A Giant VW, a Man-Eating Lion, a Blimp… and Other Mutant Vehicles of Burning Man

Walter the Bus zips across the Playa at 5 MPH.

Walter the Giant VW Bus zips across the Playa at 5 MPH with his flag flying proudly. In another life, he was a fire truck.

Having owned and wandered in a 1976 VW Camper Van from 1976 to 1983, I felt an immediate attachment to Walter, the giant VW Bus. I decided to look into his past. Most of Burning Man’s Mutant Vehicles have lived full and meaningful lives by the time they make it to Black Rock City. Walter, it turns out, started life in 1963 as a Walter Crash Truck at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. He took his name from the Company. The Crash came from the fact that he was supposed to show up at an airplane crash site before anyone else and spray flame retardant on the highly volatile jet fuel. It was “BOOM” and kiss your hose goodbye if he failed. Beyond that there was a lot of sitting around and waiting. That’s the life of an airport fire truck.

Next, Walter made his way to a less dramatic but still important role with the New River Fire Department north of Phoenix. From there he retired to the Gold King Ghost Mine just outside of Jerome, Arizona as an antique to be admired. Don Robertson, the owner of the mine, likes old things and, judging from photos, is something of an antique himself. Walter would have been happy to spend his retirement years rusting away there— and he would have except for one of those strange quirks of fate.

Numerous vintage VW Buses make their way up the mountain annually to the Jerome Jamboree and camp out at the ghost mine. Kirk Strawn, who was among the participants in 2003, had just read an article on Burning Man. He saw Walter and fell in love. He didn’t see an aging fire truck; he saw a giant VW Bus. Walter was about to be reborn. Kirk traded a 1979 VW Camper for Walter and moved him to an old lumberyard in Scottsdale where a crew of dedicated volunteers, Tribe Walter, began the transformation process. Six years later, Walter made his first trip to Burning Man, and according to all reports, loved the event.

2 Jerome VW Bus 2

I found this VW Camper Van in Jerome, Arizona when I was there two years ago. I wonder if it was the van traded for Walter? I’ve never seen more bumper stickers on a single vehicle. My favorite: “Heavily Medicated for Your Safety.”

For those of you who crave details: Walter is 30 feet long, 13 feet tall, and weighs 19,500 pounds. He has a 330-gallon water tank for an on board misting system. His nights are lit up by some 10,000 plus LED lights. You can learn more about this interesting Mutant Vehicle at Walter the Bus.

3 Walter the Bus at Burning Man 2015

Walter lit up with his LED lights.

Altogether, there were close to a thousand applications for Mutant Vehicles at Burning Man in 2015. It was too many for the event and the Burning Man Organization, BMO, limited the number of permits to 600. I agree with the decision. Biking and walking take precedence. Still, I can’t help but wonder what wondrous creations didn’t make the cut. On the other hand, I didn’t have time to even start to appreciate all of the vehicles that were there. Here are a few more before I move on to my next topic: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, and other Burning Man sculptures.

6 King of Beasts 2 Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015

My friend Tom tempts the King of Beasts by snoozing on his tongue. The sign says, “Burning Man, it’s ok I guess.”

7 King of Beasts Mutant Vehicle at night Burning Man 2015

The King of Beasts at night. Maybe Tom wouldn’t have been so ready to jump in his mouth…

4 Train engine mutant vahicle at Burning Man 2015

I’d get off the track for this giant train engine.

Caboose Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015

What’s a train without a caboose?

 Cheshire Cat Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015

Where’s Alice?

Arachne Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015

Spider woman?

11 Arachne face 2 Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015_edited-1

How about a kiss? Come on, you know you love me.

12 Fish eating fish mutant vehicle at Burning Man 2015

The fish in front has a big problem.

13 Fish eating fish at night mutant vehicle at Burning Man

The fish at night. Still dodging his toothy pursuer.

Blimp ship Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015

The airship (blimp) is ready to launch…

Mad Max Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man

I decided this “Mad Max” vehicle deserved a World War II black and white photo look.

16 Horse head mutant vehicle 2 at Burning man 2015

Giddy Up!

17 Big Bug Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015

Giant bug. Big teeth have always been “in” at Burning Man.

18 Giant Cow mutant vehicle at Burning Man 2015

I decided this is a cow but I could be wrong. Her herder is walking along beside.

19 Modern Art Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015

Modern art in an urban setting.

Narwhal mutant Vehicle at Burning Man 2015

I’ll conclude with this big lipped Narwhal. (Photo by Don Green.)

36 comments on “A Giant VW, a Man-Eating Lion, a Blimp… and Other Mutant Vehicles of Burning Man

  1. Curt I have run out of adjectives for these posts. Basically my jaw just hangs open while my brain tries to imagine what it would be like to see these in person. Wow pure and simple. Keep the giant bug away please and thanks. 🙂

  2. I love the train engine and the caboose. I just don’t have the attachment to the VW bug and van culture, I guess, even though I owned a bug. But, I’ll still admire Walter. I’m just not sure I’d want to ride in him. His photo gives me the sense he’d be as claustrophobia-inducing as Mardi Gras.

    • Well, Walter was a bit crowded. I like the term claustrophobia-inducing for Mardi Gras. That is exactly how I felt. I remember having to move with the crowd because that was the only option. I enjoyed the floats and the play but not the mob. I had the sense if anything went wrong, there would be no escape. –Curt

  3. Thanks for Walter’s story and stats! That’s one amazing vehicle. My faves here are the narwhal and the Rasta cat. There are so many mutant vehicles. Just can’t get over it. It’s a non-stop show there at Burning Man.

  4. I can’t believe there were over 1,000 applicants to bring vehicles to BM. Wow! I feel as if I live under a rock never knowing that this whole mutant vehicle show is unfolding in the desert annually. And as a 60s girl myself, I can’t resist the iconic VW bus as my favorite!!

    • The thousand applications floored me as well. People keep upping the ante at Burning Man in terms of both art and mutant vehicles. It was the 70s before I goth around to it, but I owned both a VW Bug and a VW van (much to my ex-mother-in-law’s mortification who thought them far too hippyish. :)) –Curt

  5. That train was missing Joe Isuzu. 😉 Indeed, what an astounding collection of one-of-a-kind vehicles. My favorite was the Mad Max copycat, with the imaginative weaponry, perfectly finished in B&W. But Walter… Man, that was an engineering masterpiece. How he could keep that diesel engine cool?!

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