Burning Man 2011 – Mutant Vehicle pro tips from a first-timer

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Sadder. Wiser. Exhausted. Dazzled.

After building and piloting JANUS at Burning Man 2011 and living to tell the tale (Full build log here) I’ll go out on a limb to say this: Bringing a pre-approved mutant vehicle to the playa for the very first time in your life virtually guarantees that:

  • You will work your ass off
  • You will develop calluses, link cuts, treatment burns, what is ed bruises, muscle spasms and contusions in places you never thought possible
  • You will lose weight, grow muscle and pick up dangerous new skills (say, plunge-cutting plywood with a power saw just inches from your femoral artery)
  • You will empty your wallet far faster than you planned
  • You will – during that period – doubt:
    • your mechanical skills
    • the quality of your design
    • the solidity of your construction
    • your ability to finish in time for the Saturday burn, let alone in time to let you enjoy it at all during the week
    • your chances of escaping without a huge mechanical breakdown, catastrophic fire or horrible injury to your passengers, your crew or yourself
    • your ability to even get a grudging nod, much less a license from the mighty Department of Mutant Vehicles once you’re done
    • your sanity
  • You will show up on the playa having forgotten several critical tools, parts or methods for making it go
  • You will run out of screws, female plugs, butt splices or some other vital, impossible-to-find-on-the-playa supply
  • You will – after looking at other brilliant mutant vehicles around you – hate your design
  • You will vow never to let your hubris con you into such a foolish and exhausting enterprise again
  • You will finish hours – if not days – later than you had planned
  • You will make something bigger and more extraordinary in real life than you had even imagined during the design phase
  • You will be invited to bribe the DMV inspector – and out of desperation you will hope that your offer of a handmade gift-with-keychain-light is not too paltry when the signs say they clearly favor PBR
  • You will be told sniffily, “We’ll let you pass this year, but next year come back with more lights”
  • But you WILL get both your day and night licenses
  • You will remain completely sober (and swallow your tongue several times at the wheel) during the entire week, not because of the many repeated threats that law enforcement can bust you, confiscate your vehicle, kick you out of the event and send you to court in Reno. No, you’ll avoid any intoxicants – even a sip of beer – because at any second, without warning, deeply wasted Burners will lunge into your path, drive alongside you, climb onto your tailgate, bang on your vehicle, march around without lights directly in front of you, cause you to slam on your brakes and generally do everything suicidally possible within inches of your front bumper to ensure you have a heart attack or three
  • You will drive in tense, bitter silence for hours, hating shirt-cockers, sparkle ponies, propane flares, darkwads, moon boots, drum circles, techno, dubstep, neon, mutant vehicles and everything else Burning Man
  • You will vow never to do this again – and maybe skip Burning Man for the next nine years because it almost killed you
  • You will (however) slowly relax
  • You’ll smile – hey, I made it! People seem to be enjoying it! And – despite your charred, curmudgeonly attitude – you’ll start to really enjoy yourself too.
  • Burners will come up and interact with your vehicle – climbing happily aboard, playing your instruments, turning your little cranks, begging you to blast your flame effects (if you have ’em)
  • Kids will shout with joy on seeing you
  • Grownups will too – or at least they’ll say aloud “WTF is that???” and you won’t mind because at least you made ’em think
  • Other mutant vehicle pilots will honk (or blast) and wave, locking eyes with the look that says “I know what you went through – because I did, too.”
  • You will offer rides out to the majestic desolation of the unpopulated, art-free deep playa just because you can
  • You will climb onto your vehicle’s roof and enjoy the view, 20 feet off the ground – of your family and crew grooving on the waves of mutant vehicles, Burners, art and wildness surging around you at major burns (the scene at theTrojan Horse burn was particularly great)
  • You will happily give tours to total strangers, some of whom will thank you profusely and sincerely for showing them them things they never would have seen on foot or from the saddle of a bike
  • You will discover corners of Black Rock City you never knew existed
  • You will stand on your roof with family and friends on Burn night and howl with the glee of a 5-year-old and curse with the vigor of a drunken sailor as the Man goes up in a shower of fireworks, gouts of flame, and the boom of green-tinged propane bombs
  • You will spend 10 hours breaking down your mutation for transport (unless you were wise and rich enough to dedicate a non-transport vehicle to your project)
  • You will drive home wondering what the hell that was all about
  • You will immediately begin dreaming of your next design.

Here’s the full build log for the JANUS portion of XyloVan:

Below are photos of some other mutant vehicles (including the gobsmacking El Pulpo Mecanico, which hands-down WON Burning Man this year). I also posted photos of some of JANUS’ passengers, including the wonderful residents of Kidsville – and random bits of art.

Fifteen years and eight burns after I first tried to explain it, Burning Man still leaves me beggared for words. But building JANUS made me appreciate the worth of keeping my wrenches arrayed by size, making sure I had enough wire, and being deeply grateful for all the good friends who helped make this vehicle happen:

My long-suffering wife Kristina, David (the architect) and Marcelle, who generously donated heavy labor and painted the Janus medallions for front and back, Dave LaF, Alan and John for initial construction logistics; Marcus and Larry for on-playa muscle when I was about to lose it; Mac, Tina, Bernie and everyone at Big Art Labs for tools, welding, moral support and good cheer, and my right-hand kids, Cooper(Biomass) and Miranda (Hitgirl) for showing they know the value of hard work – thanks to all of you for supporting this whacked-out dream.


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