Ah, That Thing In The Desert. I’ve been smiling and contemplating our seven days at Burning Man, wondering what can I say about such a well-photographed and commented event? It was my first time on the playa, and we had the good fortune to stay at VW Bus Camp, in Mz. Parker, the white Westfalia you see just right of center. It was also our longest trip in her, and there was much to enjoy about the camping as well as the event itself.
The Westy is a special blend of self-contained luxury and rawness, a cozy place to retreat for a drink when the wind whips up hours of dust storms, as we had on two of the days. It is also a comfortable, lockable base of operations, with remarkable carrying capacity. We were able to bring not only the big white shade structure, but a small table, camp chairs, a ladder to make it easier to put stuff on the roof rack, two bicycles, spare gas cans, and something like 28 gallons of water weighing a couple of hundred pounds. The load totaled over half a ton, including our food, wine, clothes, solar lighting and other gear. Add in a few hundred pounds of passengers, and Mz. Parker still carried all with that gracious glide over the land that every VW bus embodies. The bed was very comfortable with an extra layer of foam. Extra reflective insulation on the windows kept it temperate inside through 80-degree days and 35-degree nights. We cooked on the built-in stove, washed dishes in the sink, and evaporated the wash water out in the dry desert air, like everyone else there. In order to leave no footprint on the desert (and avoid making a muddy mess!) everything needs to come in with us and leave with us, so every bit of water we could evaporate made our return trip lighter.
The quality of our camp was astonishing. Most of the 35 other VW buses had been to Black Rock City multiple times before, in fact, VW Bus Camp has been around more than 25 years. I loved our neighbors, who were nearly all experienced burners, living varied, mature and interesting lives out in the world. Many in our camp are BRC Rangers, the local volunteer corps of law enforcement & universal assistance, and other types of volunteers. There were also county sheriffs and semi-military Bureau of Land Management types, carrying sidearms. Unfortunately there are people who will steal stuff, so every camp has it’s own vigilance and awareness of strangers. Indeed, someone nabbed my hydration pack, then was confronted by an alert camp-mate while trying to rip off a bicycle. Fortunately, my pack came back to me – nothing lost – but it’s a sobering reminder that any city of 65,000 will have criminals.
And then there is the artwork, the art cars, and the Temple.
Here are a couple of short videos I took that give a flavor of the experience. Night time on the open playa…
…and the Temple burn on Sunday night, watched by perhaps 30,000 people in a huge ring.
The whole week was a sensory bath. Sound was ever-present, there were places to dance all over, and except for an hour around sunrise, we heard dub in the background all the time. People wore all kinds of cool, eclectic stuff, or perhaps nothing, so every journey was a sensual and visual delight. At night, every person and bike and vehicle was lit up, so that we could move without colliding in the pitch darkness.
It is remarkable that so many people can come together, and generally bring kindness and sharing and fun to each other. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes this possible, and have come to some unexpected conclusions. On the surface, you see a lot of technology, LED lighting, solar power, all kinds of vehicles. But that is just the beginning.
First, there is nothing for sale except ice and coffee (at least officially!) All are encouraged to bring things to gift and share, so the community spirit is very strong, and we often greeted strangers and stopped to meet folks wherever they are and whatever they were doing. We got all kinds of cool surprises: camp stickers and magnets, food and drink, decorative clothing items. We gave away dinners and tequila and mechanical assistance and massages, traded email addresses and contact info, participated in great discussions with people that knew a lot, had great skill and experience. There is no internet or cell service, so many layers of modern life peeled away within hours of arrival. This is, after all, basically camping in an inhospitable place, so we felt essentially interdependent. Juicy.
Second, the speed limit for all vehicles is 5 mph, and other than the art cars, you either walk or bicycle everywhere. No driving. So the community is a throw-back to a time before automobiles, where a journey across the community takes a while, and it takes hours to go out on the playa to view the artwork. This means that most folks spend significant time locally, get to know their neighbors and neighboring camps, and tend to frequent the clubs and events and places to get a drink that are nearby. Our own camp ran The Leopard Lounge, a bamboo-sided bar and rest stop where anyone could stop by and get a shot of tequila and a foot massage, and I spent an hour or two there each day, offering what I could, and laughing and sipping with complete strangers.
Alkali dust is everywhere, and very hard on feet, hands, noses and eyes. We arrived on Tuesday last week, and had major afternoon dust storms on Wednesday and Thursday. Fortunately, we came prepared, taping our windows and vents shut, sealing up the Westy. We also came with Bag Balm (mostly lanolin, great for dry feet), eye drops, and vinegar to make soothing washes that neutralized the dust. I did repair work with the Balm on several folks whose feet were taking a beating from the playa, and enjoyed sharing something that was new to most. But the dust also forced us to huddle in our camp, rest, talk, and value times when we could go out and explore.
The combination of technology, free exchange, slow travel, and barren environment creates an ecologically sensitive, fertile, connected and creative space. Absolutely remarkable. Modern urban planning is attempting to do this by intermingling living space with businesses, like my own downtown Fairfax. However it just does not happen as long as everyone has a car, and needs to drive somewhere to work or dine or visit friends. I wonder what our lives would feel like if we could give up cars and money. It’s not going to happen without some horrible holocaust, but it was wonderful to drop into such a different world for a week. We will be back next year. With Mz. Parker. And I will be volunteering somehow, somewhere. I love that all our technology enables us to strip so much away and do this together. With ice and coffee.