On Getting Lost in Black Rock City… My 11 Years of Burning Man

A view of Black Rock City looking across the Center Camp Cafe at the distant mountains. The 70,000 plus people who arrive here for Burning Man each year make the city the third largest city in Nevada for its one week of existence.

Black Rock City is laid out using a semi-circular grid system. The main roads are numbered and are oriented toward the Man, which is at the center of Burning Man. The circular roads are in alphabetical order with names based on the theme of the year. Say the theme was Wildlife, A street might be Aardvark, B street Baboon, etc.

A view of how Black Rock City (BRC) is laid out. The X in the center is the Man. The small circle above it is where the Burning Man Temple is located. The large circle below the Man is Center Camp and the smaller circle within it is the Center Camp Cafe. The Esplanade, where most of the larger camps are located, provides the boundary between BRC and the Playa. The length of the scale below is 5,000 feet, close to a mile. We normally camp between 5th and 7th Avenues, 7-9 blocks out from Center Camp.

The well laid out street system makes it easy to get around— in the beginning— during the day. The story changes at night when lack of light, stolen signs, liberal doses of free alcohol and mass chaos seems to rule, especially later in the week when the full 70,000 plus people are present. Then, it’s easy to get lost. Throw in a zero visibility dust storm and it is almost impossible not to. Common sense and Burning Man tell you to stay put.

I was lost for an hour once during such a storm. We had gone out to watch a burn, which was scheduled at dusk in the far reaches of the Playa near the apex of the map shown above. As the fire burned down, a huge dust storm hit, leaving Peggy, our friend Beth, and me— along with a few thousand other Burners and mutant vehicles to find our way home. It bordered on scary, made more so by large mutant vehicles appearing out of nowhere. When the storm cleared enough to get our bearings, we found we had walked in a huge circle out on the Playa. We returned to camp caked in dust and exhausted. Now, I carry a compass.

Street signs set up by Burning Man help people find their way around. This is at the corner of 6th and D. 6th runs into Center Camp and then out to the Man and the Temple.
A dust devil attacks bicyclists on the Esplanade. Dust storms can range from a location specific hassle like this…
… to event wide brown-outs. Our neighbors across the road, about 100 feet away, disappeared as a massive dust storm roared in accompanied by high winds.

You don’t need a dust storm to get lost, however. Here’s a story I related earlier this week in one of my comments: A young man drove up from San Francisco to Burning Man. He was a first timer, a virgin Burner eager to get out and explore. He parked his car, quickly set up camp, and headed off to play. When he returned to his camp later that night, he discovered that someone had stolen his car, his tent, his food and all of his gear. He reported his situation to the Burning Man staff and they found the unfortunate fellow a ride back to SF. End of story.

But not quite. A few days after the event, he received a call from BMO. His car, his tent, his food, and all of his gear had been found— right where he had left them. That was how lost he had been. If this seems a bit far-fetched, consider the following photos.

The week before Burning Man, this was vacant desert. A week after it will be vacant desert again. But during the event, it becomes wall to wall people. It is easy to see how someone might become confused about where they live. Think about leaving your car in a large parking lot filled with several thousand vehicles and not paying close attention to where you left it.
Another view of the people clogged Black Rock City.

After the above story and photos, it might seem that it would be impossible to get away from the crowds. Actually it’s easy, assuming you are willing to head out into the Playa. Even the area surrounding the Man is relatively unoccupied unless a major event is taking place. Very few make it to the outer boundaries. Showing up early in the week or leaving late also reduces the crowds that peak on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Black Rock City as seen from the Man. Main avenues run out to the Man from 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock. As you can see, the number of people drop quickly, even in the more heavily trafficked part of the Playa.
From far out on the Playa, Black Rock City with its crowds appears even more insignificant. Peggy, Beth and I were out here when we got caught in the dust storm.
Here we are setting up the Horse Bone Camp with Quivera, our van, and Walter, Tom Lovering’s Trailer. We came early to assure we would have space in a desirable location. Within three days, this area was totally packed with tents and vehicles.
Hanging out until Monday also assures that the majority of Burners will be gone. (Photo by Don Green.)
I’ll conclude with this shot of the sun setting over Black Rock City on a dusty day.

NEXT POST: I’ll take you for a walk through Black Rock City.

24 thoughts on “On Getting Lost in Black Rock City… My 11 Years of Burning Man

    • 🙂 It certainly amused me, AC, although I would have hated to have been the guy when he decided that everything had been stolen. Can’t help but wonder how he felt when BMO called him. Embarrassed or relieved. At least he had a good story. –Curt

  1. Although I can see the appeal after reading your many posts about it over time, it is much more fun to see it through your eyes. I would love to see the people, the machines and structures. I would hate the crowds, the dust and the heat.

    • Interesting about the crowds, dust and heat, Ray. It almost becomes a badge of survival to people who have never experienced similar conditions, especially the dust and heat. I’ve heard long time veterans at the event whine when there are seven days of good weather. Not me. I tolerate the heat and the dust more or less stoically, but am quite happy to do without, just like I tolerated 105 degree F days this past summer when I was backpacking. They go with the territory, so to speak, and become part of the story. Crowds are another issue. I can hardly explain myself to me. I am a semi-hermit in ways, more than happy to disappear into the wilderness and not see another soul for a week. It isn’t at all unusual for me to be found on the outer reaches of Burning Man with the few other folks that venture out there. And yet I love fairs. I always have. I a quite happy to sit in Center Camp at Burning Man and watch the humanity flow around me. Go figure… 🙂 –Curt

  2. Curt, you do inroduce, for me, fascinating subjects. I would never have known about this Burning man if it wasn’t for you. It is an amazing spectacle and I would
    never walk there alone. I would be totally lost as I don’t like corridors of similar
    closed in spaces.
    I would be like the newcomer camper, poor guy. Only I would expect me not to find
    My tent and ask for help. Do you think spreading a lot of breadcrumbs after me would help.

    Thank you again for this brilliant post.


    • First, thanks Miriam. Burning Man is a truly unique event.
      The street system really does help in avoiding getting lost, as long as the street signs remain up. 🙂 Beyond that, memorizing where you live is critical. I also use landmarks a lot, just like I do when hiking and backpacking through wilderness areas. That works well unless dust hides the landmarks. My wife Peggy, who likes to describe herself as GPS challenged, finds her way around during the day with minimal problems. –Curt

    • Very much so, G. That fact impressed me almost as much as the art did when I first attended the event. In cleaning up afterwards, Burning Man develops a map of where they find Moop (trash). Camps that have more than a small amount are put on notice and warned to ‘clean up their act’ so to speak or be banned from the event.
      I am sure it happens, but I have never seen a cigarette butt on the Playa or in Black Rock City. –Curt

  3. As I’ve said before, despite knowing how much you enjoy and appreciate this event, it’s clearly not for me. I could deal with the dust, but other aspects of the gathering just don’t appeal. It is a sight to behold, though — no question about that.

    • Laughing. I am sure I would make a better hippie than you, Linda. But seriously, what has impressed me about Burning Man since the very beginning, is the amount of creativity it inspires. My perspective has been reinforced by spending a day at the Generator in Reno, a huge warehouse dedicated to developing art for Burning Man, and watching a dozen or so artists working in a variety of mediums, as does the amount of art developed for Burning Man that is now making its way into public venues and museums. –Curt

    • It is ever so easy to get lost, Alison. I’m forever checking street signs, although it can be fun to just go out and wander until you need to be somewhere. 🙂 BMO has actually been called in as a consultant on how to set up temporary communities, such as in a refuge camp. –Curt

  4. I’ve enjoyed looking at all your Burning Man photos and reading all about it. You’ve told a story that makes me feel like I’ve been there (without the discomfort of the heat and sand…though I can experience the heat and sand any day here in AZ…)

    My little tent trailer went to Burning Man one year – without me. We loaned it to a young couple who really wanted to go, but didn’t have camping gear of any kind. They loved the experience.

  5. Curt, that’s a phenomenal number of people and no wonder campers get lost! Poor newbie to the event … but good to know he was looked after so well! I love th photo of the mini dust storm – looks like it is dancing across the desert!

  6. Amazing how 70 000 people plus can find the patience and tolerance to be packed so close together and just love it. It just proves how art overcomes all, and perhaps part of the inconvenience of dust and heat is transformed in the joy.
    I remember walking through terrible slums of the former Bombay ( Mumbai) in India many decades ago and be completely gobsmacked how joyful they seemed to be. Smiles everywhere and not a serious face anywhere. The density of people living in close proximity might well be the reason for their joy de vivre.

    Compare this with the modern cities in the west with the 5 bedroom 3 bathrooms, double garage way of life.
    All those MacMansions holding isolated privatised lives, fenced off and utterly devoid of spirit.

    • Major landmarks such as art (with some reaching 30-40 feet into the air) stay put, Dave. And the Man always serves as a way to find your way around. Throw in a good dust storm or the confusion of night and all bets are off. Seeing all of the through hikers on the PCT using GPS has changed my mind about its potential for use other than the highway in staying found. –Curt

  7. Seventy thousand?! That place is massive! I think this is the first post of yours that I’ve seen that really gives me a sense of how much it actually is a city. No wonder they need so much law enforcement. Good for you, crossing the fence and giving them some practice! 🙂

    • I think Burning Man was more concerned about people sneaking in than sneaking out. 🙂 But I suspect it is also a BLM policy to contain the event. And no one wanted to go looking for some drunk Burner who had wandered off during the night! I also appreciated the fence during massive dust storms where you couldn’t see more than 10-20 feet. –Curt

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