Tag Archives: Camp Pot Luck

Burning Man 2012: The Burn

After almost a full week of preparation and travel, we land in the Burning Man line.  Burning Man takes place on the Black Rock Desert Playa…a vast dry lake bed in one of the most remote parts of the mainland US.  You leave the pavement several miles north of the tiny village of Gerlach, Nevada, driving across the bare, dusty lake bed.  Arriving Sunday evening, when most of the participants arrive, typically means a long line.  I believe we waited for 4 hours, which is actually really short.

While you begin seeing all sorts of crazily decorated vehicles towing bizarrely modified cars hundreds of miles before you actually reach the event, the line is the first time when every single person around you is headed to Burning Man.  People get antsy and climb on top of their cars and RVs to look anxiously at the line stretching off into the distance.  About half of our wait time is in pure whiteout conditions, which is dangerous for driving.  After all those hours, though, you finally reach the gate, and a big sweaty pirate pulls you out of your vehicle, embraces you with warmth and conviction, and whispers, “Welcome home, brother!”  And you cry, and are filled with that unique  sense of universal community that you’ve probably never felt anywhere else.  I’ve never felt that welcomed and loved in any church anywhere.  That’s one of the special things about Burning Man.  You don’t need to “meet” anyone, because everyone there already loves you and treats you as if you’ve been best friends since kindergarten.

We arrive at our pre-agreed-upon camp location: I street at 7:50.  Camp Potluck has called this location home for the past 3 years.  It’s way out in the suburbs of the city, but we like it that way.  Any closer in and it’s crowded, noisy, and as “mainstream” as an event like Burning Man can get.  Out in the burbs you can spread out, commune with the other freaks and weirdos who enjoy a bit more solitude and breathing room, and venture into the insanity of the central city whenever you like.

It’s dark and chilly, but we have to begin the process of setting up camp.  And this is no mere pitch-a-tent camping event.  We have 2 stories of scaffolding to assemble…not easy in a dust storm after days of exhausting preparation and travel.  Hours later, the scaffolding skeleton is set up, and we’re all just too exhausted to hang the roof and walls.  So we pass out on the couches and mattresses we’ve brought for a few hours of fitful sleep before Monday arrives…the day when camp really materializes.

Camp Potluck this year consists mostly of people I don’t know.  A first, for me.  They are friends of friends.  The little social paranoia that I tend to harbor gives me pause for a bit, but one by one as people arrive, I realize that I adore them all.  We get the roof and walls of our communal structure set up, and then I get to work on the “kitchen.”  One of the challenges of Burning Man is that it’s a leave-no-trace event.  You can’t spill any liquid on the desert floor unless it’s clean water.  Which means you have to carry away ALL the waste water from your camp.  This makes kitchen cleanup incredibly challenging, so we quickly migrated from cooking at the event to pre-cooking and deep freezing everything, and using solar ovens to thaw and warm dinners before eating them.  We use paper plates and chopsticks, and these get burned each evening in a community burn barrel.  We eat dinner at sunset each night, and camp members typically bring new friends they’ve met that day, as well as folks from neighboring camps who prefer our food to their own.  And this is what Burning Man is about for me.  It truly embodies the spirit of celebration and community when a group of total strangers sit down to share a meal together.  Even if the conversation is slow, to begin with…after a few minutes, the food and wine bring people’s souls in line, and the conversation buzzes until late in the evening.

And then it’s time to switch from day costumes to night costumes, which must be warm, and must light up so that you don’t get run over in the dusty, low-visibility desert night.  (The daytime temps at Burning Man can soar into the low 100s, while nighttime temps plummet into the upper 30s sometimes.)  Burning Man is a very different city depending on the position of the sun.  During the day, it’s a combination of yoga, giant slip and slides, art tours, hot-pepper-eating competitions, snow cone stands, naked twister, musical and art performances, and workshops on everything from DIY solar power to juggling to grief recovery to pickle making.  At night, it becomes a neon wonderland full of interactive art, mutant vehicles belching flames, people juggling and spinning fire, and massive dance parties.  I happen to prefer the daytime to the night, but I typically venture out into the evening insanity a couple of times.

While only a select few images can capture the true feel of Burning Man, video tends to do a slightly better job.  So here’s a 4 minute video I strung together of various Burning Man scenes:

The art at Burning Man is simply astounding.  Some are twisted fire sculptures with multi-colored flames that change in color and intensity as you move around the sculpture, allowing you to directly interact with it:

We stumble across a massive pirate ship that looked as if it had wrecked into the desert centuries ago when this was still an inland sea.  Exploring all the decks of the ship took almost an hour, rubbing dust off of bottles with preserved pig fetuses, taxidermied mongoose and owls, stacks of old books and maps, broken bottles, and frayed ropes.

Then it’s out into the Deep Playa.  Miles of empty desert punctuated by art projects.  From sculpture to sculpture we flit, until we are almost 5 miles from camp, at the border between Burning Man’s deep playa, and a stretch of uninhabited desert that extends a hundred miles north to where the mysterious Quinn River sinks into the playa in a sea of endless mud that will swallow a vehicle or human whole.  At this boundary exists the Black Rock Bijou…a movie theatre.

“Welcome to the Bijou” sings a strapping, young, bare-chested lad with a bowtie around his neck and tuxedo pants, as he opens the door to this theatre on the edge of the universe.  “Can I offer you some candy?”

He waves his hand at a glass wall, behind which is a treasure trove of old-fashioned candies…juju beans, red hots, and chocolate bars.  Not a fan of candy myself, I graciously decline, but my friends stick out Halloween trick-or-treat hands, which are promptly filled with sugary sweets.

“Please,” says lad as he gestures toward a tiny door about 3 feet tall, covered with a thick velvet curtain.  “Come into our theatre!  The show has just started.”

Feeling a bit like Alice, I duck down through the tiny doorway, and emerge in a different world.  A black-and-white film flickers on a silver screen at the head of the room.  Velvet seats stretch from the screen backward and above my head, to the dual boxes on each side that are currently occupied by fairies and bunny rabbits, respectively, whose gazes are transfixed on the screen as they shovel juju beans into each others’ mouths.  The woman on the screen…a young Marlena Dietrich by the looks of her…is indulging in a bubble bath.

It’s too much to process.  Here I am in the middle of the most remote desert in the lower 48 states.  I’ve just walked into a vintage theatre, 20 miles from the nearest road, through a tiny velvet doorway, and inside are people in the wildest of costumes, enraptured by a silent film.  The Black Rock Bijou perfectly encapsulates the bizarre reality of Burning Man.

Then a visit to The Temple…always my favorite spot at Burning Man.  The Temple is a grand structure, envisioned by a different artist each year and built by a legion of volunteers.  The Temple means different things to different people.  Some treat it as a place of religious pilgrimage…a sacred spot for quiet communion with their spirituality.  For some, it’s a place for sunrise and sunset yoga.  For others, it’s simply the nearest shelter from a dust storm.  But for most, it is a place to bring their fears, regrets, losses, and triumphs from the past year (or decade, or lifetime), and leave them there forever.  Because at the end of the event, The Temple is burned.

You probably remember my blog from last year where I shared with you some of the more poignant Temple graffiti.  This year I’ve made a short film, but before that…a few teaser photos to help explain what The Temple is about:

This last one is so powerful to me.  Burning Man is such an important event to so many people, that for some afflicted with terminal illnesses, it is their final earthly act before death.  The person who wrote this is staring death in the face, and made a pilgrimage to The Temple to express their final message.  In the video, you will see an envelope left by a young woman who passed on before the event, but who wanted to send some special items to be burned in The Temple after her death.

So without further ado, please sit back for the next 7 minutes and absorb the images from this film.  They will make you cry.  They will make you laugh.  Some viewers will be offended.  Most will be uplifted.  Watch it 2 or 3 times.  Then share it with someone you love.

In case you were wondering, the soundtrack for the video was graciously provided to me by my new friend Jordan, a young artist in the UK with an extraordinary musical talent.  Not only does he have a haunting voice, he plays the piano, harp, and a variety of wind instruments.  If you’re looking for some soothing music, check out his YouTube channel.  (Thanks, Jordan, for letting me use your music.  I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you the past few days.)

The Temple.  This year’s Temple was easily the most stunning of any year I’ve experienced.  The sheer number of delicate scroll cuts that it took to assemble this massive ornate structure just blows my mind.  The artist/architect is David Best, who has designed 7 Temples at Burning Man.  He simply outdid himself this year.

The Temple burns…The Man burns.  Most of the art burns.  Some critics of the event complain that it’s a waste of creativity and resources.  I think it’s extraordinary.  To be able to share the experience of a particular piece of art with only a handful of others, before the art disappears in flames, makes that experience even more cherished.  Even more special.  And while part of me would love to see my favorite pieces of art at Burning Man again year after year, the destruction of the art requires that artists step into creative roles again, and new wonders materialize each year.

Back at Camp Potluck, we prepare for our big Playa Potluck…held each year on Friday at sunset.  We’ve all dressed in red for our parade to promote the event and invite the neighborhood.  And then everyone is scrambling to set out food and prepare for the onslaught.  We have a separate table that is vegetarian/vegan safe, and then a table that omnivores can enjoy.  Guests begin to arrive, bearing their own leftovers, bottles of liquor…some come empty handed and look a bit sheepish.  I hug them, put a plate in their hands, and assure them that, like everywhere else in this extraordinary city, all we ask from you is your presence.  We are thrilled to share what we have to share.

For several hours, we feed people of all ages and Camp Potluck is overrun with conversation and celebration.  And the exciting thing is that we are starting to establish a reputation.  All around the city, our camp members (most of whom are experiencing Burning Man from the first time) are asked, “Where are you camped?”  When they reply, “Camp Potluck at 7:50 and I,” they are starting to hear, “Oh, I love you guys!  Your camp is so friendly.  You guys shove food in my mouth every time I walk past!”  Later on, at the burning of the Man on Saturday night, a young man that I didn’t recognize with a foreign accent, turned around in a crowd of 60,000, ran up to us and shouted, “Hey, Camp Potluck!  Thank you!  Best falafel I’ve ever had!”

Camp Potluck

It’s a far cry from my first Burning Man experience, when everything that could go wrong went wrong, and I felt like an outsider…an observer…like I didn’t belong there.  Now, I almost feel like people will miss us if we’re not there.  It feels good to be needed.

While surfing through Burning Man information this evening, I discovered a quote from Larry Harvey, the man who claims to have invented Burning Man, and who retains creative control over the event.  (Needless to say, he’s a very controversial character.)  But this is the single best quote about Burning Man I have ever heard:

“Burning Man’s concept is to blend life and art so you can’t tell the difference.”

I’d say it does a pretty good job of that.

Raspberry and Denis and I leave Burning Man at 5am on Sunday morning.  And the adventure is not nearly over.  I won’t be home for another week, and in that time I will experience a Russian bath house, a hot spring inside a volcano in the most remote part of Nevada, and a hidden Anasazi ruin that requires traversing a narrow land bridge with thousand foot cliffs on either side.  So you’ve got a lot more to look forward to.

But for now, I leave you to think about your life.  For those of us who “go home” to Burning Man each year, we come back to the “default world” and experience a strong disconnect.  Now, we can’t act or look however we feel.  There are expectations from our society, and if we act or look different than them, we are treated as “not serious” or even subhuman.  Now, we can’t walk up to a stranger who looks like they’re having a bad day, give them a massive hug, and drag them out of the street and into our home, pour them a glass of wine, make them eat a plate of Pad Thai, without someone calling the police.  Now, we have to think twice about how we answer the standard question, “How are you today?”  Because, at Burning Man, you actually tell people exactly how you’re doing…because they genuinely want to know.  In the default world, we have to say, “Fine, how are you?” otherwise people get uncomfortable.

Burning Man is a place where people connect in meaningful ways instantaneously.  It is a place where everyone truly loves everyone else.  Even if they’re loud, smell bad, say offensive things, or believe things that are diametrically opposed to what I believe.  The world could learn a lesson or two from those crazy hippies who gather in the desert each year to burn sculptures…

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Burning Man: Initial Thoughts

I am back in Los Angeles from the Burning Man festival.  As usual, I return from Burning Man (which we “burners” refer to as the “real world”) to the “default world” (the world we all live in on a dailcamp potluck at Burning Many basis) and have trouble assimilating back into said “default world” because it’s so different from the “real world” of Burning Man.

Words generally fail any writer (except for the poet) who attempts to describe Burning Man.  So, rather than immediately try to express my feelings about my third Burn, I will just tell you all some notable events that transpired during the week.

Ben Starr at Burning ManOur camp, which we decided to call Camp Potluck this year, was significantly bigger than before.  This year we had 17 planned camp residents, made up from 3 totally disparate groups who met each other at last year’s Burn and who really clicked.  This year we decided to join forces to better spread the joy of food and drink throughout Burning Man.  We had several brilliant design and technical folks in our camp this year, and they designed this wonderful Bedouin-style shade structure which included a second-story balcony which provided an amazing view of this temporary city of 53,341.

Early in the week I began meeting MasterChef fans who recognized me despite my blue hair and big sunglasses and crazy costumes.  Notable among the fans were Erica Douglass (http://www.erica.biz/) and Brian Fryer (http://brianfryer.com/), a delightful couple from San Diego.  Erica is a noteworthy entrepreneur in the web development realm…one of only a handful of female millionaires to set her own rules in this male-dominated realm.  She has been to many Burns, and brought her boyfriend Brian this year for his first Burn.  I ended up spending quite a lot of time that week with Erica and Brian and, as usually happens at Burning Man, they were the catalyst for some amazing moments of self-discovery.

I went to Burning Man in a big haze of confusion and intimidation about my future.  The previous week in LA, I was in crazy meetings with important people, investigating my future in the culinary TV and publishing worlds, and was faced with images of massive success and massive failure.  I was terrified about how entering this big, scary, cut-throat world might change me and the relationships I have with friends and family.  I was terrified about how the potential for financial success might do the same.  I am a firm believer in anti-materialism, and the evils of money and how it changes people.  I have seen new-found wealth destroy many wonderful people in my life…seen it turn them evil and greedy and manipulative.  Quite frankly, I’m terrified of becoming financially successful.

But Erica and Brian, two people who truly embody this journey from obscurity to success, swept in and delivered this message to me over a breakfast of Brian’s arepas (which were divine!):  “Money is only a tool, and you can use that tool to affect incredible change and benefit for yourself and those around you.  Listen to your heart and it will tell you if people around you are interested in your money, your fame, or YOU.  And always remember that the people in this country who are your fans don’t love you because you are rich or famous.  You’re not rich OR famous right now.  They love you because of what’s inside your heart.  And that’s the only reason they’ll continue to love you.  Other celebrities are loved because of the way they look, their acting or athletic talents, or the good work they do in the world.  But people love you because of what’s inside your heart.  And that will only lead you to good places.”

Needless to say, I left that breakfast in tears, in awe that Burning Man has done it yet again.  It brings people together who need to meet each other, to encourage each other and teach each other.

Ben Starr's Camp Potluck at Burning Man 2011Naturally, it was my responsibility to give back to others the way Erica and Brian had given to me.  And this year, that meant feeding everyone I could possibly find.  The night of our big potluck, we dragged in hungry Burners from the streets and put incredible food into their tummies.  One young girl was shocked and a little terrified when we invited her to sit down to a proper meal.  “Are you serious?” she asked.  “My camp mate and I forgot all our food back home, and we’ve been living on cookies all week.  I just can’t bring myself to eat another cookie!!!” she said as she burst into tears and began devouring a plate of chicken with saffron rice.

Another young man from France, who works as a line cook in one of Paris’ 3-Michelin-starred restaurants, insisted on raving about my hummus and babaganouj…which embarrassed me because I had frozen them for the week and thawed them back out, which destroys their texture.  I’m accustomed to feeding hungry Burners who’ve been subsisting on Power Bars and Gatorade the entire week, not people who work in Michelin-starred kitchens!

Somehow we fed over 100 people that night, and they came into our tent and said it felt like home to them.  They left us messages in our guest book about how our potluck was the highlight of their Burning Man experience.  Many of them returned the next day to thank us, with tears in their eyes, for a night of incredible warmth and generosity, which they promised to continue to spread throughout both Burning Man and the Default World.

When packing to leave the next day I discovered 3 pounds of bacon in the cooler, so we set up a cooking station in the street and I started cooking bacon for passersby, and it started all over again.  A crowd amassed, new friendships were forged, and I continue to be amazed by the power of bacon.  If you cook bacon, good people will materialize to eat it.

Deeper friendships were forged amongst the 17 core members of our camp.  Some of us have been friends for 15 years.  Some had just met for the first time.  But the synergy and chemistry between everyone was pure magic.  I have to thank everyone for making this such a special experience: Nate and Sandy and Captain Mark-Scott and Elaine from San Diego, Dave from LA, Chris from Dallas, Leif from Barcelona/Sydney, Polly and Bartley and Mike and Nathon and Deb from Salt Lake City, Monty and Adrien from Seattle, and Gabe and Gina from Jersey.  And to our honorary Camp Potluck members Eric and Mary from Seattle, who brought such joy from right next door.  Thanks to the incredible musicians camped across the street, who serenaded our potluck and got people to dancing after eating.  Thanks to the LA crew who ran Humle Dumle Bar across the street, who plied our dinner guests with creative cocktails (Jameson and Dr. Pepper is stunningly good!) and fed us amazing Korean BBQ the next day.  Thanks to the pirates next door, for keeping a smile on our face with their foam-ball cannons and their daily ritual of “walking the plank.”

Walking the plank

And thanks to Burning Man, this inexplicable event where 50,000 strangers assemble in the desert to celebrate individuality, creativity, and humanity.  It proves that people with widely divergent opinions and beliefs and lifestyles can live crammed together in a tiny space and not only tolerate each other, but THRIVE together: producing amazing art and ideas and organizations, pulling off massive feats of engineering and logistics, and communing and fellowshipping and connecting with each other in truly deep, meaningful ways.

Burning Man is truly a miracle.  Over the next week I’ll be sharing more Burning Man stories and sentiments with you through my blog, so check back often.  And as I mentioned in my last post, you can bring a bit of Burning Man to YOUR life by stepping beyond the formality of human interaction and truly connecting with a stranger.  When they ask how you’re doing, stop them and TELL them, rather than saying, “Just fine.”  Walk up to a neighbor you don’t know very well and do them a huge favor…bake them cookies or mow their lawn or gift them something handmade.  The whole of our human intercourse and decorum seems designed to prevent us from connecting to each other in a meaningful way.  When you start to break through those formalities and conventions, it makes people initially uncomfortable.  So don’t worry when the checkout clerk seems to initially freak out when you move to give her a real hug.  Hug her long and strong and tell her, “You’re a wonderful person and I really hope you have a happy day.”  Then disappear and leave her wondering what just happened.  Maybe she’ll do the same to someone else.

Los Angeles and Burning Man

So I am so sorry that it has been so long that I have posted a blog. At the moment I’m in my car heading north on I-15 towards THE BURNING MAN Festival. My bestie Chris AKA Doug Jacobson is typing this as a dictate.

But first things first… Los Angeles! I arrived on L.A. on Monday from a beautiful 2 day drive from Dallas. I had a series of meeting in L.A. with T.V. folks all of whom were very friendly, helpful and optimistic. That’s all I can say, but I am in the first stages of formulating an incredible project that will take me into the homes of Amazing people across the nation. Stay tuned for more info….

I was also excited to reconnect with Masterchef contestants Tracy, Adrien, Ester, Alejandra. We ate together, cooked together, made Youtube videos together (coming soon) and had an amazing time.

Thursday morning I drove to San Diego with my old college roomie David Utley. Who is an Art Director for T.V. and Movies in Hollywood. We met up with college friends Nate & Sandy, and their friends Mark & Elaine. I have known Mark and Elaine for several years and they are two of the most fascinating I have met. The live in an architecturally stunning home on a mountain in San Diego and their lot is filled with fruit trees, wood fired ovens, scenic views, and best of all CHICKENS!!! It was great to play with their chickens. It made me miss the 12 hens I had in my backyard for 2 years before the city took them away from me.

Over the next 72 hours I cooked and cooked and cooked until I almost dropped. I spent more than $1500 on groceries, preparing 18 meals for the 17 people in our camp at Burning Man.  Food is always my contribution to the Burning Man Experience.

Let me take a minute to describe Burning Man. Chances are, you’ve never heard about it. If you have heard of it chances are you’ve heard all the wrong things. Burning Man is an annual event where 60,000 people go into the remote desert of Northwest Nevada and build the perfect city.  During the week of the event, this city called Black Rock City, (named for the massive dry lakebed where the city is built- the Black Rock playa), is one of the largest cities in Nevada. Espousing Utopian ideals, everything in this city is FREE for the entire week, money is not allowed. Each of the city’s inhabitants is expected to contribute what they can to make the city a comfortable exciting and inspiring place to live. If you are a millionaire you might bring a restaurant or bar or sponsor a massive art project. If you are a broke student, but are good at giving massages, your contribution may just be giving out free massages. The city is diverse with many different religions, ideals, and races. But the ultimate goal at Burning Man is to prove that every individual can express themselves freely and fully, and still live in peace and harmony with their neighbors.

Burning Man is the most inspiring, exciting, warm, open place in the world and I eagerly await the Labor day weekend on which is occurs every year. Because of Masterchef, I was not able to help plan our camps infrastructure and logistics this year like I normally do. But at least I’m able to contribute by cooking the meals. Burning Man takes place in the high desert and you don’t eat as much as you think you will. Our breakfasts and lunches consist of light grazing on pasta salads, beef jerky, dry fruit and nuts. Each Evening we share a big formal meal together the 6 meals for this year are: Mexican Bean Soup with green chili corn bread, Pad Thai with Spring rolls, Pasta Bolognese, Pork Tamales with Chili Verde w/ Beans and rice, smoked brisket sandwiches with potato salad, and finally the Pot Luck…

Our camp is called “Camp Pot Luck.” It was inspired by an event at last year’s Burning Man. Near the end of the week we had lots of food left over, mostly Mediterranean foods like Hummus, Tabouli and Babaganouj, which is a dip made of smoked eggplant. We spread out all our leftovers on a table and walked up and down our street inviting neighbors over to eat with us. It started with 5 guests, and over the course of an hour grew to more than 50. People were telling stories, singing songs and chatting with strangers from all around the world as if they were old friends. So this year we have planned extra food and named our camp with the pot luck theme with hopes of playing a bigger part in contributing to the Burning Man community.

If Chris and I make good time, we will arrive at Burning Man at midnight tonight. As the event is in the remote desert, I will not have access to email or phone until Sept. 5th. So, for the next week bring a little Burning Man into your own life. Talk to a stranger about something other than the weather, bake some muffins and give them to a homeless person. or don’t be afraid to sing out loud to yourself at the Grocery Store with a smile on your face.