Peter Lyons

Burning Man 2011: Rites of Passage

September 07, 2011

So Burning Man this year was characterized by tough days and fun nights. Before I write my compulsory chronological narrative, let me start with a few overall observations. It was tough this year. It was my third time there, but I felt less well prepared this time than last time. Maybe over the course of my 2-year hiatus I forgot how incredibly unsuited I am to long days of exposure to fierce desert sun. There were times over the first few days when I thought I wasn't going to make it. This did eventually improve, though. I ended up having some great experiences, including my best musical performance to date.

OK, so here's the story from the top. On Wednesday August 24th I went to Darrell's house in Boulder to help load up his 1976 Chevy Tasca motor home. It turned out that he was not just taking our gear, but the entire infrastructure for his camp, Shangrila, as well. This included lots of PVC, steel pipes, tarps, a giant hoop to hold a shower curtain, a wagon, a bunch of 7-gallon water jugs, 3 bikes, coolers, etc. So Darrell, John, and I spent a few hours packing stuff into the motor home. Even when folded down, the 4'x4' panels of my hexayurt don't fit in my car, so I had to have a friend with a pickup truck give me a ride to load those. Late Thursday morning we did some final packing and then hit the road. Darrell took a back-road-heavy route past Fort Collins and Loveland and I took over driving when we hit I-80 in Wyoming.

We stopped at the heavily-billboarded Little America stop for some grub and those famous 50 cent cones. It was getting dark and Darrell discovered the running lights on the motor home were not working. We fiddled with bulbs and fuses and got most of them working and then motored on. I was enjoying snacking on peanut butter filled pretzels and gummy bears after a few weeks of slow carb dieting to get slim and trim for the burn.

We stopped for the night at a roadside rest area along Great Salt Lake after lumbering over the mountain passes in Park City, UT. As I dozed in and out of sleep, I was suddenly shocked to attention by a loud ring of the doorbell. I guess someone from one of the other parked cars was at the door. "Darrell, someone just rang the doorbell", I said up to Darrell who was sleeping in the bed above the cab. "There is no doorbell", he replied in a Matrix-like koan. "Oh, I must be hallucinating", I drearily said and went back to sleep. In the morning we figured out that Darrell's email notification bell on his phone is what I heard and we had a laugh about the funny dazed conversation. In the morning we took some photos on the salt flats before getting back on the road.

Great Salt Lake

Thursday morning we ate breakfast at a roadside McDonalds in Wendover, UT, which has delicious sweet tea (although it's best to mix mostly unsweetened with a little of the saturated sweet tea for a more reasonable sugar content). I was trying to get final offers from two potential new jobs and trying to coordinate what I could over my cell phone, but in the end it had to be postponed until September. We motored on until Battle Mountain, Nevada, where we ran out of oil. We went to a Napa store to investigate and spent a while troubleshooting and trying to find what was leaking oil and fix it. Darrell put new oil in the engine and a leak fixer product and we carried on hoping that and/or the spare oil Darrell bought would get us there. I should note that that Napa store had the biggest, most ass-kicking swamp cooler I've ever seen.

Swamp Cooler

On the ride, Darrell had been keeping busy when not driving by making necklaces to give as playa gifts. In the tussle of dealing with the oil leak, a big group of necklaces had become hopelessly tangled. He tried to undo it, but it just ended up being a storm of sailor-quality profanity as Darrell became pretty upset.

We arrived at Fernley, Nevada that evening and did our final stocking up at Wal-Mart. We grabbed showers at the Love's truck stop and had our last restaurant meal of steak at a Casino restaurant. We parked at the truck stop and spent the night. Friday morning before dawn we headed north toward Burning Man. We watched a pretty sunrise over the Black Rock Desert as we approached the event. We met the greeters and found our way to the location of Darrell's camp. We found the guy in charge of placement pretty easily, which I thought would be an exercise in futility. We unloaded all of his camp's gear and then drove me across the event to the Automatic Subconscious site, where my campmates were already 2 days into their setup.

I helped get the second AutoSub quonset hut up and then assembled my hexayurt with some help from David Levy. I worked on tightening about one bazillion bolts on the steel frame of Doug's "Go Fly A Bike" art/mayhem project. Then I helped start the setup of the kitchen. My camp, Automatic Subconscious, is a Boston camp with maximal infrastructure. There's a giant 74 kilowatt diesel generator that powers all of the Boston hive, and AutoSub has 2 large shade huts, a full kitchen, running water, a freezer, a shower, an evaporation pond, and tons of food in coolers.

Hexayurt with swamp cooler

Go Fly a Bike

Friday night was a delicious meal of steak and salmon for the early setup crew. We went out to visit the temple and the pier on a nice warm night. It was still possible to find some moments of silence as the festival doesn't open officially until Sunday at 6pm.


Saturday it was cloudy all morning with some sprinkles of rain. This meant less sun and lower temperatures, which was great for me. We set up the evap pond, which is called "Lake Woodward" and pronounced "Lake Woodwood" by the Bostonites. I helped build the shower and then re-arranged the coolers in the kitchen. I tried to get my swamp cooler going in the afternoon (I later heard that it hit 112 degrees Saturday afternoon once the clouds blew over). However, it hit my first major snag in that my 12v battery seemed to have leaked some sulfuric acid during the trip (maybe altitude issues???). It was a frigging mess. It burned holes in some of my clothes and gear. Luckily it was well-contained in my tarp and I had enough excess tarp to wrap it up and fold it out of the way. The second major annoyance was the fact that the rubber boots I had bought at Goodwill didn't fit properly and were giving me bad abrasions on my ankles and calves and threatening to blister my feet. This was bad news as the only other footwear I had was flip-flops. I also didn't have proper knee-high boot socks. I don't really have any experience wearing boots. So this was a problem that I would battle over the next few days. One of our campers made a run to Gerlach that day and I asked him to pick up some boot socks for me, but that run took all day and he returned with a single pair. By the end of the day my feet were aching both from the poor-fitting boots as well as just general hurting from so much standing, walking, and lifting. Saturday evening I washed my pants, which were already filthy and stained, in some meltwater. They also had some acid on them I was trying to mitigate, but it had already burned a few small holes here and there.

Sadly my swampcooler proved to be no match for the desert Sun. It helped a little, but it was a far cry from the "20 degrees" cooler I had read on the internet. I think the main issue is the water pump I had was too weak and couldn't keep the swamp pads moist. It was very hot Saturday and I was mostly trying to lay low and rest from 3pm to 7pm or so. I cruised down to center camp but it wasn't open yet.

Sunday morning I unloaded gear from the shipping containers AutoSub sends from Boston to the playa. I ended up trimming the tops off of my boots, which solved the abrasion problem, but by this time I already had a few open wounds that would just sit there and not heal until I got off the playa. We carried Phil's aerial rig out to the playa across the Esplanade from AutoSub. I strung a bunch of Christmas lights up in the AutoSub dinning hall with Ayer from Camp Cwality. Let it be known that I hate Christmas lights and rope lights should always be used in their stead. In the afternoon we started the top layers of the AutoSub dome build. We had rice, beans, and salad for dinner and heard some welcome speeches as early crew officially ended.

The Boston shipping containers

Sunday night I rode out to deep playa and explored around a bit. There was a bike obstacle course near AutoSub that I tried a few times. It had some fun teeter totters and some balance challenges. Now that the gates were officially open, it was very quickly getting crowded. I looked at the stars a bit and found a rock climbing camp (which I could never locate again later in the week).

Monday morning was very cold. I cleared some crap out of the kitchen for Tish. I ate some cereal with banana (availability of fresh fruit is a great perk of camping with a well-outfitted group), and helped Tish cook some bacon for the camp. I rode around BRC a bit but couldn't find the climbing camp again. Back at AutoSub, I helped some more with the dome build out. Right at noon I went to Black Rock Boutique, when they just opened for the first time. They have a big wardrobe of playa clothes you can have, and I desperately needed alternate footwear. I located a pair of black canvas 2-toed ninja boots that fit much better than my rubber boots. They weren't perfect and the left big toe separator was too long and hurt a bit, but it was much better than the other ones, so I was happy. I also ran into Doug who I camped with at Freedom Community in 2009. Then back to AutoSub to help put the canvas cover on the dome, which was now fully up.

AutoSub dome setup

I rested a bit and then had our dinner of franks and beans. I rode around looking for a funk jam session at Bandlands but couldn't find it. This is what happens about 75% of the time when you set out looking for some specific thing at Burning Man. I rode out to the deep playa and played some sax by one of the sculptures. I played some jazz ballads and some classical noodling. People would stop by and listen for a while. One woman in particular stayed a very long time listening to the lyrical classical noodling. Most of the day Wednesday I wasn't feeling well, which is really not what you want when you're in the desert dealing with sweltering-hot port-a-potties that are 3 blocks away.

Tuesday morning I rode out to the "Another Door" installation on the playa near the 6:00 road between The Man and Center Camp. The piece is a maze of doors that are interconnected with flywheels so opening one door closes another one. It was pretty ideal for music since it provided shade, shelter from the wind, and a bench that worked reasonably well as a music stand. I played some of my Bach cello suites and another more modern piece. Then I went back to AutoSub to watch Phil and Liz do an aerial workshop. Next I rode to Center Camp and got a wind surfing lesson on a little training rig on wheels. I've taken a few lessons on the water so I had the basic gist, but it was a good reminder. I rode out to the 9:00 plaza and mailed off some postcards. The workers at the post office windows are notoriously sassy, and I had to use my trick of puffing my belly out way far to get my postcards mailed. Then I went over to Wisky and Dust (a Denver based camp) to practice some juggling, which was fun. Tuesday was pretty windy and dusty, and my bike started to malfunction a bit, but I was eventually able to repair it. Of course, AutoSub has a bike repair stand and any tool you could possibly need.

Tuesday night I danced in the AutoSub dome where Encanti was deejaying. I rode out to the Go Fly A Bike installation. This is a gigantic rig that spins a long post. One end of the post dangles a bicycle, and the other has water barrels that serve as ballast (in theory). The rider pedals the bike around a circular path and then eventually gets lifted up off the ground to 15 feet into the air. The design involves complex pumps and switches, but they ran into a bunch of technical difficulties with that and ended up just having someone hang off the other end to lift the rider up.

Wednesday morning I returned to "Another Door" for more classical sax. After that, our camp was visited by "Cool Whip" (or something like that) from a neighboring camp. She is a mechanical engineer who had transported a giant 20 foot long 30 inch diameter drainage pipe to the playa to use as a slide. However, due to some communication issues, she was unable to install it on the artwork she had intended and thus found herself with a spare, useless, giant pipe at the beginning of Burning Man. So she proposed we hook it up to the AutoSub dome and use it as an egress slide. The AutoSub dome has a great feature of an external ladder on the wall that leads to a level of netting one level down from the top where people can hang out. It's really comfy and provides great views of the Esplanade. However, the ladder only accommodates one person at a time in a single direction, so having a slide to go down would be nice. We set to work under Noah's guidance and made short work of hooking the pipe up to the dome. 20 minutes later, and the 300-pound beast was installed. However, it was crazy steep. Like, not much better than jumping steep. So we spent several hours building various platforms to raise the end of the pipe and thus reduce the angle. Once we had done that, we shot some test victims down it and realized the landing pad of futon mattresses was getting moved with each rider. So then we spent several hours working on improving the landing pad. By evening, we eventually opened it up to the public. However, within the first 90 minutes, someone hurt her ankle on the landing and we had to call in the BRC rangers to get her some medical attention. Thus was the end of the egress slide, which we had to dismantle.

Danger Slide

Wednesday afternoon I attempted to visit some friends on the playa. I managed to locate Pat McConaghy's camp and find his RV, but he wasn't there. I found Camp Beaverton but no familiar faces, and I couldn't find Freedom Community at all. I checked out Center Camp briefly. Dinner was Mac and Cheese and I was on cleanup duty. In the evening I hung out a bit in the dome and went out searching for live music. Instead, I found Camp Dodgeball Addiction, where there were running pickup dodgeball games. I played a while and had an absolute blast. It was really fun. Easily my favorite camp this year.

Camp Dodgeball Addiction

I rode out to deep playa and located a sculpture suitable for some saxophone playing. The sculpture is called Symphonic Portal and consists of a large cylindrical base upon which are mounted two piano harps. The strings are here and wind chimes made from whippet containers and hung in front of them (This is why I originally thought this piece was called Nit Whips). Here I busted out the sax and improvised a bunch of funk/jazz/lyrical stuff. I think this was my single best performance to date. The Muse was there and speaking through me for sure. I played exhaustively for what felt like hours but was probably 45-60 minutes or so. Folks cruised by on their bikes and hung out for a while to listen. I was playing very intensely at times but trying to create variety with time signatures, key signatures, tempo, dynamics, extended techniques, etc. This experience was probably the turning point for me where the burn went from mostly bad and crossed into a worthwhile journey. When I finished playing I went back to Camp Dodgeball Addiction but they were closed for the night. So I headed back to AutoSub and enjoyed a bacon, cheese, and avocado sandwich with Phil. Riding around earlier in the evening, I heard remixes of Imogen Heap, The Bird and The Bee, Royksopp, and Chromeo. Who says there's no good music at Burning Man?

Symphonic Portal

Thursday morning I had ice check duty and spent a while waiting in line for ice at the 3:00 plaza. Then I went to the ARTery to check in with Darrell, who had offered to shoot some photos of me. I was on the verge of canceling saying that I just couldn't take any more afternoon Sun, but I decided to just reapply sunblock and push through. We set up a time to meet again later that afternoon. In the mean time I returned to AutoSub and tried to find a few folks to join me to go play some sax for the folks in the ice line. There were some lengthy "getting ready" delays and then some communication failures, so 2 of my 3 helpers ended up heading for center camp instead of the 3:00 plaza by mistake. So I had just 1 lovely assistant and I made the best of it. I played some funk and talked up the crowd a bit. Some folks were into it, but overall they were hot and cranky and just wanted their ice and were not amused. After that I went back to the ARTery and rode out to the playa with Darrell to shoot some photos. We got some good shots, and returned to Symphonic Portal to capture some more shots there.

Playing at the ice line

Thursday evening my logistical challenges began. I had some serious constraints to deal with. I wanted to be at the Burning Man entry gate at 8am to meet a ride from Craigslist. I had several hours of gear deconstruction and transportation to do before that, which meant I had to tear down my shelter and pack my gear Thursday evening. So I packed up most of my gear and slowly dragged it on a wagon all the way across the event (from 3:30/Esplanade to 7:45/Divorce). It's probably close to a mile and it took about 90 minutes to do. For the second trip, I tore down and folded up my hexayurt, swamp cooler, guy lines, tarp, etc, and loaded the wagon. Liz helped me find a suitable way to tie the wagon to my bike so I could ride along pulling the wagon behind me. That made the second run much much faster and I was able to complete it before sundown, which was good. But it was a big effort at the end of a long day. Dinner was curry beef and then I headed out to watch the burning of the regional effigies. Meh. Burning stuff is just not that interesting to me. So I went and played more dodgeball! After tons of dodgeball I went to the temple. There was a fantastic sound piece installed that I hadn't heard before. Tons of folks were lying on the floor relaxing and meditating while this piece played dozens of gongs and chimes that were mounted on the walls. Each gong was triggered by a wire and would light a red light when sounded. All the gongs must have been driven by a central computer somewhere (I assume). It was a really cool piece and I took a video of one section of it.

So now I had to spend the night Thursday at camp with no shelter. I was planning to just crash on one of the couches in the AutoSub living room, but it turned out to be very cold and windy Thursday night. Most other nights I would have been fine but it probably got below 40 degrees. I was using a moving blanket from the container (used to wrap furniture when in a moving truck) for warmth and tried to nod off. I made it until about 3:30 when I woke up shivering violently and extremely cold. I went to the port-a-potties to pee and I was shaking so widely that I thought I might not be able to hit the urinal. It was bad news. Luckily, Liz had smartly suggested I go into the shipping containers if it got too cold, so I grabbed some cushions from the dome and a few other very dusty moving blankets and set up inside a shipping container. I had to wear my dust mask over my whole face all night since the blankets were so dusty, but once I was out of the wind and wrapped up, I warmed up and was OK the rest of the night.

Squid Fire Art Car

Liz woke me at 6:10 so we could head to the temple for the wedding of PeteZ and Dreamy Jenn from AutoSub. It was still before sunrise and a nice morning, but still very cold. There was a very cool balloon project sailing in the sky. Lots of hippies were lying around waiting for sunrise, and there were applause when the sun crested the mountains. Doug from AutoSub officiated the wedding ceremony, which was very nice. I had to immediately embark on my epic journey to make it to St. Louis for my cousin's wedding. So I biked over to 7:45/Divorce and left my bike next to Darrell's motor home. From there I had one duffel bag with clothes and my sax strapped across my shoulders and I started the long walk toward the highway. I made it a bit past the greeter station (probably a mile or more) and then was able to hitch a ride to the highway with a European guy in a pickup truck. Out by the entrance to Burning Man I stood in the shade of the Burning Man sign and waited for the ride I had arranged via Craigslist to show up at 8am. Before 8, I was approached by both BRC and BLM rangers and interviewed to see whether I was trying to get into the event. 8am came and went and I was unable to rendezvous with my ride. Of course my Virgin Mobile cell phone had no signal, and my hands were so fundamentally destroyed by a week on the playa that the touch screen didn't respond to them initially.

Balloon Chain

So here I am at the entrance to Burning Man with a duffle bag, my sax, my desert sun hat, a few granola bars, and no water. I had a plan B to call a friend in Reno but of course that would require working cell phone. Somehow these days I have developed a zen-like attitude toward these events and I just patiently waited and waved my thumb at the occasional car leaving the event. After about 20 minutes or so I managed to flag down a pickup truck heading out. The driver thought I was waving at him to remind him to remove a BRC ranger flag he was flying mounted on his rear view mirror. We had a strange "what are you talking about" moment, but then he realized I was actually hitchhiking and offered to take me to Fernley, which was great. It's about a 2 hour drive, but I knew once I got to Fernley, I was back "on the grid" along I-80 with working cell phone. My ride was a father/daughter pair of BRC rangers that needed to get a prescription in Fernley. I chatted with them a little bit but it wasn't long before I passed out in my seat. In Fernley they dropped me off at the Love's truck stop, which is great because they have showers there. So I ate some lunch, had a long thorough shower, and then started parading around with my cardboard sign reading "Reno" to try to make my 1:30pm flight. It was about 11am by this time and Reno is 33 miles east of Fernley. I found a ride with a guy in a Jeep who was taking his son to Reno for his driver's license test. It was an open jeep and a great temperature for it, so I enjoyed the ride. The father kind of looked like Paul Tuttle from American Chopper, with a big white mustache that connected with a partial goatee. They were very nice and seemed in fine spirits. They took me all the way to the airport itself and dropped me off at departing flights at 12:30. Perfect timing for me to make my flight.

Exodus ride shadow

So looking back on the whole experience, I think if I go again, it won't be until 2013. I'd also like to ship my gear out there, maybe store it somewhere near the event, and then travel by airplane instead of driving. I forgot how harsh and demanding the environment is. Overall it did end up being a worthwhile adventure, but it had both highs and lows.

Click on any photo in this post to see the full photo gallery, or click here to see the full photo gallery . There is also one other video of a fire installation here.