Saturday, August 6, 2011

Learning to Fly

Yeah, it's been a while. Sorry about that.

I was sitting at a meeting in the offices of The Black Rock Beacon during last year's burn when one of the staff members mentioned the Black Rock Airport. A few years prior, he had managed to talk one of the pilots into taking him on a ride over the festival grounds.

I had never been out that way but I had heard stories. In 2009, one of my neighbors, a pilot, told me about sneaking in and out of Black Rock via a small passengar plane in the early days of Burning Man. Then, one year, he touched down and was met by two topless women who demanded to see his ticket. The organization had decided to close this sneaky loophole and figured that buxom security guards would be the best candidates to keep the city's flyboys in line.

I was suddenly inspired to zip out there and see if I could talk my way into a flight. It was a long haul from the Beacon's office near Center Camp. The fully-functioning airport is on the edge of the city and an impressive sight, consisting of a heliport, a drop zone and "The Phoenix," a pilot's lounge set up like a waiting area in a '60s-era airport. One wall was covered in photos of famous lady aviators. This being Burning Man, the pilots tend to dress up in aviator costumes. There's also female "flight attendants" who stand watch over a spinning propeller turnstile that leads to the runway.

Word around the Phoenix was that I had arrived too late in the day. Most of Black Rock's pilots take a siesta during the afternoon hours. I took a seat and began writing in a journal. About twenty minutes later, "Pablo" walked in with a Dutch gal dressed like a Catholic school girl. They hugged and she headed off in search of her bike. He was dressed in a Top Gun flight suit with an aviator cap adorned with Mickey Mouse ears. With a tireless smile, he turned to the lounge and asked, "Anybody looking to go up?"

I was out of my seat in a second flat. I flashed my makeshift press pass from The Beacon and introduced myself. He agreed to take me on a flight in exchange for a photo. You see, Pablo's wife was convinced that during his yearly trips to Burning Man that he only took young women for rides. A snapshot of me would prove otherwise. I agreed. Seconds later, I was through the turnstile.

Pablo led me over to the "Citaborea," his small, two passenger stunt plane (take a moment to see what the name spells backwards). I wish I could tell you all about the plane's features but I know more about astro-physics than I do avionics. This much I can remember: it looked pretty awesome and was capable of doing loopty-loops. As he fueled up, Pablo told me his story. Back in California, he works as a flight instructor. He's logged hundreds of flight hours. Random factoid: his second student puked all over his plane during a lesson.

I helped him push the Citaborea out to the runway. After climbing in the back seat, Pablo pointed out the airsickness bag. He went over his pre-flight check and casually asked, "So, do you want to learn how to fly this thing?"

"Sure, why not," I responded. It's not every day that someone offers you a free lesson in a stunt plane. Pablo would later tell me that he typically charges over a $100 for an hour in the air. My stomach started crawling towards my throat as the Citaborea picked up speed.

The ground disappeared below us and I remember thinking, "Damn, this thing is LOUD." We rose to an elevation of 3,000 feet over the Black Rock desert. The view of the festival and the surrounding hills was gorgeous. Visibility up there was almost completely unlimited. I broke out my camera and started photographing and filming everything.

Typically, this time of day the air over Black Rock is "too hot" for flying but I had lucked out. It was a perfect afternoon for a flight lesson. Down below, "The Man" looked like a bug surrounded by micro-dot Mutant Vehicles.

Now I'm a guy with slight vertigo. I managed to keep it in check until Pablo did a 180 and swung us back over the city. "Are you ready to take over," he asked. I grabbed the stick in front of me as he pushed a button up front. I was now in control of the plane. I suddenly felt as though I was floating and that I might fall through the floor in a few seconds. An initial flood of panic hit me square in the forehead and I broke out in a cold sweat.

My hubris and cowardice duked it out in my brain as Pablo gave me a rundown on the basics. He told me to keep the nose of the plane slightly above the horizon. My survival instincts kicked in. For all I knew, If I didn't immediately focus on what was going on, I could easily send the Citaborea into a tailspin.

There was nothing to it. Pablo told me I was a natural, a line he probably uses on all the newbs. "I don't usually have first timers do this but you want to learn how to turn?" He told me to ease up on the stick and send the plane into a turn. Boom. No problem. I may as well have been playing Pilotwings.

I did a few more turns over the city. This was thrilling. I was ready to do a 360. I was like a newborn vampire hungry for some O Negative. I wanted to dive down over the city and shake some dust. "Ok, you ready to spin us around towards the airport," Pablo asked.

And then I screwed up. I went into the turn too fast without pulling up far enough on the stick. Pablo quickly flipped a switch. "Ok.....ok....I need to take over," he said, keeping calm.

He pointed the Citaborea back towards the airport and eased it back down towards the runway. After we had safely come to a stop, he told me my error. "If I had let you continue into that turn we would have flipped the plane over."

This has happened before. The odd climate and incredibly low humidity of the Black Rock Desert makes flying difficult. Pulling off stunts, even on the best day, could be a suicide mission. At least one pilot has met his doom at Burning Man. He had made the same mistake I had nearly made. He went into a turn too fast and too low. His plane flipped and he landed in the dust like a stone.

After getting photos, Pablo and I parted ways. I'm still grateful to him for taking me up there. It was one of the most thrilling hours of my life and an experience I'll never forget.

Having nearly killed myself and a pilot, I went in search of the "Green Bike" I had used to get to the airport. It was long gone. I took a swig of water and started hiking back to the city. Along the way, I managed to hitch a ride on a Mutant Car. It's afternoons like this that have made me realize that there is absolutely no place on the planet like this crazy, annual fest.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tales from the Black Rock Beacon

I attended Burning Man in 2009 as a spectator and was determined to get more involved in 2010. I got in contact with the fine folks at The Black Rock Beacon a few months prior to the festival and signed-up to work as a staff writer. I had finished up a gig in Portland and had several weeks to kill before the beginning of fall term at Portland State. With nothing better to do, I rolled out to the playa early and set up camp the Tuesday before the gates opened.

At that point, Black Rock City was still pretty vacant. The Man had yet to be placed on top of his pedestal and the Center Camp tent was an empty shell. I was the first Beacon staffer to show. I threw down my tent and spent those first few days sleeping late and working on an art project out on the playa. Slowly, but surely, members of the Beacon staff trickled in. Before I knew it, I was helping set up the paper's makeshift tent/office and scribbling comic strips to cover an old bench out front.

I was surprised at how devoted the staff was to the Beacon. Two veterans had dumped several thousands of dollars into a large printer that cranked out copies of the daily paper. Several editors worked around the clock, their days beginning at 10 AM with a staff meeting and often ending well after midnight. I snagged a corner of one table in the tent and dubbed it the "International Affairs Desk," where I parked my ass for more hours than I care to admit.

One of the highlights of the 2010 fest for me was staying up all night chatting with other staffers and chain-smoking while bleary-eyed Burners staggered over in search of information. We put together a chart to track the number of times we were asked where the information tent was located. If memory serves, there was around a hundred slash marks on the board by the time the Man burned.

I've worked in a few newsrooms in my time and, unsurprisingly, the Beacon's proved to be the most fun. During my week in their tent, I sat in on interviews with BLM troopers, artists, a Shirtcocker and Larry Harvey. I spent one afternoon running around the city debunking a rumor about "a mutant car being used by federal agents to bust people on drugs." After a wild goose chase, I discovered that the vehicle in question belonged to a crop of BLM employees that were cruising the city and having fun like everyone else during their off hours. The guy who built the thing laughed when I told him about the stories that were going around. Oh, I also got a free flying lesson from a pilot with a stunt plane out at the airport too.

I also took it upon myself to run around town as a newsie, handing out papers at the front gates to attendees fresh off the highway and at Center Camp. I didn't do the "Extra! Extra!" bit though.

The Beacon's neon purple sign and the staff's round-the-clock bacon-fests drew all sorts of BRC denizens to the tent. One day, a group of frat brats from SoCal decided to hold court in the office, loudly demanding acid every five minutes. We couldn't get them to leave. Finally, one staffer cut off their supply to bacon and they left of their own accord. On a brighter note, another afternoon a gorgeous, topless gal from Spain stopped by to use the internet.

The staff and the editors were a great, welcoming bunch, many of whom work as journalists outside of the city in their normal lives. There was Howeird, an awesome British expat who looked and sounded a bit like Dumbledore from Harry Potter. I should also mention Carry, a mother from the Seattle area who lets her hair down at Burning Man every year and Rocky, a journalist from San Fran who looked like Billy Idol. There was also Rhino, a gentle giant from down south and Mitch and Jane and Durgy....I'll stop now, lest I forget anyone.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Burnier than thou"


I arrived early on the playa in 2010 to participate in an art project with a group from my hometown of Portland, Oregon and to serve as a staff-writer and photographer for The Black Rock Beacon. One of my first assignments for the daily paper was to get a photo of the Temple. I hopped on my bike and rode out into the open playa with a backpack full of supplies. In addition to my camera, I brought along my usual "survival pack" - a big jug of water, goggles and a makeshift dust mask.

As anyone who has ever been to the festival will tell you, the weather in Black Rock City can turn on a dime. Hell, it can turn on a penny too. I snagged my photos and rode over to "Bliss Dance" for a few more shots. The front gates weren't due to open to the general public for another 36 hours and two volunteers were putting the finishing touches on the piece's metallic legs. As I was taking photos, a guy emerged from a trailer and started screaming at them.


"Why, what's going on," one of the volunteers asked.


He frantically pointed back towards the city proper. A gigantic wind storm had risen and was headed right for us. Like a tempest straight of, well, The Tempest, it appeared out of nowhere. Within 30 seconds, we were engulfed in alkaline dust and wind. I tossed my camera in my bag, grabbed my goggles and mask and attempted to ride my bike back to the Beacon's camp.

No dice. Visibility had dropped to five feet and getting on the bike, let alone balancing on it, wasn't an option. I trudged through the storm, getting pelted with dust that felt like sandpaper against my exposed skin. I'd been in storms on the playa before but not quite like this. I stopped and hunkered down, hoping the winds would calm long enough for me to make it to safety. After a few minutes, they were only getting stronger. I knew I wasn't going to die out there but it sure felt like it.

And so I fought my way onward through the storm, struggling to breathe while attempting to get my bearings. With no visual reference point, I had no clue where I was on the grid. Off in the distance, I could make out the vague shape of an RV. I slogged over towards it, dropped my bike and collapsed, cursing my bad luck and lousy timing. I looked around. I had found myself in the camp for The Black Rock Roller Disco.

I crawled over near a back tire and it was just large enough to serve as a wind barrier. As I was breaking out my water jug, I heard a door slam. A heavy-set guy in his 40s, dressed in a Hawaiin t-shirt, came around the front of the vehicle and sneered at me.


I looked over at my bike, a good seven feet away. It wasn't going anywhere near the RV. Sure, enough, it was shiny and new. It must have cost 80 grand or more, easy. While I wasn't about to put a scratch on the thing, there's no telling how much damage was being caused by all the corrosive dust flying around.

"Ok, no problem," I muttered weakly.

Without another word, he wandered a few feet into the wind. "YOU CALL THIS A FUCKING STORM," he screamed. "THIS IS A PUSSY STORM!" He laughed manically. I couldn't tell if he was coked-up or just an asshat. He jumped in the RV and fired up the engine.

I moved away as he gunned the big whale off into the dust. He manuvered the RV a grand total of 50 yards away, set the emergency break and killed the ignition.

"What was all that about," I wondered. "Did that douche just do that to spite me?" This seemed to be the case. He had mocked the storm before retreating to the safety of his overpriced, metal behemoth. Worse yet, for all he knew, I could have been injured and in distress. Obviously, he was more concerned about his toy than me, another human being.

Exposed to the elements again, I grabbed my bike and scooted over to a large, nearby tent. This guy was a one man class war, the human embodiment of both a turd and yuppie privilege--- most likely a middle manager/divorcee from Palm Springs. At least he had stopped short of yelling, "LET THEM EAT CAKE!" Enraged, I broke out my camera and filmed this....

After another twenty minutes, the storm died down. Still livid, I wandered over to the RV and filmed another clip:


In the weeks that followed, these two videos received a few hundred views and several comments. Most were supportive. "Don't let it get to you, man," someone wrote. "I was out on the playa gifting like crazy and doing my best to take care of everyone I met." Then, back in December, someone with the username "Burning Man Mike" left something far nastier. Mike has since deleted his comments but they were pithy and patronizing. I'll paraphrase: "Serves you right! You shouldn't have gone out there unprepared! Moron!"

As much of an ass the RV owner had been, at the very least he had a motive for his actions: the deluded notion that I was going to somehow damage his beloved, four-ton baby. Burning Man Mike though was being a dick, pure and simple. He broke out the tired and cliched "radical self reliance" argument to put me in my place.


From the Ten Principles of Burning Man:

"Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources."

Right-o. Anyone who attends Burning Man had better be prepared for the elements. The playa is a rough, dangerous place that doesn't give half a damn about anyone foolish enough to spend a week or two in its presence. You need water, supplies, food, proper shelter, sunscreen...enough stuff to easily fill a sedan for a single attendee. That said, I have no idea how I could have been better prepared for a storm on the open playa. I had goggles. I had a dust mask and water. I suppose if Mike had received a similar assignment, he would have carried an all-seasons tent, a deep sea diving suit, a case of beer and a BBQ out there with him.

As these things so often go, a flame war between the two of us ensued. "Imaburner," another attendee and an apparent colleague of Mike's, ganged up on me. All in all, the three of us exchanged around a dozen bitter diatribes. Then, a few weeks ago, the two of them abruptly deleted their comments. Imaburner left this as an explanation:

"burningmanmike and i, imaburner have withdrawn our comment. we've made our point. we hope the poster has learned something positive, and will move on. revenge: is like drinking poison, and waiting for your enemy to die."

A good point but it came on the heels of a heap of contempt from them. The encounter with the RV owner and these two have soured me a bit on Burning Man. One of the central goals of the annual event is to build a temporary society in one of the harshest places on the planet. In addition to the challenge, another thing commonly cited as the appeal of heading out there is the communal spirit of the festival. The internet is filled with anecdotes and tales of how Burning Man is different from modern society. For a few days out of the year, it's practically a utopia.

Ultimately, it all boils down to: "people out there give a damn about each other." Hundreds, if not thousands, are willing to claim that the festival has "changed their lives." I recently read a story about a roughneck biker dude that went to Burning Man and came out the other side a "better man" after being randomly kissed by a stranger on the cheek.

But as with any city, there's bound to be a few assholes roaming about. I obviously ran into one of them in the middle of that storm. I've had dozens of great experiences in Black Rock City so it's odd that I'm willing to let this one nasty encounter tarnish my overall perspective. Still, there's the inescapable problem at Burning Man of a class system at work. Despite efforts to establish an open, communal vibe, there's no getting around the fact that some people truck out there every year over-prepared in fancy RVs and barely get any dust on themselves...while everyone else gets hammered by the elements.

Many view Burning Man as an opportunity to get out of town, get blitzed and dance their asses off at many of the makeshift raves around the city. They wouldn't know a principle if it bit them on their glow sticks. These weekend warriors drag down the festival down several pegs.

Sometime during the week at the Beacon's office, someone broke out the term "Burnier than thou." It's a phrase that nicely describes anyone with a holier than thou attitude, such as the one employed by Burning Man Mike. Obviously, I can be accused of this but it's typically the wealthy attendees with RVs or with a $20,000 budget for a mutant vehicles that are most disdainful of anyone having a hard time out there. Not dressed up in a costume covered in $300 worth of LED lights? There's a good chance someone will cop an attitude on you.

It's the equivalent of a rich individual yelling "get a job" at a panhandler. Another well-worn term used by this crowd: "tourist."

As if anyone willing to truck out to Burning Man could be accused of being a tourist--- the sort of lazy, clueless type that you might see wandering around the Mall of America. The average tourist wouldn't last five minutes on the playa, RV or no RV. There's a certain amount of curiosity and all around ballsy-ness that goes with trucking all the way to northern Nevada for anything, let alone a week in a wasteland. I'm sure Burning Man gets its fair share of leering pervs there to take pictures of exposed flesh or hang out in the corner of Orgy Dome. It's a term that should be reserved for them and only them.

It'll never happen but I wouldn't be opposed to banning RVs outright from Burning Man, if only to level out the playing field. I'll conclude this rambling rant with this:

Two more from the Ten Principles:

Communal Effort

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Play nice out there, everybody.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How will you get hurt at Burning Man?

Click here for a helpful diagram that should tell you everything you need to know.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sure, I believe him...

If Charles Schultz's widow was willing to show up with a Snoopy-themed mutant vehicle in tow, well, then why not John McLaughlin from The McLaughlin Group?

She allegedly worked as a barista at Center Camp back in 2009 when she wasn't rolling around the city in her beagle mobile.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

South Park's Cartman takes on Burning Man...

Huh, I've never really thought of Burning as a "hippie festival." Yet another sign that America's youth are soooooo misguided these days? This episode aired a few weeks back.