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Burning Man


My son Jason and I have talked about Burning Man for many years, at least once or more each year after his return home around Labor Day each September from the most recent experience.  While the stories have been amazing, they are not all pleasant.  And so on top of the physical and emotional demands to participate in the experience, hearing about the difficulties and challenges has kept me from going despite the years of open-ended invitations from Jason to share the experience with him.  And this year was no different; in fact it may have been the most difficult because of the rains turning the desert dust into mud.

So what changed or what moved me to finally accept the invitation?  I was actually ready to sign up to go about 3 years ago when I invited my friend, Roger, to join me.  After all, Roger and I have been working on our bucket-list for the past 20+ years.  Unfortunately, Roger drew the line; Burning Man was more than he wanted (even if it was on our list of things to do before we died).  Roger has always been careful in his planning and preparation for any adventure.  After checking out some YouTube postings of Burning Man, he decided that it was more than he wanted, even if it would be a true adventure.  Roger’s decision not to go delayed my decision for a couple of years.  I will turn 83 in November, and I am beginning to feel my age.  If I didn’t do it soon, I may never be able to do it.  Over the years, I have met many of Jason’s fellow campmates; and I have been deeply touched by them and the deep relationship they share with my son.  Jason has described Burning Man as his “church” and his fellow Burners as his congregation.  Jason has also described his weekly Sunday Disc Golf at Marx Meadows, Golden Gate Park, as “going to church.”  My son is a proud PK (Preacher’s Kid)!

As we drove slowly out from our Pinhole Photography Camp, Jacob, a “veteran” of many Burning Man experiences, worried about the raindrops that began falling.  He recalled the year when the rains came down so hard that the fine dust that layered Black Rock City—the site of Burning Man in the vast Nevada desert, an ancient riverbed—had turned into thick, deep mud.  Jacob was hoping that we would get out before that happened to us.  The year when it happened, all vehicles, including bicycles, came to a standstill.  Even if you tried, the deep, thick mud that encased your tires would prevent you from moving.  You were stuck, and the harder you tried to move your vehicle, the deeper you sank.  It was 8 miles from the Playa of Burning Man to the 2-lane paved highway that took us from that point to Reno, approximately 3 hours from there.  Restricted to driving no faster than 5 miles an hour to limit the amount of dust we would churn up, behind 2 RV’s and 3 automobiles ahead of us, it took us an hour to complete the 8 miles to the paved highway.   

I had purchased the return ticket on the Burner Express Bus for the trip home from Black Rock City to San Francisco.  But when my son Jason learned that his friend Jacob, who had driven to Burning Man, was planning also to head home on the same day of my return bus ride, he urged me to accept Jacob’s invitation to ride home with him.  I was actually looking forward to riding the bus again because my ride from San Francisco to Black Rock City was lots of fun, mingling with and sharing the excitement and energy of fellow Burners.  On the morning of our departure, almost immediately I wondered if I had made the right decision to accept Jacob’s invitation to ride with him.  I was packed and had finished my breakfast when Jacob stumbled into the dining area hung-over from partying into the late hours of the night.  It was already 9:30 and if I had taken the bus, I would have been on my way to the bus depot to wait for the 11 am departure.  I had time to change my mind and take the bus, after all I had already purchased a ticket.  Jacob assured me that it would take just a few minutes for him to pack up and be ready to go.  I peeked into his tent and could tell that it was going to be quite a while longer before we would be leaving.  Not only did Jacob have to sort and pack his gear that was scattered haphazardly all over the tent, he also had to take down and pack the tent and the weatherproof car cover, and to change out of his dust covered clothes into clean clothes for the drive home.  By the time we hugged and said our goodbyes to our fellow camp mates, we left camp at around 11:30 am.

Jacob set his Google driving directions for Sparks where he planned to stop for gas and deal with the effects of the desert dust on this car—change the cabin and external air filters, and sprinkle vinegar over the windows and surface of his car.  I learned from Jacob that soaking your dust-covered clothing in vinegar before washing was the best way to get rid of the fine desert dust.  But before we were anywhere near Sparks, Jacob had to go pee.  So we stopped at the first gas station we came to, at Pyramid Lake, visited the restroom and took care of the car issues at the same time.  By then, Jacob was showing signs of fatigue and sleepiness so I offered to drive at the next stop before reaching Reno.  By the time I took over the wheel just outside Reno, it started to rain intermittently, heavy at times.  But once on the freeway, my turn at the wheel was uneventful…except for running over a piece of plywood.  Jacob took over the wheel at Fairfield and almost immediately noticed the warning light that came on—the front passenger tire was losing air.  I panicked!  But not Jacob who said he was prepared, with a compressor and spare tire in his trunk if needed.  Driving on, the tire continued to lose air, very slowly so Jacob was not worried.  I, on the other hand, did all I could to stay calm.  By then, we had seen the warning sign that the freeway from Vallejo to the Carquinez Bridge was closed due to construction; all traffic had to detour onto 680 South.  By the time we reached 680, it was bumper to bumper traffic, and the leaky tire had reached the danger mark.  We were relieved to see an exit sign to a Vista Point.  However, it wasn’t until we exited that another sign informed us that the Vista Point was another 2 miles away!  The tire continued to lose air, but it was too late to turn back to rejoin the long line of traffic.  Fortunately, the Vista Point, underneath the Benecia-Martinez Bridge was a beautiful sight and provided Jacob enough space to put air in the leaky tire.  Back on the road, traffic loosened and we finally made it home with no further drama at 9:30 pm.  The trip home took 10 hours. 

And as you know by now, if we had not left when we did on Friday, we would have been stuck in the mud with the rest of the 70,000 plus Burners, who could not leave and had to cancel travel reservations and delay their trips home.  As for Jason and Melani who had planned to stay to the end, it took them 17 hours to break down the camp on Monday.  By then everyone else in the camp had left, it was just the two of them.  They finally finished at midnight on Tuesday morning, got in the line of traffic to get out, taking them 7 hours to drive the 8 miles to get to the pavement (remember, it took Jacob and me 1 hour).  From there, they witnessed 3 accidents, dropped off one of the trailers and one of the trucks (they had 2 trucks, 2 trailers being towed), and dumped 400 lbs of stuff at the Reno dump.  They made it home with the U-haul truck and trailer around 8 pm Tuesday.  With the help of 7 folks from the camp who met them, they unpacked and cleaned both the truck and trailer and were done by 10 pm Tuesday night.  Jason and Melani had not slept in 2 days!  There are so many more stories to tell! 

What if I had chosen to take the Burner Express Bus home instead of riding with Jacob?  Would I have gotten home sooner, without all the added drama?  I have no idea what the trip home on the bus would have been like; but I am sure that there would not have been the excitement, and I would have missed out on the opportunity to have gotten to know and appreciate Jacob. No one could have predicted the sudden rain storm; if anything I was warned about the heat.  Was Burning Man a disaster?  Do I regret going?  On the contrary, all the surprises, unplanned difficulties and challenges, potential disasters made my first Burning Man experience even more meaningful.  An attendee who was trapped in the mud was quoted in the news:

“This is the best Burning Man I’ve ever attended and I wouldn’t trade it for an early departure,” said Fausto Zapata, 51, of Los Angeles. “People were expecting catastrophe and ended up finding community. If at the end of the day Burning Man is about radical self-reliance, it came out in the most radical of ways this year.”

In planning to write about my Burning Man experience in this week’s blog post, I had no idea what I would be writing about until after the experience.  My first Burning Man has been one of the most powerful, transformative experiences of my life.  I learned to appreciate living in the moment, in the present, to accept what is and to make the best of the circumstances.  The way things happen and work out may not be what you wanted or could make of it, but something more and even better may come of it.  And that was what I discovered.  Throughout my 4 days and 3 nights, I found myself gravitating to these quotes:  at the Playa I was struck by this quote on one of the sculptures:  “Don’t let what’s wrong blind you to what’s right”;  and I loved this graffiti in one of the porta-potties: “Stop trying to have the Burn you want.  Start letting yourself have the Burn you need.

I cannot capture my entire experience of Burning Man just in this one post; so I will write at least one more.  I want to discuss the Core Principles of Burning Man and what the Church can learn from Burning Man.  As a result of this experience, I plan to return to Burning Man not because I want to, but because I need to!

2 thoughts on “Burning Man”

  1. Cal,
    My over-riding emotion and sentiment is with Roger in being cautious and forego the unnecessary risk just to cross an item off the bucket-list. For me, that’s from fear. sense of helplessness especially as one gets older. That you decided to go because it is now or never says something about your perspective on life and death, the two being two sides of a coin.

    I believe that Jason, Melani, Jacob and all the BM buddies would have better chances of surviving through the domino impact of climate changes locally, in Antarctica, on the moon, or Mars.

    Hopefully the wait to learn about the Core Principles of Burning Man and what the Church can learn will not be long. (I do believe that your own life ministry, from stories you have already shared in your Blog, greatly influenced Jason’s core beliefs.)


  2. Cal, thanks for the narrative on what I missed. As you know, each trip together starting with Yosemite’s Half Dome hike and the hike on the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon got tougher for me. Would like you to cover the physical aspects of B.M., which you mentioned in an email as being a challenge. Great that you were probably one of the few octogenarians at B.M. Was that the case? Can’t wait to hear more and your follow up in 2024.

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