The Lonely Road to Paradise


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Published: June 21st 2012
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Final Burning Man Preparation



Today, I planned to get to Black Rock City.

Unfortunately, I still had a long list of chores first.

The first thing I had to do was separate out my stuff.

Black Rock City is so dusty that the only way to protect things is to seal them in plastic bags for the duration of the festival.

Everything I bought over the last few days will be used at the festival, but not everything I used on the trip before that.

For example, I will be using the clothes I bought back in Portland (see I Feel Like the Sky is Falling), so I won’t need the ones I brought for the rest of the trip.

Though it took less than preparing for a border crossing (see Prepare for the X-Ray), it was still quite a bit of work to sort and bag everything.





Next up, I had to find the local FedEx distribution center.

Remember that I left Oakland so quickly I forgot to pick up the EL wire I need to light myself up at night (see The Golden State).

They mailed it to Reno for me, and its sitting at the FexEx depot.

The building is located in a large group of identical looking warehouses near the airport.

Everything looks the same, so I got thoroughly lost even with directions from Google Maps.





After that, I needed water.

Burning Man participants need unholy amounts of the stuff.

Humans sweat an incredible amount in a dry desert, and not replacing it leads to dehydration and death.

Participants need still more for cooking, cleaning, bathing, and much else.

Of all the things for which having too much is better than not enough, water sits at the head of the list.

I bought so much the supermarket checkout person, a little wistfully, asked if I was heading to Black Rock City.

Nobody else in Reno buys that much water at once!





The last item grew out of yesterday.

Based on the long build due to missing tools, I double checked my entire supply list.

I was indeed missing something: extra camera batteries and memory cards.

I’ve currently handled my camera by transferring pictures to the laptop whenever it fills up.

With the computer sealed in a bag, that won’t be an option at Burning Man.

I tracked down an electronics store and bought what I needed.

While there, I also got extra batteries for the EL wire and headlamp.

Finally, I decided to stop and grab an extra flashlight.

I threw this in my glove compartment, ultimately a very good idea.





Preparation finally complete, I headed out of Reno to the desert.

The first stretch was all suburbs.

Most of the billboards advertised casinos.

Finally, civilization faded away and the highway passed through a desert canyon.

The only greenery is the strip of trees next to the river.

Like last night, I saw a number of cars that were obviously going the same place I was, filled with stuff and bikes strapped to the back.


The Road to Black Rock City



I pulled off the highway at Wadsworth.

The interchange has a pair of truck stops.

Unlike those I’ve seen elsewhere, these advertised casinos.

At the one where I stopped, the “casino” was actually a room of slot machines.

Gambling really is everywhere in Nevada.

Knowledgeable Burners fill up the tank here, regardless of the amount of gas remaining, because it will be very difficult to get after this point.





From here, the road heads north.

The Burning Man organization sends out a number of warnings about this road every year, and people still get in trouble.

The main problem is that it sees more traffic this week than the rest of the year combined.

Residents of the small towns it passes through really don’t like an empty street becoming a major highway, and they ensure their police enforce the laws really strictly.

This includes the speed limit, which can be so low it looks like a joke.

It isn’t; in one stretch, the road passes a school.





Outside the towns, the land is simply empty.

The road passes through a low valley between two mountain ridges.

At one point, the road climbs along the side of a hill, with a lake in the distance surrounded by mountains.

This is Pyramid Lake, surrounded by an Indian reservation.

Further along, the road passes a really narrow peak of jagged black basalt, the central core of an old volcano.

Other than that, the scenery is utterly featureless without even vegetation.

Salt pans appear in certain spots, and that is about it.

I felt incredibly isolated in this landscape, even though the road was filled with other cars.

North Central Wyoming was about as empty as this (see The Sacred Tower), but at least it was green.

This place doesn’t even have that.


Empire and Gerlach



After much driving, I finally reached Empire.

The town consists of rows of tidy houses surrounding an obvious factory, a general store, and little else.

Until three months ago, it was a thriving place.

The factory turned local gypsum into sheetrock for houses.

With the long downturn in house construction sheetrock doesn’t sell well, so the owners closed the factory.

Everyone promptly left, turning the town into a near ghost town overnight.



Empire sits near the top of a rise.

Cresting it showed a mountain range with flat desert in front of it.

A cluster of buildings sat at the base of the nearest mountain.

The road went to that cluster, the town of Gerlach.

Compared to other towns that felt like the middle of nowhere (see The Long and Lonely Road) this one is really in the middle of nowhere.

The road passes right through, past a tiny casino, a cluster of houses, and an expensive gas station.

It is literally the last gas for hundreds of miles, and they often run out the week of Burning Man.

This is the reason knowledgeable Burners top off the tank back in Wadsworth.





Gerlach shows one of the festival’s big ironies.

The festival itself is completely non-commercial; people can’t sell anything once inside the gate.

Many enterprising entrepreneurs (most of which do not attend the festival) deal with this by selling their stuff on the roadside in Gerlach instead.

Items for sale run the gamut of festival fare, including lots of things covered in LEDs (often called “blinkies” because they blink at night) and food of all sorts.

One group sold outdoor showers from a garden hose at $5 a pop.


Black Rock Desert



Past Gerlach, the road reached the foot of the mountain and forked.

One branch followed the mountain range northeast.

It crested a rise and I saw the Black Rock Desert for the first time.

The part occupied by Black Rock City is a narrow strip of perfectly white sand between two mountain ranges.

During the last ice age, this area was a large lake.

It evaporated, leaving behind the largest completely flat area in the United States.

Getting closer, a strange purplish cloud appeared over the desert.

I found out what it was soon enough.





Finally, the road reached a sign with a large flame on it, pointing to a dirt road.

The dirt road passed a sign from the Bureau of Land Management, and I was on the playa for the first time!

The dirt road ended on the desert, between two long rows of flags.

The flags delineate the infamous Burning Man entrance road.

It spread out until it was eight cars wide.

The road had many signs about speeding on the playa, which kicks up loads of dust.

The road just went on and on seemingly without end.

It has become infamous because on the first few days of the festival it will completely fill up with cars with a line beyond it all the way to Empire!





I then hit that purple cloud from earlier.

The cloud is a dust storm.

Visibility quickly dropped by half.

I quickly learned that Black Rock City is one of the few places where a convertible is horrible transport, because my car immediately filled with the stuff.

Fine sand now coated everything.

Even closing the top didn’t help, because the dust seeped through the window seals.

The US Geological Survey measured it at one point, and the Black Rock Desert has the smallest sand particles in the world.

Even worse, the dust stung my eyes, because playa dust is alkaline.

Prepared Burners all have goggles to deal with it and I quickly put on mine.

This storm was mild by playa standards; the worst produce a total whiteout.





I eventually encountered a group of dark blobs in the dusty gloom.

They weren’t going anywhere.

This had to be people stopped on the entrance road due to the storm.

Having no other choice, I stopped behind them and waited.

Thank god my car has a good sound system.

Very quickly, I was parked in by more people behind.

I lost track of time until the storm finally ended and the line started to move, very slowly.





The view when the dust cloud finally cleared made my heart sink.

It revealed a line of vehicles as long as I could see stretching off in the distance.

The entrance road is unbelievably long, and I had driven only half of it before encountering the backup.

Veterans describe getting in as the second worst part of the entire experience.

I had hoped that arriving a little late would bypass much of the wait.

In fact, I did miss the worst of it, but what was left was still painful.

Little by little, the line crept forward.





Night fell while I waited.

In the darkness, a large complex of little lights appeared on the horizon.

This is paradise, Black Rock City itself.

Seeing it, I felt the heartache some Alcatraz prisoners (see The World’s Craziest Streets) used to describe San Francisco, a glittering world of desire frustratingly out of reach.


Black Rock City



I ultimately needed over three hours to get through the entrance line.

It ended at a row of pyramid shaped wooden structures.

Someone asked for my ticket.

I don’t have one.

I had it held at will call so I wouldn’t lose it while crossing the country.

Veteran burners have many stories of will call hell, such as waiting in the main line to get the ticket and then being sent to the back of that same line to actually get in.

Things are much improved.

I pulled over to the side, got my ticket, showed it to the gatekeeper, and was in.

It’s worth noting that the will call building is built of rough boards because it, like everything else in Black Rock City, will be taken away when the event is over.





Once through the gate, the adventure begins.

The first thing I encountered was a man in a cow suit holding a huge megaphone.

He welcomed everyone to Black Rock City, and warned about speeding.

After that long wait, people want to get to the city itself as fast as possible, which leads to accidents.

Ten minutes later, I reached the Greeter stations.

These very important volunteers acclimatize new citizens of Black Rock City and mark the transition from the default world outside.

All participants must roll in the dust to become one with the playa.

The dirty results don’t matter because everything will soon be coated with the stuff anyway.

After that, I rang a gong and screamed at the top of my lungs.

It felt cathartic.

After all the work and preparation of the last three days, I’m finally here!





Some people just drop their stuff at this point and wander into the city, but I still had work to do.

I decided to experience Black Rock City alone.

Many people, and most first timers, go as part of a group (often a theme camp).

The advantages are obvious: friends, advice from veterans, shared supplies, and people to look out for each other.

The disadvantages are more subtle: a tendency to socialize primarily with group members, a more restricted schedule, and a certain sense of dependency.

I wanted the exact opposite experience: surviving on my own with no inherent support, the ultimate in radical self reliance.

The downside is obvious: I’m responsible for everything needed for survival, with no obvious safety net when something goes wrong.

This idea frightens a large percentage of participants, but I figured I have enough camping experience to handle it.





Since I need a place to sleep at the end of the night, I have to set up my campsite before heading out.

As a solitary camper who arrived later in the week, I first had to wander around the outer streets of Black Rock City looking for an open area.

I pointedly avoided anywhere near RVs, generators, or obvious sound systems; the noise will keep me up.

I finally found a spot next to a few other tents.





I’ve had to set up campsites in the dark before, and they were always a pain.

This one was a pleasant surprise.

Black Rock City is utterly flat and has ambient light from many directions, which made the process much easier.

First, though, I had my first lesson in adaption on the playa.

Veterans know to keep their headlamps close at hand in their vehicles, while mine was buried in the trunk.

The spare flashlight I threw in the glove compartment back in Reno suddenly became a lifesaver.





Headlamp on, I could start building.

All that effort from the last two days to build my shade structure paid off handsomely, because it went together like a dream.

Banging in rebar was another story.

The Black Rock Desert has high winds which will rip out regular tent stakes, so most participants use rebar for stakes.

Leaving an exposed end of rebar is an invitation for someone to visit the medical tents, so people twist them over into something that looks like a candy cane.

Pounding these in by myself was a real pain.





The toughest part turned out to be fitting everything in my tent.

I have so much stuff it became a real life version of Tetris.

The process also illustrates one of the subtle assumptions a convertible owner can make.

Getting the stuff into my car in Stockton, when I had the top down, was easy.

Getting it back out, with the top up, was rather hard!





After all that, I covered the car.

I figure a car cover should keep out the worst of the dust.

I have plenty in the car already from the entrance road, but at least it shouldn’t get much worse.

I got another lesson of life on the playa while doing this.

The wind was just high enough that I couldn’t get the cover on the car.

Someone walked by, asked if I needed help, and we got it on pretty easily.

This type of gift giving is one of Black Rock City’s distinguishing features.

I then tied the cover to the car undercarriage with bungee cords, to ensure the cover doesn’t blow away.





By now, it’s almost two in the morning.

Rational people would probably go to sleep.

I didn’t come all the way out here just to crash in my tent, though, so I wandered into Black Rock City instead.


Burning Man



I thought I knew what to expect next.

Burning Man attracts lots of video artists, many of whom make montages of their videos afterwards and put them online.

The quality, to put it politely, varies widely.

I saw this one during my initial trip research, and got hooked on going:





Burning Man has also attracted reporters from the early days.

The best fully participate in the festival and then write it up as a diary, gonzo journalism style.

The Burning Man website has a collection.

Even though it is 16 years old now, the best of the bunch may be from famous technology writer Bruce Sterling.

Finally, there is the Malcom in the Middle episode.

Yes, the sitcom family went to Burning Man.

Blog posts indicate that parts of the episode were exaggerated for comic effect, but the rest captures the feel of the festival remarkably well.

Since it’s under copyright, internet copies tend to disappear quickly.

A good search engine may still find it.





In reality, none of the above truly prepares a participant for the real thing.

Another of the Burning Man principles is immediacy.

The best experience comes from direct engagement with something, rather than experiencing it indirectly through some media.

(I realize the irony this means for these blog posts, indeed the entire blog).

It certainly applies to the festival itself, where the reality slammed me in the face in a way that seeing it on my computer never could.





The first part of the hike was just a dusty road surrounded by tents and RVs.

Something glowed in the distance.

When I got near the inner street, called Esplanade, the experience just hit me.

The view showed a vast open area filled with glowing things of all sorts.

Center of it all is the Man itself, lit up in neon on a huge pedestal.

Walking into the space and turning around showed a huge arc of tents, domes, and colored lights.

This city is unlike anything else on earth.

Hard to believe that a mere week ago it was just empty desert and a week from now it will be once again.

After that view I finally hiked back and fell asleep.

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