Burning Man 2012: Working the Gate

My first four days on the playa were spent setting up. I spent the fifth day (Thursday pre-event) resting up for my shifts at the Gate.

The Gate is the first stop for arrivals, it’s where participant’s tickets are scanned and vehicles are searched. This is NEVER to be confused with Greeters, who happily greet arrivals, give hugs, maps, directions, information and have Virgins ring The Bell to signify the end of their Playa Virginity.

Like all volunteer positions at Burning Man, working the Gate is not a paid job, but it is a serious job. To prepare, I attended a Gate orientation meeting in Oakland several weeks prior, I read the Gate/Perimiter/Exodus manual, submitted a photo for my ID lanyard and signed up for my shifts on the sophisticated website. 

Once on playa, I visited the Gate office to check in, pick up my lanyard, t-shirt and hoodie. My sister Clare (know as Clarity on playa) who recruited me to Gate, has been part of the department for a few years. This year, Clare spent over a month on the playa an worked something like 18 shifts… yes, she is nuts.

Clare gave me some simple advice: wear all black.

The Gate itself is about a mile from the Greeter’s station, which is just outside Black Rock City. Gate road was five miles long this year, the entire length clearly marked with flag fencing and orange cones, something Clare worked on.

Arriving vehicles first stop was the Apex, where Gate crew expedited vehicles either forward to the Gate, to The Box Office, the Staging Area (for people arriving early without Early Passes) or the dreaded… D Lot, the penalty box for people who don’t have their act together.

D-Lot crimes include; not having proper Early Arrival Passes, tickets that don’t scan properly, lost tickets or other assorted issues like having materials not allowed on playa. D-Lot crew had the job of finding solutions, radio’ing in to BRC departments and dealing with disgruntled folks needing extra help.

I was assigned to ‘Work the Lanes’ at Gate where we scan tickets and actually search vehicles for stowaways, fireworks, firearms, dogs, live plants, feathers or other particularly Moopy materials (things that easily blow away and become trash).

My training shift was on Friday (pre-event), so I suited up in my black Gate wear and survival gear (water bottle, goggles, dust mask, flashlight, etc.)

At the Black Hole (Gate crew’s Village) us greenies had a 2-hour orientation and were were bussed out to the Gate which took about 20 minutes. Once at the Gate, were given the quick tour of the crew area, that included couches, cold beverages of all kinds, a fire pit and kitchen container where snacks and meals were staged for us.

After roll-call and a quick meeting with our shift Leader, we were paired up with a Mentor who would train us in the lanes. We learned how to approach the driver, how to ask if the participants had any prohibited materials, to search the vehicles and lastly to scan the tickets and Early Passes.

Once our Mentor felt we had the hang of the job, we were paired up with a partner to begin working lanes.  I was stoked to be promoted after my first hour of training.

I am small, non-threatening and generally friendly so my job was to do the talking and do the scanning. This was perfect for me since it didn’t require me to use my gimpy arm or hurt myself. With the driver’s permission, my partner searched the vehicle. I found it was important to keep the mood light so I’d ask the driver if they were packing any unicorns. Almost all responded with, “I wish!”.

The twelve Lanes at Gate were all used during opening night on Sunday and Monday. By the time the event began at 6pm on Sunday, there were thousands of vehicles parked in the Staging Area. These are people who arrived way too early, many who heard a rumor on-line, that the Gate was opening 6-hours early.

I worked a total of four 6-hour Gate shifts, Friday through Monday, most of which meant working in dust storms. At times, it was necessary to keep my goggles and dust mask on all the time. I won’t lie, it was hard.

My final shift began at midnight Sunday night, just 6 hours after my prior shift. I had planned to nap between shifts, but I lost an hour in transit, dinner and winding down so I didn’t sleep. That last morning was great, I got to watch the sunrise from the Lanes and when I got on the bus at 6:15 am, I was truly exhausted. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours.

By the time I got back to camp, the day was started and my camp was bustling. It thought I’d sleep, but was still wound up. It could have been the Red Bull I had earlier. A campmate took charge of me and put me down with a tranquilizer, orally, not via dart gun. Eli set me up in the yurt with the swamp cooler and fan so I slept a solid six hours.

The work at Gate was steady, fun and always interesting. We got to see all the art cars and art projects arrive first. The most interesting thing I saw was in the outgoing lane. A minivan was being escorted off the playa by BLM Rangers. At first look, it looked like an art piece. Imbedded in the front of the vehicle, were two fence posts and mesh fencing. On one of the posts was a sign that read “Walk-In Camping, No Vehicles.” Apparently the driver had crashed through the barrier fence surrounding the Walk-in Camp Area. I wish I’d had my camera with me.

The Department of Gate/Perimeter/Exodus is huge with more than 350 people. The Gate and Perimeter crews work 24/7 for several weeks. It’s a massive responsibility. This year the crew managed to cut the wait time at entry from 4-6 hours to 2-3 hours. Exodus was even better, with barely any wait at all versus 8-hour waits last year. These guys rock!

Although the Gate crew is know for it’s raw edge, profanity, love of whisky and porn, their commradery, organization and stamina inspired me. For a bunch of hard edge rough necks, I was surprised to see Unicorns on this year’s logo.

I plan to volunteer for Gate again, it was a blast.

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