a day in black rock city

I wake up at 8am with an overwhelming need to pee. The sun burns through the VW’s curtains. I want to lay in bed and enjoy the last remaining cool of the morning but my bladder has no mercy.  It will be a few more days before we discover the magic of pee bottles so I groan, climb out from under the blanket, and quickly throw on whatever clothes I’ve laid out for the day. I slide the van door open, step out into the dust, and point myself towards the port-potties.

fabulous bathrooms / black rock city, nevadas

The bathrooms of Black Rock City are indeed fabulous. This year the Burning Man organization will spend $800,000 on the porta-potties and their maintenance, and we citizens appreciate every dollar spent.  When I thank the porta-potty cleaning crews, my gratitude is genuine and heart-felt. I sometimes remember the Sad Unhygienic Poopers of 1998. Dwelling too long on those memories can still trigger post-traumatic constipation.

Black Rock City is an art-rich environment, and the potties are a legitimate venue. My stall features a two-stanza poem encouraging me to sit, and not ‘hover’. (Hovering would never have occurred to me, but apparently it’s an issue.) Several quite nice doodles decorate the walls. And there is a poster explaining that this is an experimental part of the ‘Aromathera Potty Project’. I relax my natural breath-holding inclination and I’m amazed to find that this pooper has a pleasant scent of a mountain meadow.

I make my way back to the van and sleep for another hour, the sun burning through the curtains and the temperature in the van passing 80° and then 90°F. Eventually the heat is more than I can stand, and the three of us living in the van rise from our mattresses with all of the grace of vampires digging their way out of their graves.

I dress and stop by the Café Kona for my morning coffee. Each day we have different volunteers running our camp’s coffee shop, but the coffee is consistently wonderful, thanks to Kona of Kena Coffee who has brought 40 pounds of amazing Kona coffee from his plantation.  Our little coffee shop, 20 feet in diameter, has developed its own society.  One morning there is gent playing guitar while a woman sings beautifully. Another morning a woman brings over a half-dozen ukuleles and teaches coffee drinkers to play them for the enjoyment of our other clientele.  Each morning conversation is buzzing… the best theme camps discovered the previous day, the frappuccino being served out on the far playa, or Nietzsche’s influence on the philosophy of Foucault. Conversation is wide-ranging.

After getting my fix of delicious C8H10N4O2, I head out to the playa to take some photos before the day gets too insanely hot. I’ve already shot the airport, so I head out for another of my assignments, the 10:00 region of the city.

This is another city that never sleeps, and the streets are never empty. At this time of day, however, the residents are relaxing, enjoying their breakfasts, and most of the dance clubs are silent or playing quiet trance.

At 10:00 and Dandelion I come across a tiger, burning bright in the morning heat. He prowls and snarls and shows me his claws and I think he’s beautiful.  Beautiful, but I don’t get too close. I’ve been warned about tigers.

tiger tiger burning bright / black rock city, nevada

Out in the more prime real estate of the Esplanade I take some photos of Robot Heart, a dance camp largely dormant (but still beautful) in the harsh light of day. A solitary dancer watches the perimeter, laser gun in hand.  She struts, robots, moon-walks, and pirouettes, all in 10-inch heels. I’m hypnotized and more than a little in love.

robot heart camp / black rock city, nevada

guardian of the robot heart / black rock city, nevada

Bicyclists are peddling between the city and the playa, heading home or going exploring before the mid-day heat.  Bicycles are the default transport for the city. While a walk is occasionally pleasant, bikes are much more efficient for any large distances. Mutant vehicles can wander the city with some limitations, but must be explicitly licensed as such… don’t expect to motor your standard golf cart around Black Rock City.  Only authentically mutated vehicles are permitted on the playa. All others must park and stay parked until they leave.

afternoon dust / black rock city, nevada

zebra / black rock city, nevada

jumping a shadow / black rock city, nevada

bunny & sumo / black rock city, nevada

From 10:00, I make my way down the Esplanade, the ‘playa-front’ road that serves as the innermost street on the crescent moon of the city. I come across the Teeter Totter of Death spinning frantically. A little further is the Chairway to Heaven, a single-person lift which claims to have “The best view of the playa outside the Man’s.” Another hundred feet and there is a man in a furry hood struts around proclaiming his love of all things booby. And seriously, who can blame him?

teeter totter of death / black rock city, nevada

chairway to heaven / black rock city, nevada

proclamation of love / black rock city, nevada

As the day heats up the dust storms begin, sweeping across the city and reducing visibility to 10′ or less.  In Center Camp, many people are sleeping through the hottest part of the day. A homeless man who could be Brad Pitt circles Center Camp pushing his shopping cart and shouting at people incoherently through a megaphone. He rolls his cart up to me, rummages through the pile of old clothes and blankets, and then hands me a PBR tall boy. It’s icy cold. “Thanks!” I say. “Fuck you!” he shouts, pushing his cart away.

dust storm over the man / black rock city, nevada

bobby sleeping / black rock city, nevada

angry homess person with beer / black rock city, nevada

Nearby, a sad paisley robot gets a hug.

sad paisley robot gets a hug / black rock city, nevada

Eventually the drowsiness overwhelms me. I make my way back to my camper, strip down to nothing, and lay in bed.  I turn on an elecrtric fan so that there is some breeze. (Opening the windows would be insane… the next dust storm would coat everything in the van, including me.) It’s baking inside, but this just makes me more groggy, and soon I’m half-asleep. I keep a spray bottle by the bed, and occasionally reach over, half asleep, and spritz myself. The mist is cold and wakes me up a little more, but also feels so good. I spritz myself every 10 minutes, gasp a little at the shock, and fall asleep again.

At around 3pm I force myself to get out of bed again. My first stop is a small camp next to ours, where two girls (6 and 8 years of age) are serving lemonade from a very complex machine. Asking them for a drink sets an elaborate ritual into motion. Valves are turned, cranks rotated, and various knobs set just so.  One of the girls picks up a lemon-phone and very solemnly says “We are going to be needing some more lemonade, thank you” before setting the earpiece carefully back onto its cradle. When everything has been done to perfection, they fill your cup with the most amazing, perfectly-balanced, icy lemonade one could ever hope to taste. Lemonade camp is my favorite camp on the playa, and they know me by name.

placing an order on the lemon phone / black rock city, nevada

Out on the playa, five people are rotating the Mayan TRIcycle, a hamster wheel-within-a-wheel, designed to demonstrate how the Mayan calendar works. It’s magnificent, a huge grinding wooden machine. The next day it will be shut down as ‘UNSAFE’, possibly because the Mayans have claimed another sacrifice.  It won’t turn again, but will be burned at the end of the week. For now, though, it’s just a beautiful piece of art.

mayan tri-cycle / black rock city, nevada

This is the range of the Black Rock City experience. It’s a lemonade stand run by little girls, and it’s a grinding, rumbling green Mayan blood sacrifice machine. Somewhere on the playa, somewhere between those two, you will find me napping.


5 thoughts on “a day in black rock city

  1. Thanks for sharing your photos and stories — especially about our Sweet ‘n Sour Lemonade stand. Sweet!

  2. Love that you included the Mayan TRIcycle. I was lucky to get to play on that the day before it was shut down. Tesla, wisely, stopped short of the threshold and decided to just watch us spin it, once again proving children’s instincts are hard to beat in BRC.

  3. I was so hypnotized by your writing that I just drulled on my desk (groce….). Seriously!! There was a puddle of “babas” next to my keyboard and I was just glad it missed it by half an inch. It’s great, Ron. Your description about the porta-potty experience was priceless. Love your descriptive style. It reels me in 🙂 

  4. Oh my!!! I would have made it to this one, I had a ticket! Unfortunately, my boss bribed me with $1500 to work instead of taking my vacation. I regret every dollar of that. 🙁

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