DIt has been said that I am nothing if I am not generous with my time. The much loved Cerveceria which is our only purveyor of pints for some distance is shutting for the season. There is beer left that it would be unwise and rude to leave in the kegs. My presence is requested to help solve this issue. It took a lot of effort and an entire night of drinking, gambling and dancing to achieve this. Our host is grateful for our efforts. We lock the door and contemplate with some sadness the loss of our “pub” and the pint free months ahead
There is a chink of hope that we can persuade someone to feed us and supply cold beers for the Summer season. It’s a mission as the heat is crippling, staff are hard to find and there are very few tourist dollars. It is considered wise for ones sanity to take a few months off before the season kicks in again non-stop for 8 months. For these entirely reasonable reasons August, September and October are dormant months here with very few places open. There are a handful of fine traditional places serving locals with proper Mexican delights but nothing much in terms of bars. The concept of a pub which gives the community a place to meet and talk nonsense is not so much a thing here.
There is a special bar on the beach in Lo De Marcos which is 8 miles north of us. It offers good food and a large number of yellow fizzy cold beers. The crew are fabulous and the location is outstanding. The sea is calm, tempting and yards from the bar. There is the added bonus of an onshore breeze that cools you down beautifully if you stay very still on your strategically placed bar stool. It’s worth the trouble to make the journey North. If we keep turning up they are more likely to stay open.
On one such day I am floating in the sea slightly disappointed that the temperature of the water appears warmer than the air. The large grey Pelicans fly a few feet above our heads occasionally diving close by scattering fish that collide with us in their rush to escape. I head for the shore dragging my feet through the sand. The lure of a cold yellow fizzy beer and a breeze to sit in is just too much. I’m a few yards from the beach when something hits me. Not in a good way. It feels like I have had a hot nail hammered into my foot. On further examination, it becomes apparent that I have been stung by a Manta Ray. There has been some rain which attracts them to shallow waters. One of them was irritated by being disturbed and stuck his stingy bit deep into me leaving an impressive hole.
My attempts to be a big brave boy are hampered by the blistering eye watering pain which does not get any better, even after a prescribed tequila and a few cold yellow fizzy beers. A very lovely and suitably concerned local girl tells us where there is a patch of plants near the shoreline with distinctive large green leaves. Our Australian is dispatched to collect some. They are then steeped in hot water. My foot is placed in a bowl of this slightly stinky green leaf tea. To my great relief the pain dissipates very quickly. I’m good as gold within minutes. We ask our wise new friend what the leaves are called for future reference. They are a traditional native medicine she tells us. The local name for them is Curamantaray ….. of course.
Incredibly our jungle jeep is at the stage where our good mechanic is eventually happy to allow me to drive it. I only have a few days before I’m heading North so I arrange to collect the beast and test drive her for a day or two and return it for any required modifications while I am away. It’s looking pretty and immediately attracts a considerable amount of attention. There is no roll bar yet and no seat belts so I take it very easy. I get almost 10 miles before it splutters and cuts out. I am very lucky and manage to glide the thing off the highway onto a rare bit of side road. I would have had nowhere to go and been totally buggered (on one of the most dangerous roads I know) if it had cut out anywhere in the previous 3 miles.
There is much fiddling with leads and battery as I bake in the hard sun. My first mistake was not to have a hat, sun screen or sun glasses in a vehicle with no roof. Lesson learnt. The gods are with me today as I loaded a can of petrol. The petrol gauge is showing a quarter tank but I am suspicious. Sure, enough after a refill she starts up like a champion and I’m on my way to the nearby Pemex for a fill up. Second lesson learnt.
I make it to the beach at Lo De Marcos and grab a drink at our new local. The beast looks the part but needs some work. There are a few too many rattles and driving it at any speed does make one feel somewhat vulnerable. It’s when I steer off the highway that things become interesting. The spring suspension has had the benefit of some hydraulic additions which have made the ride noticeably solid. The journey to La Colina is very slow and eventful. It’s a tadge bumpy. I can describe every rock and divot by feel. My bum-bone appears to be hitting the top of my head. I park near the pool and get out slowly. I’m walking funny. My spine is knotted and my arse feels bruised and sore. This thing could be the end of me. Slowly spanked to death. Modifications are indeed required.
The time has come. I’m on my way out of my hot wet jungle to hot arid Reno to prepare all the many things required to allow us to survive in the dust of the Black Rock Desert for the coming weeks ahead. My lists of things to do in the next week are long and terrifying. I am meeting Jayne in 4 days. We intend to be leaving the delights of Reno almost immediately afterwards to collect our junk filled trailer which we haven’t seen in two years and then live in it for a number of weeks in an impressively inhospitable environment. No pressure.
The Black Rock Desert is a thousand square miles and sits at 4000 feet. The playa is a lake for many months of the year but when the heat starts to get very silly it dries up to a salt flat. This is one of the few places where land speed records are attempted as it is so level and featureless. It’s tough to avoid the effects of altitude and severe dehydration on the body as the salt in the air draws moisture away from the skin and breath. I don’t sweat out there. It’s zero humidity. That said the temperatures often reach well over 100ºF during the day and can dip below freezing once the sun sets. Dust storms are a normal occurrence, and in whiteout conditions, winds often reach around 70mph. There are few living things out there on the playa. No birds in the sky, no plant life to speak of and if there are some poor unfortunate bugs or creatures found they are usually imported from visiting vehicles or reluctantly blown in on the wind. .
For reasons best left to myth and mystery this is the chosen venue for the Burning Man event. A temporary commerce free city is created for a population of around 70 000 for one week. Money is not a thing in Black Rock City as the only things you can buy are ice at two places and in one location coffee. It’s a gift economy. Bring everything you need and give away what you can . It’s the 4th biggest city in Nevada for one week of the year and attracts a stunning concentration of art alongside extraordinarily diverse creativity. After the event participants are required to take everything they brought with them back with them. When the legendary playa restoration teams are finished there is no sign that anyone was there. A true “leave no trace” event.
This is the 13th time I have been involved with Burning Man in Nevada. My “burn-mitzvah”. This is a clear indicator that the event still holds enough of an attraction to me that I am prepared to invest the considerable amounts of time, resources and gut lining required to be there. It is an environment that tests and refines ones physical & mental stamina. Why I chose to put myself through this is a long story. Years of unique experiences are hard to summarise. How does one explain the unexplainable? I will, however, try and give you a flavour of what captured me in the first place and inspired me enough to keep at it. The photos show art pieces from this year.
I first heard about Burning Man around a campfire at the Glastonbury Festival in Somerset UK in 2004. Glastonbury is the largest greenfield music and arts festival in the world. I have been there 27 times so it perhaps suggests I’m a festival junkie of some kind. That year my kids won an O’Neill competition to allow them to surf with pro-surfers in Cornwall the same week as the festival. I was committed to go but I wasn’t going to miss a surf with pros. I arranged to hitch out of the event early morning, join my family on an idyllic Cornish beach and then hitch straight back again.
Later that night I sat in a yurt sauna with my mates discussing highlights of the week. Muse, Oasis, James Brown, Joss Stone, Toots and the Maytals, Franz Ferdinand, Scissor Sisters, Black Eyed Peas and Sister Sledge were memorable enough but for me didn’t beat our day catching clean waves. This woke me up to make a pact with myself to open up to broader experiences rather than being a habitual Glastonbury junkie. Two guys had joined us and heard me babbling on. They agreed , suggested I do things differently and try out Burning Man. It sounded interesting enough but at that time I suspected that it was something I would never do.
The very next year I found myself at Glastonbury again but soon after I took a surf trip in California. The water was cold, the waves sparse and the attitude of my fellow paddlers was aloof and exclusive. Not what I imagined. At my hostel, I received an entirely unexpected and random call from Reno Nevada. A complete stranger called Fred had heard about me from someone I had briefly met the week before in a bar in San Diego. Fred had somehow decided that I was to come to Burning Man. I needed to get to Reno and he would sort out the rest. I remember after the call being marginally more intrigued than confused. Of course, I was going.
I managed to get to Reno and turned up at what I discovered was The Black Rock International Burner Hostel. A retired teacher from Reno who dedicated his time, his house and his pension to encourage and facilitate people from all over the world to come to Burning Man. I was one of them. After some quick pre-training, finding a bike, a tent, a box of trail bars and as much Gatorade and PBR (Pabs Blue Ribbon) as I could carry I found myself in a car with two girls from Montreal and my new Turkish friend heading out to whatever this thing was. About 4 hours later we arrive on the playa. It’s a few days before the event and the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. The stars were stunning and hypnotic.
I stood next to the car getting checked through a traffic gate with nothing else visible. My eyes were slowly becoming accustomed and caught something moving in the dark. I stared for a long time as the shape of a man running towards me took shape. As he got closer it became apparent that he was a big bloke, hairy, wearing a Viking helmet and absolutely nothing else. His eyes were locked on mine. He was coming at me at some pace and in the process of going for a high five/hug he knocks me to the ground. His face is very close to mine, his eyes wild and wide. He holds my head in his hands and slowly and clearly says to me … if this don’t change your life boy don’t come back…. He then gets up and runs on. I never saw him again.
Within a few hours of arriving in the dark I am throwing ropes over structures and bikes on tents as a series of storms hit. I absolutely thought Burning Man was a survival exercise in keeping beer (PBR) cold while not being blown away in a dust storm. That’s certainly a part of it but it was two days later when I woke up in a stinking hot tent that I managed to see further than a few yards away.
I took a walk with one of the Canadian girls and finally understood the scale of where I was. Our little storm blown camp of mainly Kiwis, Brits, Irish and Ozzies was but a tiny part. We walked to an elaborate temple structure. We sat and took stock of the beauty of the building and the overwhelming vastness of the place in which we found ourselves. An older man with a white beard came and sat next to us. He asked us to look into ourselves and find something that would make our hearts sing and ask for it .. out loud. Mine was easy. My surf trip hadn’t really materialised well and I wanted to surf. “Good luck with that” he said…” but you never know.. this place may just surprise you. “
We slowly walked towards where we thought our camp might be. We were lost pretty soon after leaving but lost was a good place to be. We saw it coming from a long way away. An immense wall of dust covering the entire sky to what we guessed was the South. We were armed with already well used scarfs and goggles. When it hit us we could see nothing, we held hands so we didn’t lose each other. The wind was strong but we kept walking very slowly. After a few minutes, a shape emerged and we found a guy on a tricycle who handed us cold PBR . We sat together in that spot in the dust storm until the beers ran out. The air cleared and we noticed the trike was towing a small trailer. On the trailer was a long board on springs. Our new dust storm friend was riding around offering to tow people on a surfboard! We both got to surf the playa gobsmacked.
It would take me a full dissertation to continue this story. Maybe I’ll write it one day but it’s not for now. These first few days at Burning Man truly captured my imagination and led me into a world of endless possibilities. I did listen to my naked viking friends words and have now returned a dozen more times. The very many other strange, humble, skilled, inclusive and magnificent folks I met in 2005 and since have been responsible for seeming constant further adventures. We have, together, created amazing projects large & small in all corners of the world and helped hundreds of curious travellers to experience what would have otherwise have passed them by. For this I am grateful beyond measure.
This year Jayne & I somehow have become staff at the event and have been persuaded to build a media centre and deck, then take it down again and store it in a container. It was hard work but a relatively straight forward project with a good crew which turns out to be fun & drama free. I did manage somehow to stupidly throw a lump of wood through the back window of the truck I was borrowing but I was forgiven. Eventually.
We camp in our janky trailer next to far better organised friends who are building a very large-scale metal hand that blows propane from fingers that are articulated so they form different hand signals. There was a moment when I was inside the metal forearm during a deafening pyrotechnic show using pulleys to move giant fingers. During a very hot afternoon we had to task of diverting the Bunny March (a herd of hundreds of over excited lunatics dressed as rabbits) away from our crew loading a truck of highly explosive fireworks. Not something that happens to a chap every day.
Of all the many unique moments in 2019 there was one that will stay with me. I visited the Temple this year to leave a message for my Dad. The process of leaving messages and tributes that will burn and be released is one that is a tradition here and in my experience very helpful to very many. . This year the structure was a series of portals in Japanese style. The inside is covered with photos of people who have died along with thousands of messages of love, hope and forgiveness. . I find a bench that has some space left on it and leave my Dad a message. I take along a few slugs of decent single malt Scotch. I take a drink in his honour and pour the rest on the message and leave the bottle for him. It’s emotional as hell but cathartic. I apologise to him that I couldn’t get the 10-year-old Laphroaig Cask Condition Scotch that we always drink together but under the circumstances I’m sure he won’t mind.
We then head off for a treat we have waited for a whole week for. A shower. There is an area called the Wet Spot where hot showers are available for staff. We were given a couple of passes and have saved them for this moment. A shower after a week in the dust is transformative in so many ways. 15 minutes of water has shifted all the muck and for a short time restores the feeling of not being stuck to your pants.
I am lying in the sun drying off when the girl next to me says my name. She recognises me from an event in Wales some years ago and knows many of my mates. We offer her a lift back to her camp in our truck. She is a volunteer doctor from UK who is not licensed to work in Nevada so has been learning to repair bicycles at a free repair shop. She is also an active whisky club aficionado. When she gets back to her camp she appears with a Viking horn and a sample. It’s a full bottle of 10-year-old Laphroaig Cask Conditioned ……..
Some days after everything has officially finished and all the propane has been burned off we leave a large crew of hard core lunatics restoring the playa to its former unremarkable glory. We store the trailer and make it back to Reno. We have three baths and three showers back to back. We try and find out how many of the hotel towels we can wreck. Jayne takes her flight back to Toronto. I stay on for a day or two to mend the truck window and fill myself with sushi and steaks. It takes a number of zombie days in a Reno Casino to recover enough to fly home.
I’m glad to be in the jungle again. My buddies have looked after the place (and the cats) and everyone has survived. Jayne is expected to be home and in loin cloths again as soon as November so that’s something to look forward to.
I’m back just a few days and my body has entirely changed shape again. I was feeling skinny there for a moment but like a ginger pot noodle have swollen to an acceptable size again by just adding water.
I’m writing this in the treehouse while Hurricane Lorena swings by. It’s a CAT 1 and the eye is off shore so thankfully we are getting no winds to deal with but it’s been raining hard now for a large number of hours. It’s so good to be damp again.