Camp Walter shows up big at Burning Man, painting the playa fuschia with their Pink Party and covering ground with their six iconic Mutant Vehicles. Since 2009, they’ve brought a new attraction to the playa each year, including their trademark Walter, a enormous Baja Beetle named Big Red, a fire-breathing behemoth horned truck named Heathen, the dance-til-you-can’t Kalliope three-story laser-and-flame-clad immersive party stage, 2016’s flame-licked UFO mounted on an Italian truck chassis, Mona Lisa, and the stationary Peace Train installation. Their camp is home to over 250 campers. Located at 10 and Esplanade last year, it’s safe to say they were one of the Burn’s biggest and brightest camps.
But how did they come to rock this hard? Ever since I encountered their “Peace Train” at a mindful music festival called FORM in 2016, I wanted to get to know Walter. The influence of the Walter Tribe extends beyond the playa and into their home community in Phoenix. They’ve dedicated years to creating immersive experiences that cut across time and space, distance and communities, moving people figuratively and literally. What powers them to burn so bright?
The Walter Tribe is an eclectic and friendly bunch from Arizona, “a tribe of people who are passionate about being creative and seeing just how far the envelope can be pushed in terms of building something unique.” They are not just Burners and builders — they are students and event planners, DJs and curators, art directors, photographers, healers, teachers, mechanics and volunteers. Their family spans multiple generations, featuring a build team working well into their 70s alongside fresh-faced ambassadors and some children who have been to the Burn as many years as they’ve had birthdays. Kirk and Mary Strawn are the founding parents. Kirk, an M.D., inventor, philanthropist, and builder, came up with the idea of repurposing an old fire truck into a something that would inspire. He worked with the tribe to repurpose the frame to build the world’s largest VW Bus, the 13-foot luminous Walter, in 2009. Walter is truly something to be seen, featuring 10,000 L.E.D. lights, a 4,000-watt sound setup and a 330-gallon water tank that feeds an onboard misting system.
Burning Man may be the community’s vastest (and dustiest) home, but their art makes waves in many other places. Their Kalliope stage made its large-scale music debut in 2014 at Bonnaroo in Tennessee, offered as an alternative stage for DJs to create a more intimate and interactive party. Since that initial integration, they’ve worked with Bonnaroo to build out more and more interactive experiences, from art car parades to costume parties, to share a little bit of that Burning Man vibe with a more festival-oriented crowd. Their Walter Bug is on tour much of the year, touching down at like-minded events and local parades and art festivals.
But much of the Walter Tribe’s greatest work happens at home in Arizona. Their efforts are concentrated at the Walter Dome, a lot that houses their maker space, gallery, and brewery in Scottsdale. The Walter Art Gallery hosts shows from all-local artists, some of whom show Burn-inspired work. Next door is the massive builders’ haven where Walter was built, and they now share space with curious builders in the community. Through an old VW bus, a small door leads to the Walter brewery where they have taps of collaborative brews. On a Friday night at the Walter Dome, I sipped a Solar Flare Grapefruit IPA and talked the 10 Principles with some of the Walter Fabrication Crew, and we watched the smiling community gather for one of their epic potlucks.
A trip to Phoenix wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Walter Presents, an events and office space where the other half of the Walter Tribe, the production team, operates. Here, the crowd shifts from builders to yoga-pants-clad urbanites, and it’s HQ of communications for the tribe. The massive building, a hostel for the rowdy art cars, hosts large-scale parties, art shows, and even yoga classes. Previously a production studio, it now features murals and rooms full of props suspended from the ceiling; wandering through felt like floating through a black-lit kaleidoscopic dream. The building is slotted to get a gut renovation and rebuild. Once that makeover is complete around 2020, it will operate as the biggest events space and most iconic landmark in the Phoenix downtown arts district.
I got to see the space through the eyes of their director of community engagement, Anna Allebach-Warble, who says some of their favorite events are those that keep them local. Bringing the party (a.k.a. the Mutant Vehicles) to the local Pride parades is a sure way to make the community smile, and providing a presence at college events around Arizona opens the door for students to imagine their own creative potential and rethink the concept of “partying with purpose.” Walter even collaborated with Arizona-based Purdue University, where their vehicles Heathen and Kalliope received pyrotechnic component upgrades by students in the “Propulsion Design, Test, and Build” class. This year, for the first time, Walter is even trying their hand at their own three-day festival in Phoenix called “Lost Lake” in collaboration with Superfly Presents.
Anna sees what they do as planting seeds for the proliferation of arts in their community. Trish Turpin, the art gallery curator, who’s never been to Burning Man herself, agreed: “We want to spread the idea of Gifting and Radical Expression here in Phoenix. The merits and principles of Burning Man may be even more important back in the world.” In fact, Walter Tribe members often refer to the “100-year plan” that allows them to imagine how their work evolve over the long term in Phoenix, at Burning Man and beyond, long after the next generation of Walter Tribers have taken over. The idea is close to founder Kirk Strawn’s heart. “Burning Man is the area you experiment, and you learn about what you might do in the real world,” he says. “It brings collaborative, participatory and creative origins out into the rest of the world.”
Top photo courtesy of Walter Tribe