Monday, September 14, 2009


There's always a lot to do in Black Rock City. When you enter the City, typically you receive a book of "planned events" for the week. If I were actually talking right now, I would have totally used air quotes. There's something called Playa time, which means it happens when it happens, but generally after it was supposed to happen.

Friday evening was a great exercise in Playa Time. Apparently there was a scheduled "launch" of the Rocket. So, as Burners, we dutifully flocked to the perimeter set about the Rocket and waited with great anticipation. We listened to an art car's sound system calling for Major Thom...we sat, we stood, and then, after about an hour and a half, we left. There was another event to go wait for. The second event was inside one of the Domes towards the edge of the city.

The Domes are typically home of raves to the nth degree. The thumpa-thumpa is intoxicating enough (for me) but not for the multiples of those who experience the Playa in an altered state. Yes, this year I learned the term E-tard, referring to those who take so much E, that their eyes dilate to a point that they look like Anime characters and all they can do is laugh and react to the music. I don't envy the experience. I like my state of mind just as it is.

The music in the dome we ended up in was actually very interesting, as was the crowd. It was a techno version of what seemed to be Eastern European folk songs. Ravers were dancing happily around me, some without inhibition, some completely within their own worlds, and some oblivious to those around them. They wore variations of what seemed like gypsy/tribal garb, many with faces painted and props of indiscriminate nature. We were there to see a circus act, which, was operating on playa time as well.

The act we were there to see was actually quite exquisite. It combined an aerialist act, with fire dancing and various other erotic components. Although there was still more to see there, after a couple of hours, I was at stimulation overload. I needed a mellower place to be, a place without chemically induced euphoria. I parted from my friends with the intent to go to Jazz Cafe, but when I stepped out of the dome, I realized we were in the middle of a dust storm. And not just a dust storm but a white out. Despite the wind I got on my bike and headed the direction of Jazz Cafe, but after a couple of close calls with pedestrians, decided to dismount and just walk. I made it as far as the Man, when I decided pushing my bike into a wall of dust wasn't the thing to do. So I called it a night and headed back to my van instead. After walking across the playa, in a white out, I finally came to my block only to find another rave, just two camps down from my own, and almost every art car on the Playa seemed to be in attendance. The music was awesome and the crowd was inviting, but I was tired, and retreated to my van just the same, where I sprayed myself down with a vinegar solution and wiped the alkali based dust from skin. I fell asleep to the thumpa-thumpa of art cars and raves, and only woke up when the music stopped sometime just before sunrise.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Friday Part 2 Barbie Death Camp & "Joe"

Friday the temperature continued to rise. By the time I made it back to my camp the temperature was well into the 90's and climbing. I grabbed my water bottle and joined my campmates under the shade structure.

At Burning Man, one of the things you must learn is to know your limits. Once the heat of the day sets in, it's best to find some shade and stay there. Failure to do so, will likely result in heat exhaustion, ruining the rest of your day and evening. Sitting around doing nothing can be infuriating at place like Burning Man. There is so much to do and see. It's easy to come down with a case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). As I sat with new friends, listening to their stories from earlier in the week, I couldn't help but want to get back out there. Finally after a couple of hours, I relented and headed to one of my regular hangouts, Barbie Death Camp.

Barbie Death Camp is something everyone should see. Every year Hundreds of Barbies are set up into a concentration camp type march into a full sized oven, and otherwise sacrificed at Barbie Death Camp. I've seen women bring their childhood Barbie Dolls to add to the spectacle. It's both funny and sick at the same time. But that's not the only reason I go there. Barbie Death Camp is also a wine bistro, and always has shade and comfortable couches. And for some reason I always end up there just before Critical Tits, a 1000+ woman strong topless bike ride through Black Rock City.

One of the best things about Barbie Death Camp is the people you meet there. This year I met a guy who turned out to be an Iraq Vet. I'll just call him "Joe," I don't know if I even caught his real name. He seemed sweet but damaged in a way that was undeniable, both physically and mentally. But he smiled with a joy I recognized that only comes from being on the Playa.

He told me that after his time in Iraq, he was a worthless human being. He said he was hateful, and full of anger, and cruel...and then he came to Burning Man. "I'd never seen anything like this before," Joe told me. "People just create, and respect and love here. I know I could go down any street here and tell someone I love them for being a person, and they'll believe me."

His words made me want to cry. We talked a long time. He told me things he probably shouldn't have, but he knew I served in the military too, and trusted me. When we parted, we hugged a good Playa hug each of us glad to have met the other.

Day 2 on the Playa

A week ago, Friday, I was there. I realized that I still had 3 full days on my beloved Playa.

Despite a late rise, I attempted to continue with my normal Playa routine. Normally, I’m up with the sun. I make coffee, head to Center Camp to check email and hang out for a while. But when I rose that Friday, the sun was already several fingers high, and the inside of the van was heating up.

I got up, dressed, took care of the necessities of sunscreen, goggles, and water and headed out. My first task was to find the original camp I was supposed to be with, but I had no luck, so I headed to Center Camp. When I got there I realized it was already well past 9AM. The wifi I was told was sketchy at best. I chose not to believe my source and made the attempt anyway. No luck. It was at this point that I realized this isn’t my typical kind of Burn. My typical obligations and routines didn’t seem to apply.

While at Playa Info, I collected some safe sex kits to redistribute, and headed to Center Camp proper. As usual, Center Camp was filled with meditation, yoga, random performance, the ball of pooh, contemplation and conversation. After circling a couple of times I chose a place to sit and share my morning meal of Wasa bread, dried fruit and salmon. The person I sat near was about my age, and also a mother of boys. We sat and talked about our lives as parents and some of the challenges of raising boys. After a while a third woman joined us and contributed her thoughts to our conversation. Her naivety about raising children was almost charming. After listening for a while she concluded, that maybe pro-creation wasn’t for her. I handed her a safe sex kit.

After Center Camp I stopped to visit my sister at her camp, Hot Monkey Sox where I was treated to a proper breakfast of bacon and eggs. There, I caught up with friends, but didn’t stay too long. It was moving toward the heat of the day, and I didn’t want to get stuck there so I headed back to my own hood by way of the open Playa to look at some of the art in daylight.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On the Playa - Part 2

As we roll into Black Rock City, we quickly figure out the best way to deposit everyone in the right spot. Finding people on the Playa can be almost impossible, but this is the possible burn. As we drive on the outer rim, Mia spots her camps bus almost immediately. We quickly turn in, deposit her and her things, bid her well and seek out the next camp...mine.

I'm supposed to camp with Camp Radom, but the address my friend gave me is not the same as what is on the map. I go with what's on the map. After a bit of searching we find it, Camp Random and Unncessary, except they haven't heard of my friend. "Hmmm...well," I say, "I guess I should go look for them in the first spot they said they'd be at."

"Or you can just stay here," a lovely faced woman tells me. "It's called 'Camp Random,' come be our random camper." I thought about it, and decided it wasn't a bad idea. So I pull in and get a hug from new friends who offer food and drink. Amy wastes no time getting her stuff together on her bike. She's late for a meeting at Fire Conclave, which manages the actual burning of the man. She gives me a quick hug and she's off.

A lot is happening. I have to make camp and get geared up for the Playa, but I also want to go see the Billion Bunny March as they take control of the Man. I decide to do the latter first while I still have some light. I use my bike racks and a tarp to make a lean to on the side of the van. This allows me a space to put my bike and shower. Then, inside the van, I pull out the back seat making a bed, and stow things in sensible places. Out of one bag I pull out pieces of a torn sheet that I use as make shift curtains so I have privacy. Then, finally, I'm ready to don my Playa pack with everything I would need for a quick journey out. I get on my bike, put on a glow light, head lamp, and bandanna to use as a face mask in case of dust, and I'm off.

First, I stop at Kidsville to let my sister know I arrived. She's not there, so I leave word. Next, I stop at Center Camp. I walk in to the usual mayhem of drum circles and random performance, and look around for a place to chill for a moment. I sit beside an older gentleman, who seemed to be looking for company. "Well I need to go pay my respects to the Man" I tell him. "Mind some company he asks?" "No not at all I say." It turns out our bikes are literally parked right next to each other.

After a brief stop at "Fire Idol" which is a fire dancing version of American Idol on the Playa, we head to the Man. As we approach I see the giant floating eyes looking out at me just below the Man, and I realize I forgot my camera in the van! Argh!

I spent a good amount of time at the Man, and then rode along one half of the esplanade which offered the "spank-o-matic," an amazing dance troupe party, and a rave in one of the giant domes. Then I headed across the Playa again, and saw art cars, and exhibits of all kinds. I finally ended up at my default position which is Jazz Cafe, back in Center Camp, and just in time to see the naked saxophonist. He was actually quite good. It was then, that I realized that I'd already been up since 5:30AM, and it was going on 2AM, so I headed back to my van, which was ready for me to curl up on my Hello Kitty pillow. In one night, I had seen more of the Playa than I had in just about all the other years combined. I fell asleep listening to the thumpa-thumpa of a rave spot just two camps down. It felt so good to be home.

Day 1 There & Back

Day 1 (Getting) THERE

I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited. I am going to Burning Man. It’s really true.

The day started like any other. I got my son up, made sure he had breakfast and a lunch and got him off to school, except this time the van was full of supplies for the Playa.

“Bring me back some stuff!” He says when he gets out. I smile, and tell him to be good.

A couple of hours later, I’m on the road with my riders heading toward the Playa. My riders are Amy, a 13-year Burner with serious art construction cred, and Mia a college girl newbie with aspirations to work in Community Arts. She marvels at us, as Amy and I giggle our way up Interstate 80, singing along with the playlist made especially for this journey. After a couple of brief stops, we finally turn off at mile marker 43 in Nevada just east of Reno.

Amy turns and tells Mia, “this is where the real journey begins.”

“She’s right” I agree.

“What do you mean?” Mia asks.

“You’ll see.” I say.

As we turn in Wadsworth onto the road that takes us to Gerlach the landscape is suddenly a beautiful pastiche of browns, tans and sage against a very blue sky. We take our time on this road. Not only are the speed limits strictly enforced, but this is where the most accidents occur. People get so excited to be on that road that leads to our destination, that they forget themselves and perhaps what’s safe or, they aren’t that conscious about it to begin with.

The road is two lanes, narrow, long and mostly straight. It’s agonizing. We want to be there so badly, but I force myself to drive a sensible speed, partially because I have the responsibility of passengers and partially because I couldn’t afford the two front tires my mechanic recommended.

We pass by an impossibly blue lake, familiar rock formations, and land that to me feels enchanted. It’s tribal land. I recognize that we are visitors, passing through and do everything I can to do so with respect and care.

At this point, my lack of foresight has deprived us of music. I realize I forgot the iPod charger. All we can do now is look at the road before us, and anticipate. To pass the time we tell our best Playa tales. Amy’s are great. She tells how her friends came to the Playa in a cab once from Reno after rolling their car. The fare was something like $200. My tales aren’t nearly as interesting. I just talk about how excited I am to be on my first kid-free Burn. “I’ve never gone with absolutely no responsibility to anyone else,” I say. “Monday, I was daydreaming about being able to do this one day, and today, (Thursday) it’s true.”

We have to make one more, brief stop before we get to Gerlach and then to the Playa. I have to see my Indian Taco lady, whose stand I have stopped at every year. She sees me jump out of my van and waves through the window at me.

“Where are the babies?” she asks.

“Grandma’s” I grin back.

After a very brief moment of confusion, she smiles back at me. “Good for you!” She says.

I only buy a 7up, and promise to stop by on the way out. We really want to get there.

Amy and I begin groaning at the road, that appears to be never ending. “Just after that ridge.” We say. “No that one.” The drive is much harder in daylight. At least at night you can see the glow of lights ahead. We keep hoping for the towns of Empire and Gerlach to appear. The giddiness and anticipation is almost unbearable when they finally do.

That’s it!” Amy says. “That’s where we are going.” Mia looks confused. “I thought it would be bigger.” She says. “No honey, that’s just the portal, if you will.” I clarify. “You’ll see.”

We pass through Empire and it’s sole store, and then Gerlach, which now offers some sort of Playa supply flea market. We wave at the locals, who smile and wave back, and finally, make the last turn before we get there.

“That’s where we’re going.” I explain to Mia as Amy frantically tries to find BMIR on the radio. We are driving beside an expanse of pale, flat nothingness. “That’s the Playa,” I say.

Thirteen miles later we turn onto the Playa itself. Amy and I cheer as we do. There is almost no line to get in, and I could easily drop my riders and go, but I decide to wait for them at Will Call so I can drive them in too.

There are a few people outside the gate holding signs, pleading for tickets. Some people just can’t stay away and come on hope. Before long, Amy and Mia both have their tickets and we are admitted in.

“Welcome home!” is what the greeters always say. We get out, and hug our greeters like long lost friends with good Playa Hugs that always feel real and sincere. Mia still looks confused. “Do you know them?” she asks. “No. This is just home.” I say.

BACK Day 1

I woke up tired and somewhat disoriented. My desert metabolism is confused, as is my inner routine. Instead of thinking about finding shoes to go to the port-o-jon I force myself up to make sure Nolan got up for school. The default world came crashing in on me last night as I realized that the van really needs those tires now. Plus with the distraction of unloading and cleaning, I hadn’t noticed we got new neighbors just a couple of doors down. We’ve already had a shooting, my 19-year-old tells me. “Great.” I say. It’s then that I notice there are cars lined up and down the street and no fewer than 50 kids in their yard, making all kinds of ruckus. This morning I realize why. Instead of cars outside the house, it’s limos, and everyone is wearing black. They had a shooting all right. And it was just three doors down. Nolan gets picked up for school, and I sleep a little longer. My body just does not want to cooperate in this environment. Finally when I do get up, everything feels foreign, and almost heavy.

My inner routine is off. Instead of goggles, facemask, sunscreen and water, I struggle to find keys, cell phone, wallet and ferry pass. It takes me forever to get out of the house, so I can limp my poor van to the mechanic for new tires. After dropping it off, I walk to the ferry terminal and observe how different the sound is. No joy, no frivolity, no laughter no thumpa-thumpa coming from insane art cars. If there is any music at all, it’s a more oppressive, bow-chick-bow of gangsta-rap. The walk to the ferry feels so much different than my morning treks on the Playa. The only song I really hear along the way are the high pitch moans of red-winged black birds that have taken residence in front of the ferry building, where I go to wait for my boat that will take me to work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Playa Magic Exists

Playa Magic Exists

Some years are better than others. Some years everything works out as I expect it to. Milestones are marked. We do the things that we normally do, and enjoy them.

This year, or rather this summer wasn’t quite like that. Our family routine was disrupted by other requirements and financial restraints. It just seemed to be one thing after another. Work requirements trumped family outings, family responsibilities overtook leisure, and then, last week, my clutch went out on my VW Beetle. Through it all though, for the most part, I stayed upbeat. I guess somehow I knew something else was out there for me.

On the years we don’t go to the Playa, we always watch for Burners heading that way on the freeway. They are easy to spot, with cars that look like they were packed by the Beverly Hillbillies, piled high with PVC and bikes, lots of bikes. And the passengers in these vehicles invariably wear blissful smiles. Am I romanticizing? Yeah a bit. It’s what happens when you really miss something. So, all day Sunday, every time we saw a car packed to the rim with equipment and bikes, we yelled, “Burners!” and laughed a little.

I stayed up till midnight Sunday to mark the time when we traditionally roll onto the playa, and Monday morning went to the Burning Man website to look at the Gerlach webcam, watching the vehicles go by. Before long I was looking at the pictures coming back, and commented how much I appreciated the images, and how if the Universe were to drop $500 in my lap this week I would definitely go.

Then, the impossible happened.

Someone who saw my comment sent me a message offering me a free, gifted ticket.

When I read the message, I gasped like I never had before. Could it really be true? I couldn’t even speak it when my co-worker asked me what happened. I just motioned her to come look at my monitor.

“No Way!” She said.

I was still speechless. Then I started laughing as I was filled with unexpected joy.

“Oh my god! Is this real?” I said.

There was a phone number in the email, which I called after a few moments of composing myself. The gentleman on the other end was sincere, and just wanted the ticket to go to “a good home.” I don’t know what I said, except a lot of “thank you so much!”

Although I hadn’t planned on going to the playa, I did have a fantasy of going on my own this year, just once.

For us, Burning Man is always a family affair, that takes months of planning and days of staging. We are always uber-prepared. When you go with kids, it can’t be grab a duffel bag, some water and try to survive the week on a can of Pringles and a bag of granola. The shortest amount of time I’ve taken to get ready is three weeks.

But this time is different. It’s just me. No tent, no kitchen to set up, no meals to plan. Somehow everything fell into place. I inexplicably bought nuts, dried fruit, and ready made couscous this last weekend. I only had to pick up some smoked salmon, wasa bread and protein bars. Then I went to the dollar store and picked up baby wipes, glow lights, and a few other basics that I didn’t have on hand. As a matter of circumstance, the weekend before, we had just gone through our playa boxes to find equipment for friends who were going, so everything was readily accessible.

In a matter of two days, I have just about everything I need, save the water, within two Rubbermaid storage bins and a milk crate. I also have two riders coming up with me to split the gas, and 3 days and 4 nights to live out what was just a daydream on Monday.

You see? Playa Magic is Real! Thank you so much Mike!