I arrive at San Francisco airport around midday. Despite an overnight flight from Ireland on which I barely slept, I’m feeling fresh and awake. Must be the excitement – it’s my first time in California.
I clear customs and then head towards the car rental office to collect our vehicle. We’ve booked a Chrysler ‘Town and Country’ minivan to be our home for the next week as we attend Burning Man. I’m a bit apprehensive, having never driven in America before. The car itself is cheap but additional GPS is $100 extra – a luxury I decide not to take. Stupidly, I also decide not to buy a local sim card.
As I drive out of the airport I realize I have no way of navigating. All I have is the address of the house in San Francisco where I need to meet the others. Fortunately, my sense of direction is spectacular as always and after a few hours and multiple stops to ask for directions, I eventually find it.
After introductions and coffee, we all pile into the car and head out to get supplies for Burning Man. The only large Walmart is on the other side of the river in Oakland so we drive off there. We have ordered the majority of our campsite equipment online so all we really need are a few supplies and, of course, bicycles. Now, if you’ve ever been to Burning Man you will know that it has a fair amount of bicycles – pretty much the whole supply of California. We didn’t know this, so all that’s left when we get to the Oakland Walmart are three children’s BMX’s.
What can we do? We need bikes. So we buy them up anyway, grab some torches, batteries, cooking gear and other crap and head back. Naturally, we get completely lost on the way back, drive over the Golden Gate bridge twice, go through some tunnel, end up on an island and eventually get home late that night.
I wake up and somebody is rocking my bed. Am I drunk? Where am I?
“Stop it”, I protest, groggily.
“Earthquake!” somebody shouts.
It’s dark and the room is moving but I can just make out the figure of a person as they run to stand under a door frame. I want to move but before I can react, it’s over.
“What happened?”, I ask.
“Nevermind”, someone says. “It was just a minor earthquake.”
We go back to sleep.
I wake up and look around. The room has not collapsed.
“I had the weirdest dream.”, I say. “There was an earthquake.”
“Oh no, that really happened.”, a friend replies.
Apparently, nobody else is fazed. Welcome to California.
We pack the car, pile in and head off for our first ever visit to Black Rock City, Nevada
On route, we stop at another Walmart and buy a ridiculous amount of water. For some reason, the girls think we need five liters per person per day. I know there is no possible way we’ll drink even half of it but I don’t bother arguing. I buy whiskey.
Unfortunately, it means we need to strap the bicycles to the back since the car is now 50% water.
The drive is beautiful and we listen to some ridiculous Jamaican gabba-core and stop for $1 tacos at Del Taco in Reno. On arrival, there is a huge queue of cars – as expected. After a few fun hours chilling out in the car, listening to music and moving a meter per hour, disaster strikes.
It starts to rain.
The problem with rain in a hard, parched desert is that the ground soaks it up and turns to thick, solid mud. Driving is impossible. The gate staff walk around between the endless lines of cars and campervans, breaking the news to those waiting in line: we won’t be moving anywhere soon. It’s getting dark and the rain doesn’t look to be letting up, so we put the seats down and settle in for the night.
Morning brings clear skies and sun but our renewed hope is quickly quashed – until the ground dries completely we can’t move. Fortunately, we’re surrounded by a veritable gaggle of party-hungry ‘burners and it doesn’t take long for things to kick off. Behind us, a campervan sets up a sound system and initiates a dancefloor while our neighbor to the left lights up a barbeque and starts cooking some wagyu beef burgers. We dance, drink, smoke and play boomerang until eventually, towards evening, we can finally move.
Once inside we head straight for a friend-of-a-friends campsite. We haven’t actually booked into an official camp but they’ve kindly offered to let us park off in the space behind them. We set up the campsite as best we can and explore our surroundings. Despite it being our first night, nobody is too keen to party. I guess it’s been a long day. After a few drinks in a nearby wooden tower-like structure, we head to bed early.
Day 1 – Drunken Exploring
We choose to spend day one getting associated with our immediate neighborhood. After discovering the bacon stall and getting free breakfast, we find a funky little bar with sofas. We make friends with a funny American guy, have some free mojitos and mess around with an animatronic Santa Claus. Moving on, we discover a make-up stall and proceed to cover ourselves in all kinds of paint and glitter. Typical burning man styles.
The day proceeds with us exploring various camps and bars, getting progressively drunk and eventually dancing the day away in one of the many music camps. In time I find myself gesticulating to techno music in a gay bar wearing nothing but white hotpants and fading makeup. I watch from my podium inside the pink elephant as a giant set of teacups roll past with half-naked concubines hanging from conveniently-placed windows.
Day 2 – Playa Friends
Time to check out the real Playa. After some coffee and questionable canned breakfast, we get on our child-size BMX bikes and head in to explore the center – towards the very man himself. If you haven’t been to Burning Man, it’s difficult to accurately describe how big it is. Just the surrounding campsite itself is like a medium-size, horse-shoe shaped city, and in the center is a huge open desert the size of about thirty football pitches. Even on a bicycle, it would take an hour to cross. It doesn’t help when there is an endless collection of entertaining structures and artworks along the way.
We end up playing a game of makeshift ten-pin bowling which we have to win in order to use the toilet and then spend a few hours playing piano on a tree made out of mirrors. We take numerous photographs with half-dressed passers-by and climb rickety-looking art pieces that turn out to be exceptionally stable.
The sound of a beat draws us towards Distrikt, a huge dancefloor playing some exceptionally good techno from a bizarre stage setup. As the heat becomes too much we find shelter in a chill area serving free cider and spend the afternoon lounging on pillows as sobriety evades us.
The night is dark and full of color, one dance floor to the next. An octopus shoots fire from its mechanical arms as a neon yacht sails off into the night. Flashing lights, smoke, and explosions come from every direction… a carnival of chaos.
Day 3 – Temples and Castles
We awake in our tents. Somehow we made it back. It’s all a beautiful blur.
The bacon stall is calling but along the way, we get sidetracked and whiskey happens. A passing art car becomes a climbing gym and we get asked to join the naked morning run, but groggily decline. Some new friends have arrived and we join them in their campervan, a significant improvement on our refugee-style campsite. Joints do the rounds and conversation turns to the orgy dome and subtle hints of possible attendance. Someone points out that it would be advisable to go earlier on in the week while everyone is still relatively clean. Silence. Pondering.
Nobody ends up going.
Instead, we cycle over to the main Temple where we wander around inside, quietly reading the many somber notes people have written to those loved and lost. Afterward, we speak of climbing the nearby ‘Embrace’ structure but instead end up getting lost in the desert. A passing pirate ship on wheels materializes like a mirage out of the shimmering heat and guides us back to safety.
As evening descends we stop for drinks at a fancy looking campsite with a red carpet. We are welcomed in through thick, ornate wooden doors onto genuine Persian carpets and offered a seat at a mahogany bar counter.
“What would you like?” a well-dressed barman offers. They only stock the absolute top of the range liquors and everything, of course, is on the house. I take a 12-year old Glenmorangie on the rocks. It’s fabulous.
This is not a mirage.
The walls are decorated with hunting trophies, taxidermy, and original artworks. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling above plush leather sofas and a glass coffee table. I’ve certainly seen worse campsites in my life. We get talking to a couple who tell us they are staying in the camp to which the bar belongs. They paid $2000 each for the pleasure.
Later we cycle back across the Playa to a huge white castle that acts as a music venue. Somebody famous is playing, maybe Diplo or Skrillex, I’m not sure. We dance on scaffolding until the sun starts to rise and then we cycle back into the central area, weaving between artworks, sculptures, stalls and other drunken cyclists.
At a rest stop next to singing spheres of light we make friends with a random stranger who claims to have hitchhiked to the festival alone with nothing but a backpack. He tells tales of a wondrous place that dishes out free mimosas every morning and so we agree to accompany him on his quest.
Presently, we come across a tiny stall sitting smack-bang in the middle of nowhere, offering free hugs. A jovial, portly man in an animal costume emerges and enquires enthusiastically as to which type of hug we would like. Apparently, there is more than one type.
I forget which I chose but I’m confident it was the right one.
Hugged up and happy we continue on towards the rising sun, the promise of champagne and orange juice drawing us along. Unfortunately, our new friend reveals himself to be less than reliable and takes us on a never-ending goose chase after non-existent mimosas. We eventually abandon the lost wanderer and reconvene back at the campsite, defeated and exhausted. As we flop down to sleep in what little shade our camp affords us we are left wondering if the mimosa stall, or indeed the man himself, ever existed in the first place.
Day 4 – A Sofa, a Sandstorm, and a Robot Heart
The campsite is a mess. Dusty bodies lie sprawled around empty tins of collard greens and beer bottles. The solar-powered lights have long since stopped working. Nobody can remember when they last showered. Hangovers hang on high tensions and short tempers cast long shadows.
Wearily, I make use of the one thing we have an almost endless supply of and boil some water. I have seldom encountered a problem that cannot be significantly improved with coffee and a smoke.
Bodies begin to stir. I’m unsure of the time, or day. Did we sleep through the night? Is the sun setting or rising? The smell of bacon suggests the latter but at Burning Man, one can never be sure.
Bacon is omnipresent.
After a slow gathering of thoughts and suggestions, we decide to abandon the squalor and venture out to discover a new world – presumably one with less dystopian undertones.
Our quest delivers us to none other than Michelle Rodriquez of ‘The Fast and the Furious’ fame (and, presumably, some other movies?) She’s on a Segway.
My friend says ‘hi’.
She says ‘hi’.
I miss the opportunity to make a ‘segue’ joke.
Sheepishly, we enter the fancy campsite that she disappeared into and try to make ourselves comfortable on some huge, luxurious sofas. People are staring at us. Some of them look suspiciously like Hollywood actors. While nobody specifically asks us to leave we feel decidedly unwelcome. Maybe it’s just in our heads. Maybe not. We leave anyway.
Further down the path, we discover a camp called Sofa King, playing some exceptionally good drum & bass music to an empty dancefloor and the world’s largest sofa. We climb up onto the comfortable sofa and decide this is a vast improvement on Hollywood camp. As the day progresses the weather takes a turn and the wind picks up drastically.
We start heading back towards our home but along the way decide to take refuge in a friendly looking campsite with some beanbags and cocktails. A friend decides she wants to go find a recreational sedative meant for horses that she assures us we will enjoy and disappears into the gathering sandstorm.
That’s the last we ever see of her.
Until later that day when the sandstorm clears.
Sandstorm over and horse sedative unobtainable, we choose to rather go dance the night away at Robot Heart. Oddly enough, I find a man with a food cart gifting hotdogs in the middle of the dancefloor and graciously accept his offer of one while desperately trying to remember when I last ate.
Shortly before dawn, we accept an invitation onto a mutant vehicle that is actually a dragon on wheels heading off into the playa to watch the sunrise. Since we can’t take our bicycles we have no choice but to leave them lying amongst the piles of others at Robot Heart as its thumping beat fades into the distance and gives way to the rhythmic ambient sounds of the art car.
As the sun slowly rises we dance away on the rooftop, the mutant vehicle taking us in a wide loop that connects one end of the horseshoe city to the other. There it stops and lets people off while others come on, like some bizarre desert ferry. We hop off to look around but there isn’t much in the way of music playing this side and while looking we miss the chance to board the ferry back.
With our bicycles on the other side of the playa, we have no option but to make the long walk back through the desert. Fortunately, the trek affords us some excellent photo opportunities of which I take full advantage.
A few hours later back at Robot Heart, which is now completely deserted, we discover one bicycle is inevitably missing. It’s my favorite one too – the prettiest one, with little pink handlebar tassels and a sparkly green frame. Nevertheless, we grab the remaining one and attempt to give each other lifts back to the campsite.
Day 5 – The Man Burns
We sleep most of the day and then awake towards the evening to prepare for the burning of the man, which is set to happen around midnight. We have hotel reservations in Vegas tomorrow night, meaning I will have to drive throughout the day and can’t really party tonight. On reflection, not the best planning.
However, after five days most of us are fairly ready to get going anyway and decide it would be best to pack up now and be ready to leave as soon as the burn is over – that way beating any build up of traffic.
We wearily tear down the campsite and pile the car full of dust-covered tents, sleeping bags, and shade cloth. By the time we’re done I’m already exhausted. With the remaining bikes strapped to the back of the car, we embark on the long walk to the man where already a huge crowd has gathered.
We watch the burn, which is impressive but otherwise fairly uneventful, and then make the long walk back to the car and get ready to leave. Fortunately, we are one of the very few cars leaving and have a completely clear road out.
After driving for an hour I pull off on the side of the road to have a nap.
Everyone else is already asleep.
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