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Burning Man


A Toast To You from Jerry E. "The Colonel" Smith.
Shot in Atomikamp at Burning Man 2007 by Danielle Fewings.


Every year since 2000 (except for 2005) I have attended Burning Man, the annual art festival held in the Nevada desert. For a look at what I've experienced at Burning Man see Exploring Black Rock City: America’s Newest "Lost" City an article that appeared in World Explorer magazine, Vol.4, Number 7, Summer 2007. It is in the articles archive of this site at http://www.jerryesmith.com/index.php/136.

To learn more about Burning Man from The Source see http://www.burningman.com/

The group I camp with is called Atomikamp because we are members of and hangers-on to the Reno-based dance band The Atomiks.

The leader of the Atomiks is my best friend George Pickard. His first year at Burning Man was 1998. In 1999 he and our mutual best friend Jim Keith attended together. Tragically, Jim suffered a broken knee that led to his death a few days later. In 2000 I attended for the first time, in part to see what contributed to Jim’s death. Jim predicted that I would love Burning Man, and he was right.

In 2000 I went with George and a few of his close friends. The Atomiks were signed to 702 Records http://www.702records.com/, owned by Pete Manchetti, who also owns Sticker Guy http://www.stickerguy.com/. We all camped with Pete and his entourage at his theme camp, Installation 23, located on the corner of 7:30 and Throat. At Installation 23 George built a cardboard sanctuary to the UFO Jesus. Among the notable events that year was that it rained most of the day Friday and all night, turning to a dusting of snow to the playa floor by morning. It being my first year and not knowing what to expect I packed a little of everything including two snow suits. We got there late Wednesday night. The fellows laughed Thursday when they saw the snow suits – and stopped laughing the following day when George and I were warm and they were shivering! Since then I always take several suitcases of clothes and severe weather gear, leading my campmates to compare me to Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island – which I don’t mind a bit!

"Sticker Guy" Pete, in Prague 2003

In 2001 George, his wife Kristin, and I again camped with Pete. This time I arrived early, on the Wednesday before opening day. I spent the week before opening help other camps get set up and wandering about engaging in conversations with the artists and artsy types. Pete’s camp that year was FellowHumans.org, from a website he has http://www.fellowhumans.org/. The website has about 4000 photos of people’s faces that he'd taken. Looks like he has not up-dated the site since 2003. For Burning Man 2001 he had planned to set up a photo booth but never got around to it. All he managed to pull together was a bar featuring music from the "trash rock" bands he had signed to 702 Records. George created a computerized preacher that babbled religious nonsense at passers-by called The Rant-o-matic. We were located on 3:30 right behind the Esplanade. The camp on the corner of 3:30 and Esplanade next to us was called Jungle. It was a twenty-something-year-old stripper from San Diego and her two boyfriends. They intended to put up a 26-foot geodesic dome and fill it with plastic plants and misters making a chill space. They spent most of the week at it and only got the dome about 1/2 up. At Exodus they asked us if we wanted the dome and gave it to us so they didn’t have to take it down. Pete has used it in several years since. 702 Records was called that because Pete wanted to sign every band in Nevada, and the area code for Nevada was 702. In 2001 the phone company split the state’s area code, making Las Vegas 702 and the rest of the state 775. This gave Pete a problem, as he then needed a new name for his label. Pete was too busy having fun to really run the camp and the bar got horribly messy, with empty beer bottles and trash everywhere. I complained to Pete, telling him he was slovenly. He didn't know what the word meant! He got back to Reno, looked it up and went "Yes!" and renamed 702 Records Slovenly Recordings. I guess I don’t know my own strength! Later he bought a bar in Naples, Italy (where he lives part of the year) and called it Bar Slovenly.


Fake movie poster for the non-existent film, created by George Pickard.

In 2002 Atomikamp went Big Time. That year the over-arching theme for Burning Man was The Floating World. George wanted the Atomiks to play at Burning Man that year, and he wanted to be on the Esplanade to ensure a good crowd. He asked me to come up with an idea that would make that happen. I came up with Irwin Allen’s Beneath The Floating World, a disaster movie that had it self become a disaster. We were the big blue box on the corner of Esplanade and 3:30. We built and operated a full-on nightclub, with stage for the band, 2 DJs, go-go dancers, and more. Each area of the camp was a set from the film, such as the bar was Barnacle Bill’s Barter Bar and Bachinalium. In it I gave away 40 gallons of my homebrewed beer. Irwin Allen’s Beneath The Floating World was a huge success, but a fantastic amount of work. We had all of Pete’s people in the camp, plus a lot of fans of the band, making for some 38 campmates – and only about a dozen actually helped run (and clean up) the nightclub. I was totally burned out and vowed never again. I am still pissed off about slacker twenty-somethings…

In 2003 I had had it with being in the heart of the action and convinced George, who brought his mom that year, to camp out it the ‘burbs. We were just Atomikamp and did nothing on site, content to spend our time wandering about Black Rock City. We were located at about 7:15 and Reality. Atomikamp was just a few yards from a camp with over 200 Russians. We partied with them during the week and sampled cool Russian food. Our location was too far from most everything and we moved back closer to the action in 2004.

In 2004 Atomikamp became a sub-camp of Jub Jub’s. We were located at the back of that huge camp, which was on the Esplanade at about 2:55. We were only a few yards from where we had been in 2001. That year George built an art car, The Hideous Monster Comet, an escaped villain from a made-up Japanese monster flick.

Two view of George's art car, The Hideous Monster Comet, in Reno before going out to Black Rock City.

I missed 2005. A week before The Burn I was mugged and had my head crushed in. Opening Day I went under the knife at St. Mary’s Medical Center.

In 2006 Atomikamp was supposed to again be a part of Jub Jub’s but there wasn’t room for us, so we pitched camp a block or so away. We were on a street corner (I forget exactly where, maybe 8:30 and A or B) and all agreed we preferred being on a corner. Again we didn’t do a theme camp, but just watched Burning Man go by.


George Piccard and his son George at our spontaneous BUBBA GUMPS SHRIMP CUP-O-NOODLES DISTRIBUTION CENTER in front of our camp in 2007. Jerry E. Smith is seated in the camp wearing a white pith helmet and sunglasses. The Yardist, a friend in Sparks, donated several cases of shrimp ramen, which the Georges passed out to passers-by. That year Atomikamp was The Lion's Head Bar and Observatory. If I recall correctly this photo was taken by Nico Aguilera.

In 2007 we were again on a corner, 8:30 and Grassland (I think), and decided to try our hand at a theme camp again. George asked us each what we liked most about Burning Man. I said the dust storm whiteouts. That gave George an idea. He built a platform on top of the band’s van, the AtomiVan, to be an observatory. Initially it was to be a weather/whiteout observatory, then we discovered our neighbors across 8:30 had trampolines, and we found watching naked people jumping on trampolines hilarious.

It was an awesome year for observations! That year we had every kind of weather, including whiteouts, day-time "blackouts" (from dense rain clouds above the dust storms), rain, a double rainbow, an eclipse of the moon, and a meteor shower and The Man burned early by a nut-job! We also set up a small bar on the corner to invite passers-by to join us in libations. George’s co-workers had given him a fiberglass lion’s head which he placed on the bar, naming us The Lion’s Head Bar and Observatory.


Primary signage for The Black Rock City Fallout Shelter (and Afterglow Lounge), Burning Man 2008, taken by Danielle Fewings. Behind the sign is The Wall Of Hope. To the right was the entrance to the elevator lobby and to the right of that was The Wall Of Fear. Passers-by were invited to record their Hopes and Fears on these walls. The arrows below ATOMIKAMP point down as we were 200 feet down, inside an abandoned US Government survival bunker.

…strolling along the dusty streets of Black Rock City, you come upon an elevator.  Above the elevator doors is the universal fallout shelter sign, to your right, a button with a down arrow.  You reach a finger out, and press.  The button illuminates, and shortly after, the doors open.  You walk in, the doors close behind you.  

Inside the elevator, there are two sets of doors — the ones which you’ve just come through, and those in front of you.  In front, there are windows, and you can see the playa.  You hear a tremendous explosion.  As you feel the elevator begin to descend, you watch through the windows, and see a mushroom cloud envelop BRC.   And then, just before the nuclear fireball reaches you, the elevator sinks below ground.  A recorded message begins:”You’re about to enter the Black Rock City Municipal Fallout Shelter, where you’ll be safe from whatever disaster has brought you here…”  

The elevator stops.  Through the dust coated windows you can barely make out the details of the room in front of you.  The doors open, you step forward into the shelter.  There are stockpiles of food and water, gas masks, tables with board games and wine bottles.  Dozens of burners are drinking, dancing, and laughing.  Don’t they know the outside world has just been obliterated?    A black and white television in the corner has the news on it.  Footage of the nuclear holocaust is looped, as the anchorman repeats in disbelief… ”All is lost.  The world as we know it, annihilated.”

So read George Pickard's description of our Theme Camp, as submitted to Burning Man organizers in our request to be assigned a slot as one of the official theme camps for 2008. They liked the idea so much we were again given a place on the Esplanade.

2008 was a near exact repeat of 2002. We again built a full-on nightclub on the Esplanade -- totally walled in and roofed this time. Instead of pods for go-go dancers, this year the bar had a cage -- and women went crazy in it! More than merely another bar, ours was the only one on the playa with a motion simulator ride as a front door!

Girls in the cage inside the Fallout Shelter, taken by George Pickard, early in the week.

George, on the left, beside Chris, AKA The Phunny Guy, tending bar at the Afterglow Lounge. Behind Chris is Dani, Nico's girl friend, and farthest away is Kristin, George's wife. Photo by Nico Aguilera.

We were The Black Rock City Fallout Shelter (and Afterglow Lounge). We took celebrants down 200 feet beneath the playa to party in an abandoned US Government survival bunker – at least that was the story. We built a gizmo that simulated an elevator so well that literally scores of people came up to the bar asking "are we really underground?" Another big success! And it was another year that was a lot of hard work – but luckily I did not find it as overwhelming as 2002.


Will and his son Aryx. Photo by Nico Aguilera.

One of the Atomikampers is Will, a retired school teacher from San Francisco (who taught George and two of his friends, Chris (The Phunny Guy) who always kamps with us, and James, who joined us for the first time this year, in Junior High) . Will's son, Aryx, camps with a group from New York called Heyyy Camp. In 2008 father and son wanted to camp together so we combined the camps. Again we had 30 plus people in the camp. I think we merged to two camps fairly well, but I doubt if we’ll do it again.

The AtomiVan with the walls and other major pieces of our 2008 kamp in Nixon, Nevada, on the way to Black Rock City. Photo by George Pickard.

I arrived on-playa on Wednesday before opening day, as in 2001. This time I wasn’t alone. George and I went out together with the 60-some 4x8 panels, palette jack, and other hardware that made up the bulk of the lounge and "elevator", arriving near sunset and stymied by strong winds and blowing dust. We just got the tent up and slept. We unloaded the trailer Thursday morning. It had taken a team of half a dozen people almost 3 weeks to build the lounge and elevator in Reno (in George’s back yard), a day for the team to dismantle it and 3 hours more to get it into a borrowed trailer. George and I unloaded it and got the walls back up in a few hours! We had to do redesign on the fly -- we got the first wall up and immediately the wind came up and blew it down! But by mid-afternoon we had the bar fully enclosed. George then returned to Reno, en route to a business meeting in San Diego the following day! We still had a lot of work to do to finish it. Over the course of the following week other Atomikampers and Heyyy Campers filtered in. Some helped with the construction, some didn’t. We were finally ready to open Tuesday night, a day after Burning Man opened.

Jerry E. Smith sitting in front of the Wall of Hope. Photo by Danielle Fewings.

I spent most of each day, the week of The Burn, just sitting on the Esplanade in front of the Wall Of Hope watching Burning Man go by; and most of each night helping operate the lounge and its motion simulator, taking turns as Elevator Operator and crowd control/"ticket taker".

I did achieve one of my Burning Man dreams that year. One morning I got to ride through all of Black Rock City on a art car playing classical music.


Jerry E. Smith with Preston Dane, David Ort and Annie Vainchenker, at Burning Man 2008. Photo by Nico Aguilera.

These three young New York artists created Arbor Animus, meaning Spirited or Courageous Tree. It was a 15-foot-tall, multimedia, fully-interactive, artistic representation of an American Willow tree which evoked the American Dream. On each colored leaf of the tree is an image that represents the actual “American Dream” of a different individual from across this country. Combining figurative painting and sculpture with LED and fiberoptic lighting, this gentle giant provided shade during the day and brilliant lighting effects at night. See: http://www.arboranimus.com

Preston, David and Annie joined Atomikamp for a Feed The Artists Dinner on August 23, the Saturday Night before the official opening of Burning Man at 12:01 AM Monday, August 25. After dinner we were joined by Larry Harvey, Burning Man Founder and Christine Kristen aka LadyBee, Curator of the Arts at Burning Man. Photo by Nico Aguilera.

Arbor Animus by day. Photo by Danielle Fewings.


Our camp for 2009 was "Super 8 Sasquatch". We invited all to "Come Yak with the Yeti upon his plush, fluffy pad. Receive the wisdom, warmth, and fuzziness from our friend of the forests." George spent a few weeks building a life-sized papier mache sasquatch (large hairy humanoid creature said to live in wilderness areas of the United States and Canada). Unfortunately the winds on the playa refused to cooperate. We arrived on playa early and set up camp Saturday morning before opening day. We put up the sasquatch Sunday morning, and the wind blew him down a few hours later. Monday he only managed to stand for an hour or two before being ripped apart. The rest of the week he sprawled in front of the camp like a drunken sailor. As the week wore on trees sprouted from him as his essence returned to the forest...

Here are a few photos of me in camp, taken by my campmates Jim Kephart and Danielle Fewings...

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