Rembert Explains America: Enter Burning Man, Part 1

Rembert Browne/Grantland Burning Man - Rembert Browne/Grantland

“Sunday night. 6:01 p.m.”

Between the specificity of the time and the event of which he referred to, I knew he wasn’t kidding.

The “he” was my longtime friend Jon. The event: Burning Man.

For years he’s told me I should join him, and finally, only a week before his fifth trip, I was joining him.

Or was planning to, anyway. I needed to be at the Burning Man gate at 6:01 p.m. on Sunday, August 25. But during our conversation on August 18, I was sitting and drinking a coffee in Omaha, Nebraska.

And there was one other issue. I still didn’t have a ticket.

Robert Kelly once said, “If I can see it (woo), then I can do it, if I just believe it, there’s nothing to it.” And then he said, “I believe I can fly.”

These feelings effectively sum up driving through portions of Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and California to reach San Francisco in five days. It didn’t feel good, but I had to.

Because 6:01 p.m.

And San Francisco was my destination on Saturday, because through a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, I’d located a ticket.

The circumstances of acquiring this ticket were not exactly ideal — traveling to a stranger’s office at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night 30 miles south of my hotel to pay for a ticket that I had to pray was real — but I didn’t have a choice.

Because 6:01 p.m.

Arriving at the site of the transaction, I walked into a dark office park to find a man putting the final touches on a truck/RV hybrid contraption.

Perhaps sensing footsteps or catching my shadow created by his floodlight, he turned and said, “Brother.”

He led me through the maze that was his office, telling me stories about how long he’d been fixing the vehicle that will house him for seven days in the desert. And upon learning that it was my first time, he paused, smiled, and simply said, “Welcome.”

“It’s my one week of solace every year. It’s a magical place, man.”

He finally found the ticket after some conversation, and handed it to me in exchange for my cash. We then walked back to his vehicle, exchanged addresses of where we’d be staying, and I drove off.

Saturday’s foremost stranger-centered obligation had been taken care of. All that was left to do was take care of Sunday’s.

Knowing that I was headed out to Burning Man alone, Jon told me days in advance that he might have someone who needed a ride from the Bay. On Saturday, he followed up on this, explaining his friend wanted to go a day earlier.

After a summer of primarily traveling alone, the prospect of doing seven more hours alone in a car headed to the Nevada desert wasn’t an issue. But I welcomed a second mate.

Calling him that Saturday night, we arranged a time and place to meet that would get us to our destination at the time.

“If we leave between 10 and 12, we should be good,” he said over the phone. This was his sixth Burning Man. I trusted him.

But when I woke up the next morning at 9:30, I was still missing some essentials on my 50-plus items packing list. I could tell this would be tough.

I had all my loud, costume-like clothes, but still not my nine gallons of water. I had my tent, sleeping bag, and headlamp, but still nothing to eat with or store my trash. I had my goggles and warm weather clothes, but no bicycle or cold weather clothes.

And because of this, I didn’t arrive to pick up my fellow traveler until 1 p.m.

6:01 p.m. just wasn’t going to happen.

“It’s fine,” my copilot Kirk said, as he, too, scrambled to pack up his belongings. “Soon, we’ll be there. And that’s what matters.”

After somehow fitting his belongings into a car already packed with new purchases and three months of acquired oddities, along with attaching a bike-less bike rack to my trunk, we were off.

He didn’t have a bike, but was planning on getting one along the way. He also didn’t have a hard-copy ticket, but said there would be one waiting for him once we got there.

The drive through California was pleasant. It was nice to play the “life story” game with someone you didn’t know, but shared a common close friend. Because when all else failed, which it rarely — if ever — did, we could default to our one shared experience: being friends with Jon.

Exiting California and entering Reno, this was our last real chance to get last-minute camping essentials before heading north into a sea of nothing. So we stopped in a Walmart to take care of these last-minute needs.

We were not the only ones with this idea.

The Walmart was filled to capacity with people headed to Burning Man, excitedly scrambling around while back-to-school shoppers and Walmart employees looked on, some in amazement and others in horror.

Leaving the store and heading out of Reno, Kirk said this was the moment when he always felt as if he was finally headed to Burning Man.

As we made our away deeper into Nevada, he took me on a more scenic route and imparted a torrent of information about the philosophy behind Burning Man. But not too much, because he didn’t want to spoil anything. I couldn’t imagine doing the drive without him.

Filling up with gas, it was nearly 9 p.m. and the sun was out of sight. We left our alternate route and rejoined the main thoroughfare to Burning Man.

It was the main road, because it was the only road.

After hours of being told that at a certain point, the traffic would slow to a painstaking crawl, it finally began to happen.

And at 9:05 p.m., approximately 45 miles from the entrance, we came to a complete stop.

“Well here it is,” Kirk said from the passenger seat. Looking forward, the sky was littered with red brake lights, like a constellation of Stop. For the next 10 minutes, the lights remained, but then slowly began to disappear. It looked like we’d be moving again, but once the trail of disappearing red lights made it my way, I realize what was happening.

Everyone was turning off their car.

The dark road instantly became a social gathering. Groups of neighbors stood around, trading “This is my _____th Burning Man” stories while occasionally pausing to comment on the beauty that was every star in the sky.

Standing in a group making small talk, someone offered up the question, “I wonder what time we’ll get in?”

After a few seconds of silence, Kirk says, “10 a.m. Stuff always comes up.”

At 10 p.m., his guess was 10 a.m.

No one was prepared to hear that, or internalize that.

Forty-five miles. 12 hours.

A few minutes later, it seemed as if there was movement up ahead. And at 10:19 p.m., we were back in motion. Music was blaring from our car with increasing volume, because with each passing mile we drove without slowing. Maybe that pause was a one-time thing?

At 10:39, however, we, again, stopped. After a short break, at 10:50, we were again in motion, but just five minutes later, we were paused.

Thirty minutes into this stop, with nothing resembling movement in the distance, I ate some of my leftover Quiznos and fell asleep.

The sleep was always short-lived because every five minutes a truck or bus heading in the opposite direction would barrel down the road, uncomfortably shaking the car, and thus me out of my slumber.

This in-and-out of consciousness happened until Kirk reentered the car. It was 12:02 a.m. And we had movement.

The next wave of travel got us into Gerlach, Nevada, the final city you hit before Burning Man and the location of Kirk’s future-bike. At 12:38, with the traffic stopping in the middle of town, Kirk went by foot to retrieve his bike. I turned the car off and fell back asleep.

Waking up, again to Kirk’s car entrance, I looked in the rearview and saw no bike.

“We’re moving again,” he said. Apparently the dilapidated state of the remaining bikes weren’t worth the $50 they were charging.

At 1:04 we started moving. We passed a sign that said “Burning Man: 9 miles.” It was hard to say if that was comforting or demoralizing, but at least it was information.

After an hour of starts and stops, at 2:02 a.m., we took our first turn in ages, leaving the road for the gravel.

We were officially driving into the desert.

It was unclear how far away we were from the entrance gate, but cones were separating traffic into lanes, suggesting the end was near.

Two hours later, at 4 a.m., we were still in those lanes. While discouraging at times, luckily there was enough entertainment provided by those also in line to make the time pass quickly.

There was the lady who couldn’t find her car for 15 minutes, only to realize she’d walked past it five times. There was the first devil stick sighting. There was the guy in the pink fur that, six hours before, abandoned his car to do yoga while claiming he was going to walk the remainder of the trip. And there was the four-car sing-along of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” that loudly emanated from my car.

But after all this, in this four o’clock hour, I had to sit back in the car and fall asleep. So I got in the passenger seat this time and did just that.

At 5:02, I woke up to find us in a very different place. Kirk took over driving, and we were about to go through a checkpoint.

It was the crossroad for entering the festival with your ticket or going to will-call. The latter was our initial destination so we parked the car and Kirk left to retrieve his ticket.

We were so close. They were making us work for it, but it was sure to make gaining admission feel that much better.

Staring out into the dark, alone, I wondered what I was getting myself into, being just moments away from Burning Man. But then, true to form, I fell back asleep.

An hour later, at 6:03 a.m., I rose. Looking out into a very different sky, one with the sun dimly lighting the mountainous landscape, Kirk came into view. He opened the car door and I prepared for the high five.

“I got problems,” he exclaimed, verbally shutting down my high-five assault.

It was 6:07 a.m. and after more than 16 hours of driving, we just found out Kirk’s ticket was not in will-call. He was upset. But he quickly moved into problem-solving mode.

He turned to me and outlined two options: (1) Try to get in contact with someone already inside and just wait for a while, or (2) Get all the water and food he would need to survive for a day or two, and hope for the best.

Startled that Option 2 was even uttered, I shut it down and told him I wasn’t going anywhere.

We were bound.

Between the two of us and our poor cell service, we attempted to call people, but no one answered. So he left the car, with hopes of running into someone he knew.

At that moment, again alone, I picked up my ticket and examined it. “Please, pretty please be real,” I first thought and then said aloud. Suddenly too nervous to sleep, I walked around. Most of the cars that were there when we arrived were now gone. Replacing them was a cloud of dust that quickly coats your throat as if you’ve been steadily eating chalk, causing many people to walk with face masks on, giving the entire parking lot a real SARS-y feel.

Suddenly parched but tired of sitting in the car, I dipped into my water allotment and sat on the hood. And some very intense people-watching began. All I wanted to do was figure out the type of person that went to Burning Man.

Within five minutes, there was the guy blasting the Spring Breakers song, saying “BURNING MAN FOREVER”; a guy in a do-rag; multiple white guys with dreads only outnumbered by their accompanying female friends with their own colored dreadlocks; the couple that looked as if they just stepped off of a yacht; the girl in a wedding dress; the guy with his 6-year-old son on his shoulders; a lot of girls that might be Ke$ha.

Eventually, I made my way to will-call to find Kirk and two other people.

They were friends of the person he needed to contact and were going to find her once they made it inside, hopefully with the end result of landing Kirk his ticket.

He wrote them a note to pass along once they found her, and they were on their way. At that moment, he spotted two people sitting down, meditating. So he joined them.

And I walked back to drink more water.

It was now 7:01 a.m. On Monday.

The next 90 minutes were especially demoralizing. Spending time in the will-call area was often torturous, watching people celebrate as they received their tickets. You couldn’t be mad at them, but you just wanted what they had.

Standing, just hoping for anything, a voice came from 10 feet away.


We turned around.

“Hi, I’m Starfox. I have your ticket.”


It was 8:38 a.m. And with two tickets now in the car, we were headed to the gate.

Only one test remained.

Approaching the gate, we handed the man our tickets to be scanned.

Two-for-two. Both real. We were going to Burning Man. Only one checkpoint remained: the greeters.

I rolled down the window, and after saying that it was my first time, I was instructed to exit the car.

A hug is what I first received. And then I rolled in the dirt, rang a bell, and yelled out into the distance, “I am no longer a virgin.”

After I finished all my inaugural responsibilities, I walked back to the car. Before I entered, my greeter grabbed me once more and said, “Remember, you are not a spectator. You are officially a citizen of Black Rock City.”

She then gave me a second hug, pulled away, and said, “Welcome home.”


Filed Under: Rembert Browne

Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert