Late Thursday evening, our friend Jonah got into LA and we packed the car and headed up to Reno. I didn’t feel the same kind of excitement that I usually feel before the Burn — I felt calm and relaxed. I knew it was going to be an intense week, full of ups and downs and twists and turns, as every Burn is, but I felt ready for it. The Burn was no longer a strange, scary adventure for me, but a yearly ritual, a familiar pilgrimage. And this year more than any other, I felt the real sense of coming Home that I’d heard other Burners talk about.
It also made a difference that our plan wasn’t to immediately join the line of cars on their way into Black Rock City, but to spend a few days in Reno with our campmates, getting to know each other and organizing some of the infrastructure for our camp. There were 30 of us, most of us meeting for the first time, some from as far away as London and Sydney, all of us prepared to take a leap of faith and camp for a week in the desert with folks we barely knew.
From the start, it was a lot of work. We had to pick up fruits and vegetables in Reno, wash and sort them, and pack them into coolers organized by the day of the week. We had a storage facility full of couches, bikes and water barrels, everything covered in playa dust, most of which needed to be cleaned off and then loaded onto our U-Haul truck. We stayed up until 2 A.M. one morning, juggling crates and boxes like a giant game of Tetris, and had just managed to squeeze everything onto the truck only to find that one camp member had left his ticket in a duffel bag on board. This left us to climb in, dig through, re-load and re-organize — then get ready to leave for BRC the next day.
My friends and I quickly fell into what became our role throughout the week — the chill folks, slow to stress and anger, confident that if everyone stayed focused and relaxed things would all work out. We packed light — one tent between the four of us, the bare minimum of food and clothes and other supplies, a bit of weed and a few other drugs that we’d hidden in a container of coffee grounds just in case we got pulled over along the way. One afternoon, Jonah and I made a liquor run for the entire camp, sorting through plastic sandwich bags with each person’s money and liquor requests, filling one order at a time until we ended up with a thousand dollars’ worth of alcohol in the trunk of my SUV.
This was a side of Burning Man that I hadn’t seen before. I was so accustomed to driving in with a change or two of clothes and a dozen cans of chili that it was hard for me to understand why people were stressing out over bikes and sleeping pads and alcohol. It was a shock to stand in Wal-mart — a store I’d generally never set foot in — and purchase disposable Tupperware and baking trays for our camp dinners. If Burning Man had brought me to this point, then what of the Ten Principles? What of “Leave No Trace”? At what point did the hassle of having to deal with a particular item outweigh the benefits of bringing it with us?
As I wrestled with these questions — to consume or not consume — most of the camp was already heading out to the Playa. The rest of us spent the afternoon in the kitchen, preparing our opening night feast. Sam and Julie had come up with an elaborate menu — chia-infused sangria; pickled carrots; tofu, quinoa and kale salads; and date shakes for dessert — that was sure to impress the rest of the camp. It’s true — I indulged as much as anyone, drinking more in a week than I ordinarily would in a month, eating chicken, pork and beef, even though I’ve been a vegetarian for years. But I still felt a bit weird about it.
That evening, we loaded everything into our car and headed out to Black Rock City. The traffic was good to us; we made it to the gates shortly after midnight, and then had to wait in the will call line to pick up our tickets. That’s when things took a turn.
Our time at will call set the tone for the rest of the trip. Things were just slightly “off.” The line that we got into turned out to be the slowest of the bunch. Many of the folks in front of us hadn’t brought the proper print-outs or ticket confirmations, and were being sent off to “find a printer” — where, exactly, I have no idea. All the way back in Reno, perhaps.
Our neighbors in the line beside us cycled through several times while we waited. Each unfortunate ticket-seeker in front of us spent five or ten minutes at the counter, negotiating with the volunteer behind it, trying to figure out what to do and how to get their ticket.
Finally, after about an hour, we handed in our paperwork, got our tickets, and climbed back into the car. Around 4 A.M.. we made it to our campsite, dug out our flashlights and sleeping bags, and let one of our campmates guide us into the giant dome structure that would serve as our home-away-from-home for the week. Most of our fellow Carrots were already asleep.