Rendezvous in the Desert...

My First Burning Man

Or...How I spent my Summer Vacation with Miffy MacHead*
By Chef Juke

An Invitation

It all started with an E-mail message from a colleague at work:


followed by a message inviting me to join a group of my fellow employees on a pilgrimage of    sorts to some party on the Nevada desert to watch the burning of a 40-foot statue.




I first became aware of "Miffy MacHead" from some of his E-mail messages sent to the electronic bulletin board at my work. He sent a message out every day telling of the blend of coffee he was brewing in his special pot that morning. You had to hurry after seeing the message if you wanted to actually DRINK the coffee he made, since a pot of good strong coffee doesn't last long in an building of 300 or so computer nerds.

When I went over to thank him for his coffee, I couldn't help but notice that his cube was encircled by what looked to be real barbed wire (I've yet to determine if it was to keep others out, or to keep HIM in).

He was definitely an eclectic. His ruminations on the bulletin board from acerbic wit aimed at our colleagues to bits & pieces of assorted humorous items gleaned from the Internet. I didn't interact with Miffy very often until the messages about The Burning Man began to appear. It sounded kind of interesting. I replied to his message and he gave me a packet of literature & news articles on The Burning Man. It seems a good friend of his had gotten involved with the project a year or so before and was prodding him to come this year & bring friends. It had been a while since I had done anything really adventurous and this definitely fit the bill. I signed up.

Travel Advisory

The Info packet we received contained some serious warnings about camping on the Black Rock Desert - this is the largest expanse of flat earth in the continental US. You can easily lose your bearings at night, during a wind or rain storm and be stranded if you've wandered too far from camp. Temperatures can reach and stay in the 100's all day long and drop suddenly at sundown. You only have the water & provisions you bring. People have died on this desert, in short - this ain't no KOA Kampground-BE PREPARED!


Going My Way

As departure day neared we went over Miffy's check list:

  • "Food and Lots of Water?"


  • "Sun-Screen?"


  • "Parasols?"


  • Barney Dolls to burn on the Burning Man Pyre?"

"Double Check!"

  • "Tiki Torches? Matches? Kerosene"

"Check, check, and CHECK!..."

We were ready.

The Eugene 7 (tm)

The group from our work numbered seven all told. (One person backed out at the last minute and was so chastised by the rest of us that he had to leave the company and finally the state) Miffy had re-named himself "The Digital Navigator" (read hitch-hiker) for the trip and would be riding with me in my beat up, overloaded Toyota pickup. The others were traveling in separate cars on separate routes but we planned on regrouping when we arrived at the site.

On The Road

Soon were on our way - ridin' down the highway with the Doors' "Light My Fire" blaring from the stereo.

About 30 minutes after we started I looked over to find that Miffy had fallen asleep! So much for the Digital Navigator.

As we drove down through Oregon towards the Northeastern tip of California, Jimi Hendrix sang through the speakers, "I have just one burning desire, let me stand next to your FIRE..."

The Digital Navigator just snored.

After 9 hours of mostly night driving I was getting beat. We were driving along a stretch of road that had intermittent stretches of gravel road between the paved portions. I looked over at my sleeping passenger and considered waking him for some conversation to help keep me from nodding off. Just about then we met up with our first idiot jackrabbit.


Night Road - Jackrabbit Alley "Be Vewy, Vewy quiet....I'm Huntin' Wabbits!"

Now if you've never driven across a desert at night, you are probably not familiar with the "idiot jackrabbit" phenomenon.

What happens is this:
At night out on the desert, the young jackrabbits get together and try to figure out what they can do for fun. Some of the stupider jackrabbits decide to play "chicken". They hang out by the nearest road, smokin' cigarettes and wait for a car to come along. As soon as they see the lights of an approaching car, they drop their cigs, then sprint as fast as they can for the road, trying to make it across before they get creamed by the car.

Sometimes they make it. Sometimes they don't.

Now from the car driver's perspective, you're cruisin' along and all of a sudden you see something in the road in front of you and you must quickly decide whether to either:

1) Slam on the brakes to avoid the little bugger.
2) Swerve to avoid the little bugger.
3) Say "It's you or me Wabbit!" and keep on going and leave the fate of the jackrabbit up to the powers that be.

So there I am playing "Dodge the Jackrabbit" when I see my first coyote run across the road in front of me chasing after one of the idiot jackrabbits. Pretty soon for about every 25 jackrabbits I see I'm seeing one coyote. I was just noticing another coyote running across the road when a voice next to me suddenly screams:

"LOOK OUT! -- STOP!!!"

Miffy was awake.

Startled the sudden screaming, I slammed on the brakes. As the truck screeched to a halt, Miffy asked:

"What WAS that!?!?"

"It was a Coyote," I said, calmly "that was about the fifth one I've seen."

"Where are we?" the still out-of-sorts Miffy asked, while nervously looking out of the window for more wild animals in the dark desert night "why are you stopped?"

"We're somewhere in Nevada" I said, "and I stopped because you screamed."
"Well, start driving again" he said nervously, " there could be more of them out there!"
(sigh.) Maybe it was better with him asleep.

Wile E. ?

Gerlach, NV


A short time later we finally entered the town of Gerlach, Nevada (population 'bout a hundred or so in the town proper).

The town consisted of two taverns and a gas station, that was about it. We stopped and checked & re-checked our maps - the directions called for us to head north out of town for exactly 11.2 miles and we didn't want to miss the turn off - we weren't sure how well marked the turn-off would be (or if anybody would be there to direct us at 3 am) and we did NOT want to get lost in the desert driving around in circles.

Vamos a la Playa

After finding the turn-off we met the one lone gatekeeper who said "...head THAT way (pointing out into the pitch black desert) for about ten miles... then turn right…follow the tire tracks... "

So we did.

I soon became aware that driving on a hard packed alkali desert at night is an amazing experience. I could only see the ground as far as the glow from my headlights shone, and there were almost no reference points other than the stars, and the lights on the horizon that looked like they might be from a town that was either thirty or three hundred miles away - I couldn't tell which!

We followed the tire ruts as long as we could but after about 10 minutes we lost track of them. I decided to head towards a bluish light that seemed to be about a mile ahead, which I took to be a large lantern or flashlight.

After driving about five miles towards the light I started to realize that it wasn't a was The Burning Man! His neon light was our beacon in the night. It took us another five miles before we reached the camp (you really can't tell distance on the desert at night) and The Man himself.
Juke & Miffy meet The Man

Discovering the Man...

Discovering The Man...

The Burning Man

There he stood.

He was 4 stories high, with a skeletal outline of sky-blue neon. I immediately thought of both the Easter Island heads and the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey! His head was in the fashion of a Japanese lantern and the rest of his frame was made of two-by-fours and plywood. He was leaning slightly forward braced there by a fulcrum that acted as a sort of inverted bicycle stand. We circled the truck around him twice, and then went to find a place to set up camp for the night. There seemed to be only about 25 or so cars there so far and we parked near the edge of the camp so we wouldn't wake anyone. I was really beat from driving and also because I had been up for nearly 24 hours!

After we got our tents set up Miffy fell in a heap somewhere in the vicinity of his sleeping bag and I went to take one more look at The Man before going to sleep. Somehow walking up towards him in the cool desert pre-dawn, he was both more real and more surreal than viewing him from the truck as we drove in had been. The truck windshield had given the view a TV-like feel and one couldn't hear the hum from the generator that kept his neon skeleton lit. As I walked slowly towards him he loomed higher and higher, the crescent moon hovering over his left shoulder, the first hint of a desert 'false dawn' beginning to spill it's glow over the distant mountains behind him.

His face was an expressionless lattice of wood over a Japanese lantern like surface. His arms were by his sides and he was leaning forward as if to brace himself against a gust of wind. His form spoke of a strong yet peaceful beckoning figure, with the neon skeleton a beacon across the desert to help those seeking him find their way. I was amazed at the intricacy of the woodwork involved in his body. He was what I imagine a robot designed by Frank Lloyd Wright would look like.

The MAN and the Moon
The Man and The Moon

Standing there in the not-quite-dark I felt something akin to what I imagine one of my ancestors must have felt like when gazing upon his or her particular idol-god. Not that I felt any religious significance to The Burning Man, it was more a sense of deja-vu harking back to what it must have been like a thousand years ago, for a person trekking through the jungle to unexpectedly come upon a Mayan pyramid.

I was exhausted from the trip, but I stayed up a while longer, fascinated by The Man I had traveled hundreds of miles to see, and I wondered what was to come...

Part Two

EDITOR'S NOTE: When we last left our intrepid traveler he was gazing up at The Burning Man as the dawn broke on his first morning on the desolate Black Rock Desert...

The Man Before Dawn
The Man before Dawn

Dawn Breaks through the MAN

I stood there admiring the MAN for a few minutes. I noticed the light behind the man starting to grow brighter, then grabbed my camera so I could catch the sun as it rose directly behind the MAN (which I figured to be about 15 minutes away from the look of things). 

Never having spent any significant time in the desert before, I was unaware of the phenomenon of "false dawn". Basically, because there are no hills etc to obstruct the horizon, dawn's early light starts glowing long before the sun actually rises. So I stood there taking photos for over an hour and a half before the sun actually showed itself. Then, when I saw the sight of the sun rising behind, almost through the Man, I picked up my camera again and went through another two rolls of film...

A few other early risers came by to commune with the Man as the dawn broke. Some came with flutes to play a morning tune for the Man, others did some Tai Chi in the shadow of the Man. The scene was very serene and reverent, strangely the feeling there reminded me of a Japanese garden I had recently visited. My body finally got a message through to my brain that I really needed to get some sleep or I would probably pass out where I stood, so I put my camera away, stumbled off to my tent, crawled into my sleeping bag, and was out like a light almost immediately.

 Dan, The Sani-Hut Man

A Hot Time in the Old Tent Today...

I woke up with the thought that I must have fallen asleep in a sauna. One of my first lesson of the playa: as soon as the sun hits your tent, you're gonna wake up. It was now about 100 degrees in the tent and here I was in my down sleeping bag pretty much covered in sweat. I checked my watch, and realized I had only been asleep for about 2-1/2 hours. I crawled out of my sleeping bag trying to get back to sleep but it was just too hot. So I decided I might as well get up to take a look around...

It was a clear bright day on the Playa. I guessed it to be about 80 degrees once I was outside of the tent and it was still early in the morning. My traveling companion Miffy was nowhere to be found. The first order of business was to find a john (the Burning Man literature indicated there would be toilets provided) I put on my pith helmet and started out for what looked to be the main camp. Along the way I found one of the 30 or so "Sani-Huts" that peppered the landscape. Man, I thought, just imagine the instructions they must have given to the Sani-Hut delivery driver: "Ok, you drive north from Reno for about 100 miles until you're 11 miles past the little town of Gerlach. Make a right onto the desert there, then head out about 10 miles and start laying out the porta-potties..."

After taking care of business I opened the door to leave and was confronted with the next little bit of surrealism. Looking out through the "Sani-Hut"door the view was of nothing but miles & miles of empty desert.

I think Salvador Dali would recognize this Surreal tableau

A Rude Awakening...

I returned to our tents and looked around. Miffy's tent was empty. Apparently he had gotten up before me to go look for his friend Alex who held the official capacity of "Press Liaison" for this year's Burning Man. We had been told to look for an awning with a white picket fence and grass in front. Just as I was deciding which direction to start off in search of him, who should appear bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (of course he was...HE had gotten some sleep last night!) but the Miff-ster himself.

"Good Morning," he said in a voice just a little too awake and cheerful,

"Are you ready to find Alex's camp?"

"Uhhh...sure." I said.

And off we went across the desert, in search of a white picket fence...

Good Morning

Alex's Press Tent


It turned out we were not far from Alex's camp at all. We had walked towards the main camp (which was designated by a staked out circular driveway of sorts ) and almost tripped over the 8" high white picket fence which lined both sides of a strip of astroturf-like plastic grass. Leaning up against the green and white striped awning there was a large sign with a sunflower painted on it labeled "The Fourth Estate - Press Tent".

There were no signs of life from the three or four tents surrounding the Press Tent area. I was about to suggest that we go back to sleep for a while and come back later (which I was SURE the occupants of the tents would appreciate) when Miffy started calling out in a 'whisper-yell'

"Alex?" "A-A-Alex!"

Finally some rustling (and some grumbling) came from one of the tents and a sleepy voice said

"Miffy? Is that you?"

After some exclamatory "hey-there-hi-there-ho-theres" Miffy introduced me to Alex and company (those that were awake, that is) and after we exchanged some groggy not-quite-awake pleasantries, Miffy and I went to bring our truck and tents over and set up camp.

"Don't be Messin' with My Immediate Experience..."

As soon as our car and tents were in place we started working on breakfast. Miffy's friend Alex got up and explained that the Press Liaison's job was to hand out Press Passes, information packets and make each member of the press take an oath not to interfere with anybody's "immediate experience".

The oath part was apparently in response to some episodes that had happened the previous year with a film crew from HBO.

The HBO crew, being not quite clear on the concept that this was not a "spectator" event, had had a tendency to go barging up to the front of any given scene that they wanted footage of, and started moving people out of the way to get better shots of what was going on. People got so pissed at them that a near riot ensued at one point and the HBO folks decided to high tail it back to civilization. Unfortunately for them they decided to do this during a rainstorm.

Now, the Black Rock Desert is an ancient dried up lake bed. It is made up of alkali dust that, well…when rain hits it, it turns into a substance with properties not unlike that of the "Acme Super Glue" used by Wile E. Coyote in those Roadrunner cartoons.

Well, the HBO crews vehicles got mired in this muck and Burning Man's Volunteer Search/Rescue/Medic team known as "The Black Rock Rangers" had to come and extricate them (The HBO crew was later given the not-quite coveted "Donner Award" which is given out by the Black Rock Rangers to the person or persons who perform the LEAST survival-conscious act at Burning Man, that award being named after the famous ill-fated Donner party).

Anyway, this year the Press liaison was making each member of the press take the following oath: "I promise not to interfere with anyone's immediate experience" before they were given their packet of materials and allowed to leave the Press Tent.

It was kind of amusing watching some of the more mainstream media deal with having to recite this oath.

As the heat of the day settled in, I lay out on the large pillow in the press tent area resting and waiting for night to fall...

...and the serious fun to begin…



Part Three

EDITOR'S NOTE: When we last left our intrepid traveler he was resting up during the heat of his first day on Black Rock Playa and waiting for night to fall and the evening festivities to begin...

No Rest For The Weary...

The idea was to rest. Take it easy. Nap.

My body had this idea down pat. It was my mind that wouldn't let me drift off to dreamland. As I lay in the Burning Man Press Tent, trying to get to sleep, I kept thinking that there was some pretty neat stuff out there that I really should go see. Strange sounds wafted across the playa to me, beckoning to my sleep-deprived brain to come see what in the world could be making THAT noise....

Every now and then I would hear the sound of an approaching vehicle, crack open one eye to see what it was, then sit bold upright when one of what became a successive line of the wildest cars (or at least I THINK they started out as cars) I had ever seen slowly drove past the Press Tent checking out the main camp.

...A Cadillac with the bow and trimmings of a small boat complete with deck, Captain's chair, and mast.

A few minutes later (just as I was almost asleep again)... ...An old Buick passes by with literally thousands of small figurines of every shape, size & color glued to every inch of the car's surface area.


Cadillac Cabin Cruiser


Ripper the Shark Car

A great white shark.


No. Really. I looked up and there was a 16 foot, great white shark swimming across the playa past the Press Tent.


Well, it was actually more of a great silver shark.

This required closer inspection....
Wild Wheels...

It turns out that, among other things, Burning Man is a Mecca for "Art Car" enthusiasts. Art cars are pretty much any car that the owner has modified in an artistic way (usually one that seems designed to draw the most attention to the car). The art cars ranged from the relatively simple (a car with Dr. Suess pictures painted all over it) to the extreme ( The Shark Car, "Ripper" with a mouth that opens and closes, headlights with eyes painted on them, and a tail that waves back and forth).

So I get up to check out this Shark that I just saw 'swimming' by, and I see that it has caught up with the boat car. The next thing I know, they are racing around the center camp, the Boat car in hot pursuit of the Shark, people up on it's deck shouting and waving harpoons. They head out to the open desert and soon that desert heat shimmer makes their wheels disappear and it looks like they're really out on water.

The chase is on


People are strange...

As the two battling art cars headed further out into the shimmer of the open desert, I looked around at the other folks who had stopped to gander at the shark chase.


The fellow over to my right is completely naked except for his pair of Nikes, white socks, a cowboy hat, and a gun holster with a .38 in it.

On my left is a guy in a full on Marlon Brando-esque leather biker's outfit complete with greasy hair, jack boots, sunglasses and angel wings.

Angel wings???

Yep, right there coming out of the back. As he walks by I see that the wings are even made with real feathers! Over the breast of his jacket the name "Johnny Angel" is stiched in cursive red lettering.


Geez, it's 90 degrees out here - he must be melting in that getup!

He hands me a flyer talking about the event that is happening in center camp Sunday afternoon before the burn:

"Announcing An All-Star Wrestling Match pitting the

Forces Of GOOD vs. the Forces Of EVIL."

Sounds fun....

And off he walks, in the 90 degree heat, with the feathers on his wings rustling in the breeze...

Playa Paraphernalia

Well, I was up now, and not likely to get back to sleep with all the hustle & bustle going on, not to mention that it was too darned warm to go back to sleep. I decided to take a walk and get a closer look at the center camp in the daylight.

Camera Obscura


The first thing I really notcied a 10 foot pyramid with a revolving "capstone". It turns out this is a "Camera Obscura" a sort of precusor to the first film cameras only MUCH bigger. In the top is a lens and a mirror that reflects the image from outside down onto an adjustable table inside the pyramid.

To get to the inside you have to get on your hands & knees and crawl through a short spiral maze. Once inside there is room for about 4 or 5 people sitting around the focusing table. By pulling some ropes you can make the lens on top turn around to view the outside from different angles. You focus on objects in the "picture" by raising and lowering the table inside. I later found that this is most impressive at night when fireworks and other light shows are going on outside.



After the Camera Obscura I wandered over to The Man to check him out in the midday sun. He did seem to look a little different in the midday than he did at night or just after dawn. Hmm...
Da Man


After that I wandered about checking out the folks arriving, those who had obviously been there for a few days already and the interesting things people brought with them.



Pool anyone?

Why look! There's a full-sized pool table sitting in the middle of the desert.

Over there, it's a two foot tall bronze dragon sitting on a pedestal.

A novel use of helium


Hmmm...someone has filled two "Love Dolls" with helium and is flying them over their camp.

Tiki Lounge

I wander over to the Tiki hut and find a most curious venue. It seems that they have a complete bar set up in there with blenders and everything....the way it works is: You bring in a mixer: any beverage that they can mix with the alcohol THEY provide, and they will blend you up a drink.

Now why don't more bars work like that?

And take a look at that - a Tiki Lounge complete with palm trees.

Tiki Lounge


What the heck's a Lingham???

Not far from our camp, straight out towards the MAN, we came across an unusual tower. It was about 20 feet tall, cylindrical with a base that spread out at the bottom. On one side of the base there was an opening that was very vaginal in nature and inside that opening were what seemed to be large charcoal briquets,each about 1-1/2 foot in diameter.

The surface of the tower seemed to be made out of the same dried mud that made up the playa, a kind of crackly surface. Upon closer inspection we could see that the tower had an internal frame structure made of rebar and chicken wire and that this was, indeed, covered in playa mud for the wall.

Our host Alex explained that this was a 'Lingham' made by one of the main Burning Man artists, a fellow named Pepé, and that it was scheduled to burn that night. Lingham is a Hindu word for a stylized phallus worshiped as a symbol of the god Shiva


I looked out across the desert past where the Boat and Shark art cars were still locked in their mythic duel and I could see more incoming cars coming across the playa toward us, their tires kicking up plumes of dust behind them that reached up toward the sky. I counted about 15-20 incoming vehicles, most were still too far away to see the vehicles themselves, but you could tell they were coming by the dust plume that trailed up from their wheels and slowly reached toward the sky...

As I walk back to the camp I realize that I am STILL exhausted, but I'm starting to resign myself to the possibility that I'm not going to get much more sleep in the immediate future. It feels too darn hot to sleep now.

Back at camp, my campmates tell me that they are heading off to the Hot Springs and I should come along. It's apparently about a 20 minute drive and since their van has air conditioning and right now a nap in the cool car van sounds too good to pass we all pile in and head off.



Hot Spring Geyser


Muddy Waters...

We drive back to the highway which we originally entered the playa from, then, instead of turning left and south, the road back to Gerlach, we instead turn right and north. After a 5 minute drive we pull off to the side of the road near some other parked cars and a small dirt road crossed with a closed gate. We circumvent the gate and walk about a quarter mile down this driveway until we come to a series of ponds, the biggest of which has the rusting hulk of an abandoned crane of some sort resting at it's edge. This is the Fly Hot Springs. It's apparently pseudo off-limits, but a few of the folks in the know trek out here to take a dip in the hot springs and soothe there playa parched bodies.

The springs are apparently on the site of a long abandonded drill well where the drill holes now act as a three headed geyser that looks like a jurrassic volcano spewing forth it's boiling hot water which drizzles down into the main pool. There are a number of pools of differing temperatures, which get progressively cooler the further away from the geyser they are.

We decide on a medium-hot pool one pool over from the main pool and strip down and take a nice relaxing dip. The mud at the bottom of the springs is silky-smooth and we slowly move around the water we dig our toes deep in the mud until one or two folks realize that if you dig too deep the mud is exteremely hot. Yow! After swimming and floating around for an hour or so, we emerge feeling refreshed and dry off, clothe up, and head back to the playa...



Part Four

EDITOR'S NOTE: When we last left our intrepid traveler he and his companions were heading back to the playa after a refreshing visit to a nearby hot spring...

Back to the land of the lost...

Upon returning to the playa we rested some more and as evening fell we went out to explore some more....






Road Flare Jousting

After another nap and some dinner, we went out again for our first real night jaunt. Many more people had arrived during the afternono and evening and a slow stream of car headlights could be seen driving across the playa toward the growing enclave.

We headed toward the Lingham which we could see was now burning ahead.Just before we reached the crowd surrounding the Lingham, there was a smaller crowd watching a performance by two guys with long poles.

Each of the poles had a road flare attached to each end and the two of them were performing an intricate dance which looked kind of like a cross between a whirling dervish an jousting, only without the horses and armor, etc.

They would spin and parry and thrust the poles at each other (clearly being careful not to actually hit each other with the burning flares) and the effect was amazing.

The flares would leave a light trail of intricate patterns in your mind's eye. Little surreal swirls of red flare light in the darkness.




Close Encounters



Close Encounters of a Lingham Kind...

As we passed the jousters and got closer to the burning tower, I noticed that there were a lot of other people coming from all directions drawn to the glow. we all were moving slowly, entranced by the light emanating both through and above the Lingham.

As I looked at all of us and our long shadows falling behind us, it immediately reminded me of a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the mother ship opens up and everyone is staring into the light...















*EDITOR'S NOTE: Since the original writing of this story, the artist formerly known as "Miffy MacHead" has announced the demise of said "Miffy" during the 1995 Burning Man festivities. He is described here as "Miffy" only for the purposes of historical accuracy. He now is known as either "Faddah Wolf" or the "Digital Navigator", but never, ever, EVER call him "Miffy".

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