Burning Man, that famous counter-culture gathering in the hot Nevada desert, is not just for hippies, said Jacks Valley resident Eric Matus. It's for engineers, tradesmen and fabricators who want to unleash their own creative energy in strange and vivid ways.
Call it folk art, car art, steampunk, whatever. Proof of the enterprise was sitting in the side yard of Matus' home Thursday morning, as if heralding the start of the week-long celebration. The proof was 28 feet tall, 60 feet long, and 14 feet wide. Matus and friends have named it "The Pervertical Playground."
While the pun on "perverted" might seem distasteful, Matus quickly pointed out that the name of the "mutant vehicle," as such projects are called on the playa, actually came from an engineer who was trying to figure out how much weight he could stack "per vertical foot" on the gutted frame of an old Navy transport bus.
"One of my friends is a structural engineer, and I kind of made a comment to him offhand that we should start an art car," Matus said. "He drew it up in CAD, spec'd out the steel, and went to town. We believe it's the tallest mutant vehicle at Burning Man."
The project went vertical in a six-week creative burst last summer. Matus had purchased the old bus in the surplus market at quite a discount. Ordering precut steel beams from a Sparks supplier proved more expensive. But the labor was free. A professional welder constructed the main frame, which supports the first and second decks. Seismic-designed pallet racks, which can be disassembled and stored on the first floor during transport, constitute the third and topmost level. The latter supports a DJ booth, speakers, lighting and a crew catwalk. Matus estimated total material costs at $25,000.
"Everyone working on this is a professional of some sort, but a volunteer on this," he said. "No one gets paid to work on this, and no one has to pay to have fun on it."
Fun was what Matus was seeking when he drove to his hometown of Torrington, Wyo., to purchase defunct playground equipment. Only after his trip did he learn that Carson City resident and fellow fabricator Shawn Watson, whom he first met at Burning Man in 2007, grew up in the same small town.
"We met again in 2010, and started talking about the project," Matus said. "This will be our second year with it on the playa. We just had the bones of it last year, and made a lot of improvements this year."
Those improvements included a paint job, turning basic metallic colors into splashes of neon green and purple. But the amenities on each floor are what really thrill the Burners, the two men said.
On the first floor are two kinds of bars. One is a traditional countertop over which martinis are served in the desert. The second is a cylindrical handlebar made out of an old cable spool tilted on its side and mounted to a set of springs - the same springs used in stationery ponies, motorbikes and airplanes on any given playground.
The second floor is connected to the first by a ladder and slide. There's also a disco ball, and several spring-mounted toys. Perhaps the most popular feature on the second-story deck is the merry-go-round.
"This was designed to bring back childhood a little," Watson said.
"It was designed to be interactive," added Matus.
Although the playground is interactive during Burning Man, Matus is the only human being who drives it from Jacks Valley to the Black Rock Desert north of Gerlach. The mutant vehicle is registered, licensed, and perfectly street legal when all packed up, Matus said.
"It fits exactly within the legal dimensions - 14 feet tall by 8 feet wide," he said. "We got pulled over last year, and the cop was surprised that everything fit. Of course, no one rides in it on the highway. I do get a lot of interesting looks, honks and thumps-up when I'm driving."
Matus said there are a lot of misconceptions about Burning Man.
"It's a creative outlet. I like making mechanical things, and I like going out to see the creations other people make," he said. "Burning Man is a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, it's the mechanical stuff, going out there, and watching people play on it."
Matus hopes The Pervertical Playground will have a life beyond Burning Man, though. He wants to drive it in the Nevada Day Parade in Carson City and the Parade of Lights in Minden and Gardnerville.
"We want people to play on it all year," he said.