Burning Man: Chapter 2 Fever Breaks

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It’s fucking cold. That’s the first thought when the lightning struck. A bolt so loud and so close it made grandma half a bottle deep in Beam seam like a Shirley Temple musical. So that’s how this is going to start eh? A monsoon in the desert? Christ. My head hurts. My body is clearly ragged from the 5 hours of air travel and 9 hours in the car. Mix in the dust, cold, and general travel anxiety and I have the equivalent of a Traveler’s Pneumonia. Luckily, it’s just 5:30 am. Wait? What? Ah, shit, that’s right. Time change. Sleep it off.

So I do. And thank god. After another hour of my body not knowing if it should be hot or cold, my pounding headache and fever turn into a wet hot mess of sweat. So screw it, I’m getting up. It’s too quiet, I don’t trust it. Except for this oddly creepy ambulance running in the far corner of camp, there was no noise to think of. No birds. No bugs. No leaves. I walk over to the Street-O-Potties for the first time. No noise there either. It’s surprising how contained the downwind smell is. Still wouldn’t want to be camped next to it, but it’s not bad. I’m not a coffee person so I’ll use it as my morning wakeup jolt.

On my return to our tent, the guy in the ambulance who had stared me down walks up. “Morning!”

“Hello.” You overly cheerful-for-being-camped-out-in-an-ambulance-in-the-desert mugg, is what I am clearly thinking.

“You guys get in all right?”

“Yeah, fine. Super late. I think we made camp at like 12:30 or so.” I am soon to realize that ye old, “so when did you guys get in” is to become the conversation starter for, well, every encounter on the playa.

“Yeah I figured as much, which is why I didn’t want to go knocking on tents last night, but you guys are in a private camp area.”

I turn my head at the very clear, 300 square feet of empty space around me, and our tent. “Really?”

“Yeah, its fine. No big rush to move but anything between the blue flags is a private camp. There a vehicle restriction right now but move whenever you can. Have a good burn!”

While I struggle to figure out the origin of “sparkle pony.” I am well aware that I am one. I am also well aware, that this will be the first of many, many screw ups, pointing out exactly how sparkly, and ponyish I will be by the end of this trip. Fine. “Donovan, get your ass up. We’re being evicted.”

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A couple quick bike rides around, while completely disorienting, left us to the rather simple decision of simply walking our tent across the “street”. Funny thing about Burning Man being closed (which we didn’t know at the time and would actually change the dynamic quite bit according to some of our soon to meet friends), the streets and camping areas are much harder to find when no one is actually camping in them. Large swaths of playa left us wondering if we were in a campground or right dead smack in the middle of the Martin Luther King Boulevard of Black Rock City. So all innuendo aside, we decided to pitch a tent, for the second time in as many days in hopes of establishing our refuge on the deserted desert.

Admittedly, I was still in physical pain from the day before. With some bug making me sluggish, I recalled an old creative directors fix for all things from hangovers to flu’s, just run it out. With our bikes eager to mount, it seemed a good time to get a little exercise in, and orient ourselves around this new city of ours for the next 6 days. The research kicks in. Que Batman-like montage of us assembling ourselves for a bike ride. CAMELBACK! CAMERA! CUP! WIDE-BRIMMED HAT! SUNGLASSES! TOILET PAPER!..”ok we ready?” Yup. Let’s GO!”

“Ho ho ho hold on.” SPF-100! BIKE LOCK! GOGGLES! “Ok, let’s go.”

“Waaaaaait a sec.” PROTEIN BARS! GIFTS! FACEMASK!

Ok. Ready. Now that I look like a 54 year-old comic book guy scared of facing the world as he leaves his mothers basement for the first time. Regardless, we set off to map the playa. Our first Burning Man venture. “WE’RE AT BURNING MAN, DUUUUUUDE!” Donovan repeats for not the last time as we turn up 6:45 and head straight to the easiest landmark on the horizon, The Man.

It’s actually quite pleasant out here. Yes it’s 8 am. Most people are still knocked out from the prior night. It’s absurdly quiet. The air simply absorbs all noise and digests it with equal expedience. It’s certainly moist out as well. I am in the desert right? This cold and wet thing, is not something I had prepared for. Shake it off. There is The Man! I can see him inching closer as we pedal our bikes through the moist clay beneath. Hrm..so the playa sticks to the wheels a bit? I find myself kicking the wheels as I am riding to get the cumbersome little bits off. Ah, hell with it. BUUUUURNING MAN!!

The Man is just in front of us now. We begin to race each other a bit. I quickly wind because of this “bug”, and the apparent lack of oxygen at 4,000 feet. “There he is man, woooooooooo!” Donovan yells out as we pull our bikes to a BMX-like skid at the entrance. What are we 11 years old?

“Hey fellas” says a woman in a pink fur trimmed coat, “Y’all get in last night?”

“Yup” and something remotely bromantic like “BURNING MAN!” and a chest bump I am sure followed this sentiment, you will have to forgive me it’s a bit of a haze.

“Awesome! well you will have to come back and visit the Man later! He’s eager to meet you!”

“Woowho!!! Wait what?”

“The Man isn’t open yet, he opens today at 6 pm.”

“Um, oooooh..ok. well let’s go grab some coffee at center camp then.”

“Oooh, They don’t open till 3 pm.”

“Of course they don’t. Is all that open space out there…open?” We ask, pointing in the general direction of nothingness.

“Absolutely! Happy burn!”

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So we set forth, into deep playa. Eager to check out all of the art beginning to take shape, or at the very least, open to the public. Small things. Most will tell you, it’s very hard to impress me. As the resident Baron von Shootdown of virtually everything on the planet (something I have leaned to take pride in), I was taken aback by much of what I saw and will see in the coming days. The Embrace. The Library of Babel. Last Outpost. The Lost Tea Party. Parasolvent. The child that is me, ran amuck in the muck. Ducking in, exploring. Playing. Then, almost as a salute to being a kid again…

It began to rain.

Oh what joy and fun or dancing in the desert under a rainstorm. The beautiful cacophony water makes when it hits these structures. It was as if the art wanted to play too. So we played together, my meditation, my laughter. I was smiling. In the desert. This will not get old. It was as if the desert itself was trying to soothe me, calm me down and prepare me for what was ahead. “Relax Giac, you’ll be fine. Feel this water upon your face. Pick up your bike. Grab some breakfast. You have to continue your journey.”

I shit you not, the desert whispered it into my ear.

So with the rain settled and the day layed before us, we attempted the long bike back from deep playa. Funny thing about water, and playa. Everything that touches it becomes instant velcro. It like the playa wants, no, yearns to hug you. All of you. In large chunks. And then, once you have a decent layer of clay smeared upon your surface, you get another layer, and then another. About a quarter mile back our bikes were useless sculptures. Too heavy to carry let alone push. We left them, locked up and alone to think about how they failed us.

Now, we were left with our feet. Half mile from camp. The ground moist, and squishy. Each stomp picked up an easy pound of “stuff”. The same joy and pleasure I had once felt was quickly becoming disdain, a not so subtle reminder that in order to burn, I needed to relinquish control. All of it. You are very much just a passenger at Burning Man, letting the wave take you where it may. Sure. I’ve read this before, but not being a particularly spiritual person, I simply scoffed and called bullshit. But now, I am the one, with bullshit all over me. Particularly under my boots. A full 5 inches taller we made it back to camp, and hid until the sun came up.

Riding your bikes in the rain. Sparkle Pony Offense #2.

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Now by “hid” I mean passed out. The sheer exhaustion of making it back to camp, from 2 miles away, drained us, only to be awoken, quite fittingly, by the #HottestFeelingInMyAdultLife. Our currently unshaded structure sat directly, I am sure, with a large magnifying glass pointed straight down upon us. The rain was gone, the streets completely dry once more, and the “oh, this is the desert” feeling beginning to hit us as the sun beat down on us like a Ferguson cop. We had no real plan for a shade structure. It seemed like a “nice to have.” BRC has a way of making you think real quick about some of your prior decisions, and better yet how to fix said decisions. Luckily we had 40 feet of duct tape and 4 thermal blankets. You’d be surprised how well this works. Our neighbors around us were as well. That somehow the desert hadn’t decided to make quick moop of our little invention is something I was very grateful for. Immediately upon donning our little tent with enough thermal blankets to make Apollo 13 proud, the inside temperature went from 110˚ to about 78˚. Glorious air conditioning.

I called our little home Disco Brawl, because it was sure to be home to much internal and probably a few external arguments. It was clear that this entire ride is going to be coming in waves. Up then down. then up again. One thing that was not an argument however, was how badly we needed a mojito. You have to give it to us Philly boys. No matter how disoriented e are, you can be sure that we are going to find the open bars. Mojitos. Some Vodka..thing. Some rum..thing. Some quesadilla..thing. Everything laid bare before us.

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“Ok. I’m starting to get this, but we really need to plan this thing out.” I come to realize. SO after a full day of welcoming and revelry we head back to camp to prepare for opening night on the playa. After a quick meal pack of flavored tuna and rice, we douce ourselves with water and don our finest glowsticks so as not to be run over by the waking mutant art cars hitting the streets as darkness falls. “ready dude?” Donovan asks me, completely sincere as he was the first one to experience this just the night before.

“Yeah sure, how nuts could it possibly be?” I respond. I actually thought about this. Having experienced my fair share of NYC nightlife in it’s heyday, and a fair share of off kilter raves in abandoned places here there and everywhere, I responded in the most honest way I could. What I didn’t catch was Donovan’s smirk. A sly little number as he kicked off on his cruiser, into the darkness. So we biked onward, the music building in volume and intensity as the streets counted up from I. We were offered shots at H. The DJ in the camp at G waved us on. The art bike blowing fire at F damn near turned us medium rare. E was eerily dark and quiet. The calm before the storm? D enveloped us in a flock of LEDs, the bass from C coursed through our bodies. The cheers from B filled us with unenviable excitement, and as we burst onto the esplanade, eyes wide, mouth open, I tried to be epic. I tried to muster the words. Words to etch into history. Words I could tell my children about this very experience. Words so academic that every Harvard grad would personally quote me on every postcard form every backpacking journey they embark on from here to the end of time. Words that would completely sum up what lay before me. What came out?

“Jesus. Fucking. Christ.”

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