RENO — Ah, Burning Man, the annual weeklong rave that draws thousands of free-thinkers to a remote spot in the Nevada desert. It’s a festival so remote and bizarre that the only limit to free expression is imagination ... and that dust that always gets into the electronics.
Except when it rains.
That’s when the “Burners” end up in the parking lot of the Reno Wal-Mart.
Turned back at the gate to the Black Rock Desert after rare showers on Monday turned the ancient lake bottom to a muddy quagmire, hundreds of “Burners” were forced to overnight on the Wal-Mart blacktop. Nearly a hundred other RVs pulled into the parking lot of the Grand Sierra Resort casino, across the street.
“We’re just trying to stay positive,” said a woman from Oakland, California, who identified herself only as “Driftwood,” and was hanging out with some first-timers from Texas. “Positivity can raise everything up.”
Organizers announced after midnight that they could roll onto the lake. By midmorning Tuesday all but a few dozen of the RVs were back on the road again, and by most accounts, no worse for the wear.
“We’ll make the best of things” said Aviva Mohilner, a former public relations specialist from Los Angeles making her third trip. “It always works out. Burners make it good.”
One New York City man loading coolers into a U-Haul on his first voyage to the desert wilderness said he was in too much of a hurry to make it to the desert Tuesday to talk. But another New Yorker, Ben Zion, asked a reporter to take a picture of him and his eight friends from Israel, all anxious first-timers. The rain delay was actually good for them, he said: “We got to get some rest and a shower.”
Cuong Huynh, a four-time Burner and IT specialist from San Diego, California, said he’s usually more concerned about dusty wind storms than rain, which is why he keeps his cellphone in a plastic bag.
Last year, it rained just before the festival, packing all the dirt and keeping the dust down, he said.
“Rain is really good for us, just not while you’re out there,” he said.
Destin Gerek, an 11-year veteran, thinks the delay will add a spark to the gathering.
“All this pent-up energy,” said Gerek, 36, who teaches Burning Man workshops on the “intersection of sexuality and spirituality.”
Gerek grew up in New York City, lives in California and has toured 25 different countries. “In all my travels, Burning Man is utterly unique,” he said. “Absolutely nothing compares.”
That was the general consensus among Burners Monday night as many of the RVs, VW buses and truck’s pulling trailers gathered at a makeshift staging area under the blinking pink casino lights twinkling through the night.
It wasn’t entirely unlike the contraptions that light up the weeklong desert gathering, which began at San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 and now culminates in the Black Rock with the burning of a towering wooden effigy Labor Day weekend. A record 68,000 people attended last year.
Still, the Wal-Mart wasn’t exactly what seekers of “paradise on the playa” had in mind while driving hundreds of miles to the counter-culture festival, which offers theme camps, art exhibits, all-night music and guerrilla theater, along with a decent dose of nudity and a bunch of other stuff that’s just plain weird.
One camp this year is “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust,” where participants are invited to be photographed as they “strip naked, cover in Playa dust, paint cracks on the body and finalize with red hands to simulate a connection between oneself and the desert environment.”
The journey’s final hours, across a dry, perfectly flat lake bed that seems to stretch on forever, is usually part of the fun.
Unless, again, it rains, covering the clay-like surface with standing water that turns to mush under the wheels of a well-equipped “Burner” crew.
Barbara Quintanilla and Bill Sanchez, who drove up from Houston in an RV, said the delay was the least of their worries.
“We made a 2,000-mile trip and none of us had ever driven an RV before. It would only go 35 mph up hills,” Sanchez said.
Jeff Cross of Orange County, California, said the brief detour hadn’t deterred his group’s enthusiasm.
“It’s the best festival in the world,” he said. “There’s no cellphones, no internet, no money or corporate sponsors.”
True enough, once they reach the desert.
But while they were stuck in Reno, the rain delay provided for one last consumer capitalist opportunity.
“We have a list of 27 things we need to get at Wal-Mart,” Quintanilla said.