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Burning Man 2009

I put off writing about my Burning Man trip because I’ve been in the middle of moving.

I loaded up early Friday morning and after a couple of last last minute errands, I was on the road by 9:30. I made excellent time all the way to New Mexico where I had my first adventure of the trip at the Customs & Border Patrol inspection station on I-10. As I waited in the queue, they motioned me off to a side area where an agent waited for me. She asked the normal citizenship questions, then she says “you sure have a lot of stuff in your truck, may we look through it?” Not being a fan of wasting my time, re-packing things that took hours to pack, and searches, I told the agent no. She was taken aback with this surprised expression, and I expected her to come back with some sort of sarcastic remark about how I must be hiding something. Instead she asked again, and again I said no. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen at this point. After a few seconds of eyeballing me, she just said “ok, have a nice day.” No further hassle, I was free to go!

Serious business.

Serious business.

I rolled into Phoenix sometime around midnight. Found a cheap Best Western and wheeled my more interesting gear upstairs. Because my rental agreement specified a pickup time in the afternoon I thought I’d have several hours to burn in Phoenix. Eventually I called Cruise America at 10 AM and they said I could pick up the trailer right now. The transaction went very smoothly. They happily took my $1500 and gave me a runthrough of the trailer. Surprising to me, the rental included a weight distributing hitch, so I didn’t need to buy my own after all. The guy didn’t know what to make of me when I said I would be boondocking in the desert and wouldn’t need the A/C nor generator. After a quick lock repair, I was on the road by noon.

Cruise America trailerI quickly found out this was going to be a long, slow tow. The trailer towed like a big fat pig. It was 26′ and CA had filled up the 35 gallon water tank. That was nearly 300 pounds I didn’t need right now. Rolling out of Phoenix through Sun city on highway 60/93 was stoplight after stoplight. By the time I’d get going after a dead stop, the next light would turn red. Repeat for several miles. I had forgotten or didn’t pay attention last time to how hilly 93 was. There were many points where I had to drop it down to 2nd or even 1st gear and crawl up the mountains at 25 m.p.h.

I was nervous, but gradually being pleased that my truck was taking the abuse after this year’s coolant problems. Here I was towing this heavy trailer up mountains in 108 F heat for hours on end, with not a single problem nor a single drop of coolant lost. As soon as I arrived at the first truck stop on I-40 I started looking for a way to dump my fresh water tank. I looked around the chassis and couldn’t find a low point drainage valve. I gave up and continued on. There were some really interesting hitchhikers/panhandlers/hobos at this truck stop. A couple of them had great white beards and long grey hair like they had been down on their luck for a long time. I don’t know what was special about this truck stop, other than maybe the amount of traffic.

I-40 trainWhen I rolled into Kingman, signs told me all trucks, trailers, and rental vehicles were forbidden on Hoover Dam and to detour elsewhere. I opted to keep following I-40 down to Needles, CA and up highway 95 there. This added another 60 miles to my trip. Some agriculture inspection station at the California border started in asking what I was carrying, saw that I was from Texas, then started asking if I had brought any fire ants or rattlesnakes with me.

I was finally fed up with towing the trailer and stopped again to figure out how to drain the fresh water tank. Looking around underneath I spotted two drain hoses that lead to a cabinet under the fridge. It wasn’t intended for casual access, I had to unscrew a piece of cabinet to get inside. Digging around by the pump I found two valves that led to the hoses I saw. I opened these up, hit the water pump and finally the water was being pumped into the parking lot. While this didn’t make a great difference in towing, it was still noticable.

It was around 7:30-8:00 PM when I hit Las Vegas. What should’ve been a five hour trip was nearly nine hours! I had never been to Vegas at night, and it was certainly lit up. The air traffic landing pattern looked very full, many planes coming in for Saturday night. I debated staying in Vegas overnight, but concluded it was so early and I could drive a lot farther.

Highway 95 out of Vegas takes me up very close to Death Valley and I remembered towns were few and far between. Having my Garmin StreetPilot die the day before in Texas, I reverted to using the Maps app on the iPhone. There’s a problem with using the iPhone as a backup to look up maps — areas where you need them the most tend to not have cell/data coverage. Before I got completely out of data service I broke out the atlas, finding towns, and calling ahead to gas stations to check pump hours. I was getting 10 m.p.g. while towing and certainly didn’t want to be in the middle of BFE Nevada out of gas at 2 AM. At the next gas station I figured out Bank of America’s fraud detection kicked in and locked my card. After a few long phone calls I was on my way again.

I’m always humored by BFE Nevada. Each town I run across has a gas station, a hotel, and a casino. Maybe a brothel. I have to wonder if the local economy is very incestuous or if they really do bring in income from truckers/tourists/passer-bys.

This stretch of 95 was completely void of any life at night. I rarely met any cars and there wasn’t a single light on the horizon. By 3:30 AM I arrived at Tonopah, NV. I couldn’t tell driving in that Tonopah is the top of a 6,000 ridge, and it was also a pretty decent sized town. Turns out they also have an observatory and boast the darkest nights in the US. Presumably because it’s so remote and high. I spotted a gas station parking lot where several semis were parked, so I pulled in to get some sleep. First night in the trailer and it sure beat sleeping in the front seat of my truck.

6 AM, I was freezing my ass off and woke up. I towed the trailer back up the hugeass hill to a McDonalds to feast on breakfast. At this point there wasn’t much more driving to do. I reached Fernely somewhere around 3 in the afternoon. Now I definitely had a lot of time to waste, as it was Sunday and the gate to BM didn’t open for 9 more hours.

Headed over to Lowes to buy greenhouse shade and more EMT. Wal-Mart was very stocked up for burners. Pallets and pallets of water, aisle end-caps were displaying goggles, dust masks, Armor-all cleaning supplies, towels, hot dogs and other burner things. Employees were readily on hand to help find things. I guess their merchandising system finally “got it”. I decided I’d pick up the last of my supplies now while they were in stock, and pick up meat as the very last thing before I left for Gerlach.

Comparing Wal-Mart’s item stock in the afternoon compared to the late evening was interesting. It was obvious what people were stocking up on. Water, chips, crackers, tonic water, Gatorade, beer, baby wipes were all annihilated.

The trailer had a sign above the sink that said “Do not drink this water! You cannot guarantee the source, so we recommend using bottled water for cooking and drinking!” I had somewhat intended to find a place to run some bleach through the system to sanitize it. God knows what water source some previous NASCAR meathead had filled the tank with. Ultimately, hassle avoidance won and I bought one of the few remaining cases of water jugs at Wal-Mart. This would later prove to be a wise move.

Black Bear CafeWith all of my shopping done I still had several hours to blow in Fernely. I went to some casino+cafe called Black Bear Cafe to have one last cheeseburger. Even took a nap in the trailer while in their parking lot. Since I had dumped my fresh water and still needed something to shower with, I needed to refill my tank. I found the Fernley RV park on the edge of town and the nice old man there in a rocking chair was willing to sell me a fill-up.

I had intended to go into Reno to check things out, then I suddenly remembered how hard the trailer was to tow with a full water tank. For a lack of a better place, I went back to the Wal-Mart parking lot to hang out. By now there were a few other RVs, VW buses and cars with the same idea I had. After a couple of hours, more RVs showed up and people started breaking out their chairs and hanging out together in the parking lot. This is what I like to think of as the Ferney pre-burn. I ran into a couple of hams who gave me information on the repeater they were running. Iced down the coolers, bought meat, and waited more. Around 11 PM somebody honked an air horn and everyone started pulling out.

It was quite the procession driving up 447. Red tail lights as far as the eye could see and headlights as far back as the eye could see. I was somewhat disappointed that the gas station in Empire had turned into a BM tourist shop selling t-shirts, EL wire, and EL wire t-shirts. Traffic was backed up in Gerlach as there was a long line at Bruno’s gas station. Ah, Bruno’s. I knew I had arrived. My cell phone had also picked up service in Empire, which was also a first. Talking to the hams I had met in Fernley, they said it was only good for SMS, voice was just horrible.

After Gerlach, traffic really slowed to a crawl. It was around 2-3 by the time I hit the gate. I was passing out my chocolate covered coffeebeans to the gate crew and was quickly making friends. There were 5-6 very slow moving lines at the gate and it seemed very wrong, I had never seen such a flood of people like this before. Amazingly after the greeters it all just evaporated into one thin single-file line. Apparently it was all just gate backlog.

Adventioneering’s usual spot at 5:30 and H was occupied. Later I’d find out this is Greeter Rusty who had staked out the spot last year when we weren’t there. Instead I unhitched on the other side of the intersection, leaving room for Joe’s camp. By now it was 4:30 AM and I was beat. I hung a glowstick and a note for Lorie on the door and crashed.

I woke up to a very Wisconsin-y “helloooooo!” from Lorie. It was around 11 AM and they had finally arrived. Turns out we had left Fernely at roughly the same time last night. The line was so slow it took them an extra 7 hours to get through it!

Along with Joe and Lorie was Molly. Molly is a nurse that works at the same hospital and had came out with Joe last year. She was a blast and hope she comes out next year. I don’t really remember much about what happened Monday. Lots of laying around and napping. I setup the trailer, solar panels, and discovered I had a tire going flat! I put a jack stand under the axle, will deal with that on Sunday.

It was uncomfortably warm in the trailer even with the vents open, windows open and door open. It became apparently that it would only be good for sleeping, showers and cooking. It also became obvious that I was lonely without the rest of the Adventioneering crew. I solved both by hanging out at Joe’s camp. He had forgone the zen sanctuary and went for a more utilitarian carport as a shelter.

Monday afternon and Tuesday morning I went cycling around the town meeting random people. Of the more interesting folks, I met a couple of crazy Texans from Houston bolting a huge Texas flag to the front of their F-350. While looking for the hams from Fernley, I stumbled across Papa Legba’s cell operation and met Harvind. Their setup is hard to miss, it was the only cell tower on the playa with a lighted “WD9XSP” sign on the side. I had read about their test network before leaving, but had forgotten about it. Harvind said they were dealing with the 15,000 cell phones that were hammering away trying to register to their BTS. In retrospect I wish I had hung out more and asked more questions, it seems pretty interesting now that it’s had more time to sink in.

Tuesday’s wandering took me out to the airport. I figured since I was cycling down the trash fence to look at the airplanes I might as well keep going to see where it took me. Then I kept going. I wound up circumnavigating the entire perimeter in the middle of the day. It was either 5 or 7 miles depending on who I asked, but it felt much farther in the heat and loose patches of playa! One simple, yet nice, thing I saw was a couch sitting by itself at the trash fence facing the open playa. When I cycled by it, a couple was kicked back enjoying the view.

ThunderdomeTuesday night we went wandering and quickly lost each other within 25 feet at the Thunderdome. I headed out to deep playa to see what was there. I plopped down next to a piece of artwork and suddenly got taken in by the solitude. Looking out ahead I could see BRC at night, with the flame cannons and bass in the distance. To the sides were the mountains illuminated by the moon. I remembered this is why I was here.

I saw there by myself for what seemed like an hour. Three guys stroll up and sit down with me, asking if I was the one who built the art. We chattered away for a while and this lone (and cute!) girl comes up and sits with us. After the guys left, it was just me and the girl. We chatted and wandered around deep playa for quite a while. We stopped at this skeleton thing where another guy was at. We talk to him, where he reveals himself to be a wandering student type from the UK who had just finished a 8 month trip through Cambodia. This piques the girl’s interest, who says she’s always wanted to go. Unfortunately she tells me “well, uh, it was nice meeting you” and then turns her attention to the Brit, talking about Cambodia as they walk off together. Drat. It was certainly fun while it lasted.

Wednesday felt a little different, like the party attitude was starting early. A lot more car traffic in the city. Burning Sky, who was also down 5:30, started doing jump runs. They had a van disguised as a SkyVan which was ferrying people to/from the airport frequently. I think Wednesday is also when we met the Irish kids, as they were pushing their broken down RV along 5:30. Later that night they came back by to talk to us. We found out that three of them came over from Ireland last year, this year they had talked five more into coming over. They bought their RV for $1500 in Reno, and found some guy in Fernley to keep it for them. They were quite the group and would’ve been fun to hang out with more.

BLM was out in force this year. At the greeter station the greeter warned me to keep it under 5 MPH, and make sure I had no open containers because “really, these guys aren’t fucking around this year”. All week long we watched people getting stopped for driving too fast, open containers, or doing stupid things. Such as towing a trailer, turning too sharp and wiping out the 5:30 & H sign right by our camp. Otherwise BLM and the sheriff’s deputies seemed more friendly and approachable this year. I guess by approachable I mean I saw more on foot this year. I ran across a BLM ranger taking photos of a statue. I stopped and chatted with him, he seemed like any other burner, just in uniform.

We spent a lot of time hanging out in camp. Lots of raunchy jokes were told and made up. There was enough foot traffic to the airport (for whatever reason) that the random strangers came to us. Mid-week I fired up the grill and made us all hamburgers. They were the greatest thing ever! Bacon was also especially delicious. Now that I know that a freezer actually works in an RV, I’ll have to bring more meat if I bring one again.

Thursday is when the tourists started coming in. There were many painfully obvious ones, such as driving their car with a camera in one hand, taking photos of everything they saw. The tourists were especially fond of the airport, I never figured out why. Lots of bicycle and foot traffic back and forth. We met one couple who I nicknamed Biff & Tiffany. He was a medical imaging gizmo salesman and she did landscaping. She was latched onto his arm and they were frequently referring to each other as honey, love, and snuggles (seriously). This was their first year and seemed somewhat prepared. They stood out in particular because she said Burning Man was on her “Bucket List”. That was the first time we had ever heard somebody say that, and it wouldn’t be the last time this week to hear that.

Friday night the area around camp was finally starting to fill in. Several of those were first timers and were woefully unprepared. At least one had locked himself out of his car. One had left their doors open for hours as they were unpacking and drained their car battery. A couple more had already ran out of water.

Saturday started like any normal day until the afternoon. A dust storm rolled in around 4 PM and never let up. Total whiteout. Several times I couldn’t see cars across the street. We didn’t do anything but huddle in camp, trying to wait it out. I like to think this cleansed all the tourists and weekenders in dust and gave them a taste of what it was like to be here all week. We were wondering what this would do to the Burn, then we heard it was delayed by an hour to 10 PM. Right at 10 PM the storm just stopped.

The mini Belgium Waffle below the man went up in a spectacular fireball. The Man itself took forever to go down. The remaining wind was blowing out the flames in the torso. In fact, we gave up and left before the man fully fell. Afterwards, we started up a new tradition: post-burn hotdogs! The grill was completely filthy, playa-caked grease. We didn’t care about the resulting playa chunks on our hot dogs though, they were still hot and tasty. Really, at this point what doesn’t taste or smell like playa?

Sunday morning I started packing up. I didn’t have to (couldn’t) return the trailer until Tuesday morning. While I had wanted to stay for the temple burn and leave Monday, I knew I couldn’t make the drive in one day towing the trailer. I also knew by Sunday afternoon Exodus would kick in to full swing. So, I said my goodbyes and left around noon. It still took about two hours to get off the playa.

Driving through BFE Nevada at night, it suddenly got very lonely and my BM mojo crashed. I had spent a solid week in near constant companionship with good friends, now here I was completely alone with not a sign of life for many miles, driving back to an empty apartment.

I made it to Searchlight, NV, around midnight. When I got out of the truck I was alarmed by the very loud squealing sound coming from my fuel pump. Chevy fuel pumps all have a whine to them, but this was much louder than usual. I was afraid this was near the end of this fuel pump. I hoped really hard that it’d at least last me to Phoenix. It would be a pain in the ass to get a tow out here, doubly so to get a tow also for the trailer. After I filled up the gas tank, the squealing stopped. I don’t know if it just needed a rest or if the fresh gasoline cooled down the in-tank pump.

Spent the night/morning at a truck stop parking lot in Searchlight. Again, I woke up freezing my ass off at 6 AM like in Tonopah. I continued on with the thought of the fuel pump nagging in my mind. After the top of a particuarly long climb on highway 93 I stopped on the side of the road. The loud squeal was back. By then I decided if it’s going to fail, it’s going to fail, not worth worrying over. At least I’m within 100 miles of Phoenix now.

Found a $29/night Motel 6 in Mesa, right next door to Cruise America. I immediately took a long hot shower, then unhitched the trailer to go search for food. Found some bar and grill with a cute too-young-looking size-2 blonde bartender and a very tasty bacon cheddar burger. Unpacked the trailer and gave it a quick wipedown. I gave up trying to find a car wash with an actual bay, so I’d have to return the trailer dirty.

8 AM Tuesday morning I dropped off the trailer at CA. In addition to being dirty, a quarter tank of gasoline in the trailer (for the generator) was gone. I assume it all vaporized from the heat and agitation. I’m pretty sure somebody didn’t siphon it off. When I opened the fill cap, a solid gush of vapor shot out of the tank for a few seconds.

The leasing girl couldn’t believe how dusty it was. I told her the $50 was worth losing, and it was! I found out later that CA in Las Vegas charges a $500 deposit specifically for Burning Man rentals. Hopefully I didn’t just give them motivation to do that at other locations. After drop off, I was on the road back to Austin.

Back on I-10 near El Paso, I had another run-in with CBP at the inspection station. This time the agent wants to know why my truck is so dirty, where I’ve been, what’s in the back. I tell him I’ve been camping in Utah (I have no idea why I said Utah), and that’s camping gear. Then out of nowhere he asks if I’m armed. I tell him I am, it’s in a shoulder holster. He asks what kind of weapon it is, I answer it’s my .40. He just says “thank you” and motions for me to leave. Odd.

As I get into Fredericksberg it is very early Wednesday morning. I’m drowsy as hell but keep driving since I’m so close, like that makes it any better. I finally get home at 3:30 AM. It felt so damn weird to be back in my apartment again.

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