‘Burning Man’ gurus hoist sails, head to Black Rock City
Greg Barron, Pete Alexander take old naval frigate every year to festival in Nevada
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By Heidi Bailey  August 18, 2011 09:57 am

Slowly, the sails rise on an old naval frigate as its crew prepares for a journey across the land. That’s right, “land.” And if watching a ship sail across a dry lakebed in Nevada at 10 mph seems bizarre, passing one on the freeway at 65 would be like something out of the Twilight Zone.

It’s a close second: it’s a crew heading to their Burning Man camp in Black Rock, Nev., about 110 miles north of Reno.
“The Monaco,” a 60-foot, bow-to-stern replica of a U.S. Navy frigate, stands 50-feet off the ground from the top of the T’Gallant mast and is the creation of Greg Barron, of Petaluma, who’s part of “Playa Pete’s” crew that sets up camp religiously each year at Burning Man.

Playa Pete is Penngrovian Pete Alexander, who is in his 18th year attending. “We actually met at Burning Man,” said Barron.
Since hooking up as friends, they’ve formed a camp with all the bells and whistles of true “Burners” (as Burning Man disciples like to call themselves). And every year, they do something big and different. Alexander once built a 3-story volcano.

What IS Burning Man? It’s a gathering of radical-minded, bizarre, self-expressive artists, performers, and individuals who camp out for seven days in a self-built community where, on the last night, a wood-constructed Man over 100 feet tall is set on fire.

Describing Burning Man has been equated to describing color to a blind man. Alexander says, “If you’ve never been, it’s hard to explain. If you have been, there’s no explanation needed.” Barron agrees, “The thing I like about it is there’s something for everyone and if there’s something you don’t like, you walk 100 feet and you’ll see something you do like.”

 “One year we were both looking at an old Spanish galleon called ‘La Contessa,’ which was a renowned art ship up there,” said Alexander. “It was beautiful – but it didn’t do anything…it didn’t run. I said, ‘hey we should do something like that, but make it so it moves,’ and Greg said, ‘I am going to do exactly that’ – and he did.”

Little did Alexander know, Barron had been considering it before the suggestion. “I was thinking about it the year before,” Barron chuckles. “When I saw La Contessa, it was absolutely stunning in the sunset…but it wasn’t safe, people actually got hurt on it.

“I wanted a functional ship. I build things, that’s what I do, so I wanted to make it safe, make it sail, and well… make it better.” And Barron is true to his word. Said Alexander, “It is phenomenal. I was blown away when I first saw it.”

The Art Car (as it’s called in Burner language) started out as a 1983 36-foot Monaco RV. Stripped down to its chassis, Barron and a crew of about 40 volunteers logged close to 3,000 man-hours gutting and reconstructing it into Barron’s vision. “I wrote up all the plans basing it on a Navy frigate. I like old ships. They’re romantic, they’re beautiful…a cloud of sail overhead is a beautiful thing.

 “All the masts, rigging, generator, running water, everything, is fully functional – it sails – and it’s completely street legal,” Barron said, noting its two stripper poles and full, sunken bar.  Being street legal, it travels 65 mph on the freeway and burns about 300 gallons of fuel, including an additional 100 gallons aboard to sustain the trip once they arrive in the middle of nowhere. Barron’s spent about $40,000 total and is proud to say, “It’s the tallest moving object up there. And yes, it was an expensive project, but it was something I was passionate about and needed to do.”

This year, Alexander’s again adds something new. He’s built a 40-foot lighthouse with a real beacon to place at Playa Pete’s Plaza while the Monaco tours the scene. “It’s a beacon so everyone knows where our ‘house’ is,” he laughs. “Things look very different at night – you move around this huge place, and can turn around to find you have no idea where you live.” 

Burning Man has changed Alexander’s life. He first took his wife, Theresa, really not knowing what to expect. “Honestly, when I drove into the place, I said, ‘Honey, I think we made a big mistake. This is like some pagan ritual.’ The first thing I see is a huge bonfire with a guy that’s half-man, half horse – and I’m stone cold sober. I said, ‘I don’t know what that is right there, I’m sorry – this is just weird.’”

They ended up camping outside of the event with plans to head home the next day, but going into the “city” changed everything. “It’s really not about the party – it’s the aura of Black Rock itself – it’s just beautiful there and these are the most wonderful people I’ve met in my life – the organization, the Burners – I doubt I would hang with most of those people in my day-to-day life here… but when you go up there, it’s like we’re all going home.”

Since the couple’s first stint, his camp crew has grown to over 130 and he’s made quite an impression as well, now custom printing Burning Man T-shirts for its official “department crews” of Black Rock City. Seven days of the year, this makeshift city hosts street signs for camps, has its own public works department, fire department, rangers, electricians, and Dept. of “Mutant” Vehicles with nine miles of fencing encasing this world within a world.  Alexander’s “Double Designs” custom printing and embroidery business makes up to 10,000 shirts a year for the organization.

This year, 51,000 tickets have been sold, selling out the event. Playa Pete’s crew is inviting anyone who is already going this year to join their camp or make a plan to join next year. Pop him an e-mail at Petes_Ts@yahoo.com. For more information on the event itself, visit www.burningman.com.

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