Return to Burning Man

Success, failure, tales and stories from the playa in 2017

It felt like I had just got done writing about my inaugural outing to Black Rock City where I attended Burning Man during the summer of 2016. I knew leaving the playa that I’d be back at some point, but I didn’t know how soon that would be. Before I even had a chance to settle down, the following year rolled around and the next Burning Man was already upon me. Motivated by other circumstances and figuring there was no time like the present, I decided that I was going all in for a second round. Here we go again.

Preparations Redux

I already went into detail last year about preparing for the desert and much of that remains valid. But if you need a summary again, here is a brief (but hardly complete) list of essentials out there.

Water – It’s everything. Plan at least 1.5 gallons a day; more rather than less.

Food – Won’t need as much as you think (BRC has a funny way of keeping you fed), but remember self reliance and bring enough to sustain yourself on your own.

Rope – Ratchet straps.

Goggles / dust mask – Motorcycle or ski goggles should be fine to deal with dust storms, I’d go with a better respirator if you’re highly sensitive to the air.

Bicycle – Getting around is so much easier with a bike. Any single-speed, cheap thrift store bike in working condition will do nicely; bring dry chain lube, patch and tools along for maintenance.

Better bicycle seat – Toss the stock seat out and buy something big and cushy: your rear end will thank you at the end.

Sunblock – I use SPF 90. One application lasts me all day and I remained as Irish-pale leaving the playa as I was arriving.

Rope – RATCHET STRAPS.

Baby wipes – Only way of staying ‘clean’ out there unless you have access to a shower.

Lip balm, nasal spray, moisturizing lotion – Like gold in dry environments.

Decent’ tent – Don’t need the most expensive but don’t get the cheapest either: I’ve made that mistake and had to use sewing pins and Gorilla tape to hold the door shut due to a failed zipper.

Ratchet straps – Now we’re learning!

Sealed bag of clean clothes – Save a pair of clean clothes to be worn only after leaving the playa, it especially make the transition back to the “default world” easier if you’re flying out immediately or not hitting a laundromat for a while.

Boarding the Burner Express leaving Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

There would be significant changes in my travel plans this time around. This year I decided to fly into Reno and take the Burner Express bus straight into the event – a far more appealing alternative to the 27-hour drive I made last year. Gear was extremely limited on both and I had to get very creative with packing. I chose to stay the Saturday in Reno in a location filled with amenities to pick up final supplies prior to departing for the playa on Sunday.

Another difference is that I would be staying with the Northwest Mist camp whom you might remember encountering from my travels last year. Comprised mostly (but not exclusively) of burners from the northwest / Portland area, the camp hosts a giant misting tent that is a welcome relief from the desert heat.

I still had my thrift store bicycle I brought back with me from the previous event and shipped that back to Reno through ShipBikes.com. If I could do it again, I would have bought one from the nearby Wal-Mart as they had plenty of bikes in stock that didn’t cost much more than shipping my own and would have saved me a lot of time and trouble.

Unlike last year where I literally threw together something on the road, my clothing was more elaborate this time as I took a crash course in sewing from YouTube and tailored my own custom playa wear. I was able to get a little more creative with my garments (carefully choosing appropriate fabric for the desert heat) and even learned what the heck a bobbin is.

The final weeks before departure was horribly hectic as there was always one more thing to build, sew, buy, tweak, pack or adjust. I made it to Reno in one piece and continued to work up to the wire before departing early Sunday morning for the airport where the Burner Express waited.

The life and times of Photo Studio

Photo Studio, we hardly knew ye.

Feeling that I was more a spectator than a participant at last year’s Burning Man, this time I decided to focus my photography efforts on the weird and wonderful denizens of Black Rock City and offer something back in return.

Fashioned somewhat after a medicine show cart, I constructed a bicycle trailer out of wood that was essentially a traveling photo studio on wheels, complete with a Paul C. Buff Digibee 800 strobe and a silver beauty dish powered by a Vagabond Mini Lithium (VML) battery pack. A portable Canon Selphy printer allowed me to print and gift 4×6 photos on the spot.

While trials with the trailer around my neighborhood went fine, the troubles started in Reno when the bike hitch failed and I had to hail an Uber XL to get everything to the bus depot on time. Problems continued to persist after arriving on the playa as the right wheel of the trailer completely seized up, essentially becoming a giant boat anchor attached to my bike. Unable to budge it with insufficient tools, I had little choice but to also leave the trailer and luggage behind (including water) and seek help back at camp.

The ordeal in the extreme heat left me worse for wear by the time I finally arrived at Northwest Mist. After explaining my crisis to one of the camp leaders, I was provided much needed hydration and ushered into the misting tent to recover. Later when the camp’s mutant vehicles were operational, I was able to get a ride on the Misty Pearl to retrieve my things scattered across Black Rock City.

With too much danger of the same circumstance happening again, I regarded the photo trailer as a liability and abandoned the idea. Though the execution was far more trouble than it was ultimately worth, trial and error is what Burning Man is all about and what you take away from the lessons of failure is what matters.

I’m sure the photo studio trailer will be resurrected once again down the line, but I might keep the concept to regional burns as it would be much easier to transport and deal with.

Never the same place twice

Aside from the trailer debacle, the rest of my burn went relatively smooth. Riding the Burner Express into the event was brilliant and it was nice to let someone else do the driving for a change. Upon bypassing the gate and stepping off the bus, a greeter on a loudspeaker was initiating virgin burners to the desert by having them roll around on the ground.

I find the trouble with many annual events is that they feel exactly the same year after year, and I was concerned that this round on the playa would lack the wonder of the initial outing. While much was indeed familiar, for all intents and purposes each year is an all new Black Rock City. Like returning to your hometown after many years: things are either new, altered, exactly how you remember them, moved or completely gone.

To be expected, The Man was found in the middle of it all. It’s redundant to say that The Man is unique this year (he always is), but this time he was directly on the ground for the first time in many years and completely enclosed by a giant shrine that fit the “Radical Ritual” theme.

As always, due north of The Man was this year’s temple. When I walked amongst the template last year as a sightseer, little did I know that I would be returning the following year to deal with loss of my own. I had lost my mother earlier this year and the motivating factor in this year’s trip was to deliver the last of her remains to the temple to go up in the flames alongside everyone’s dedications and tributes.

The playa art of 2016 was quite hard to top as structures like the lighthouses and buildings were massive and grandiose, but this year’s art still featured a lot of technical achievements, creativity or just flat out weirdness. Most unique was a twenty foot tall, walking, talking female marionette named Euterpe (operated by crane) that rose out of a proportionally sized bed each morning. Wandering the open playa, Euterpe would comment on sights, art, people in the vicinity and Burning Man principles. (She was even in attendance at a wedding.)

As before, the best way to experience Black Rock City is simply getting out there and letting things find you. Amongst many things, I discovered a formal dinner party (with large dinner table and chandelier) on the back of a mutant vehicle with participants elegantly dressed in tuxedos and dresses. Traveling the open playa at night, I witnessed a fireworks show in multiple locations across the vast city that was timed in perfect sync with one another.

Slides: Burning Man 2017

View Gallery

My photography efforts was far more subdued this year particularly due to the failure of the trailer, but I still managed to get out and take what I could with a combination of my cell phone, DSLR and 35mm film camera…and you can always check out last year’s picture gallery for a more comprehensive look of what goes on out there.

Camp life

I’d say my camp experience at Northwest Mist was one of the biggest highlights this year. While having access to common areas, kitchens, showers and a giant misting tent is certainly nice out there, what really making being a part of a camp worthwhile is the community experience that’s missing from solo excursions.

Rather than eating Hormel meals in front of my tent, it was nice attending evening dinners with the camp at large and listening to what they’ve been up to during the day. Hot and lazy afternoons in the misting tent brought scores of interesting visitors, and attending random events and riding around on art cars with campmates was a lot of fun. I made a lot of new friends over that week, each with varying experience on the playa.

This year was different for the Northwest Mist camp at large as they were placed along Esplanade – essentially the Las Vegas Boulevard of Burning Man. Camping on the liveliest street in Black Rock City brings new challenges with everything from additional crowds to getting a good night’s sleep.

While initially there was hesitation and concern about the placement, the entire experience turned out surprisingly well: there was no major issues with sleep, rowdiness, random drunks or vandals in our neck of the woods (to my knowledge). The open playa being right outside the tent was a giant bonus for those who preferred to watch the The Man burn from camp.

The only crisis I personally had there was inside the camp’s truck when I absent-mindedly dropped my phone between the walls of the shower and truck (thinking it a solid ledge), too narrow to reach by hand. What made matters worse was that my driver’s license was taped to the back of it: I was going to need that to board the bus and airline back home.

Campmates offered various objects, suggestions and advice to no avail, but I practiced radical self-reliance and repurposed parts from the hitch of the failed bicycle trailer to make a ridiculous looking object that could slide back there and get the right grip and leverage on the phone to lift it out.

With a large supply of photo paper left over from the benched photo studio, I switched gears by taking photos of various camp moments throughout the week (either by DSLR or cell phone) and posted the printed photos on the camp fridge for everyone to enjoy. This went over very well with the camp and as I’ve said before, people still appreciate tangible things in the digital age.

Man burn and departure

If you weren’t aware already, an individual jumped the line during the Man burn on Saturday night and ran straight into the fire, dying later from his injuries after being pulled out. With the incident hitting the news, this is the number one thing people have asked me about upon my return.

I did not personally witness that directly, but consequences were visible as the area was deemed a crime scene and people were barred from getting close to the remains of the Man. All subsequent art burns were cancelled, with the exception of the Temple on Sunday night in which a fence had been quickly thrown around the structure to prevent a potential repeat.

Aside from murmurs over the incident, the rest of Sunday was uneventful as camps picked up and left the playa. After helping my camp break down the misting tent, I went bar-hopping at the remaining camps still open. I took advantage of the departed crowds on Monday morning and rode around on the playa one last time to view and photograph remaining art, then packed up my own things and got a ride back to the bus depot to depart.

Much stink was made in the media about the amount of abandoned bicycles at Burning Man, but I would be leaving my own bike behind in a different manner. Close to the exit was the Bikes for Africa program, where bicycle donations would be repaired and shipped to Gambia for community use. Having survived two trips through the desert and now on it’s way to a new adventure across the ocean, I’d say that’s not bad for what had been an unwanted thrift store bike.

After hugging my camp mate goodbye and stepping back onto the bus, the playa quickly disappeared from view and I found myself back in Reno before I knew it. It had been well over a week since I had any contact with the outside world and a lot of disappointing news awaited me as I came back on the grid. During that time, Hurricane Harvey laid devastation to Houston, North Korea dominated the news and someone I knew through a previous job had suddenly passed away.

As I stood in a Reno laundromat watching my clothes tumble around in the dryer, I silently asked myself if it would have not been the worst idea in the world to have just remained behind in the desert.

Reflection

I’ve been asked if this year’s Burning Man was better than the previous one, and that is a difficult question to answer. It’s all relative, really.

While last year’s sights was more memorable, I’d say that this year felt like the more “authentic” Burning Man for me. Being a part of a camp drastically altered the experience and I was not as glued to my camera this time, so I felt I had attended the 2017 edition properly as a “burner” rather than a spectator.

I think I will inevitably be back to the playa again, perhaps as soon as I publish this post. A third round of experiences out there would make for a proper trilogy and I’d like to apply what I’ve learned from the first two outings to make the most of it.

Burning Man is definitely not for everyone. It’s a culture shock amongst an utterly brutal environment that will likely make newcomers question what they’ve gotten themselves into. Endure the chaos, and you’ll be rewarded with moments and experiences you just can’t find anywhere else.

If that isn’t the best analogy for life, then I don’t know what is.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.