I used the ToFlame bus from Reno to BRC and then back. I would not go nearly so far as to call it a crappy experience. There were some "minor" bumps along the way, but overall I was pleased with the experience.
I was on one of the two buses that were scheduled to depart at 3:00 PM on Sunday and estimated
to arrive at the gate at 6:00pm. The bus pickup was at the Reno airport, where the hotel shuttles pick up passengers. The location was convenient, given that most people could use a hotel shuttle to get there.
The operation was pretty efficient, all things considered. The two buses were there on time or mostly on time. People lined up with their luggage, were confirmed as being on the list, and were then directed to one of the two buses.
The drivers and buses were not directly affiliated; they were chartered by the ToFlame people. The drivers were great, all things considered. They worked their asses off loading almost all the luggage themselves. Their attitude was a mixture of amused, resigned, & bemused. They had done this once before, and had some idea of what to expect. One of the drivers was even providing water for passengers during the trip - a courtesy to encourage tipping.
Luggage was an issue. Surprise surprise. The ToFlame website had information on baggage allowance:
Each ToFlame Reservation Includes
Space for 1 large bag, 1 small bag,
1 tent & 15 gallons of water
Scheduled stop at Save Mart in Reno
You can bring two small items, like bags and coolers, on the bus and
put larger items in the undercarriage.
Bike space was available for an additional fee.
The baggage allowance was soundly ignored by just about all the passengers. Granted, "small" & "large" are a bit vague, but nearly everyone was somewhat over that, and select people were egregiously over the limit. Consequently, loading the buses took a long time! Eventually they reached the point where everything was loaded except about a dozen bikes for which there was simply no room. And of course we had not yet made the SaveMart stop for groceries.
At this point the process ground to a halt, while the guys running things tried to figure out how they were going to handle it. To their credit, I felt like they "got it" with their attitude. They kept the passengers in the loop, and basically said "Hey, this is the situation. There is no way everything is fitting. We are going to have to work together to sort this out and get on the road." The dozen or so extra bikes were left with the guy running things, who was going to drive them out to BRC the next day in his truck (I assume this worked out, but don't know). They encouraged everyone to not go nuts shopping, since just about all the food and water purchased would have to fit in the passenger area of the coach. Finally we pulled out from the airport about an hour and 45 minutes behind schedule (not that bad, all things considered) and headed to the Keystone SaveMart.
There were some people on the bus who had already done their shopping and had their food packed in bags under the bus, and people who had food getting to BRC with a camp or via other means. But the vast majority of people using the bus service were burgins without any resources or affiliations to lean on, some who had flown in that day or the day before, some internationally, and they had not done their food shopping. And dear goddess, some of these people took that one hour window and panic shopped.
So. Much. Food. People had twice as much water as they needed, and anywhere from 3 to 10 times the amount of food they needed. Water was put under the seats and piled in the back, and food was being put in the overhead compartments and on extra seats. It wasn't so bad that people rode with stuff on their laps, at least on our bus. The loading experience was actually an interesting pre-event microcosm where the burgin wheat was separated from the chaff. A select group of people started working together to get the shit done and get the bus loaded assembly-line style so that we could get the fuck out of there, while everyone else kind of sat around and waited for shit to get done for them. Some of these people must have had very interesting burns!
And of course some people took way longer than an hour to do their shopping. Every time we thought we were done loading everything up, one more straggler would stagger up with a cart FULL of water and food. This repeated itself about 10 times AFTER the allotted hour had passed.
FINALLY we were all packed up and left the SaveMart. We were maybe 3 or 4 hours behind schedule at this point? I’m not sure, I was already on playa time. None of these delays were entirely attributable to the ToFlame people or the drivers. It was our own underprepared, over-packed fault.
And honestly, the whole thing was an early exercise in attitude adjustment/re-alignment for the burn. Is there any trip to the playa that proceeds according to plan? Shit happens. Things don’t go as anticipated. You make your peace with it, figure out what has to be done, and do it. There were people on the bus who were stressing the departure. I was at peace with the experience, thinking to myself, “Really? You’re in that much of a rush to get to what could potentially be a 6-8 hour line?” (On a related note, there were plenty of uniformed people who had no idea there was that much of a potential wait laying in wait for us. People unprepared along the lines of “Oh yeah, I meant to bring a dust mask but then I didn’t.”)
So yeah, a nice little lesson in mindfulness. Be where you are. You’re on a bus! With air conditioning, and a bathroom. It’s pretty fucking nice! It will get there, eventually. It will leave, sooner or later. In the meantime, you’ve got a nice little pre-party of burners. And once we were finally underway, people relaxed and it did become a nice little pre-party. People chatted with their neighbors, compared stories & expectations, shared food. I may or may not have been given a tasty edible by a friendly young lady. It was social mobility, just like they said, golly gee willakers. And compared to being stuck in an over-packed car with no bathroom, it felt pretty damn cushy.
When we hit the traffic backlog on the highway, people got out of the bus, smoked their cigarettes, stretched their legs, soaked in the ambient excitement in the air.
When we got to greeters and gate, things were a little less than smooth. They didn’t quite know what to do with us. We were greeted and gated in one awkward swoop. They were going to have us all get off the bus & line up with tickets, then changed their minds. They checked tickets on the bus and greeted us as a group while logistics were being figured out elsewhere in the hierarchy. No bell ringing (it was windy & dusty as hell at that point) and we didn’t even get the WhatWhenWhere (lost in the shuffle, I suspect). They almost sent us to D lot to get sorted out. Apparently they thought the driver was supposed to have credentials he didn’t have; he was stubborn about not jumping through their hoops; eventually it turned out he maybe did have the placard he was supposed to have, they just didn’t know what they were supposed to be looking for. It was a little hazy, with conflicting explanations. Eventually word came down the line, we got the green light, and made it through.
We were dropped off by the Artery, the bus was quickly unloaded, and then you were on your own. Most people seemed to have made some plans to get their stuff where they were going. A few poor souls were winging it.
The return trip was much less eventful. My bus was only half full. Loading was much less eventful and we left about 10 minutes after the scheduled departure. 6PM Monday and we pretty much drove straight out to the highway. Perfect. The driver even let us persuade him to stop at one of the local stores so we didn't have to wait till Reno for our hot dog/junk food/beverage/whatever fix.
There was a slight issue where the buses had been told they couldn’t use the “bus depot” near the Artery for the return trip pickup. The buses were too big for driving in the city. The location was changed to 6:00 & J. I heard the news randomly at some point during the week, but other people seemed to have struggled to figure out what was going on with the pickup. I know there was info posted at Playa Info about the changes, and I assume they posted info at the former bus depot.
Is there room for improvement? Sure.
The ToFlame people will hopefully make some changes to how they handle luggage issues in the future. They need backup transportation planned for overflow luggage. They need more detailed limits on baggage allotment & need to communicate that information more clearly & forcefully. Perhaps a cubic footage allotment & specified charges for overage? They should perhaps skip the Savemart stop altogether and make people pre-shop, although I know there were people who had flown in and gone more or less straight to the bus, and for them it was really convenient.
The Borg should really be encouraging more of this kind of transportation to and from BRC. To do that they need to have better Gate processes and guidelines in effect for charter buses. Definite room for improvement.
But on the whole I thought it was a great way to arrive. Stress free once we were on the road; no worries about being pulled over or breaking down; relaxing experience not having to drive; and contrary to typical “Don’t start the party till you’re parked” advice, you could totally start the party early & knock back a few if you were so inclined.
Keep Burning Man potentially natal.