Burning Man 2009: A Ramble Across the Mental Playa Part 1

Less people, less fire, less noise; more runners, more wine tastings, a Moms Camp, and a Playa bus that ran on time. Was this the year that Burning Man stopped being an exercise in Radical Self Reliance and became Disneyland in the Desert? No, not according to all the first-timers I spoke with. (And at times, it felt like every other person was a Burning Virgin, which begs the question: where did all the veterans go?) To them, Burning Man was every bit as intense an over-the-top experience as when Campbell and I first attended two years ago. My perception then, of a more Mellow Man, of a Gentrified Man, a Grown-Up Man, was that of the now-experienced Burner, he who is no longer so easily impressed, no longer so readily overwhelmed, who takes it all in his stride as he runs, rides and walks the desert floor. But Experienced Burner is not Jaded Burner. No no no. And it was not better last year, as the Burning Cliché goes. It’s always better this year. The year it isn’t better this year is the year we call it our last year.

Still, in the spirit of the Experienced Burner, I offer my memories of Burning Man 2009 not in paragraphs or subject headers, but in free-flowing form, as cribbed from notes written on the flight home. I hope you enjoy the journey.


Burning Man 2009: A Ramble Across the Mental Playa

Getting to La Guardia in two hours flat,
even on the perimeter of a hurricane
The planes running on time, despite the heavy rain
Having our three flights to Reno condensed to two
And the airline forgetting to charge us for our bags while rescheduling us
We’re $55 up, one flight in hand,
and we haven’t even left New York)
Welcome Home

Forcing myself to finish reading Irvine Welsh’s short story set
In the desert, post-Burning Man
Called “Rattlesnakes”
From If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work
It’s absolutely the worst piece of drivel I’ve ever read
By Irvine Welsh
A writer I otherwise so greatly respect
“Rattlesnakes” panders to every racist cliché,
Overdoes the excremental BS even by the author’s own permissive standards
And doesn’t feel remotely connected to the desert experience
Fortunately, I have subsequently started on his last novel
Which, at this point in the story, fully redeems him
He does Miami
So much better than he does
Burning Man

Saturday night at Circus Circus, our hotel in Reno, is a… circus
Its car parks alone take up two city blocks
We are in the south tower
An electric shuttle ride away from check-in
Tom Jones is playing the connecting hotel
Marilyn Manson the one next door to that
Where Blondie played last night
The hotels know the Burners are in town
But we’re tired, on east coast time and, last I checked,
Campbell had no idea of Marilyn Manson’s existence
(Let alone that of Tom Jones)

Sleeping like the dead, waking before dawn
Running the hotel treadmill rather than the local streets
(Having determined on previous Reno trips that there’s nothing to see downtown but
pawn shops, casinos and tattoo parlors)
The all-American casino all-you-can-eat $10 buffet:
Not just your standard breakfast dishes, but
salad bar, fruit salads, omelet station, stir-fry station and bakery
Just say no to sugary dairy baked goods!
(Newly recommitted vegan man can do it if he tries!)


Shopping at SaveMart: yes, it’s a supermarket chain
But after three trips to Reno we’ve learned
That it’s a Burner-friendly one
Selling its fair share of organic food, that much cheaper than Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s
(Which I end up going to anyway, and they’re no more friendly, fast,
and certainly no cheaper than SaveMart)
Stocking up on easy-to-eat healthy vegan goods for myself
Letting Campbell stock up on easy-to-eat unhealthy sugary snacks
(Whatever gets him through the night)
Still buying way more than we need – and knowing as much as soon as it’s rung up
Next year we buy less – again

Having had enough of the thirty minute wait
at Black Rock’s central “café” for a morning coffee
I’ve brought the portable cafetierre from home,
a fold-out stove, a couple cans of Sterno,
I buy a kettle for half price at the local Rite Aid.
I grind my own beans at Whole Foods,
I am determined to have coffee
First thing in the morning
Without asking

Our Kidsville friend Hans, kindly offering us a ride from Reno, arrives on time;
no expensive rental cars for us this year
(Nor arguing over the $200 “detailing fee,” otherwise known as the “Burn Tax”)
We make it to Black Rock in just two and a half hours
Stopping off to examine the London Routemaster Bus on our route
The guy who drove it out from LA says it can go as fast as 45mph…

img_2840.jpg London Traffic, going nowhere…

There’s little traffic on the road north from Reno
Black Rock City is not yet open to the public
But we have early admission and we plan to use it
We also have winds buffeting our car, as they have been since Reno,
and we know what to expect
Sure enough, when we get to the Playa, there’s dust kicking up everywhere
No RVs in place in Kidsville to provide shelter from the wind
No cars behind our intended tent location
And the sun will be setting soon
So we set about setting our tent
Which decides it wants to set sail instead
In the 40mph wind
Like a yacht setting off on a race
We shout for help
It takes six grown men to stop the tent flying away,
across the Playa, and out into the desert
…With Campbell inside it, gamely hoping to ground it…

A fiber-glass tent pole snaps like a twig,
there’s reasonable panic that another minute of this
and we may not have a tent to erect at all
I hammer rebar in the ground, opting to set up the tent backwards
(secure it first, pop it up it last)
Just after getting the last rebar in, the Kidsville Mayor comes marching along:
We’ve located the tent in the wrong spot!
Before moving it, we at least get a vehicle to provide shelter from the wind
It’s not quite so difficult this second time around
We duct tape the broken pole
Quickly hammer in the rebar
And when the tent pops up
it immediately stays down, flattened under the heavy wind
Putting up the fly only serves as a second sail
So we open both front door and back door to allow the wind to pass through
Knowing full well it will deposit layers of dust as it does
Welcome to Burning Man: where nature makes a serious effort to kill you –
Or at least to piss you off occasionally

img_2803.jpg Blowing in the wind

Campbell asks if Burning Man sells tents
When he knows perfectly well that the only thing it sells is caffeine and ice
(And the dreams of children, for adults too)
He looks a little shaken by his near Dorothy-no-longer-in-Kansas moment,
And unsure of the advantages of early entry.
I can’t blame him
I’m glad the first year we came it was on a Tuesday evening
When Burning Man was in full flow
The Playa alive with energy
Someone having set fire to the Man a day early
An act of arson for which Paul Addis served jail time
Perhaps the only person to be imprisoned for burning shit at Burning Man
It’s odd being here when it’s this quiet
But I like it,
I like the concept of watching the camp fill up around us
Assuming our tent survives the night

Dinner for Campbell (a cheese sandwich), and myself (a Corona lite),
Food is for wimps
Besides, that’s why we ate all we could eat at the Circus Circus all you can eat buffet:
So we didn’t have to waste time eating here
And we hit the Esplanade and Playa,
Many theme camps are still setting up
But we dig the mellow vibe as they do so
Besides, there’s no crowds to command the activities
And Campbell and I get to play a life-size version of a table-top game
That we don’t know the name of
But you can see from this picture
It’s the one where you try to get your colored balls in your holes
While preventing your opponent doing likewise
By lifting the table up and down, left and right, backwards and forwards
But this one is big and it takes balls to operate
Campbell’s a worthy opponent
And he wins
He’s happy
Welcome Home


At DMV – the Department of Mutant Vehicles
We get an instant ride on an art car
Driven by a very nice girl
Who is immediately pulled over by the cops
You think there’s no law at Burning Man?
Think again
You can go dizzy counting the number of agencies patrolling the playa
But the Bureau of Land Management cop turns out to be cool
Says the vehicle needs a back light
(when the drivers were told it was optional)
The art car hooks up someone’s personal flashlight; the cop says it will do
We set off about the desert
Examining the art, including this year’s main event
The Raygun Gothic Rocket
Like something out of a 50’s comic
Come to life
And the low-slung Man
Atop his “Tangled Bank”
As Darwin called it
We also get to experience one of Burning Man’s
many psychedelic contraptions
You stand inside, the lights spin around
And though you can’t see out
People can see in
And see how happy it makes you feel
At least if your name is Campbell


Back at Kidsville
The winds have stopped howling
The tent has popped up
And we have an inch deep layer of dust to sleep in
Campbell climbs in his sleeping bag
And is out almost before he can put his head down
Welcome Home

I awake before dawn
Like I did almost every hour in-between:
Once the gates burst open and new arrivals staked their claims on Black Rock City
The noise was constant
As I knew it would be
Our greeters made sure that no-one got into Kidsville who hadn’t registered
Which would explain why
I was woken in the middle of the night
By someone screaming from right outside our tent
To her friend on the opposite side of the camp
“Steve, we can’t stay here! It’s Kidsville!”
Not being a kid, or a parent, she probably didn’t realize
As she shouted at full voice
That there were kids trying to sleep
…Who, being kids, probably didn’t hear her anyway
Unlike their parents
Who no longer sleep like children
But hey, it’s Burning Man
It’s dawn
The sun is rising over the mountains
It’s a beautiful sight
And a beautiful site
And for the first time in my three years on the playa
I make my own coffee!
Even though the sterno fuel under the fold-out stove
takes twenty minutes to boil a small pan of water
It’s not like I’m going anywhere
In a hurry now
Is it?


I’m knocked out by our Kidsville Greeters who stayed up through the night
To ensure order in the camp
I’m diminished by their inner strength
Impressed by their insomnia
A little guilty for trying to sleep
But there is such a thing as jetlag
And I do hope they understand
That had I worked the 2-4am shift as requested
I’d have been useless the rest of the week
Campbell and I don’t have a shade structure
Or an RV
Or a Camper Van
Which means we can’t sleep during the day
Or even sleep on in the morning
It’s an endurance test from the off

The gifting culture of Burning Man mementoes:
matchbooks, stickers, tattoos, bandanas…
and a beautiful pendant for Campbell and myself from Judy
Which will join our equally beautiful ones from the last two years
I am, for the next week, Necklace Man
(Who gets more comments on his 45rpm adaptor than his Burning Man souvenirs)
Part of a community of familiar faces,
some of whom are camped in unfamiliar places
I know I won’t get to see everyone I know
Because we’ve got 130 families camping in Kidsville
Four quadrants
Some 500 people
It takes a village
To help build Black Rock City

img_2816.jpg Judy’s Pink Perl Boutique, our home from home

…Which has been reduced this year
back to its regular size
after last year’s expansion
Which is now recognized as a mistake
And if the numbers are down from last year’s 50,000 person peak
As we expect them to be
(It being the economy)
Still, we will feel more cozy for camping closer to each other
I like it that way

Clean out the tent with a dustpan and brush
Put up the fly
Tape up the tent-pole
Zip up the back
And we’re almost good as new
Except the front door won’t zip
Which isn’t the worst thing in the world
Given that it’s on the opposite side from the wind
And zips are annoying when you want to use the portapotties at night

Help new arrivals put up their tent
Including some very nice Aussies
One of whom works on the Rainbow Warrior
One of whom has a ten-year old son
Way wiser than his years
As Kidsvillians tend to be

Rob and Amy and daughter Piper show up
With new additions:
Eight-month old Baby Zoey (officially on her Second Burn already)
And their picket fence art car
Our camp is complete
And we have wheels!

Hoppy Hour at Frogma Camp
Where they serve Frogaritas ™
And tell funny jokes
Including one about a chicken and a library
Which deserves its own space
Some time, some place
I like it here
I take a Frogarita to go
It took me three years to realize that
What they’ve said all along is true:
Tequila is a desert drink

Hanging out at the Burn Barrel
Meeting new parents as they check in,
Introducing themselves and their kids
Some of whom can be seen using the trampolines way through the night
A family rolls up with a ball pit
A number of kids dive in and are never seen again
They would have no need to ever leave Kidsville
If not for what’s out there
On the playa

img_3018.jpg How can Kidsville go wrong?

Awake before dawn (again)
Decide to join the 7am Morning Run
Around the Perimeter Fence
An activity taking place Monday through Wednesday
A new edition to the What Where When
An evident progression from last year’s successful 5k run
And a world on from my first year at Burning Man
where I felt lonely – and even odd – running through camp
Though not quite so lonely or odd
As when I ran through the V Festival in the UK
And everyone looked at me
Like I was a martian

There’s only a dozen or so of us crazy enough to take up
a nine-mile trek round the City’s circumference,
this early in the morning
And we make a typically motley crew
Me, I’m wearing my new Vibram Five Fingers
And toe-socks
An Injinji pair made largely from recycled plastic bags
The girl who won last year’s 5k race recognizes them
Says she wore them on her first 100-miler
(Yes her first 100-miler)
And she had an allergic reaction
Which is not a fun thing to endure
When you’re out there for over 24 hours
And might be why the experts insist
that you never try something new on a marathon
Let alone an Ultra
But no allergic reactions from me,
The socks feel great, the shoes feel better,
And the desert feels flatter
Than last year’s bumpy terrain
(Which was due to the fact that the winter rains hadn’t come
And flooded the playa, and smoothed it out)
So, you see, already
It wasn’t better last year
And I already feel fitter
You can easily justify the Frogaritas
If you run them off in the morning


Kidsville commandeers a rabbit art car
Complete with animal control on the back
(The annual battle between bunnies
and animal control
takes place on the playa
on Friday night.
Apparently Jedi Knights
Come out on behalf of the bunnies
We’ve still never seen it
There’s just too much to do!)
And goes off granting wishes
Our neighbors, see, have set up a wishing well
Write your wish on one side of a stone
Your Playa address on the other
And then see what happens
A can of PBR? Granted (and hand-delivered)
Hugs? Done (And kids hug really well)
And a bike to get round the playa?
Believe it or not, the wish is granted
Someone having turned up at Kidsville gifting a spare bike
And the guy who requested it is almost in tears when he receives it
It’s his first Burning Man
And he can’t believe the generosity
I want to tell him
The Playa Provides
In this alternate universe
But he’s in tears already
So I leave him be

To the Grilled Cheese Incident
A funny name if you know your jam bands
(And funny even if you don’t)
And which is serving up Grilled Cheese sandwiches for Burners
All week long
Because this, remember, is a gifting culture
Kids, in case you don’t know, like grilled cheese
Adults do, too
The Grilled Cheese Incident might be the most popular food camp on the playa


Riding round the desert on the art car
A young mom alongside me
Complains that last night she got carded
At a cocktail bar
At first I’m telling her it’s cool, everyone likes to get carded
Now and then
Makes them feel young
Then I remember where I am
At Burning Man
Where there’s meant to be no rules
No regulations, No laws
And definitely no carding
Because no one carries a purse with them
It’s a commerce-free camp
It’s an ID free zone
Hell, half the people barely wear clothes.
Who expects to have to prove they’re 21 at a
Bring-your-own-cup free-drinks bar set up by one of your neighbors?
But it’s true
The police are out in force
Cracking down on underage drinking
That doesn’t really exist
Given how hard it is for teenagers to get their act together
To get out here to the desert
For a week of extreme self-reliance
And this nice young mom
Had to go without
Her welcome margarita
On her first night here
That sucks

Campbell helps decorate our neighbors’ awnings
And then Hot Monkey Sox opens for business
It doesn’t seem to quiet down all week long
Kids and parents come from all over Black Rock
To make their own (hot) monkey sox
Dino’s Drive In sets up stall
With a screening of The Incredibles
Against one of our RVs
A hundred or so kids
Sat in the open air
Watching a movie
Outdoors at night
Can it get any better?

But Campbell doesn’t want to see it again
We return instead to one of one of our favorites from last year
The Bad Idea Theater
With their home-brew
And their B-movies
Which subscribe to this year’s Burning Man theme:
Campbell and I watch Trog
About a troglodyte found living in an English cave
Who is befriended
By Joan Crawford
At one point he embarks on a psychedelic trip
That would put Dumbo’s to shame
If it made sense
Provoked by evil, he then embarks
On a murderous rampage through the local village
Before being shot – and bombed –
By the British Army
Trog’s not bad
It’s terrible!
It’s wonderful!
It’s just the way to spend a playa evening when you don’t want to spend all your time riding art cars
Across the desert
Though when you think of it
There are much worse ways
Of spending all your time
That riding art cars
Across the desert

img_2829.jpg A typical sight on the Playa…

Talk of which
Is almost all Campbell can talk about
He got Spore up on his new computer shortly before leaving for the Playa
And he now decides on a project
The kind which only kids can dream up
He will photograph every art car of merit
Re-create them all in Spore
And share his computer creations with their originators
By making a YouTube video
Once he’s completed his task.
I hand him the camera for the rest of the week
He’ll be busy when he gets home
But that seems a distinctly long time away
From the here and now
We’re already home

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