Burning Man Notes: Arrival

For me, Burning Man started in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Reno, which happened to be a major supply depot for the thousands of Burners headed to the desert. There were cases of water everywhere, and the parking lot crowded with vehicles of every description jam packed with equipment, furniture, bikes, supplies and people. The Burners were easy to spot, for the most part. If the cases of water and booze piled in their shopping carts didn’t give them away, their dress, or something about the way they looked did. This was the first time I realized that Burners were somehow different.

From the Wal-Mart parking lot, the trip to Black Rock City rapidly turns into a bona fide pilgrimage. Going East on I-80, even a casual observer will notice the unusual concentration of RVs and vehicles with bikes strapped onto them. These vehicles then stream off on exit 43 onto Route 447, which becomes saturated with Burner-mobiles. As Gerlach, the nearest permanent town to Black Rock City approaches, this line of car comes to a halt. Ahead, an endless snake of red tail lights. To the rear, a winding trail of bright white headlights. Off in the distance, glittering dances of light indicated the location of the promised land. The congestion was such that people put their cars into park, shut off their engines, and walked around, chatting with neighbors. I had a nice conversation with the fellow behind me, a butcher from Oakland; my first of many conversations with a fellow Burner.

By the time I reached the gates, it was 4:30am. Being a first timer (a “virgin” as they call you), I dutifully performed my rite of passage by ringing a bell with all my might, and shouting “I am no longer a virgin”. Of course, I was alone, and I don’t think anybody really cared.

Once I entered the playa proper, excitement quickly turned into confusion, then disorientation and panic. It was still pitch dark, and with few camps set up, the streets were hard to discern from the camp sites. I’d seen maps, but I hadn’t anticipated the enormity of the “city.” In the darkness, I had no sense of scale. The concentric roads seemingly spiraled into chaos, the dust obscuring their edges, fueling my disorientation. I knew my friends were planning on camping at around 8:30 and D. They had been ahead of me on I-80, but without cellphone reception, I had no way of contacting them. I drove around, trying to spot the dark suburban they were in, but it was simply too dark to identify cars, much less any specific one. I eventually pulled into an area that seemed relatively empty and quiet, then dismounted.

With a water bottle, flashlight, and GPS in hand, I began a search for my friends. To make sure I could return to my car, my only base in this foreign place, I saved a marker on my GPS. It was dusk, and the world around me emerged, ever clearly, as the minutes ticked by. But the light only added to my disorientation. Sometime during the night, I had been transported into a vast flat empty dried lakebed, where something resembling the cross between a refugee camp, frat house, and art gallery was assembling. There was nothing about the place that felt familiar, especially after my weeks alone on the road. As I walked, I reflected upon my own introversion, realizing with dread that everything was strange and new and therefore threatening and frightening. I walked with my senses alert, every new encounter evoking a fight-or-flight reaction. I desperately wished for safety, to take refuge among familiar faces.

I walked for hours, starting with 8:30 & D and gradually spiraled outwards. The rigor of walking kept me sane, focusing my hightened senses on spotting and identifying tents and cars that looked familiar. I’d lent them my yellow Coleman tent, of which there were a couple of instances. None of them had the dark colored Suburban or any familiar bikes parked nearby, but I marked their location on my GPS and walked on, to confirm later.

It wasn’t until around 8am that I spotted my friends, only a few hundred yards away from where I’d parked. They had taken a wrong turn and had been delayed. I ran towards them, relief spreading through my body. I was safe.

I pulled Nikki aside and told her how afraid I was, and asked her to reconsider letting me camp with them. When I decided to go to Burning Man at the last minute, I’d volunteered to camp separately, and Nikki had urged me earlier in Reno to camp separately as well. But now, actually on the playa, I was as frightened as a 3 year old separated from his mother in an unfamiliar mall. I wanted to be near friendly faces, where I could feel safe. There was no way I could survive out here on my own. But Nikki wouldn’t budge. She didn’t want me around her camp; I could either camp alone, or go home. I stormed back to my car, frustrated that someone I considered a friend wouldn’t grant me a safe harbor at a time of distress. I retreated to the relative safety of my car.

I sat for a long time, considering my options. I could stay, and potentially be scared and miserable for a week, or I could go home. Except I have no home. I felt like I couldn’t leave, but I couldn’t start unpacking because I wasn’t sure how long I would want to stay. Why unpack if I might decide to leave in a few hours? Out of desperation, I headed back to my friends’ camp.

At their camp, I helped improvise a shade structure out of scavenged materiel originally intended to be a hammock structure. That was something I could do. I can build things. Helping Igor build that structure calmed me enough, that I was then able to head back to my car, and start pulling out lumber to build my own shade structure. It appeared that I would be staying, at least for a little while.

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