The Burning Man Experience: Part Two – Welcome to the Playa

A city of creativity comes to life in the middle of the desert

This is part two of a two part series of posts involving my travels to Burning Man 2016. You can start with part one that covers my preparations prior to attending the event and desert survival advice.

With a 27 hour drive before me, I departed for Nevada on the Thursday before the start of Burning Man. I worked like a madman on preparations up to the day of departure, which continued even as I was on the road there. I made a quick stop off in Kansas City, MO and slept in my rental van at a Wal-Mart on the border of Kansas and Colorado.

Wal-Mart greets traveling burners in Elko, NV

Wal-Mart greets traveling burners in Elko, NV

Spending the entire Friday driving across Colorado and Utah, I made it to the border of Nevada and stayed the night at West Wendover wandering the casino strip. Having made good time, I took my time Saturday picking up final supplies in Elko, NV (about four hours out from the event) where traveling Burners had completely descended upon the town to raid the various grocery, department and home center stores.

With final preparations completed, I finished my travels along I-80 and arrived at Highway 447, the road that led straight to the Black Rock Desert. My plan was to enter Black Rock City during the night in order to avoid the daytime heat and perhaps deal with a reduced crowd, but I knew things could go either way as midnight was the official opening to the event. After gassing up the vehicle one last time in Fernley, I started on the final leg of the journey. No turning back now.

The dreaded gate and wait

Unless you do it on an off-period, it’s a horribly long wait to get into the Black Rock Desert by vehicle. While it’s not far from I-80 to Black Rock City, the problem is that it’s a single lane road trying to fit 70,000 anxious visitors. Even when you make it to the gate, the wait can extend into several hours as they collect tickets, search vehicles and greet visitors.

To ease traffic woes and save on gas, typically the commute works on a pulsing system where a section of the line of vehicles is allowed to proceed for a mile or so until the line is completely halted again. At this time, drivers are allowed to turn off their vehicles and relax for a little bit while waiting for the next pulse to begin.

It was well past 4AM in the morning when I finally reached the last gate into Black Rock City. “Welcome home!” the greeter said. “Do you want a hug?”

“I honestly could use sleep more,” I wearily replied back.

After getting a visitor’s guide and being let in, I quickly realized I was completely doing everything on the fly in no man’s land. It was pitch black out and I had trouble making out street signs, and I didn’t have the first notion on where I should go or where I could camp. With rest being the first thing on my mind and knowing I wouldn’t be able to do a thing until daylight, I parked on the outer perimeter and crawled in the back of the van to doze off.


Watch a more in-depth narrated video featuring my photography and everything I saw at Burning Man. (41 minutes)

How to (disastrously) pitch a tent at Burning Man

Only having gotten two hours of sleep, I slowly woke up and crawled out of the vehicle to get my bearings straight. I was greeted with a dusty THUD as I hit the ground and adjusted my sight to the desert sunrise and the surreal atmosphere of the city slowly coming to life. I certainly wasn’t in St. Louis anymore….or anywhere else I’ve ever been.

I found myself located right around the block of 7:30 and L street at the far left side of Black Rock City, which was far away from spaces reserved for theme camps and seemed as good of a place as any to set up at. When it comes to camping in the desert, you can do all the research you want online but it’s only when you actually get there that you truly understand the gravity of the situation.

My tent duck taped down as best I could. I failed to bring a sledgehammer to drive the rebar down further, but it still worked.

My tent duck taped down as best I could. I failed to bring a sledgehammer to drive the rebar down further, but it still worked.

A serious flaw in the construction of the monkey hut caused me to abandon the structure. The wind had massively picked up by mid-morning and I was defeated at every single attempt to get my tent secured to the ground. Feeling defeated, I looked embarrassingly around at surrounding camps raising their structures like a pro and honestly wondered if I was completely in over my head. I probably would have been headed right back home if it weren’t for a few friendly burners who saw my plight and assisted in finally getting the damned tent pinned down.

Even then, the high winds were flattening the tent like a pancake and a corner pin had broke to boot. After studying how various burners were securing their tents, in the spirit of radical self-reliance I repurposed the supplies from the abandoned monkey hut to completely re-enforce the tent. This did the trick and the structure (amazingly) continued to hold strong against even fiercer winds later in the week. The tent ordeal was absolutely trial-by-fire and I certainly received an education in playa construction.

The inside of my tent was quite comfortable with a full-sized cot, a wash station, a cooler, a line to hang my clothes on and other supplies. The loss of the monkey hut costed me my shade, but better than no tent at all. Eventually I got a new neighbor who brought supplies in excess and shared much welcome treats like soda and hot dogs throughout the week. Word had gotten out in the area that he had a nice air compressor and people were coming by the numbers to get their air mattresses filled up, deeming us unofficially as “Pump Camp.”

Already exhausted from my trials that day and knowing things would not really get underway until the next day after people had a chance to settle in, I decided to turn in early and slept like a rock nonstop for twelve hours straight. I was going to need it for what was ahead.

 

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Life in Black Rock City

Traveling down the roads of Black Rock City was like being in a poor but culturally and artistically rich third-world country. It was sort of like a real-life open world video game where the environment was completely open and you never knew what people or events you would uncover when exploring. Randomness absolutely ensued…and it’s simply better to go with it than ask questions.

I passed by a man in a tuxedo being cheered by a crowd as he exited a port-a-potty to “We Are The Champions” (the only answer I could get out of someone was that “he won Burning Man”). I turned down a road into a massive crowd of naked people participating in a Black Rock City pub crawl. A group of people did nothing but walk in circles and “moo” like a cow. A girl rode by on a bicycle and yelled out “I love my life!” I visited an aqua bar offering shots of “water” bartended by a pair of children. I attended a Goth-themed breakfast serving pancakes, as well as a grilled cheese dance party.

7v1b1664Burning Man is a gifting community and it’s not uncommon to be randomly given something by a stranger. I was approached by someone out on the open playa who had candidly taken my picture with an instant camera as I was setting up my tripod and was given the photo. Commercialism is highly frowned upon; some people even go to lengths to cover up company symbols and advertisements on rental trucks. There are only two kinds of places where currency is exchanged: the Center Camp cafe where visitors can buy coffee, and the various Arctica tents all around the city that sell ice.

Black Rock City has it’s own city services such as a post office, a newsletter and even a radio station. BMIR (Burning Man Information Radio) broadcasts on 94.5FM beginning the week prior to the event roughly within a thirty mile range or streamed over the internet. Though a pirate station, there isn’t conflict with the FCC due to it’s limited broadcast period and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) requiring the means to send out emergency broadcasts to attendees. Aside from music and other entertainment, BMIR is useful for announcements and to get information about events throughout the week.

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The denizens of Black Rock City are weird and wonderful, and I have honestly not met a more friendly and encompassing group of people in my life. Though as I’m used to business greetings, this made certain interactions awkward (like going for a handshake and getting grabbed for a hug instead).

Theme camps of Black Rock City

A big part of the Burning Man experience involves the many different themed camps in Black Rock City creatively offering anything from services, workshops, food and fun to the greater public.

Simply too numerous to name, some examples included a skate camp with half pipes/ramps to skateboard on, a soda bar camp offering homemade soda, a tango themed camp offering dance lessons, a large roller rink with a rack of skates for everyone, a putt-putt golf course, a vegetarian camp and even a camp with hammocks for visitors to sleep in. Some camps even had children’s activities, while others on the complete opposite end of the spectrum hosted “activities” for adults.

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The biggest camp of all is Center Camp, located south of the Man around the 6:00 area. Namely considered the main community “hub” of sorts, there’s always something going on at Center Camp at all hours and it’s the perfect place to chill out for a while between destinations. Several stages on the parameter and the open area in the center host anything from stage performers and musicians to performance art and discussion panels.

Northwest Mist

Northwest Mist

I got a firsthand look at the logistics that goes into running a theme camp when I dropped in on the Northwest Mist camp, where a former coworker of mine named Dave was stationed. The Northwest Mist tent is probably the “coolest” place you’ll find in the desert in the most literal sense: visitors are invited to come inside and relax under a cool mist that is constantly dropping from the ceiling and is most welcomed in escaping the desert heat or dust storms. It was amusing to witness the look on visitor’s faces as they entered the tent and looked as if they had discovered an oasis.

After catching up with Dave, I was given a tour of the camp and all the little details of how things were planned out. Fresh water for the misting tent (as well as camp use) was hauled in by truck every other day or so. The bottom floor tarp was directed to let the water run off outside and evaporate in the desert sun. A second large tent for camp member use consisted of a communal kitchen area and an inside area to pitch tents away from the elements outside, and around the corner was a large truck with a coin-operated shower cleverly set up to run on a timer off an Arduino unit.

The thriftiness and sheer creativity of what all goes into planning camps like Northwest Mist and others is what Burning Man was all about, and this would certainly not be the only time I would be wowed.

 

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Artwork on the open playa

Early in the week I took advantage of the cloud cover that rolled in to explore what is known as the open playa, the vast area north of the populated city area where all of the art installations are scattered randomly across the desert. The open playa is HUGE and I can’t imaging trying to explore the entire area without the use of a bicycle or a motorized pedestrian vehicle (Burning Man has been the only time in my life I’ve been jealous of a Segway).

The Man

The Man

As the rain from previous week had thrown off the construction schedule, several installations were not opened to the public until around mid-week. This included The Man, the famous large wooden effigy that is burned at the end of the event. Located in the dead center of the entire place and seen almost anywhere you go, the Man is useful as a compass of sorts to figure out your current location.

The Man was unique this year as he was smaller and placed up in the air in the center of a large wooden gear that was designed to be turned from a giant wheel located in the base structure below. Unfortunately a structural fault forced this idea to be abandoned and The Man was simply turned upright for the remainder of the event.

Other major locations included The Temple, a somber and spiritual place where people adorn the walls with writings, notes, dedications and other memorials. The Catacomb of Veils was a large set of pyramids that also had fallen behind schedule and was only opened to the public not too long before they were set to be burned down. There were a set of three wooden lighthouses that were nearly as big as actual lighthouses and allowed visitors to climb a long group of stairs to the top and cross bridges between the structures.

Most of the art can be interacted with and climbed upon, making the City Museum in St. Louis look like a McDonald’s PlayPen. There is simply too numerous of art to name on the playa and it would be impossible for me to see it all.

 


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The nightlife

There is more than enough to do throughout the day, but you’ll get to do it all in a whole new way after the sun goes down. Black Rock City takes on a whole new vibe at night as everything from theme camps, art cars, people and artwork is lit up and the entire place comes to life. Neon is seen everywhere and it’s not unusual to see lasers and fire shooting through the air on the horizon.

Many events happen exclusively at night (especially along Esplanade), and revisiting all the art installations at night is worthwhile as they might reveal a whole new purpose. For example, during the day I encountered a static Medusa head statue but at night the LCD eyes completely lit up and looked around at people.

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Night brings it’s own share of random circumstances: one moment I was witness to an impromptu fireworks show in the sky, and another moment had me discovering a rock opera performance. After chatting with a random stranger on a porch swing in the middle of the lonely desert, I helped an exotic woman model in front of an art installation – sharing a bottle of champaign together afterwards. The best way I can describe nights at Burning Man is like walking around a lucid dream…only everything was quite real.

 

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The art is burned down

The event is called Burning Man for a reason, and towards the end of the week a number of the art installations are burned down. The first I saw go up in flames was the Catacomb of Veils, set ablaze early Friday morning right as the sunrise came over the horizon. The flames and smoke bellowing from the structure combined with the dust devils resulting in an incredible spectacle to behold.

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The main attraction is the burning of The Man on Saturday night; nearly the entirety of Black Rock City and art cars come forth and surround the area to witness this event. After a performance with fire dancers on the ground, the sky is filled with an incredible firework show as the Man is set on fire. It roughly took a good thirty minutes for the entire upper structure of the Man to come crashing down; people are allowed to approach and ritually travel in a large circle around the remains once it is deemed safe.

There goes the Temple...

There goes the Temple…

The heat that comes off these burned structures cannot be overstated: I was only a short distance from the embers and felt like my face was going to melt off. Yet others are more immune to the heat: I was astonished to see a completely nude woman dancing freely around the flames as if she were Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones.

Though Burning Man isn’t over until Labor Day Monday, the Sunday after the Man burn has a “day after Christmas” feel as camps are packing up and departing. There are few events going on, save for the burning of the Temple later that evening. Unlike the previous night, the Temple burn is an incredibly somber and quiet event where the crowd silently witnesses the structure and it’s various messages dissolve into the blaze.

Return to the default world

And so came the end of my Burning Man experience. I departed the playa on early Monday morning and the departure was far longer than expected due an incident with missing minors holding up the gate. The lonely 27-hour drive back to St. Louis was tricky as I was up against a tight schedule to return home and I had ironically ended my travels much like my arrival to the playa: it was past 4AM as I rolled into my driveway and had all of two hours to get sleep before work.

I’ve been asked if I would do Burning Man again, and the answer is a resounding YES. But I would certainly do a few things differently this time: the biggest change is that I won’t drive alone to the event as it’s simply too far from the midwest. It would be much easier and quicker to fly into Reno and hop on the Burner Express bus straight into the event. For those logistics to work, I would join up with a theme camp as this would allow me to travel lighter to the event, not to mention the company and change of experience would be most welcomed.

Burning Man was quite unlike anything I had ever experienced, and it was a week filled with trial, failure, discovery and allegory. You really do get out of it what you put into it, and the desert shows you what you’re made of. While asking for directions around the city, a man there simply told me “Get lost, man….that’s the way to find yourself.” With everything I had been through that year leading up to Burning Man, he was certainly right about that.

 

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.