DISCLAIMER: Most of these pics were taken by the illustrious Ben Cruz, and homeboy knocked it out of the park. A few I grabbed off the web for the purpose of telling you the whole story.
A LONG, STRANGE TRIP
Where to begin?
Sometime last fall, I happened to come across a web posting about Burning Man. Apparently the festival had grown so large that they were capping attendance at 50,000 people this year, and they were instituting a lottery system for tickets. This piqued my interest.
I think Burning Man has really had been gnawing at the back of my brain for about 20 years. After all, I never met a Burner I didn't like, and they all told me I'd love it. This had been happening for years. So why hadn't I gone? Laziness? Fear of stinky hippies? I'm not sure. But now? What do I have to lose? And with a click of my mouse it was done. I submitted my request for 2 tickets, and then put it out of my mind. Quite coincidentally, three of my best friends had the exact same idea. I guess we all had the itch. A few months later, the news came in: We had secured 4 tickets in total. I guess it was really happening. Now what?
Slowly, the questions of how to actually do this start popping up. What was the best way to go? Should we stay in an RV or a tent? Should we fly in to Reno or LA or San Fran? Should we join an established camp, or go rogue? Are we going to die out there in the desert?
My friend Ben reached out to an old friend, Juan Carlos (JC), A crazy Colombian guy whom he knew from the advertising world. Not only had he been going for 10 years, but he was also the organizer of his very own camp: "Souliscious". Apparently they were known for 2 things: great parties and great house music. You don't say?
A few weeks later, on a cold Tuesday night in February, my friends and I met JC and his wife Carolyn at a West Village bar called The Rusty Knot. We drank dark & storms in tall, ceramic tiki glasses and played 8-ball on the smallest bar pool table in Manhattan. Carolyn played straight man while JC made his pitch. He is a loquacious mother fucker, to put it mildly, so I cannot even begin to recall everything he said in the next 3 hours, but the gist of it was simply: "dude, it will change your life!".
The last person who said that to me took me to Machu Pichu and dropped me in an ayahuasca ceremony with an Amazonian shaman, and in many ways, did just that. Years previously, a guy I met in Thailand told me to drop everything and go to Angkor Wat. Both trips were unforgettable, life-changing, and stay with me to this day.
In the cab on the way home from the bar, we all agreed: we were in!
LOGISTICS LOGISTICS LOGISTICS
After that night, I feel like I spent every free moment of the next six months worrying, planning, and executing all that needed to get done for me to get to Burning Man. It was like having a second job.
The Souliscious Camp Emails started pouring in. First, 2 a day. Then 6. Within weeks it was well over 20 a day. I even had to join the cursed, Borg Collective Facebook, which I have avoided for years, since I was simply missing too much crucial camp information.
Being part of a Burning Man camp is no joke. It means that you are down for the cause. It's a massive group undertaking, with people from far and wide devoting all of their spare time and money to figure out how to make the collective "burn" as awesome as it can be for everybody in the camp. And the logistics? Dear god, so many logistics. Here's a few off the top of my head:
- Making a deal with the Burning Man organizers for a designated plot of land to call your own.
- Arranging for a camp power generator, either by trucking one 100 miles out in to the desert, or going in on something bigger with an adjoining camp.
- All of the structures you need have to be planned: Communal showers. A common area with shade of some sort filled with couches, pillows, lighting, decorations, Etc.
- Purchasing all of the building materials, furniture, decorations, Etc
- Renting a couple of trucks to drive all of that out there from LA (13 hours).
- Mapping out the location of each person's tent or RV, so everybody has the space they need.
- Collecting all of the dues and managing the distribution of money.
- And on and on…
In addition, the Souliscious camp was special, because of its location. Burning Man's civic layout, aka Black Rock City, is arranged in a circle around "the man" - the seven story effigy that will be burnt on Saturday night. Locations are assigned two coordinates: a time, relevant to 6 O'clock on the circle, and a letter from A-L, representing the concentric streets that radiate from the center outward, starting with "The Esplanade", then A street, then B street, and so forth. To give you a better idea what this looks like, here's a photo I stole off the web of some crazy mother fucker sky-diving in to the event.
Our camp was located at 8:15 & The Esplanade, which meant front and center on the inner circle. In this pic above, the clock is upside down. The circular shape towards the top is actually 6 O'clock, so 8:15 would be around to the right hand side of the image.
Being situated right on the main thoroughfare meant that we were required to provide entertainment of some sort almost 24 hours a day. This meant:
- Getting a sound system.
- Building a bar and stocking it with free booze for 7 days.
- Building go-go stages for semi-naked girls to dance on (DUH!).
- Building a DJ booth and filling it with turntables and mixers.
- Putting up lighting rigs for the dance floor.
- Building a second shaded area near the dance floor with beds, couches, and lighting.
- DJs had to be booked and scheduled for almost every hour of the day and night. Some of those DJs needed tickets. Some needed a place to stay. Etc Etc.
- Renting another truck to drive all of that stuff from LA.
- My camp was partnering with a larger Philly camp called "Pex", so some of these tasks were shared, but most were not. I think the collective feeling among the 4 of us was simply "WTF have we gotten ourselves into?".
Lucky for us, being noobs, almost all of those tasks I mentioned fell to seasoned members. Other than my offer to DJ and do some free graphic design, all the four of us really had to do was, oh I dunno… buy plane tickets, rent an RV, buy a tent, arrange for power to both, arrange for grey water pumping for the RV, buy four throwaway bikes, buy a portable stereo, and buy every little god damned thing on God's green earth one might need to survive seven days in the desert. The checklist included: Boots. Camelbak. Gas mask for dust storms. Goggles for daytime. Goggles for nighttime. A sunhat. Headlamp. Flashlight. Glow sticks. Head & tail lights for bikes. Rebar for tent stakes. Lights for the rebar tent stakes. Locks for the bikes. Repair kit for bike tires. Additional lights for the side of the bikes. Sun screen. Aloe. Wet wipes. Batteries. Zip ties. Ziplock bags. Trash bags. Pillows and flooring for the tent. Carabiners. A clip on travel cup. A swiss army knife with kitchen utensils. Work gloves. Plastic sheeting for the RV. Lumber & hardware to build a door structure for the RV. Box cutters. Duct tape. Blue painters tape. Ear plugs. Rain ponchos. Chapstick. Bandanas. Eye drops. Nose drops. First aid kit. Pots and pans. Spices and condiments. Cups to drink out of. Clothes for 110 degree weather. Clothes for 30 degree weather. Food for 7 days. Enough water for each of us to not die each day. Water for showering. And 50 other things I can't even remember.
Oh, and costumes. We needed superhero costumes, as that was the theme of our camp.
As the event grew closer and closer, this list loomed larger and larger. Nobody wanted to focus that much time on something that was just supposed to be a vacation. But that's the thing, see. Slowly, you start to figure out that [b][i]Burning Man is not a vacation.[/i][/b] It's nothing remotely like a vacation. It's an epic battle of will and persistence, lasting weeks or months, culminating in 7 days of craziness that is both the ultimate trial and the ultimate reward.
GET IN TO CHARACTER
My biggest hurdle was really the creative one. What superhero did I want to be? For some reason, we all took this very seriously. After all, it was the theme of the entire camp, and as noobs, we wanted to come correct.
We decided on a two-prong approach. Come up with individual costumes of our own making, and do a group costume of sorts.
Our group costume was to be "The Nowhere Men". A paramilitary black ops unit encamped at Burning Man for the purpose of giving out daily superhero missions to any and all who were up to the task. To this end, we bought an 10-man military tent, a table for maps and coordinates, 4 matching desert storm military jump suits and goggles. We had a friend hand-sew on patches and various accouterment. Ben designed a Nowhere Men logo which we hand-stenciled on the back of each uniform with spray paint. We bought utility belts, hats, and other accessories. We worked out a loose script complete with makeshift military protocol. I stayed up for 3 nights downloading obscure recordings of military radio chatter from various wars for a 12 minute sound design loop that would be playing inside the tent 24 hours a day. The missions were typed out on tiny slivers of paper bearing the Nowhere Men insignia and inserted in to clear gel capsules. These were, after all, secret missions, and heroes needed the option of swallowing the intel in case of capture.
We were very proud of this elaborate scheme. My friend Alison, who had been the previous year, laughed at all of this planning and prepping.
"Just wait…" she advised "As soon as you get there, all of your planning is gonna go straight out the window". Not us. No way.
Not only had Alison been to The Burn before, but she had just returned from "Boom", the Portuguese Burning Man, so she was well versed in surviving in the wild. Her sage advice and her camping gear were both equally invaluable.
My personal costume was another matter entirely. After much debate, I came up with the name "Silver Surrender". Yes, I'll admit the word "surrender" does seem kinda lame for a superhero, but hear me out:
The word surrender has come to take on a special importance for me this year. It's all about accepting some major changes in my life. About surrendering to that which I cannot control, as a means of letting it go. Letting go of all the stress and strife that has plagued the last three years of my life. Strife that ended my 13-year relationship and shifted my midlife crisis in to overdrive. Stress about my unknown future and fundamental questions like "what the fuck am I doing on this planet?" There was a lot of stuff I just needed to let go of, so I could finally move forward. For this reason, "surrender" seemed like the perfect word. And in truth, this was the real reason I was going to Burning Man. I needed a spiritual re-boot and a clean slate.
After two solid months of browsing costume stores , thrift shops, Soho boutiques, Army/Navy outlets & bargain basements, buying anything silver I could get my hands on, Silver Surrender came together pretty solidly. I was finally ready. Or at least as ready as I could be.
SO MUCH DRAMA IN THE LBC
Two days before Andreas and I arrived in LA for the rendezvous, Ben had picked up a new recruit, ohis boy Welly Lo. And then we were five.
We ran some last minute errands in LA for a couple of days. It seemed like the entire city was crawling with Burners, buzzing around in a panic of last minute purchasing. A cute chick checking out goggles at the Army/Navy store. A cool dude in front of me in line at Home Depot. I started to recognize Burners on sight. You could just tell. I must admit, it was really exciting. There was a palpable energy in the air.
Myself(left) and Andreas, dressing frightfully similarly in our old age. WTF.
As we finally hit the road, one thing was immediately clear: we were five grown men, with very different approaches to traveling, who were all very used to being in charge of such things. Some wanted to stay on a tight schedule. Others wanted to keep it loose. Some wanted to print out directions and alternate routes and debate the nuances of each. Others just wanted to get in the car and fucking wing it. Whichever camp you fell in, I think we were all thinking the same thing: "7 days in a 10x30 box in the desert, with no running water, with these freaks? Who is coming to blows first?"
We drove 9 hours through the California desert to Carson City, Nevada, just outside of Reno, where we stayed in a cheap motel overnight. Monday morning's schedule was crucial. We had much to accomplish by noon: get to Home Depot and buy some lumber. Get to Walmart and Whole Foods buy $1200 worth of groceries and 80 fucking gallons of water, and get to the Reno bike store before 10,000 other weirdos got there are bought all the decent bikes. Bikes are a must at BM. It's the only way to get around.
ARE WE THERE YET?
The drive from Reno to Black Rock City is relatively straightforward. 100 miles northeast in to the middle of NOWHERE. When you look at the map on your phone, the road beyond the highway just falls off in to blank white space, as if the data hasn't loaded yet. But it has. There's simply nothing there. This was a whole new level of going "off the grid".
Once you turn off the highway, the only cars left on the road are Burners. And there's a lot of them. RVs, pickup trucks, sedans. If they have bikes strapped to them, and they're driving north, they're burners. One big, slow-moving convoy. We were getting close! We were getting excited!
Once you clear all of the 25mph speed traps on the Paiute Indian Reservation at Pyramid Lake, it just get's FLAT. A big, flat, nothing: The Black Rock Desert - a 300,000 acre piece of land, much of which is occupied by the Alkali Flats, or "Playa" - a dry lake bed of immense proportions that stretches out to the northeast for as far as the eye can see, bordered by the Calico Mountains on your left and the Jackson Mountains on your right. The landscape gets more and more barren until it's almost completely stripped of any flora or fauna.
Then, at a certain point along the 2-lane highway, you see a handmade sign for Burning Man. Finally! At the sign, You turn on to an 6-lane, soft-sand road and drive straight out in to the void.
We were so excited by this point, we could barely contain ourselves.
THE DO LUNG BRIDGE
A low-level dust storm was enveloping the gate as we arrived. Various black-clad, black-goggled, Road Warrior-lookin' weirdos were standing around gyrating to some kind of death metal. Topless chicks in raver clothes walked in and out of the line of vehicles. One guy took our tickets while a girl boarded our vehicle and searched for stowaways.
A topless woman in her 50s, dressed like Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS, came over and told us her name was "Hot Stuff". She asked if any of us were BM virgins. I was the only one who raised my hand. She took me out of the RV and brought me over to a big patch of sandy dirt. She made me get down and swim in it. Front stroke. Back stroke. Rubbed it on my face and in my hair. No crevice was left untouched. Virgins have to get filthy the minute they arrive. I was officially filthy with playa dust - which is light grayish-brown and has the consistency of baby powder. Afterwards she gave me a big, 50-yr-old-bare-tittied bear hug and sent us on our way.
Driving through Black Rock City for the first time is pretty much indescribable. Words cannot do it justice. All that kept crossing my mind was Lawrence Fishburne's immortal words from Apocalypse Now, when they reach the Do Lung Bridge - the crazy, lawless, chaotic, no-man's land between Viet Nam & Cambodia.
"This sho nuff is a bizarre sight in the middle of this shit" - Clean
It was as if we had survived the Apocalypse and just now come across the only remaining group of survivors on earth. Survivors who had resorted back to weird customs and behaviors. Bands of rejects living in strangely shaped huts and geodesic domes flowing with tattered fabric. Their eyes covered with bizarrely shaped, dark goggles to protect from radiation exposure. Some choosing to wear no clothes at all, painting their skin with tribal markings, tattoos, and scars. Some were adorned with massive feathered head-dresses and dirty, disheveled clothing. It was as if I had finally found the bombed-out, magical world from Ralph Bakshi's "Wizards". Something that, in truth, I've been searching for since it blew my mind in 1977.
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