The Freedom Experiment Part 2: Journey To The Ranch

journey to the ranch stan collins
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One evening, after a week of indecision, interviews, drunken nights, and hungover mornings, I got an unexpected call from a friend. “Hey man, are you free for the next week?” “Well yeah, I suppose so,” I responded. Eight hours later, I was on my way to northern Nevada for what I would soon find out was a week of working on a secluded ranch on a giant pyramid and living quarters for Burning Man.

I was expecting to leave around 5 am in the backseat of a large lifted Chevy for 14 hours across the Nevada desert, and then unload and construct things for 5 days. Having not considered that work would begin immediately, I didn’t bother going to sleep beforehand. Instead, I drank and partied as if I had 15 hours to recover.

building burning man

The crew picked me up just before 5, as expected. We then went to pick up some grub before heading to the shop to meet the rest of the crew and depart. Upon arriving at the shop, it was discovered that none of the things that we were to deliver to northern Nevada had been loaded onto any truck or trailer. Just as I went to bite into the Texas burrito that had been beckoning me I heard, “Hey, can you give me a hand with this real quick?”

“Sure thing,” I responded and I reluctantly replaced the unbitten burrito back into the wrapper. The act of carrying a bag from one truck to another turned into loading a crate onto a trailer and then packing up a rather large stack of long steel poles. Three hours later, we had all the 4,000 steel poles, storage containers, and crates loaded onto the trucks and we began our journey.

entering nevada

My eyes opened up around the time we were entering Nevada. It was an absolutely breathtaking scene to awaken to. Sure we have a few mountains surrounding the Phoenix area, but the mountains here seemed more majestic and grand. There didn’t seem to be much of anything as far as the eye could see. Instead of buildings, or houses, or tractors, there was open space, shrubs, and curious dirt roads that led to nowhere.

stan collins las vegas

Just as we were nearing Vegas, we saw flashing blue lights and heard the terrifying melody of a state trooper’s siren behind us. Apparently, the large shipping container that we had been hauling weighed considerably more than the allowed amount for people without commercial licenses. After a few minutes of lecture from the officer, a second trooper pulled up. We sat on the side of the interstate leading into Las Vegas for nearly 2 hours while Smokeys weighed our rig and considered our fate. Eventually, it was announced that we were several thousand pounds over the allowed weight for our setup. After a ticket and some rearranging with the other truck in our group, we found that it was getting late and decided to stay the night in the city. It would be my first time in Las Vegas and I was beyond excited.

That night I sat in my hotel room recapping the day with neither a sense of accomplishment nor a sense of failure. I wasn’t remotely tired; but then, I rarely am at night. I racked my brain for things to do, but sleep didn’t come up as an option. What did come up was the idea of going down to the casino to waste money that I didn’t have. I’d never understood the appeal of casinos. All the machines looked like children’s games and all of the players looked miserable and depressed; their faces were sad and lonely as they mindlessly poured cash into the machines. Tonight I would join them.

I sat at a silly kids’ game for adults and went through the motions while I waited for a free drink that never came. Eventually, I went to the bar and purchased a beer. I sat down at a different machine and for a time, nothing changed. However, a peculiar thing happened after a while; I began to win. I won and I won and I didn’t even know what I was doing. Having won nearly 4 times my initial investment, I decided to stop. I went to the bar to inquire about turning my printed I.O.U into money; but before I could ask, the bartender handed me a drink and said it was on the house. I went back to the machine. My successes became less frequent and eventually, I found myself spending more money. I now saw the appeal and the resulting addiction. I’d been converted from a straight-edge kid to a debaucherous fiend in the space of only a few hours. I was chasing that first high and I indulged in my bad habits until I was rid of anything good.

I returned to my room a dull, sad kid; not unlike how I’d left except now I was also broke. I tossed and turned in my bed for hours. Every night I forget how much I love sleep but every morning I remember and curse my former self for depriving me of that luxury. Tomorrow would be no different, but at least as I came to this realization two hours before I was to report to work, I knew who to blame.


I woke up surprisingly refreshed after only a couple of hours on the notably comfortable mattress. We began our early journey through the city of Las Vegas and north to the beautifully vast and rugged terrain that is Nevada. The mountainous landscape was stunning. The pictures I attempted to take on my phone did not come close to doing the scene justice. Much of the state flew by without my noticing as I did a fair amount of sleeping on this 14-hour trip north to middle-of-nowhere Nevada.

I did notice a few interesting sights such as an abandoned mining town from the 1920’s that was being renovated by veterans of Burning Man, and an Area 51-styled gift shop/brothel. The drive to the ranch took another full day and we finally made our way past civilization after night had fallen. Along the final stretch to our destination, we came across a couple of tiny towns that could not have been home to more than a few hundred people altogether. I struggled to understand how anyone could live in such seclusion. The nearest highway was 100 miles away and cell phone service had long since diminished as we entered the Black Rock Canyon.

In contrast to the color of the core of the surrounding mountains, the dirt was as white as snow and like clay, probably closer to sand than dirt really. I assumed we would pull into a regular house with a large backyard to work on whatever it was that we were there to do, I assumed service and internet would return, and I assumed that the place would be close. I was wrong on all accounts. In fact, we continued on that lonely dirt road for another 20 minutes before veering off onto a smaller, more inconspicuous gravel trail. There had been no houses, structures, streets, or other cars of any sort anywhere around. This dirt road continued forever. Eventually, we came to an even more hidden path. We drove down that road over extremely rough terrain in complete darkness for some time until we eventually saw our first sign of human life for a while.

black rock city

People live like this? The only towns that we passed through consisted of little more than trailers and decrepit structures that I assume were once stores, and banks, and churches. There were no Walmarts or Circle K’s. There were no McDonald’s or any other recognizable businesses within a couple of hours of where we were, but there were indeed humans around so I suppose they found a way to live without the amenities that we’ve all grown so accustomed to.

We eventually made our way to the ranch house to find a handful of people hanging out. They all seemed to be quite young, 20s and 30s mostly. After a round of hugs and introductions, we got right down to work unloading the trailers and setting up a workspace for the morning.

building burning man

It felt good to work on a ranch like a man, building and lifting things. I began to use muscles that had been neglected for ages. Plumes of white dust exploded upward with each step in the Nevada desert terrain. We covered our faces with bandanas to shield ourselves from the constant storms of the white dirt, sand, and clay mixture referred to as “playa.” For years I’d claimed to go to work on certain days during the week; however, I now know that I’d never really worked a day in my life. This was work; long, exhausting, rewarding, tolling work, and I loved every moment of it.

Whiskey tastes better after a full day of using every major muscle to its fullest. Showers are more refreshing after a few days without one. Layers of white dirt mixed with sand covered my body completely. After the second day, I stopped looking at my phone. After the third, I stopped carrying it with me. There was no cellular service due to the fact that we were roughly 100 miles from the nearest city but after a few days, my annoyance at this fact turned to gratitude. I could feel the chains loosening. There was a certain freedom or peace to be found in hard work. I was stuck on a Nevada ranch so far from civilization that the place needed to be completely self-sufficient; and yet, I felt free for the first time in ages.

One night, I wandered the grounds looking at the night sky in all its glory for the first time. I’d obviously seen the stars before, but never like this; never without any light pollution to dull the brilliance of the heavenly bodies above. I never knew there were so many stars. I’d never known that it was possible to see the Milky Way with one’s own eyes. Apparently, a lot of things are possible.

the ranch

I learned a great deal out there on that ranch. I learned that modern humans are capable of living without the aid of any government or utility service. I learned the ins and outs of building and transporting large objects. I learned how to shoot a rifle and how men solve problems when they arise. I became aware of how great the divide really is between country folks and city boys. It’s astounding. And perhaps, most importantly, I learned about Burning Man.

Stan Collins Boyd