Thomas Ross Hallock

My experiences at Burning Man 2011: Rites of Passage

(This write-up was extracted from an e-mail I wrote to my grandmother shortly after I returned from the event.)

Burning Man was a crazy and amazing event; words aren’t the best way to relate the experience, but I’ll do my best here.  Also, I was separated from my phone almost as soon as I got there, so I wasn’t able to take any pictures myself, so I’ll link to whatever I can find from searching on Google as I write this.

One person in our camp suggested that we were actually on another planet for the week in reference to the fact that we were completely cut off from the outside world with respect to communication, power, and trash, and the environment was so different than what most of are used to. (The Black Rock desert does not support any form of life during the summer.) There were porta-potties though, and lots of light to collect with the solar panel that someone brought to our camp. I brought 12.5 gallons of water from Reno but only used 8 of them.

Despite the remote and primitive conditions of the desert, I witnessed some of the most amazing and extravagant events and interactive sculpture art installations I’ve ever seen. There were many “mutant vehicles”, as they are called: one was a three story a luxury yacht that had been mounted on wheels and had a staircase extending down to the desert ground so people like myself could hop on and off as it drove around the desert at about 4 miles per hour. Another was a giant steampunk / junkyard-esque metal octopus called “El Pulpo Mecanico” that shot fire from all eight of its tentacles as well as its head. There were dozens more: several neon-lit full-size pirate ships, a soul train, and a three-story playground on wheels complete with a sliding board and a merry-go-round. One of the more elaborate installations was a giant ferris wheel-looking thing, but was actually a human-powered three dimensional persistence of vision illusion of a life-size skeleton rowing a boat. Here is it under construction. Oh, there was also a really big trojan horse (burned on Friday). Every day, a handful of skydivers would descend onto the Playa. On Friday, some did a night-jump and lit their paths with flames; it looked like a group of large comets were burning through the sky. All of these things were performed / sponsored by other people participating in and attending the event just like me.

I was camped with a group of people called “Orphan III”, a group of people that self-assembled on Facebook with no commonality other than that they weren’t already associated with another group of people. Things came together very nicely, and I got there late enough that they had already put the camp together. Someone in our camp named Cosmo brought a three-story scaffolding set in his truck, which made a nice shade structure as well as a lookout perch to see the entire camp as well as a few amazing sunsets (and a sunrise). Another person in our group brought a full-sized hot air balloon. We attempted a launch on Wednesday night. We got as far as inflating the balloon with hot air, but the wind picked up and became too strong for a controlled launch. Helping to put the launch together was still quite an experience, especially as we switched from using the cold fan to blowing flame-heated air into the balloon and letting a curious crowd gather around our flame-illuminated balloon in the middle of the night, far, far away from everything else at the event.

This was the most populated incarnation of Black Rock City yet; according to the census (yes, they take a census of everyone in attendance,) over 55,000 people were present at peak population. Although completely unsustainable, for a week this was a real city, complete with streets, neighborhoods, a post-office, a coffee shop, and even an airport. It feels like utopian community since everyone is in great spirits for the most part, but there is also a shared feeling of “the end is near” which is not limited to the event itself. Money is replaced by a no-strings-attached gift economy. There is no advertising, no dollar-signs, very little social stigma with respect to sex, sexuality, and going around naked (if you are wondering about me and these things the answers are “no”, “no”, and “no”), and no expectations (unless you are with a group of people putting on an event of some sort.) The remote location and lack of any utilities make the whole community completely unsustainable, but it works rather well for a week! Speaking only from my experiences, the whole event was much less debaucherous than what is often portrayed in photographs and documentaries. Walking around the city was in a way just as interesting and distracting, if not more so, than walking around Manhattan at day or night. Many of the camps invite passers-by in for some sort of crazy happening or activity. For example, I came upon one camp that had a central tower with an array of wires stretched down to the ground with glow sticks attached to the wires. At the end of each wire was a sling-shot that you could use to shoot the glow stick up to the tower. If the glow stick hit the top of the tower, a large explosion / flame would shoot out of the top. Another camp had a nice collection of unicycles that you could just pick up and ride around for a while. Many camps had trampolines. I didn’t drink (much) alcohol while I was there, but it was available for free and in large amounts to those that wanted it. Make-shift bars lined most streets, and it was not uncommon to see a stilt bar that catered specifically to people that were walking on stilts (or Powerisers.) One of my favorites was the roller disco camp that had a half-sized plywood roller skating rink with skates in all sizes.

I left right after the man burned on Saturday night, and was regretful that I couldn’t stay to see the temple burn on Sunday night, but plane tickets were outrageously expensive for flying out of Reno on Monday so I left a day early. I got a ride to and from the event from a guy that lives in Reno. We stopped at his friend’s property in a town called Gerlach and took a dip in the 105°F hot springs that he had in his front yard. Having not showered for the entire week and with dry cracked skin due to the extreme climate of the desert, this was the most refreshing bath I’ve ever had. The rest of the trip back to Manhattan was rather uneventful. Thanks Enid for asking how it went, I was debating on wether or not to do a write-up :)

I’m sure I missed much of what the event had to offer, but so did everyone else; it is simply too big for one person take in over the course of a week.

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