There’s a theme here

The Man, like any pagan god, requires sacrifice

Members of the Above the Limit theme camp work on their art car, the Emerson, on a ranch off Pyramid Highway.

Members of the Above the Limit theme camp work on their art car, the Emerson, on a ranch off Pyramid Highway.

Photo by Clint Demeritt

Food, water, tents, baby wipes and glow sticks are all preparations recommended to weather the Black Rock Desert playa. It’s true, there are heathens who run the streets of that temporary city who have put no time or forethought into spending a week in the desert.

But others spend months, years, constructing giant citadels to the Burning Man. These people sacrifice huge chunks of their lives, their wallets and sometimes their sanities. These are the theme camps of Black Rock City. These are the camps at the heart of Burning Man. And this is how I spent my summer with my compatriots from the Above the Limit (ATL) theme camp.

Building on a theme

Before I go into what makes a theme camp, let’s discuss what is a theme camp. Theme camps can range anywhere from 10 to 200 or more campers. There are only two real criteria to become a theme camp: It must provide a free service for the playa public and be visually stimulating.

ATL serves coffee in the morning and homebrewed beer during the day. It also has a 40-foot dome/bar decorated by giant Styrofoam crystals open to the public. Other camps cook up pancakes and give massages. Some camps are mini-golf courses, some roller rinks, and others makeshift nightclubs. Just as long as there is some interactive element the public can enjoy.

For theme camps it all starts, like everything at Burning Man, at last year’s burn. When Sunday rolls around and the Man is just a black smudge on the playa, rumors circulate about next year’s Man, and Burners start to talk about what they are going to do for the next year’s burn.

Soon the event ends, and the dust-covered cars evacuate Black Rock City. Burners take a shower and hibernate for the next few months. Then around Christmas, camp leaders like ATL coordinator Twilight Fire and others get together to decide what’s feasible for next year’s burn.

“A lot of theme camps make this mistake, and we make this mistake all the time,” Twilight said, who wants his real identity left anonymous. “You get a whole bunch of people in February and March saying, ‘Absolutely we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do this.’ And every year we ask, ‘Are you going to really do this? Are you sure? You really, really want to do this?’ and ‘Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,’ and your attrition rate through the summer will be 50 percent on a good day.”

A number of participants don’t want their name associated with Burning Man because some of their professional colleagues look down on the event. So Burners use nicknames, or what I call playanyms, when dealing with Burning Man business.

For the first few months of the year, Twilight and the gang go through what they think they can and cannot get done. An example of something that went on ATL’s unfeasible list was a 50-foot-ish, mirrored tower to go with Burning Man’s 2010 Metropolis theme.

Around May, camps start to submit paperwork for camp placement and art car registration. By this time, camps should know what they want to build for the summer. By June, most camps have started fabrication.

That is where my summer started, on a horse ranch 20 minutes up Pyramid Highway, staring at a freight-sized cargo container full of what could only be described as dusty crap. Folding chairs, tools, refrigerators, beer kegs, giant vinyl signs and big Styrofoam crystals were all tightly packed in the 20-by-40 foot blue metal box.

The crew of five college males went to work fixing bikes, constructing room-sized tarp-barns, and sorting through plywood furniture called Playatech. But as June wore on, the crew began to wander off toward other summer fillers. Surprisingly, it’s difficult to get people to volunteer their whole summer for what basically amounts to a terrible-paying construction job.

“You really hope that people are volunteering so they can get something that is a benefit out of them,” said Twilight. “Some people love creating; some people love learning about stuff; some people like the social interaction. Nobody likes gritting it out in the hot hours doing hour after hour of work, but that’s required, too. It’s not all going to be fun.”

Near the end of June, the entire crew left, replaced by two San Diego college students: Phoenix, default leader of the group because he already spent a summer on the ranch, and Bombadil, a first-time Burner who shares her namesake and love of blue features with an esoteric Lord of the Rings character.

With the injection of new blood, the build crew went to work constructing a platform to go on top of the camp’s cargo container. The platform will be a second-story deck for the camp’s bar. The process involved painting Kilz, a white sealant, onto the wood to help it survive the desert conditions, measuring, cutting, some heavy lifting, putting up rails and a shade structure and a few close calls almost tripping off the top of the container.

As July went by, we continued to spend our 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. hours Kilzing wood, inventorying camp equipment and making more Playatech. So much Playatech.

While the build crew was busily working in the sun, camp coordinators ordered parts and tried to extract camp dues from their members to fund the project. Both tasks are equally time consuming and frustrating.

“Then August comes, and you just start screaming,” Phoenix said. “There is a lot of screaming in August, and a lot of tearing of hair, and what gets done gets done.”

Mushrooms and burnout

August is crunch time for theme camps. About half of all the work that goes into a theme camp happens in the month before Burning Man. Camps start to realize what really will be possible for the burn, so they reevaluate and dive into the few remaining weeks of construction.

In the ATL build crew that meant doing lots of mushrooms. But not the fun kind of mushrooms—the kind of decorative mushroom made of chicken wire and papier-mache. But the arts and crafts aren’t as fun as making piñatas out of balloons and wet newspaper.

Chicken wire is surprisingly finicky, with sharp wire anxious to coil into itself and bite into your arm. Also papier-mache paste seems to be Spanish fly for flies. A quick arm jerk around the craft table sends a hundred fly wave from one wet gray mushroom to the next.

This is the part you don’t imagine when thinking about the awesome summer working for a Burning Man theme camp. By just about the middle of August, we were figuring that out. As we got closer to the Man, this feeling set in. A feeling similar to the ennui seniors have in their last stretch of high school.

Burnouts are common in August, as Phoenix knows.

The year before, Phoenix and Twilight spent about two months of their summer at the ranch working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on one of the camp’s art cars. This mutant vehicle is a 26-foot long by 10-and-a-half-foot wide decommissioned Emerson aircraft loader. The two spent the summer setting up and drilling through metal beams to construct the roof.

After about 600 hours of work, the “Royal Barge” had a DJ’s crow’s nest, could fit 90 people, rose 15-feet in the air and served beer.

“I had no way of comprehending the idea of working that hard,” Phoenix said. “I was expecting it to be some sort of fun little jaunt through the woods, and then we’d go to Burning Man, and everyone would be happy, and it was a little more difficult than that.”

Phoenix got his name from how he recovered from the horrible burnout he suffered at the end of that summer. But with three members on the ranch and a few cameos from campmates, this year has gone smoother.

A week before Burning Man, if all the little Burners have been extra good all year, they will receive a coveted early admission ticket. These tickets allow theme camps to go into Black Rock City a week early to set up their camps. The extra time is needed.

So camps deconstruct whatever they built that summer and ship it all to the playa. For ATL that means hiring a semi truck to haul the cargo container and the Royal Barge north.

“And once you get to the playa, you find out how cohesive your camp really is,” Twilight said. “Some camps get along famously and some camps melt down in two days.”

Many theme camps will still be constructing their projects on the playa. But the more camps have done before they get to Black Rock Desert the better. The playa is a harsh environment with very limited resources. Throughout the week, camps build like crazy, attend pre-burn playa parties, and make supply runs to nearby Gerlach and Reno.

After all is built, a camp might have spent more than 10,000 hours and $100,000 preparing for the burn. Some camp members may be proudly standing on their accomplishment, and others may be crying in the fetal position.

Then on the Sunday after the burn, when the Man is just a black smudge on the playa, rumors about next year’s theme bounce around Black Rock City. And theme camps start talking about what to do next year.