My First Burn

This last week, my buddy Marcel and I attended Burning Man; a festival "dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance." It was an unbelievably huge experience, being a city that grows out of the middle of the Nevada desert and is the home of 68,000 people for only one week.

Our motivation to go was to see and meet the people behind all of the amazing applications of technology out in the middle of the desert.  We found some others who had the same motivation, and a lot more who were there for totally different reasons.  It was fascinating to get to meet both types of people, and in the end I've come home with so many new ideas that I'm still trying to digest.


I've already written an entire blog post on the building of my truck's cargo/canvas rack. Once we got to Black Rock City and hung the canvas, its value was undeniable. In the mid-day heat, being able to crawl into my pickup where it never got hot at all was a god send.
 Due to scheduling, we weren't able to roll out for BM until Tuesday, putting us there about 48 hours after the gates opened. I spent Monday night pacing the house trying to figure out what we'll immediately realize we'd forgotten once we get there. We of course packed about seven days of food, which turned out to be gross over-kill, since SO MANY other people insisted on feeding us throughout the week.

 The mechanical strength of the cargo rack wasn't enough for us to be willing to leave it as-is, so we added some additional rope Tuesday morning to structurally re-enforce it.
 After six hours of driving, we turned north past Reno, and drove off into the Nevada desert for 80 miles. There is actually a mountain range in front of us, but the smoke from Yosemite made that less clear...
 We were beaconing all week on APRS as AI6MS-10, which during the drive served to reassure our parents that we were still alive, and during the event gave us a quick and easy way to log our camp's battery voltage (which deserves it's own blog post).

The Black Rock City weather station was also beaconing, so we were really excited to see it, and the other amateur radio residents of BRC, show up on our tracker.
 We spent the ride up getting more and more excited about getting to BRC. Spoiler: we weren't disappointed.
As we approached BRC, the traffic got progressively heavier and slower. It never stopped, but we spent a long time going 20-40MPH on the highway.

Once we turned off the highway, it was another two hours until we finally got through the gate, even two days after it opened.  At the gate, they stop and search every car for contraband. This is where showing up in a pickup was a huge advantage; everything was laid out in my bed, and clearly labeled, so the inspectors spent all of about 15 seconds doing one walk-around of my truck before waving us in. They didn't even have us open any of our huge totes.

Our Camp

 Even though we managed to get to the gate road at a reasonable 430p, even 48 hours after the gate opened it still took us two hours to get through the inspection lines and into the camp. 630 didn't leave us with much time to pitch camp before dark, so we did some basic unloading, but pretty much just pitched our tents and left most of the work for Wednesday.

Here I am working on our camp's electrical system. We brought a 100W solar panel and a set of 220Ah batteries, which left us with plenty of power for our devices and lighting. I'll do a more thorough analysis of that system later.
On the side of my truck, we mounted a 6' mast for our communications systems.

  • At the top of the mast is a X-50 dual band 140/440MHz antenna for our amateur radio base station. Needless to say, our amateur radio equipment proved to be invaluable at Burning Man. Everyone else was running around fish out of water without their cell phones, and it wasn't unusual for camps to lose members for 4-10 hours at a time due to a lack of communications. Marcel and I only had difficulty getting in touch once on the Playa, and that was with both of us away from camp and on complete opposite sides of the city. I managed to climb a piece of art work and we were able to talk fine then.
  • Next is Marcel's set of bubble lights. These were amazing for being able to find our camp at night. The city starts with street names and numbers, but without street numbers, inside of each block the best you can do is saying which third you're in and what other distinctive camps you're by. We were a little worried by the top light's >1A current draw, but we ended up with so much spare electricity, we always left the bubble lights on all night.
  • Lastly on the mast is a Ubiquiti NanoStation2, which we used to establish a long-range WiFi link into center camp, which we then redistributed locally with the SSID "TheCoveredWagon" as our own little ISP. At times we had 20-30 devices simultaneously associated, which meant our Internet wasn't so great, but we did the best we could. 
After we finished building camp, it was time to gear up and strike out into the Playa.
 I was surprisingly well prepared for the desert, and didn't have any major heat-related melt-downs like I did last summer while visiting TI in Dallas. This mostly came down to some good equipment choices, and solid hydration discipline, on my part:

  • Ventec Tactical Goggles - These were hands-down the best $10 I spent for BM. You do need to modify the stock foam padding to add more ventilation (it's air-tight with the stock padding), but 10 minutes with an exacto knife fixed that.
  • A high quality bandana - It's critical that you spend more money on a good bandana than you have to. Cheap bandanas will fall apart, and the better fabric was well worth it. Between the bandana tied over my face when needed and the goggles, I was able to spend hours out in the white-out dust storms typical of the Black Rock desert, without ever even getting uncomfortable.
  • Evaporative Cooling Bandana - This one was less critical, but staying cool and hydrated in BRC is challenging and important. It was usually almost impossible to tell if you were even sweating at all out in the dust and heat, so any extra cooling was important. 
I saw a lot of melt-downs from people who showed up grossly under-prepared for the heat, or simply didn't take care of themselves once they got there. The beginner's guide that came with the tickets told us to bring at least 1.5 gallons of water per person per day. THIS IS NOWHERE NEAR ENOUGH WATER FOR BURNING MAN! Marcel and I looked at that number, shook our heads, doubled it, and came in just about right. Not counting the additional fruit juices and beers we had, we each drank about two gallons of water per day, and used an additional half a gallon for washing and cleaning. I have no idea where that 1.5gal number came from, but it is grossly wrong.
 Of course, we weren't just at Burning Man to fight the desert and see the art; we got to meet countless interesting people as well. One morning, on my way back from the bathrooms (four blocks away), I got kidnapped by a gang of men running around in bright pink ski masks and forced to join their 9am drinking party. While being held hostage, I met Nicole from Australia, who happened to be camping down the block from us, and who we spent a lot of the rest of the week chilling with when Marcel and I weren't hunting for amateur radio operators.
 While out riding around the Playa, we got caught in a dust storm and got to sport our matching bandana dust respirators.
Turns out, behind Nicole's camp was part of the Dropbox team! I got to bend their ears for 30 seconds and bitch about how I hate how their protocol discovers other hosts on a LAN for Dropbox LAN Sync before we all went back to partying and having a good time.
At Burning Man, when you sit down with someone and get them talking, they almost always have some kind of story. We met dozens of people, but one good example was our next door neighbor, Crafty, who had just bought this old LA transit bus that someone had converted into a camper. He has plans for how he's going to fix it up and convert it for future camping trips and burns. He was a cool guy, and even gave us a pair of flooded lead-acid batteries he didn't want any more. Thanks Crafty!

Artwork at Burning Man

 A huge part of the BM experience is all of the artwork that just permeates life in BRC.
 There is almost no way to give a sense of scale out on the Playa. You can go out there and walk for half an hour and then stumble upon some random lone piece of artwork that is just as interesting and neat as anything put up in the core of the town.
People's costumes were hilarious as well. We were walking home from the man when we encountered a guy trying to teach a group wearing wedding dresses how to ride a single-wheeled gyro scooter.
 At the heart of the city is the Burning Man, which this year consisted of a four story UFO and the classic man, which stood 112 feet high and is at the very center of town, geometrically. Whenever I got lost or disoriented in town, I'd just look for the Man and center camp (at 6:00 and B) to get my bearings again.
 If you thought the art was impressive during the day, you get floored again once the sun sets and the lights come out.
 The party and club scene was fast and hard. The number and scale of clubs built downtown was amazing.
 The fire art was also impressive.

Some of my favorite pieces of art weren't the huge 100 foot tall installations, but the snarky burning man humor that you found in the most unexpected places, like the bathrooms.

One of our new Burner friends, Tug, uploaded some great HD video from his RC planes and copters:

Black Rock City Airport

 Thursday, Marcel, myself, and some of our newly found burner friends wandered out to the city airport to admire all of the planes flying into BRC.
 Marcel was in charge of nerding out the most on this adventure, but after last summer in Arizona (post 1, post 2), I had a good time looking at the planes as well.
Of course, when you're in Rome, talk to the Romans. The pilots were some of the friendliest people we met all week, and several of them gladly offered to give us fly-overs of the city the next morning before it got too hot. YES! The next morning, Nicole and I got to go up with Wizz Bang, and had a great time getting a birds-eye view of the city.

 Hey look! It's our camp way out in the burbs. That's what we get for showing up 48 hours late...

Needless to say, we had an amazing time. Thank you thank you thank you Wizz Bang!

City Life

 Probably one of my favorite parts of Burning Man was actually one of the most normal. Even though 68,000 of us were stuck out in the middle of a freaking desert for a week, with almost nothing other than what we brought, a thriving city with things you'd expect in any city still came to life, even if always with little Black Rock twists.

 The clubs were, of course, numerous and impressive.
 I found at least two radio stations in town, with everything you'd expect; talk shows, interviews, music, etc.
 The ad-hoc network infrastructure worked surprisingly well. Tons of 5GHz WiFi gear for the long-range links between the city's uplink and everyone who needed (or in our case, wanted) Internet.

 Of course, every city would be incomplete without a skate park and a bowling alley. BRC certainly would be.

 The dining scene was also surprisingly lively, considering that money is strictly passé in BRC. The Farmers market was a huge bust at the end of the week, since most of their fruit had already spoiled, but that's what you get for having a farmers market in the middle of the desert after five days without modern refrigeration.
 The Temple of Whollyness was a very good place to go collect oneself and morn past losses.

Marcel and I even managed to find the 30kW power plant that powers lots of the major lighting installations out in the middle of the playa. Power lines were simply buried in the dust. Eve was doing her best keeping the dust off the panels, but it was kind of a losing struggle.


 Saturday morning, we were having breakfast and looking around, and realized that no one had left yet... We had heard horror stories from years past for when the weather was as nice as it was this year and everyone stayed until the last moment. Getting out of BRC involves driving down a single two lane highway going through the nearest town, so when 68,000 people all wait until the last moment, the traffic is HORRID. We both have lots of things we need to get done this week, and didn't have time to get caught in traffic, so we decided to cut out a day early.
 The only way that you can even tell we camped here was a few stake holes. Unfortunately, this seems to be unusual; we saw camps doing all sorts of awful things to the playa surface below their camps, primarily while packing. I saw one camp dump hundreds of gallons of shower grey water on the clay surface while they were packing up, and then justify it with "well, it'll all evaporate eventually." Watching people take Hollywood showers every day was unbelievable and disappointing.
 An hour and a half after we started packing, we were ready to roll out. Our total waste production for the week was 5.5 gallons of grey water and a four gallon bag of trash. We were disappointed watching other camps being much more wasteful than that throughout the week...
Finally back in Sunnyvale, and still covered in Playa dust. I spent all day Sunday and some of Monday cleaning, and you can still find dust in my equipment and truck.

My Thoughts

After spending a week out on the playa, and all weekend digesting what I got out of it, I'm coming away with really mixed feelings as to what I thought of Burning Man. I met tons of interesting and smart people, and had an amazing time, but it was hard to get over the surprise that for every awesome person we met and hung out with, we saw a lot more losers and people who clearly weren't interested in experiencing Burning Man beyond being a tourist or bucket lister.

There were entire blocks of camps where people drove up in their RVs, dropped a gas generator out the back, and watched Black Rock City drift by. Maybe they really were testing their self-reliance by renting an RV and still taking a shower every day, but Marcel and I were pretty disgusted.

I understand that everyone came to Burning Man for different reasons. Every technology person we talked to wished there were more technology people, and every art person wished there was more art people there, but what value were the fields of RVers adding to BRC? I couldn't convince myself that these people didn't see BM as anything more than another experience like hiking the Inca Trail or visiting the Great Wall of China. Talking to them, I got this under-whelming sense of anti-intellectualism that I REALLY didn't expect to be getting at BM, and couldn't figure out how they didn't think of the place as much more than the highest density, shittiest, most expensive, and most interesting camp ground they had ever camped at.

What they were (or weren't) trying to get out of BM shouldn't have bothered me, but the shear number of them made it hard to find a camp site or even the other interesting people I was looking for. I worked damn hard to get to BM and to leave at the end of the week with such a small impact on the environment; watching others take the easy way out invariably cheapened my experience.

Does this mean I didn't have a good time? Lord no. This has been the most thought provoking week of my entire life. Do I think I'll ever go back? I'm really not sure. The cost and work to get there is really prohibitive, and to meet the same kind of people, I can spend less money and energy and meet them at other events.

If someone came to me and said "Kenneth, we need an engineer for our camp. We'll take care of the hard stuff like food and logistics; just bring your electrical and communications systems," I'd think really hard about saying yes. Will I grab one of my buddies and do what Marcel and I just did again? No, probably not.

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