Burning Man Goes Live

The gates are open, and Burners from around the world are pouring through, eager to experience a week of living in a utopian construct wrapped in a harsh, desert environment.  For now, that concept looks bright, colorful and entertaining.

White-out conditions threatened to make day one a struggle for the multitudes trying to navigate their way to the Playa.  The dusty haze lasted most of the day and we heard the gates were closed for a while (but that might have been a rumor).  It all turned benign in the late afternoon when the wind died down and the air cleared.  It was crystalline by night.

We waited until well after dark had fallen to venture across the Playa and sample the offerings at this year’s Burn.  We were not disappointed.  Highlight of the evening for us was the drag show at the Flamingo Motel (7:00 and E), which ranged from ragged to polished and ended with a hilarious one-man parody of “Les Mis” as he recalled it being performed by a small town amateur theater group.  During his rendition of “One More Day,” he played at least five different roles, including an operatic female singer and a “friend” of the director who was tone deaf.

These color wheels spin around and move vertically and horizontally. Fun and amazing

We also visited Playa favorite “Party Naked” for a drink, some conversation, and the offer of a free Hawaiian-style lei if we’d just take our clothes off.  We chose not to get “lei’d” that evening.

This giant spinning disc changed color patterns to music

We just missed Burner Buddies’ drive-thru snack shop where you could place an order for one of a choice of cheese-based items and pick it up at the next window – just like at home.  We watched a performance of a pretty good rock band at Center Camp and closed out the evening with a visit to our old friends at Lamplighters, where we camped for nine previous Burns.  The banner Lashes made for the Lamplighters’ bar still greets visitors.

Earlier in the days, Lashes and I were honored with a “Working for the Man” award from Cherub, the head of the Temple Guardians.  This award is given to around 300 volunteers each year out of the 10,000 who annually give their time and effort to make Burning Man a reality.  We were moved to have been so honored by the Guardians and our fellow Burners and will wear our new pin proudly.

Rabid Transit, the new and even more spectacular art car from the El Pulpo folks

The Playa was alive with art, fire, color and people on the first official night.  We believe we saw the art car that has replaced the famed flaming octopus (“El Pulpo”).  It’s called the “Rabid Express” and is a step up in sophistication but similar in its firey essence.

Meanwhile, our camp is humming along and Guardian training is apace with hundreds already certified for duty at the 2018 Temple, which is scheduled to open this evening.

If the internet remains viable, I’ll post again soon.


Blessed to Be Here

We began our second week in Black Rock City with one of those unforgettable Burning Man moments: the ritual blessing of the Temple, its builder and build crew, and the Temple Guardians by the Paiute Tribe of Native Americans.  The tribe’s reservation surrounds Pyramid Lake, NV, just a skosh south of Gerlach, and has a long relationship with the Black Rock desert, home of Burning Man.

Dean Barlese (seated), spiritual leader of the Paiute Nation, blesses Temple designer Arthur Mamou-Mani

Dean Barlese, the Paiute spiritual leader, offered a general blessing, then had his associates Keenyns Reed and Misty Young Bear bless individual members of the Temple team. Barlese told builder Arthur Mamou-Mani that this blessing was intended to remove any possible wrongs that may have been done to the land by the presence of the structure and by anything that may have been done or said within it. A similar blessing will be repeated by the Paiute post Burn over the charred remains of the Temple.

The Temple looks more and more like it was intended

The moment was made even more emotionally satisfying by seeing how much progress had been made on the Temple itself.  Having missed visiting the construction site for only a single day, we were amazed at how much closer the structure had come to the renderings of it we had seen initially months before.  The Temple is likely to open close to schedule.

Out late last night on our bikes, we passed one new art installation after another and a plethora of bright and blaring art cars – each one more clever than the next.  We love the spirit of human creativity that flows throughout Burning Man.  It’s what brings us back and renews us year after year, and I can’t recommend it too highly to my peers.

Art is not the only thing springing up on the Playa as we reach the official start of the event; we’re also seeing many more theme camps emerge from the desert surface and a noticeable increase in bike traffic on the rudimentary roadways.  Our neighbors on both sides have built out their camps and are fast becoming populated by new and experienced Burners.  Both Earth Guardians and Camp Vulcan have triple the number of campers we do and both have embraced us in Burner fashion.  There’s plenty of love to go around here in Black Rock City.

On-Playa Guardian training began last night with a full house of volunteers.  All signed-in trainees were provided with the traditional kerchief (specially designed to honor Temple Galaxia) and bracelet with a tiny bell – items worn by Guardians since the service began in 2002.  Trainees learned the meaning of “holding the Temple space” (the Guardian mission), the importance of withholding judgment over people and their actions, and the art of resolving a problem without drawing attention to ourselves or making the situation worse.

The new portal in all its lighted glory

Everyone was excited about the new portal that’s been created for Guardian Headquarters.  We’ve heard many comments about how much easier it is to find us now that we have a lighted entryway.  “Portal,” our Playa name for the creator and builder of the amazing new sign that welcomes people to Guardian HQ, continues to put finishing touches on his work.  For our camping area, we’re completing a few minor items after which we can call it a done deal.  Our population has finally reached double digits with more coming in every day.

We were able to take advantage of some communal showers last night – always a true Burning Man style experience.  Lashes had hot water in her women’s only shower area.  I opted for (actually, it was my only option) the co-ed showers and ended up taking a cold-water cleansing. I’ve gotten used to sharing my shower experience with naked men and women, none of whom care or pay much attention.

It’s windy and dusty yet again as we begin our Sunday while attendees pour into Burning Man.  But temperatures remain bearable (and are scheduled to stay that way all week) so I’m not going to complain about a little dust.  I’m just happy to be in a place where I feel younger every day.




Progress Report from the Playa

We’ve had a great day today, albeit a very busy one. As I write this blog post, it’s 9 p.m. and we’re still busy on camp build activity. In fact, we were too tied up in the camp to even wander out to the Playa. Nonetheless, I could see lots of new art coming up from our view on the Esplanade.

The temperature has been surprisingly cool. Gerlach is not expected to hit 90 for the next week, and while it’s still hot in the sun-drenched playa, it’s much more comfortable than last year. Evenings turn chilly and nights are downright cold. Night temperatures will be in the upper 40s throughout the Burn.

The first few tents have moved into the shade structure.

We hit some milestones today, placing our first tents under the shade structure. But tonight we had a major event with the installation of our new, lighted Temple Guardians portal. This year marks the first time that people can easily find TG headquarters and the training area. Lashes worked with builder and artist Jad Strutzel (playa name: Portal) to create the new portal and we were completely bowled over with the results.

Artist/builder Jad working on his TG portal; Lashes supervises

Part 1 of our new lighted portal. The side panels will go in a little later tonight.

We hear good things about progress on the Temple, but we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see it for ourselves. We’ll report on that and other developments in the next post.

Progress on the Home-Building Front

Our camp population has grown to seven permanent members, plus a volunteer who’s waiting for his fellow campers to arrive.  We’re expecting at least one more camper today with the rest trickling in between now and next Tuesday.  It’s a small camp – a total of only 20; but we play an important role as headquarters for the Temple Guardians, the site of on-Playa Guardian training, and a source of manpower to fill in if someone can’t make his or her shift.

Our kitchen is fashioned out of a canvas carport

Fridge, sink and one of the Coleman stoves in our kitchen

We completed the kitchen yesterday and loaded up the 10’ x 20’ structure (originally intended as a canvas carport) with all the accouterments needed for gourmet (or at least utilitarian) cooking. In our kitchen we’ve installed a refrigerator, large commercial sink, storage shelves and several options for cooking the food.  There are two propane fired Coleman stoves that will remain in the kitchen and two gas grills for outdoor barbecuing; we also brought a “fire pit” good for roasting marshmallows or just sitting around and chilling.

Yesterday, when the wind died down, we grabbed the remaining loose parts of the yurt and rushed it to completion.  The wind easily turns the lightweight pieces into sails, and one missing section means no yurt at all; hence, it was crucial to take advantage of those few calm minutes.  Now it’s in and operational, which means the head of Guardian operations has his own place to work and sleep.

Cherub enters the new Temple Guardian’s World Headquarters

The wind is up this morning so there’s no way to cover the shade structure with its tarps.  It’s likely to turn benign late this afternoon, so we should be able to complete this project then.  We’re working on building our camp shower right now.  When the shade structure and shower are complete, we’ll be largely finished with the camp build.  Then we’ll need to outfit the training area.  It requires lighting, installation of the sound system and seating.  Lashes and a mentor from our home community created three new benches and a seat this year in a system known around here as Playa-tech.  Playa-tech furniture can be broken down into flat pieces for easy storage.  The older benches are solid pieces that use up a lot of the precious storage space in our container.  We will eventually replace all of those benches with Playa-tech furniture, but not this year.

Camp plumbing crew hard at work installing our outdoor shower

Hand-made storable furniture by Lashes and her mentor

We also have new neighbors.  We’ve always been adjacent to Earth Guardians, but our other neighbor camp is now Vulcan.  I was surprised to discover that rather than a Star Trek-themed camp, Vulcan is a circus and fire performance camp.  We’re expecting lots of entertainment next door!

See you soon for my next update.

Brrs, Boredom and Busy Days

Day 5 of our sojourn in Black Rocky City brought our first taste of Temple Guardianship in 2018, and an introduction to the chilly late night desert air.  Shifts were set to begin at the Temple build site at midnight and there was a need for two people to take the 3-7 a.m. watch, so, with some reluctance, we volunteered.  We had already worked a long day building the major elements of our camp – kitchen, tent campers’ shade structure, the office yurt, etc. – so when the alarm sounded at 2:30 a.m. we were groggy and slow to move.  Nonetheless, we made it in the nick of time and took our positions at the front of the Temple build site, making certain that Burners did not put themselves in danger by crossing the perimeter of an active construction area.

Time passes slowly on a shift at first, more so when there’s almost no one around, and after about 15 minutes we wondered if this night would ever end.  In addition to the boredom, we were growing colder by the minute – despite dressing in clothes we thought were adequate for the weather conditions. Eventually, a few random visitors wandered to the site and were eager to chat about the Temple’s progress toward completion.  We happily gave those folks our full attention, which allowed us to ignore the clock for a bit.  Soon enough, 7 a.m. rolled around and we were escorted from the site in a heated ATV.

Our reward was a hot breakfast at the commissary that feeds mainly staff and long-term workers who build the city.  Back at camp, we jumped right into the build process only to find that our top guy was due over at the Temple for a shift beginning at 11 a.m.

“Don’t send Casey,” I protested.  “We need him here.  I’ll go back.”  So, I found myself back on duty in front of the Temple build site for another four-hour stint.

Near white-out conditions from blowing Playa dust and smoke from western fires made work tough, but not impossible.

Good news:  it was much warmer by then, and there were more people stopping by to check out the ongoing work.  Even though it was largely a one-man effort, this shift seemed less onerous than the one beginning at 3 a.m.  Bad news:  the wind was up and the combination of dust and smoke from western fires was thick.  I had to don goggles and a dust mask for almost the entire time.

On this shift, I met a fascinating array of fellow Burners, including one from a kinky sex site we had wandered into a few years ago in the middle of the night.  She invited me to come back with my wife to actually try some of their wares.  I presented the idea to Lashes later in the day but she demurred.

Temple Progress: The spire has been placed on top of the main body of the structure. Workers in the foreground include Temple crew and volunteers responding to a call for helpers.

I’m happy to report lots of activity and clear signs of progress at the Temple build site.  The crew and Guardians had put out a call for volunteer helpers and the early Burners had responded – some bringing power tools with them.  When needs arise, Burning Man becomes a vibrant, loving community, and it’s always a pleasure to watch that phenomenon unfold.  I’m also pleased to tell you that there are signs of life across the Playa as art installations are under construction all around us.  The Man build is also full speed ahead and seems close to completion.

It’s been a long day and I’m ready for whatever dinner we can scrape together followed by an uninterrupted night of sleep.  More to come…

On Our Way!

Note:  This post is unfortunately out of order.  It should have preceded the other post dated August 21.  

Just a quick update for my fellow senior Burners: Lashes and I are in Reno, ready to depart today for the Playa. We’ll reach Black Rock City sometime this afternoon. Hope some of you will stop by and see us at Temple Guardians Camp, 5:30 and Esplanade. If not, I’ll post if I can from the Playa (difficult to do), and most certainly upon our return.

Reporting from Black Rock City

Greetings from the Playa.

We’re on Day 4 of our 2018 adventure, hard at work on our camp build while acclimating to life in the desert. We’re thrilled to be here once again and very excited about the new ideas we’ve brought to camp this year.

Our camp serves as headquarters for the Temple Guardians and the site of Guardian training. This year’s Temple (Galaxia) is the biggest ever at 30,000 square feet and the build looks like a major construction project in some business park. As usual at this point in Playa prep there are rumors about whether the Temple will be completed on time, but such talk by individuals not involved in the build is mostly unreliable. Projects like the Temple look very incomplete until the final touches so there’s no way to judge the progress based on what we’ve seen so far.

Part of the Temple build site.

There are now five of us at the campsite and we’re making major strides quickly. However, arriving early presents an intimidating series of challenges. There’s not much to look at when you get here and it can be tough to find your way around with so few landmarks and no road signs. But as raw as everything looks, Black Rock City is already well developed, with streets and infrastructure in

How our campsite looked when we first arrived. Our RV looks pretty lonely out there all by itself. But things are improving quickly.

place and major art installations under construction. The DPW equipment yard is filled with an array of serious gear including forklifts, bucket trucks, cherry pickers, etc. The workers all seem cheerful and excited to be doing their jobs. No surliness among these men and women. One thing that’s notable out here is the sense of equality between the sexes. Women handle the same work as the men and are often in charge of major projects (for example, the head of the Man build team is a woman that we know from our years at Lamplighters).

It’s hard, hot work here and we tend to work early and late, taking siesta time in the heat of the day.  We don’t know what to expect beyond our own planned activities at this year’s Burn (which include the wedding of our son and future daughter-in-law).  When we arrived, there were not yet any Greeters to hand out the What When Where guides, and we’ll have to wait until around opening day on the 26th to get one.  We’ve already heard about the complete Boeing 747 that’s been transported to the Playa and is open for viewing and exploring.

The challenges of working in the Black Rock Desert: wind, dust, heat.

Had my first “trouble in paradise” experience yesterday when I put on our two sets of bike lights.  Turned out mine looked “better” according to Lashes, so I have to pull off the ones installed on her bike and put on new ones that match or exceed mine.  I simply cannot be better decorated than Lashes.

If I can remain connected on the web, I’ll report more over the time we’re here.  Meanwhile, we’re thrilled to be back “home” in Black Rock City.  Hope some of you can make it here as well!



Burning Vacation?

“Have a nice vacation,” the woman at the register said as I was leaving the store.  I had casually mentioned that we were in final stages of preparing for Burning Man.

Vacation?  I had never thought of going to Burning Man the same way I think of going on a vacation.  I mean, there are similarities.  It’s a diversion from day-to-day routines; you feel refreshed and renewed from your time on the Playa; you often see new and exciting things and meet people from faraway places.

But there are a lot of things about Burning Man that make it different from a traditional vacation.  First of all, you can’t be passive at Burning Man. Nobody’s going to wait on you, clean up for you, cook for you.  Radical Self-Reliance is hardly what you expect from, say, Disney World.  You want places to go eat when you’re hungry, sites to entertain you and your family, stores to buy mementos.   And you want all of it at the tip of your fingers.  At Burning Man, some of those features may be available, but not in the easy-to-access, user-friendly style of a resort or theme park.

Early arrival on the Playa, 2017. Everything still looks clean!

For example, while you might be able to find food (and it won’t cost you anything) you have to supply your own cup, plate, and utensils.  And there’s nobody to wait on you; no place even to sit down in comfort.  Like a regular vacation spot, there are fun things to do at Burning Man, some of them not unlike amusement park rides; but they’re rough-hewn as opposed to the slickness of a theme park, and they’re not watched over by uniformed staff and protected by guards.  Another similarity with a resort is that Burning Man is laid out in a guide that includes a map; but it’s vastly more difficult to find your way around Black Rock City than a paved and groomed all-inclusive vacation site.

But there’s still a bigger difference: Burning Man is “not a spectator sport.”  It’s a place where everyone participates, often working hard to be part of the process of creating this utopian world.  Volunteering for one of the demanding roles is part of the Burning Man ethos.  You can be a Lamplighter one night, a Greeter the next day, then a barista at the Center Camp Café, and dozens of other roles.  If you’re a professional masseuse, you can gift your services to fellow Burners; if you’re an artist, you can turn your campsite into your own creative vision.

Want to read your poetry aloud?  Sign up for a time slot at Center Camp.  Dying to renew your Band Camp days?  Join one of the Burning Man bands that compete at the battle of marching bands on Friday evening in Center Camp.  There are no guidelines for what to do and how to do it.  You find your way to the full pleasures of Burning Man by deciding for yourself.  But what I’ve found to be true is this:  the more you do, the more you’ll love the experience.

You can sit back and be entertained on vacation; but you can jump in and be entertaining at Burning Man.

We’ll be on the Playa in just a few days.  Hope to see some of you there.  Temple Guardians staff camp is at 5:30 and Esplanade.



Where the Magic Happens

Driving along the nearly deserted two-lane highway that winds its way from Gerlach, NV to what will be the entry point to Burning Man later this year, you wonder how Black Rock City can possibly emerge from the empty playa passing by on your right.  But you’ve seen it before so you know it will happen – almost by magic.

If you drive a little further over the roughening road until the macadam drops off into dirt and gravel, then take the first right turn onto a long gravel driveway, you find the secret underlying the magic.  Burners call this place “The Ranch” or “DPW Ranch”, its manager calls it “Black Rock Station,” and around 30 people call it home for part or all of the year.

Sign greeting you at the Burning Man work ranch, also known as Black Rock Station, The DPW Ranch, or just The Ranch

At this desolate site, you can see the skeletons of Burning Man: bony structures ready to transform into art cars, hundreds of ramshackle vehicles bearing whimsical names and departmental assignments, and acres of containers whose content will spill onto the playa and turn into the various permanent theme camps and departmental facilities that are the core of Black Rock City.  There are also the boxes: brown wooden living quarters for the Burning Man staff and volunteers who make it all happen.  Most of these tiny units – with space only for a bed and minimal storage but mercifully air-conditioned — will be transported to the Playa for the Burn itself and become what their residents call “the ghetto,” a neighborhood of mostly DPW staffers who make the city rise from th empty desert every year.

There are also a few guest quarters cleverly fashioned out of large containers with two air-conditioned rooms per container.  These are not luxury accommodations, but comfortable sleeping quarters for volunteers who arrive throughout the year to do advance work on their camp or departmental facilities.  The ranch staff provides three meals a day at its commissary, not just to the full-time staff, but to short-term volunteers as well.  We were there the weekend of July 1 to do critical prep work for Temple Guardians Staff Camp.

The ranch is staffed by men and women with all the outward appearance of tough construction workers, but a Burning Man ethos of love and caring.  They welcomed us not as strangers but as fellow Burners and offered help joyfully.  Some were familiar to us from past Burns; others were new faces.  The experience was not unlike Burning Man itself in terms of the harsh desert environment, the daytime heat and nighttime chill, the expectation of self-reliance from everyone, the presence of porta-potties (they’re optional; there’s a “real” bathroom with showers) and typical Burner welcoming and farewell hugs.  These 30 or so lean, mean, building machines of Burning Man are the keepers of the Black Rock City infrastructure.  Their year-round effort belies the magical appearance of Black Rock City’s annual birth.

Our container before the clean up…

… and after our work was done

You can’t “visit” the ranch.  It’s a work-only space with no tolerance for lurkers.  You have to schedule yourself there with official approval from the Burning Man manager responsible for oversight of your camp or department.  Once your arrival and departure times are set, accommodations for the numbers of workers you’re bringing are arranged.  Check-in is required and each person must sign a release of liability form.  You’re reminded to work safely because it’s a long way to medical services and the available First Aid is rudimentary.

“Joan Jett,” our borrowed Burning Man vehicle, ready for another trip to the dumpster — one of five loads of material either thrown out or recycled by rach staffers

Ranch staff does more than just prepare for Burning Man.  They are responsible for Burning Man’s Nevada properties, which include facilities adjacent the Playa, in and around Gerlach, and in Reno.  And while most art installations are built away from the Ranch, DPW projects ranging from road signs to administrative structures such as the Box Office are put together in a well-equipped and immaculately maintained workshop.  This year, workers proudly told us, the 2018 Man was built in-house after a contractor failed to deliver on a proposed animated robot representing the 2018 “I Robot” theme.

Our happy band of workers ready to head to dinner and home.  Left to right: Unissie, Lashes, Carousel and Perky

As we drove off property the evening of July 1, we realized that we felt the same sense of melancholy as we did when departing Burning Man.  There is a spirit alive at the Ranch; the spirit that created the event and has nurtured it for nearly 30 years.  While the effect of Burning Man may be magical, it takes hard work, planning, and commitment by staff and volunteers to bring it to life.

Bring Your Creativity to the Playa

Burning Man has been depicted as “not a spectator sport” because you’re not really part of things unless you bring something of yourself to the Playa.  One of the truly amazing aspects of the event is the array of creative, and often whimsical, contributions.  If you’re looking for something to offer as your gift to Burning Man, then think about bringing a creative idea rather than something tangible to give away.

Some of the best and most entertaining ideas I’ve seen cost little or nothing, but entertain large swaths of fellow Burners.  I recall one inspired idea we saw while biking down a busy Black Rock City side street.  A guy sitting at a desk on the side of the road waved us down, looked us over and said, “I can see by your face that you need a second opinion.”  We were flummoxed.  “What do you mean?” was all we could think of saying.

He pointed to another person sitting at a desk across the street.  “Go see that guy and he’ll give you a second opinion.”  So, we did.  And he gave us a second opinion. We don’t even remember what it was about, but we loved the idea.

Another great “on the street” gift came from a Burner all decked out in a tux, standing in the center of the road saying things like “nice smile” and “great costume” to people as they biked past him.  It turned out he was from Compliment Camp, and their gift to the Playa was eliciting smiles by saying nice things about people.

One year, friends of ours brought lots of salad fixings and made unsolicited deliveries from tent to tent.  The transported their gifts in an old-fashion newspaper boy delivery bag, and they called themselves “Salad Camp.”

Another couple brought satellite equipment in their RV and gave free connections to the Internet.  A couple of guys in a camper put a Wheel of Fortune out on the Playa.  When people spun the wheel, the guys jumped out of their nearby RV and hollered “you’re a winner!” Then they awarded the Bruner’s good luck with a martini.

Gaining knowledge on the God Phone

One of my favorites that was a Playa standby during my first few years was the God Phone – a phone booth on the side of the road that connected directly to God (or someone pretending to be God).  You could ask God anything, and he or she would provide an answer that was – of course – perfect.  Then there was the Elders camp, populated by Burners 80 and older, who disseminated “wisdom” to anyone who sought it.

That’s how it works.  You bring an idea with you, spend minimal dollars on it, and offer it to fellow Burners on Playa.  Of course, there are also the more elaborate schemes such as an art car built on a truck or bus chassis (my favorite was the gigantic yellow duck), or a mini Bourbon Street serving beignets and New Orleans-style libations, or your own circus with acrobats and clowns, or even a roller rink with disco music.  You can go low tech, low cost; or high tech and expensive.  What’s most important is the creativity of your idea and its ability to make people happy.

Even if you’re camping on your own, you can become a “Compliment Camp” or “Second Opinion Camp,” or an “Elders” camp.  Adding your ideas to the mix not only helps make the Playa more enticing but also makes your Burning Man experience more memorable and complete.