Burning Man 8.29 - 9.3.17
Black Rock City
Words by J. Picard
Photos by Carly & J. Picard
We stood at the gates of Black Rock City where more than half of the group we were entering the city with had never experienced the enormous, uncharted chaos. Dust blew across cracked earth as a man called "Jason" greeted us in blue booty shorts. Carly (eight time Burner) and I (five time burner) knew to step back and let the nonsense unfold. As new-comers Megan and Sky leaned in, Rob looked back and gave me a sideways glance to which I closed my eyes and nodded. Rob isn't much of the participation type, though with my nod, he was face down with the group participating fully in a "playa angel," front and back. The girls dove head first into the dust and our welcoming to the "choose-your-own-adventure in real time" was official.
Tuesday, August 29:
We aired up our tires and began to wrap the bikes in fur and other wild decor. Just as I pulled the air pump off of my tire stem, the tube burst. I looked up at Carly and Rob, and we all had a look of "uh-oh" on our faces. In all of the years of our friends attending Burning Man, not one person in our camp has had any serious bike issues. That being said, I'm pretty sure at some point I turned down the option of buying a bike repair kit and tubes that my wife tried to purchase. I took a deep breath and reflected. "There must be a place in the city that works on bikes (the main mode of transportation). What about the bike camps I've heard about?" I grabbed the map and booklet that were given to us at the gates and searched under "B" for "bikes" in the index. "Bike Gods" popped up and off Rob and I went in the pick-up, with my half-decorated out-of-commission bike in back, at five miles per hour towards the opposite direction of the camps. In the distance, a wall of darkness came at us. I rolled up the windows, pulled over and hit on my hazards, as day turned to night at the mercy of the dust. Rob laughed hysterically and I thought of the girls in camp getting wrecked by the dust, with a smile.
We arrived at Bike Gods, which appeared to be roped off. A couple of gents worked on bikes as a sarcastic man and woman who were hard to read, informed me that they had closed just minutes prior at 6:00 PM. They pointed me in the direction just a couple of blocks away towards another bike camp that was apparently open until 7:00 PM. Off we went and arrived at a larger camp that also looked as if they were closing up. I jumped out of the truck and ran over to a young lady who informed me that they had closed just six minutes prior. "Is there any way you could just take a look at it?" I asked. "No. Come back tomorrow," she said as other folks with bike issues rolled up to the same reaction. "I may be on foot tonight," I thought, bumming about how I would slow the group down on their first night in paradise. In my head, I came up with one last solution. "I can fix it myself, if you happen to have an extra tube," I said to the woman, which I didn't actually believe. The young lady looked at me for a second... "What size tube?" she said. I ran to the bike and frantically tried to find the size. I came back with a number sequence which I was sure would be of no help and off she went and returned with a tube, handing it to me on the sly so that other folks wouldn't see and ask her for additional assistance. I slid her some prayer flags and shifted focus to the task at hand. Rob and I got the chain off, followed by the tire and put the new tube in, only to find that the stem was a size that we had never seen. Just as I thought "this may not work" a guy in red booty shorts from the camp jogged over with the proper pump and assisted in airing up the tire!
Rob and I high-fived and returned to camp to find the girls no worse for wear and ready for our first ride of the week! Just prior to mounting our bikes, a military fighter jet buzzed Black Rock City and then headed straight up into the sky. Our group laughed uncomfortably. The jet continued crazy maneuvers over the city for about ten or fifteen minutes before continuing on. With little daylight remaining, we hopped on our bikes and headed down 4:00 for Esplanade, the inner road of the city. The eb and flow of traffic at each intersection was entertaining and took some getting used to, even during the light of day. Our new-comers looked around in complete delight, with wide-eyed expressions of excitement as we passed chaotic and expressive situations under the cloak of art in real time. We passed Barbie Death Camp, which may have been a little much to start with. Hundreds of Barbies were being slaughtered, hung and were marching towards ovens. It's quite a sight, but a lot to take in at the beginning of the experience. As is the case in life, the highs were contrasted with lows and before we could even make it to the open playa, a young lady on our starboard went up and down a foot tall wooden bike roller coaster that ended with her going head first over the handlebars and face planting on the playa, triggering folks to rush to her aid. We continued riding towards the insanity.
"Shall we head to the Man?" I inquired to the group. We all agreed and rode towards the enclosed effigy. We parked, locked up our bikes at a bike rack and headed up the stairs to the second level that overlooked the Playa and the yellow glowing Man. Bells rang from the interior of the structure as beats spilled across the Playa. We looked around and took it all in for the first time as the sun set, creating an incredibly euphoric moment amidst the randomness. We exited down the stairs and entered the courtyard on the ground level. It was a much different vibe inside of the structure, with people from all over the world leaning against the walls and hanging out in rooms within' the pagoda itself.
We headed back to the bikes, then back to camp as the blue sky turned black as night. Megan, who brought thirty something corndogs to survive off for the week, hesitantly offered some up to the group with a smile. Rob, the Canadian of the group, had never tried a corndog, and I, as a fat person, couldn't pass up the offer. We dined on the disgusting American delicacy, grabbed a few drinks, illuminated our bikes and returned to the Playa. What followed was an hour or two of aimless riding, dancing to art cars and drinking red wine from a box. We returned to camp at a decent hour and melted into our chairs before climbing into our tents. It felt good to be back in Black Rock...
Wednesday, August 30:
We dumped bag after bag into the coolers which were holding pretty well given the high temperatures. The girls geared up in the mid-day sun and headed off to see what sort of action they could get into, while Rob, Carly and I relaxed in the shade. We were saving our energy, which was limited in those conditions, for the evening. We drank sweet alcohol tea, as well as electrolytes and as the afternoon grew later, I fired up the grill for some burgers. All day art cars drove past blasting music and featuring multiple decks of partiers. There were stage coaches, dragons, pirate ships and all sorts of creative vehicles that felt sort of like a mobile art gallery. Megan, who we began to affectionately call "Corndog," and Skye returned to camp with frozen liquor drinks and free chochskies from the many camps and bars that they stopped into. The girls fired up the AC in their RV and laid down for an afternoon nap.
We made a left into the camps in search of nonsense and thought that if we didn't find it, that we would instead create some of our own. Down the dusty trail we came to an upright piano in a bad state of disrepair, as well as a rickety drum set. Corndog sat down and showed us her chops, which were questionable at best. Further along, Corndog also spun the Booty Wheel, which yielded a result that none of the group understood. In and out of camps we went, some featuring chill environments including hammocks, some screening movies, some offering free drinks (with ID) and then there was a dodge ball camp which had yet to kick off the evening's tournaments. We made a couple of lefts and returned to Esplanade and back to Kalliope where our bikes were parked. We noticed a large fire out towards the deep Playa and made haste towards our first burn of the week!
We returned to home base for a breather, then headed back out to Camp Reverbia at the end of our road on Esplanade for Five Alarm Funk, a Canadian band that Rob and I hosted a few weeks prior at Element Music Festival. We arrived to a large seated group near the stage singing "O, Canada," the Canadian National Anthem. I smiled and followed Rob towards the stage to banter with the guys before their performance. What followed was an incredible hour of Funk output by guys who I would have thought were dressed for the occasion if I had not seen them for the first time just weeks before. Their energy was high and the camp was packed for their set, which featured blowup sharks, fire spinners and a whole lot of fucking Funk. I drank red wine out of a plastic chalice and danced heavily, deciding after the set to return to our camp for a sit and a smoke. Back at 4:00 and L we laughed wildly and solved the world's problems until our minds shut down...
Thursday, August 31:
Rob and I walked the coolers along the Playa at camp, emptying the clean melted ice onto the ground and making room for frozen "gold." I grabbed a rinse, utilizing our elevated shower tent, solar shower bag and tarp basin, which evaporated the water under hot sun. With the smoke and haze came cooler weather and the possibility of a day time ride to view the art! We applied sunscreen, grabbed our bandannas and goggles and rode out. We made a right onto Esplanade and then a left on the 3:00 road then veering off towards the Tree of Tenure, which was surrounded by people. It felt like an oasis in the desert and people were reading and telling stories in the tree's shade, while others chose to climb among the branches. On we went, passing a large gold monkey head on a female bust, past a washing machine, to a large wheel of skeletons with oars. It was meant mainly to be enjoyed at night accompanied by a strobe light to make it look like the skeleton was rowing. That aside, people were working hard under the mid-day sun, pulling large ropes to keep the wheel spinning. A couple of the participants were wearing head to toe body suits and I wondered how they were not overtaken by the heat.
Beyond the fence was complete vastness and nothingness that butted up against purple mountains. We hopped back on our bikes and rode inward across the playa, passing all sorts of creative art and output. It was a beautiful day with a couple of my favorite people in such a magical place! We rode past a sound camp that was blasting beats and had a big crowd and continued on towards the 10:00 face where we found Funky Town, a camp we hung out at a bit the year prior. We passed Kalliope and turned onto Esplanade where we stopped at the massive pyramid that had some sort of talk going on, with people spread out listening and relaxing in beanbags. The speaker spoke about the cosmos and energy before we faded back onto Esplanade. A little further down the dusty trail we stopped at Tiki Bar that had the words "Party" and "Naked" on the front of their bar. I rode closer to the enclosure and read the white board out front.
*1,013 PEOPLE GOT NAKED
*1 PASS OUT
*GET WELL TOM THE MAN BURNS IN 2 MORE DAYS"
The colorful Center Camp received us with open arms, as well as the rest of the Playa. It was packed! Partner yoga was taking place in the middle under the open sky, while activists from the stages made calls to action, rallying small groups of attentive listeners. We exited the crowded canopy and crossed the street to Arctic Camp for ice. The ride back to camp took us down roads lined with burners trying to get folks into their camps to drink, participate and share in a moment, even if brief. At one point, a gentleman on a bullhorn inquired if I was a Hasidic Jew, to which I replied, "Oy!" At camp we iced down the coolers and then parked in the shade for a few hours of shut eye before the evening. The sun set and we experienced the first cool down of the day, though the smoke was still thick in the air. We ate dinner and began to illuminate our common space with LED lights. Camp members changed into their evening attire, which for Rob meant a fur moose hat, a mask that looked like it was for a masquerade and glowing raver dreadlock looking lights that Carly gave him, as well as a shiny aqua coat that I passed along. He looked ridiculous, but he looked great!
I tossed on my brown velvet Mad Hatter coat with the lace cuffs, lit up my bike's EL-Wire and checked my tires which were holding up well! I turned to Rob and informed him that I was going to scare the shit out of the girls who were getting ready. He laughed and said "ok," and off I went. I crept closer and closer to the door of their motor home where Megan, Skye and Carly were all inside mixing drinks and I screamed loudly, but abruptly. The girls leaped and all looked at me with irritated looks. I heard Rob giggle behind me and I smiled. A short time later we rode on toward Reverbia, laughing and preparing for a great night ahead! Upon our arrival, we realized that we were nearly forty five minutes early for Ayla Nereo's set. We split up with the girls who headed along Esplanade and we made haste out to the open playa to find a dance party. We notice the Fucking Unicorn art car parked in front of a fire garden that contained some incredible metal dragon fly sculptures outputting flames.
We headed along the Playa and then made a b-line to Death Guild's Thunderdome. It felt chaotic as we approached. The crowd surrounding the dome was larger than I had ever seen, with flatbed trucks and people perched in costume all over the vehicles. I filled up my chalice with red wine from the box in my backpack and motioned for Rob to follow me. I looked behind us and the girls had been lost in the sea of people, so we ducked under one of the flatbeds and came out the other side just five feet from the dome and the evening's action. Rob and I shared the glass of red as we watched two warriors suspended from bungees battle it out with pillow bats! I yelled "Get him," loudly and Rob started cracking up at the insanity of the moment. It was pure chaos and all I could do was smile.
After the match, we climbed back out of the circle under the truck and ran into the girls who had big smiles on their faces. The group decided to head towards an Electro-Swing party and off we went into the camps which were full of life! While we rode, Corndog's pedal from her bike came off leaving us miffed and laughing. We tried to fix it, to no success and she made due for time being. At some point I guided the group a block past our turn so we made a late left and came upon the massive 747 airplane. We'd kept our eyes peeled for the craft over the past couple of days on Esplanade and were surprised to find it so far out in the camps. Without the error in my navigation, that massive plane would have been an easy miss for our group among the enormity of the city. I often describe to people that even though we spend almost a week at Black Rock City, we may not see ten or twenty percent of it. I filled up my blue plastic wine glass at the plane's bike racks and then we headed towards the open door, through which colorful LEDs spilled onto the Playa.
This is where the evening took a delightfully weird turn. Though I am not into the super sexual aspect of the city, it was fun to dip our toes into that realm. We arrived at Spanky's about a block down from the 747 and were welcomed by a groping booth, which was essentially a rectangular box with doors on each side and holes cut out at arm level along the corridor's walls so that people can reach in and grope the participant. Our group walked around the booth and continued into the camp. People were dancing throughout the large tent and off to the sides were rooms that featured different "activities" for a lack of a better term. One side room had a DJ, one featured a large wine bar, one room had massage tables set up and a buffer with a soft head which appeared to be used sexually. Across the way there was another room with people hanging out and a room that featured the Sybian, a straddle-able vibrator, behind a curtain. I chuckled to myself and then stopped laughing when I saw a woman, being helped by someone, come out from behind the curtain who looked like she could barely walk, but had a huge smile on her face.
Initially I thought "that's crazy," but after further reflection, she seemed to have enjoyed herself and who was I to judge?
With our energy drained following the weird evening of experiences, we returned to the 747 to grab our bikes and ride into the darkness towards our camp. Along the way there were some of the fabled plug and play camps that many of the celebrities and wealthy folks occupied. Back at our corner of the city, we sat under our car port tent cracking up and rambling wildly into the wee hours of the morning. Eventually, we made the grown man and woman decision of climbing into our tents for a few hours of sleep and recharging.
Friday, September 1:
There was sweat on my brow, which meant the sun had to be higher in the sky than the previous mornings. I felt rested and again, free of a hangover. I opened up the doors of the tent and got what was left of the morning breeze flowing through for Carly. Stretching followed as coffee brewed. I had ceased wearing shoes while at camp by that point in the week and the dry cracked ground felt good on the soles of my feet. As was the case every morning, Rob popped out of his tent, then the girls emerged from their motorhome, which at mid-experience seemed to have no hope of a return of the security deposit. Coffee and breakfast flowed like a river and a short time later I was ready to tackle my morning duty.
One of the harsh realities of Burning Man is that you have to relieve yourself in porto potties. It's unfortunate, but it's a part of the experience. Luckily for us, we camped a half block over from walk-in camping, which was a large, mainly unoccupied area where vehicles were not allowed. On the day we arrived, we took notice of the portos across the vast landscape. This meant that every morning a delightful ride through the wide open area to those far portos, which were consequently pristine, unlike many thrones across the Playa, was essential. While at the portos, planes were landing and taking off on the cracked earth runways on the other side of the trash fence.
I arrived back at camp to find Carly awake and excited. She had been waiting for that day for years, as her parents would be arriving in Black Rock City with their new trailer in tow. Carly has always wanted to share in the experience of Burning Man with her folks and on that Friday, it would become a reality. We showered and straightened up camp in preparation for their arrival, along with some of their friends and Carly's cousin and boyfriend. Corndog rode over to a bike camp, only a block or two away and returned with a new pedal for her bike! Early afternoon the first of the group rolled in! Mike, a conservative man who loves techno, appeared in our camp and dropped off a couple of bags of ice for us! His wife was with him and they had already pulled into a spot just up the road to camp. A short time later Carly's parents and their friends all pulled up with large trailers. We moved our truck, bikes and carefully placed solar lights blocking off the space, and they pulled in perfectly without issue.
The setup was quick and efficient and before long everyone was into drinks and partying! Carly's father Darin wandered into our camp with an arm full of flashy glass jewelry that he gave out to everyone as a gift, in addition to glow-in-the-dark Ceelo Green shirts that he obtained in bulk at an auction. We ate and drank as the sun got lower and lower in the sky and disappeared behind the mountains. The energy was high in camp as it would be all of the new-comers' first time out and about at night in Black Rock City! As the group prepared I found myself saying things like "be sure to bring your bandannas, goggles, IDs, water bottles and lights!" After extensive preparation we were off on 4:00 towards Esplanade and the open Playa. It was Friday night in Black Rock and the city was alive! Earlier in the week I mentioned to Rob that the city grew exponentially in energy leading up to Saturday, and in that moment Rob turned to me laughing and said, "I see what you were saying about the energy growing. Holy shit, eh?!"
We agreed that we wanted to dance so we headed back over to the 10:00 corner of the keyhole to Kalliope, where we know we would find some decent electronic music for the group. With the bikes parked and locked up safely across the street, we grabbed our cups and headed in. Carly's cousin, Steven, laid down on a large inflatable chair and the rest of the group headed towards the bar, while Rob and I had our minds blown by one of the most intense and vibrant lasers that either of us had ever seen. Everyone returned to the dance floor and danced for a bit before a fire grew in the distance. We mounted up and rode towards the flames! A mass of people and art cars rode in the same direction and we stopped just a little ways out in time to watch the structure quickly fall. To our right we noticed the illuminated Tree of Tenere, so it was the obvious choice for the next experience.
We headed out into the night and though my memory doesn't serve me as well as it should, I recall laughing and dancing, drinking wine and celebrating! I have a vivid memory of the girls standing inside of a cylindrical LED chamber that spun around them. That moment was very euphoric for me and though everything faded from there, I awoke the next morning in the comfort of my bed...
Saturday, September 2:
The sun was shining, the weather was sweet... minus the smoke. I rolled over and Carly was wearing sunglasses while she was sleeping, prompting me to laugh. I stepped outside and it felt like day five. Rob rubbed his eyes and sighed climbing out of his tent and I could completely relate. Skye came out and joined us for coffee asking if we were still awake from the night prior. I laughed and said "no," as if it were a ridiculous notion, feeling old in the moment. Breakfast went on and Carly's parents came over for coffee and to hang out. I headed over to the portos and following my morning routine, I decided to ride over to the nearby airport. A helicopter landed and out came a few folks in fur with carry on luggage. It was Saturday and they were arriving by helicopter. Rough life. Back at home base Mike wandered into our camp and offered us a "bag of peaches" and handed over a ziplock full of apples. We looked at each other puzzled and off he went as quickly as he came.
With our bellies full and the sun gone from the sky, we suited up in our Saturday best. With the cats herded, we glided down 4:00 to kick off one last night in the city! Bike traffic was thick on the roads making it challenging to keep track of everyone. Across Esplanade the group veered to the right and landed near a stationary piece of art along the 3:00 road near the excitement where we secured our bikes. We had lost Darin in the mix and after quite a bit of searching, continued into the circle perimeter of art cars surrounding The Man. Fire spinners and dancers poured into the defensible space between the crowd and the center of the BRC universe. The Man's arms raised into the air and a waterfall of sparks poured down from the pagoda, while fireworks exploded in the night sky. Then all of a sudden there were multiple explosions that rattled our rib cages! I yelled as did many in the crowd. It was an extremely impressive display of pyrotechnics and the structure was fully engulfed in flames.
We gathered a couple of important items, some wine, refilled our water bottles and me, Carly and Rob rode towards the Temple. Beats were blasting in every direction and to our surprise, there wasn't much burning on the Playa. The circle perimeter around the still burning fire of the Man was smaller, but a plethora of art cars and a large crowd were still engaged in that scene. Over at the Temple we parked, I filled up my wine glass and in we went. We looked around in search of photos of a friend we recently lost, as we had some items that we wanted to leave in remembrance of him as well. As we walked through the structure we could hear belting screams from the rafters, and as we came around a corner it appeared as though Black Rock safety staff was already tending to the scene, which grew in intensity as we continued on with our intended task. After twenty minutes or so, and the screams from the young lady above continuing in the background, we found a suitable spot and hung a t-shirt which featured a picture of our friend Bruce, a sticker that read "Moose B" and a little mouse with moose antlers.
Rob and I rode silently down 4:00 towards the outer edge of the camps for the last time. Our bike chains creaked loudly in the still silence of the suburbs and we laughed. "That more than any other sound reminds me of Burning Man," I said fondly. Back at camp we hung out until our eyes closed. I climbed into bed without Carly and thought about what nonsense she was getting into. Sleep came quickly as if I had been in the desert for almost a week...
Sunday, September 3:
I awoke to feeling fucking great! Outside Rob was alive and alert, already packing up camp! I made coffee and thought about the arduous task ahead of tearing down camp and putting away all of the pieces of our experiences into bins for the following year. It was over one hundred degrees fahrenheit, so we took our time packing up the tents, canopy, tables and trinkets. We drank a ton of water and misted ourselves throughout the process. Little by little our camp came down and fit into the bed of a pick-up truck. Inside Darin and Margaret's air-conditioned trailer we said good-bye to Carly's parents, Steven and his boyfriend, Eli. I was not looking forward to our exodus either as in past years it had taken us four to six hours, while hearing rumors of nine. We tuned into Burning Man Information Radio, then to Burning Man traffic and as we drove along Gate Road without stopping the voice on the tube claimed that there was no wait to exit. Carly and I couldn't believe it. We drove along through whiteout dust on choppy Playa roads coming to a stop a pulse or two away from the highway. We relaxed for about thirty minutes, pulsed, relaxed for a few more and were on our way out of Black Rock City!
It's incredible that a place like Black Rock City, a temporary artistic paradise, exists in the middle of nowhere. Annually. The experience and the people always leave me with a renewed hope for what human interaction and output could look like. I always leave Black Rock feeling that almost anything is possible and that people are inherently friendly when they let their guard down and accept themselves and those around them. I was also reminded that everything is temporary and concluded that we may as well enjoy the time we have on this planet and be good to our neighbors. Basically, we'll continue... because "this is what we do."