eye of Providence (as illustrated on the the back side of a dollar bill) atop it. The pyramid shape was chosen to be an anti-monument to Washington, again, in an attempt to distance ourselves from the typical monuments found here. It’s “skin” is made of industrial cargo pallets, reflecting this year’s Burning Man theme: Cargo Cult.
Cargo Cult? Turns out (and this is a true story) that during World War II, the U.S. decided to have a large military presence on a small island in the South Pacific called Melanesia. It was used as a staging area for the Pacific campaign against the Japanese. Routinely, massive loads of cargo would be dropped from planes to stock the island. But we weren’t the only people on this island. There were indigenous tribes-people who had never seen a plane, much less canned food, radios, flashlights and more. To them, all this cargo was a gift from the gods.
Then, in a flash, it all disappeared. The war had ended.
But the indigenous people liked the stuff that fell from the sky, so they prayed for more cargo to fall from the sky. They even found a deity to worship – John Frum. One explanation of the name says that due to the language barrier, the one word that was a constant was “from”. The GI’s would introduce themselves. “I’m John, from Oklahoma. I’m Kevin, from New York.”
John Frum became the god of the Cargo Cult. The anthropological literature says that to this day, some still worship him. Any why not? Consumerism has run amok over most of the world. Why not on a small South Pacific island as well?
With that in mind, Ako, Neil and I bike over to The Man. This year, reflecting the Cargo Cult theme, he stands upon a HUGE spaceship. Times had changed. We no longer expected John Frum to drop cargo from aero planes. Now, he would return to us in a star ship.
We arrive at the base of The Man only to be stopped by volunteers who are surrounding the perimeter. Something looks odd. Then I realize it’s lit by work lights and there’s Caution tape all over the place. The Man is closed! Last week’s hurricane delayed construction, causing the opening to be delayed by two days. We bike on, knowing the week had just begun.
I head out the next morning to explore the city. My first stop is Camp Contact, managed by my friend Darrell.
Camp Contact is so named because it’s dedicated to being the home of contact improvisation dance on the Playa. They gift to the community an amazing number of workshops that involve this kind of wonderful dance, as well as other forms of human contact, both physical and spiritual – yoga, acro-yoga, contact dance, relationship exploration and enlightenment and more.
I am struck by the design and vibe here. There are six or more very large domes which host public workshops. And for its camp members, there is a large community kitchen, shaded sitting area and private chill dome. They even have a sauna powered by a wood-burning stove, a pet project of Darrell’s this year. All the members’ tents are set up under a beautiful series of colorful parachutes.
It is an incredibly impressive and beautiful physical setup, and the tranquility and community spirit are equally beautiful. I talk to Darrell about this and he informs me that the camp has ten years experience and has learned from every one of them. I marvel over the domes, lounges, showers, parachutes and camp members. After a decade on the playa, they certainly got it right.
I end up spending all afternoon there. I participate in an acro-yoga class, followed by a class that involves slow movements and touch. It’s now mid afternoon, and probably a hundred degrees. After the workshop is done, I stride over to the outdoor showers, strip down and have a wonderfully refreshing shower. I then steal into the members-only chill dome. Dozens of camp members are lounging around on a floor covered edge-to-edge with carpeting, rugs, mats and pillows. Huge colorful parachutes drape the ceiling. People speak in hushed tones. Even moisturized air is being pumped in. It is the absolute definition of serenity.
I hang there for two hours! Am I an honorary camp member for the day? I hope so.
With the sun now lower in the sky and the temperature dipping into a more comfortable range, I start my bike ride home. I take it nice and slow, appreciating the wonderfully creative and inspiring Burning Man sights.
I cross paths with Walter the Bus… a frickin’ VW bus on steroids. This thing is more than 30 feet long and 13 feet high! It weighs close to 20,000 pounds, uses 22 quarts of engine oil and sports more than 10,000 LED lights, And if you look closely, as my friend Darrell pointed out to me, you’ll see that’s not quite a VW logo on the front. My oh my, I believe I see the Man in that logo!
And then I come across the famed Barbie Death Camp. For ten years, these sickos have been publicly torturing our dear Barbie. Someone explains philosophy to me, but I’m distracted by all the things to ogle over. I think it’s about how her perfection and conformity does a disservice to our girls who live in a diverse and complicated world. Obviously, she must die.
I also pass by Black Rock City’s very own radio station. You can sort of see it there, with the 94.5 sign, behind the cyclists. They play music 24/7, but also provide important information on traffic conditions, weather alerts and public service announcements that advertise some of the thousands of events and workshops ’round town. Little did I know that in a few days time, we’d rely on them for some important decisions regarding more unusual weather.
It was also time to visit Center Camp, which has often been likened to the Mos Eisley Cantina featured in the first Star Wars movie. It’s that weird and diverse. But it’s also wonderful. Lots of acro-yoga, aerial silk performances, visual arts and music. You can also fill out the Burning Man Census here, and see the results of past tallies.
For instance, I discover that while the majority of burners are 20-35 years old, there are tens of thousands that are in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. And there’s whole bunch of little ones who haven’t even completed their first decade. I also learn that the majority who come make less than $50K a year, but close to 20 percent earn more than $100K. More than 20 percent have Masters degrees. More than 80 percent vote.
Center Camp can be a respite from a dust storm. You can sleep here. Or you can buy a cup of coffee. The coffee bar and a couple of ice dispensaries are the only things allowed to be sold at Burning Man.
You will spend a week here and dole out perhaps $6 on coffee. That’s it. One of the Ten Principles of Burning Man is decommodification. Here, there are no souvenirs hawked, no T-shirts peddled, no junk food sold. Yet you will go home with more tokens of love and memories than you ever thought possible. And you will gift what you have to gift. It may be a service like photography or massage. It might be mojitos or shots. It might be a dance floor and music. You will spend no money, yet have all your needs taken care of. It’s that good.
The first time you read the Ten Principles, they’re just words on a screen. But as you start to live them, they become real. They make sense. If the world followed them, it would be a far happier and safer place. You can check them out here.
I finally make it back to camp, and see that our structure is starting to take shape. And the 5-story viewing tower is completed! I head up and take in the panorama of our city. It is truly breathtaking and can’t be conveyed in pictures. Here, 68,000 have made this camp their home. Where once was a barren desert, grows now a tribal city born of common aspirations and vision. There is truly no other impermanent metropolis like this on Earth.
I take pictures of my friends, Seth and Roman, and of the city. Dozens of visitors stream through the camp to climb to the upper platform and take in the panorama. The tower is open to all day and night. Through our efforts, this is one of our gifts to the community.
But now it’s time to help prepare dinner for 50. The camp used Google Drive in the weeks prior to organize a whole lot things, including meal duty and other volunteer opportunities. We’re all asked to help with three meals over the week. Not being a morning person, I signed up for lunches and dinners. Little did I know that I would witness the sunrise three times this week, not going to sleep until well past past breakfast time. Who knew?
Shena is my guest at dinner. I had met her at Camp Contact earlier in the day and invited her to join us. She pitches in for dinner duty and enjoys the camaraderie. It’s her first time at Burning Man and she’s come with a few friends who are camping in a tent down the road. But for tonight, she joins DCnW.
After dinner, I change for another night cruise around the playa. The temperatures this year are much more temperate than usual. It doesn’t drop below 50 at night and during the day it’s barely hitting 100. That’s moderate for the high desert. A few of us head out to cruise the artwork for a second night.
There is no question that the highlight of tonight’s ride is Truth is Beauty.
She rises 55 feet, making those of us beneath her look like the little indigenous people from Gulliver’s Travels. She is crafted of steel and mesh, and her internal LED lights morph slowly from a cool shade of blue to warm pink.
Marco’s inspiration for the series came from tragedy. When he was 7, his best friend, a 9-year old girl, was raped. Now, he works to show how well the beauty of women shine when they feel safe.
Tonight is my first visit, but I will visit her many more times during the week. Each time, she will look different, yet always beautiful, whether lit up in her LED shroud during the clear, cold night, or standing firm against the daytime dust storms of the playa. Such a beautiful gift. Thank you, Marco.
A short time later, we encounter the famed El Pulpo Mecanico, or as many refer to it, the Steampunk Octopus.
It’s a marvel of engineering and creativity, with tentacles spouting fire plumes so big you feel their heat fifty feet away. A while later, we find ourselves dancing around a pair of unicorn art cars with house music pounding from tweeters and woofers hidden beneath its skin. Then, on to another dance place whose name I never find out.
We continue to bike the playa into the night. The evening is cool. The wind, calm. At one point I stop and gaze at the panorama of lights, art cars and sculptures before me. I feel a sense of warmth in my heart. The sky is clear, the stars are actually twinkling and the Milky Way is clearly visible. I take it all in, so appreciating this time that comes around only once a year.
And then I realize one of the wonderful things about coming back to Burning Man for a second time. I find that I am calmer, and can appreciate everything more fully than I did a year earlier, when I was blown away by the enormity, beauty, strangeness and excitement of it all.