17 September 2009

Burning Man 2009: Days 1 & 2

So I'm finally getting around to writing up some of our experiences at Burning Man.

Let's start with the first two days. We came in with early arrival passes on Saturday 29 August and most of us arrived in the afternoon. The first order of business was to set up the shelter before dark. John Gilmore dropped by to lend a hand and say hello. Then we set up the kitchen. The tower crew arrived that evening and we made all had a hot dinner together in the cool desert night.

The plan for the next morning was to start early and have the tower erected by noon, but no plan survives contact with the Playa. The first complication was that the ground was much harder than the tower crew had expected. They were expecting sand and loose rock, typical of their other desert installations in northern Mexico and the southwestern US. The Playa was different: 20-30 cm of brittle gypsum laying over dense, damp clay. They had made a set of screw-in anchors, but the screw pitch was too steep and anchors were impossible to drive in this hard ground. They considered borrowing some welding equipment from DPW to re-engineer the screws, but in the end we just stripped off the threads and drove the bare stakes (each about 1.7 m long) directly into the playa with a sledgehammer. Dealing with the anchors blew the whole morning and by noon it was starting to get windy.

We spent the rest of the day erecting the tower, which meant a lot of sitting around waiting for short breaks in the wind, especially as we got closer to the final height of 21 m. There was also a brief distraction when a gust of wind nearly took our shelter, ripping most of the grommets out of our tarps and breaking several of the PVC ribs. Mr. Gilmore literally saved our camp with a box of spare nylon webbing and clips left over from his own shade structure.

Meanwhile, Bill was busy rigging up our shower and greywater evaporation pond so that we could clean up properly when all this backbreaking work was complete.

By late afternoon, our main tower technician, Arturo, was hoisting the final tower section, with two antennas attached. He wrestled them into place in a 40-kt wind and a small crowd on the ground applauded. Somewhere in all that drama Cameragirl and Chaos came by to "inspect our erection" and critique our guy lines. We contemplated putting a wind turbine on the top of the tower, but decided against it. Given the wind conditions, that wind turbine could have supplied most of our power most of the time, but we were concerned that the installation would have been just too dangerous, so we would be relying on the gasoline generator all week.

That evening there were 12 for dinner in the camp. We had steak and mashed potatoes and everyone toasted Arturo for his tower work. He was definitely the man of the evening. Even though the tower itself was erected by sundown, the electronics were still not fully installed, meaning that we were at least half a day behind schedule already. But we had set up a 21 m tower in a windstorm without any injuries, so we saw the day as a success. Such is life in BRC: you frequently adjust your expectations to match reality.

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