Burning Man 2014: Out and About on the Playa
08/25/14 - 09/01/14
Story and photos by Kristine Bonner
Can you spell W-H-I-T-E O-U-T? Burning Man 2014 was an exceptionally windy and dusty year, the playa's swing of the pendulum after an initial downpour forced the closure of the gate on the festival's opening day, August 25th. The playa, as the surface of the Black Rock Desert's ancient lakebed is called, becomes completely unnavigable when wet. The fine dust creates a slick mud that mires wheels and shoes thickly with a cement-like adhesion.
The Nevada Highway Patrol closed the highways at Gerlach and at Wadsworth, and burners lucky enough not to be stuck on the road turned their vehicles back around and headed toward Reno. Many camped in Walmart's welcoming parking lot there. Reno's hotels and casinos gave special price breaks for stranded burners. The gate reopened at 6am on Tuesday, August 26th and festival attendees streamed in.
I traveled to Burning Man on Thursday August 28th. The 447 was eerily empty, and I wondered uneasily if there was another closure that I was unaware of. I felt better when I caught up to an RV, furry bikes afixed, rolling up and down the road in front of me.
Every year the actual site moves a bit, to allow the desert ecosystem to recover. This year was quite a long ways from the edge of the 447 to the gate. The occasional car and RV bumped along at the official 10mph speed limit. There was less dust at the entrance, and I speculated that the earlier rainfall might mean a less dusty playa this year. Boy was I wrong about that!
One person, one ticket, one vehicle pass. One check of the back of my vehicle for stowaways and I was through the gate and headed onward toward the greeters. They welcomed me "Home" in a gleeful, and actually kind of sweet fashion. Guide book newly in hand, I drove in search of my camp. How hard would it be to find a camp with a ferris wheel in front of it, I thought.
It turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. I drove around dusty streets avoiding bicyclists and pedestrians, and questioning the invariably nice inhabitants already settled here, only one of whom was able to give me a clue which way to turn. Black Rock City is massive. It's about the size of downtown San Francisco, with campers, tents, RVs and shadecloth connecting everything in a crazy quilt of humanity.
Just as I spotted my ferris wheel, I was hit by a white out. A big white out. I couldn't see anything outside of my windshield at all except for biscuit-colored raging playa dust. I stopped in fear of running over some cyclist and hoped fervently that no one would run into me. Finally there was a window of clear sky, and I made my way carefully to my camp. After unpacking, stowing my car, and waiting for a couple more hours as the white out swirled around the RV I had sheltered in, I could finally ride out to the playa.
It's a crazy experience, riding out the playa. You don your dust mask/kerchief/goggles/wraparound sunglasses (pick one or more), grab your water bottle and bike and head out onto a flat dusty expanse to leave behind the crowds and endless electronic music, and find these weird and wonderful pieces of art placed carefully in the middle of nowhere.
I wanted to be sure to get to the Temple of Grace early on; I wasn't sure if the whiteouts would limit my opportunities to ride out on the playa. The Temple was filled with people writing notes of all kinds, some weeping or hugging each other. It's a tradition to write the names of loved ones who have passed or leave photos. There's a rumor a woman once nailed her platinum wedding ring up in years past, after her divorce. There are all kinds of losses mourned here. The Temple is burned the night after the Man goes up in flames.
It was dusty out there. Sometimes I'd glimpse art, and it would disappear in a haze of wind-driven playa dust. I'd continue riding in the general direction of the last view, hoping I hadn't veered too far off course. Sometimes there were tracks that could be followed, but not always.
It's also important to watch for art cars while riding out. Fortunately, most of them are equipped with giant sound systems usually blaring electronic music. It does help to announce their presence before their fantastical forms loom out of the dust.
One of my favorite installations this year was a gold domed building with intricate patterns that turned out to be a library of handmade books. One was titled "Haiku" - people had filled it with short elegant poems. The books were mostly empty, waiting for the inspiration of the visitors to fill their pages.
Some of my favorite art pieces are not so big and planned though. I love to come upon the oddities. This year I found a cabinet with a recording playing over and over.
I found Dr. Deb's lounge chair too – at least I think it was hers. It had a little bedside table, with a drawer that said, "Open". Inside was a composition book with notes from passers-by. It was windy so writing in it was a challenge, but I did.
Way way out there near the orange perimeter, was the Last Outpost by Shing Yin Khor. It was a crazily detailed assemblage of what might be, had Burning Man been overrun by zombies... or something worse. Traces of the Black Rock Civilian Defense Corps' last stand filled the perimeter – one mysterious sign read "Stay Small, Stay Silent, Stay Moving, Stay Alert, Stay Low, Stay Living!"
Coming back from the Last Outpost was a huge challenge for my companion and myself. A whiteout had descended and lasted the entire duration of our journey back to the camp. I was glad I wasn't alone in it. When the Eternal Return art piece loomed out of the dust, we knew we were getting close to Black Rock City, thankfully.
There were many more pieces of art out there, and more dust storms I endured to find them. For now though, I'll just have to leave you with my portrait of the Man. Here he is, pre-burn:
You might also like:
- Burning Man 2014
- Desert Art Out on the Playa 2007
- Out and About on the Playa: Burning Man 2008
- Burning Man 2010 - Revelers Return to Black Rock City
- Read about Burning Man 2008.
- Read about Burning Man 2010.
- Read about Burning Man 2011.
- Read about Burning Man 2013.
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