Our First Burn
Burning Man. That one magical week out of the year that people from all over the globe descend on Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada to create a temporary, volunteer-made metropolis called Black Rock City. This year, Justin and I excitedly ventured out for the first time to join the masses of vehicles toting colorfully decorated bikes, trailers, tents, yurts, art structures, and much more into northwestern Nevada.
On the evening before gate opening, Justin and I made our way from our home in Woodland, CA to Reno, NV to meet with a group of friends with whom we planned to camp. Early the following morning, we all departed Reno to begin the almost 3hr journey north with hopes of snagging a good spot in line when the gates opened at 10am. With only two gas stations along the roughly 75mile stretch of road between the main highway and Gerlach, there is understandably a dense swarm of excited burners forming lines at both stops. That aside, we were lucky to have had a relatively smooth sailing commute until just a few miles outside of Gerlach, where we finally hit standstill traffic.
Photo by Nick Cahill.
After a couple hours of static waiting sprinkled with small bursts of forward movement, our tires finally rolled off the familiar pavement and onto the soft, dusty playa. We had finally made it! Or so we thought… Little did we know, just because our vehicle had begun accumulating its new dusty coating didn’t mean we were finished our journey to Black Rock City.
Photo by Nick Cahill.
Now comes the last few miles of dusty lanes partitioned with bright orange traffic cones. The speed limit, just above a crawl at 5mph, makes many eager burners fidget in their seats and try their luck at kickin’ up extra dust with higher speeds; if the waiting traffic doesn’t slow you down, best believe the Nevada State Police will!
The deliberately slow speed limit coupled with more stop-and-go traffic allowed a couple more hours to easily tick away before we finally pulled up to a humble plot of empty desert that our group decided to call home for the week ahead. Despite already being exhausted from the travel, there was no time to waste in setting up camp – the desert can be unforgiving, and shelter is a welcome relief during the staggering midday sun or through sporadic blinding dust storms.
After setting up, we couldn’t contain our excitement and curiosity any longer – it was time to explore! The main method of transportation around Black Rock City (BRC) is by bike; however, no plain ol’ bike will do. Amongst Burning Man’s 10 Principles are radical self-expression and decommodification, which can be applied across multiple aspects of the event, including transportation – not simply to help identify which bike belongs to you, but to express yourself in any wacky, abstract, fun way possible and to contribute to the creative community of Burning Man.
Following this line of thinking, vehicles with access to drive around BRC must obtain special passes at the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles). Living up to the name, only vehicles that have been mutated into, well, anything besides a recognizable vehicle, are permitted. A giant flame-throwing octopus? You got it! A huge array of colorful LED trees blasting electronic music? Why not! If you can imagine it (and even if you can’t), you may find it on the playa!
Transportation methods certainly aren’t the only creative outlet in BRC. Upon arrival, each attendee is provided a booklet with a list of events throughout the week. Events range from kid friendly to educational to more seductive activities – from yoga to free food and drink to meditation to learning how to hula hoop to sending legitimate postcards from BRC’s very own post office, there’s quite honestly something for everyone to get involved.
Art installations are literally scattered all over, tucked in every nook and cranny of the multitude of camps you can visit, and filling the void of the deep playa away from the inner city. While some art is more thought provoking and visually appealing, other pieces are more interactive and fun. Each year Burning Man has an overarching theme that is incorporated into the event, from smaller details like ticket design all the way to the design of the Man. This year’s theme was a setting of illusion and magic entitled Carnival of Mirrors, and it was evident how the theme inspired the ideas behind several art installations. From swing sets and fun mirrors to oversized typewriters and giant photo frames, the list goes on and on!
This year’s weather followed the typical fluctuations of a desert: days were hot and sunny (don’t forget sunscreen!) and nights were freezing (we wore down jackets while out and about, and slept with a down comforter). From the chatter of veteran burners, this year was also one of the dustiest in years. While the dust certainly had periods of remaining settled, we also experienced our fair share of dust storms shuffling across the playa obscuring visibility and throwing a fresh layer of dust onto anything in their path. It’s important to have some protective clothing to avoid dry, dusty eyes and airways.
In 2000, the tradition of bringing a temple to BRC was born. The intricately crafted temple, which provides a safe space for remembrance, grief, and renewal, is often filled with individuals praying, crying, and meditating. Throughout the week, the physical structure is decorated with letters to loved ones living and deceased, confessions, memoirs, and drawings hanging from the walls, laid along the floors, and written directly on the wooden frame.
Then, of course, there is the Man himself. Standing tall at the middle of BRC, serving as a beacon to burners out across the playa. This year’s Man was adorned with red LED lights on one side and green LED lights on the other, easily helping to orient where we were at any point in time. (It can be easy to get turned around when exploring the deep playa in the dark of night!)
As a temporary city, BRC must eventually dismantle. Many wooden art structures on the playa, including the Man and the Temple, are burnt to the ground at the end of the week. In a fantastical show of fireworks, this year’s Man was engulfed in flames big enough to light the entire city, thus signaling the beginning of the end of Burning Man 2015. Due to the looming responsibilities of my clinical year of veterinary school, Justin and I unfortunately had to depart BRC before witnessing the Temple burn.
The mass exit of tens of thousands of people during the last days of Burning Man, termed the Exodus, can easily take just as long as the commute into the event a week earlier. Paired with the Labor Day holiday traffic leaving the Lake Tahoe area during the same weekend, our drive home to Woodland, which takes about six and a half hours any other day, easily doubled in length.
After a week of fine dust covering everything we owned, it began to simply become a part of the every day experience. However, once we departed the playa, we were suddenly much more cognizant of the stubborn white film encasing us – we were a stark contrast to every one else on the road, and it was certainly no secret where we had just spent the last week! It was fun, though, to easily pick out fellow burners on the highway and wave to each other through dusty windows.
Admittedly, the week wasn’t exactly a walk in the park – the extreme weather fluctuations, the persistent dust, and the radical self reliance aren’t for everyone. That being said, Burning Man is what you make it, and attitude truly does mean a lot. The event is unique to each attendee, and with thousands of art pieces, events, people, and camps, not a single person walks away with the same experience. Now showered and back into the routine of our every day lives, we can’t help but smile when reflecting back on our time spent on the playa. Despite our best efforts, it was impossible to see and do it all; however, with each new year comes a new theme and an entirely new Black Rock City, so maybe we’ll try again next year. 😉
Come with me,
where dreams are born,
and time is never planned.
Truthfully, there are so many moving parts and experiences incorporated into Burning Man that this blog post barely skims the surface (it could be the post that never ends). If you’re interested in learning more, check out the Burning Man website for detailed information about the event, including complete survival guides for those wanting to experience Black Rock City for themselves.