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The Works of Jed Appelrouth
Jed Appelrouth

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Burning Man, Yosemite, a hint of Tahoe

The Vision

In 1998, while living out in Taos, New Mexico, one of my AmeriCorps buddies told me about this wild festival he had attended in Nevada: The Burning Man Festival. Fire, Art, Cool folks, Music. It sounded awesome. I've had the desire to make it out to the festival for the last decade. This has been the year of knocking off big destinations (Bali, NZ), and Burning Man rounded out the top of my list. I found a travel companion in one of my closest friends, Larry Golson. LG agreed to share the experience under the condition that we would check out some hiking and backpacking en route to the festival. So we planned our trip and headed west.


Our first port of call was Lake Tahoe, CA. Someone once told me that Tahoe is like an opium den. It sucks you in, you decide to stay for a little while and soon you find that 5 years have passed and you've forgotten all your other worldly ambitions. That wasn't my exact personal experience, but it turns out that the lake is as beautiful as everyone says. Crystal blue waters surrounded by a ring of mountains. Larry and I did some off-trail hiking, got lost a few times, scrambled up some tricky terrain, I tore my shoe, and we had some killer sandwiches.


From Tahoe we headed south to Yosemite, stopping briefly to capture some shots of the high desert sunset. As we approached Yosemite, the mountains became increasingly grand in scale. A few miles before the official park entrance, we pulled off the main road and parked in front of Saddlebag Lake to prepare for our backpacking trip. Packs and gear in place, we took a short ferry across the lake and headed into the back country of Yosemite National Park. As we followed the trail deeper into the back country, we experienced our first rains, which moved in and out at high mountain speeds. After walking around most of the 20 lakes on the trail, we arrived at our destination at the base of the 12,000+ foot tall North Peak. It was an epic view, and we had miles and miles of mountainous terrain essentially to ourselves.

After we set up camp and finished dinner we headed out at dawn to play around the mountains. As the black night sky consumed the cool blue of the evening sky, the constellations began to emerge from the darkness. We scrambled to higher and higher ground until we found a flat ledge with a view of the night sky above and the valley below. Though we could not yet see the moon, a beam of articulate moonlight was crawling its way up the side of North peak, illuminating every ridge and deepening every shadow of the towering giant. The full moon crested the mountains and bathed the entire valley in bright, reflected light. After some requisite howling, we turned off our superfluous headlamps and walked down the brightly lit mountain back to our base camp.

The next morning we awoke to heavy winds and persistent rainfall. We pressed our virtual snooze button for a few hours, but it seemed the storm wasn't going to break; we had no choice but throw on our rain gear and head out towards the mountain. Without the weight of our packs, the hiking was easy, but the rain added a whole new challenge and made our footfalls less sure. We took several routes and finally found a path towards the summit of North Peak. We climbed higher and higher up the talus slope, and when we finally reached the end of our climb, 200 feet shy of the peak (as far as we could safely climb without gear) the rain abated and the clouds made way for the blue sky. Fairly exhausted, we sat and took in the epic landscape in every direction: lakes and mountains and reddish-blue earth for miles and miles. This was likely the most beautiful view of the trip, and of course our cameras were miles away back at the campsite. This seems to be a trend for Larry and me, but it's just a reminder to pay attention and take it in with or without a camera.

We returned to camp. I took some time to shoot photos, Larry went fishing; we made dinner and took another night hike under the still impressive, though waning moon.

We awoke the next morning to a beautiful sunrise. North Peak was basking in sunlight, and the winds had died down, making for brilliant lake reflections. However, as the morning progressed, darker clouds approached, and within minutes the sky turned an ominous blue-black. The thunder came. And the hail began to fall. Like a quarterback scrambling for a fumble, Larry dove headfirst into the tent as the ice began to pelt our camp and our tent. Luckily, the storm didn't stay for long, and as soon as it passed, we threw on our packs and headed back towards the trail head.

We arrived at the parking lot and were upset to find that the driver side window of our minivan had been pried open and was permanently damaged. We checked inside but found the phones and wallets and ipod were still locked up. What kind of inept thief broke into our car? Did the alarm scare him off? Why did he use a crowbar and not simply break the window? Many questions. But most of all we were so happy to still have our wallets, and the music for the trip.

We drove towards Yosemite and the hail picked up again. Larry had to wear a rain jacket to stay dry as the hail poured into the car through the broken window. As we entered the park and paid our entrance fee, we asked the Yosemite ranger about reporting a break-in. He looked at our car, told us there was nothing we could do and mumbled something about a bear. We didn't get it, until we parked at the first photo op in the park and further inspected the window. There we found lots of dirt, conspicuous brown hairs, and the distinctive scratch marks of a bear's claw. We started laughing. Much cooler to have a hungry bear tear open your mini-van than an inept thief. With this news, we found it much easier to adapt to the inconvenience of a busted window. I'm still waiting to hear from my insurance company, but I'm hoping they'll be equally amused and in marginally generous spirits about the great Bear Break In.

The weather held as we made our way through Yosemite. We passed hordes of foreign tourists loading and unloading from tour buses to take predictable pictures of the great rock formations. Larry and I were compelled to take the same shots we knew would never make it past the first round of digital deletions. We too had to pay homage to the towering stone mammoths, and the click of the shutter was akin to lighting a votive candle at a beautiful cathedral. After we worshipped at Ansel Adam's Half Dome, we turned the car around and headed back towards the entrance of the park.

At the East Entrance of Yosemite, we stopped for some outstanding cuisine at the Mobil Gas station's Whoa Nellie Deli. After a plate of the world famous fish tacos and mile high carrot cake we drove past the town of Lee Vining and turned off on a dirt road towards Lake Mono. We drove our car through fields of sage and chamisa, parked the car and wallowed through the marshy, buggy, brackish water to capture some shots of the hoodoos on the lake. We then continued on towards Reno, passing dozens of pork-laden billboards advertising that at Topaz Casino you could "eat your body weight in Ham Steak". We discussed at length why that would be remotely appealing to anyone but arrived at no satisfactory conclusion. We stopped briefly at the casino to do some research and be closer to the Ham Steak Haven. By nightfall, we arrived at the Reno airport and traded in our bear-busted van for a new van that would take us the rest of the way to the burning man festival.

Burning Man

110 miles north of Reno, we arrived at Black Rock City and pulled onto the festival grounds around 12:30 AM. At the first traffic stop, where perfunctory searches took place, we had our first glimpse of the beauty of Burning Man. Three gorgeous women, one after the other, descended from an RV as it was searched. Larry and I were awestruck at our good fortune. Surely we were in the right place, and the universe was sending us clear signals that we had arrived. After our security search we tried our best to follow the RV of Heavenly Delights, but we got turned around in the maze-like parking/living grounds of the festival. After 30 minutes of navigating we found a place to park amid the RVs, tents, cars, geodesic domes, and other makeshift structures.

We donned our minimalist costumes (Larry had the foresight to procure some furry pimp hats and neon necklaces at Walmart) and headed out towards the festival.

Nothing could have prepared me for the first full vision of the Playa at 1:30 AM on the Friday before the burn. It was like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. I have seen Carnivale, and Mardi Gras, the Feria, and some other epic festivities, but I had absolutely no context for this. Beauty. Chaos. Sensory Overload.

The first thing that struck you was the music. The soundscape was wild. In a 360 degree circle, a mile and a half in diameter, you have music coming at you from across the desert floor. There is nothing in the desert to absorb the sound, so the music, especially the long bass wavelengths, comes at you from all directions. The music is pumping out of dozens and dozens of makeshift clubs and out of the vehicles that scurry to and fro over miles of desert.

Visually it's even more wild and chaotic. All around you, people are decked out in outlandish costumes, paint, neon, wings, flashing things, glowsticks. The majority of people are on bicycles that have been modified and enhanced for the festival. Others are traveling on wildly creative art cars, greatly modified for the festival. Cars, vans, buses are transformed into animals, monsters, dance clubs, floats, mutant vehicles. Most of the cars have their own generators and massive sound systems- so people are funking out and dancing all over the place. And there are no lanes on the playa. Everyone is driving, walking, riding around in every possible direction. The neon is very pragmatic. It serves to distinguish people and vehicles against the darkness- an adaptation taken from sea creatures that live at great oceanic depths.

The sheer massiveness of the scene overwhelms. 1.5 miles across- so that's roughly 5 miles around in circumference- if you can imagine. We won't even cover 10% of it during the first night.

Larry and I start club-hopping- and seeing all the zany things people have created- robots smoking cigarettes and talking to passing strangers- massive sculptures consumed with fire- three dimensional displays of lights and sound. Many of these installations could hang in the best galleries in New York, but instead they are out in this moon-like landscape. We walk to the "spinning monkey" exhibit where someone has ingeniously made a 3-dimensional flip book type contraption. The contraption requires a group effort to begin. 10 people must pedal the stationary bikes placed in a circle around the giant monkey tree. Once there is enough energy generated from the bikes, the stationary monkeys begin to spin around this giant metal tree- and a strobe light activates. The motion of the monkeys and the strobe light creates the visual illusion that these static hanging monkey sculptures all come to life and begin climbing and moving seamlessly around the tree swinging from limb to limb. Amazing.

I have a video- and can send if you are curious.

We find another tree that sings if you hook it up to a steam engine. Other trees are made of metal. One tree is made of bones.

We hear artists performing across the playa. One man is playing a beautiful Spanish guitar and filling the night with his song.

The night is a blur- and when we finally head back to the car at 6:00 PM- the sun is rising over the desert, and we are more than ready to crash on our thermarests in the back seat of the dodge.

As the hour approaches 10 AM, and the sun rises in the sky, the minivan begins to heat up and the noise of the festival begins to flow through the streets and interrupt our slumber. Lacking the protection of an RV, exposed to the desert sun, sleep is no longer an option. So we pack up for the day and head out to explore the festival anew. We are greeted by a man stepping out of his RV to offer us some pancakes that he had just cooked up. At the next corner a woman offers us fresh fruit. The night before- I was given a necklace- and over time I am given a few neon glowsticks, free food, drinks, chapstick.... People are remarkably generous. The festival is vehemently anti-commercial- nothing is for sale- no T-shirts- no food- only a few drinks at one small place in the entire complex. So instead of commerce- there is a "gift economy," which seems to work. It is refreshing to see such renegade displays of generosity. Enough to give pause to even the most jaded of folks.

The physical environment reminds me of pictures from the moon. Flat and enormous, dusty, dusty salt flats, surrounded by mountains. We barely missed the major dust-storms in which you could not see 5 feet in front of you, but we were caught up in numerous dust-wind storms in which we had to don our goggles and dust masks to make it through. By the end of the trip most of our clothing was covered in the white chalky dust of the playa.

The playa: massive, flat, barren earth. A great place to throw a Frisbee. A great place to dance behind roaring columns of flame. A great place to ride a bike. Though we did not bring our own bikes, we found out on Sunday that if you find a lime-green bike with the words "Yellow Bike" painted in red lettering on the side- that was officially a communal bike. Anyone could take it and ride, and no one could hoard it for longer than his/her ride. So we scrounged all Sunday for the "Yellow Bikes" and we covered some serious territory before we left.

The culture of burning man is dominated by one cardinal principle: radical self-expression. There were so many ways to express your individuality- through your clothing, your body, your mode of transportation, your domicile and myriad other forms. Individuality reigns supreme at the festival. It is wonderfully refreshing.

Whenever people are expressing themselves as total beings, human sexuality naturally comes into play. In the middle of the desert, 100+ miles from civilization, people take advantage of the freedoms of the environment and shed the strictures and some of the fig leafs of civilized society. I'd say roughly 10-15% of the participants stripped down and shed some layers of clothing. Lots of semi-nude and fully nude people walking around. And of course your predictable share of Never-nudes.

I appreciated a majority of the hyper-self expressives, but I could have been spared the efforts of others. Not surprisingly, a good number of middle aged men had finally become comfortable enough with their bodies that they felt compelled to strip down and show their bodies to the world. Not sure how necessary that was. "Naked men riding bicycles" would be a cool name for a heavy metal band, but that's not what you want to see when you wake up and begin to cruise the playa. So many naked dudes on bikes. Outrageous. How is that even comfortable! But everyone simply does their own thing. You can show up in khakis, in a garbage bag, wearing a lampshade, a suit made of newsprint (that was unusual to see!), or an Armani suit. Anything goes. And it's all cool. Very little judgment, if any. The whole point is to be who you are: with gusto. If you are boring - be really boring. If you are a little eccentric- put it out there, turn it up and be reallly eccentric.

I had the sense that quite a few people in the festival truly lived for this week. This was the week they got to let it all hang out. Literally and figuratively. Pun intended. I'm sure some of them were wacky all year long. Some were accountants and lawyers, maybe even Republicans. But some of them dreamed of burning man: the perfect camp, the perfect art car, the perfect costume. And these folks went all out to create and realize these dreams. Nothing was held back.

And these people were not that young. I'd venture to guess the average age of participants was 35-40. I was originally imagining a much younger crowd. But the older folks have the means to get out there, the disposable income and the time to dedicate to creating these elaborate contraptions and set-ups. The younger folks will show up for the more hedonistic elements, but the older folks bring a higher level of commitment to the festival.

The Burnings

The Man symbolized the founder's- Larry Harvey's- vision for self expression. He just wanted to burn a small wooden man at a beach party. In the 80's the man started off as a small effigy; but progressive festivals saw larger and more impressive burning men. This year's burning man was over 80 feet tall. Some punk hijacked it and tried to burn it early to get some press and his 15 minutes of fame- always one of those in the mix. But the organizers rebuilt the man in time for the ritual. On Saturday night- the man was burned in a frenzy of energy and enthusiasm. Larry and I, sadly, were passed out in the van after 40 hours of next to no sleep. We awoke to see the remains of the burning- as the neon green arms shook in the air as they were engulfed by flames.

A few hours later- the organizers burned the Tower- another huge wooden structure surrounded by these really cool metal sculptures. Some uber-pyros decided to create the greatest ball of flame ever seen at the festival and made a propane-butane-compressed fuel bomb to achieve that end. The fireball was obscenely big- 200 feet of pyromaniac-saliva-inspiring sensual flame rising up over the masses. People up close couldn't even look at the thing. Singed eyebrows and crispy nose hairs.

On Sunday night the final burning would take place: the burning of the Temple. The temple was one of the most impressive elements of the festival. The architect and lead artist, David Best, led a crew of 15+ workers for 2 months prior to the festival date to construct the beautiful edifice. Thousands of man hours went into constructing the intricate wood inlays and designs in this massive geometrically inspired structure. The temple was a place of respect and mourning and grief. People were using this as a means to say goodbye to loved ones. All over the temple people wrote messages in pen; they wrote on parchment and stuck the parchment into grooves in the structure; they left photographs, scrapbooks, journals and other mementos. I wrote some words to my grandfather and was deeply moved by the whole experience. Outside of the temple, a man was driving in his make-shift vehicle equipped with a keyboard, and flashing lights. He was tapping out John Lennon melodies on his keyboard as the people inside opened up a space to let out a bit of grief in the midst of this highly unusual festival.

On Sunday night- around 10:00 people streamed in all directions towards the temple: a pilgrimage of sorts. 30,000 people gathered around the temple. A few songs were sung, rituals were observed, and then the temple was set ablaze under a dust-billowed sky. And it was amazing. You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was silent. Everyone was silent. It was a powerful moment as we watched this beautiful, intricate structure being consumed by flame. It was a loss in and of itself. And upon this loss, people were adding so many other more powerful and profound losses from their lives. Fire is a powerful cleansing force, and it was so brilliant to let people use the burning of the temple to process some of their residual grief. At the conclusion- in a cathartic gesture- we created a massive sound wave- which circled the temple 5 or 6 times- with people screaming out as they rode the wave of sound and energy.

At the conclusion of the burn, Larry and I spent a few hours trying to catch up on sleep and then we headed out towards the road around 5:00 AM. Within a few minutes of leaving our parking spot, we hit the first of the many bottlenecks that would impede our homeward progression. Thousands of cars were packed with burners all trying to leave early and avoid the bottleneck of the 2 lane road. We waited and waited. We missed several flights, and ended up catching the red-eye 14 hours after our scheduled morning flight. In the grand scheme of things, this was a small price to pay to have partaken in such a wonderful event.

In a nutshell.

Burning Man rules. Yosemite is gorgeous.

Trips like these are so fundamental.

If you have any inclination to see the Burning Man- you won't be disappointed. It's like nothing else. And the beauty of the California Parks is astounding.

If you've made it this far- thanks for reading. More adventures to come.

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