Thursday, September 6, 2012

BM: The Logistics

I was pitched attending Burning Man by my good friend, Caspian's godfather, and Alexe's cousin, all the same person, Nick Moore.  Last fall he attended the festival, and had an experience that he convinced me was worth having.

As I understood it, BM was a festival in the desert, 50,000 attendees strong, that involved complete self reliance (pack in all needed supplies, pack out all refuse,) amazing artistic and engineering feats, a very eclectic cross cut of domestic and international folks, an anti-monetary policy, (nothing available for purchase, replaced with rampant "gifting",) and a decent amount of nudity, sex, and drugs.

I convinced my best friend to come with me, and entered the ticket lottery in February.  The BM festival takes place on federal land, on a dry lake bed outside Gerlach, NV.  Each year they must apply for the event permit, and each year the land management folks set a cap on attendees.  This year the cap was 60k, and the ticket sales were so competitive that a lottery was instituted by the organizing body to try to fairly distribute the tickets.  

We were granted the right to purchase two tickets, and spent the next 6 months or so reading about, and loosely planning for, the event.

Attending BM is not cheap.  Tickets are approximately $350 per person and up.  Getting to the very remote location either involves flights and rental vehicles, or a pretty hefty drive.  (Wanting to bring a dome, bicycle, water, stove, clothes, etc. from home, I ended up driving.  Close to 2,200 miles, each way.)  

I left on a Saturday morning, and drove 18 hours the first day.  Another 8 or so on Sunday, and met Nicholas in Las Vegas, where we bought food, packed it with ice and dry ice, had a fun meal at Hofbrauhaus, dropped his car off at a friend's house to sit for a week, and got up early on Monday morning to drive the next 10 hours or so to Northern NV.

After the 25 hours of driving each way to VT with the munchkins, I was looking forward to the time alone on the road.  Prepared with things to listen to, (Dicken's Nicholas Nickelby, Pratchett's latest collaboration, TED podcasts, WTF podcasts, History of Rome podcasts, This American Life, podcasts, etc.) the local radio stations that I enjoyed momentary reception of, and all the amazing landscape to look at, I had a good time on the way out.  The way back was a bit more of a slog.

We arrived at the BM gate on Monday evening, around 6. We missed the crowds, as the gate had been open since midnight, and went through first the search and ticket-check stop, then the welcome stop.

I'm skipping over so much here, and will return to topics like impressions, drugs, scale, etc. in other sections.  It's just what I need to do to hold this thing in my mind.  Right now this is purely the logistics, practical description of getting there, living, and leaving.

The temporary city is laid out as shown below.  It has grown with the population expansion each year, and the estimates I heard for this year is that the perimeter fence was approximately 3 miles in diameter. The city is laid out like a clock face, with streets running from 10 on the left to 2 on the right, with streets on each half hour.  The circular streets start with the Esplanade facing the inner circle, and then range out alphabetically, or however the naming convention goes for that year.

Center Camp, which consists of a large tent for gathering, art display, non-stop performance art and the purchase of coffee/tea/hot chocolate/lemonade is at 6 o'clock.  The center space (called the playa) is wide open desert, with the two story building with the Man effigy dead center, and art installations spread all over the place. (Those words are so inadequate.  Wait for the art write up.)  At the top of the inner circle is a temple, again specifics on that to come, and the wide open space from that point up to the perimeter is more open desert, filled with independent art installations.

Our camp, where we joined a group of Nicholas' friends from Emerson, was at 9:35 and H.  

It took us some time to track down where our camp mates had set up, and so we started construction of our dome as the sun set.  We broke out the generator and lights, and finished up in the dark. 

The first thing we did after the dome was complete and the food was unpacked: we had a little Vermont themed snack.  On food: the desert was hot and dry during the day, and cold and dry at night.  We drank water, and other things, constantly, yet had to remind ourselves and each other to eat.  The elevation (around 4,000 ft,) sensory overload, and temperature fluctuation played havoc with our minds for the first couple days.  On several occasions I wandered around the inside of the dome for 20+ minutes until Nicholas would drag me out to sit down and eat or drink something, and I had to do him the same favor.  We ended up eating much less than we thought we would, with the leading theory being that our stomachs were always full of water/gatorade/pickle juice/etc.  With the amount of walking/bicycling/dancing/climbing/trampolining we did, it was doubly surprising that we never seemed to have an appetite.

The dome worked out perfectly for sleeping.  It was strong enough, and wide enough, to support a pair of hammocks, and we slept off the ground, in relative comfort.

I like our bed at home, so I try to duplicate it wherever I go.  Sleeping bags just don;t cut it.  However, the first couple nights I woke up shivering, despite the down comforters, and ended up sleeping fully clothed with many layers on after that.  It wasn't that it got too cold at night, maybe to the forties, but after a day of 100+ sun and heat, my body wasn't able to switch modes and thicken the blood that quickly.

This was a great home base in the evenings and night.  From around 9 am until the sun went down, it turned into a bit of a sauna. After the sun set, it cooled right down.

We were able to hang the solar shower from the peak and stand in a basin for a private shower, something we bothered to do once, mid-week.  After coming out clean, re-applying sunscreen, and immediately being covered in the desert dust that joined with the sunscreen to form a "protective" paste, it seemed pointless.

After setting up camp, meeting the fellow campers who continued to trickle in for the rest of the week, we headed out to explore the city.  And that's what we did for the rest of the week.  Constantly moving, on foot or on bicycle, I would guess I saw maybe 20% of what there was to see, and experienced maybe 2%.  My expectations after 6 months of reading about and looking forward were completely overwhelmed by the reality.  

This is a shot of a section of the city, and all the action going on, from a high spot.  You could not see the end.

I walked to the very top edge of the boundary one afternoon.  These pictures are looking left and right down the perimeter fence, in place primarily to catch drifting garbage.  

And this is looking back at the city.  It looks like a blank space, but throughout that open desert there are countless (to me) art installations, large, small, and massive.

By Saturday morning Nicholas and I were zonked, we missed out wives, and we had a long trip ahead of us.  We had planned to pack everything up, stay through the day and watch the burning of the Man, and then the burning of Wall Street, (which had been postponed form the night before because of high winds and the dust storm,) and then run for the truck and try to beat the traffic out.  With 50,000 people breaking camp and squeezing onto a 2 lane road, there are horror stories of spending five hours in your vehicle waiting to simply get onto the paved road a few miles away.

By the time the truck was full, we looked at each other, hopped in, and started for Vegas.  10 hours later, some time after 11 pm, with me running on 2.5 hours of sleep, and having been up since 5:30 to catch the sunrise, we rolled into Vegas in foul moods, checked into a casino, ordered pizza, and fell into first the shower/bath, then bed.

Nicholas made it home on Sunday, I was home late Tuesday, three days before I had planned.  

That is the barest of outlines.  To flesh out the real experiences is going to take some time, and many different/focused entries here.  

It was an awesome experience.  

Me, sunrise, standing on an art car:

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