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Burning Man 2008: The American Dream, The American Nightmare

By Julie Wiskirchen

"What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It's taken me almost a year to sit down and write up this experience. I'm not sure why I've avoided it. It may just be that it's taken that long to really process it. Well, I may never really process it. But the story should be told. And I think writing it will help me understand why I'm probably taking a year off from Burning Man this year.

I spent 11 days in the desert for Burning Man 2008, and I lived to tell. There were a few times out there I had my doubts.

This was my second trip to Burning Man. You can read about my first trip for Burning Man 2007 here.

Journey into the Playa

This trip involved a lot of prep. I again was traveling with my friend Massive, who has very big dreams. We learned that carrying out those dreams as a mere team of two is really not the way to go. But thanks to his indomitable spirit, we did get most of it done. Let's just say we don't travel light. An entire flatbed semi-truck had to be rented to get our gear to Burning Man. The contents of the truck included a shipping container, 3 Big M Containers (his ingenious design for a pod-type Burning Man storage unit / camp kitchen and pantry, which we planned to use at our camp and promote to other burners), and the trailer for the Big Ms, which was formerly a trailer used to haul jet engines. We followed the truck in a pick-up truck towing another overloaded trailer full of couches, art projects, camping supplies, etc. To meet the schedule of the truck, we had to drive straight through from LA to Burning Man, about 600 miles. At night. Let's just say we were bickering and exhausted before we even got to the playa, and then the real work began.

Pre-Festival Weekend

We arrived on Friday morning, and the festival doesn't open until Sunday night. We were camping with Silicon Village, a big theme camp, and some of their friendly members greeted us and showed us to our spot. The big advantages of being with this camp were that they would grant us access to their large generator, so we'd have power, and we could use their communal chill-out and bar facilities.

As exhausted as we were from driving, we had to immediately set up our camp during the heat of the day. And again, let me reiterate, it was just the two of us. Others would join us, but not until later in the week. We wanted to be early so that we could set up a big art project - The Mayflower. We'll get to that.

Our first priority was to set up a shade structure. We went to the compartment in one of the Big Ms where we had stored the car canopy tent, not in its box and without its directions. We took out all the pieces. It seemed like there were poles missing. We visited some neighbors and looked at their similar tent. Yes, we definitely didn't have enough poles. Sigh. How could we have managed to bring everything under the sun yet forget some tent poles? Were they lost in the shuffle of last year's dusty unpacking? Dejection began to set in, and we were hot.

At least we had the shipping container for shade, however it was full of stuff that needed to be unpacked. So we got busy unpacking. Our neighbors, the Merry Do Wells, arrived, and injected us with some spirit. They unpacked and set up their camp with the precision of a military unit. Not suprisingly, they were experienced burners - some of them had been going for over 10 years! They each had a car canopy with their tents under it, and it was all constructed like a neat little village. They were extremely generous with offering shade, food, and provisions to us.

For shelter, we had bulit a hexayurt in LA. These are quite ingenious - check out this site on how to make one. The hexayurt required a little more set-up on the playa. It was a windy day, and we had other things to attend to, so we didn't get it set up for the first night. We stayed in my basic pop-up tent.

Despite my whining, I'll say it's kinda neat to be in Black Rock City before most of the people arrive. It feels like real camping, quiet at night, without thumping bass. It's cool to watch the city grow day by day, like the living organism it is.

Building the Mayflower

Our intention in arriving early was to get The Mayflower set up. The Burning Man 2008 theme was The American Dream, and our project riffed on the theme and our camp theme of Puritanica. This art piece consisted of 4 large leather and wood restaurant booths, salvaged from our beloved Lowenbrau Keller, a restaurant that had recently closed. Scattered leather cushions from other booths would fan out around these four booths, to create a sort of Stonehenge effect. The booths were positioned back to back so that you could sit in one direction and watch the sunrise, and sit in the opposite direction for the sunset. Between the booths would be a table holding a concrete block with PVC pipes jutting out in all directions and light bulbs, blinking in time to music, like a giant flower. A generator would power the lights at night. This would be in the deep playa, like an oasis for the truly intrepid explorers, a restaurant at the end of the universe, if you will.

Early efforts to set up The Mayflower didn't go well. These booths are really freakin' heavy. Luckily, we got an assist from one of our neighbors, Ajax, in moving them out there. The first couple of days were beset with dust storms, and it's just impossible to work in a dust storm. We worked on the project in stages, when the weather allowed.

We still didn't get our hexayurt built, because we were focusing on the art. On the third night, the wind was so fierce that it broke one of my tent stakes, and the tent collapsed around us. Homeless, we turned to the Merry Do Wells who offered shelter, but had no extra tent, so we were under a car canopy but still somewhat exposed. That night, it was so windy that I woke up with my face in a pile of sand. My pillow and face were nearly buried. Good times.

On Monday, we became determined to finish the art project, as the festival was now underway and we wanted to enjoy it, dammit. With Ajax, we drove out to our spot in the deep playa and began putting the pvc pipes on the base and screwing in the colored light bulbs. The wind was picking up again, but we chose to ignore it. After a couple hours, we had all the light poles attached to the concrete base. Massive wanted to put the concrete base on a small table at the center of the 4 booths. Ajax and I worried that it might not hold in the wind. We tried it anyway. A gust of wind came and knocked the whole apparatus over. It was like watching our dream collapse before our eyes. I've rarely felt so heartbroken, as I did that day, trying to pick up pieces of shattered colored light bulbs from the sand. Burning Man has a "leave no trace" philosophy, and we had just smashed a bunch of light bulbs into the sand. Massive set up the block again, and this time it was on the ground not the table. Ajax and I kept picking up glass. Boom! Again the structure fell over, and this time on top of us. Fortunately, nobody was injured, physically. Massive pretty much wanted to give up at this point. We felt broken. I suggested we brace the block between the 4 booths, in the center, on the ground. They poles wouldn't get to sway as much, but the booths should brace them. This appeared to work.

Crisis averted, we went back to camp, as the wind was picking up. Massive and some others wanted to go to a happy hour across the city. I had my doubts the event would be happening given the weather. I was exhausted to the bone and anticipating another night of homelessness as we still wouldnt be able to build our hexayurt in the wind. I crawled into the shipping container, lay on the ground and cried for a while. I was missing my boyfriend Dave, my dog Edgar, and civilization in general. Dave and I had only been dating 4 months, but this would be our first separation. It's not that I'm so co-dependent that I can't be away from him for a week, but it's tough to not even be able to talk on the phone or email (Burning Man is pretty much cut off from outside communication). While I agree this is an important quality of the city in terms of creating a break from the default world, it doesn't make the hardships one endures on the playa any easier to take. It was only the fourth day, and I was missing him bad and wishing he'd come along. I cried in the container, moaning about my sore muscles and pitiful lack of physical fitness. And I couldn't believe I still had seven more days of this ahead of me. What if the sandstorms never stopped? I felt that if Tuesday was just as stormy, I would hitchhike into Reno and go home.

Artist's Afterglow


Luckily, the windstorms relented. My spirits definitely improved once we got The Mayflower lit up and it worked. Thank God Massive had plenty of extra light bulbs in that shipping container. It was really cool to see the project come to life at night, and to see people experience it. We would sit in the booths and eventually admit "yeah, we're the artists." People would sit a spell, eat a snack there, and sometimes sleep. They would leave graffiti scrawled in the dust on the cushions. They would read the artist's statement we'd written and look at the photos from the Lowenbrau Keller to learn about the booths' history.

It was a shame that the sand was especially lumpy this year due to some earlier storms, and it made biking difficult. So I think the deep playa had less visitors than it typically would. Still, people came on foot and in art cars. Sometimes art cars would stop and have makeshift parties near the installation. The lights would keep time to their music.

It was magical, and worth it, yes, worth every bit of it.

Things Are Looking Up

Home Sweet Hexayurt

With the big project completed, we had more time to relax. I got to finish my smaller project, The Big Puritan, and install him at the entrance to our camp. Our camp theme was Puritanica, a riff on the American Dream theme and the "burner than thou" mentality of some burners who tend to be cliquish. The Big Puritan was a mannequin that I covered in papier mache bible pages. And I attached pieces of the bible covers to his simple black suit and hat.

The Big M proved very useful. The sink was handy, and the pantry kept our food and clothes from getting dusty. Massive and Ajax also rigged up a shower to the back of it, with an evaporation pond. And we got the hexayurt finished. After sleeping outside for a couple days, the yurt felt like a room at the Four Seasons. It's big inside, and it stays cool because of the aluminum foil covering that reflects the sun. You can sleep in a lot better than you can in a traditional tent because it stays cool and dark. You can build one for about $300 in Home Depot materials, and you can reuse it from year to year, so I highly recommend it.

We had some time to begin exploring the playa and the art. I spent a lot of alone time in the temple. Last year, I came to Burning Man in a very carved-up emotional state, having lost my father a couple months previously. I wrote him a long note on a Notre Dame cap that I left to burn. This year, I found myself oddly compelled to write nothing. I related strongly to the following piece of graffiti that someone else had written: "The fact that this year I don't have much to write means I'm doing better." I realized I was feeling a lot better emotionally and happy with the current state of my life. It brought me a lot of peace to be in the temple, and I think the temple will always be my favorite place at Burning Man.

"Please help me burn without being consumed" - Amen!

There was a lot of cool art, such as Harmonic Geometry, Bummer, The End, and Tantalus. Read about all the art here. Even with 11 days on the playa, it was impossible to see it all.

That's me on the couch - being exhausted. The very useful Big M is in the background.

Dildo Art

New arrivals

On Wednesday, our campmates arrived, injecting our camp with some much needed energy. These were new friends we didn't really know - people I worked with at Google but who worked in another office, and people Massive had met at a Silicon Village party before the burn. Massive and I were running on empty, and I have to say their enthusiasm was a bit annoying to me because I was so tired. I badly wanted to have energy to party, but the work of setting up camp and the art has just worn me down, and the desert conditions weren't really allowing for renewal. Still, we all got along well and had some good conversations in our lounge area, during its shady periods. The shipping container made a good windbreak and actually provided a lot of shade, although it couldn't compete with an actual canopy.

Puritanica Party

Thursday marked a full week into this journey, so it was fitting we would take a break from the playa to go into Reno. Our mission: pick up turkey legs from a butcher for a Puritan Party we were throwing that night. We had put the party into the playa calendar, so we definitely needed to make sure it happened. I was personally thrilled to get back into civilization. I loved the air conditioning in the truck, hearing radio stations other than Black Rock Radio (although it's awesome, I was homesick, what can I say).

Our first stop was the laundromat. We washed our filthy clothes and called our loved ones. These calls were as emotion-packed as the calls people on Survivor make to their loved ones when they win a challenge. I cried on the phone with Dave because it was so good to hear his voice. I bitched to Nerdia about all the problems we'd experienced while trying to also describe the feeling of having created the art piece. The thing about the Burn is that you can't really explain it to those who haven't been. You just can't really put the experience into words.

We then went to a casino and had lunch, in a real restaurant. I think we had steak and salad. Both were delicous. We had been surviving on lunch meat kept in coolers, cookies, nutrigrain bars, and canned chili. We savored every bite. Then we picked up the turkey legs, a few other provisions, more gas for the generator, and headed back to the playa.

The party turned out awesome. We donned our puritan garb and got our campmates to dress up too. Everyone pitched in to help. We threw the party in the Hair of the Dog Saloon, the Silicon Village community bar. Everyone enjoyed the turkey legs and our cranberry vodka punch. We played a weird music mix of old religious tunes. Puritanism is really antithetical to Burning Man but somehow the whole thing worked. After the party, we ventured out to the deep playa in a fellow artist's truck, checking out art and various parties. We ended up at The Mayflower in the wee hours, where we saw a couple people sleeping on the booths. This was definitely the best night, filled with camaraderie and adventure.

Burn Weekend

Massive finally got hit with the exhaustion I'd been feeling throughout the week. It hit him in a way where he basically slept for 24 hours straight. It was kinda like Rip Van Winkle. So I wandered Friday night on my own. I hung out with my coworkers for a bit, riding with them on their bicycle built for three. We checked out a camp where a band was playing Fleetwood Mac's Rumours in its entirety. I loved this and watched the whole show. I'm not really into dance music, so a lot of the Burning Man music isn't my thing. But I love me some Mac.

I continued on my own, walking around the playa. I have to say that being at Burning Man by yourself can be one of the loneliest feelings in the world. I was sober and surrounded by people who weren't sober, and they were all in big reveling groups. I felt somewhat disconnected. I was definitely being an observer that night, and I ended up at a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where I did a little participating, but, honestly, I was sorta too tired to even do the time warp.

The elements were getting to me by this point. My hands and lips were terribly chapped. I didn't moisturize enough out there and the dryness was relentless. I also didn't shower as much as I should have. I was starting to just get comfortable with my filth.

Scenes from Dust Storms. Bible Man looks kinda like Michael Jackson here.

Saturday was Burn Day. This is supposed to be the biggest party night of the Burn, but I almost slept through it because a combination of alcohol and a funny brownie did not agree with me. Luckily, Massive bullied me into going, or I'm sure I would have slept through the burn. I can't really describe the sedative effect of this brownie, but the act of putting on my shoes seemed to take 30 minutes and sapped all the strength in my broken body. We then had a long trek ahead of us on foot (last year, we rode bikes and mine got stolen on burn night) to the Man. We made it in time for the Burn, and it was cool, but I was too out of it to really enjoy it. I think we just went back to camp and went to sleep afterward. The memory fogs.

Tearing Down the Art

A lot of the rest of the the trip revolved around my desire to be back in civilization in a Reno hotel on Monday night because Tuesday was my birthday and I couldn't stand the thought of spending it on the playa. I was just really over it. So Sunday, I insisted we tear down the art project, since we could have the help of our campmates, who would be leaving that night. With a crew, the tear down was actually pretty easy and fast. The key is having a crew.

We took some of the burnables to a burn bin, including a stack of bibles that had been the base of my Big Puritan sculpture. We had a moment of heathen glee, throwing bibles into the bin. But the last laugh was on us as the burn bin regurgitated the bibles and flaming bible pages flew up and began littering the playa. Yes, God, if He exists, was not amused. In some ways, The Big Puritan project had been about me turning away from the Catholicism I was raised with. It wasn't working for me any longer, but it was hard to let go of it. At this point, I'm feeling somewhere between agnostic and athiest, but the burning bible pages reminded me that it's not easy to leave faith behind.

We noticed that our Beverly Hillbilly trailer had a nearly bald tire that appeared to be on the brink of rupturing. It made it out to the deep playa and back with a heavy load of booths, but we wondered if it would make it back to Reno.

The Temple Burn

The last night of the Burn is somewhat contemplative, definitely not as euphoric as the night the Man burns. As worn out as I was, I was still overcome by the beauty of the temple burn. And it took a long time to burn. I reflected on the peaceful times I'd had there and the notes of others that I'd read. And it was some of the last time to be with our new friends. Our neighbors, the Merry Do Wells, were really our angels, offering food, drinks, shelter, hugs - always seeming to know what we needed even at times when we couldn't speak. They represent the best of Burning Man, and it was great to share this burn night with them.

Monday: The Longest Day

We worked for 12 straight hours on Monday, packing up the camp and the shipping container. The work was just pretty much non-stop, but I had the goal of getting to my hotel suite at The Peppermill, with its hot tub and shower and promise of real food.

Massive suggested I count the tent poles of our canopy tent, so we'd know how many poles we were missing once we could match it back with the instructions at home. I took the poles out of the Big M, and smaller poles fell out of the larger poles. It turned out we had all the poles with us, but we hadn't noticed it when we first tried to set it up. We spent 11 days in the desert with only partial shade and all the time had a functional tent with us, unassembled. This is the point where you could again laugh or cry, and I think this time we laughed. It probably sounded like the laughter of insane persons.

It was dusk when we finally had everything loaded up. Poor Massive would have to return the next day to pick up the shower and arrange for transfer of the container, but he kept his word to drive me to Reno. Exodus can take a long time, but I don't remember it being more than an hour for us. But then just as we passed the town of Gerlach, the trailer tire blew out. I was wishing I still had a bible so I could read the Book of Job and see if it was any worse than what we were going through.

Luckily we were near a service station in Gerlach, and we were able to get a new tire. We finally made it to Reno right around midnight. I did get to celebrate my birthday in civilization! The tacky suite at the Peppermill was awesome. The shower felt great and so did the hot tub, although my skin was so dry that everything that touched it burned. The hot water felt like needles. Dinner was great and so was the refreshing Bud Light. I got to sleep in a real bed. In the morning, Massive made one last foray into the desert and I hopped a flight back to LA. Of course, my plane was delayed two hours, because that what how my luck was running. Dave greeted me with birthday flowers and many smooches. It was great to be home.

Lessons Learned

The main thing I learned is I'm in lousy shape and definitely not cut out for 11 days at Burning Man. 11 days of bloody nostrils, dry skin, portapotties, and nutrigrain bars. I think last year's five-day trip suited me much better. It's enough time to get acclimated and not enough time to get sick of it.

Was it worth it? Yes. The experience of being part of a large-scale art project was very rewarding. It sure would have been easier with a bigger crew, but it was still well worth the struggle.

In the end, I feel Burning Man 2008 was about creating art for me, and not about partying. Creating art is never easy, and it probably shouldn't be, if it's worth creating.

Burning Man - it's the hardest vacation you'll ever love while needing another vacation to recuperate from it.

Read my story on Burning Man 2007.

See all my photos from Burning Man 2008.

Visit the official Burning Man site.

Had a different experience at The American Dream? Did you visit our restaurant at the end of the universe? Leave your comment here.




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