Every year the Caltech Y, a Caltech associated community involvement organization, runs a week-long hike in the Sierras for incoming students just before orientation and rotation. Normally at this time of the year, I am involved in International Student Orientation, but this year I decided to lead the hike instead!
About 25 people total were involved, split into three groups according to degree of ambition to achieve altitude sickness. I was assigned the 'beginner' level group, which was pleasantly cruisy, walking 3-5 miles (5-8km) per day. Normally arriving at camp by midday, we had plenty of time to explore, climb, look for bears, filter water, and shiver.
For a change I used a GoPro instead of my regular camera. It is much more wide-angle and more versatile, though nearly useless for night-time photography.
After a week all three groups met at Lodgepole campground and compared notes and blisters. Noone died! Success all around. I had only previously hiked on the eastern escarpment, so it was nice to explore the interior of the range.
What started in the mid 80s as a small group of friends gathering on a beach to burn stuff and party has now grown, in its ~28th year, to one of the most extraordinary and bizarre events in history. During the last week of August, approximately 80,000 people leave their drab, wretched lives and travel to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to build a city, do art, music, dance, and have a terrific time.
Having lived in the American south west for nearly 4 years, it was high time for me to go. Planning had been underway for more than a year, but at the last moment my designated transport, a tiny Cessna 152 plane, became unavailable. Plans awry, improvisation began.
S, O, and I met and crammed our stuff in S's Ford Taurus one exquisite Sunday afternoon in the recent past. By 6pm we had set out and laden with all the food, water, costumes, sparkles, and fairies we could possibly need, we sped up the 5, through Sacramento, Reno, and out into the deserts of Nevada. By 4am we had joined the queue of vehicles waiting to get in through the gate into Black Rock City. The place I had heard so much about yet never seen, never been, never lived, never experienced.
My curiousity turned to frustration and ambivalence as shortly after our arrival a series of unusual thunderstorms dumped 6 inches of water onto the playa, or dried up lake bed, on which we were parked. Instantly the surface turned to adhesive devil's cake and all vehicles were halted until the surface dried. When it became apparent that watching playa dry was like watching paint dry, and about as fast, the 15,000 or so of us stuck in line did what we do best - brought the party with us. By noon the surface was dry enough to walk on, and around us (the line was about 15 lanes wide and a few miles long) people cracked open their RVs, assembled bikes, changed into playa clothes (often not much of anything), fired up their barbecues, and even held spontaneous improvisational concerts on their roof of their RV, or got their DJ equipment out. A series of dark clouds spun overhead but the heavens held, and by 7pm we were on the move again.
At the wheel yet limited to 5mph, we met our greeter who provided a kit of information and most valuable advice: "Pee clear!". We dropped O at her camp; Basshenge, occasionally of the silent 'B', sporting a 100,000W sound system, then headed in to 5 o'clock and Esplanade. S's camp and my artistic nexus was Phage, a camp of mostly scientists and their sympathizers positioned in prime location on the front row. Black rock city is arranged as a series of concentric circles from A through L, and radial streets named after times on the clock from 2 through 10, with a gap between 10 and 2 for art and dancing.
Coming upon Phage, S unpacked her gear and I headed for the Tesla Coil. A project I'd been involved with since the beginning, my main (though minor overall) contributions were a less lethal capacitor bank and the external design of some of the structure. I was thrilled to see the structure standing (as opposed to in tiny pieces when last I saw it) and the coil in the middle. A ladder underneath supported the main builders, D and M. Oh no, the coil is here but doesn't work properly! My fears were unfounded. We dropped the ladder and fired up the midi controller. Soon gigantic bolts of lightning were sending 120dB shivers down my arms and spine. With some trepidation I approached the janky midi keyboard and proceeded to play what little piano music I could remember. The sound, light, and smell was overwhelming. Hordes of brightly lit burners milled around like moths to a candle flame - the sound was audible from the eponymous Man, a 105 foot wooden structure in the center of the city, not yet burning.
S and I drove out to the airport, where I was camping, and set up my camp. Despite the lack of a convenient wing I was able to raise my shade and hammock, driving rather disposable stakes into the living playa with a series of mallets of steadily increasing size and lethality.
I crawled into my trusty hammock and passed out.
The following morning I volunteered to be an oar-less galley slave and helped produce enough hash browns, veggies, sausage, and so on for a hundred people who were camping at the airport. When I had eaten enough to last until dinner I hiked into the city where, for the first time, I took a look under the light of day. Phage was located on a street corner with containers, several trucks, parked cars, shade tubes containing tents, a galley, dining area, steam yurt, generator with trenched 3-phase power, fresh water hose, grey water disposal, art installations, flags, a dome, and two art cars, Dr Malthus and Dr Brainlove.
Art cars, or mutant vehicles, are the only powered vehicles allowed in the city. Limited to a maximum speed of 5mph, they must disguise their vehicular origins and look like something else. The photo album has a few photos of various art cars, but in total there are over a thousand, ranging from tiny single person vehicles up to large articulated multi-story party complexes sporting millions of computer controlled LEDs and flame throwers. One art car, called Robot Heart, features a sound system with a mere 85,000 watts of undistorted subwoofer and traditionally the best DJs in the world, though the lineup is never announced. This is a video someone else made about Robot Heart.
Dr Malthus belongs to one of the sister camps of Phage, and is styled as a military half track with outdoor and indoor sitting areas as well as a roof lounge/DJ table. The indoor space features squashy leather arm chairs, a fireplace, and a mounted moose head. The driving area is surrounded by a cage to comply with liquor open-carry laws, and believe it or not, the vehicle is road legal.
Dr Brainlove is Phage's new art car. Started only 6 months ago, she is a converted school bus. A large geodesic brain is mounted on top of the bus, modeled on an MRI scan of one of the designers. Each geodesic node features a lighting node with dozens of computer controlled LEDs that, combined, fire like neurons, and are controlled by an EEG cap worn by a willing volunteer. As you may have gathered, Phagelings are somewhat geeky.
Brainlove was the very opposite of road legal, being GIGANTIC in size. It had to be assembled on playa, and at this point the lighting system was being put together. Composed of 3D printed parts, they needed to be aligned, the wiring checked, then ziptied into submission and position. Only 178 nodes were required for completion.
Slightly more complete than before, Brainlove was loaded with a kaleidoscope of people and taken for a drive out on the playa to rehearse safety procedures during the day. What do you do if, while driving, a horde of hippies jumps on the structure and begins climbing? I sat on the pre-frontal cortex and kept an eye out for people trying to get run over.
Back at camp preparations were underway for the Tuesday night party, requiring the running of optical fiber to run the coil under the esplanade. A trenching machine cut a hole, we threaded 100 feet of conduit, and laid fiber. Only took a few hours! After a quick break for dinner, I returned to phage in time for the party, then walked out to 10 o'clock. At night, the playa is completely dark save for art, cars, and people festooned with LEDs, EL wire, flame throwers, and lasers. One camp had a trio of very powerful lasers shining over the city onto a nearby mountain to display the time. At the far end of the city I was seriously tired and returned to phage and the airport. On the way back I fell asleep on my feet several times, waking up to find I was still walking but in the wrong direction, or with flaming art cars zooming by.
The following day I spent mostly walking around taking it easy, meeting new people, checking out the big art installations on the playa (most of them at least 3 stories high), and resting. That morning the Black Rock City ultramarathon is run, and a few of them were passing the camp. Here's a video from 2013:
I had brought a pair of welding goggles dark enough to look at the sun, and found that after about 10 minutes, your eyes adjust and you can see other things through them. Walking around where people are silhouettes against the sky and everything is a funny tinge of green did not seem out of place at all. In the afternoon I made my way back to the airport and gave the ACME Bomb Company cocktail hour talk on Cosmology, an hour or so long speech describing this history of the universe in reverse chronological order. A large and appreciative audience asked useful questions and were highly amused by my descriptions of metallic element nuclear synthesis, oxygen isotope variance, interplanetary meteorite exchange, the cosmic microwave, neutrino, and gravitational wave backgrounds, and so on. In the background, a couple of powered paragliders were looping and rolling close enough to the ground that they regularly touched it with a wing tip. After grabbing some dinner, I hitched a ride on a perilously dangerous ice bike back to Phage and gave a second talk, this time on black hole collisions. The kicker there is that at the moment of greatest gravitational wave emission the signal actually vanishes because the common black hole event horizon grows and swallows all its own screams.
We got the Tesla coil working and managed to attract some talented pianists, whose memorable performance still rings in my ears. I walked around the inner playa with S and discussed business, space launch, and a few other interesting ideas before stumbling back to the airport and passing out.
The following day I strategised and got a ride on the skydiving plane. Burning Sky Camp runs a skydiving plane all week and allows divers and riders to get a free trip up and around Black Rock City. That morning, a record had been set for the largest simultaneous nude jump (15), so all were in high spirits. At the zenith, 10,000 feet off the deck, the last of the divers leapt out and the pilot cut the power and put the plane into a steep, zero G dive. We were back on the ground in just over a minute.
In the heat I walked slowly around to 7 o'clock and K where I met some Caltech types, chilled in the shade, and had a chat. By this point I had realised that Burning Man is not really an alternate reality. The culture is not so different to the culture in any university or musical society, or at least parts of it. I had experienced substantially more culture shock in many foreign countries. Burning Man is overwhelmingly affluent white people from San Francisco. Cultural dislocation is not really the point.
Accidents do occur. Legend has it that very few people die at Black Rock City because most people live long enough to get on the medevac plane, after which they are declared dead in Reno. The previous night, someone fell from and was crushed by an art car, the first such death since 2003. From conversations with various rangers, there were many more near-misses, in which injured people came back to life in the nick of time.
Back at Phage, the talk was of a new art installation. A post-hole digging auger had become stuck out in the deep playa, so a decision was made to convert it to an artwork entitled 'The Lobster Trap'. A set of handcuffs was ziptied to it, a large sign saying 'do not touch', and a set of unrelated keys. A day later, someone rode out to check there weren't any skeletons attached and found the ziptie broken and the handcuffs gone - incredibly, someone had locked themselves to it! Later, the identity of the trapped individual was discovered - we had caught a fellow Phageling - who had had to get the handcuffs taken off by the police.
M and I spent a pleasant hour climbing all over the Phage dome attempting to install a new lighting system, then back at the airport a cocktail hour talk on deep brain electrical stimulation, followed by an excelsior dinner of chicken, salad, and curry. That evening I helped do the dishes, but made it back to phage in time for the tail end of a talk on the IBMI, a group dedicated to the improvement of Burning Man by turning it into a two day networking event for 300 people. The coil was once again on fire until an unidentified fault (strategic power cable disconnection by grumpy person) gave me the evening off and I went to explore center camp, which had a sweet Jazz bar and an even better Tango dome with funky LED triangles and nice music.
The following day, my fourth on the playa, was windy and dusty. Around noon, K and I went on an extensive bike adventure. At this point I realised not bringing a bike to BM was a serious oversight. On the playa, visibility was down to 10 feet, so we rode aimlessly, discovering art, lost people, and burned stuff at random. We made our way to 9 o'clock, picked up some mail, and spent a while finding its recipients and delivering it. On the way, of course, meeting lots of interesting people. At 3 o'clock, we visited another post office, called the BRC3PO (Black Rock City 3 o'clock Post Office), with a Star Wars Theme, obtained 3 more letters, and delivered them after a detour to the deep playa wherein we found yet more cool widely separated art and nice people.
Back at Phage around 6pm, it was time for 'Ask a Drunk Scientist', in which hordes of unfulfilled PhDs swarmed the Esplanade armed with megaphones, labcoats, signs, and attitude, haranguing passers by to ask us anything. "Is a PhD worth it?" "How much debt do we have?" "Can science help you find love?" "Why are sunsets red?" and so on. A great opportunity to apply knowledge and patiently explain stuff in an understandable way!
That evening, M gave a talk on the Tesla coil, answering the three most commonly asked questions: "How does it make sparks?" "How does it make music?" "Why doesn't it kill hippies?". After that we were infested with people who couldn't play very well, which is a problem when everyone within half a mile has to shout over the noise of yet another terrible rendition of Fuer Elise...
By this point the Institute LED sculpture was up and running - a pair of LED encrusted spheres with a bewildering display of patterns, together with some pretty good dance music. I alternated grooving with cerebral chats on the Moveable Feast, gave a few massages, and then passed out.
It is Saturday! The day of The Burn! All week we have been working for The Man, and soon he must be burned. With Burning Man closing only 3 days later, it is time to strike! First the Phage Dome was unbolted, parted, and packed. Then a gigantic crane lifted the coil, we detached the legs, then the rest of the structure, power electronics, and so on. Rugs were rolled, bikes corralled - I managed to salvage an abandoned Huffy Cranbrook (new and already falling apart) that became my ride for the next few days. Shade tubes were collapsed. Piles of stuff 10 feet high formed around various trucks, trailers, and containers. Hexayurts were disassembled.
Come 5pm K and I rode to the airport for the cocktail party beneath the Star Port, enjoyed a terrific band, climbed the observation tower, watched the planes, made an incredible salad, and then ate absurd quantities of paella, pork, beans, bacon, and salad. Several of my airport friends worried that I still had not been awarded a playa name. Some people said it can take a decade to get one. One pilot told a story about a ride he had gifted to a couple in which the man proposed, and then the woman revealed she was pregnant! Much excitement!
We rode back to Phage, parked, then walked out into the playa. The Man was surrounded by a Colosseum of art cars all pumping music into a crowd of 70,000 people mostly seated between them and an inner fire containment circle. A few thousand fire twirlers performed, followed by fireworks and gigantic fireballs as the Man was lit. The facade burned away quickly, the inner structure of very large lumps of timber took longer. Tornadoes of smoke, flame, and embers rose downwind of the sculpture and at times we were showered with glowing cinders. After about 90 minutes the ankles burned through and the structure leaned, collapsed, and fell. Back at phage D had finished packing the Moveable Feast so we said goodbye. At the airport, I was still buzzed so I rode around the perimeter fence, a distance of about 11km, seeing all sorts of odd things in the dark. Already, a line of vehicles had started to leave the event. Back at camp, I had my daily wet-wipe bath, was re-covered in dust from the shade structure, and prepared for bed.
Before coming to Burning Man, I had been warned that my habit of wearing sandals everywhere would be my undoing, due to a mysterious and scary condition known as playa foot. Allegedly, playa dust is super alkaline and, like laundry powder, will burn your exposed skin, leading to dryness, cracks, infections, and probable amputation. Now, I was relatively certain that small amounts of dust in foot wrinkles would have their pH neutralised by sweat and then form a protective layer, but ever the servant of science I decided to clean my left foot thoroughly (thus destroying any protective layer while also removing the offending material) and leaving my right foot as the control. I also brought a supply of vinegar in case of emergency pH adjustment. After 5 days of steeping in playa, neither foot showed more than a mild sunburn, which annoyed my inner scientist no end. My left foot had a couple of scrapes from being trodden on, but that was it.
Sunday. The man, which had previously towered over the whole event, was gone. Packing up continued. I rode out to the deep playa and found the art I'd previously missed, including the zollotrope and the last outpost. The zollotrope is a gigantic suspended wheel with sculptures attached. At night, it spins in time with a strobe and the objects appear to be moving. The last outpost was a very interesting, dark artwork. An interactive building set in the near future during a time of societal breakdown due to aliens or zombies or whatever, it conveyed a sense of paranoia and black humour. Detailed journals and various signs were quite immersive, and made a nice contrast to the usual love/harmony-centered artistic zeitgeist.
Back at Phage, Brainlove was being dismantled. I clambered all over the structure for hours pulling zipties, nodes, wires, optical fibers, thread protectors, and throwing them all into labelled bags. Finally, the bare structure was ready for disassembly. Two teams of two climbed to the peak and began impact drilling the nodes apart. To ensure safety we had safety gloves, safety helmets (optional) and safety whiskey (compulsory). Obviously you had to check what you were standing on, since large parts of the structure became fluid once certain bolts were removed. After only a few hours most of the structure was disassembled, and by the following day, packed. In one casualty, a freed strut swung around and smacked my foot - a small amount of blood was readily clotted by some playa dust I found in my pocket and work proceeded. Needless to say I strongly advocated major design changes for any future brain.
Drank a lot of water, then grabbed a rake with L and proceeded to moop. Moop, or Matter Out Of Place, is bad news on the playa. The camp has to be thoroughly mooped, or de-mooped, before going home. Any foreign object must be picked up and packed out. After an hour or so, L and I had demooped the area formerly under the Tesla coil and the Phage dome, collecting more than a liter of hair, feathers, sequins, metal shards, bolts, sawdust, wood chips, contaminated dirt, thread, fiber, string, paper, plastic, and so on.
Back at the airport I disassembled my own shade. Getting said disposable stakes out of the ground required vice grips and long bits of metal for levers. Dinner was pasta, salad, meatballs, and mushrooms, followed by a ride back to the playa for the temple burn.
The temple is a structure designed and built each year along the same axis as the Man, roughly at 12 o'clock. Within it people write or leave tributes to deceased friends or relatives. When I visited earlier during the week, there were numerous tributes to Robin Williams, as well as thousands of others of the dearly departed. The day after the Man is burned, the temple is burned. The structure is incredibly beautiful and ornate, but ultimately serves to celebrate the finite nature of life. In contrast to the previous night, tonight the circle of art cars was silent, the people sat silently and watched. The structure was lit on the down-wind side and the flames quickly spread. With its high surface area, the temple was soon a skeleton which fell with a half-twist. People approached the flames and watched as its last parts turned to hot gas and rose into the sky. Here's a video of the burn, the collapse happens just after 9 minutes:
Back at Phage everything was packed, so P and I sat on 3-phase power adapters and discussed Burning Man romance in terms of semi-conductor theory before returning to the airport and sleeping.
Monday I struck my own camp, then returned to Phage for the last time and mooped for hours, finding all sorts of good stuff. We did our best to return the surface to its original state, including crushing and filling trenches, tire tracks, and so on. K was my ride home, and after finding R, we loaded my stuff, said goodbye at the airport, and left at about 1pm. Traffic was slow out of BRC as far as Gerlach, then picked up. We fueled at Carson City, and drove south on the 395. The sun set as we pulled into the Mobil at Lee Vining, where I conspired to eat a reasonable yet light dinner and marveled at the bathroom with running water. K, R, and I were in no hurry to get home, so we took a detour to Mono Lake and explored the tufa towers by moonlight, then continued on to Mammoth.
After a few false starts, we found a Mammoth hot spring around midnight and soaked under the stars and meteors for nearly 2 hours. At last, a place to get clean! The following morning I found the one place I had neglected to scrub - the back of my hands - still carried a patina of playa dust. I climbed into my carefully packed clean clothes and K drove us south through the Owen's valley until just before dawn, we explored the Fossil Falls by flashlight. I drove some more, passing through Red Rock Canyon at dawn, with Venus and Jupiter clearly visible in the east. R came to life near Mojave, so we ducked into a Denny's, I ate a decent meal, and then R drove us the rest of the way to Pasadena, arriving around 10am.
I had heard of, read about, and imagined Burning Man for years. It surpassed all my positive expectations and failed to meet my negative ones. The climate, culture, and conditions were less extreme and much more friendly than I had anticipated. The diversity of artistic expression exceeded my expectations by about a factor of 20. That is, if you try and imagine all the things you think are possible at Burning Man, you will be lucky to get to 5% of what is there. I can and will recommend at least one visit to anyone who thinks they might like to go. I don't think it's the universal panacea or the only place I can ever be myself, but I am privileged to live an existence which ordinarily suits me quite well!
Here are two slightly NSFW videos which capture at least a fraction of what Burning Man is about.