On the Ground in the Dirt — Burning Man 2010

The Man and Fire Conclave burn night

We arrived Saturday afternoon under iron gray skies. It had been an effortless jaunt from Sparks; we had taken a lazy lunch in the parking lot where the weather alternated between chilly in the shadow of the clouds and blazing hot when the sun poked through. We had heard the reports: that though last week had hit 115°, this weekend promised rain, and the forbidding horizon did not dispel that fear. But we were not worried: we’re varsity. We’ve done this before.

Replicating the success of last year, we — my old friend and stalwart companion, Evan — packed little past essentials and stayed the night in a hotel in Sparks. Too tired (unmotivated?) to move our gear inside, plan “Let’s Leave it and Hope For the Best” was successful, and our pickup truck of dusty gear was unmolested in the morning. Refilling our ice chests from the free hotel ice machine, we headed to our usual supermarket to load up on water and last minute essentials (beer we had in spades; Irish cream, cup-o-noodles, eggs, cheese, crackers, some vegetables, more ice were procured) and we were off.

The Temple of Flux; us photographers all discussed how we didn’t really know how to capture it.

Entrance through Gate was flawless. This year again we had wristbands for early arrival, but saying only “Metropolis 2010″ they lacked the humor of previous years, when we sported “Naked Bob’s Gun Camp for Kids” or “Frog likes hugs” (turns out no, she does not). But it was cold. And blustery. The wind had picked up our neighbor’s unsecured dome (major, major mistake: Build dome. Stake down dome. Put cover on dome.) and rolled it over an RV, a tent and two campers before depositing it on an SUV. Unfortunate excitement aside, we got to work. Our core camp consists of Evan, Pierre and me, and we work quickly and without drama; in no time, we had our dome and tents up with cars and camo netting as a wind break. Then, as is the yearly tradition, it was time for Jub Jub’s, one of the best parties of the event (well, pre-event). That night it did rain, indeed; but a bottle of Jameson’s whiskey in every other hand quickly lessens the chill.

The next morning we resumed our setup and in short order our camp was finished, just waiting for our remaining campmates to show up to fill in the gaps. Not quite as frigid as Saturday, Sunday was still the second coldest day I’ve ever experienced on playa. That night — sans camera! — we did wander, and had drinks at the fabulous Eggchtropolis, whose helpful sign informs us it is always closed. The city was a bizarre sight: nearly devoid of life (partly due to the chill, but largely because the gates had not yet opened) its completeness stood in stark contrast. It seemed every theme camp and artist was done on time — if not early — and had gone to bed early: every light was on but no one was home.

The belle of the ball, Bliss Dance by Marco Cochrane

Monday morning I awoke with the “no doubt about it lad, you’re sick” terrifically painful sore throat that I dread catching. What perfect timing it was, too! Welcome to the burn. Undeterred, I headed over to Media Mecca to check in and say my hullos; there I got snapped up by Photon Magazine who wished to write an article about solar power at Burning Man, both for camp and art usage, and the reporter and I worked out a time to reconvene and interview subjects. While there, though, I was caught by a most unusual occurrence: Rain. And rain it did, hard steady and long. Rain on the playa is in August/September is an incredibly rare happening, and when it does it is usually a few scattered drops over a few minutes. This was different. Stranded (in only a t-shirt, dammit) I did the only logical thing: I drank. Thank you Media Mecca, and thank you for your bar! When it finally abated, we were greeted by the the most hilariously unlikely event (if you’ve been following your memes): a double rainbow, like the gentle rub after the slap. It did little to console me pushing (plowing…) my bike back to camp, for the mud clogs the wheels so thoroughly they won’t even turn. I went to bed early.

Tuesday I was sicker than before, where it was agony just to swallow and coupled stabbing pain through my ears. Evan says “Dude. You’re sick. You’re going to the medics.” I try to wave him off, saying “perhaps tomorrow…” Always gentle and completely trusting me to take care of myself, he says “Don’t be an idiot. You’re going.” He drags me to REMSA, who after a seemingly interminable wait (but only because my neighbor, a pink tutu-bedecked drunkard with cock dangling, was falling out of his cot after having near broken his ankle in a bout of idiocy, hitting on the doctor and asking every member of staff for beer — my wait was actually quite reasonable otherwise) gave me antibiotics and saved the day. I felt better within hours — and I got to work. I had shot a grand total of 45 pictures by this point, my 4th day on the playa. Something was seriously amiss, and drugs fixed it (I’m probably the only one on playa trying to score antibiotics). Thank you, REMSA: You rock.

Syzygryd, a tornado of cubes, with flame effects and music

Wandering the playa, I sought out Syzygryd (pronounced “sizzy-grid”), the project my incredibly talented (and insane) friends had been working on feverishly for months on end. I even lent a hand one night pre-burn, doing fine-pitch soldering of wires to delicate leads, but it was not a even a drop in the bucket of the effort they put forth. Incredibly — but unsurprisingly, based on the talent and effort brought to bear — it worked and ran the entire week. Easier to experience than explain, I won’t attempt to here: you’ll have to see for yourself (video not by me).

The next morning, as has become tradition, I was woken perhaps an hour after I had gone to bed by a certain group of pranksters who had temporarily reallocated ownership of a certain art project (the wooden HARVEYWOOD sign) to our neighbors, HOT TOPIC — err, Death Guild. Said pranksters left the artist a gift basket with a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of wine, some chocolates, a note saying “Thanks for lending us your art! <3 Thunderdome” and — as said artist was an unapologetic shirtcocker, a pair of pants. I somehow always find myself dragged into this nonsense (and I love it). (As professional pranksters who appreciate thoroughness, they even moved the HARVEYWOOD art placement marker and appropriately renamed it DOOM RAVE.)

Now halfway across the playa, HARVEYWOOD has been rearranged to spell DOOM RAVE

The rest of the day was spent on assignment shooting solar power installations: suffice it to say that there are some clever people out there, and some with incredible budgets (or their own solar power companies). In a beautiful moment of synchronicity, for in the 10 minutes I was actually back in my camp, my lovely friend  Steph Goralnick and her adorably identically bedecked friend Kat (the both of them talented photographers) came by bearing a tray of Taiwanese bubble tea to distribute to lucky burners. Since they were appropriately attired, a photo was in order.

Talented photographers Steph Goralnick and Kat

Then it was a mad rush to get into formal wear: I had been gifted a ticket by my friend Amira to a dinner at the Golden Cafe (one of my favorite camp names ever — and their mascot is an actual golden calf) who were hosting a mind-blowing 7-course cajun dinner served on actual glassware by rope-clad wait staff. A 6-inch scorpion named Citizen Snips lived in a cage on the bar which housed  fully-professional top-shelf booze and was flanked by two antique street lamps; these folk would not let your cup run empty, delivering us Manhattans, mojitoes and hurricanes unprompted. I have to admit I was impressed. Afterward, stuffed to the gills, I departed on another night of shooting.

Usually taking place on Saturday before the burn, the infamous DPW Parade took place on Thursday of this year. Not wanting to leave my bike all the way out in the Depot, I searched in vain for a yellow bike to take out there; with no luck, I start hailing passer-bys and offering to bribe them with beer. One gentleman takes my bait: “What kind of beer?” Thinking better, he quickly inquires instead “Is it cold?” “As ice.” Beer exchanged for bike, I rush pell-mell on my rickety death-trap out to the depot. As it turns out, I’m just in time: a half-dozen DPW say “oh! You’re here! We were looking for you.” I find a ladder and get ready for my yearly DPW group photo.

The DPW of 2010; view a gargantuan version here (click “original”).

The parade was remarkably dust-free this year, likely as it did not take place on Saturday. I’m not sure how I feel about that: it’s an integral piece of the parade, if you ask me.

That evening I had dinner at the Institute for Higher Yearning (Relaxomatic Plushitorium, False Profit and the Phage) with Steph, then were joined by the Relaxomatic’s Marty and wandered over to the Fandango Bar. We sipped the finest Mahnattans (made by the lady mayoress herself, Liz Courtney) , then wandered the city. I took but one picture.

Friday saw an increase in shenanigans with the Black Rock Regional Balsa Man burn at my frequent haunt, the always rocking Fandango Bar, where we did erect tiny art and burn it. Though the Man was burned early by a masked perpetrator (:ahem,: ed rabbit) it was quickly rebuilt (in a tiny amount of time) and burned as planned… with a massive flamethrower.

Ed wields his flamethrower to great effect at the Black Rock Regional Balsa Man burn

That night was an epic adventure with Slim, Audrey, Whitney and me, three people incredibly tolerant of us picture-takers (we move slowly and are easily distracted, I’m afraid…), a fact helped by Audrey’s stellar picture-taking self. A highlight? Drinking quality port at the far corner of the trash fence.

A self-portrait with Audrey, Whitney at the art piece “Cultivated” by by Merrilee Proffitt and Lisa Pongrace

But the best find that night? A bona fide movie theater near the trash fence, distributing movie theater candy and showing Tombstone and the 1927 Metropolis.

Seemingly in anticipation of the burn, Saturday was dusty and dustier; the rumors forecast winds that evening of 45mph (let me tell you: substantiated rumors. Yes.) I was lucky enough to go up in a boom lift again; this year saw me 125′ in the air (the tallest they have) and — with said  winds — swaying 4-5′ laterally. Did I mention that this boom didn’t have any outriggers? Yeah. Fortunately, heights aren’t a phobia of mine…

Looking down the arm of the boom lift on burn night

Straight down — I’d best not drop a lens.

The burn itself went without a hitch — even in the face of a total whiteout with incredible winds. From start to finish — from first firework to the man hitting the ground (surprisingly still mostly intact) — it lasted but 25 minutes. And the wind was strongest right after the man fell; I heard my boom operator’s radio crackle with “Heavy Machinery: come down now.” I didn’t object.

I made my way back to camp, slightly frazzled; having not had more than an hour of sleep a day for the last… who knows… I stopped to catch my breath and nodded off whilst editing my burn photos. Waking up to my spilled champagne and a frozen laptop past 1 in the morning while the wind still howled was not my idea of a pleasant awakening, but I fussed my crap, got my camera and put on my goggles and bravely ventured forth… into the most beautifully still night of the entire week. There was no dust, and it wasn’t even cold: I worked until dawn.

Fabulous campmates Nyx and Ben from Philly

Our final day was spent on camp tear-down and a few portraits and good-byes before we all headed to the eerily silent burn of the Temple of Flux.

Putting the key in the ignition at 1am Monday morning, I embarked on what was to be my most painful Exodus to date: over three and a half hours to reach the gate, and then another two and a half hours just to reach Sparks (and petrol). Surreal and trancelike, I ended up in another lane on at least one occasion (that I did not intend to) and handed the keys over to Little  Sister who, like a rockstar, drove the rest of the way home.

Here is my gallery in its entirety.

Thus ended the oddest, most unusual and most amazing burn I’ve ever had. Though the population was the greatest on record — breaking 51,500 citizens — it felt less crowded than ever and the only way I’ve heard the feel of the city described was as “sincere.” I made many genuine connections with amazing people and worked myself to the bone — I’ve never in my life slept so little (not even in university), barely an hour a night, if at all. Yet I took the fewest pictures of any burn I’ve ever attended, but one-third of previous years. However, I’m not disappointed, not in the least. And I’m already plotting for next year.

In case you’re curious why I do what I do, I wrote a piece for the Burning Blog here — Photography is My Gift to the Community.

This is your intrepid narrator, signing off.

About the author: Neil Girling

Neil Girling, aka mr. Nightshade, is a photographer and blogger well-known for covering the San Francisco Bay Area underground.

10 thoughts on “On the Ground in the Dirt — Burning Man 2010