Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Burning Man: The Exodus

My alarm went off in the tent at 4:01. I could still hear music pounding throughout Black Rock City, but it was strangely muted. My nose was cold. I wiggled out of the warm sleeping bag and dressed quickly. My plan was to leave at 5 a.m. and avoid the inevitable traffic when tens of thousands of Burners try to leave the desert along a single access road at the same time. Holding my rolled sleeping bag, I stepped out of the tent and looked up at Orion in the clear desert sky. I stuffed the sleeping bag into the car, then put a quilt in the front passenger seat. Then I woke Benny and hustled him into the car and wrapped him up. He snuggled sleepily into the quilt. Quickly I broke down the tent in the dark, my hands lit by the headamp on my forehead. I shoved everything into the car, climbed into the driver's seat, said a short prayer, and turned the keys. The car started immediately. I almost cried with relief. The desert's alkaline dust can play hell with a battery.

Softly I drove toward 5:30, then turned left. The way was spottily lit in primary neon colors. I rolled past sleeping camps and turned right, and yes, there was the line. I followed the departing cars and RVs, creeping through the camp much like the way I entered. We easily rolled through the gate and crunched onto the graveled path. Soon I turned on County Road 34. I felt like bursting into tears again. I’d done it. I’d taken Benny to Burning Man and gotten safely out again. Now I just had to drive 90 miles through the desert to Interstate 80. Benny rolled toward the car door and slept on.

It was a quiet, dull drive in the dark, and I could only see the black outlines of mountains on the edges. I was nervous driving here, even with the long comforting red line of taillights before me. What if I got a flat or the car overheated or stalled? A million things could go wrong. We passed quietly through Gerlach, through the Pyramid Lake Indian reservation and after an eternity, we joined I-80.

I was so tired, having slept only a few hours, but neither Benny or I wanted to break our trip. We stopped for lunch at a little diner in the Sierra Nevadas, where the waitress admired our Burning Man t-shirts and asked for stories. Then we pushed on, joining surprisingly smooth-flowing traffic onto the Bay Bridge and then finally ... finally ... pulling into our own driveway. We were home.

Even now, nearly a week later, it's hard to sum up how I feel about this trip. It was so wonderful and so awful, so easy and so hard, so surprising and confusing and comforting all at once. I'm not kidding myself that I was anything more than a spectator; we were only there for two days, camping in Kidsville, tucked in our tent by 11 each night.

But we were there — we drove out there, just the two of us in our little Fit. I didn't bring one thing I wasn't glad to have and we lacked for nothing that we needed. By any measure this trip was a success. Those fussy, perfectionist tendencies that drive myself and everyone around me crazy came into their own at Burning Man. And I, Christine — a daydreamer who constantly misses her subway stop, a person who can't walk across the room without tripping, someone who practically needs a map to navigate her own neighborhood — brought a 10-year-old on her first trip to Burning Man and returned safe and sound. Not even a sunburn. It's tremendously empowering. And there's always next year. The Man burns in 364 days!

Burning Man: I Can See Clearly Now

(click on pictures to expand)

This picture is enhanced because it was so dusty on the playa.
So here I am, wrapped up with a bow.

I woke up Saturday feeling pretty good, considering. I unzipped a window and peeked out — clear sky, no dust, just sunshine. Benny popped out of his sleeping bag, his dust-plumped hair sticking up. I could barely talk him into getting dressed before running outside.

A half-hour later I emerged, ready for action, wearing a cowboy hat, goggles, a long pink sundress, sneakers and a leopard-print scarf. My tiny white backpack was stuffed with chapstick, sunblock, water bottles, eye drops, cotton swabs and lotion. I was ready.

We're ready for a big day!
Everyone at the camp seemed cheerier. Soon Michael was frying bacon and serving it on toast. An hour later we were gearing up for a long day out, packing food, water, fruit, spare goggles and extra face masks. Benny wanted to wear my Death Valley ball cap, so I tied a string around it and looped it over his neck. Then we tried to start off, but the delays were endless. Felix’s goggles needed adjusting. Milo’s chain fell off. Benny scraped his knee on his bike. I bungee corded an extra water bottle on Benny’s bike. Andrea couldn’t find her sunglasses. Felix’s laces needed to be tied. My hat blew away and I had to get it and tie it on. All this happened in front of our camp. Then we’d move forward a few feet and stop again. Benny’s goggles broke. My dress got caught in the bike chain. Andrea forgot the boiled eggs. Milo had to go to the bathroom. I finally figured out what was wrong with my bike — I needed my seat adjusted. Michael pulled it up five inches. So much better.

Benny, Milo and Felix.
We moved forward again and managed to round the corner, and in fits and starts we managed to make it to the edge of camp. By now the wind had picked up a little bit, forcing us to push up our scarves and bandanas, but it was still better than the day before. We rode along 5:30, dodging a huge octopus car and a pirate ship. Michael first, then boys, then me and Andrea in the rear. I could keep up easily now.

Milo, Andrea, Felix and the Man.
We burst out into the playa, wind kicking up a little bit. A red dragon rolled by, followed by a line of giant tea pot. Ahead, giant words emerged the sand — INSANITY and LOVE. We rode forward toward rising minarets. To my right the desert looked empty, like I'd landed on the planet Tatooine. Benny squealed as Jabba the Hutt's schooner drove by.

Benny rides toward the minaret named "Cosmic Praise."

The boys kept climbing.
Leaping into pillows. Burning Man definitely had a
10-year-old vibe.

We all stopped at a giant play structure, topped with a wide rope net with a stack of pillows in the middle. Everyone took turns leaping into the pillows, then retreated to a shady platform for lunch. We munched on boiled eggs, oranges, trail mix, potato chips and lots of water. I tried to pass around hand sanitizer but Michael just laughed. "We’re way beyond that," he said, and he was right.

The boys didn't want to leave the structure, so we adults just stood around in the shade and drank cocktails from a nearby party tent. Michael left to get ice for the camp, and the rest of us decided to ride closer to the Man. A giant metal rhino almost ran us over.

There's the dust devil in the center, left of the parasol
ferris wheel.
We were headed off the playa again when a dust devil sprang up, a mini volcano. I fell off my bike trying to take a picture of it, then got caught in the whiteout.  When the dust cleared (and now I truly understand that phrase), Andrea and the boys were gone. So I headed back to the camp by way of the Death Camp Barbie.

Hundreds of Barbies march to their deaths.

Back at the camp, we all rested and read books. After a delicious taco dinner, we started preparing for the Burn. They usually burned the Man at 9 p.m. and the wind had died down enough that it might actually happen on time. Going out for the burn required complex preparations. I inserted batteries into chains of LED lights for the bicycles. Michael wove some into Andrea's white fuzzy coat. I hung glow pendants around the boys' necks and snapped glow sticks on bike handlebars. I kept on the pink dress but topped it with a bright fuzzy-green cape. Felix wore a shiny blue cape. Andrea put on her tiara and we were ready. Unfortunately I misplaced my camera, so I have no pictures of the Burn. Here are some links to good ones, though.

An amazing panoramic from the feet of the Man by Michael Holden. That is just what it looked like.

More of Holden's absolutely beautiful photography of the entire event.

More incredible photography from the U.K.'s Daily Mail.

We arrived at the Burn and the playa was all lit up like Las Vegas. Music pounded, neon lights flashed and metal dragons and octopuses breathed fire. People shouted “baby burners!” as they saw the boys ride by. The music pounded in our chests. We put earplugs in our ears and moved closer. The man’s arms were raised high, which meant the burn was imminent. The crowd danced and cheered. Suddenly fireworks burst out of the man's chest, exploding in the wide sky. I lifted Benny as high as I could so he could see. Flames licked the mans legs and torso, then spread to the whole body. Soon he was an enormous, man-shaped bonfire. Despite the noise and the music, it was a peaceful scene. Everyone was happy, but many were quiet, even reflective. Nobody was screaming or throwing up or shouting that purple aliens were chasing them; nobody was performing lewd acts or cursing or starting fights. North Beach nightlife in San Francisco was more depraved than this.

I didn't want to leave, but Benny and I were departing Black Rock City early the next morning. So the two of us walked back first, and it was a nice quiet moment, emerging from the crowd and walking toward the glowing yellow galleon where our bikes were parked. It was surprisingly peaceful and a silver net of stars spread across the sky. We found our bikes and the two of us rode back to camp, me leading the way through the revelers with my headlamp glowing on my forehead and Benny close behind, ringing his bell to let me know he was there.

"What was your favorite part of Burning Man?" I asked Benny when we were tucked into our sleeping bags.

"Mmmmm," said Benny. That meant he was tired, because Benny liked nothing more than to rank things: his top five favorite foods, top 10 friends, top five cats, etc.

"What was that, honey?" I repeated. "What was your favorite part of Burning Man?"

"Everything," Benny said sleepily.

To be continued:

Burning Man: Exodus

Burning Man: How Can a Place be Radical Anti-Establishment if I'm There?

(Click on pictures to expand)

Benny rides through Black Rock City

I turned off the car. My heart was pounding. Dust swirled on my windshield. I wanted to sit a minute, take in the fact that we’d arrived safely and were actually at Burning Man.

"There's Milo!" Benny shouted, seeing his friend. He wrenched open the door.

"Benny, your goggles!" I yelled, but he was gone. I pulled up my bandana and donned my own goggles and pulled my protesting legs out of the car. After four hours of driving, they felt attached to the floor. I hobbled toward the camp, trying to smile although nobody could see it through the red bandana.

Milo, his brother Felix, and his parents Michael and Andrea had arrived two days earlier and had created a little home. Camp chairs surrounded a cluttered table, a small stove sat on a metal shelf.  Heavy black tarps shielded us from sun and wind. Milo was in no condition to play; he’d gotten in a fight on the Kidsville trampoline, which didn't seem to follow Burning Man's 10 principles. Now Milo was nursing a bruised head.

The first day: Check out Milo's military gas mask.
I left Benny to sit by his friend and set up the tent, gasping as I pounded the stakes into the cracked playa. As soon as I could, I scrambled in and zipped the door up, just me and a bottle of water sitting in a tent at Burning Man.

"Let's all go on a bike ride!" cried Andrea.

I tried to look enthusiastic, again a wasted effort, since my face was swathed in goggles and cotton cloth. I pulled Benny and my bikes off the car and we rode off.

I was glad to stop at a giant foam pit, covered with a metal cage. The boys scrambled joyfully up the cage and dropped one by one into the pit.

Benny at the foam pit.
While they played I drank more water and admired a large wooden catapult
swaying in the wind.

"They were throwing people with it," said a tall Laurence of Arabia lookalike beside me. "I bet it's a real rush."

"Are you going to do it?" I asked.

"Nah, they closed it. It'd be great, though, right?"

"Oh yeah," I said enthusiastically. "Too bad it's closed." I rolled my eyes. I was starting to like this whole wrap-up-against-the-dust thing. I could make all the faces I wanted.

I wanted to ask about other human-projectile structures, but Michael announced it was time for the crossbow range. So we hopped back on our bikes riding past a rolling Converse shoe. The line at the crossbow range was long, so Andrea and I headed to a party tent for a drink.

Playing Jenga.
"You need IDs," said a man wearing a Princess Leia hairstyle and a white thong.
Neither Andrea nor I had them.  I haven’t needed an ID in four years. I tried to show my age, but no dice. I never thought I’d be shopping my gray roots for a drink at Burning Man. So Andrea and I rode back to camp for our IDs and returned. I had the most amazing drink, a summer flower, with orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime juices mixed with vodka. This was the life, I thought, settling on a dusty couch in the shade to watch the boys play Jenga.

“We should see the playa,” Andrea called, referring to the large open space in front of the Man. “Let’s go!”

I gulped the last of my drink and tucked the paper cup into my backpack (“Leave No Trace!”)

Parasolvent: A mechanical expression of
loss, release, healing and decay.
With parasols.

By the time we reached the playa, the dust was really kicking up. We left the tents and RVs behind and rode among metal and wood structures rising out of the desert, nearly all in movement somehow: turning, spinning, waving, bobbing. A big dinosaur skeleton on wheels rolled by, then an Egyptian tomb steered by jackal-headed gods veered along in the opposite direction.

Resting in the library.
The wind grew worse, dust filled my vision. We rode to the “Library of Babel,” a lovely mosiac-painted and thankfully walled structure filled with handcrafted books. Burners took turns reading sayings and poetry out loud.  In any other circumstance I would have been fascinated and wanted to read the messages and write one myself. But instead I just sat and panted and watched the dust fill the doorways. Visibility was almost zero out there, and the wooden library rattled in the rising wind.

The wind died down just enough to tempt us out of the library, then hit again — even worse. We could barely see each other. I felt like I was choking. We kept having to stop — somebody would have to adjust their bandana, or would scrape themselves on their bike, or put their hat back on, or drop their water bottle or get dust in their eye. Felix cried out and when Andrea put a hand to his face it came back bloody. His nose was bleeding and drops of red fell on the sand. Benny and I were standing close together with his face against my shirt. At that point, I was pretty much done, but Andrea and Michael (these two could talk a fish out of the water) convinced to me to ride on, making one more circuit before we returned to camp.

I was looking forward to a few minutes resting in my tent, but everyone immediately seized on a new plan.

“The camp over there is making steak tacos!” Michael said.

“Can I have steak tacos, Mom?” Benny asked.

“Sure,” I said. “But why don’t you rest first, I’ll wipe you off.”

But nobody wanted to wait. Nobody wanted to rest. Nobody wanted to wipe off. Everybody wanted to dash off to tacos and I just wanted to go to my tent.

“Have a beer!” Michael cried.

“Don’t you want a taco? Should we bring one for you?” Andrea asked.

I repeated no thank you, no beer, no taco, just tent. I released Benny and they mercifully left. Heaven. I gathered some things and crawled into my tent, which was shaking in the wind, but it held. I poured an entire bottle of water over my head and sat there dripping. 

The rest of the evening was a blur. I don’t remember if we went out again that day. I remember putting a whiny and overtired Benny to bed. I wiped him down and put him in jammies and tucked him into his mummy sleeping bag.

Then I lay awake, listening to the revelry outside. What were we doing here? What would tomorrow be like? This was crazy. We didn’t belong out here. Actually nobody belonged out here. Humans didn’t belong out here. Why do these people host this amazing event out in a harsh, pitiless desert? Can’t they see how much nicer it would be in, well, just about anywhere else? But it’s not supposed to be nice. It's supposed to be radical and countercultural. I was trying to think of a way to be radical and countercultural in a pleasant meadow close to a Holiday Inn Express when I fell asleep.

To be continued:
Burning Man: I Can See Clearly Now

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Burning Man: Journey to Black Rock City

For me, Burning Man was not vacation, or a fun weekend away or even a camping trip.

It was an expedition, a journey to a harsh place where winds blew dust at 80 miles an hour and the pitiless sun baked the ancient lakebed until the ground cracked. There was no natural water or shelter. Obviously this was no ordinary party. By holding this event in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, they were making a statement. I was a little hazy on what exactly the statement was, but it had something to do with what they called "radical self-reliance." Well, to spend a week in a place like that (it made Death Valley look like Eden), you had to practice radical self-reliance or you'd find yourself gasping out your last on the playa, dressed only in silver hot pants and a pink wig.

Actually that's not fair, because another big thing about Burning Man is the sense of community. No money changes hands, except for coffee and ice. Everything else is traded or freely given. But still, I didn't plan to head out there without provisions. I'd been reading an memoir called "Cold Oceans" by a guy who kayaked along Cape Horn and braved the Northwest Passage. He said an expedition's success takes preparation, determination and the right mindset. (Although he failed in both those expeditions and nearly got eaten by a polar bear, so maybe he wasn't the best role model.)

I had the determination, but wasn't so sure about the mindset. I'm not very good at adopting the right attitude for success. I don't think I've ever approached anything with the right mindset. I'm generally more of a rail-against-an-unjust-world kind of gal. But I'd do my best.

One thing I had down, though, was the preparation. I had two distinct advantages here -- first of all, I was joining my friend Andrea's camp, which was already established. And secondly, I was a rabid researcher. The average Burning Man packing list contained 200 items, from bandanas to glow sticks to vinegar. I packed eight gallons of water, three plastic bins of food, a cooler, a tent, sleeping bags, face masks, bandannas, ski goggles, a first aid kit and a big tube of sunblock. I even brought cotton swabs to dab our nostrils with lotion. (That dust is no joke; on Friday, the day we arrived, we were caught in a dust storm on the playa and another kid got a nosebleed.) I brought warm clothes, cool clothes, dozens of socks. I even had the perfect sunhat — a cowboy hat I'd bought at a Giants Dugout store. I’m not a Giants fan (sorry), so I just tugged off the little orange SF carelessly glued to the front and I was set.

Burning Man is waaaaay out there, and I don’t just mean the culture. You leave Interstate 80 and drive nearly 90 miles north into the Black Rock Desert’s playa, or alkali flats. It’s actually a dried-up lakebed of the ancient Lake Lahontan. It’s so flat there that land-speed records have been set on the playa.

By noon on Thursday, I'd finished packing and was loading the car. Andrea kept texting me from Burning Man (She couldn’t call from the playa, but she could text.) Bring apples, she wrote. Bring wheat bread, potato chips, parmesan cheese and maybe some pickles. Don’t forget the watermelon. Ron and I installed the bike rack and shoved the bikes on. I kept running into the apartment for last-minute items. Did we have cleaning wipes and where the hell was my pink lei? What happened to the earplugs and Benny’s cape? Did I have my cell phone charger? The neon hair spray?

Sitting in outbound traffic on the Bay Bridge, I clenched the steering wheel, nervously running over last-minute lists in my mind. Benny sat in the backseat next to the cooler and read his “Underland” book about a kid who falls through a hole in his laundry room and meets a bunch of giant talking bugs and rats.

We spent the night in Reno and hit the road the next morning at 5 a.m. I'd barely slept a wink. Benny dozed in the back; I peered at the lightening sky and had second, third, fourth thoughts about this whole enterprise. What was I doing? What was I taking Benny into? I actually had my phone in my hand, ready to text Andrea. Can't come. So sorry.  I’d blame it on illness car trouble, a knife fight in Reno, anything.

No, I couldn't chicken out now.  So I drove on. We left Interstate 80 at Wadsworth and turned north. Seventy-five miles on Nevada road 447. The mountains were a bleak, washed-out orange. We drove past dusty little towns and Indian taco stands on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation.  I bought a Sierra Mist at a taco stand and a toothbrush for Benny at a tiny market in Gerlach. There were few vehicles around, just the occasional pickup truck —  very little to tell me I was on the right road and not just headed out into the empty desert. Finally I reached a sign “Burning Man, turn right” and soon the Fit was rocking on gravel, the bikes swaying in my rearview mirror. I drove through the Gate and creeped toward Black Rock City at 10 miles per hour.

Two friendly young people — a girl with a head of braids of different colors and  a shaved-head guy in a black kilt — stopped my car. I presented my ticket, feeling triumphant. I had left little to chance when it came to this ticket. Earlier that week, Andrea had forgotten her tickets at home, and they didn’t realize it until they were almost to Reno. So the family camped near Truckee and Andrea drove back to San Francisco through Wednesday night, took a nap, then drove back.

Determined to take no risk, I had shoved my Burning Man ticket into an envelope labeled “Mom’s waffle recipe” and put in the car’s glove compartment. There, I thought. If someone steals my car and likes breakfast food, they get to go to Burning Man, too.

I probably looked a little freaked at Black Rock City's Gate because the girl asked with a big smile: “Is it your first time? Ring the bell!” I pulled my goggles on, got out of the car — staggering at the wind and heat — and hit the bell with a metal rod. I got a hug for that, and suddenly felt all Burny and powerful. The guy in the kilt just looked at me and said: “Your goggles are upside down.”

Once inside, I consulted the map. The temporary city, created for nearly 70,000 people,  is a partial circle, its spokes like the hands of clock, bisected by roads named after letters.
The giant wicker man loomed above us, the highest point on the flat landscape. I nosed my car between half-naked bicyclists wearing lizard heads and angel wings, or gold wigs and silver vests. A man in a tiger suit (wasn't he hot?) stood outside a long line of port-a-potties.

I followed a giant rolling spider down 5:30, looking for Kidsville, a family-friendly camp located at 5:30 and G.  Benny bounced in the back seat, pointing at a little car shaped like a old-fashioned red telephone. Finally I pulled into my tiny parking spot.And there was the sign, "Welcome Christine and Benny," just where it was supposed to be. I’d made it!

To be continued:
Burning Man: How Can a Place be Radical Anti-Establishment if I'm There?