Denver, Burning Man, San Francisco

I wrote most of this a week ago but have only just had time to finish it…

After a 1,000 mile train journey to Denver Sam and I had 24 hours in the city. Enough time to shop for more camping equipment, wander up and down the pedestrian-friendly 16th Street (regrettably re-branded as “16th Street Mall”), hunt out used CDs and books, and see a movie (“And most accurate potrayal of a geek goes to Jamie Harrold in The Score”).

The final 36 hour leg of our cross-country trip was the longest, but thankfully the most child-free. Finding seats as far as possible from inevitably annoying children is the first priority on boarding a train, but, restricted to a designated carriage there’s a limit to what you can do. We were thankful for our car’s lack of kids every time the doors behind us opened to let free a brief snatch of an eternally screaming, crying and wailing spawn of Satan.

Denver to California involves trundling through the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, providing the most amazing scenery of the journey, although I must admit the novelty wears off after a while and I found the more frequent occurrences of human life back east to be more absorbing. While the last six hours or so became frustrating, it all became worth it as a handful of us sat in the viewing car watching the sun drop behind the hills of San Francisco Bay’s eastern-most reaches.

We’d planned on spending two nights camped in Lara’s Oakland apartment, then mid-way through re-decoration. But the day after arriving on the west coast we bumped into Simon, a friend of a friend, at SFO in the long and stationery Alamo rent-a-car queue. He’d just got in from London, having decided to go to Burning Man at the last minute and was planning on doing the bulk of the journey that night, stopping in Reno. This suddenly seemed like a perfect idea, rather than hanging around waiting another day to set off. So, after collecting our belongings we headed back east to Reno, through which we’d travelled by train only the day before.

After a night in a cheap motel and yet another egg-heavy breakfast we visited Safeway and the evil Wal-Mart to stock up for the week ahead. Much faffing later we set off weighed down with food, water, equipment and, as per Stef’s urgent 5.30am telephoned instruction, mixers for cocktails. The rest of the crew (Stef, Kay, Danny, Anno, Manar and Yoz) had, it turned out, set off from San Francisco around the same time as us but were manfully doing without sleep and so were around 10 hours ahead of us.

The only other time I’ve been to Burning Man was in 1997 and while a few moments are still vivid I began to realise that much of it had faded away. After Reno and Sparks the country becomes increasingly empty until you pass through the final town, Gerlach, a dozen miles from the event. As you approach you can see Black Rock City through clouds of dust as a long thin strip of darker objects against the pale dust of the playa. As we stopped to pick up tickets at the entrance and were then shepherded through the gates by enthusiastic greeters it did feel like we were entering another world.

We drove slowly through the dusty city towards our camp, part of the delightful Illumination Village. Dust was especially bad this year, something to do with weather conditions earlier in the year, and we’d be spending the next six days with the wind continually blowing the salty grey stuff around us, airbrushing the horizon away and covering every surface. Our tired friends were setting up camp as we joyfully greeted them — it felt like such an achievement to successfully rendezvous in the middle of nowhere — and we helped out with erecting the second of our two parachute domes, like some cyberpunk barn-raising ceremony.

Much of the next few days becomes one mostly pleasant blur. James and Tom arrived a day or two later to complete our numbers and days settled into a vague routine. We woke up one-by-one as the heat in our tents outweighed the need for sleep (around 8am) and much of the daylight hours were spent sitting in our “living room” away from the sun, chatting, smoking, drinking water and eating fried breakfasts. We were lucky enough to be camped at the front of the village, next to the Esplanade, the main drag, so we could happily sit, sweating into our folding Wal-Mart chairs, and watch the strange passers-by and the sculptures beyond them on the playa fading into and out of the dustclouds. This location also encouraged random friends and strangers to drop in for some shade, water, beer or company, which was lovely, not that I’m one for striking up conversations with strangers unfortunately (and the event would have been even more fun if I were). We did of course venture out into the heat and dust to look around the city, or buy more ice, but we couldn’t have hoped for a better location to call home.

Every day, the village’s chef, Scott, would prepare a gorgeous evening meal, helped out by various villagers, which marked the start of the evening. Other villagers had constructed a shower, which was invaluable in washing off a day or two’s accumulated dust and sweat — an amazing luxury. For a couple of hours, as the sun fell behind the mountains, the temperature dropped from around 100F to something far more comfortable. Then, as darkness arrived it dropped further, but never too cold as to be unpleasant, as it apparently had the previous year. We’d often set off in the evening, attempting to move as a group, but by the time we’d got the faffing out of the way (it could easily take more than an hour of hovering on the edge of the camp before we were all ready to leave) it was never long before people began splitting off to do their own thing.

There is too much to see in the city and while it’s all incredible much of it blurs into a similar level of incredibleness. I was still constantly amazed by everything I saw, the size of the place, and the atmosphere (which I can’t hope to capture), but only a few things really stood out.

The mausoleum was easily the most impressive object. It was a large chapel, several stories high, constructed out of the particle board that’s left over after making dinosaur skeleton kits. Imagine large rectangles of wood with the shapes of bones jigsawed out. It looks incredibly elaborate and impressive and this would be enough to warrant awe. But the building is dedicated to all those that have lost someone dear to them and as you walk into it you can see that every surface is covered with hand-written messages to and about people that have died. More people are finding spaces to scrawl their tributes and writing on small pieces of board that are then pushed through the bone-holes into the hollow walls. While it was always full of people it was mostly silent, save for the occasional sound of someone weeping as they read one personal and painful message after another. It really was a quite overwhelming place.

At the other end of the spectrum, or on a different spectrum altogether, was Spectator Camp. You couldn’t come up with something any simpler or any more fun. A set of bleachers set facing onto a floodlit portion of the Esplanade. Burning Man has this whole “you must be a participant, not a spectator” thing going, but there was nothing as fun as climbing onto the tiered benches and encouraging innocent passers by to perform. (Yeah, yeah, then you’re not really a spectator, but a participant. Whatever, it’s just fun!). We were there three nights in a row, heckling until our throats hurt. Every bicycle would be encouraged to do a “Bike Trick!”, every couple encouraged to kiss or dance, random strangers asked to sing or tell a joke, groups persuaded to conga, and almost everyone else subjected to the fall-back cry of “Show us your tits!” or something far more offensive. Anyone who failed to perform, or who showed us their arse, or who attempted to mime, was subjected to a volley of loud and imaginative abuse. How much fun can shouting be?

Other points of interest were the Space Lounge (a fun and friendly dance spot in one of the furthest corners of the city), the plastic chapel (a huge cube made of recycled plastic shaped into pictures and illuminated from within), the huge maze, Emerald City’s incredible green laser projecting onto distant mountains, and the Aztec-themed crazy golf worth mentioning merely for its name: Golf of Mexico. Of course, there was plenty of entertainment in our own camp. Radio Yoz provided endless amusement — Yoz comandeered a loudhailer and assailed the inhabitants of Illumination Village with occasionally helpful tirades delivered in an impeccably polite English accent. Dry ice was put to a variety of uses by Tom and James. Our main “artwork” was a flying saucer, to be carried aloft by a giant helium-filled weather balloon. In the end the LEDs wouldn’t work and our saucer, with a single flashing strobe, was carried all too suddenly into the distance when the balloon’s tether snapped.

Obviously, burning stuff is what the event’s all about, although to be honest I could manage without it. Saturday night was the burning of The Man accompanied by impressive fireworks, although I’m not sure it’s worth the over-long period of sitting on the ground while being patronised by Rangers who would be better off looking after boy scouts (“Can you guys help me out here? I need the first six rows to sit down! Can you do me that favour? Great, thanks guys!”). The most amazing thing about the burning was that those six rows stayed sitting down through the entire event, right up until The Man collapsed and thousands of people rushed forward to see who could come closest to being burnt. Such polite and well-controlled behaviour for such an anarchic and rebellious city! The mausoleum was burned the following night and while we escaped any patronising Rangers we still had to wait several ages for the burn, hunched in the back of a pick-up as dust and wind did its best to erode several layers of skin. But what a fire.

People began to leave on Sunday, and as we wandered around that evening many empty spots were visible, Space Lounge was over, the Thunderdome merely hosted a punk band rather than battling warriors bouncing on bungee cords, and the number of passers-by at Spectator Camp had dwindled alarmingly. The following day we packed up, a process that took around eight hours in some of the worst dust of the week. It was a long day, collapsing the domes, packing our tents and gear, deciding what items lying around our disgustingly unorganised camp to keep or throw. Mid-afternoon we stopped for a meal of left-overs at our neigbours’ A-frame shelter, and olives, cheese, crisps, crackers, shortbread and Capri-sun have never tasted so good. There were now large sections of the city that had once been crammed with tents and shelters and were now simply desert once again. By 5.30pm we’d packed our belongings and trash, said our goodbyes and started up our vehicles that had become covered in the ever-present dust over the past week. We drove out of the shrinking city listening to one of its radio stations fade into static. I only then realised how attached I was to the place and how much I’d miss it for the next 51 weeks.

We stopped in Reno on the way to San Francisco, staying overnight at the Peppermill hotel and casino. You couldn’t pick a bigger contrast with Black Rock City. Imagine Mad Max’s Mel Gibson shaking hands with Robert de Niro in Casino. Not that any of us are Mel Gibson but we were certainly grubbier, and, we now realised, in this air-freshened world of clean carpets, neon lights and wall-to-wall mirrors, probably smellier. As we waited in line at registration, three strangers came up to greet Sam and I. They’d been at Burning Man, had just showered and changed, and recognised our Pigpen-style cloud of dust. Suddenly I realised we were leaving our friendly little world. I wouldn’t have looked twice at these people on the street, but while they recognised our covering of dust, there was still a link between us. Once we were washed and fresh, we’d be just like them; normal people.

I’m not big on casinos and that whole tacky thing, whether ironic or not, but a real bed and a meal in a restaurant with friends couldn’t have been more welcome. We later discovered we’d had a well-timed escape from Black Rock City. Not long after we left the wind picked up and for 18 hours the remaining inhabitants suffered a white-out (where you can see little but dust), something we’d escaped all the time we were there. The next day Sam, Danny, Anno and I drove off to San Francisco, stopping in Reno to have the car cleaned. That was it, our dust-caked car, the last visible symbol that we’d been there, was gone, and now we’d look just like everyone else.

The last time I was in San Francisco (when I had more time to catch up with local friends) I wrote that I’d forgotten how beautiful the place was. I knew I’d written that but even so, I’d still forgotten again. I don’t think there was one of us that wouldn’t move to the city right now given the chance. We all stayed in Pouneh’s cavernous apartment in the Mission, and in between washing clothes free of dust, and finding homes for all the equipment we need to hang on to for next year, we managed to venture out for sightseeing and a couple of visits to Scott’s bar, The Uptown, where we met up with Nicole and Z, and Sam beat the locals at pool.