Trip 33 -- TTTTTITD
Message 6: Hot and dusty
Friday, October 14, 2022
Burning Man is laid out like a clock, with "the Man" at the center and camps, bars, dance areas, toilets, parking, and other activity -- the day-to-day life of the event -- in concentric rings from 2:00 clockwise around to 10:00. The innermost ring, Esplanade, is almost a half-mile from the Man. Radiating out from Esplanade, the streets have names that change annually and start with letters "A" through "K" (Apparition through Kahlo this year). Between 10:00 and 2:00 is an streetless expanse containing the temple, beyond which is the vaster expanse of Deep Playa. In this area, locations are defined by their positions on the clock and distances from the Man.
The farthest distance between any two points -- from 6:00 and Kahlo to the TiKiZ camera at the trash fence at 12:00 and 8491 feet from the Man -- is about 2⅓ miles. That's 35 minutes of quick walking, or a leisurely hour. Wabi had urged me to get a bicycle for the event, but was it really necessary for such a short distance?
She had many compelling reasons, among them that you don't want to walk that far in hundred-degree heat and that if you're in a group of people exploring with bikes, you can't join them. It was her sixth Burn; why didn't I listen right away? Why come all this way and then forgo the effort to make the experience that much better?
Still, I hesitated; it was yet another thing to deal with in what seemed like an endless string of playa preparations. By the time I'd come around, the numerous bike shops in Reno -- many of which cater to Burners by selling used bikes cheaply and accepting them back as post-Burn donations to be restored for the following year -- were nearly sold out. There was also the matter of getting the bike to the event; a plea to Burning Man's customer-service team while I was in Portland yielded a link to the add-a-bike-to-your-bus-ticket page with the admonition that there were not many of these add-ons left and I should pause my walk along the Willamette River and make the purchase immediately.
When I arrived in Reno on Saturday, August 27, Kiwanis Bikes was probably the only place in town to get my wheels unless I wanted a pink tricycle from Walmart intended for someone half my height. Kiwanis let people reserve Burner bikes; the reservations had sold out, but they had a few left for walk-up purchases.
I headed there straight from the Reno train station, taking advantage of a first-timer's $1.50 all-day bus ticket. In the back lot were about a hundred bikes being inspected by maybe a dozen people. I tried a couple and settled on one emblazoned with "All Terrain Shock" along the deep-red bar in that horrible Chicago typeface that plagued old Macintosh computers. It was a 21-speed -- I'd never need all those speeds in the bumpy desert, but they gave me confidence -- and the busted end of the kickstand was covered by a tennis ball, which would make the bike easy to spot and possible to keep upright with just the right confluence of celestial alignment and absence of wind. The bike clearly had a few years on it, but it felt sturdy and yearned for love.
Bus 14 had let me off across the street from Kiwanis. I'd planned to ride the bus back the way I'd come -- Reno's fleet could handle bikes -- but I discovered that it was not the 14 on the other side; it was some other route that went…well, I couldn't figure out where it went, but it didn't seem to be downtown or toward the airport, where I'd booked into the Hyatt Place for two nights.
Mill Street's unprotected bike lane could barely fit the vehicle's frame, let alone my bursting backpack. I didn't want to ride to the hotel, but traffic was light in this area, and I trundled along until I made the left turn onto the airport road and found the Hyatt Place.
It was now the early afternoon. I needed lunch, and then I needed to stock up on camp food for Wabi and me -- under the assumption that she would make it to the Burn at all after catching Covid a few days earlier -- to supplement the bags of jerky I'd been collecting around the country.
Most everyone shops for Burning Man at Walmart; I figured I'd hit up the one slightly out of town but still accessible on the bus. Across the street I found the Ijji 2 Japanese grill, with an all-you-can-eat-sushi option. In fact, I had all-you-can-eat sushi on Saturday and Sunday, at two different places, before lining up for the Burner Express on Monday. I felt like a bear getting ready to hibernate.
"Packing for Burning Man is a big pain in the ass," Wabi had warned me several months earlier. This is an understatement. For me, packing for a trip involves doing laundry in the morning, throwing a few sets of clothes in a backpack, and padding my pockets to make sure I have my wallet and passport before heading to the airport or train station.
Wabi had walked me through a 17-page list, showing me what was necessary and what could be skipped as it would be provided by my camp or wasn't applicable to tent camping. I could probably do without butane lighters and a "rebar stake carrying box," for instance. Some of the items were more for the brain than for the bins, such as "Come with an open mind and an open heart," the often-quoted mantra "You don't always get the burn you want, you get the burn you need," and the somewhat ominous "Don't bring anything to Burning Man you are not willing to lose! Including relationships and your life."
Wabi's friend lent me a tent, a dust mask, an inflatable mattress, its inflater, and a shower apparatus whose setup I was certain would be too much for me to contend with. I purchased a three-liter hydration backpack with a long hose for sipping water throughout the day, along with a collapsible five-gallon container for said water. Wabi had purchased water tickets that allowed us to fill our containers after riding the bus. I couldn't even wrap my head around that level of planning. If not for Wabi, I'd have needed a stage manager.
All the above wasn't with me in Reno, of course; it was supplemented with my sleeping bag, warm clothes (the temperature could range from 40°F to 110°F), fun clothes, wearable lights (necessary in the desert, and also visually appealing), dust goggles, pillows, camping utensils, a cooler, and other gear, loaded into two 27-gallon bins. Burning Man is such an operation that major cities set up shipping containers to be loaded several weeks before the event. The load-in for New York happened while I was on the train to Los Angeles. I had dragged two bins' worth of stuff on the subway to Wabi's place in Brooklyn, she had helped me carry the bins to her place, and she and a friend very kindly brought them to the loading site along with their own.
The Burner Express left from the Reno airport. I walked my bike over along with my nearly overflowing backpack and the hydration pack, along with liquor, pineapple juice, a jar of pickles, a summer sausage, cheese, and mandarins procured from Walmart.
The Burner Express was a well-run and organized operation. By lining up early I was able to depart a half-hour before my 2:00 ticket, and the bus had the advantage of bypassing the entry queues (and the departure queues; people in cars reported a 14-hour exodus). A 10-mile-per-hour speed limit within the event area promoted safe entry and ensured that too much dust wasn't kicked up; our driver's exceeding it earned a stop by an officer and a sniff of the bus's perimeter by a police dog, but we were soon on our way. It took about 2½ hours to cover the 73 miles, and I could feel the playa dust -- an alkaline compound from the ancient lakebed -- anointing my skin through the windows.
Virgins attendees of Burning Man are invited to ring a bell and experience a unique welcome, but I forgot all about it when I stepped off the bus. I was too focused on finding my bike -- brought separately on a truck -- and the bag I'd left in the bus bay and on figuring out which way I needed to go.
The temperature had to have been in the upper 90s, and daytime highs would be around 105° for most of the week. The bus arrived at 6:15 and Jarry on the outskirts of town; my camp was at 7:30 and Fugue. An hour and a quarter clockwise and four streets toward the center. Surely it couldn't take that long, could it?
Well, the walk felt like an eternity. After ten minutes I had gotten only from 6:15 to 7:00. I soon learned how important it was to walk toward the center first and then go along the rings. Mathematically I'd known that; I just hadn't realized how much of a difference it made.
Wabi and I had planned to camp separately; it made sense for me to find my own way at my first Burn. She was also heavily involved with a multicultural neighborhood of more than 500 people united in an effort to make Burning Man more accessible and welcoming to people of color. While I would have been welcome to camp with them, it didn't feel right for this year's event.
My camp was Spanky's Wine Bar, which would dole out wine to visitors upon their rolling the dice and performing the corresponding required action, such as hopping around the dance floor. I arrived just before a camp meeting presided over by our leader, Admiral Painjoy, who was wearing a black cape and pink lace lingerie. There were about 200 people; a few were handing out charcuterie and other snacks.
"You have come to an environment that is actively trying to kill you," the Admiral said. In the previous week, during the building of Black Rock City, unusual torrents had made a mess of things, and strong winds had toppled a row of portable toilets. He introduced important people at Spanky's and sang a parody of a familiar Gilbert & Sullivan song, naming himself the model of a modern kinky admiral.
The meeting lasted almost thrice the expected 40 minutes, and I still had to retrieve my two bins, all the way back at the container camp at 5:15 and Enigma. The heavy bins would have been no fun to carry for any distance; fortunately the container camp lent out a wagon upon the presentation of a mobile phone or identification card as collateral.
I'd wanted above all to set up my tent before dusk, but it didn't happen. The tent was huge and unwieldy. My head lamp wasn't working. I couldn't see anything and I had no idea where to thread the giant poles through the roof of the tent. I thrashed around in frustration for several minutes and threw the whole heap on the ground, resorting myself to wandering around and meeting people all night until I could see again and try in the morning.
And I would have, if someone hadn't come by at that point and offered assistance. He borrowed a bright lamp and a mallet for the tent stakes; I'd planned to pound them in with my shoe, and at the first gust of wind I realized how futile that would have been. He helped me thread the poles and bend them into shape. He left me to finish on my own, and I did so just before the lightning started and an announcement was made that a thunderstorm and high winds were reported by rangers and everyone should seek shelter immediately.
I returned the hammer and lamp and crawled inside my tent, clawing for anything soft that I could lay my head on. It wasn't anywhere near sleeping time. Would I really be calling it a night already? I wasn't hungry. I didn't know whether I was tired. Mainly I was frustrated that I hadn't been set up and gotten to get the lay of the land while it was still light out.
My camp dues had been $400, for which I had the use of a kitchen, the comfort of neighbors, wine, and, supposedly, access to the camp's wi-fi and an electric outlet near my tent. I'd chosen a spot near the public dance area; the noise wouldn't bother me and I liked being near the action. The electric grid hadn't been set up yet, and the wi-fi was unreliable. I tried the air mattress; it deflated -- no doubt I was impatient. Overinflate it, Wabi had said, but I was afraid to and I couldn't plug the hole in time. I had pillows and ground that was soft enough. I had no idea whether the tent would resist rain.
I pondered all this for a while and realized that everyone was back outside talking and walking around. This horrible unavoidable storm had somehow missed us and it was now a warm, clear, beautiful night. I strolled up to Esplanade and started to take in the scene: people biking around, themed bars, a pirate ship, a kind of illuminated giant bug whose legs could be controlled with pulleys. Bartenders gave out drinks but not vessels to contain them; in the name of leave-no-trace festivities, everyone brings their own reusable cups, ideally latched to their bags or bodies with carabiners. Scrupulous Burners have an eye for "MOOP" (matter out of place) and strive to keep the playa free of items that don't occur there naturally, and camps are graded at the end of the event based on the quantity of MOOP in their areas.
I went to sleep at around 1:00 a.m. on whatever soft items had been extracted from my bins. When I woke up Tuesday morning, I saw that Wabi had tested negative for Covid and was on her way. If all went well, she'd land in Reno in the afternoon, find a ride to the Burn (the buses would have stopped for the day), and arrive that night. The container camp also would have been out of operation by then, so I retrieved her bins and brought them to her camp, which was not far from mine, at 6:15 and Dali.
Along with my camp dues, I also had to provide a snack for a couple dozen camp members at some point during the week -- the mandarins fit the bill nicely; I wasn't ready to commit to cooking anything -- and perform 12 hours of work shifts. I did most of these on Tuesday, in an effort to get the bulk of them out of the way and have most of the week free. These coincided with a playful DJ set featuring old television theme songs. Never did I think I'd see people dance to the themes from "The Golden Girls" and "Small Wonder" and the "Eleven Twelve" pinball song from "Sesame Street."
My last shift on Tuesday was as a barback, keeping our precious boxes of wine replenished for the bartenders. I was happy in this job; it was a social one, if not as social as that of the bartenders themselves, but it didn't have the responsibility of checking people's identification cards and spotting the fake ones. The playa might be known in part for its debauchery, but laws still apply, and stings exist with underage drinkers planted by authorities to try to obtain beverages from unsuspecting camps. I didn't want that weight on my shoulders.
By the time I finished a little after 2 a.m., and hauled the tub of discarded liquid to the repository by the kitchen -- gray water is also considered MOOP and is not to be dumped out onto the sand -- Wabi was on the playa and had nearly finished setting up her tent. Given her larger air mattress and proper shade, the fact that by Tuesday afternoon I had managed to leave my own tent open and gotten everything inside covered in dust, and, above all, the comforts of the companionship, I ended up spending my nights in her tent despite our discussion of making our own individual progress.
Burning Man is intended to be nearly cashless; the only thing you can buy with money is ice, at the Center Camp area at 6:00 and Apparition. A ten-pound bag cost $10. Some camps, including Wabi's and mine, had ice runners who collected cash from campers and brought back everyone's ice on a wagon. This system worked until the provider started running out of ice and enforcing a one-bag-per-person rule. Obtaining ice early each day was important; some went into the coolers, the rest into hydration packs. The one day I failed to obtain ice I missed it dearly.
Much like in New York City, and most of the United States, a big problem at Burning Man is the overwhelming presence of motor vehicles. The population of 90,000 -- Black Rock City is the third-largest municipality in Nevada during the week it exists -- arrives almost entirely in cars and recreational vehicles; the Burner Express handles only a small fraction of attendees. And all of those gas guzzlers have to go somewhere. The RVs are unsightly and enormous, and the event might make itself much more attractive and convivial by banishing most of them to the far reaches of the playa. After my first full day I thought: This is the same amount of stuff as at regional burns (similar, much smaller weekend events held throughout the year), but with a parking lot separating each pair of camps. Take out the cars and shrink the site proportionally and my half-hour walk from the Burner Express to Spanky's could have been cut to ten minutes.
I eventually learned to tune out these behemoths visually and focus on arriving at my next destination, whatever that was. During the daytimes I would wander alone or Wabi and I would explore together. Near Spanky's a camp handed out pickles every afternoon -- important for getting salt in the body. A block down was an area with giant playing cards. Quirky buildings beckoned; a circle of doors led to a tarot reading. The what-where-when guide, handed out as we boarded the bus, was a 200-page schedule of arts and crafts, workshops, food, games, parties, healing activities, music, meditation, performance, and other events. It was a dizzying offering, and it was enough simply to explore and not commit to anything.
Near Wabi's camp was an upright piano suspended about 15 feet off the ground and accessed by ropes. I'd seen it early on in the week and gone back with her, intent on playing it. But that moment happened to be a time of high winds and flying dust. The climb up the swinging ropes already seemed precarious, and I didn't feel safe. I'd have to search for another piano to play.
Dust storms came through suddenly and often lasted hours; this year reportedly had some of the worst weather in Burning Man's history. Wabi rightly insisted that I always have a dust mask, goggles, and water whenever I went anywhere, even if I was going just a short distance and wasn't going to be long.
Wabi accurately described Burning Man as a week in a museum; the map listed 337 art installations. Rambling around them in Deep Playa was exhausting but rewarding. Of note was the 40-foot-long Gaia, Marco Cochrane's reclining mesh stainless-steel woman exuding confidence and nurturing energy. An interactive installation called "b00th" appeared from far away as a neon sign with a downward-pointing arrow that simply read "THERE," but upon closer inspection it was revealed to be a playful tollbooth whose meaning could be changed when the "T" was turned off.
Some of the art roamed the playa, such as "El Pulpo Mecanico," a mechanized fire-breathing octopus with eyes that could see in all directions. Climbing on an art car was a beautiful way to meet other museum guests, placate the feet for a while, and gain a new perspective over the scene. One was rarely sure where the cars were going, but did it matter?
It was a clear Thursday night when the magic of the playa suddenly hit me. Having topped off our hydration packs and donned lights, Wabi and I walked up to Esplanade, and the whole playa seemed to open up all at once in beauty and energy. Bikers rolled past at a moderate tempo, their bicycles flashing colorful lights. Art cars plodded by in the distance, their whimsically clumsy pace and stature at once prehistoric and futuristic. People strolled alone or in twos or groups, with a giddy air and peppy illumination. Giant laser beams straddled the inner playa, playfully catching the moonbeams. The spinning lights of the Paraluna disc brought vigor to the sky. Distant music swept through on the gentle breeze.
I slowly rotated my head from one side to the other, taking in this expanse of swirling color and exuberance, and thought, "They created all this for me?"
The first Burn, in 1986, was the vision of Larry Harvey, who had spent the better part of three years trying to climb back after a terrible breakup, I learned in Neil Shister's "Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World." Recalling a June bonfire during happier times, Larry called upon a carpenter friend, Jerry James, to create something to burn for the 1986 summer solstice. It might provide closure, or at least healing.
Fewer than ten people attended that first event: Larry, Jerry, their kids, and several others who happened to notice what was going on. More people were attracted, and they brought music and loving energy. When Larry and Jerry decided to repeat the event in 1987, they sent out invitations. The annual attendance grew and eventually the Black Rock Desert became the place for tens of thousands to practice "radical self-reliance" and the other nine principles of Burning Man that Larry established in 2004.
As the event grew, so did the ambitious size of the Man to be set ablaze in effigy. This year's was a mini-museum itself, a neon-green electric-looking figure with arms by his side, standing atop a mausoleum-like pedestal with mystical ceiling paintings of animals and Moorish-inspired lanterns. On the walls of the base was a series of paintings by Víctor López that featured jaguars carrying firewood. It was the Mexican artist's tribute to the revered cats and a homage to his grandfather, who amassed a surplus of wood before his untimely death, ensuring that his wife would always have enough.
On Saturday night, the Man's arms were raised, and fire dancers performed a prologue to his kindling. Within a half-hour it was all gone -- Man, lanterns, paintings, and walls -- to the accompaniment of cheers and fireworks. No longer was he a wayfinding landmark; he was but ashes on the ground. It was several hours later that Wabi and I found a white piano way off in Deep Playa, and I fulfilled my quest to play some Beethoven in the desert.
Lined up with the Man and Center Camp was the temple, an open, angular, pointed sanctuary that from afar resembled a swallow about to take flight. It was burned the following night. For the preceding week, people had attached photos to its walls, inscribed messages, or left items with which it was time to part. The writings honored loved ones, casted off addictions, or incorporated other phrases of healing. One said, "I miss my mother before Alzheimer's." "We will find a cure," I wrote underneath.
Not much of my food from Walmart got eaten apart from the summer sausage, the cheese, and a little of the jerky. There was plenty to be had in wandering around. The Milk and Honey camp served 800 of us an Israeli spread after its Shabbat service. An Uzbek group cooked up plov at night. Math Camp served pie at 3:14 every afternoon. Wabi and I awoke to the megaphone of Indigenous people across Dali Street: "After a long night on the playa, a wild-rice pancake is the thing you need!"
"How was Burning Man?" people have asked in the month since the event. "Hot and dusty" is my usual response; the answer can't be put into a few words. Navigating the heat was challenging, but it wasn't awful. I loved the art, the people, and the pervading cheer, which far outweighed the inhospitable climate. There was plenty of frivolity but also meaningful immediacy and a unified effort against (or in concert with) the elements to build a livable city, thrive in it, and tear it down a week later.
Some people attend every Burn and spend most of the year planning for it, but I don't think I am among them. It is way too much to arrange and way too much stuff to be responsible for, and for the same money one can fly to Europe and sleep in a building for a week. But that's not the point, the annual Burners would say. And they're correct -- it's right for them, but probably not for me.
I can see myself going back in a few years. I would like to experience more of the art, and I would be better at packing. Maybe I'd get up to that suspended piano, if it was reinstalled. Also, I never acquired a Burner name, which most attendees eventually get ("Admiral Painjoy" isn't on his birth certificate). As the event was wrapping up and people departed, leaving more space to traverse neighborhoods, I was walking with Wabi. Much as I love going about on foot, I often look for shortcuts. "Should we go along the street?" I asked. "Or should we take one of my cockamamie hypotenuses?"
It hit me. "Cockamamie Hypotenuse -- could that be my Burner name?"
"That's a mouthful," she said. "And usually you don't give yourself a Burner name. It's given to you."
So, maybe next time.
The Burner Express bus back to Reno had seats wrapped in plastic, because absolutely everything that touches the playa gets covered in alkaline dust (airlines make people put their checked luggage in dustproof bags). To ease back into society, Wabi and I spent two more nights in Reno, a city that must dispense more shower water in the two days after Burning Man than any other municipality in the world at any time of year. With no need to be near the airport for easy Burner Express access, we based ourselves downtown instead.
We stayed at Circus Circus, which I'll dub the Casino Thénardier for all the ridiculous fees imposed even on a room booked with Wyndham points. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a charge for using the mirror. They grudgingly removed one night's resort fee (I shouldn't have been subject to that, either) because of a problem with the smoke detector -- the problem being that it wasn't attached to the ceiling, and they took their time fixing it. They even managed to invent an entirely new fee at checkout, one that wasn't on my reservation and wasn't mentioned in the total explained to me at check-in.
All of downtown Reno was like that, with a $3 fee to use a credit card for a taxi fare regardless of the distance, which I'm pretty sure is illegal, and miscellaneous fees tacked on to purchases here and there after prices were quoted. I gritted my teeth and handed my francs over to the Thénardiers, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to stay at their inn again and smirking at the fact that they might have extracted more money from me if the unpleasant check-in experience had left me with any desire to gamble at their blackjack tables. I will say that the housekeeping staff was excellent, and for thoroughly cleaning a bedroom into which we had introduced a fair amount of dust and a bathroom in which I had dyed my hair back to a more natural color, they were recognized financially and now verbally. I hope they all leave the Casino Thénardier and start working for a place that dabbles in integrity.
Outside of downtown, Reno was much more pleasant. Our inaugural meal back was at a churrascaria, with the concomitant endless cycle of Brazilian meats. Lunch the next day was at yet another unlimited-sushi place, one where you tell the server the order and she brings something substantially different and it doesn't matter. The Nevada Museum of Art played a recording of the Peruvian-American composer Jimmy López Bellido's third symphony, which he had specifically written to accompany a display of photographs of the surrounding landscape. The sunset beyond the railway tracks and from the Truckee River's pleasant pathway was as vivid as any I've seen.
Because Wabi and I had booked our trips separately, we were on different planes on different airlines, scheduled to arrive in New York at around the same time. The race was on! She had a head start but a longer layover, and her second flight's delay put it on the ground just after mine. But we'll call it a tie: With the vagaries of air travel, a pair of airport arrivals within minutes of each other that include members of the same group is a win.
I found the last few Barksdale's cookies from the Iowa State Fair this past weekend. They had crumbled; I looked wistfully at the crumbs and ate the largest of them. They were less stale than I expected. The pail they were served in did not survive the trip.
The three "Jeopardy!" episodes whose tapings I attended aired last week, with Wednesday's Final Jeopardy mentioning the Green Book, the guide listing establishments that were safe for Black travelers during segregation. (Did you get it? I literally wrote it out exactly in update #4.) Another clue a few days later involved the Freedom Riders.
Bit by bit, the playa dust fades into each item it covers, never quite disappearing but rather infusing it with a delicate blur and sandy aroma. Something similar can be said of all the moments of the seven weeks I was away. In the long run, I'm sure I won't remember them all in detail, but each was a learning experience that has left its essence and made me understand humanity just a little better. And that's a main point of travel, isn't it?