The 2013 Burning Man Report

I left this post for quite some time, but after a New Year's Blog-Off Challenge on Facebook, I thought I'd wrap it up and post it. It's about how back in August 2013, Jenn and I headed to Burning Man.

We left on August 23 and got to Chicago on the 24th. We met with a friend of Jenn's and did a bit of a tour of Chicago before getting back on and—in a roomette sleeper—finished the journey to Reno. We met some nice people along the way, particularly at meals when we were seated with two strangers.

The train ran pretty much on-time and we arrived in Reno around 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Monday the 26th. There were quite a few other people heading to Burning Man on the train and most of them headed off quickly. We chatted with a couple stragglers and one of the guys had a friend in Reno who was going to pick him up. We asked if we could hitch a ride with him if he had space. He arrived with a gigantic van and transported Forrest, Jenn, and myself to the Save-Mart where we hung out for some time.

We bought provisions and met other people going to Burning Man—many from the U.S., but a small group from Italy. We dawdled around a bit and had pretty okay pizza from Pizza Baron before getting a cab ride to the airport—somewhat ironically to the airport "exit" and baggage claim area where the Burner Express bus was to pick us up. The process was relatively smooth and quick: we checked in, got tags for our wrists and for our bags, waited a bit, put our bags on a trailer, and boarded a bus.

The air conditioning wasn't working so well and I felt a bit frustrated at the slow rate we made it to Gerlach. A couple times the traffic stopped completely and we got out of the bus. When we arrived at Gerlach, things were a bit less organized. The gist was that everyone on the bus was to exit, then Burning Man staff would check that we had proof of tickets (and they could confirm will-call and provide a hard ticket right there) before boarding the bus to Black Rock City. One person said we'd have time to buy a bit of water, but as we walked over, someone called out to get on the bus. We got on then had to get off again because it was not our bus. Eventually things got straightened out and we got on the same bus we arrived by (our bus was one of a few that had the ability to close the air-conditioning intake vents on the bottom of the bus; otherwise we'd be on a school bus.)

The great feature of the Burner Express bus was revealed when we turned away from the gate line into a special lane, passing several miles of cars 10 lanes wide. Random (the greeter) checked our tickets and we were on our way into the city. We arrived just before sunset and, oddly enough, the very same bus was our shuttle. We got our stuff loaded back onto it and headed down GDP street toward the 10:00 crossroad. The driver was willing to stop at each 0:15 street, so we got off at 7:45, walked 30 yards and arrived at our camp: Mama Kabuke's Big Tent at It Still Stings Camp at 7:45 and Holy.

It was great to see my friends from last year—Mama Kabuke, Jordi, Devon, Uncle Brett, and T who primarily set up the camp along with a bunch of fellow campers from last year. Jenn (now Vadra) and I (now Zhust) got the tent set up quick before it got too dark and started unpacking. We didn't stay up too late—we hadn't acclimated much from Eastern time, so by 10 p.m. we were experiencing 1 a.m. tiredness and went to bed.

We got up and had some breakfast and got settled in with the camp. This year two of our fellow campers were getting married on Thursday, and they brought a fair number of people for that but only one of them really liked being at Burning Man. We also had an inordinate number of freeloaders making for a stressful time trying to keep up with their consumption and messiness. We also had a genuine "sparkle pony"—a girl who brought only her physical beauty, nary lifting a finger to perform any tasks and frequently leaving half-eaten food and drink.

Vadra and I got out over the week to see the art and visit some random camps. For the most part, I felt like it was a year of "duties and obligations": I was tasked with setting up the lights on Connie the Baby Blue Whale (the camp's art car) we had as well as to install and test the blowhole device I made for her. I felt pretty spent by Thursday and really wanted to take a day off by then but couldn't and had a rough day.

Vadra was selected to participate in Spencer Tunick's photograph at dawn, so we got up around 4:15 a.m. and biked out into the cold early morning. We arrived at the staging area by the temple but all the slots had been filled. She was quite disappointed, having missed a previous opportunity in Buffalo a few years back.

But we made the best of it and got a chance to visit The Man. They were only letting 50 or so people into the UFO base at a time so there was a line, but it moved quickly. There were zoetrope inside that were beautifully designed but the animations were rather bland black-and-white line-art. Dawn was upon us, so we left and watched the sunrise through the hazy smoke from the forest fires in California.

Vadra surprised me for my birthday: she secretly made Instax pictures of a bunch of people in camp holding a whiteboard to spell out "Happy Birthday". It was very sweet of her and I was quite moved by it, especially after spending days feeling under-appreciated.

After the wedding, many members of the wedding party left, relieving some of the burden (although there were still a lot of freeloaders.)

It was an interesting experiment, really. We brought a camp that provided abundant resources. But in trying to embrace the principles of Burning Man, "radical inclusion" led us to attract consumers of our abundance. It gets to be an interesting puzzle, really: if you offer abundance, you'll attract people who will consume, but if you hoard, you'll expend much more energy doing so than if you simply shared.

I have been wrestling with capitalism versus communism for quite some time. Communism fails by people offering less than "their ability" and claiming more than "their needs". The way we are seeing capitalism fail is in failing to find a balance in moderation: either you are earning too little and constantly toiling, or you are earning too much and have no means to share your wealth. On the train, we met a woman named Amber who said she saw something about bacteria being freeloaders: in some colonies, they need to produce a particular protein to float, but some bacteria figure out they don't need to expend the energy; eventually the whole colony collapses.

But I recently read a blog post by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey that talks about commerce and community. I think it helps define when commerce (née capitalism) is most effective and when community (née communism) is most effective. In the article, Harvey quotes an article written by Zay Thompson, the Burning Man regional contact in Kansas. Thompson brilliantly lays out an analogy in the form of his large extended family getting together to compete in a soccer game:

If my Dad stumbles and falls, I don't run over him in my rush to score on his team. My love for him and the value of human life causes me to suspend the game, help him up, and check to see if he's alright. Likewise, I don't continue to view my family as mere competition after the game is over.

In the case of our camp, it seems the balance between commerce and community was skewed. It felt like the desire to achieve enrichment by helping out was somehow suppressed. When a task needed doing, I felt an urge to not help because I felt that was the spirit of our community. It wasn't until these months later that I can even begin to articulate that, but I do recall that experience: when something needed doing, it was defiant to stand up and act rather than it being common and beneficial.

On Sunday we had a most unusual bit of excitement. Chris returned with a report of a DPW official stating that a huge thunderstorm cell was headed for Black Rock City and would arrive shortly before noon on Monday and the city would be shut down to all traffic. The report also recommended that anyone able to leave should do so before Monday. (By the way, the DPW is the "Department of Public Works", a not-governmentally-affiliated group who maintain the Burning Man infrastructure.)

I suspected it was an incorrect report—ordinarily this happens from "telephone game" failures, but this was unique in that it was reported nearly intact to the radio station. And again, Burning Man is susceptible to urban legends, but I thought immune to mass-media misinformation until now.

Many of our campmates were concerned. A couple new friends from Canada had an early flight on Tuesday and opted to leave on Sunday afternoon. Vadra was very concerned but I had instinctive confidence in the inaccuracy of the report. To calm her fears, we walked to the Emergency Services tent that were a mere 30 yards down the road. They had heard nothing of such a storm but cautiously refused to deny the report outright. Rivka pulled out her iPad and checked the weather on their private wireless Internet: partly cloudy with a chance of 0.01 inches of precipitation for Monday. Vadra was not entirely reassured but I persevered, gambling I was correct.

I know that humans are susceptible to visceral dangers more than statistically likely dangers. Even I was not brimming with confidence save for my tenacious rational side.

We stayed—and continued embellishing the tales. By Monday morning, we were expecting the caldera that formed nearby to erupt by noon, and that a raging storm would pin people down and lightning-rape everyone. I advised others that it was likely an attempt by DPW to hurry exodus, and I encouraged other camps to hurry along the freeloaders in their own camps.

Monday came and a front was indeed approaching, cooling the air and changing the wind direction slightly. I held fast, though, and we left by the Burner Express bus at 11:45 with no issues. During the morning, two drops of rain hit me, and none even left evidence on the parched lakebed. It took us 90 minutes or so to get to Gerlach and no rain arrived. I saw nothing on the weather radar once we got Internet back at the hotel room. (The Burner Express bus, by the way, dropped us off at the airport around 3 p.m. and we got to the hotel before dinner.)

Later, I contacted Jordi and Mama about the storm but none materialized. I started a thread on ePlaya that sparked some interesting theories: indeed, nearby areas received some downpours that, had such a downpour arrived at Burning Man, it would have shut down the event for 24 hours or so—and with no proper sanitation either. I suspect the nearby mountains cause vast changes in weather over just a few miles, and I believe that is what "protects" the Black Rock Desert. (For another example of localized weather, see "lake-effect snow".) But I could have been mistaken and we may have been stuck for 24 hours or longer. Who knows.

We stayed overnight in Reno then got on the Amtrak and headed back to Chicago to visit Jenn's friend there for a couple days. It was nice to visit the city more in-depth. We returned to the Amtrak for our overnight trip back to Rochester, arriving pretty much on-time on September 8.

The Big Burning Man Trip

So the tale starts on August 22. Like last year, I left on a Wednesday although this time I was determined: I kept telling people I was going to "win Burning Man" as if it was some kind of contest. The Amtrak left pretty much on-time late at night. I talked with a nice woman on her way to Chicago.

With the train arriving on-time, I had plenty of time for my Chicago ritual: a visit to Lou Mitchell's Restaurant and Bakery for an excellent breakfast, then a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. I only had an hour, but it's not much longer than that I get a little burned-out. I liked the contemporary fabric arts exhibit, "Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund". I got back to the station and we left without incident.

On the leg from Chicago to Reno (and the return) I used up my Amtrak mileage points on a roomette which is definitely the way to go. I can handle a day or two sleeping in coach (if I come from being well-rested) but having a place to lay down horizontal is fantastic. Add in the complimentary coffee, meals in the dining car, and a shower in each rail car, and it's awesome.

I met my first fellow Burners and spent a lot of time in the sightseeing car chatting with them and others. I felt like I had one vacation in Chicago, and was on to my second on the train. By the time we got past Denver, more Burners got on. I almost got interviewed by a guy named Duccio but time got the best of us and we were in Reno before I had the chance. I was probably the only person hoping for a delay: I also wanted to get in closer to check-in time at the hotel, but the train ran promptly.

I had to dawdle for a few hours before starting my third vacation in Reno. I saw lots of people heading to Burning Man but only chatted with a few. I spent more time than I thought it would take cutting out the "Blue Highway" font stencil I made for my Lonely Lamppost project. I also decided to try and mitigate uncertainty (see last year) so I signed up to take the "ToFlame" bus. I had to pay extra since my stuff amounted to three huge 50-pound bags (which is included as checked bags on Amtrak) along with two more smaller bags I packed full of water jugs. I was able to tote all my stuff on a luggage cart I made; I figure it totaled about 300 pounds.

The ToFlame bus was scheduled to pick up people at the Reno airport then stop by the SaveMart which was only a few blocks from the hotel. It's a block off I-80 and a major last-stop for the deluge of Burners from California. So I hauled my 300 pound pack over there and hung out with some people making their final purchases, and a bunch of people hitching rides. After I was there I probably could have managed a ride, but I felt better with the bus — especially when the bus finally arrived (actually two of them) about 3:30 p.m.

From there it was a matter of getting 60 people from both buses to buy their provisions and all get back on. It was like herding cats and we didn't leave SaveMart until probably 4:45 or so. Mind you, the "scheduled arrival" was something like 5 p.m. at Burning Man. Ha ha. Traffic on the narrow Rt. 447 north of Fernley, Nevada was heavy and we even stopped completely for 20 minutes or so.

We got a chance to watch about half of The Beast Pageant on the bus, much to the amusement of the rowdy passengers. There was even another Rochesterian: and, of course, I knew her (albeit through her parents). Once we got to Burning Man we had to head to the Will-Call ticket area as half of each bus needed to pick up tickets. We finally made it through the gate and were all dropped off at Esplanade and 6:30 (the address, not the time). The bus ride was like a third vacation; Burning Man itself the fourth.

I dragged my stuff out to 7:00 and found some nice people on Foxglove to camp next to. I set up camp and helped them with their shade before heading out to explore. I looked for a girl from the bus on the other side of the city with no luck, but I found some fire spinners and met a guy who had a neon-orange boat decked out as an art car. We chatted for a bit and he took me for a ride. After that I realized I was hungry, having not eaten for hours, but I couldn't resist checking out the Pier which included a crashed pirate ship with a crooked deck and galley. It was an incredible piece and they had projectors that created the illusion of ocean waves on the Playa, visible from the deck. Walking back to my camp, I noticed the sky was brighter than I expected: it was in fact 4 a.m. when I got in. I guess I had bucked my circadian rhythm which would have me in bed by 7 p.m. Pacific time.

On Monday I met the people across the street and helped them wire the lights on their Blue Whale art car (which we later named "Connie"). The whale was new although the base vehicle had been through several incarnations in the past.

I stopped by the ARTery and got my Lonely Lamppost placed at 1:00 at 2600' — about halfway from the Temple to the 2:00 corner of the Esplanade. (Funny enough, it was almost exactly the opposite side from where I was camped.) Matt drove Lauren (another artist) and I to our respective sites. I assessed the nearby artworks (both from the map at the ARTery and by sight-lines) and tweaked my location closer to 12:45, putting me at the intersection of "Burn Wall St.-Dream Tree Rd." and "The Man-Black Rock Bijou Rd." I headed back to camp and painted the signs for the lamppost (with only one heat-induced typo of "Biiou" on one side), carted it out, and got it set up before dark.

The Lonely Lamppost at Burning Man, 2012

Lonely Lamppost by Zhust at Burning Man 2012

Upon returning to camp, we all headed out and got in line behind Charlie the Unicorn Goes to Burning Man to get registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV). That night, after a great meal with my new friends across the street (Mama Kabuke's Big Tent, formerly It Still Stings Camp) I called it an early night and crashed around midnight or so.

One of my nightmares about Burning Man is having to deal with someone who puts their noisy generator right next to my tent and having to deal with the uphill battle of teaching them what "considerate" means. So this night I was awakened around 3 by a noisy generator placed right next to my tent. My solution was to just get up and move it twice the distance from me. The next day I asked and was welcomed to camp with Mama Kabuke's crew. Problem solved.

Tuesday I explored a bit in the day. While yelling compliments from the "Compliments" booth around 4:00 and Dandelion, I met Little Wave from Winnipeg and chatted with her a while. I couldn't manage to convince her to join me for dinner, but I did get a woman from our camp to go. It was at Sacred Cow at the 7:30 plaza — I found out about it from a couple Burners I had met in Reno. On the way home from that, we stopped at a "bar" which was actually mostly non-alcoholic: "When Life Gives You Lemons" served lemonade and other lemony treats. She and I got talking about languages and she suggested immersion rather than translation: read a book in Italian and try and pick up what you can from context alone, or watch a familiar movie in Spanish. I thought it good advice.

After we got back I was on my own again and wondered what to do. I had brought a game I called my "Parrot Cards" (because they have parrots on them, but pronounced like "Tarot", not "parrot"). I had noted the Burning Man addresses ran from 2:00 to 10:00 which coincided with the numeric playing cards, so I added letter tiles and had a way to pick a random address. The playing card suits have traditional Tarot meanings which I simplified with diamonds meaning the body, physical, or external world, clubs meaning the mind, emotions, or internal world, hearts being the suit of religion, love, and heart, and spades being the suit of the military or challenge. I gave "readings" to a few people but mostly used it myself.

So I drew the 10 of diamonds and G, sending me to the dance clubs at the edge of the city. I tend to find it an okay pastime to dance to club music, but I'm easily drawn away to other things. I hung out at Robot Heart at 10:00 and Germanium for a bit before walking back home — again noting the warming eastern sky of dawn. I was awestruck by the sheer number of attendees, with tents, RV's, art cars, installations, and public spaces. The official tally, I gather, was about 52,000 people.

Wednesday I slated as my day to do as little as possible. I sent out a few postcards, and I got to drive Connie to the Temple. I met a guy who was building a whale to be a performance space, I think at the northern end of Rt. 1 in California. As far as the Temple of Juno was concerned, it kind of left me cold — I didn't feel very connected with it.

That night I was hanging out with T. from camp and some people came by and asked if they could drop off their drunk friend who they were unable to drag back home. I would have told them to keep trying, but I let T. answer. I was surprised when she gave an emphatic "absolutely." She insisted on asking who was going to stop by in the morning, and she hung out with the guy for a while until he passed out. Her philosophy was to try and embrace the 10 Principles of Burning Man as much as possible, even when it might be inconvenient.

It's a lesson I'm going to have to let sink in: do good when it's easy, when it's inconvenient, when it's difficult, and eventually, when you don't think you can.

On Thursday, I was invited to be one of the four official drivers of Connie. The DPW says it's only the driver and the driver's spouse, so Jordi ordained himself three spouses.

I happened upon Hair of the Dog (HOTD) camp during the day and said hi to Troy, my birth-twin (same month, day, and year.) I blundered around some more and came upon this camp that offered to do a polygraph and shaman cleansing ritual. I had to give it a go. The idea was to use the polygraph to divine a painful event, then to use shamanism to transform the event into a point of growth and healing. It was unnerving but effective, especially for a sciency-guy like me.

Friday I took Connie out on a tour by myself. I drew the 3-of-diamonds (referring to physical or material things) and L so I headed there. Some people on Iris St. came out and stopped me to give me lemonade. This was a theme all week: this was my first sober (well, sober-ish) Burning Man, and I had no trouble finding non-alcoholic treats. Curiously, it was all lemonade (even Mama Kabuke's kept the booze in back and offered water, "gay-torade", and lemonade to passers-by.)

My logical side was irritated by the accuracy of the Parrot reading to find the Otic Oasis out there: indeed a physical thing, and one I forgot that I wanted to see. I parked Connie and walked to it. It was very cool. I hung out at the camp adjacent and tried to solve their puzzle/interlocking pieces. Their kitchen yurt was amazing: all cut from laminated pieces.

On the way back toward the center of the city, two girls stopped me and I gave them a ride: Playa Kitty and Elise. They were headed to Discofish at 7:15 and Edelweiss which was just around the corner from Mama Kabuke's. We stopped at my Lonely Lamppost for a minute on the way, and got about 100 feet away when a dust storm hit. I didn't realize it would last so long and didn't set the brake. When another woman had leaned her bike against Connie, that was the only way I realized we started being blown backward as her bike fell over. In all it lasted an hour before we managed to gradually make small steps back in tiny clearings.

Saturday I took a crew out for an art tour: Elise (my secret Playa-crush, not the one from yesterday), Emily, Amy, and Momma all piled into Connie and we headed out. Funny enough, it seemed I was either alone in Connie or I was delighted to shuttle women. We headed out to see Burn Wall Street which was being prepared to burn, although the graffiti was most excellent.

When we got back, a couple of the guys had set up a comically obvious snare trap with gin, tonic, and one of Beckster's giant juggling dildoes. Then Zen took another and tucked it into his shorts and did weightlifting, pretending his penis was hanging out unbeknownst to him, smiling broadly at people who responded uncomfortably and awkwardly to his antics (universally, even). I was laughing so hard I was crying.

After dinner we went out to the Man burn. We had a spot just a few people back. Despite a bit of agoraphobia (considering thousands of people behind me) I enjoyed watching the burn up close. I couldn't resist taking a lap and oggling the art cars surrounding the man. It was great.

I walked to the Burn Wall Street site and checked out more art cars. I sat down and was thinking I could go for a nip of whiskey. A guy sat down next to me and stuffed a bottle of bourbon into my field of view. He said his name was Yuri. It took a few minutes to ask, but it turned out he was the bartender at Lux for a while. He was just walking through looking for someone to sit near. Once again, the "Playadipity" and finding Rochestarians everywhere found confluence.

The burn, while not spectacular, was participatory. Everyone was chanting to burn the fuckers down and cheering more loudly than average whenever one fell. It was all quite cathartic.

On Sunday we fetched my lamppost with Connie. It survived just fine. The site was pretty clean and I only found a few little fibers. I took it apart back at camp. I also packed up my stuff and got ready to leave on Monday, figuring on sleeping in the Big Tent somewhere for the night.

I had a few drinks that night and went to the Temple Burn. Just as when I visited earlier in the week, I wasn't particularly moved. I'm not sure why exactly.

Monday I helped clean up camp and take apart Connie. Jordi and Devon drove me out to the bus stop. It arrived before they left and the whole process was much smoother than entry. We even left via the 12-mile entrance, bypassing the entire exodus line (which I gather wasn't particularly bad this year anyway). The only hassle was with the Eldorado Hotel shuttle driver who was reluctant to let anyone on board who had any dust on their luggage. Nonetheless, I got in fine.

On Tuesday evening, the Amtrak left pretty much on-time. This time the fellow Burners were numerous, leaving one-at-a-time as we progressed across the country. It was a bit disconcerting to become more judgmental each passing mile: it didn't matter on the Playa, but now these people were turning into alcoholics, egomaniacs, and slackers before my eyes. Disconcerting but fascinating.

Nonetheless, I still had a good time talking with them. I told my tale and mentioned that I was "going to win Burning Man". Well, after arriving to camp solo and getting to drive an art car, having a great time, and getting excellent meals, I think I won. Kate jumped up and ran to her seat. She said someone had given her a sticker which she reluctantly took, passing it to me:

I Won Burning Man

I Won Burning Man

The Little Burning Man that Couldn't

Thursday night I got to Amtrak (320 Central Ave.) about an hour early for my pilgrimage to Burning Man. Earlier in the day, I had to use a Zipcar to get my farm share from Mud Creek Farm (McMahon Rd., Victor), and to take Ali to pick up her car from getting brake repairs. Little did I know this was a mere warning shot of things to come.

I had packed into two Rubbermaid totes, a large suitcase, a smaller bag, and a backpack. I made a custom cart to carry the totes along with the additional luggage tied on: the totes contained my to-be-filled water bottles, and the cart was to make it easier to navigate around Burning Man, particularly to get to a place to get a ride when I left. I was quite impressed as I ordinarily required the bulk of a car to carry everything I needed.

Two totes, a suitcase, a smaller bag, and a backpack

Everything I need for Burning Man 2011

Anyway, I figured I could check the large suitcase and two totes, and carry the backpack and smaller bag onto the train. I was told I couldn't check totes (a.k.a. harbinger number two) so I did some quick thinking and swapped the contents of the smaller bag with the equivalent volume from one of the totes. I checked the smaller bag and the large suitcase instead. (In the future I'll make canvas boxes for the totes with zippers and hide them inside, giving the illusion of "real" luggage.)

While waiting for the train (which was an hour and a half late from Albany no less — that's three) I met a guy who was trying to get to Cleveland. He didn't have much (if any) money but he was going to try and sweet-talk his way onto the train. I was quite sure it wouldn't work, at least not on such a busy route — if it had been quieter, he would have been able to board without a ticket beforehand then at least made it to Buffalo before being kicked off. I looked into just paying for his ticket but it was too expensive so I just gave him a few bucks to see if he could make it to Buffalo or beyond. He went to the ticket counter then disappeared. Then when I was boarding, he reappeared and tried to be my "porter". Alas, he was indeed denied entry to the train.

I finally boarded the westbound Amtrak Lakeshore Limited at 12:30 a.m. By 9 a.m. we were partway through Ohio.

view from the Amtrak window just west of Bryan, Ohio

Just west of Bryan, Ohio from the Amtrak window

We arrived in Chicago a little late around 11:30 a.m. when I was confronted with this:

2:00P California Zephyr to Emeryville: CANCELED. * NO ALTERNATE TRANSPORTATION, SEE AGENT *

The moment I knew Burning Man was not-to-be this year.

My jaw dropped and my heart sank as I read — as if a personal message to me about my whole trip — "Cancelled. No alternative transportation". That was when I really surrendered. Momentum allowed me to continue to the long line at the ticket counter as there was a possibility of leaving a day later — perhaps an engine had failed and needed to be moved. Alas the worst: the eastbound California Zephyr struck a piece of construction equipment and derailed, injuring 22 people. Service was not expected to resume for several days at the earliest.

I was to meet some friends for a ride on Sunday to arrive on Monday when Burning Man started, so although I might have been able to figure out how to wait 24 hours, several days was out of the question (service was still disrupted as I write this, so at the earliest, I'd have left Sunday, arrived in Reno on Wednesday, then have to beg for a ride). Not to mention I couldn't afford to stay at a Chicago hotel for that amount of time, and it would disrupt my whole experience significantly. Cost prevented me from getting a rental car as well, and flying was not an option because of the amount of stuff I had with me. The mandatory American experience of taking a bus across the country will have to wait [for another lifetime].

So I exchanged my existing tickets and bought one to return to Rochester at 9:30 p.m. I also ran into two burners in the station (which I deduced from their fire-enhanced hula-hoops and fur-covered bikes). I didn't get their names, but asked what they were going to do. They opted to take the train to Portland, San Fransisco, and east to Reno, arriving a day and a half later. I probably could have done that, but like I said, I was getting a lot of signs to quit. I gave them my Burning Man ticket, and hopefully they could get it to someone who could use it (it might even help them get a ride).

I got a little into Chicago but had to tote the cart of totes around so I didn't get far. I went to Beggar's Pizza (310 S. Clinton St., Chicago, IL) which was excellent. The Chicago style was so good that if it wasn't textbook-perfect, they should rewrite the textbook.

For the remainder of the evening I hung around the station. I met a woman who came from Indiana to go to her brother's childhood friend's funeral in Iowa but she had to turn back too. And on "commiseration corner" of the fountain we also met a guy who went to boot camp for the Navy only to be rejected on a medical discharge and had to absorb the bittersweet experience of watching his campmates graduate in full dress uniform.

And even on the way home, things got complicated: Amtrak stopped service at Albany because of Hurricane Irene. Thankfully this didn't affect me because I only needed to get as far east as Rochester. As things had gone, I fully expected them to suddenly stop service at Buffalo, though.


Thankfully I was only going to Rochester!

Obviously I'm really bummed. This was apparently the year of too-little, too-late. Earlier I had failed to get the Tadpole Trike finished on time. Then I hustled to get everything done to go by alternate means, but bigger and bigger roadblocks kept appearing. In both cases, I refer to a phenomenon I call "tractor-pull mode". In a modern tractor pull, a sled is used with weights over wheels that are slid forward causing the front to drag, so as Wikipedia puts it, "as the tractor travels the course, the weights are pushed forward of the sled's axles, pushing the front of the sled into the ground, synthetically creating a gain in weight until the tractor is no longer able to overcome the force of friction." Hence, the further I got, the more resistance I experienced.

At least I can look forward to the things I would have missed in Rochester. And I can look forward to FrostBurn and put some effort behind it. In any case, next year I will be much more committed. Or else I'll need to be committed.

Evening Wear at Burning Man

As you all know, I quit working on the tricycle I was planning to ride to Burning Man this year. Doing that meant my time was more-or-less free in the last two weeks, so I thought I'd dig into another project I wanted to do for a while now. A friend of mine gave me a fake-fur purple coat that just barely fits (thank goodness I've lost a few pounds!) My original plan included a heart-shaped light around where my heart is that would flash to my heartbeat, and then animate light tubes outward from there to cover the whole coat. I since switched to colored LED's which were more readily available and more reliable. I didn't bother trying to get the heart monitor working either (at least not yet), so it's all done with variable timing to give the illusion.

So first it was getting a way to make 50 color LED's light up like I wanted, then to make them show different colors, and finally, to animate them into patterns. Without too many disasters along the way, I got it all working.

Here's a link to a YouTube video that demonstrates what it can do. See you all soon!

Excuses, Excuses …

Wow: it's been quite a while — not since The Big Dig in July.

Anyway, the reason I've been away is this:

The Tadpole Trike, partially completed frame

What would have been the way to get to Burning Man this year ...

Sometime in early 2010, I hatched a plan to build a vehicle that I would transport to Winnemucca, Nevada then pedal 100 miles to Burning Man. I knew time was too short to make it for that year, so I slated it for 2011. Well, I spent hundreds of hours on design toward the beginning of the year, a dollar amount I'm afraid to calculate on custom-designed parts as well as off-the-shelf parts, and another hundreds-of-hours on building. By Sunday, August 7, I did not yet have a pedal-able vehicle, and I had 11 days before I would need to ship it, so I put it off for another year.

The more precise plan was to ship the trike to Winnemucca by UPS Ground. I have designed it so it folds up and can be shipped in a relatively small crate (which doubles as a trailer for extra gear). I would take the train to Winnemucca and it would hopefully be waiting at the hotel — probably Scott Shady Court Motel (400 1st St., Winnemucca, NV) which I stayed at and liked a lot before. Sunday, the day before Burning Man starts (on Monday), I'd get my water jugs filled, get packed up, and head for Jungo Road (a.k.a. Nevada SR 49). From there I'd pedal the 85 miles to 40° 46' 02.07" N, 119° 07' 12.26"W where there is a microwave antenna access road that crosses the railroad tracks. I would hope to pass the active mine at Sulphur before nightfall as there's a bit of traffic supporting it (not so much on Sunday, but on the way back). I'd take a right and cross the tracks then head due west across the Black Rock Desert, north of the Burning Man event, until I reach the barely-marked West Playa Highway which I'd take south to the main gate. After the event, I'd just reverse the trip. I estimate about 100 miles each way which could take anywhere from 10 to 24 hours depending on how fast I could go — and since I haven't tested anything yet, I really have no idea what is practical.

The vehicle itself is called a "tadpole trike" because it has three wheels and kind of looks like a tadpole with 2 wheels in front for steering and one rear wheel for propulsion. The picture shows the frame as far as I had completed it, and nearest the photographer is the mount for the pedals. I used parts from the 1994 Honda Civic I had taken off the road 2 years ago, parts from go-kart companies, bicycle parts, lots of scrap metal (mostly from bed frames), and the final drive is to use motorcycle chain for extra strength. I estimate that including the tires, it will weigh in slightly less than 200 pounds, so it's definitely not meant to win any hill-climbs.

But I did design it with a broad gearing range: a 2-speed custom shifter doubles the range of a continuous-variable Fallbrook NuVinci 360 internal hub shifter from a stump-pulling 0.2-to-1 to a mountain-bike-high-gear 3.5-to-1. In terms of gear-inches (which, if you imagine a pennyfarthing big-front-wheel bike, it's the effective diameter of that wheel) it has a range of 5.2 gear-inches to 18.2 gear-inches in low and 22.9 to 80.0 gear-inches in high. So with a pedaling speed range of 15 rpm to 150 rpm, that translates, overall, to 0.23 mph to 35 mph. And assuming I can put a maximum of 300 pounds of force on the pedal at a standstill, the lowest gearing will yield a massive 800 pounds of forward-force at the drive wheel.

I figure my goal is to just attempt it.  If I have to stop and go back, or haul the beast back broken, then so be it.  The road itself is generally pretty obvious, but I do have USGS topographic maps of the whole area along with a compass and a GPS for good measure.  I set up JayceLand to be able to accept picture-message posts like I did for the Big Dig … Verizon's map shows the last point of "coverage" to be around 40° 53' 21.534" N, 118° 26' 15.342" W which is little more than halfway, and not quite to Sulphur.

But alas, the whole idea seems to be quite distant now. Funny how a week ago I was picturing it actually happening, and now I don't even know if I'll try it in 2012 — or ever for that matter. I think I will desire it again in the future. After all, part of the beauty of it is that I can potentially be someplace where it's more than 20 miles to the nearest person. The whole trike and its testing is a separately interesting matter, but I can get that accomplished with some camping trips around here, or even just using it as a main vehicle.

We shall see!

FrostBurn Day 4

So I got up around 10 a.m. on Monday — the last day of FrostBurn.  I got ready to go and discovered that my car keys were missing.  It was oddly just my car keys too: I still had my house keys, but I had somehow unclipped the car keys the night before.  Since John and I were the last ones up, and we got no snow the night before, they must have been sitting right on top of the snow.  I searched along the paths between the car, my winter shelter, and the bathrooms to no avail.  I took down the winter shelter and packed everything up, checking every pocket and nook.

Still nothing.

I gave Ali a call on a borrowed phone and let her know what was up.  Although she's so awesome that she would have traveled the 5 hours out to get me, she's smart enough to get me to try other options first.

I had signed up for Better World Club last year and finally got a chance to use it. They tried contacting some locksmiths, and decided that the best bet would be to get the Buick Roadmaster towed to the nearest dealership. Lizzy called her friend and we thought a better option would be to bring the VIN to the dealership and have them make a new key. We got hold of Better World Club and called off the wrecker. They called contacted the nearest dealership and found it would cost all of $4.

As I walked around the car to fetch my hand-held GPS to give directions for people, I couldn't believe my eyes.  The keys were sitting right out in the open, just a few feet in front of the car.

It might have been there all along, or it might have been kicked free by someone during the four hours of searching.

So I called Ali and got packed up and headed home.  Once again, the snow sucked on the roads: all the way from Erie, PA to just east of Buffalo.  I did make it home safely, though, and — overall — had a great time.  I also got to be remembered as "Jason Who Lost His Keys" rather than (or "in addition to", perhaps) "Jason Who Passed Out in the Snow".

FrostBurn Day 3

On the third day of FrostBurn, I woke up feeling much better. I was nice and warm inside the winter shelter overnight. I got to have a lot of bacon during the day — largely from the Church of Bacon camp. Too much bacon, I think — if that's even possible [although I could still smell it two days and three showers after I returned.] I got my sea-legs back and had a few drinks during the day.  I didn't participate in the Polar Plunge, though, figuring it was something I would not regret if I didn't do it.

I had another nice night beside a roaring fire.  I even played with melting glass in the fire.  After one of the guys left and took his music, I pulled the Buick around and played some stuff for people.  Unfortunately it was already quite late so it wasn't long before we called it a night.  I don't even remember turning off the battery on the car, but I got up later and checked and it was fine.

FrostBurn Day 2

On day two of FrostBurn, I felt pretty hungover. Needless to say [or is it?], I skipped all alcohol today.  My shelter had made it through the night, although there was no reason it should not have.  I spent some time resting inside the shelter and with the heater on, the temperature easily climbed to over 70°F. All my water and soda had frozen so I put it inside the heated "bath house" — thankfully this year, we had access to heated bathrooms.

That was the night of the burn, too.  The guy who made this year's effigy did a great job and burned well.  It really looked like a snowman, too, since the body was made of three multifaceted approximations of spheres.  There was another Jason — "The Jason" — who was the poster boy of the festivities.  He ran around with a bottle of Jameson's in one hand and champagne in another, all the while with a toy monkey on his back.

That night I got to do the official winter shelter experiment: not use the heater.  When I got inside, it was 18°F.  I had calculated that the 84 or so square feet of the R-3.3 "Tuff-Board" stuff would allow the interior temperature to be about 20°F higher than outside with just one person inside (assuming they'd produce about 75 watts of heat).  After an hour or so, the temperature had climbed to 26°F.

That's still really friggin' cold so I turned on the heater and quickly brought the temperature into a more temperate range.

FrostBurn Day 1

Today I headed out from Rochester and drove to Cooper's Lake Campground (205 Currie Rd., Slippery Rock, PA) to attend FrostBurn.  Last year it was during President's Weekend in February but they mentioned that they planned to change it to Martin Luther King weekend this year.  Ali and I realized we'd have to rearrange her mom's annual visit to accommodate the trip — but we forgot and, although I remembered again in November, it was too late.  So, it was just me this year.

The trip out was not bad, except for lake-effect snow around the lake near Buffalo.  I slowed down to 45 MPH or so and was getting frequently passed, but after 80 miles or so I did successfully drive out of it.  I arrived around 4 p.m. or so and got settled in.  The commercial campground where the event is presently held is located on a hill, and the organizers decided to split it up so there were people camped on top and at the bottom. Initially I was placed at the bottom of the hill.  Since I had the rear-wheel-drive Buick Roadmaster, I figured it would be impossible to drive down.  And since I also had a 180-pound base to the winter shelter I made, I really had no desire to try and make that happen either.  Thankfully there were some spaces available at the top so I camped there.  Also, I had access to electrical power: even though my winter shelter was pretty good, the predicted sub-zero temperatures would have been overwhelming without use of the electric heater I had at-the-ready.  As it turned out, I never even got to try it out that night.

Because of the cold — it was, after all, no warmer than 5°F outside — I decided to consume and share the two bottles of homemade wine I brought rather than let them freeze.  I got to meet lots of nice people and check out the whole event. Along the way, I met another Jason who ended up … umm … overdoing it, and ended up in bed early.

By the time all the drinking and debauchery was done, I was leaving the lower section and really don't remember much of what happened.  Based on legend, I became "the guy who passed out in the snow," "almost died," or "got frostbite."  As it turned out, this guy Tony helped me up the hill and let me stay in his heated RV overnight.

So now as you all cluck your tongues and "tsk-tsk", let me add two things.  First of all, I didn't go out with any plan whatsoever to end up passing out.  And second, this event isn't like day-to-day life: it's more like a village or an extended family.  Rather than stepping over somebody passed out, anyone there would have stopped to help.

That said, it got down to -11°F in nearby Slippery Rock, PA and, depending on who you asked, it got as cold as -14°F or -18°F — so there was some real danger of getting injured out there.  Thankfully I had on a full 4 layers on my legs and 6 on my torso along with chemical warmers on my hands and feet that were still working by morning.  For the most part it was pretty comfortable.

Burning Man: WTF?

Sondra and I got on the road on Sunday around 10:30 in the morning, headed for Burning Man. Once we picked up groceries at Smith's (1740 Mountain City Hwy., Elko, NV), we figured it might be possible to arrive just after midnight — a first time for both of us. As it turned out, we arrived around 4 a.m. or so. It was interesting to arrive then, but I much preferred arriving in daytime. We slept on the ground until dawn then hunted down a spot — Bonneville at 5:15 — which was pretty centrally located.

We got the tents and shade set up, then the dust storm started. It was not only a harsh storm by Burning Man standards, but it was relentless. It lasted until dark. We tried getting around to pick up ice and such, but it was nearly impossible to do so. The shade I built got blown down, having snapped two segments of 1/2" water pipe. Fortunately they were just extension pieces so I was able to make the shade again, only it was short enough to hit the tent.

We finally got out to see things at night. I got the chance to try Ecstasy for the first time. It was apparently quite pure (sometimes, I guess, Speed is added which makes one more interested in dancing, or Cocaine is added which makes it suck). I liked it a lot. It created a sense of empathy with others which allowed me to easily put aside feelings of annoyance with others. I tended to look deeply at people and feel bonded with them. Its other dominant experiential effect greatly reduced my awareness of minor bodily irritations — achyness from the day, for instance, but also irritations like holding a flashlight.

Anyway, I started getting tired quite late and decided to head back to camp. Unfortunately I got hit with irresistible tiredness and ended up falling asleep on the way there. I became aware of walking in the dawn and slowly realized that I was not, in fact, dreaming, but experiencing reality. I got back to camp and got some sleep. Tuesday morning I got up and hunted down my trike that I left behind — someone had found it and brought it to their camp on the Esplanade where I found it. The light tube got damaged and the backpack went missing — fortunately only containing some water and a dust mask.

I had signed up to volunteer to work at the sound stage in the Center Camp and I actually made it on-time, despite having not seen a clock in more than a day. I worked the mixing board and learned a lot about using a large board. The performances were not all that interesting, and the four hours went by quite slowly. That night was my night off: each year at Burning Man, it seems I take one day and get some sleep … Tuesday was it this year.

For the rest of the week, things were pretty much the same … relatively pleasant weather and total boredom. Somehow, Burning Man didn't quite happen — it was more like a mock-up of Burning Man where people camp in the desert but don't bother to bring any good art, or try to act with tolerance, or act like a community at all. It was quite strange.

I think "The Bummer" was the art piece that summed up the whole event. It was a 4-times-or-so mock-up of a Hummer vehicle. From a distance, it indeed looked like it was intended, but I had to ask, "what's the point?" I mean, okay: a big Hummer … umm … and? Up close, it was like a plywood clubhouse. It had no detail inside, and it was apparently just dimensionally correct on the outside. I really didn't get it at all — and that's pretty much what all the artwork was like. Some were better than others, but none that I saw exceeded a modest level of mediocrity.

Saturday brought another horrendous day of dust storms. Sondra and I decided to call it quits. We got things packed up in the slightly-less-bad storm that continued into the night and left around 11 p.m., just a bit after they burned the Man figure. By 5 a.m. we made it to The Lovelock Inn (55 Cornell Ave., Lovelock, NV) which had beds and showers. We got on the road on Sunday refreshed and made it back to Colorado by the next night.

Along the way we tried to think of anything good about this year's Burning Man: something specifically awesome — anything, in fact, like what we had experienced in past years. Alas, the only maximal adjective we could come up with is "worst", only qualified by "ever".

Thankfully, we escaped it.