Burning Man


round 2015, Dad got it into his head that he wanted to take Nicole, Jesse, and me to Burning Man. Going to big music festivals was not something we typically did together, if ever, especially one as eccentric as Burning Man. For Dad, I think it was about seeing all the crazy art and people living freely for that one week in that isolated bubble. He didn’t care so much about the drugs or tripping out in the desert, but I’m sure if the opportunity presented itself to him, he wouldn’t miss it. Dad had a friend who went every year; their camp was called Big Puffy Yellow. We never figured out what that meant. There are big camps at Burning Man that are institutions because they’ve been around since the early days of the event. It’s best, especially if you’re a novice, to try to go with one of these well-known camps, because it means you will get prime real estate out on the playa, but they also help coordinate meals and water, which is probably one of the biggest challenges out there. The prestigious camps are mostly impenetrable because they don’t typically take on new members, but Dad had an in with Big Puffy Yellow, so we were set.

Big Puffy Yellow logo

He called us and said this year, instead of Christmas presents, he was going to get us all tickets to Burning Man. In the past, he’d just given us cash for Christmas. He’d take our age and add a zero and that's how much we got. When I was ten and got $100 for Christmas I almost lost my mind. I thought there was no way I could spend all that and that I’d still have it to this day. But this particular year, we were going to Burning Man. Nicole and I didn’t think he would actually be able to get the tickets; they are quite difficult to procure. You have to go through a lottery system and hundreds of thousands of people compete for a finite amount of tickets. But sure enough, around June, Dad called us and said he’d gotten us each a ticket; me, Nicole, Jesse, and himself. I still don’t know how he got four tickets, or how much he spent on them. Probably more than 25 plus a zero on the end.  But he did it, and at the end of that coming August we were all going to ‘feel the Burn.’ I didn’t know what to expect. This was uncharted territory for all of us. But I was feeling a manageable mix of excitement and apprehension.

Burning Man lasts for one week and takes place in the middle of a dry lakebed in the Black Rock Desert a few hours north of Reno, NV. To drive in, you follow a one-lane, winding old highway for about 150 miles. About 60,000-70,000 people attend Burning Man each year, which is equivalent to the largest city in Wyoming. So the entrance on the first day of the festival is, and this isn’t an overstatement, an absolute clusterfuck. The entire festival population has to try and cram through one single port of entry. Security at the entrance searches every vehicle for drugs and paraphernalia before they are admitted. People wait in line for hours and hours. We decided that we would drive in on day two of the festival and hopefully miss the crowds. Nicole and Jesse couldn’t get there until day three, so Dad and I went in first to scope it out. I drove up from San Diego and met him in Reno, so we could carpool into the festival from there. It had been about an 11 hour drive to Reno, so I was already pretty exhausted when I arrived, and had no idea what else was in store for our trip. I met Dad at a hotel parking lot on the outskirts of Reno. He looked exuberant, unable to contain his excitement for the upcoming week. He was wearing one of his signature wide-billed floppy hats, which makes him look like he’s gearing up for a trip through the Australian bush. We hugged and got in the car. It would be another two-hour drive to the lakebed from there. Or so we thought.

The car ride up to Burning Man felt a bit nostalgic to me. When I was a kid, still living in Montana, Dad and I would spend a lot of time driving around together. He’d pick me up from where I lived with my mom in Missoula and we’d make the two-hour trek together up to Flathead Lake, where he lived for most of my childhood. Long car rides are usually dreaded when you’re a kid, because they’re so boring, but that was never the case with Dad. We’d play road trip games, do a Mad Lib, or listen to books on tape. I actually can’t think of a time when Dad listened to the radio or music; it was always a new book on tape for him. I remember listening to “The Hobbit” together on one of our drives and I was hooked. When I got home I immediately went to the bookstore and bought all the Lord of the Rings books so I could finish the adventure. My favorite road trip activity, though, was reading Calvin and Hobbes comics. Dad would have me read the panels aloud to him and describe the images, which I would do enthusiastically. Looking back, that had to have been the worst form of entertainment for Dad, having his ten-year-old kid try his best to describe comic strips aloud for three hours! But I suspect he was just cleverly encouraging an interest in reading, a pretty slick move on his part.

Calvin and Hobbes

We didn’t have any Mad Libs or comics on the way to Burning Man, so we just talked the whole drive up. It had probably been the longest conversation that just the two of us had had in the previous 10 years. Now that I was in my mid-twenties the topics of discussion were expanded as well. We talked about drug legalization in the US, we talked about the merging of human consciousness with machines in the singularity. We talked a lot about aliens and what else might be out there. I guess we were trying to get into the spirit of Burning Man. Dad always surprised me with how far he delved into alien theories and quantum physics and whatnot. I thought I might be able to school him with some of my newly college-acquired deep thinking skills, but he would always be one step ahead, introducing a new theory or building upon the one I had presented to further broaden the conversation. That's why I loved talking to him about that kind of stuff. He was open to all ideas and, instead of shutting them down, he would try to take your thoughts a step further. I think that’s what made him such a great artist as well. He would open himself up to an idea and find a way to convey that message through sculpture or watercolor.

We made it to the festival gates by mid afternoon. That’s when we realized that our genius plan to miss the traffic into the lakebed had been the same plan of so many others. The vehicle line to get through the gate stretched for a quarter mile, easy, and it was not moving. There were about eight makeshift lanes delineated by cones with limp streamers tied between them, halfheartedly fluttering in the light breeze. Each lane was full of cars, trucks, campers, and RVs waiting to get in, moving five yards closer toward the gate every ten minutes. People were on top of their vehicles sunbathing or running around playing Frisbee. It felt like the festival vibes were leaking out into the parking lot, which made the wait a little more tolerable. It took us about four hours to travel that last quarter mile. About two hours into that wait, Dad and I ran out of things to talk about, so we silently observed the characters in the lines surrounding us. We had lost cell service at the turnoff to the lakebed, so I had no phone to retreat to. Time felt like it had forgotten to move forward.

The entry line to Burning Man

Finally, we crawled to the entrance. They did a quick check to make sure we didn’t have any illegal drugs on us (it was a cursory attempt, at best), scanned our tickets, and waved us through. We had officially entered Burning Man. All the campsites at Black Rock City (the name for the metropolis of campsites at the festival) are arranged in a giant half circle that spans about a mile in diameter. At the epicenter of the city is a giant wooden effigy of a man, which of course gets torched at the end of the festival. For a festival that was started and run by the most intense hippies, Black Rock City is surprisingly well-organized. The camps are laid out in a perfect grid, which creates streets that lead you to each quadrant. They even have street signs to help you find your way through the camps. Dad had a map of the city, and we located the campsite for Big Puffy Yellow. Right near the center of the half circle, primo location. It was dark now, and Dad’s old Subaru Outback lumbered through the dirt roads looking for camps. Small tents and RVs littered campsites around us, each of them lit up with their own unique set of LED lights and lasers. People zoomed by us on bikes wrapped in Christmas lights. We spotted some fire jugglers as we passed a camp. It felt as if we were in an alternate reality, where the circus was all of society. Festival goers were adorned with giant furry boots or deerskin vests. It was like they’d pulled their eclectic mismatched outfits from their own parallel universe cabin bunk room. We found our street to take us to Big Puffy Yellow and turned toward our camp. Suddenly, bursting out from a cross street in front of us, a giant metal octopus on wheels careened onto the road ahead. Flames spewed from each of the eight tentacles, creating ripples in the air around it. The entire thing must have been 20 feet tall. It cut across the path ahead and continued barreling down the street. Dad and I looked at each other, shocked. This place was unreal.

We arrived at the large Big Puffy Yellow camp and began unpacking and setting up our tent by the light of our flashlights. The camp was completely deserted; everyone was already out exploring the festival. Dad had two fixed gear bikes with him, so once we got our tent set up, we decided to take a ride around the festival. We peddled out toward the center of the playa. We could see the silhouette of the 50-foot, soon-to-be-burned man looming over camp city. The city itself was alive with activity. Dance parties and events were thriving at every camp we passed. Thousands of people were out walking the streets or riding their bikes. Every attendee was adorned in their post-apocalyptic sheik outfits. We felt like we were walking around the set of Mad Max. To really sell that metaphor, as we rounded the corner, we saw a life-sized replica of the Thunderdome. People were clinging to the sides of the geometric cage, watching greedily as two gladiators fought for their life in the center of the pit below. They were only using foam weapons to fight each other, but they were doing a good job of selling the production. I almost believed that they were fighting for survival. The drugs that the fighters had undoubtedly taken prior to the scrum most likely had them believing it was real too.

We watched people fight in the dome for a while, then decided to move on. As we were pulling away on our bikes, my front tire abruptly caught, and I was flung from the handlebars onto the ground. The sand from the lakebed had filled the gap between the tire and the rim, causing the tire to fall off. The thin little fixed gear tires, it turned out, were not well-suited to plow through the loose sand that covered the lakebed. I tried to put the tire back on, but as soon as I started getting momentum pedaling again, it fell off. My bike was useless. Dad fiddled with it for a bit, but he had no success. We were exhausted anyhow, so we walked our bikes back to camp to call it a night. As I lay in my sleeping bag in our tent, I could hear the nonstop pulsing of electronic dance music playing from every direction around me. I would come to realize that the single most important item to bring to any festival is a set of ear plugs or noise canceling headphones. If you want to sleep, that is.

The next day we woke up and mingled with the fellow members of Big Puffy Yellow. We hadn’t seen anyone the night before so we were surprised at how many people were in the camp. My guess was about 30. They were an eclectic bunch. A short, Jewish man introduced himself to us as Lord Awesome (everyone at Burning Man has a self-given nickname, to be used strictly at the festival). Lord Awesome seemed like the man in charge. He gave Dad and me some pointers on sights to see during the day, and which parts of Black Rock City we should avoid. We decided to wander around our neighborhood for a bit while we waited for Nicole and Jesse to arrive. We wandered by a camp that had a life-sized chess board set up on the ground. The owner of the camp asked if either of us wanted to play him in a round and I said yes. I always enjoyed playing chess. Dad had taught me when I was a kid. I never really picked it up until college, but then I became obsessed. I’d play online chess for hours a day. During that time, Dad and I weren’t keeping in touch as often as we used to. But when I started playing lots of chess, it became a new method of communication for us. We started playing against each other online. If we had time, we’d play a full game in one sitting. Other times, we’d set up a game that allowed you one full day to make your next move. Those games were the best because they ended up being weeks-long battles, with Dad and me chatting back and forth in the chat box after each move. We’d give each other small updates on what was going on in our lives and compliment each other's moves.

“Nice trap using your knight to fork my rook! I got a promotion at work yesterday.”

I felt very connected with Dad during that period. Our online games eventually came to an end when Dad would head up to the cabin for extended periods of time in the summer. Tough to play online chess when there’s no Wi-Fi.

I lost the game of life-sized chess at Burning Man, but it was still fun to have Dad there in person for that game. We thanked the man for letting us play and carried on down the road.

Dad and me playing online chess

Nicole and Jesse arrived that night. They had had the same wait times to get into the festival as we had the previous day. Turns out there is never a time when you will beat the crowd into Burning Man. We helped them unpack and set up their tent, and then it was time to head out onto the playa again. This night out would be one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Nicole and Jesse had custom-built a tricycle with three seats on which we could ride around the playa. My bike was still broken, so Dad took his and I took the third seat on the tricycle. We all chugged a beer and packed a couple more for the road. As we pedaled out onto the playa, the magnitude of the festival was on full display. Hundreds of lit-up art pieces, some 20 or 30 feet tall, were scattered across the lakebed. More giant custom busses like the flaming octopus were cruising in between the art pieces. Some had full-on raves going on in the upper decks of the art-cars. There were thousands of people biking around with lit-up bicycles. It was like the circus had come to town and slowly infected the entire population, like a virus, until the entire city had become one giant carnival. It was overwhelming and truly magnificent. The three of us on the tricycle must have been overcome with awe, because we all leaned back at the same time, which caused the tricycle to flip over on top of us. I was in the middle seat, so I couldn’t brace myself for impact and landed hard on my tailbone. It felt like it might have been broken. I laid there for a second and then Dad came over with a beer. It seemed to help. After a minute I got up and decided to walk along beside them while they rode their bikes.

We walked all night, from art installation to art installation. There were many unique experiences at each one. I wish I could describe them a little better but we were doing a lot of drinking throughout the walk, so everything is a little blurry. As we were walking back toward the camp - it must have been about three in the morning - a huge art car pulled up alongside us. It was a double-decker bus that was made to look like a giant cow or sheep or something. The second level was packed with people dancing and partying. We recognized Lord Awesome, who called for us to climb aboard. We climbed on and it immediately took off across the desert. The car drove us all the way to the opposite end of the festival, where a remote cluster of large tents were set up. It was like a little party oasis hidden in the vast emptiness of the lakebed, so far away from the rest of the festival that it was invisible from the other side of the camp. We drank and laughed and danced at our new hideaway until the sun began to rise over Black Rock City. We all piled back onto our art car and made the trek back across the playa to camp. We pulled up to Big Puffy Yellow and disembarked. In order to exit the cow art car, you had to slide down a tube on the back end, like it was shitting you out into the world. The sun was fully up and we stumbled back to our tents and fell asleep to the sound of electronic music pumping in the background.

We woke up that afternoon and found out that Big Puffy Yellow was going to be hosting a party later that day, so we needed to prepare. One thing about Burning Man - there is no money in Black Rock City. Every transaction is done on a barter system. You can trade anything; clothing, beer, even jokes. We had decided early on that we would offer up red beer (beer and tomato juice; a family staple) to anyone who wanted to trade. I’m not sure who was the first to drink it, probably our great-grandfather, Bompie, but it had become the drink of choice at the cabin and elsewhere. We felt that serving up red beers was like sharing a small piece of the cabin with the folks of Burning Man.

We had all our supplies ready for the big party. Around sunset people started trickling in. Soon our camp was packed full of burners mingling and dancing to, you guessed it, electronic music. Jesse and I talked to a guy, Kevin, who was a financial advisor in his real life. It was hard to keep a conversation going with him because he kept nodding off to sleep mid-sentence. He was on a lot of ketamine. Nicole joined us and informed us that there was a man in line for the makeshift bar on the other side of camp who was bleeding from his penis. He was almost fully naked, so that was a bit of a health hazard. Nobody wanted to ask, “why the bloody dick?” We realized we hadn’t seen Dad in a while. We looked around for a bit and found him getting hula hoop lessons in front of the camp from a completely nude girl. She told us her name was Feathers. Dad was never the most coordinated guy when it came to dancing, so watching him try to gracefully hula hoop while fixated on the naked girl was quite a spectacle. He looked to be in pure bliss, though. We got up and joined them in their lesson, and wound up drinking red beer and hula hooping for hours.

The Big Puffy Yellow camp party

Later that evening we took another stroll around the open area of the playa to revisit some works of art that Dad wanted to see again. We could tell that the art pieces were really making an impression on him. He himself had a long history as an artist. He had graduated from Montana State University with a degree in art. He started out doing mostly watercolor paintings. He would create large still-life watercolors of the smallest little nature scenes; a collection of pine needles and leaves on a forest bed or a cluster of river rocks polished smooth by the unending flow of water. My favorites of his watercolors were of streams with fish swimming through them. He had somehow captured the feeling that he’d managed to grab a handful of flowing water and lashed it to the canvas to flow for eternity. Later, Dad moved on from watercolor and began working with stone to create abstract stone cairns. He drew a lot of inspiration from an artist named Andy Goldsworthy. Sculpture is where Dad really tapped into his artistic talents. He was able to capture his love for nature and the beauty of the human body all in his free-formed stacked cairns. His pieces are mesmerizing. Before he passed away, he was starting to experiment with mosaic stone tapestries. He would create large landscapes out of various shades of flat stone arranged like tiles. I would have loved to see how he developed that expression over the years.

As we walked and viewed the art on the playa, Dad said he wanted to make a piece of his own to bring out there to burn one day.

"Autumn Aspens" watercolor by Tom Herzog

The next day was our last day at Burning Man. We again spent the day biking around Black Rock City. Dad got us into a game of bocce ball at a camp we were passing by. We killed some time around camp until sunset and then, finally, it was time to watch the man burn. As darkness fell over the lakebed, the entire festival population gathered around the giant effigy in the middle of the camp. The man stood at probably 50 feet tall, looming over the crowd. A group of guards were standing in a circle around the base of the man. They each had torches, which they used to light the base of the man on fire. It started slow at first, but soon the flames quickly rose to the top of the wooden body and then the head. Within seconds the entire man was completely ablaze. Even at 200 yards away, the heat coming off the fire was so intense that you couldn’t stare at it for too long. The entire lakebed was aglow from the light of the fire. We stared in awe. It was truly an amazing sight, watching the man burn, with its reflection twinkling in 60,000 pairs of eyes fixated on the destruction. It took over an hour for the burn to begin to die down. The pure energy of the initial blaze became a mellow smoldering of wood as the man began to lose its form. We started to make our way back to camp, silently reflecting on the burn and on the festival as a whole. I could tell it had had a huge impact on Dad. I was happy that we were all there together.

We broke down our camp and said goodbye to our friends at Big Puffy Yellow.  Lord Awesome hugged us all. Nicole and Jesse said their goodbyes to Dad and me before we each got into our vehicles and drove out of Black Rock City, the remnants of the man still smoking in the distance behind us. Once again we had to wait in an endless car line to exit the festival. Finally, we were back on the road to Reno. Dad and I spent the car ride reminiscing on the events of the week. He had such a good time at Burning Man. As an artist, he said he had gained a deeper appreciation for the installations we had seen out there in the desert. The wooden man isn’t the only thing that is burned out there. There are actually quite a few pieces, which are absolutely beautiful, that are burned to the ground at the end of the festival. I think Dad liked the idea of that. The impermanence of everything, even art. That might be why he chose to live in the moment for so much of his life. To create something beautiful or awesome, even if we only get to enjoy it for a little while.

about my dad