In our first post of this series about Mutant Vehicles (MVs), Harley Sitner shares the power of small moments on playa, with a push for sustainability — returning to the dust again this year with his child Eden (aka The Oracle) aboard. Harley (aka The Great Haji) is a 26-year Burning Man veteran who has been turning “Lemons into Lemonade” with his small-scale, electric MV since 2019.
Harley’s mutant vehicle journey began way back in 2003, when he used a $1,500 work bonus to purchase an old hearse which he then converted into an art support vehicle named “Hearsila, Queen of the Desert.” Over the next two years that Hearsila made it to playa, Harley added a 12’ brass dance pole and a DJ platform to the front of her.
A couple years later, Harley’s camp (Hippo Camp) purchased an old school bus that they converted into the double-decker “HippoCampBus.”
Harley: It had a massive sound system, and could carry 60-70 people on the deck. It would go out at sunrise every morning and do a French café out at the trash fence. The sheer amount of care and feeding that bus required was intense and crazy, but it was a lot of fun. It lived for six or seven years until it was eventually retired. After a few years without an art car, the itch returned and I had the idea for “Lemons into Lemonade.”
In 2018, I realized it was time — I had to bring my kid to Burning Man. I just kept thinking: What would my life be like if my parents had brought me to Burning Man? I had this vision of me with Eden, my then eight-year-old, being out at the trash fence, them on their little bike and me on my bike; they’re hangry and we didn’t bring enough food, we’re miles away and we’re riding into a dust storm, and they’re melting down… I knew that if I was going to bring a child to playa I needed to build a mutant vehicle as a way for the two of us to get around easily and safely out there.
Back in the early days of Burning Man, the art cars felt more intimate and approachable — you’d stumble upon one, go for a ride, meet the artist, hop off, then realize, “Wow, that took them a year to make!” So my favorite Burning Man experiences with mutant vehicles have always been those small, intimate ones which I treasure. I thought to myself, I want to create that for people.
I really wanted people to be able to hop on and off easily and have meaningful conversations. That’s why I built this electric vehicle (EV) to have almost no sound on it. Having it be quiet and electric enables those kinds of conversations. Since it’s electric, the only noise you hear is the sound of the playa crunching under the tires. The minimal lighting is intentionally subtle for that reason, as well. Its scale is small — I wanted something really approachable and intimate, to surprise people and offer rides.
Technically speaking, it started life as a 1984 Volkswagen vanagon, which we joke is the ultimate lemon car…
The inception of the car was to be a multi-generational advice station. We wanted to have kids on it, middle-aged people, and grandparents. You could also have cool lemonade served to you, and you could ask life advice and get three different generational perspectives: What does a nine-year-old think of your problem? What does someone my age (now 55) think? And if we could get an elder on the car, what do they think? The car was, in essence, turning Burners’ lemons into lemonade with life advice.
Their first year on playa (2019), my child Eden fell into the role of ‘The Oracle’ on our mutant vehicle — it was really quite amazing. They started giving people advice. At times they had maybe 20 people in line waiting to get advice from them. Watching my kid as they found this beautiful inner channel and voice was amazing, to see Eden step into their Burner role. It’s created a magical thing for us, for our family, and for Eden — who is like, ‘Dad, I’m a Burner for life now. I’m going every year.’ It’s been a really great thing for our relationship.
ABOUT THE MUTANT VEHICLE
Name: “Lemons into Lemonade”
Years: 2019, 2022, 2023
Harley had three main goals when creating an electric vehicle (EV) to bring to the dust:
- Create an EV focused on sustainability. (Last year, “Lemons into Lemonade” only used 3.5 gallons of fuel for the whole week. This year, Harley hopes to reach the goal of being 100% solar powered.)
- Create a familial, multi-generational experience on playa, for his family and others.
- Create something of a throwback to the early days of art cars at Burning Man, where they were approachable, intimate, and the moment felt serendipitous.
Harley: It’s been a joy to create “Lemons into Lemonade.” It really has met all of its goals: being electric and sustainable; enabling our family and other families to burn; and creating a more intimate, approachable art car experience for Burners.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Harley first had the opportunity to go to Burning Man in the early ‘90s.
Harley: Back then it was Larry [Harvey], Danger [Ranger] and friends of friends. I was like, ‘I’m not going to the fucking desert with them; they’re the weird friends at the party.’ But I eventually made my way to the playa and one thing led to another — I’ve just been going every single year since!
This year (2023) will be Harley’s 27th straight Burn. A radically participatory Burner to his core, Harley has previously volunteered with Artica, Rangers, Greeters, and Media Mecca.
Harley: I’ve done a ton over the years — I’ve volunteered and done large-scale art on the playa. In 2003 we did a piece of art that weighed maybe eight or 10 tons. That was the year I did my first mutant vehicle, as well. Like you said, mutant vehicles are a magical thing; it’s truly the complexity of a moving piece of art. The type of experience it creates is truly unique. We all know there’s no art quite like the art of Burning Man, but mutant vehicles — there’s nothing that replicates that in the entire world.
PROCESS & MATERIALS
Using the resources from his shop and his team’s vast knowledge, Harley had the opportunity and skills at his disposal to do something cutting edge with an electrical conversion.
Harley: The car basically was in storage for two years due to the pandemic. If this thing had been an internal combustion engine, when we went to start it would’ve never worked — I mean, it would’ve never fucking worked. But as an electric car, we literally turned the key and pressed the pedal and it went. It’s just maintenance now, which is so beautiful. That was one unforeseen, positive outcome of converting it to electric.
Harley: This past year on playa (2022), the car acted up a little bit and we were like, “Wow, is it the motor temperatures, the computer temperatures? Are the fans working?” We were getting temperature readings of over 200 degrees in the little box. It turns out it was the pedal mechanism. We had an old Prius pedal and it was exposed to the element, and there was a contact in it that was shorting out occasionally. So just some compressed air and cleaning fixed it right up. (I guess we’re lucky, because I heard a rumor that something like 20% of mutant vehicles wouldn’t start after sitting unused for a couple of those COVID-19 years).
When it comes to the ability to diagnose and fix problems on the playa though, you’re really limited. During event week, the Rangers have ‘Captain Hook,’ which is two tow trucks that are mostly for getting people into the D-lot, or if you’re stuck in Exodus or Gate. It also will impound renegade cars. But you’re really on your own with a mutant vehicle. If you bring art, you have Artery and they can bring in HEaT (Heavy Equipment and Transportation), and there’s all sorts of resources — but for mutant vehicles, there really is no infrastructure around that to support you in Black Rock City. I mean, the DMV is awesome, but they’re really a permitting and post-event support group. So, plan ahead and be prepared to be radically self-reliant!
TIPS FOR FIRST-TIMERS
Harley: Anyone can do this. However, I’ve got access to garages and lifts and vehicles and teams and parts suppliers. (Harley owns a small shop in Seattle called Peace Vans, specializing in the Volkswagen Camper platform.) With that said, it was still super complicated. That’s why I want to partner with the DMV; I really want to run some workshops or coach people on how to do electric conversions. It’s not realistic for a lot of people, but it’s improving every year. And we’ve proven it — our EV can move 20 to 30 people.
Most mutant vehicles start life as some previous car or vehicle. So you really want to be thoughtful about: Can that car convert to electric? Can it hold the batteries? Can you remove its existing computer and not screw everything up? Then there’s the concept of moving a lot of people. Not to mention, recharging is challenging out in the dust. Like I said, we were fortunate enough to put high-capacity Model-S Tesla batteries in “Lemons into Lemonade,” and we’re not doing a lot of sound or light, so we’re able to run off our solar power and batteries.
But in general, if sustainability is your goal, sometimes you have to make a lot of trade offs. You can’t have it all. That’s why I’d love to run a couple workshops and maybe help others figure those kinds of things out.
OUT IN THE DUST
You can find Harley, Eden, and their lusciously lemony EV out on open playa creating tiny magical moments, or camped at Kidsville. They’re planning again this year to do one or two group rides — loading up about 20-30 kids, serving cool lemonade and hot life advice as they silently squire about the streets of Black Rock City.
Harley would also like to call out his co-creator and co-conspirator on this project, Eric Magnuson (aka Jugs), without whom “Lemons into Lemonade” would still be a dream.
To learn more about Mutant Vehicles and Burning Man,
please visit the DMV webpage.
To learn more about Mutant Vehicles and Burning Man,
Cover image of Harley Sitner aboard their electric MV “Lemons into Lemonade,” 2018 (Photo courtesy of the artist)
(All photos courtesy of Harley Sitner)