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.

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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.

9:30P 48/448 Lake Shore Limited to New York/Boston, **DUE TO HURRICANE IRENE, TERMINATING IN ALBANDY, NY** NO ALTERNATE TRANSPORTATION PROVIDED.

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.

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The Beast Pageant in Boston

About this time last Thursday, I was arriving in Boston. As an actor in The Beast Pageant, I was tagging along with filmmaker Albert and costume designer Vanessa to The Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF). The Beast Pageant's artistic dream-logic metaphor was just barely appropriate for the horror-and-gore territory covered by the festival.

The opening-night screening was Hobo With a Shotgun at The Kendall Square Cinema (1 Kendall Sq., Cambridge, MA) — where all the rest of the films would be screened. I found "Hobo" fantastic — a 1980's action-exploitation film with Rutger Hauer, no less, in the lead role as a hobo trying to make ends meet but cornered into violent action. The bad guys are played with comic-absurd gusto as all parties are supported by a tongue-in-cheek script.

Afterward, that night's part was at T.T. the Bear's Place (10 Brookline Pl., Cambridge, MA), right around the corner from Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub (472 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA). There were several bands and The Whore Church was performing live video mixing. Unfortunately it wasn't much of a place to chat (nor was there food) so we went to the Middle East for dinner which was pretty good. We weren't particularly impressed by T.T.'s as service was blasé and drinks were expensive ($2.50 for a soda, really? — but I guess that's Boston for you.) We got the last train on the Red Line to get home around 12:15 a.m.

On Friday we headed to The Gallery Diner (11 P St., South Boston, MA) which was fantastic. We made smalltalk with the friendly owners Paul and Colleen and the food was great. Exploring the Harvard Square area, we stopped at a few record and comic stores and I got an excellent fresh, locally-produced shake at the regional fast-food chain b.good (24 Dunster St., Cambridge, MA).

I checked out the "BUFF Family Values" short film program back at the festival and was pleased with all the films — some disturbing, some powerful, some funny, and some just strange. Later that night, we all saw Machete Maidens Unleashed which was a pretty decent documentary about the Philippine exploitation film industry in the 1970's and 1980's. I opted to see the 1973 film The Twilight People which was made in the Philippines during that era — a terrible film by nearly all counts. I recall listening to the dialog and thinking, "I wish they'd stop talking" and a scene later when they were walking through the jungle, "I wish there was more dialog". It was astounding to me that someone put this film together and decided they were done — continuity, plot, editing, and special effects came second to, well, cost, I guess.

Saturday started with an acceptable breakfast at Mul's Diner (75 W. Broadway, South Boston, MA). From there we went straight to the festival to catch "OMFG LMFAO!" and "Psychedelicinema" — a pair of shorts programs. The first offered a few chuckles but we didn't find it all that funny. The second was, in my opinion, a little better, but it was really abstract films and not psychedelic. We stayed for about half the program, skipping out partway through the 30-minute final film.

Between screenings I met Josh MacDonald, writer of The Corridor. I skipped the "Where the Music's At" music-videos short program, to see Josh's film. It was really excellent: evenly paced and gradually asking for suspended disbelief at the increasingly paranormal activity ensuing on screen. Despite its evenness, it delves into some extremely dark and gruesome territory — I found it highly successful.

We had a break and got to hang out (finally!) with other filmmakers at The Friendly Toast (1 Kendall Sq., Cambridge, MA) — and the only event to include free food. [I realize I'm knocking the festival for lackluster treatment of out-of-town guests, but I also know they're running on a shoestring budget and just didn't plan things out very well for us.] We finished the day with a pleasant at-home dinner with friends and family.

Sunday I met with my college friends at The Daily Catch (441 Harvard St., Brookline, MA). In 2002 I went to The Daily Catch (323 Hanover St., Boston, MA) and loved it, so I had to go back. The location in Brookline is bigger so Jan, Griffin, John, Michelle, Rob, Kevin, and myself could comfortably fit. Unfortunately they didn't open until 2 so we dawdled on the street, hanging out at the super cool Irving's Toy and Card Shop (371 Harvard St., Brookline, MA). At lunch I had the pistacio-encrusted swordfish which was fantastic. Everyone had a good meal for sure. We stayed and talked for a couple hours then Kevin and I headed back to the festival.

We got there a bit early and had plenty of time to get into the big event (for us): the screening of The Beast Pageant (and on IMDb). About 40 people showed up to watch it and, as best I can tell, really enjoyed it. It was fun to be part of the question-and-answer panel.

Afterward was the closing night party at Tommy Doyle's Irish Pub and Restaurant (1 Kendall Sq., Cambridge, MA). (The festival runs once during the weekend, and then nearly all the films are repeated during the week, making it possible to actually see every screening.) I had a celebratory shot of 18-year-old Glenlivet scotch — my first alcoholic drink since the beginning of December when I quit (I permit myself a rare taste of something extraordinary, or under truly extraordinary circumstances.) The Beast Pageant won a runner-up "Director's Choice" award for best feature.

On Monday things got amusing. We got up for breakfast and I headed out around 11:05 to get the train back home. We had been averaging 15 minutes to get to the South Station where I was to get the train, but today buses were running on a half-hour schedule rather than every 10 minutes. I called for a taxi around 11:30 and was promised one immediately; I passed on boarding a bus that arrived shortly after. Alas, the cab didn't show up in time. I took the next bus and got to the Amtrak station (Summer St. and Atlantic Ave., Boston, MA) about 20 minutes late — if only I'd have hopped on that 11:30 bus. Alas, I traded my unclaimed ticket for one tomorrow. At least I got to see "Future Imperfect" — the science fiction short film program. It was okay but not great. Kevin was kind enough to let me stay at his place.

That night he and I went out and got dinner at Punjab Palace (109 Brighton Ave., Allston, MA) which really had great Indian cuisine. After that we went to see bands play at Charlie's Kitchen (10 Elliot St., Cambridge, MA). We were disappointed in the first act and headed to The Lizard Lounge (1667 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA) for an open-mic. That was a blast and we stayed quite late. We got back to his house and I slept on the futon couch.

I left when Kevin went to work, taking the T into the city packed with all the commuters. I found the Banksy graffiti art that Kevin mentioned off Essex Street then went to The South Street Diner (178 Kneeland St., Boston, MA) for breakfast. The staff was friendly and the breakfast burrito was quite good. I hung around and chatted for quite some time, arriving at the train station with plenty of time to spare.

I was happy to be on the train home. I arrived in Albany a little late but had about an hour before it left again, so my parents stopped by and we had a quick and decent Italian dinner at (if I remember right) Rudy's V & R Ristorante (483 Broadway, Rensselaer) across the tracks from the station. I was worried for a bit but got back in time to get back on the train home.

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Visiting Adam in Arlington, Virginia

I got back today off the Amtrak (320 Central Ave.) after visiting with my brother Adam in Arlington, VA. For the most part, our visit was more to see where he lives — in fact, he sent me a link to a humorous video about Arlington. We visited only one landmark: The Pentagon Memorial which is very tasteful and pleasant.

We stopped at a number of restaurants and bars. I particularly liked the salami/Gorgonzola pizza at Piola Restaurant (1550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA); their drinks and desserts were also excellent. We also visited Galaxy Hut (2711 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA) which is a really cool bar — much like Lux LoungeMySpace link (666 South Ave.) in its casual atmosphere, outdoor patio, interesting clientele, and absence of advertising and televisions (well, except for one).

On both sides of the trip, the train stops in Manhattan and it's an hour and a half before the Rochester train leaves, so I had a chance to get lunch. I stopped at New Pizza Town II (360 7th Ave., New York) which was pretty good — nothing like a slice of ziti-topped pizza with big glops of ricotta. On the way home, I learned that Amtrak's Business Class is not worth much: the seats are a little bigger with curtains on the windows, free soft drinks, and most importantly, the car is located at one end of the train so foot traffic is minimal.

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Taking the train to Schenectady and back for Easter

Ali and I decided to take the train to my parents' house for Easter. We boarded at the Amtrak Station (320 Central Ave.) around 9:45 a.m. and made our way east. It was amusing to see all the familiar places and try to figure out what's next: the Public Market, the train yard, 590, Linden Avenue, East Rochester, the middle of Fairport … and then it got more sparse: Baird Road … Macedon … and the last marker was in Palmyra when we passed my friend Sondra's old house. It was a beautiful sunny day although the scenery was that dreary brown-and-gray post-winter blah.

Around 1:30 we were in Schenectady and got to spend some time with my parents.

The return train was the same run I took to Denver in 2005 — we boarded around 7:30 p.m. and … well … waited. Apparently we were waiting for the tracks to clear ahead for the late-arriving eastbound train. And then it was to allow passengers to transfer from the Saratoga Springs train. So we finally left around 8.

Then in Syracuse, the U.S. Customs agents boarded (they did on the way east as well but it was uneventful) and they had some discussion with some people who happened to be sitting near us. One guy got all his luggage and left with them, and the other — well, I think it was just a language barrier and he got to stay. In any case, the time we made up with extra speed on the way was lost again and we arrived in Rochester around 11:45 — 45 minutes late.

Now the funny thing is that on the train it's kind of unique experience to be delayed. As long as you are on the train and it's on the main tracks, it will start going again. It may take a while but it'll go.

On a plane, ship, or bus, there's a sense that you might get stuck somewhere and have to figure out what to do. But on the train it's missing that element and I find myself having faith in the inertia of the voyage. Like the sheer mass of the train itself while it's moving, it requires very unusual circumstances to cancel a run. It may be slow-going, and there may be delays, but never a cancellation.

And that makes it that much more relaxing.

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