One of the goals of Burning Man – one of its necessities, really – has been to throw playa dust high in the air in hopes that it will carry around the world, bringing fire and inspiration along with it. Because let’s face it, there just isn’t room for everyone in Black Rock City anymore.
The Bureau of Land Management has capped the city’s population at 70,000 for the foreseeable future, and so there aren’t enough tickets. The only thing there’s plenty of is disappointment.
But along with the weeping and gnashing of teeth has come some alternative paths: You don’t have to go to the big Gerlach Regional to have a Burning Man experience.
It’s happening all over the globe — New Zealand, Africa, Spain, Japan, South Korea, to name just a few international beachheads. And although not every Regional has a full-blown multiday festival of art and fire, the goal is to create the kind of environment that you experience in Black Rock City. And you can find more and more Regional events in North America, too. There’s Flipside in Texas and the Love Burn in Florida, the BEquinox in Joshua Tree and the Playa del Fuego in Delaware. Here’s a map of all of them: http://regionals.burningman.org/regionals/north-america/
There’s also Transformus in North Carolina and there was Alchemy in Georgia, which was associated with the Regionals for a time, and that brings us to today’s story.
Sam Kim has never been to Burning Man, but she’s undeniably a Burner. Just because she’s never made it to the big funhouse doesn’t mean she isn’t part of the family.
But her non-attendee status is about to change. She’s here for the first time, and she’s gone all in: She’s working for the DPW, and she’s pounding stakes and doing all the other tough things that need to get done.
She’s not new to the work, though. For the past several years, she’s been the lead or co-lead for the builds of Transformus and Alchemy. That means she has helped set up roads, run electricity and secure the perimeter. Those smaller Regionals don’t have the layers of organization that you find here at the big Burn, nor the numbers of people, but the work is similar in scope and importance.
“I just like being involved at the beginning of things,” Sam says as she takes a break from packing up her gear at the trailer park and moving out to the playa. But she’s in for a new experience over the course of the next several weeks: “I’ve never been to Burning Man, and I have no idea what the event will be like.”
That’s the amazing thing, and the kind of thing that the organization will need to encourage: Burners who never go to Burning Man.
The other morning, Sam was out in the far desert, putting down road pegs on the streets of Black Rock City with the Road Works crew. She’d already pounded stakes for the Fence, pounded more stakes for Gate Road, and pounded yet more stakes for the intersections.
“She just came up to me and asked how to get on the Dawn Patrol,” Booya said, talking about how Sam got to be one of about 50 people who went out to the playa before the sun came up to start bashing stakes into the ground. And she did the work so well, she went from being a “roustabout,” a worker who goes from crew to crew, to a member of the hard-nosed Road Works team. It’s not a job for lightweights.
And maybe it’s not a job that you’d immediately associate with an art school student. Sam is going to Savannah College, pursuing a degree in sound engineering. She wants to do post-production editorial work for film and television.
Transformus does two burns a year, one with a cap of about 3,000 people, one about 800. They take place on Cherokee Farms in Lafayette in north Georgia, and a tree line delineates the event site, instead of a janky trash fence. “They want to keep things small at this point,” Sam says, “They don’t want to get too big.”
So how’d this all happen? How did a nice young transplant from L.A. become a lead builder for a Regional event in the South?
“Well,” she says softly, “like a lot of people here, I kind of started in the rave scene” back in L.A., where she grew up. “But I found myself more and more horrified, and left that. (It was) just the lack of mindfulness and responsibility. I didn’t do anything for awhile.”
When she moved to Georgia for school in 2009, she was living at the Hostel in the Forest in Brunswick, Ga., and a lot of Burners on their way back from Black Rock City would go there to decompress. Her imagination was piqued.
“They were just fascinating people, everyone I met. Super interesting. I thought, ‘I just gotta go to this thing called Burning Man.’” But Nevada was a long way away, so she got involved with Regionals. And eventually she started helping with setup. As the time for this year’s Burn got closer, she was one of the thousands of people who applied to be a part of the DPW. “I started having dreams about doing public works in the desert. I mean, every week I’d have a dream.”
Sam got the word a couple of months ago that she was in. She drove across country to get here, and she picked up a couple of other first-time DPW along the way. But other than that, she didn’t know a soul when she got here. But things still felt a little familiar: “There’s a similar kind of personality,” she said of crewmates here. “Work hard, get it done. … I could probably never be a greeter.”
She never wants to leave the South. “I feel like people are a lot more genuine with you, they ask you about your day and they really are curious. It’s not that they just want something from you.”
She doesn’t yet know exactly how long she’ll stay out West, though. She’s applied to be a part of the Playa Restoration team, the people who stay an extra month to make sure the event has left no trace. She hasn’t heard if she’s made that team, but she got a pretty good harbinger the other day.
She was out pounding, and something shiny on the ground caught her eye. It was a pin. A pin that a DPW guy had passed out a couple of years ago. It sums up the special feeling that comes with staying for playa resto, when you see the desert re-emerge. It says simply, “Killing Time Till Resto.”
Kim’s wearing the pin in her hat now, hoping that it’s telling the truth.