Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 31, 2005 Burning Man: The Airport.

Tuesday I rose early and headed out on my bike in the windless clear air of morning. After a loop around the deep playa I found myself, to my surprise, at an airport. Black Rock City International Airport, to be precise. Who knew? I asked a few questions, and the man I was talking to suggested that if I was curious, I might go to the pilots briefing to be held in a nearby tent. So I did, and heard all sorts of incomprehensible information about density altitude, and the importance of using the altimeter and the speedometer when landing in barren desert instead of just eyeballing the ground, and the concerns about desert wind and dust storms in the afternoon. What caught my ear was a plea for pilots to take the airport volunteers up for rides, even if they didn’t look as appealing as some of the other burners. So I signed up to volunteer later in the day.

I worked as a “customs agent” that evening, though there was nothing much to do as no planes arrived. A very kind pilot named Berk offered to take me up in his plane the next morning, though, so I returned early on Wednesday, excited about the chance to see the city from above, and just a bit nervous when I thought of Brien Dews and his plane crash. Berk was a sweetie, an elfin man with a long white beard who circled his plane around and around, making sure I had a chance to take all the photos I wanted. He felt about his plane as I do about Matilda, but more so, since he trusts his life to her much more than I do to Matilda.

When we returned to earth, I ended up simply staying. The eight o’clock customs shift had all overslept, so I played customs agent again, this time with a few new arrivals to process. When the

ten o’clock shift eventually appeared, I took on some other tasks, sorting out which plane was parked where and organizing their tie-down numbers so the airport crew could keep track of who was on the ground, who was up in the air, and who was trying to sneak in without having paid for Burning Man tickets or registered their planes in the field (a few people did both). I spent the whole day there, returning to BusCamp only when it was getting dark, and I was nervous about the two-mile bike ride back without any lights.

The airport ended up becoming something like my home-away-from-home at Burning Man. Or my home away from BusCamp? I’m not much good at parties, but if I have something to do, I have a good time. So I felt I had to stop by the airport regularly, to make sure the planes were being registered and numbered properly. Of course this wasn’t even remotely needed, but it gave me a purpose. Besides, I liked taking the golf cart out into the airfield, buzzing past the planes, and spraying bright blue numbers on the ground next to the new arrivals to mark their tie-down spots. The blue die was just the color of Crater Lake, a wonderful rich blue that I ended up spraying over my feet and the golf cart as well as the cracked playa surface. Fortunately, it washed out after a few days!

I spent a while talking to Lissa, the airport manager, later in the week. She created the airport ten years ago, when she wanted to fly her plane to Burning Man instead of driving. It has grown to have a hundred or so arrivals each year. Running it has become a part-time job for her, one that she can fit into her “default” life as a freelance computer consultant and engineer. I plied her with questions about the logistics of Burning Man, which I find at least as interesting as the event itself. She told me about the council that runs the Burning Man LLC; they wanted to be paid, which is why the Burning Man Organization (often called Borg) is not a non-profit. She told me about the controversy over selling coffee at Center Café, something that I find delightful though I understand why it runs counter to the spirit of the city. She told me about the Burning Man ranch outside of Gerlach, and about the extent to which the event depends on paid staff vs. volunteers. It was she who told me that the tale of the lovelorn artist starting the event was merely a tale. For Lissa, Burning Man is definitely an arts festival; she said she’d never put this much work into it if it were simply a party, for though she does get paid this is certainly a labor of love.

I don’t know whether I’ll return to Burning Man next year, but if I do, I think I’ll full-time it at the airport instead of staying at BusCamp. It seems like my niche at Black Rock City.

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