by Kenny Reff
So here I am, spending another evening attempting to write a novel. My daughter is upstairs packing for college, I’m recently divorced, and about to be kid-less for the first time in 18 years. Wow.
While doing research for the novel, I come across a web page telling me Burning Man is happening in two weeks. It’s something I’ve heard about for years, but being 50+ and on the East Coast, I don’t know anyone else who’d ever gone.
Could I do it? In just two weeks? Of course not.
I stare at the week of August 27, but unbelievably, it is clear. The event had been sold out for months, but a ticket on eBay was coming due in 20 minutes. I placed the bid and won. And forty minutes later I have round-trip frequent flier tickets for free. It seems like I was meant to do this. Landing frequent flier tickets 12 days out? You know that just doesn’t happen.
But the real challenge I face is how to get all my shit to camp.
For a lot of people, this isn’t a big deal. The West Coasters drive. The East Coasters have regional and local burner groups that work together to ship their stuff out to Black Rock City.
Only I don’t know about that.
Because even though I do hours of research on what to expect and what to bring, I somehow fail to notice that there’s a well-oiled Washington D.C. burner community that would be happy to ship my stuff out to the playa for a small fee. So I think I’m on my own. Only later do I learn that when it comes to Burning Man, you are never on your own.
I see that the minimum amount of water you need for drinking, cooking and sponge baths is 1.5 gallons per day, which can weigh 100 pounds. Of course, I also need a tent, some kind of additional shade, a sleeping mat and bag, and food for all this time. Then, there’s the camera, iPod, cigars, rum and wild clothing. It all adds up in a hurry.
The challenge of getting from the Reno airport to the playa is solved quickly when I discover the To Flame bus, which is an express charter right from the airport. But there is still the issue of all my shit.
I look for posts on how people deal with this problem if you’re flying in. No luck. I figure there’s either very few people who go to this thing from the East coast, or when they do, they don’t live to write about it.
Or maybe they just camp right where the bus drops them. But not me. I know that Burning Man is one big-ass party and it’s going to be very loud, day and night. I read numerous warnings to bring ear plugs if I want to get any sleep. However, I also learn about one area set aside for walk-in campers only. No cars, no RVs, no semi’s loaded with rave sound systems. That’s my spot.
The only problem is, it’s a full mile from where the bus will drop me off!
The solution, I figure, is a heavy duty wagon. A few clicks later and I find a steel wagon with 10″ rubber tires that can haul 400 pounds and weighs 45. Its weight is important… I plan to check it as luggage on the flight to Reno, and the baggage limit is 50 pounds.
I also find a nice 2-person tent. It’s light and sets up easily. But when it arrives, I realize that although it has a rain cover that envelopes the entire thing, the tent has two screen windows that don’t zip closed. I have a passing concern about the sandstorms I’ve read about, but the rain cover does extend down to the ground and covers the windows. It isn’t until I’m eating lunch during my Houston layover that I read about the conditions this year. People are saying it’s the driest summer in 30 years and the dust storms will be worse than ever. Will my rain cover keep the dust from coming in through the windows?
I also take delivery of a large box of freeze-dried food, enough for the entire week. I have freeze-dried granola with bananas and milk for breakfast, freeze-dried chili for lunch, freeze-dried beef stroganoff for dinner and freeze-dried peach cobbler for desert. Hmm… wonder how it will all taste.
As I sort through all the stuff I need for the trip, I realize the challenge is keeping my checked luggage to a minimum. The wagon is already one piece. I figure I’ll get all the rest of it in two more cases. Then I check the luggage rates. Holy shit! United wants $100 for the third checked bag! Oh, oh. Gotta make it all fit in just one checked bag and a carry on.
Over the next three days, I play around with a myriad of configurations to try to avoid the $100 baggage fee. In the end, I find myself walking up to the departing gate with a carry-on bag that is way too large, a fold-up chair, a 15-pound shade shelter and a stuffed backpack! $100 later, they have checked my “carry-on” and I’m allowed to board the first flight to Houston.
A few hours later, loaded down, I shuffle the corridors toward the connecting flight to Reno. All of a sudden a little bit of Burning Man is upon me. I see girls with orange hair and men wearing silk scarves. I see beat up backpacks and hiking boots, water bottles and smiles. People are clustered, talking in small groups. I overhear “60 miles per hour”. Are they talking about the winds?
I am shocked at the scene and my eyes tear up. I must have made hundreds of flight connections in my life, and never once has much changed between the first flight and the second. This time, it’s different.
A couple of hours later we land in Reno. The arrivals area is teaming with burners awaiting the To Flame bus and there’s a lot of chatter about who’s staying where on the playa. People describe the camps they’re in and it dawns on me that this is why no one has written about how to get to Burning Man if you’re flying in on your own. No one goes solo if you’re flying! All of them have friends they’re meeting on the playa. They have all paid fees to be part of camps that supply shelter and food. Some even provide bicycles. All they need to bring is their clothes!
I look at my 45-pound green steel wagon and sigh. It’s my first lesson of Burning Man. I know it won’t be the last.
I run out to the Walmart two miles from the airport to pick up my pre-paid $88 Huffy bicycle and run back to catch the bus.
It’s a fun and beautiful ride to Black Rock city, but it’s 2:00am by the time we arrive at the bus depot near Center Camp. I load everything onto the wagon for the very first time and begin my trek to the walk-in camping area, a mile away.
I make it about one hundred feet.
This wagon is heavy! The playa is supporting it, but with 100 pounds of water, plus everything else, its just too heavy to pull a mile. I decide to camp right where I am for the night. In the morning, I’ll figure out what to do. I suffer a fitful sleep that night. I’ve been awake 23 hours before I finally laid down. The air is thin at 4000 feet, and I’m pretty excited. I wake up three times and need to pee far more than my pee bottle will hold.
The morning comes all too fast, and I awake surrounded by RVs, campers, motor homes and the occasional tent. Before I set out to move to the walk-in camping area, the first item of business is coffee. I’ve got a terrific little Italian coffee maker that sits on a propane stove, Cafe Verona Starbucks coffee, and powdered vanilla Coffee Mate. This is one ritual where I do not rough it. Done this way, this coffee is as good as the stuff at home.
But where is the Coffee Mate?
I look in every place it should be, but it’s not. I look again for the familiar blue and white bottle. I start to feel really sad. But finally I decide it’s OK, I’m at Burning Man and this will be the week I learn to appreciate black coffee. Just then, after acceptance, the creamer appears.
I laugh at myself, and feel I learned a lesson about perspective. After enjoying a great cup of coffee, I am ready to scout out my home for the week.
I bike to the walk-in camping area and the first people I come across are the Happy Naked Couple. I ask them the pros and cons of being out here. They love it. It’s quiet at night. It’s windier here, without the protection of the large motor homes and RVs. But it’s less dusty because upwind the playa is hard packed; in the city, there’s more loose dust due to vehicles having churned it all up. Then, there’s always the advantage of not needing to wear clothes. I look around. I’m in.
I then realize the solution to my heavy wagon dilemma is to simply ask someone for a tow. Since cars are not allowed to drive around, I search for one of those arted-up golf cart-sized things. But after an hour, still no luck.
I bike to Center Camp and see something called Mobility Support. That’s it, I have a mobility challenge. They chuckle when I make my request. They are there to assist those with handicaps, not some privileged schmuck with too much shit on his wagon. However, they suggest I go to the DMV. “The DMV?” I ask.
“The Department of Mutant Vehicles.”
It turns out that every art car that wants to roam the playa must be licensed by Burning Man’s DMV. Later on, when I see dozens of people hanging off these things as they ply their way around city, I understand why they need to be inspected for safety.
The second mutant vehicle I hit up agrees!
Twenty minutes later, I pull up to the Happy Naked Couple on the outskirts of the walk-in camp ground. They’re still naked, and they’re happy to see I made it.
I set up camp easily, driving 16″ steel stakes into the hard playa bed. Up goes the tent and also the shade canopy. I unload the food into the tent and prop up the 10 gallons of water outside. I make sure the rain fly is taut and totally covers the doors and windows.
I did it. I’m here. An East Coaster on his own…
But not for long.
All photos by Kenny Reff
You can read Kenny’s full memoir of his first burn on his website.