“It’s the perfect team for me,” I thought as I submitted my application to become a Black Rock Ranger. “I’ve six years experience with the Bay Area Mountain Search and Rescue Team, 10 years going to the playa and a lifetime of outdoor adventuring.” How little I knew.
The Ranger orientation and evaluation weekend in Santa Cruz was a blast. A bunch of dust-worn Rangers training a gaggle of wannabees, with some having gone only once to Burning Man, and others with 10 or more Burns under their belts.
We covered a plethora of competencies germane to the Ranger skill set, including conflict resolution, orienteering, radio etiquette, team building and incident reporting. Serious lessons combined with laughs and ribbing.
At the end of the day, over burgers and beer, we were regaled with playa war stories and tales of bonding. The Rangers had everything I look for in a tribe: purpose, friendship, loyalty, tech nerdiness. Plus, the best schwag in Black Rock City! Khaki was sure to be in my future.
One of the wannabees was Dave, fondly known as Excess on the playa. A retired electrician, Dave embodied Burner culture. Smart, irreverent, hilarious and most of all big hearted. As we made small talk about TTITD, I mentioned I was looking for a new camp to stay in, so he invited me to join Felus Flamus. That led to several years camping with as great a bunch of misfits one could ever ask for.
At the end of the weekend, the Rangers bid us farewell for several months until we would be subjected to the final evaluation: a day on playa with two mentoring Rangers.
Let the Games Begin
June, July and most of August passed all too slowly until, finally, I drove through the Gate and the Felus Flamus gang welcomed me Home. Two of my campmates were Rangers and wished me and Excess best of luck for passing our walkabout.
Just before the appointed hour, I put on my best desert-trekking attire, a floppy wide brim hat and a pack loaded with water, Clif Bars and notebook; then I walked to Ranger Base Station on the Esplanade. Nearly 50 wannabee Rangers paced nervously about. I saw Excess in the crowd, and we gave each other thumbs-ups.
Then Ranger Diver Dave gathered us together and introduced the day’s activities. We’d be paired with two mentor Rangers and follow them on their four-hour shift, being evaluated not only on technical skills but attitude, composure and over all Rangerness.
Now Rangers come in all personality types. Some are easy going, others less so. As luck would have it, I was paired with two of the most no-nonsense, serious-to-the-point-of-absurdity hard-asses.
These two, let’s name them Ranger Focused and Ranger Flint Eye, made Navy SEALs look like Cub Scouts. Decked out with the latest military-grade survival gear, they hit their City patrol hard, insuring every rule in the book — many I’d never heard of — was strictly interpreted and adhered to.
“Move those bikes out of the roadway!” “Secure the guy lines on that tent!” “Do you have a Washoe County Health Certificate to dispense those peanut butter and bacon waffles?”
In between securing the safety and security of the entire Burner population, they’d throw a challenge at me. “How many blocks did we traverse from L and 7:22 o’clock?” “How many inches may rebar protrude from the playa”? “What are the coordinates of the nearest ESD outpost?” “If you encounter a mutant vehicle without a DMV sticker, what are the protocols?” I did my best to impress but they gave no indication of how I was doing.
Let me pause here and say not only do I have the utmost respect for the Rangers and value their contribution and dedication to the community, but I fully understand that without them the city wouldn’t function nearly as well as it does. Some of my best playa buddies are Rangers, and in general they are the nicest bunch of Burners one could hope to meet.
But Ranger Focused and Flint Eye, for all their dedication to the cause, didn’t personify the positive aspects of the Rangers. Perhaps they were frustrated State Trooper wannabees, or maybe they were just in a bad mood that day. It happens to everyone at TTITD at some point; it’s rough out there. By the end of the shift, we weren’t on the best of terms.
Back to the Beginning
Back at Ranger Base, all the mentors and hopeful mentees ambled in from the desert. Some threesomes were arm in arm, jocular and in high spirits. Others maintained their test-phase decorum. My two mentors glared at me, then went into the back area to discuss my fate, along with all the other mentors.
In 10 minutes the Rangers came out. Ranger Diver Dave solemnly announced that only 32 of the 50 hopefuls made it. He then called out the names of the Rangers In Training. Thirty-two names were called. Thirty-two were bestowed with the coveted Ranger khaki shirt and hat. I was not among them.
My mentors explained, in the kindest terms of the day, that I needed to be more “centered” and “aware of my surroundings”. They encouraged me to apply again next year and to have a good Burn. Then they dismissed me. I was disappointed, to put it mildly. No one likes rejection, but to be told I didn’t make the grade for a team I so wanted to belong to was devastating.
Sadly, I shuffled back to camp Felis Flamus. My campmates looked at my crestfallen face and didn’t need to ask if I’d passed. They were so comforting, telling me it wasn’t that important and I’d just had bad luck being paired with drill sergeants for mentors. Then Excess, beaming his wide grin, rode up wearing the coveted Ranger hat, new logo hardly dusty. He’d made it!
“It was so easy,” he said. “My two mentors did whatever they could to help me pass.” Nice. Then my campmate sCary, a sweetheart and eight-year Ranger, said to me “perhaps there’s a better team for you to join, like filmmakers or something?”
What a fine idea, one that cheered me up (along with several shots of bourbon and other unprintables) and gave me a mission. I’d find the team that best matched my skills and demeanor.
Making a Move to Mecca
It didn’t take long to find Media Mecca, the Org’s press liaisons. Made up of photographers, writers and other media/creative types, the team works with over 600 accredited journalists from around the world, ensuring they have the proper credentials in order and know what’s going on.
But more importantly, they make sure these journalists stop being objective observers, as they’ve been trained to do, and get out there and participate, damn it! I hung out for a while, yakking with various Mecca wranglers and journalists, and put my name on the volunteer list for next year.
The story ends not only happily but, in the typical Burning Man way, better than I could have ever imagined. In the spring before next year’s event, the estimable Caveat Magister, Media Mecca volunteer coordinator and bon vivant, interviewed me over beers and accepted me into the team.
I spent four happy years volunteering with the team, meeting fascinating journalists, making great friends and lending my production expertise when I could. Media Mecca also throws a wonderful daily cocktail hour mixer.
A Pivotal Moment
At some point I met Tom LaPorte, one of the community’s best-connected and most-beloved characters, along with Terry Pratt, an accomplished National Geographic director of videography. These two outsized personalities wanted to create a Burning Man-sponsored documentary team, and would I be interested?
Indeed I was. That collaboration, Profiles in Dust, includes a dozen seasoned documentary professionals and has produced over a dozen broadcast quality videos, the best Burning Man Project has ever been associated with. Sorrowfully, Tom passed away in December 2016, a real loss of a friend and a spiritual leader of Black Rock City.
Then, in 2014, Stuart Mangrum, Burning Man’s Director of Education, (yes, they have one), along with Zac Cirivello of the Communications Department, asked me if I’d lead a new team. To start and run a whole new team, is that the ultimate volunteer honor or what?!
Actually, I was inheriting a loose conglomeration of 30 photographers who’d been given early access to the playa for several years, and I was adding a dozen new videographers and the Profiles In Dust team.
So I became the volunteer coordinator and de facto manager of the Black Rock City Documentation Team. We document Burning Man Project events throughout the year, and cover the playa with “insider” video stories. FUN!!! We have our own office container on playa, a logo and patches!
I’d landed in the perfect place: valued by the organization, and using my experience and expertise to guide my brethren media storytellers. Yes, once and while I see a Ranger and wistfully imagine belonging to that august team, but it all worked out better than I could have dreamed that sad day years ago.
Top photo by Lisa Ferguson