Scott Sonner / AP
Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 | 9:44 a.m.
RENO, Nev. — Ah, Burning Man, the annual weeklong rave that draws thousands of free-thinkers to a remote spot in the Nevada desert. It's a festival so remote and bizarre that the only limit to free expression is imagination ... and that dust that always gets into the electronics.
Except when it rains.
That's when the "Burners" end up in the parking lot of the Reno Wal-Mart.
Turned back at the gate to the Black Rock Desert after rare showers on Monday turned the ancient lake bottom to a muddy quagmire, hundreds of "Burners" were forced to overnight on the Wal-Mart blacktop. Nearly a hundred other RVs pulled into the parking lot of the Grand Sierra Resort casino, across the street.
"We're just trying to stay positive," said a woman from Oakland, California, who identified herself only as "Driftwood," and was hanging out with some first-timers from Texas. "Positivity can raise everything up."
Most took the rain delay in stride, and sure enough, organizers announced after midnight that they could roll onto the lake bed Tuesday.
"You take it as it comes," said Mark Vanlerberghe, who pulled into the Wal-Mart in an RV he drove from San Jose, California. "I guess that's part of being a Burning Man: Don't get stressed about it."
The blinking casino lights and Reno's video billboards gave off a pink twinkle through the night. It wasn't entirely unlike the contraptions that light up the weeklong desert gathering, which culminates with the burning of a towering wooden effigy the night before Labor Day. A record 68,000 people attended last year.
Still, the Wal-Mart wasn't exactly what seekers of "paradise on the playa" had in mind while driving hundreds of miles to the counter-culture festival, which offers theme camps, art exhibits, all-night music and guerrilla theater, along with a decent dose of nudity and a bunch of other stuff that's just plain weird.
One camp this year is "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust," where participants are invited to be photographed as they "strip naked, cover in Playa dust, paint cracks on the body and finalize with red hands to simulate a connection between oneself and the desert environment."
The journey's final hours, across a dry, perfectly flat lake bed that seems to stretch on forever, is usually part of the fun.
Unless, again, it rains, covering the clay-like surface with standing water that turns to mush under the wheels of a well-equipped "Burner" crew.
Barbara Quintanilla and Bill Sanchez, who drove up from Houston in an RV, said the delay was the least of their worries.
They didn't know at first whether the camper used diesel or regular gas, made a wrong turn out of Texas and ran over a sign post. "We made a 2,000-mile trip and none of us had ever driven an RV before. It would only go 35 mph up hills," Sanchez said.
Jeff Cross of Orange County, California, was keeping his spirits up as he set out provisions next to another RV at the Wal-Mart.
"It's the best festival in the world," Cross said. "And there's no cellphones, no internet, no money or corporate sponsors."
True enough, once they reach the desert.
But while they were stuck in Reno, the rain delay provided for one last consumer capitalist opportunity.
"We have a list of 27 things we need to get at Wal-Mart," Quintanilla said.