Tag Archives: Camp Potluck

Burning Man 2013, The Pilgrimage: Part 3

So as you know, I’ve been back from Burning Man for nearly a week, but my travel schedule during that time got so hectic I had to stop blogging.  I came home to a broken air conditioner, miscellaneous plumbing crises, and a catering event, so I’m JUST now starting to come up for air and get the rest of the journey chronicled.  Because…what a journey it was!

We leave the wonders of the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff for Vegas.  Normally I do everything in my power to avoid Las Vegas in my travels, but we need a cheap hotel room where we can dye our hair, and Ross has never seen Vegas before, and I always take a bit of perverse pleasure in seeing a rational human encounter this city that represents the worst of our culture.

We check into some $25 hole a few blocks off the strip and head in search of dinner.  Unfortunately, it’s 3:00am and Gordon Ramsay Steak is closed:

One of these days, Gordon, I will eat at one of your restaurants!  I’m actually VERY eager to eat at a Ramsay location.  I don’t get upset about dramatically overpriced food if the quality of the ingredients is excellent and the execution and service are flawless.  I am potently eager to have the GR dining experience to see if it lives up to the hype!  Maybe next time, Gordon.

After a whirlwind tour of the strip, so Ross can gawk at the stunning architecture and witness the stupendous excess of this city that has no right to exist in the desert, sucking up precious water and electricity so that people can empty their pockets into slot machines and watch over-priced shows, we head back to the hotel room for a Burning Man ritual…the hair dye.

At Burning Man, you need to look “weird” or people look at you funny.  One simple way to do this is to show up with pink or blue hair.  So we begin the hours-long transformation:

With my hair pinked, Ross’s hair blued and his beard pinked, there is only 1 task remaining before we resume the journey:

Those little symbols represent “The Man,” which is symbol of the whole event.  And in the week or so before Burning Man takes place, you start seeing this on cars, moving vans, 18-wheelers, RVs, campers, bicycles, and backpacks all across the country…on interstates and backroads…as 65,000 people begin their journey “home.”  After you’ve been to the event a time or two, you actually do start thinking of it as home.  You have a family there…maybe it’s a family you only see once a year, but they are like family to you.  It’s the place where society functions as it’s SUPPOSED to.  With everyone sharing selflessly, loving and accepting everyone for exactly who they are.  No one is naive enough to think that Burning Man could exist all year.  But one week of Utopia is better than what most folks get in a year.  So people come to think of Burning Man as home, and as I start seeing the symbol on vehicles on the road around me and at gas stations, I start to get misty eyed.  Another great thing is that you can walk up to ANYONE with this symbol on their car, give them a huge hug, and they are instantly a friend.  Eager to help with whatever you need.  Even though you’ve never met them.

Northwesterly we drive, into the bleak, barren deserts of Nevada.  We pass the site where the country was going to store its nuclear waste…way out in the middle of nowhere on Yucca Mountain.  We pass a rock on which is painted, “Shady Lady brothel – 23 miles.”  Prostitution is legal and regulated in a few counties in Nevada, but it’s still very bizarre to see this sign…way out in the middle of nowhere.

As we approach the California border on a lonely road on which we pass only 3 cars in an hour, we crest a hill to an overwhelming sight:

A monsoon storm is sweeping the edge of the White Mountains where they descend to the Mojave desert, kicking up a vast dust storm and bathing each mountain in a different light.  We pull over and stare, mouths open.  Ross climbs a nearby hill and begins photographing next to a Joshua tree.  The entire scene changes, moment by moment.  Thunder echoes off the distant peaks and rumbles across the valley, and I can feel it in my chest when it hits.  We watch the storm for nearly an hour…it’s more captivating than any movie.  Then we drive up into those mountains.  And I do mean UP.  Up, up, up, up, towing a heavy trailer behind us.  My little car tugs like a champ, but eventually we have to leave the trailer on the side of the road because the grades are getting steeper and the curves sharper.  Until we top out above 10,000 feet in the Inyo National Forest, which protects the oldest trees on earth.

The bristlecone pine trees grow only in the American Southwest at elevations above 10,000 feet…far higher than any other tree grows.  They only grow on desert mountains that lie in the rain shadow of other mountain ranges, so these trees sip a mere 3 or 4 inches of rain each year.  They grow slowly.  Their wood is hard, and gets blasted by howling winds, eroding it into fantastic shapes.  We’ve arrived at the Methuselah grove, in which are the 2 oldest trees on planet earth…over 5,000 years old.

Disclaimer: There are trees on the planet whose ROOTS are older than the bristlecone pines.  Some types of clonal trees in Scandinavia are a few thousand years older than the bristlecones, but the actual tree you see above the ground is far younger.  Only the roots are that old, they send up a new trunk every few hundred years.  But the wood I’m touching in this photo is well over 4,000 years old.  This tree was alive when the Great Pyramids were being built.  Have you ever touched a living thing that old?  Call me emotional, but I cry a bit.  Enjoy this short exploration of the bristlecone grove:

We reluctantly head back down to the trailer, because the day is fleeting.  The sunset over the Long Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada stops us in our tracks, though:

Looks like rain tonight!  Only a hot spring can soak away the aches and grumbles of a damp night in a tent during the rain, so after a quick bite at a diner in Lone Pine, we head to the Keough hot ditch.  Not a very appealing name, huh?  In fact, the name alone kept me away from this hot spring for years, even though it’s less than a mile off Highway 395, which I drive every year to Burning Man.  But a “hot ditch” just didn’t sound appealing to me.  Still, I’m pulling a trailer this year, so I’m sort of relegated to the hot springs close to the highway, so we give Keough hot ditch a try.

W-O-W!!!  A river of crystal clear, naturally hot water dances out of the Sierras and cascades through pool after pool on its way down into the desert.  This is no ditch…it’s paradise!  Room for HUNDREDS of people to soak, should the hot spring ever be so unfortunate as to attract that many.

We set up the tent well away from the hot river, so we don’t get disturbed by late night partiers, and spend an hour or two soaking our cares away as the moon rises over the distant White Mountains.  We think about those amazing trees hiding up there, silently witnessing the march of human civilization.  The partiers inevitably arrive, so we hit the sack, preferring to soak in the solitary hours of the early morning.

After a quick morning soak, we head into Bishop, CA for breakfast.  I LOVE Bishop.  Actually, I love all the little historic frontier towns on the eastern slope of the Sierras.  I could live there.  In Bishop we stop at the Petite Pantry, a bizarrely named Sonoran restaurant serving up the best breakfast in the valley.  Jay, the owner, welcomes us and our weirdly-colored hair.

“Buenos Dias, Pepes!  Come in, come in.  Here, sit at this table.  I already have homemade chips out for you, flour and corn, whichever you like.  Sit down, Pepes.  Let me bring you some cafe.”

Jay, it turns out, is not only the owner…he is the server…and the chef.  He brings us an extensive menu of Sonoran classics as well as American classics.  And I get adventurous.

“I see you have chile verde on the menu, so can I order the chicken fried steak and biscuits and gravy, but instead of cream gravy on the steak and biscuits, can you put your chile verde?”

Jay looks at me a little weird.  Which isn’t weird, because I have pink hair.

“Crazy gringo.  Of course I can do that for you.”

Ten minutes later, and Jay parades my plate of wonderment around the restaurant before delivering it, saying, “Crazy gringo with pink hair in there don’t know whether he’s Mexican or white!  He wants chicken fried steak but with chile verde on top!”

All the regulars laugh with him, and the plates land in front of me:

That’s a LOT of food.  Some of the regulars wander over to see what it looks like…or what the person who ordered it looks like.  I dive in.  And it.is.d.i.v.i.n.e.

But it’s a lot.  And there’s no way I can eat it all.  Jay is busy taking orders and cooking, so I figure I’ll save him some effort and dart into the kitchen for a to-go box, so I can wrap up my food.  He slaps my hand just as I’m reaching for the box.

“Are you crazy, Pepe?  Why you gonna put that in a box that has to go in the trash?  Think, Pepe!  Make a burrito out of it!”

He spreads out the two biggest flour tortillas I’ve seen in my entire life and invites me to scrape my plate clean onto the tortillas.

I am just beginning to digest the brilliance of this concept, when Jay notices me folding in both ends of the burrito, rather than the traditional Mexican way of leaving one end open.  He hollers to his guests:

“Crazy gringo thinks he’s making a giant egg roll, now!”

Everyone laughs again.  Jay loads us up with a gallon bag of homemade chips, and a QUART of his fiery homemade salsa…you know, to go with the 3 pound burrito I just made with our leftovers.  He demands a photo with the crazy pink haired gringo:

…and then he sends us on our way.

This is a great story, of course, but it really is a distillation of what food means to me.  Jay isn’t a trained chef.  He’s making the foods his mother and grandmother made.  But he is the master of his domain.  He greets each guest the same way, whether they’ve been eating at his restaurant for 20 years, or whether they’re a weird pink-haired gringo wandering in from the desert hot springs.  He COMMUNES with his guests, even from the kitchen window when he’s back there cooking up their order.  Jay has found a way to do what I imagined I could never do, if I became the chef-owner of my own restaurant.  I had nightmares of being stuck back in a kitchen, churning out the same food each night, never even able to see the faces of the people I was cooking for.  Jay, you have a magical place there in Bishop.  You’re a lucky man.  I know exactly how hard you work.  And the smile on your face reveals exactly how much you love every minute of it.  Dining at the Petite Pantry was a highlight of my entire 3 weeks.  If you find yourself on Highway 395 east of the Sierras, DO NOT PASS UP Petite Pantry in Bishop.

From Bishop we head north into the Long Valley Caldera, an ancient volcano now occupied by dozens of amazing hot springs.  I’ve explored many, but this time I hit a few new ones, and find a winner in Crowley, or Wild Willy’s hot spring:

The hot springs out here have the most stunning views of ANY I’ve found in the world.  The high Sierras run down one side of the valley, with the White Mountains on the other.  Soaking in thermal water in this valley is just indescribable.  (And yes, for those who don’t know, I religiously believe in soaking naturally in nature.  Swimsuits seem like a perversion in sacred places like this.)

Then it’s north to Mono Lake, that other-worldly inland salt sea you saw pictures of in National Geographic when you were a kid.  It’s a very weird place.  I’ve been many times, but my goal for this time was to actually swim in the lake.  I’ve never swum in anything saltier than the ocean, and I’ve always wanted to feel that extra buoyancy.  They say it’s impossible to sink.  Enjoy:

We’re already running late for our rendezvous in Reno with the Burning Man setup crew, so we head north, but get waylaid in Lee Vining, the town on the shore of Mono Lake where the Tioga Pass road comes down from Yosemite, by a freak hail storm:

We chase the hailstorm north toward Reno:

And make a quick stop just north of Bridgeport to wash off the salt from Mono Lake in the Fales hot springs:

This lovely soaking pool is right on Highway 395, though most people drive right past it and have no idea it’s there.  It’s the perfect place to rinse off after a Mono Lake swim.

Eventually we make it to a VERY smokey Reno.  The fires in Yosemite have sent their smoke directly over this city.  Ashes the size of my hand are floating in the brown air, and it smells like a burning landfill.  We head to the storage unit where our camp’s infrastructure spends 51 weeks a year, and the early entry crew, headed up by Stewart the Aussie and Devananda (both guys who, in their day jobs, basically make the internet work for all of us) are packing the contents of the vast unit into a large moving truck with Tetris-like precision:

Tomorrow, all this stuff will be carted into the vast Black Rock desert and assembled into a home for 30 people.  Camp Potluck.  But now…sleep.

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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