On the Road to Burning Man… Along with 70,000 Other People

Just a 30 foot robot boy walking his robot dog at Burning Man 2015. The boy holds a flower in his right hand that he raises up to his nose and 'smell.' The endless creativity at Burning Man has brought me back to event time and again over the years.

Just a 30 foot robot boy walking his robot dog at Burning Man 2015. The boy holds a flower in his right hand that he raises up to his nose and ‘smells.’ The endless creativity at Burning Man has brought me back to event time and again over the years.

I’ve been making the trek out to Black Rock City since 2004 and blogging about the experience for the past five years. Today marks the beginning of my series on the 2015 Burning Man event (along with more general stories). I’ve waited until now because January and February are the primary months when people will make their decisions about going in 2106 and begin to scramble for tickets.

Newbies, or Virgins as they are known on the Playa, are now scrambling around for every scrap of information they can find. Veteran Burners are thinking fondly of past years, or rambling on about the good old days— back when the Man was young and wild, back before he became an international icon and media darling, and back before Silicon Valley giants, Hollywood Stars, and other one-percenters started landing on the Black Rock Desert in their private planes.

If you’ve read my past blogs on Burning Man, you know that I am a big fan of the event, particularly of the art and creativity it generates. But I don’t make the decision to go lightly. Getting there can be expensive and cleaning up afterwards is always a chore. I can live with these challenges, however; they come with the territory. It’s obtaining a ticket that drives me wacko. BMO, the Burning Man Organization, has yet to figure out a way to make the experience painless or even fair. The challenge is that there are a lot more people who want to go than the 70,000 Bureau of Land Management limit.

I blogged last year about my Kafkaesque experience in trying to get tickets. I only ended up going because of the persistence of my friends Tom Lovering and Don Green. Tom found two tickets and a vehicle pass that weren’t outrageously priced (scalped) on Craig’s List the day before the event. Don made an hour trip from his home in Lafayette California to South San Francisco with a thousand dollars cash in his pocket to meet a guy he had never met at a Starbuck’s he had never been to— at midnight.

I had one day to get ready. Food for eight days had to be purchased, 40 gallons of water loaded, the van and bike prepped, baby wipes packed, and a load of gear ranging from goggles to costumes gathered up from numerous places around the house. Because Peggy had just returned from touring Cotswolds in England, she opted out of Burning Man. It was all about me. I scrambled.

Late-morning on Saturday found me waving goodbye to my best buddy. I was on the road to Burning Man! People come from all over the world to attend the event. Some travel thousands of miles. My trip is a mere 300, a short journey of around six hours. From Medford, I cut across the Cascade Mountains to Klamath Falls and then travelled southeast to Alturas in the remote northeast corner of California, cowboy country. I then crossed the Warner Mountains to the town of Cedarville, a small enclave that sits on the edge of the vast and lonely Nevada desert of the Great Basin. It is the final jumping off point for most Burners travelling to Burning Man from the Northwest US and western Canada.

Businesses along the route to Burning Man have learned that Burners are are a potential source of income. Pappy Gander's Restaurant in the small town of Merrill has a Burners welcome sign.

Businesses along the route to Burning Man have learned that Burners are a potential source of income. Pappy Gander’s Restaurant in the small town of Merrill, Oregon has a Burners Welcome sign.

I stopped for lunch and was amused to find this 'duck decoy' painting.

I stopped for lunch at Pappy’s and was amused to find this ‘duck decoy’ painting. BTW, that’s a mallard holding the shotgun.

I opted to spend the night at Cedarville, as I usually do. I prefer arriving at Burning Man during the day. Plus I like Cedarville. The folks in the small town welcome Burners with open arms. (We’re an important part of their local economy. A gas station owner once told me he obtains 50% of his annual income during Burning Man week.) An even better reason for staying was the Modoc County District Fair was underway, and I love county fairs. I parked Quivera (our van) next to the small town park where I planned to spend the night. I asked some folks coming out of a local church if the local sheriff would hassle me. “Hopefully he has better things to do with his time,” a man told me. “If he does bother you, just drive around the corner,” his wife added.

I quickly walked the two blocks to the fair entrance where I paid three bucks to get in. It would be hard to imagine a better use of my money. A three-person band was playing Pistol Packing Mama and other country-western classics in a free outdoor concert. I sat down on a wooden bench and listened. Pigs, goats and sheep greeted me at the animal barns. I wandered around looking at kids’ art, prized vegetables and other treasures that fill county fairs. I even said hi to Smokey the Bear before I returned to Quivera. I went to sleep to the sound of stock cars roaring around in the Annual Mud Race. It would prepare me for the nightly noise of Burning Man.

A horse came galloping across a pasture to greet me as I walked to the fair and gave me the eye. If I understand horse language correctly, it asked, "You wouldn't happen to have a carrot in your pocket, would you?"

A horse came galloping across a pasture to greet me as I walked to the fair and gave me the eye. If I understand horse language correctly, it asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have a carrot in your pocket, would you?”

I sat under this attractive cover as I listened to Pistol Packing Momma.

I sat under this attractive cover as I listened to Pistol Packing Momma. The barren looking mountain in the background is part of the Warner Range.

Goats have always been one of my top reasons for visiting county fairs. This fellow was very curious about my camera. Shortly afterwards he tries to nibble on my shirt.

Goats have always been one of my top reasons for visiting county fairs. This fellow was very curious about my camera. Shortly afterwards he tried to nibble on my shirt.

Modoc County Fair pigs

Pigs are also a major reason I visit fairs. I like to arrive when they are eating but missed this time. Still, their curly tails more than justified my visit. You might say they were hamming it up.

I often skip the sheep barn, but how could I resist taking a photo of them all dressed up?

I often skip the sheep barn, but how could I resist taking a photo of them all dressed up? They were ready for a fashion runway.

 Modoc County Fair art

You usually have to go to an Elementary School to find great art like this. I’m serious.

And how about these prize onions? A local farmer probably grew these in her backyard garden.

And how about these prize onions? A local farmer probably grew these in her backyard garden.

And finally a challenge. Less you have any doubt that this is horse and cowboy/cowgirl country, how many horses can you find in this collage?

And finally a challenge. Less you have any doubt that this is horse and cowboy/cowgirl country, how many horses can you find in this collage?

I was up early to make the 80-mile drive across the desert to Gerlach, which is just ten miles from the entrance to Burning Man. Tom had said he and Don should arrive around 8 from Reno. I think they made it by 11. I hung out and watched thousands of Burners pass through town. It took us a couple of hours to make it the last few miles. I was sort of reminded me of being stuck in a LA freeway traffic jam. Almost.

Once you leave Cedarville and a couple of other even much smaller towns, this is the kind of country you see on the way to Burning Man.

Once you leave Cedarville and a couple of other even much smaller towns, this is the kind of country you see on the way to Burning Man.

For 50 weeks out of the year, Gerlach is a quiet town with about as much action as you see in this photo.

For 50 weeks out of the year, Gerlach is a quiet town with about as much action as you see in this photo.

For one week out of the year, however, its streets are packed with Burners and thousands of vehicles pass through the town.

For one week out of the year, however, its streets are packed with Burners and thousands of vehicles of all types, sizes and shapes pass through the town. As the sign notes, Gerlach is the last chance to pick up any vital supplies, such as beer or water.

A large Bazaar (for Gerlach) is placed on the edge of town to supply almost anything a burner might need, including...

A large Bazaar (for Gerlach) is placed on the edge of town to supply almost anything a Burner might need, including…

Fine used bikes ideal for traveling across the dusty playa...

Fine used bikes ideal for traveling across the dusty playa…

And the latest in Playa wear.

And the latest in Playa wear.

So let's say you reduce the number of RVs and bikes, put down pavement, and eliminate the dust storm, couldn't this resemble a traffic jam on an LA freeway.

So let’s say you reduce the number of RVs and bikes, put down pavement, and eliminate the dust storm, couldn’t this resemble a traffic jam on a LA freeway?

And then the dust storm hits. You can barely see the car in front of you. Can you imagine what might happen on that same LA freeway?

And then the dust storm hits. You can barely see the car in front of you. Can you imagine what might happen on that same LA freeway? In an hour or so we might even make the last three miles into Black Rock City.

NEXT BLOG: We arrive in Burning Man and I introduce the 2015 theme: A Carnival of Mirrors. Welcome to the circus.

Rowing Hard and Going No Where… Rafting Through the Grand Canyon

Peggy captures Dave Stalheim and me before we hit the river. Note my clean and shaved look. It’s the last time you will see it.

With thoughts of facing wind gusts up to 60 MPH, we begin our journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.

Peggy and I perform the ritual of asking a boatman if we can ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16-foot raft with two or three passengers.

“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?” It is courteous but I would prefer to be assigned and have the assignment changed each day.

The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump, you jump.

Our boatmen are mellow people, however; good folks. There are no Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim. He makes his living as a city and county planner in Washington.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. Our ten-minute effort of obtaining a permit seems grossly unfair.

We push off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.

An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.

Up until 1929, this is how travelers made their way to Lees Ferry. It would have been a bumpy ride.

The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between 1858 and 1929. The infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, established the Ferry. Brigham Young assigned him the job. Later, Lee was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre where Mormons and Paiute Indians murdered a wagon train of immigrants near St. George, Utah.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge, which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. It towers some 467 feet above the river and reminds us that we are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

A view of Navajo Bridge and its newer sister looking downstream. The first bridge was built in 1929 and is now used as a walking bridge. The second bridge was built in 1995 to handle modern road traffic.

A second view of the bridges; this time looking upstream. The newer bridge is in the foreground.

Just beyond the bridge we catch our first glimpse of Coconino Sandstone. It’s geologic history dates back some 250 million years when a huge desert covered the area and the world’s landmasses were all part of the large continent named Pangaea.

During our journey down the river we will travel through over a billion years of the earth’s history.

The wind continues to beat against us as we make our way down the Colorado River. Only Dave’s strenuous effort at the oars keeps us from being blown up-stream. “Go that way,” I suggest and point down the river.

The group pulls in at a tiny beach in hopes our mini-hurricane will die down. It doesn’t. Dave develops blisters and I develop guilt. A manly man would offer to take over at the oars.

An option floats by. Dave’s niece, Megan Stalheim, is also one of our boatmen. Don Green, a retired Probate Judge out of Martinez, California, is sitting opposite her and pushing on the oars while she pulls. It inspires me. I join the push-pull brigade. Peggy also takes a turn.

The push-pull approach to rowing where Don Green was helping Megan. Peggy and I have been friends with Don for over two decades. He belongs to the same book club we do and joins us on our annual journey to Burning Man (as do Tom and Beth). Don is also quite generous in sharing his excellent photos.

Word passes back to us that Tom wants to scout Badger Rapids. In Boatman terminology this means figuring out the best way to get through without flipping. Badger isn’t a particularly big rapid for the Colorado, but it is our first. We are allowed to be nervous.

There is good news included in the message. We will stop for the night at Jackass Camp just below the rapids on the left. We’ve only gone 8 miles but are eager to escape the wind.

Dave is a cautious boatman. He takes his time to study Badger Rapids from shore and then stands up in his raft for a second opinion as the river sucks us in. Time runs out. Icy waves splash over the boat and soak us. Our hands grasp the safety lines with a death grip as we are tossed about like leaves in the wind. Mere seconds become an eternity. And then it is over.

“Quick, Curt, I need your help,” Dave shouts. We have come out of the rapids on the opposite side of the river from the camp. The powerful current is pushing us down stream. If we don’t get across we will be camping by ourselves. Adrenaline pumping, I jump up and push the oars with all my strength while Dave pulls. Ever so slowly the boat makes its way to camp.

Our horrendous day of rowing complete, we have time to enjoy beautiful evening views of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon from camp. (Photo by Don Green)

Painted Toe Nails and Other River Rules… Rafting the Grand Canyon

On a private trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon National Park, everyone pitches into help. Here we are rigging the rafts. Straps and more straps! (Photo by Don Green)

It is time to make the leap from life on the road to life on the river. Laptops, cell phones, good clothes and the other accoutrements of modern civilization are stuffed into bags and dumped into the van.

Plus I have to paint my toenails. It’s a virgin experience. Grand Canyon boatmen are a superstitious bunch. Many believe their boats will flip if a person is on board with naked toes. And it’s true; boats have flipped under such circumstances. It makes no difference if the opposite is also true.

We were required to paint our toenails so our rafts wouldn’t flip. We didn’t. Maybe it worked. I don’t think, however, that it made our feet prettier.

Tom lectures me. “I will not let you on my boat unless your toenails are painted.” He’s serious. Peggy dutifully applies blue polish on four of my toes. Does this mean we will only half flip?

Two acres of paved boat ramp greet us when we arrive at Lee’s Fairy. The transport van disgorges us as the gear truck makes a quick turn and backs down the ramp. Another private party is busy rigging boats.

From off to the right a longhaired, 50-something man emerges. I think 60’s hippie or possibly the model for a Harlequin Romance cover. The pirate flag on his boat suggests otherwise. A ‘roll your own’ cigarette dangles from his lips. It’s Steve Van Dore, the last member of our group and a boatman out of Colorado.  No one in our group has met him but he comes highly recommended.

“Please let this be the truck driver,” Steve later admits is his first thought when he meets our green and purple haired trip leader.

He also confides that Tom hadn’t told him we were a smoke-free group. “On the other hand,” Steve confesses, “I didn’t tell him I am on probation.” Somehow this balances out in Steve’s mind. There is no time to become acquainted; we have work to do.

The dreaded pirate Steve threatens our mascot Bone with a knife and demands to know where he has buried his treasure.

There is an unwritten Commandment on private river trips: Thou Shall Do Your Share. No one is paid to pamper us. Not helping will lead to bad things, like banishment from the tribe.

The truck we loaded in Flagstaff demands unloading. Everybody does everything. There are no assignments. Peggy and I become stevedores. Piles of beer and soda and wine and food and personal gear and ammo cans and hefty ice chests quickly accumulate around the truck.

There is no shade and the desert sun beats down ferociously. It is sucked up by the black asphalt and thrown back at us. We slather on sun block and gulp down water.

The rafts are unloaded last. Rigging our five rafts is technical but relatively easy, assuming of course one is mechanically oriented. I make no such claims. Steve’s Cat (catamaran) is already set up and in the water, its pirate flag flapping in the breeze. Our other four boats are self-bailing Sotar Rafts with aluminum frames. Tom owns his own, a blue 14 footer named Peanut. The three we have rented are yellow, 16 feet long and nameless.

Work also requires that we get our feet wet. (Photo by Don Green)

Tom is the last to rig his boat and it is approaching dusk. I hike down the river to find a campsite for our group while the rest boat down. Peggy and I are totally exhausted. We struggle to set up our new tent in 30 MPH winds. A van is coming to pick us up for dinner and we are late.

The walls of the restaurant are covered with photos of rafts and rafters being trashed by rapids.

The windstorm has changed to a dust storm as we crawl into out tents. It covers everything and gets into my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I pull out a handkerchief to cover my face. I finally fall asleep with the wind ripping at our tent.

We are awakened at five AM the next morning, as we will be every day of our trip. There is personal gear to pack, breakfast to eat, and boats to load. Any thoughts of a leisurely trip down the river are dashed in the cold reality of the early morning’s light.

We also have a lecture on the Grand Canyon’s numerous rules by Ranger Peggy. Somewhere in the middle of rigging boats the previous day she had stopped by to check our equipment. Life vests had been dutifully piled up; stoves and bar-b-que were unpacked. Even the groovers, which I will describe later, stood at attention. You don’t mess with Ranger Peggy.

She knew Tom from other river trips and was amused by his hair-do. He introduced me as the permit holder. “Tom’s in charge,” I noted. The smile dropped from her face. “You are responsible,” she said icily. “I’ll try to keep Tom under control,” I replied meekly. Yeah, fat chance that.

Bells, whistles and alarms started going off in my head. I will face heavy fines if any of our party misbehaves. Dang, why hadn’t I read the fine print?

Our second encounter with Ranger Peggy begins after the boats are packed. Tom starts off with a discussion on river safety. Naturally we are required to wear our safety vests any time we are on the boat.

Tom, with his interesting hairdo, and Ranger Peggy check their lists to see which of the many rules they have forgotten to inform us about.

What’s the first rule if we fall overboard: Hang onto the boat. What’s the second rule? “Hang onto the boat,” we chant in unison. And so it goes. Tom saw his wife, Beth, go flying by him last year as he bounced through a rapid. He caught up with her down river.

If the raft flips, what do you do? Hang onto the boat! “Easier said than done,” I think.

“Your head is the best tool you have in an emergency,” Ranger Peggy lectures. Right. When the river grabs you, sucks you under the water, and beats you against a rock, stay cool.

For all of the concern about safety on the river, the Park Service seems more concerned about our behavior on shore.

Over 20,000 people float down the river annually. And 20,000 people can do a lot of damage to the sensitive desert environment. Campsites are few and far between and major ones may have to accommodate several thousand people over the year.

Picture this… 20,000 people pooping and peeing in your back yard without bathroom facilities. It isn’t pretty. So we pack out the poop. And we pee in the river…

Packing out poop makes sense. But peeing in the river, no way! I’ve led wilderness trips for 36 years and for 36 years I’ve preached a thousand times you never, never pee in the water. Bathroom chores are carried out at least 100 yards away from water and preferably farther.

The first time I line up with the guys I can barely dribble out of dismay.

The rules go on and on. Mainly they have to do with leaving a pristine campsite and washing our hands. Normally, I am not a rules type of guy but most of what Ranger Peggy is preaching makes sense. Sixteen people with diarrhea is, um, shitty.

And I enjoy the fact our campsites are surprisingly clean. The least we can do is leave them in the same condition we find them, if not better. The rules work.

Finally… we are ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon lie ahead. Ranger Peggy has checked our IDs and we are who we claim to be. The boatmen have strapped down the gear… and Tom is anxious.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped sand into our tent last night are threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Headwinds of up to 60 MPH are predicted.

Next blog: Our first three days on the river.

The group, ready to launch. Wife Peggy, as opposed to Ranger Peggy, is holding her and my purple life vests.

On Becoming Outlaw… Burning Man Costumes

The best dressed member of the Horse Bone Camp is Ken Lake, AKA Scottie. 

I am a minimalist when it comes to costumes. In fact I am a shorts and T-shirt kind of guy. For Burning Man, I add a black hat and a neckerchief and consider myself dressed up. I become Outlaw.

Here I am in my Outlaw persona sans neckerchief. The Great Ape was part of a sculpture on evolution. Playa dust decorates my T-shirt and hat.

Everyone is allowed his or her little fantasies at Burning Man. In fact wearing a costume is highly encouraged. It is a key element in the principle of involvement and an expression of personal art. In theory, and to a degree in practice, people go to Black Rock City to participate, not observe.

Costumes have a liberating influence. They allow us to escape whoever we happen to be in everyday life and become, for a brief time, someone else. There’s a bit of the outlaw, or vamp, or siren, or shaman in all of us. One year at Burning Man, fairies and angels were in and it seemed like every other female Burner had spouted a pair of wings.

This is the most graceful pair of wings I have seen at Burning Man. Note the shadows.

Some guys like to get in touch with their feminine side. Or at least I think that’s what it is.  Dozens of men don dresses. If nothing else, their costumes come ready-made.

A manly man dons a dress.

In 2006 I was standing outside of Camp Center with my camera when the annual costume contest was going on. It’s where Burning Man’s best dressed strut their stuff. Somebody assumed I was ‘paparazzi’ and ushered me over to where participants were having their photos taken, a sort of Burning Man Red Carpet. I dutifully snapped away.

Many of the following photos are from that 2006 experience. Others are more random. I have also included photos by Don Green, a fellow Horse-Bone Camp member who is handy with cameras.

This is one of my favorite photos by Don Green. I can’t help but wonder if this is a costume, or whether it is who the woman truly is. For me, she defines exotic.

Another favorite of mine because the man absolutely bursts with personality.

This shaman represents how elaborate costumes can get at Burning Man. Think of the hours and imagination that went into producing it.

Another costume that caught Don Green’s eye. The pink tint to the glasses and the pink lip stick add a nice touch.

Henna Tattoos and body painting often become part of costumes. This woman was quite striking with her stripes.

I usually don’t post nude or partially nude photos out of respect for Burners and my readers. I couldn’t resist this cute pair of umm… kitties, however.

Purple Man.

 

Green man.

Yellow lady.

Age is no limit. This woman is in her 70s.

Frequently costumes are coordinated. This pair makes for an interesting fantasy.

I’ll conclude with this young woman because I like her hairdo and her smile.