One of my favorite parts of Burning Man has always been a little camp-within-our-camp, created by a manic bunch of guys from southern California. VW Bus Camp doesn’t have much shared infrastructure, but many of us will get early-access permits just so we can help build the Leopard Lounge. This has been going on for about ten years.
So, this trailer shows up on Saturday before the event opens, and in about four hours, a dozen volunteers carpet a big chunk of playa, put up a dozen pop-up shade structures, pound rebar into the ground and strap it all down. Then rolls of bamboo partitions are zip-tied to make walls, plastic palm trees are rolled out, the bar is assembled, lounge chairs and couches spread out, and sound equipment set up. The result is a fabulous pop-up place with live music, tequila shots, foot rubs and rooms for massage and energy work. We all donate tequila, foot massages, bartending, and musical skills to make it happen.
Here is a little snippet from 2019, a chill afternoon on a hot dusty day. Eric drives the live music, usually from keyboards, while Bingo and Sean tend bar and a bunch of folks are getting foot care.
Click to watch the show, and please forgive my crappy video skills!
This year was special, as we had some fabulous musicians drop in on Friday. A fellow from Ecuador named Louder picked up the guitar, and a classical pianist named Pink Tea started singing and playing keyboards and drums. One of our camp mates sang, drummed, and pulled out his box of harmonicas. Another added scatty backup vocals. The place was in full swing when the rain started, and the show ripped on into the evening as the playa got muddy and folks sheltered in place. The guitar had to stop around 6pm when the ground got so wet that players were getting shocked.
Here are links to movies I shot. It was one of my best afternoons ever on the playa. (Right-click to download).
Alas, an era of our camp is ending, as Eric decided that this was the last appearance of the Leopard Lounge. Perhaps it was the double rainbow that appeared at sunset, I heard Eric say that there was one the first year that they brought the Lounge to the playa. Perhaps it was the reality of dealing with so much mud. Regardless, as the lounge was disassembled the next day, the crew gave away carpets and fake plants. Bamboo partitions were torn apart, and soon hundreds of people in our part of Black Rock City were making their way through muddy streets with bamboo walking sticks. We’re starting to talk about what we might do next year, perhaps creating a bar.
So, I’ll miss you Leopard Lounge, and the magic you made. Eric, Art, Mike, Mark, Solo and the others, thank you for bringing this to our camp for so many years. Bingo, Sean, Tater, Sherrie, Dave, Martyna, Busboy Bob, Donna Lee, Dawn & Teco, Shannon, JC and everyone else who helped make this happen…I so appreciate how you all showed up.
That’s what the greeters say when you finally get to the gate, and it feels true. For the sixth time, I was back to That Thing In The Desert. Again our trusty Westy, Mojave, has carried us without problems from home to Lassen (where we store our Burning Man gear), and then across the Nevada desert on dirt highways to arrive early on Friday. Jen came along for the first time since 2018, her seventh burn, and we cheerfully and easily set up our camp, complete with so much aluminet that someone referred to our camp as “The Tiara”. We were tucked in right at 4 & E, across the street from the Alternate Energy Zone tower. Here we are the first night, celebrating with vino.
Arriving early let us enjoy a quiet Black Rock City, even as traffic picked up on Saturday, with camp construction noises all around. The Leopard Lounge showed up midday, nearly everyone pitched in for set up, and was rolling with live music and tequila by evening. Our camp filled over the next two days, as dozens of VW buses came in. A core group brought shade structure pieces, and assembled Rosie’s Retreat, a large common space where we had events all week And we had a somewhat international crew this year, with a neighbors from Poland, Oz, Sierra Leon, and a couple from Beijing. (Zhen generously shared some of his photos with me, which are mixed in below).
Clearly, Jen is having a good time, and so am I! The activities at Rosie’s Retreat include some great presentations on olive oil and wine, Bus Camp history, plant enthogenics, Mother’s High Tea, and the annual tie-dye event, which was very well attended.
And then of course, there is the artwork on the playa, my favorite part.
This was my second year as a Ranger, and I ended up doing four shifts. The high point was helping two folks in the Ranger Sanctuary (a protected quiet place) re-locate to new camps. And helping a nearby camp handle a medical emergency when someone got very dehydrated.
Of course, everything changed on Friday afternoon, as rain started to fall and the playa mud got too deep for walking. The Leopard Lounge had an exceptional afternoon with a variety of guest performers, until the damp made it impossible to play. We sacked out early, and awoke Saturday to a muddy wonderland. Our plans for a Saturday departure were trashed, the gates were closed and it was impossible to move except by walking barefoot, or with plastic bags or socks on your feet. Anything else accumulated so much mud (boots, bikes, etc.) that you became stuck in place.
Life in Bus Camp continued in a pretty normal way through the muddy weekend, with two exceptions. First, we ran out of tequila (although someone came by and gifted us a bottle on Monday 🙂 The second was more serious — the mud made it impossible to service the porta potties, and we all had to adapt. Fortunately, someone in the neighborhood put signs on the porta potties telling people to pee in bottles, so the porta potties wouldn’t get filled up…and that worked perfectly. Our part of the city never had a problem. And we had ample empty water bottles (and a 5-gallon bucket for emergencies, which we never needed).
One of the other Rangers in camp had a radio, so I called in and went on duty. The AEZ tower next door became an info hub, as they had free wifi, so I hung out around there. Dozens of folks came by asking about the weather, exodus, the Man burn, and I shared what I knew from other Rangers.
As the mud started to dry, walking became easier. Sunday morning we got out to see more artwork, and and found some of it was already being disassembled. But the skies were spectacular.
Then of course it rained again, but lightly. We could see how quickly everything was drying out, and Monday afternoon we packed up our camp in preparation for departure. The exodus was in full swing, we saw plenty of folks leaving. At about 12:40, planes started landing at the airport, so clearly the runway had become usable again. And there was a steady flow of aircraft all afternoon as some of the wealthier attendees got out of dodge.
We stayed for the Man burn Monday night. Rather than join the madness, we found a nice spot on the playa a half-mile away, next to a parked vehicle. We hung out for an hour, watching the fireworks and activities until finally the Man became a huge fireball. Spectacular, as always.
We arose Tuesday at 5am to load up the van, and headed out at sunrise. Our exodus was easy, as it took 2 hours to reach the gate. The drive back to Lassen was uneventful. Even cleanup was relatively easy, as we had far less dust than other years. We did have a very muddy carpet, and won’t be bringing that to the playa again. And our new shade canopy was a resounding success, making set up and tear down a lot easier.
So, it was the wettest year ever. I feel happy I got to participate. It was the last year of the Leopard Lounge, and our camp will feel different next year without it. As always, I wonder what I missed — there is too much going on to catch more than a tiny fraction. But I loved the art work, being a Ranger, and making our camp delightful regardless of the weather. Every time we come here we get better at it.
After a three-year hiatus, Burning Man happened again this year. I eagerly prepared early, not knowing if I would get a ticket, or what I would experience. I have learned that clear resolve and intention makes things happen, so I’ve been acting for months on the assumption I would get there. To be sure, I did. I had 12 days on the playa, experienced joy and exhaustion, clarity, inebriation, dawn, heat, dust, learning and teaching, responsibility, delight, connection, isolation. It was all things hoped for, and many that could not be anticipated.
Most of all, ‘That Thing In The Desert’ is not a destination, but a journey. I had the intention to become a Black Rock Ranger this time, and one of my friends needed a hexayurt delivered to our camp before the event formally started. A month ago, a sage friends shared that one of my guides was telling me to “look upon this journey as a “vision quest”, and to make sure that “my masculine and feminine were in balance”. And so the journey took form.
If you haven’t been to Black Rock City, then it’s hard to understand what Rangers are: experienced, compassionate and trained burners with radios and access to resources. They are first responders to everything: pointing out the nearest porta-potties, calling medical aid, dealing with consent violations, drug ODs, whatever. In a sense, the journey began here, because in the spring I attended online and in-person classes.
I also got the idea to bring cloth patches to my friends in VW Bus Camp this year, and worked on the design early this summer. From a past camp project, a motto came into being, “There is great pleasure camping with tequila”. I did the drawing, and my partner Jen did the color scheme and contributed the agave plant.
I ended up getting 200 of them made, in two sizes, and handed them out everywhere. They were popular, and I still have some left, so please let me know if you want one!
The third prelude was the VW Hexayurt adventure. One of our camp members needed a place to stay, and one of our other members had a hexayurt shaped like a VW bus, build some years ago. I volunteered to transport it from Nevada City, CA to our camp. About 15 pieces of foam insulation, cut to fit together with tape, plus a home-made swamp cooler in a Rubbermaid container. It made a neat 100-lb stack on the roof rack, including a piece of plywood and some lumber to protect the panels. This will be the shelter for our campmate Heather Winfrey and her husband Jerald, who are traveling without bus this year. Heather has been dealing with a very serious cancer for the last few months, and they need every luxury we can afford them.
I set off from home on Tuesday, August 23rd, with a stop at an Oak Dance fire ritual with friends in the east bay. Though I wasn’t expecting it, the ritual reoriented me, I knew I was on a vision quest. From the moment I left the fire, my trip took on a curious, spacious, serendipitous feel, a quiet and deep heart space, and I realized how much I needed a solitary journey. After spending the night at a friend’s place in Sacramento, I stopped in Nevada City to load up the hexayurt, as you see in the photos. That night I was up at the cabin in Lassen, pulling out all the paraphernalia that would make camp comfortable on the playa…shade pop-up, solar lights, 7-gallon jugs of water, tarps, window insulation, bicycles, c/hairs, rebar anchors, ratchet straps. It’s now a pretty tidy and organized pile, with the tarps, shade net, anchors and hammer in a big duffle bag on the roof (so I can get them on arrival) and other gear in two big bins. I take a leisurely full day to pack, then head east through Susanville and across the desert early Friday.
It’s four hours from my cabin to BRC. The gate takes a couple of hours, and then I’m in!
Arriving midday on Friday, it’s not very crowded. I screw a big tarp down to the playa, park the van on one half, erect and strap down the pop-up, insulate the windows, and throw netting over the whole thing to add shade. Add bamboo mats, a carpet, table and chairs, and it’s feeling like home. By evening, it’s margarita time.
The hexayurt got unloaded first, of course. On Saturday, a group of us got together to assemble it, complete with a battery-operated swamp cooler. It was all ready to go by the time that Heather and Jerald arrived.
This turned out to be a very dusty year, and we have lots of wind and limited visibility nearly every afternoon, sometimes at night too. Cleaning is a major daily chore.
More than anything, I’m here for the art. The playa always offers a rich display of creativity.
The fourth theme for this burn was Rangering. I joined the Black Rock Rangers this year, going through online and in-person training earlier in the year. My second day on the playa, I did a ten-hour shift to complete training. Rangers are basically just burners with radios and extra awareness. It’s a little like being an off-duty cop, EMT and therapist all in one.
I really enjoyed Rangering. The alpha training shift was very tiring, and the real scenarios we used for practice were intense, some of them very scary. My regular six-hour shift was moderately busy, we had to deal with a couple of folks in melt-down situations, but mostly we were just answering questions and being helpful. The Rangers I met are good people, exceptionally capable, humorous and dedicated. The stuff that happens at Burning Man is like any city of 80,000 people…raised by an order of magnitude. For example, there is an 80-bed hospital, and at one point all the beds were full. This year we saw a LOT of e-bikes and motorized scooters, some traveling at 30 mph (totally illegal, all vehicles are limited to 5 mph). Of course there were collisions and broken bones, though I did not hear of anyone dying in a traffic accident.
After 11 full days, it’s time to go. Cleaning and packing takes a while, my guests were gone before the Man burned Saturday night, which was smart thinking on their part. Departure from the event is tricky, as there are huge bursts of traffic throughout Labor Day weekend. I left on Monday afternoon, which was a huge mistake. It took ten hours for me to get to the highway, a bit after midnight. I should have spent the night, hung out with the few folks still in camp, and left in the morning. I would have gotten home just as fast.
This was such a solitary trip, even with all my cheerful and engaging camp mates. It is oddly humbling to feel so completely at home in such an extreme place. I had a lot of good, thoughtful solo time. I met people, coached and massaged people, served tequila, smoked and drank, talked VW’s and life endlessly, and wish I’d explored more. I perhaps saw half the artwork, watched the burns from a distance, did not go out into the psychedelic colorful craziness of the middle of the night, did not go to any of the dance camps, fall in love, or get seriously drunk. Something deep has been moving inside me this year, and my time in the desert feels rich in only the way deep stillness brings. Wendell Barry wrote:
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.
This was my fourth year at Burning Man, my first solo trip, and my first art build. Last year at this time, Jen an I were wiped out after nine days on the playa, and the noise and chaos at the end of the week as ten thousand party peeps arrived for the weekend. This year, I left Saturday morning, feeling replete and happy. And really dusty.
This is how we have camped the last couple of times. Actually a photo from 2018, it looked pretty much the same this year, except I was packed in on all sides by other Westys (here is what it looked like in 2015). The popup shade structure is quick and easy, and the shade netting totally helps with wind, privacy and temperature. I added more solar lights this year, so home was easy to find at 3am.
The art project was Purr Pods, by Paige Tascher, one of my campmates. I worked on it with her for 3 months. Three welded steel cats, with LED lighting, illuminated eyes and hearts, and sound transducers and touch sensors. They each had separate personalities, with sounds recorded from Paige’s cat collection. Touching them elicited purring sound and vibration, plus entertaining yowls and mews. The project was a total hit, appearing in a “ten best art pieces” article. Here are some pics of the build, the truck that took them to the playa, and finally a video.
On their way to the playa.
Saturday, just before the general admission opened. All ready for the week ahead!
Alas, I had to miss the final build on the playa. On my way up (via our cabin in Lassen) the water pump blew in Mz Parker. I limped the final 25 miles to the cabin, started tearing the engine down to remove and replace the water pump…
…and discovered that the water pump (right photo, black thing in the center) body extends underneath the timing belt cover (gray thing on the right). Requiring removal of the exhaust system, exhaust manifold, timing belt cover, belt and sprockets. At that point, I called a tow truck, and found a good shop down in Chico do to the surgery. So instead of arriving on Tuesday, five days early, I didn’t get there until Saturday, just before it opened.
(The three day adventure in Chico was a whole experience of it’s own — I arrived too late to rent a car, hiked most of the way across town to one of the last hotel rooms available, lived out of a small backpack for a couple of days, and finally borrowed a Westy from the shop to go back up to the cabin while they finished the work.)
Saturday I headed east early, through Chester and Susanville, took my 66-mile dirt road shortcut from Susanville to Gerlach, and arrived midday. The Purr Pods were all set up, so all I could do was set up camp, and pull out several liters of frozen margaritas for my camp mates.
Art work was fabulous this year. Here is the Shrine of Sympathetic Resonance, made of piano innards and full of sacred geometry. Absolutely beautiful, full of thoughtful feelings and soft sounds.
My eight days were a curious mixture of freedom and loneliness, pleasure and service, with a liberal sprinkling of tequila, music and laughter. It was my first burn without Jen, so most of my experiences were solitary. It always takes me a little time to settle into myself when traveling solo, even surrounded by friends and familiar faces. By my third day, emerging from the Westy at dawn, I realized that it felt like I’d been there for a year. Perhaps our nomadic selves are never far away; I’ve had this feeling on backpacking trips as well.
The serendipity of Burning Man is always astounding — a friend of a friend camped with me in a tent, and somehow I knew when she was driving up, walking right out to greet her, even though I had never met her before and had no idea what kind of car she had. I did a lot of energy work and massage that seemed to be just what was needed, and had many amazing and deep conversations with strangers that illuminated both of us in profound ways. That’s the magic of the playa.
I love VW Bus Camp, and our pop-up village of self-sufficient iconoclasts. Unlike many camps, we have no shared infrastructure or dues (though someone did bring a very artistic shower device for all to use!) We had the Leopard Lounge set up again this year, a place of music, tequila and foot rubs. I spent time there each day, socializing, resting, doing energy work on visitors and soaking up the spontaneity.
Here is another little video. Eric is playing Johnny Cash, Bingo handing out tequila shots, and a crew of volunteers play percussion and give foot rubs.
By Saturday, I felt complete, so I packed up camp and headed west across the desert at midday. Dusty, happy, unshaven, thoughtful and full of feeling. I will be back next year, this is too good to miss.
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.
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.