Opening Day: wet, not so wild

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As Peanut put it, Burning Man pressed the “pause” button today, as heavy rains and hail prevented people from getting in and out of Black Rock City, caused widespread power outages, and intensified the misery of people waiting in the “will call” lines at the box office.

The gates to the city officially opened at 10 am on Sunday, and for most of the day it seemed like the event was off to a pretty good start, despite harsh weather during the build that forced everyone to hustle to catch up to schedule.

Things got further off track as Sunday progressed, though, with horror tales of people spending as many as eight hours in the will-call line. The scene at the gate last night was unprecedented. As people wound round and around waiting in line on foot to pick up their will-call tickets, there weren’t any cars ready to be processed through the gate.

It almost seems like there’s a new challenge in the ticket system every year, and this year it has been the backlog at the will call window. Nimbus, Burning Man’s ticketing manager, said in her seven years with the organization, she’s never seen so many people arrive at the will-call window in such a short time frame.

Megan Miller, Burning Man’s director of communication, said, “There are a lot of factors that we’re looking at. Some of it is in our control, and some of it isn’t.”

The contributing factors include the number of tickets that are sold electronically and require a check-in. Those include the 3,000 tickets that were sold in the “oh my god” final sale in July, the 4,000 low-income tickets, and the increasing number of tickets sold to international participants, who now are about 20 percent of the population (the organization does not ship tickets internationally). Plus, all the tickets re-sold through the STEP program also require a visit to the will-call window.

And then there are the vagaries caused by dependence on technology: If the wifi is down or bad weather is affecting satellite signals, the check-in process is slowed. It’s still the desert out here, you know, and things just don’t work they way they do in the default world.

The will-call line was hours and hours long
The will-call line was hours and hours long

Still, for the people who were already inside the city, although the rain and hail was scary at times, and made the roads impassible by virtually any means – foot, bicycle or vehicle, it also gave participants another opportunity to prevail over the elements.

The good planners knew that plastic bags wrapped around your shoes prevent “playa platforms” from building up on the soles of your shoes. That was really only the beginning of it, though.

There was the simple approach to getting around: no shoes at all. (The mud doesn’t stick to your feet.) Then there was the utilitarian approach: Black or clear plastic bags, zip-locked or taped. Then there was the fashion-forward approach: White plastic bags arising to mid-calf. And then there was Helen Hickman, who took advantage of the weather to invent a new genre of playawear: the trash suit.

“I must say, it’s very becoming,” Larry Harvey said as he walked around Rod’s Road, sidestepping the muddy clumps and randomly talking to people hoping to start their burn.

Helen had a message: “I have to tell everyone, trash-bag wear is going to be the thing this year.”

The fabulous Helen, aka Danger Ass
The fabulous Helen, aka Danger Ass

Larry agreed: “Fur is out, trash bags are in,” he said. “You’re the harbinger, you’re ahead of the game. By the time people catch up with it, though, you’ll be out of it. … You’re a finder, not a flounder.”

Larry continued: “You know, I tell the people, sometimes, some of the things we might want to do, and they get a little ‘founder-itis.’ And I tell them, you know, sometimes we’re founders, and sometimes we’re flounders. … But on our best days, we’re finders. And so are you!”

“We have a transformation quota, you know” he said. “We say, ‘How many lives have you changed today?’ And then we keep track of the salesman, you know, who’s the best salesman of the day…”

So there you have it, campers. Lives transformed with trash bags.

Larry Harvey joked with people on Rod's Road
Larry Harvey joked with people on Rod’s Road

Of course there were other facets to the rain delay: People were forced to shelter in place, to hunker down with the people they came here to see, and to have the playa conversations that we look forward to so much every year. It was all very low key. We imagine it was a little like a return to the Burning Man of yore, when there weren’t so many people here, and things weren’t so predictable, and the whole thing itself was so much smaller, and you could wander around and decide which of the people you knew you were going to visit. (That decision is always based on a number of considerations, of course: likelihood of chilled beverages, availability of a lie-down space, mutual budding attraction between visitor and visitee, that kind of thing.)

Oh, and the rain had one other significant impact, especially on Burning Man staff: the meeting schedule was positively in tatters. Somehow, all the acculturation training and process mapping would have to be rescheduled.

“We’ll have a meeting about the meetings, I’m sure,” Larry said. “We may have to send out for extra whiteboards, though.”

 

By late afternoon, it appeared that the storm cells had passed, which was a relief for just about everyone. Lightning had struck the ground in the morning in at least two places, one in the Heavy Equipment yard, and one in the Ghetto, where the DPW workers live. There were no injuries or major damage, but one HEAT worker was near where the lightning struck, and he said he could feel a jolt rise from the ground.

Long lines of people hoping to buy ice formed outside the Artica near Center Café. It was the only one of the three Artica stations that were functioning Monday. Three people about to enter the ice station said they had waited only about 45 minutes, even though the line stretched out to the Esplanade. “It’s nothing compared to the will-call window,” one woman said. “I waited six and a half hours there.”

These three friends had an easier time in the ice line than the will-call line
These three friends had an easier time in the ice line than the will-call line

And some more pictures from Opening Night and the rainy day:

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Cars headed for the gates as evening fell
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Only a few people were out and about in the rain
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Zac seemed a little forlorn as he waited for the rain to stop
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Two variations in the trash-boot look
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Bikes weren’t much use in the muck
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There was no fire in the cauldron at the top of Rod’s Road
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It wasn’t the worst day for the Naked Party people
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Kristen and Dylan thought things would be fine. “I’m knitting a blanket for us,” she said
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David Silverman entertained the people in line for ice with his flaming tuba

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

19 thoughts on “Opening Day: wet, not so wild

  • Editor’s Note: We removed a quote from this post that was seen by a number of readers as insensitive and offensive. We also removed the comments that referenced it. We apologize to those who were offended by its inclusion.

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  • That’s the will-call line BEFORE the storm hit. Over 6 hours to get through… Do ya think it might be time to hire a professional events agency to handle will-call? Or is the kool-aid so strong that people find this acceptable?

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  • A couple of suggestions:

    Make will call in reno or wadsworth where there is ample room to exit, park, line-up with internet connections that don’t fail. Then everyone that is at the gate is going straight in

    OR

    split the will call lane off at the edge of the playa where it’s one lane. With one lane of traffic people can exit and NOT have to cross all 16 lanes of others trying to get in.

    OR

    Make multiple gates once you are on the playa. Bmorg wants to increase the population, then increase gate/will call staff – it’s only logical.

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  • No matter how much you loathe the will call line and no matter how crappy you are when it’s finally your turn at the window, the box office crew still loves you and gets through as quickly as the bits and bytes will move. They’ve likely been stuck in their box since the roads were closed. No breaks, no relief busting their asses to get you inside.
    There’s not a more professional crew out there. Suck it up and welcome to burning man.

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  • Thanks John- I love how your posts always walk the line between being in-the-know (walkin’ around with Larry and all), but maintaining and reporting on the perspective of the average participant (even though we all know there’s no such thing as an “average” Burning Man participant). Pictures are worth a thousand words, but your words and your pictures together are worth thousands. Thanks!!

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  • I’m not waiting in line but I would much rather be there waiting in line there, then PDX Or Starbucks!!! So you guys are all in have a good time we’ll see you back at the hot springs !!!

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  • pdf e-tickets with a barcode on it, you can then keep a paper copy and a backup copy on your phone/laptop/tablet.

    I haven’t been to a concert/festival in Australia for the last 4 years where you have had a physical ticket. There’s an app for that people!

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  • On a much needed walk on the puddle strewn playa from the Man to Center Camp and back out to the Man in my standard low-rise well ventilated playa shoes, I found that adding a little pivoting swivel to each step spread and shed the mud off of my shoes.
    Curious stuff that mud, it was sticky as peanut butter yet somehow still as slick as KY at the same time.
    The short time it took for the puddles and the playa to dry out was amazing.
    The thunder was stupendous, far more powerful and different sounding than any I have ever experienced. I would guess the flat uncluttered terrain had something to do with it.

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