II: Early Man & Dangerous Explosives
Box Camp (5:45 & E)
Box Camp—a large staff camp located a few diagonal blocks south of the main Center Camp—was in its infancy when I arrived. A dozen people, maybe fewer, had spread their tents and shade structures across the 1.5 acre parcel that was dedicated to the crew who designed, constructed, and staffed the Black Rock City Box Office. Box Camp was nestled between the camps of Perimeter, Gate, and Exodus (commonly referred to as the very utility-company sounding acronym of PG&E) to the southeast, and the Ticketfly support staff to the northwest. Next over was the spot for the staff of the Center Camp Cafe. Each of these camps had their own specific vibe to it: within each there was a certain kind of general aesthetic, including attitude and wardrobe. This central neighborhood section of the radial city was dedicated to the paid staff and volunteer crew who were part of the larger Burning Man Organization (referred to collectively as BMorgers or robotically as The Borg). They were responsible for bringing the empty playa to life and logistically ran the whole city from conception to destruction.
The people in Box Camp were the face of Black Rock City—the first human beings you encounter on this week-long art party on the playa desert. I met a handful of Box Campers as I made my way to set up in my 25sqft tent parcel, subdivided out from the lot by the camp coordinator. Knotty, as he was playa named, was exceedingly kind to me and took me directly under his wing on a tour to outline all Box Camp features: the daily water cooler deliveries, the kitchen and greywater station, the 15’ observation deck, and—most importantly—the regularly cleaned bank of outhouses. All these services were provided to the camp by the Burning Man Organization. It was quite luxurious, considering I expected to be completely self-sufficient and roughing it in the dust for the next few weeks.
I next encounter Joy, who I know from my college days in Reno. Joy is the lead coordinator and is the one responsible for getting a ticket into my hand. I get my first taste of the hugging culture in Black Rock City as Joy wraps her arms around me like a momma bear around a cub and we squeezed out our greeting. Joy is the type of woman who wants to make sure everyone in the group is happy and that their needs are being met.
I ran into Con Queso again, and gave her a fond hello. She was who I’d met at the box office a half day earlier, but she failed to recognize me. The blur of faces you see in the box makes it difficult to match to esoteric playa names and hold on to those associations when you see 30 faces and hear 30 names every half hour. Now that she knew I was part of the Box Camp community and not just a random face whizzing past her through a Box Office window, we exchanged pleasant conversation that culminated in making a variety of bird calls at each other—her rendition of a peacock’s call was spot on—because making bird noises at people is something you do at Burning Man.
Nimbus was the last person I would meet in camp this day and the most senior of all the BMorgers. She was short in stature, but her presence commanded my reverence from afar. We had a delightful exchange of pleasantries—she wanted to make sure all the fledgling, rookie Box Office crew were welcomed—cut short by a crackling call through her walkie-talkie, strapped to her tactical gear over her emerald green dress, which twirled playfully in the desert breeze as she whisked away to take care of Borg business.
My arrival in Black Rock City was timed in order to see the Early Man burn—a pyrotechnical celebration that unites all the BMorgers by raging firelight. Public works, infrastructure, and builder teams gather at nightfall on the Saturday a full week before The main Man burns. I made a good first impression in the Box Camp and ventured out with the Box Office staff and vols as we mingled within the crowd of many hundreds of people as the last remaining light of sundown passed into the darkness of night.
Tonight’s spectacle featured wooden sculptures laden with boxes of fireworks, rigged to be ignited. We moved as a tight group, arms interlaced at the elbows, as we collectively shuffled browsed the statues and effigies before the pyro team lit them ablaze. The atmosphere was festive and felt like a backyard BBQ, if the backyard was 1,000 square miles.
The buffer around these infernos was lightly enforced, the boundary extending to about as far as your own personal tolerance for flaming heat. As the crude wooden structures engulfed in flame, their cache of explosives began cooking off haphazardly, blasting nearby spectators with shrapnel. The Box Office crew clutched each other tightly and moved like a human amoeba, ten legs skittering away from the eye-level explosions. Joy was in the middle of the scrum, laughing maniacally, gripped with the thrill of being alive or the genuine fear of bodily injury. I couldn’t tell which.
After the flames died down and the adrenaline waned from our collective systems, most people stayed long after the last of the effigies had burned to embers. At this point, things felt very simple. The 10 Principles seemed forefront on everyone’s minds, but remained unspoken. The conversation was relaxed and seemed focused on the task at hand: building a city to support 70,000 souls.
Nearby, a dance party broke out, and an art car, bristling with flamethrowers—also known as ‘puffers’—threw tongues of fire into the dark night sky. I milled about long enough to mingle with the old burners who were all excessively friendly. In chatting with them I learned where they were from and about how long they’ve been doing this. I met a lot of people from the Bay Area, the birthplace of Burning Man, and, again, everyone I met out here this early were seasoned Burning Manners.
I wondered if I was making a good impression on them—after all, I was here, gonzo documenting everything I could sense. Was I living presently enough in each moment, interacting with and interviewing these fine folk? Apparently so, because after getting lost in a conversation about how “Early Man is the new Burning Man” with a group from Santa Rosa, I subsequently lost the Box Camp group.
This primed me for a quick surge of panic as I had very little direction sense since I was so new to the city. Navigation would be very challenging at this time of night as it was close to pitch dark. Even if I could find my way through the mass of Early Man revelers, I would have a long walk back to camp—assuming I could even find it. Knowing fully well that I did need to find someone from my camp, I found a nice open space among the sea of people and let out the biggest bird call I could. I figured, since we’re all out here to live as immediately as possible, I might as well dive in head first: “KAW-AWW!”
A makeshift peacock call, just like Con Queso had taught me earlier in the day. “This might work well enough to get noticed,” I hoped. I got a few strange glances from people startled to hear the high-pitched bird-esque shout coming from a grungy bearded man, but nobody looked twice. I paused to listen for the response, hoping it would indeed come. And sure enough, there it followed. I traced the bird sound back through the crowd of Bay Area burners, back across the puffers and dancers, back to the Box Camp crew. Thankfully, in Black Rock City, making the right kind of bird call loudly enough will get you reunited with the right kind of people. Together again with the group and full of energetic charge, we mounted our bikes and pushed further to the north, away from the camps and into the open, empty blackness of the Deep Playa at midnight.
The journey there was a sight to behold. With few lights on the horizon, the sky was its natural inky darkness, illuminated only by the first quarter moon. The winds kicked up a cool, moist air along with the white chalky dust as we navigated away from Black Rock City through the blowing silt and darkness.
Constructions were sparse and the main attractions of The Man and The Temple were mostly incomplete—their wooden skeletons bathed under bright fluorescent utility light and fenced off from the general public. There was not much else in the skyline useable as a landmark, but as long as you could keep an eye on The Man, you could find your way home in this radial city. However, the desert playa can kick up dust storms with little warning. Visibility can drop from ten miles to ten feet in the time it takes to use an outhouse. Fearing getting lost, seperated, and falling out of bird-call range, I kept close to the Box Camp group as we made our way: bearing 40 degrees northeast, travelling one and a half miles away from the The Man to the farthest perimeter of the city: the orange boundary fence.
With headlamps and bike-mounted LEDs, our lights shone on a new towering wooden object materializing into view: Point-3. Marked by a 30-foot tall pole at the northeasternmost vertex of the orange fence pentagon, Point-3 was one of five places you could go in Black Rock City to get the furthest away from The Man. Beyond this point, over the fence, was absolutely nothing.
We decided to take this moment and lie down on the playa—five abreast—bodies touching. We took in this serene moment, surrounded on all sides by a combination of breeze, moonlight, and a depth of darkness that I have trouble describing. We each fell into each other and our own awed silence, looking up at the vivid field of stars and back upon this fledgling town that’s springing up out of the dry lake basin. Nobody laying here complained about getting dusty. Nobody flinched at the idea of being on the ground. If anything, everyone in this moment had a genuine lust for the dust.
Shining a headlamp out into the vast expanse beyond the perimeter fence and seeing only darkness stretching into an infinite horizon was humbling. Our place is here, behind the fence, in the relative safety of the city limits. Best leave the depth of the unknown unplumbed, for now, and ride the bikes gleefully with these new friends, back to a firm air mattress and a warm sleeping bag.
I made a rookie mistake: “Don’t leave your tent fly open in a dust storm.” My living space was coated in a fine film of chalky dirt powder. What a fool I was, and now I’d be sleeping in a thin sheen of my mistake for the next two weeks. I made a feeble attempt to shake out my pillow and sleeping bag, but I soon discovered the more you expose an object to the playa, the more the playa clings to it.
Some say this playa dust stuff―oxides of Group I and II alkali earth metals such as lime (calcium oxide), potash (potassium oxide), magnesium and sodium oxides―work wonders for the skin or that it actually reverses the aging process. Some say that its caustic nature destroys the mind and reprogrammes it. What it is has been well documented, but what it does to the human body when exposed to it for prolonged periods is still a mystery. For now it’s a minor irritant and it’s coating every inch of everything inside my clothes and my tent. I take a private moment to sulk.
I am already laden with playa names and I use them all indiscriminately and interchangeably. It says ‘404’ on my BMID—the credential that sets me apart as a member of the official staff on the Black Rock Desert and separate from the tourists. This is the sacrifice I made in order to score a ticket. The deal is that I would trade 24 hours of my life—broken up across four six-hour shifts—and devote them in service to the Burning Man organization and community for a deeply discounted ticket to this strange desert wasteland fantasy camp.
The ‘404’ moniker was suggested to me by Joy via a flurry of email correspondence weeks before the event. I whinged on and on to her about not having a playa name, and I resisted the idea of self-naming prior to ever setting a foot on the playa.
“I thought these things happened organically, magically.” I wrote
“Well, sure, they do, but you need a name for the name tag. It can’t be nothing; it has to be something.”
“What about Null or N/A or some sort of blank placeholder?”
“How about ‘404’—like the webpage error. It fits the theme.”
“Sure,” I thought, “why not.” As much as I wanted to abstain from this pre-naming process I had no choice.
“What’s the harm in being unknown? In just a few days time,” I mused, “I’ll have a brand new name, christened on-playa, and I could forget all about introducing myself as a webpage error.”
“But you’re not unknown. I know you, James.”
A good friend in camp, one I’ve known since high school, has branded me with an old internet handle, ‘Joyrok’. I stole it from a one-off villian in a 90s anime, and it connects me to a time long ago, to a person that is no longer me. It’s a fine trucker handle to squawk over a CB radio, but as my identity it conjures a childish, idiotic time in my life when I was a teenager, selfish and mad at the world for no real reason.
Right now, I am feeling like a complete newbie and nobody knows me here. And outside of the city, only a few people had a vague idea of where I was, and nobody knew for how long I would stay. As of yesterday, I had absolutely zero cell phone coverage. I was about as severed from the default world as I would ever be, and if I wanted to, I could disappear. For now, though, I was content to disappear into a new character.
I’m dressed as a mild-mannered, excessively helpful Gonzo Journalist in BRC for the first time and wearing it on my sleeve. Why is this strange gathering so profound to so many? There will be 70,000 people out here, maybe more, each having traveled great lengths and committed time and money to be here—who are they? What brings them to a city that has this finite lifespan? These would form the basis of the questions journos from SF Gate and Business Insider and Buzzfeed would undoubtedly also be asking.
I was here on a personal introspective mission as well: Who could I be in this metro? What role was I playing? How could I be both observer and participant?
And that was the trouble. We’re defined in the world by how we appear in it. Specifically, the names we have and the clothes we wear and the cars we drive and the titles we possess. Everybody dresses up to play a part in the world whether they’re a barista or a businessman, and whether they’re conscious of it or not. How we define ourselves and appear to others is shaped by our natures and nurtures and there’s a lot of societal pressures for us to be something to fit into a role in society. Everybody’s got to belong to something.
But not here! Out here, anyone can be anything. I unpacked my duffel bag and surveyed my wardrobe. At the moment I’ve abandoned my off-playa persona and I’m wholly embracing the spirit of Dr. Gonzo, dressed to the 9’s in Hunter S. Thompson’s wardrobe ripped straight out of the prop closet from Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. The Acapulco shirt works well accompanied with the very short chinos in creating a simple and casual beach-goer look. I mean, la playa means beach en español, so it’s an easy wardrobe to pull off and doesn’t stand out too much.
I’m pulling out more of my desert gear and get to the goose feather harlequin mask I packed for a character I was saving for the later in the week: a man clad in golden tights, renaissance-style cotton blouse and face concealed by mask. That’s the ‘BirdPerson’ costume that I have yet to reveal.
The rest of my clothing is simple utilitarian stuff. I’d have to acquire more costumes and identities as the week progressed, even still, no matter how I was dressed, as long as I had my BMID name tag around my neck like an albatross, I’m still ‘404’, a man with a page missing. Sometimes I give a new name to each person I meet, and I’m so busy thinking about which identity I want to use, I typically miss the name of the person I’m talking to. I recognize this as a problem—clinging to ego and embracing some identity reveals how I’m ignoring the person I’m interacting with. It is not living in the present; it is living inside a thought-out lie. Names are causing me a great amount of stress, both in learning the myriad name/face combinations that are presented to me, as well as keeping my own identity straight. Who am I again?
I threw my dust coated bedding back into the tent and sat down in a huff. It’s only the beginning of the trip and in my mind I’m already thinking: disaster.
My brain recoils in horror at the grim reality of the situation. When you can be anything, you become nothing. A particle to change energy states at any moment into something completely different. I shake off the notion. It’s incredible to associate the slight irritant of a dusty pillow with the end of the world, but, here I was, moping in my tent. I needed some air. In an effort to calm the nerves, I take a walk towards the center of this radial city to pay respects to The Man, still under construction.
I took a long walk alone down the 6:00 spoke towards The Man. The city was still mostly empty at this point, with lots of open space and few people around. On the road, I passed a man with a camera, setting up a long shot. “It’s a lot more fun with friends,” he said. He was by himself. I shrugged. I couldn’t scrounge up any friends at the moment. But, because I was moving at my own pace, free from any obligations to friendship, I could take my time strolling by the fence surrounding the platform to the man, enjoying the crisp air and vast openness of the desert sky.