Week eleven: Trial by fire


Somewhere along Interstate 5, the Pyrobar caught fire. Our Burning Man art car was designed to shoot flames, not be in flames, and the irony of its predicament was not lost on anyone. The engine fire was put out quickly, but police shut down the interstate for two hours, just to be on the safe side. I pictured local newscasters pointing out the “PYROBAR” license plate to the camera and making wisecracks about the intelligence of the hippies flocking to the Burning Man Festival.

I failed to witness the catastrophe because I was hundreds of miles away in the Black Rock Desert with Kitty and the rest of the Santa Barbara crew, wondering when the Pyrobar and the rest of our fearless leaders would arrive. As tempting as it was to sit on our thumbs and wait for instructions, we felt compelled to develop our piece of Black Rock City real estate. We had been given a coveted place on the Esplanade by the Burning Man authorities and were expected to host a party or two once the gates opened to the public in twenty-four hours. Our early-arrival passes allowed us to experience the calm before the storm. Soon, this lifeless patch of Northwestern Nevada would be fully transformed into the state’s fourth-largest city, and then the insanity would begin in earnest.

In the meantime, we had our hands full with our own camp’s preparations. We built a kitchen and several shade structures out of carports and lycra, but that was the easy part. The centerpiece for our village was a circular lattice structure called the Stereobot that was meant to rest on tripods and float in midair, like a giant halo. The trouble was, we had borrowed this structure from a company in Los Angeles, and it had never been put together in this particular configuration before. Our chief engineer was still stuck with the Pyrobar somewhere in the Mohave Desert, along with most of our tools, so we were left to assemble what I lovingly called “Satan’s Tinkertoys” on our own. Those accursed aluminum poles fought us every step of the way. At least while we were sweating in the brutal Nevada sun, our campmates were kind enough to bring us coconut water and sliced watermelon now and again.

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