Stories From the City: The Magical Origin Story of Wonder Camp

This post is part of the Stories From the City series.

Tom “Driver” Bates’ first Burn was 2006, and like a lot of first-time Burners, on the long drive home, he and his friend “didn’t speak for the [entire] first day.” Playa will do that to you.

But after a good night’s rest, “all we did was talk the entire way.” 

What did their conversation circle around? 

“Let’s see what we can do.”

They had the base to a mutant vehicle. They just needed inspiration. “We wanted a mutant vehicle that reminded people of their childhoods,” Driver recalls. That’s when they landed on the focus of their nostalgia, an item that would become their calling card and become an iconic Black Rock City art piece:

The Wonder Horse.

Since 2008, the plastic spring horses Driver and his friends played on as children have served as the mighty steeds pulling a stagecoach dubbed The Wonder Wagon.

The Wonder Wagon by Tom Bates and Gretchen Roosevelt, 2010 (Photo by Sai Mokhtari)

But The Wonder Wagon was only the beginning of their contribution to the culture of Black Rock City. Their home on playa, Wonder Camp, has become a place where you can “bring your broken bicycle, art project, or mutant vehicle.” If it’s broke, they might not be able to fix it, but they damn sure will try.

Since 2007, Wonder Camp and its crew have repaired hundreds of structural, mechanical, and electrical problems. Need proof? Just peruse their logbook, which lists every problem Black Rock City inhabitants have brought to the camp over the years, including: “who broke it, who do you blame, did [they] repair it, and how many burns have you attended.”

As the camp co-lead Rosie says, “The fun part is helping other Burners.”

Wonder Camp’s primary gift to Black Rock City has been their ability to fix almost everything. But the truly miraculous thing has been their ability to bring new friends and participants into the fold. 

Department of Wonder sign (Photo by Tom Bates)

Inspired by what Driver and his crew created, new Wonder Campers followed their own inspiration to add to the camp’s interactivity. The Siren Salon Spa offers full beauty and massage service, allowing visitors to leave with not just repairs, but fabulous nails to boot. They’ve even built their own printing shop, alternately called “Splinter the Printer” and “Iron-on Maidens.”    

Wonder Camp has come a long way from a mere gleam in Driver’s eye back in 2006. It just goes to show that in Black Rock City, magic is never in short supply.


Cover image of Wonder Camp, 2018 (Photo by Manuel B. Pinto)

About the author: Victor Stevens

Victor Stevens

Captain Vic made his first trip to Black Rock City in 2002, and has attended every year since then. He has been the leader of the Children of Chaos theme camp since 2003. Over the years, the Children of Chaos has hosted a number of performance art events, costume parades, mutant vehicles, and a conversation bar. This camp includes members ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s, and includes members from a dozen countries. Captain Vic has been a member of the Camp Support Council since January, 2019.

4 Comments on “Stories From the City: The Magical Origin Story of Wonder Camp

  • splat says:

    Thanks in advance, Driver.
    You know how shit happens….. ;)

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  • wonder camp IS the best camp – period. We have been honored to camp nearby every year and could not be more happy.

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  • Fuckerpants says:

    From siren salons best customer – I LOVE YOU GUYS – great camp

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  • Eddy Vortex says:

    It’s hard to express our appreciation and gratitude for the folks at Wonder Camp. They are miracle workers and fixer-uppers par excellence. Our most memorable miracle story (though there are many): The Dread Pirate Lee, a founding member of our camp (Rogues’ Pier), depends on a 1950’s (really) vintage Sears three wheel electric golf cart for mobility on the Playa. A few years back, the cart (disguised as a pirate ship and dubbed the Playa Privateer) suddenly refused to move except in reverse. The Wonder Camp folks came by, diagnosed, tested, and found the problem (a barely noticeable loose wire). The Dread Pirate was sailing the Privateer once again! When they say “We fix broken shit” you can believe them. Plus, they are a chill group of folks… just the vibe you need when your critical-can’t-survive-the-Playa-without-it shit is in the grips of Murphy’s Law at Burning Man.

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