Chapter 8 – Lamplighters 101 – Day 1, Part 3

Originally published 1/31/2009

I have been thinking a lot about home lately.  Home being the playa.  Most burners tend to think of the playa as home.  Many have mentioned the (non-drug-induced) flashbacks of home.  Their writings reflect how some wake up and feel disoriented, as though they should still be in a tent or motorhome and be able to step out into that wonderful place called home. I think about the things I missed seeing there or didn’t have enough time to visit and how I wish I could just pop back in time and go there. Especially now that tickets have gone on sale for this year (2009), and the lamplighters mail list is abuzz with plans and talk of evening meals and sharing pictures from last year.

This chapter covers Lamplighters 101, what they do, what to expect if you volunteer, what to expect if you camp in the village. This chapter begins at 4:00 PM on Monday August 25th, the first day of Burning Man 2008……

The dust storm still raged as I headed over to the Lounge just before it was time to head to our ‘Lamplighters 101′ training class for virgins and noobs.  I had read up on these procedures before coming , and watched a Youtube video for lamplighting 101 produced by several village alumni.

The lounge was quiet, those who were there, had mostly gotten used to the stray dust clouds coming in through the openings in the corners of the lounge.  Many had removed their face gear, as did I, finding that the dust created no immediate, harsh reaction.  In fact, facing away from the dust was like not even being in a dust storm, it was no problem to breathe at all.

The bar was still operating ( as always) and doing a good business despite the dust.  Everyone was chillin’ and waiting for lamp lighting time. When the time for class came, one of the council members called for all the new folks to head to the chapel.

Lamplighters have three prime directives…
1. Take care of one another
2. Leave No Trace
3. Light the city without fail

Lamplighters 101 is a crash course in what we do, every evening between 5:00 PM and 7:00 PM, to prepare for directive number 3. Every ‘virgin’ lamplighter gets the course. Every lamplighter helps non-village volunteers to understand what needs to be done at preparation time.

So, despite the blowing dust, we all grabbed our lamplighters ‘kits’ and made our way to the chapel for training. Everyone camping in Lamplighters village is asked to bring along a lamplighters kit….

Here’s a list of supplies every lamplighter should consider bringing.
- Jet-flame style butane torch lighter – refillable
- can of butane lighter fuel
- pair of work gloves
- pair of cheap two-position pliers
- turkey baster
- pair of small sharp scissors (for wick trimming)
- sponge type dish brush
- pair of solvent-resistant gloves (optional)

I had my own kit rigged on a light tool belt so everything was within reach.

First up, we were shown the receiving tables, where lamps are lined up after being brought in by the morning retrieval crew. Each morning, they head out on the trucks and disperse on different routes, lifting the lanterns down and gathering them in groups for pickup on the trucks, then the trucks make their way back and set the lanterns out on the first tables, or ground, if the tables are still dismantled for some reason.

Next we were shown how we, and large groups of volunteers from around the city, would be removing the fuel caps on the lanterns and putting them in piles. The caps are removed, and the globes checked to determine if they are dirty enough to require the extra step of a good scrubbing. Dirty globes are removed and passed to the washing crew at the next table.

The wicks are checked to make sure they do not need trimming, and are long enough to reach down into the kerosene in the fuel tank at the bottom of the lamp. Lamps not requiring a wash move on to the refueling station, near the end of the line. The piles of fuel caps get sent down to the refueling area too.

Once a lamp has had several turkey basters of kerosene added to the tank, the caps are placed back on and the lamp is moved to the last station on the table, where they are lit. A lever on the side of the lamp facilitates lifting the globe to access the wick so that a barbecue-type lighter can light it and the globe is then dropped back in place. This sounds easy but…in a dust storm, only the ‘jet’ type lighters will get the flame to the wick. This became abundantly clear during the demonstration while wind and dust wound through the chapel.

Once the lamp is lit, the wick is adjusted to give a low, even flame. Lamps are then carried to the staging area behind the chapel and lined up in rows of 12. Other volunteers monitor the lamps and relight them, or adjust the flame when they get warmer and start to flare up a bit. One lamplighter actually took the time to put all this in a video and post it to Youtube… unfortunately, I can no longer find it out there.

This preparation process is all accomplished by volunteers, (those who live in Lamplighter village and many more who show up at 5 PM from all over the city), who prepare over 1100 lanterns in about an hour and a half. Once the time draws near for the procession, the lights are hung on long wooden bars with 12 hooks, six per side, and space in the middle for the carrier to place it on their shoulders. Meanwhile, lamplighters get suited up in white robes with hems of painted flames and bright cloth belts. Volunteers sign up on a large whiteboard for a specific route and a specific job on that route.

Volunteers can perform one of three main functions on a route. Carriers, carry one wooden bar of lamps on their shoulders (with rolled towel under the bar for comfort). Lifters, carry the long metal poles with z-shaped hooks for lifting lamps up to the spires. Support people help the carriers and keep the lanterns lit if they go out during the procession. Luminaries are experienced “village” lamplighters who guide all the volunteers on the route and keep everything moving.

While we were learning all these things that are basic to our work as lamplighters, the wind was howling through the chapel and around the tables where we were being shown the details of the lamps. One young woman, with glasses but no goggles, was having problems seeing and pulled two of us together to form a dust shield and hold up the lantern so she could see it in more detail. She was clearly frustrated and a bit distraught, but determined to learn and do the job despite the weather. She also appeared to be dehydrated, somewhat already, and the two of us escorted her to the kitchen after class to make sure someone got her some of the electrolyte replacement they had there to help us all keep balanced.

Before heading back to the chapel I stopped by the porta-potty, and somewhere thereabouts, lost my turkey baster. I hadn’t even had a chance to use it yet!

When I got back to the chapel it was 5:00 PM. I decided to sign up to lift lamps on the promenade route to the man. This entails walking about a mile and a half round trip. I went to the big white board and there met a tall quiet fellow who calls himself JustDaniel. He would be working that same route, but he is also the “whiteboard master”. JustDaniel is a veteran lamplighter and I figured that if I followed his lead on that evening’s run, I would be able to do my best as a lamplighter.

Now it was time for the outside volunteers to start coming in and help with the lamps. There are three sets of preparation tables, mostly to keep the different colored lamps separate. Blue lamps go on certain routes, black and silver on others. Sometimes there is a mix of two colors, depending on the route. The main routes require about 130 lamps to fill the spires, smaller routes around 110.

Crowds of people were gathering in the chapel and were being instructed on how to help. The process of getting ready to light the city had begun. Those of us who understood the process, helped outside volunteers in working through the process. It was controlled chaos at first but quickly gave way to a more efficient assembly line experience. It sure didn’t seem like it took all that long and the lamps were ready to go, and so were we.

Luminaries (leaders) for each route through the city, gathered their people together and discussed their strategy. Then each group gathered their poles and lamps to line up in the chapel for procession. While we were all suiting up in robes, another team had disassembled the tables and moved them out of the way in the chapel so that the lamplighters could form three columns of carriers. And then, it got quiet and we waited for the bell to be rung and the procession to begin.

Around 7:00 PM, the sun was just coming down above the mountains to the west. When sun and mountain met, the procession would begin. Dust storm or no dust storm, we were about to light the city without fail. The storm had actually picked up somewhat since the training class ended and it was looking almost like a whiteout again. We all stood at the entrance to the chapel, waiting…

view of the procession about to start

Lamplighters awaiting the bell to start the procession to the cauldron.

Then someone struck the bell, and we began moving slowly out onto the center camp road. Three moving lines of carriers takes up most of the width of this road, and so as we proceeded, the leaders would shout out “make way for the lamplighters!” The procession moves slowly, by design and tradition. We walked counter-clockwise around the center camp cafe to where the promenade to the man begins. At this location is a fire cauldron, an ornate metal basket of burning wood. The carriers formed up according to their routes and lined up around this cauldron, facing inward toward it. From above it would look like an eight-legged starfish. Then, the head luminary read (loudly) the invocation from a carefully detailed scroll. The scroll contains our declaration to go forth and light the city and, of course, includes the lamplighter motto of “Illumination, Navigation, and Celebration!”
After this, each group moved toward the starting point of their routes. All the while, people are shouting from the sidelines.. “Thank you Lamplighters” and “We love you Lamplighters” and photographing us from every angle. Our group made its way to the junction where the promenade and the esplanade meet. While most routes around the city have spires with only two arms, the promenade spires have four arms for lanterns.

Our group for the ‘Man’ route had six lifters. As we approached each set of spires, a pair of lifters would remove the two outermost lamps from a carriers pole, simultaneously, so as to keep the carrier balanced. Three carriers, six lanterns and the lifters would run forward to the spires and hang their lanterns high on the hooked arms. On their next pass, the six lifters would go to the next three carriers in line, removing only the outer two lanterns from each, so that, as the line moved forward, no carrier would be carrying more than two lanterns more than any other. Once they completed a pass down the line, they would start with the forward carriers again. By the time we reached the last spires, each carrier would only have two lanterns and soon none.

On our run out to the Man, the wind and dust were at our backs, and so we had little trouble with visibility. I had teamed up with JustDaniel and was working hard to keep up with him. Walking fast, sometimes running ahead to keep up with the rest we put in a good showing and the entire group worked together to get our 130+ lanterns up. When we reached the man, the sun had set. Our luminary distributed medals, stamped with a custom design for each year, to those who made the run. Then we turned back toward the city, as a group.

The wind was now in our faces, and I was having trouble keeping my swim goggles clear. Between the vacuum seal and the condensation, I had to pause several times to clear them in order to see ahead. I managed to keep up with JustDaniel and once we entered the city, the wind diminished somewhat. The goggles, however, had had it. Dust had gotten inside and out and trying to clear the inside had scratched them completely. They were now worthless. As always, though, I had a backup plan.

We walked into the chapel, laid down our poles and had our robes lifted off by the team who manages the wardrobe for the lamplighters. We were told dinner would be served in the kitchen, as soon as all the other groups got back in.

Dinners, for Lamplighter village dwellers, are served each night, only from Monday to Friday. Each night takes on a different theme. Villagers are responsible for helping to provide a significantly large donation of food toward at least one evenings meal requirements. Folks sign up ahead of time online where they can choose from a list of needed items for one of the meals, and volunteer to bring one or more of the required items. Villagers can also volunteer time for pre-meal preparation / cooking and post-meal cleanup. in this way, everyone is contributing to the evening meals somewhat equally. Since I had gotten on the lamplighters intranet later than most and many of the meals were spoken for, I decided to contribute as much as I could to fill in the gaps. This meant contributions for at least parts of three dinners and some mixers for the bar.

Before dinner, I had time to begin what was to become a sort of ritual each evening after lamplighting. When one goes to Burning Man, these little rituals can mean the difference between enjoying your stay, or being miserable. The first of these arose from the fact that I knew that my feet had to last the week, and in the dust and with the long distance walking, they were bound to get pretty sore. So, my first ritual was to take the dish tub I’d brought along, fill it part way with water and a touch of vinegar (to break up the alkali dust) and soak my feet immediately after a lighting run. Then, using some lotion I had gotten at the hotel in Vegas, I would rub lotion into my feet. While standing in the tub of water, I could wipe down my legs and, at the sink, could clean up in general, getting a sponge bath to clear most of the dust off. I was reluctant to use the shower in the RV, since the amount of water was limited and the indicator panel could not even tell me accurately how much water was in the gray water tank. I had plenty of extra water, but an unknown amount of tank space to store it in. This is where the new camp shower would help. I had 12 extra gallons of water in containers to use when I needed it.

So, refreshed, and with a new pair of clean socks over my soothed feet, I left the RV and headed to the kitchen, right next door. The dinner bell had rung and there was a line throughout the area leading to the kitchen. Remember that all this time, the dust storm had continued blowing, so it was not unexpected that there might be some playa dust integrated into the recipes for the evening meal. I was resolved to ignore that as I waited in line. In the dark, the blowing dust is hard to see, and you can forget sometimes that it is there at all. It was not something to make me sneeze or cough, it was just there. Other more experienced lamplighters know that no matter how hard you try, playa dust will always be a part of an evening meal.

The dinner theme for Monday was “Italian night”, with pastas and vegetarian items too. Vegans and Vegetarians are always considered when the meals are planned, and Vegan substitutes for meat are always made part of the meal.

I chatted with others in the line awhile, and then it was time to enter the kitchen where I got my food. Villagers are required to provide their own dishes, bowls and utensils, and beverages too, so I had my plate and bowl with me, my utensils were back in the RV along with my beverages.

Upon exiting the kitchen, I was not sure what the protocol was for seating. There were two tents with tables outside the kitchen but the tables were literally drifted with playa dust and those who were eating there had brought their own chairs. I decided to eat this meal in the RV.

After the meal, I sat for awhile in the RV and read, then decided I could no longer stay awake. It had been 23 hours since I had awoken from a nap in Fernley and started driving north to get here. I’d had no sleep last night and through the day. I had walked and ridden many miles as well.  So I opened up my sleeping bag on the big bed in the back and crawled in.

This particular night was not as cold as some had inferred the nights could get there, the temperature was, perhaps, in the sixties. I had no need to bundle up to sleep. I took my book to bed to read, turned on the overhead reading lamp and then never made it as far as opening the book. I was told that the dust storm continued to rage until midnight. Since I had crashed, I had forgotten that this was the night of the lamplighers Sangria Soiree – a social event where lamplighters recruit volunteers by plying them with elixirs a la Sangria. It was 10 o’clock Pacific time, 1 AM Eastern and I had nothing left for the day.

At 3 AM, I detected a loud thunderous boom outside, then another one shortly thereafter. This was accompanied by light seeping past the curtains and into the sleeping area from outside. In a daze, I peeked out to see a large metal wheeled carriage by the lounge, entertaining Soiree goers with a the belching of flame from a large stack on top. Each blast could be felt as well as heard. As much as I would like to have gotten a better look at the thing, I could not muster the energy. I was asleep again before I knew it. When you’re tired, you don’t need earplugs to get sleep, even at Burning Man.

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