Burning Man ’04

The Fabled City

For most people, the first question is still, “What is Burning Man?” There are lots of other people who can tell you the whole history better than I can. Books and magazine articles about Burning Man are showing up more and more. Even so, it remains relatively unknown in mainstream culture, which is probably best for everyone.

Briefly, Burning Man is an annual gathering of artists, hippies, engineers, anarchists, utopians, polysexuals, and other assorted wierdos. It happens out in the alkalai flats of Nevada and lasts for one week. People drive in and set up camps, which range from simple tents to elaborate theatrical and interactive productions. The population grows to over 30,000, Nevada’s 7th largest city.

It’s called Black Rock City. It is the fabled city of ancient legend, appearing in the desert for a short time and then vanishing without a trace.

Time flows differently here. We come from our overbooked lives and spend hours doing nothing but waiting for the sun to go down, but boredom never sets in. The familiar rules don’t apply. You walk the streets with people painted blue and green, people sporting wings and horns and gas masks, people wearing hipster fashions reflected through a nightmare carnival mirror, and people who just don’t wear anything. 12 foot tall bicycles and motorized cupcakes roll past. Dust storms kick up and obscure the surroundings. And night and day, you can walk into anyone’s camp and they’ll be happy to visit with you. It’s a dream world, made up of familiar pieces but all in the wrong context. It’s the Fairyland of the old pagan stories, where chaos reigns, all is mutable, and if you’re not careful you’ll be transformed forever.

There are no street lights, so at night you wear lights to make sure roving bicycles and art cars don’t run into you. What kind of lights? All kinds. Fun fair glow sticks and bracelets, flashing bike lights, multicolored Halloween prop lights. EL wire is popular; people use it as personal neon lights to enhance costumes and make pictures. One guy was covered in an EL wire circulatory system and digestive system. Others simply loop the wire into flashing random scribbles. At night, raucous music blares from all directions. Glowing figures are visible everywhere in the distance. Slow moving motorized shapes–a large human head, a scorpion with flaming sting, a double-decker dance club with flame-shooting smoke stacks–make shifting circuits of the playa. Lasers bisect the sky. Gouts of sculpted fire erupt all over the place.

Black Rock City is laid out in a great semicircle, with orbiting streets named after the planets and radial streets named after hours on the clock. (The street names change according to each year’s theme. This year: The Vault of Heaven.) In the center and from 11:00 to 2:00 is an open space with no camps, which is just called the playa. Scattered around the playa are freestanding sculptures and installations. My favorite activity was biking around the playa and seeing what I could stumble across. Things like a 30 foot high inflatable underwater fungus, or a collection of giant metal flame-belching bugs, or a small mask and pair of hands quietly emerging from the ground. Generally there is no artist name or statement of intent, just a vision to take as you will.

In the center of the playa is The Man. The Man is a large stylized figure, who stood (this year) atop a geodesic dome. Under the dome was a gallery of interactive art. One device let you aim a radio message at the star of your choice. Another piece allowed people to make audio recordings, which were later played back for other audiences. Two vertical strips of multicolored LEDs formed pictures if you twitched your eyes back and forth, causing the light to streak. On Friday night, Man, dome, and gallery all get burned to the ground.

Past The Man, on the midnight axis out on the playa, is The Temple. Last year it was The Temple of Honor, this year it’s The Temple of Stars. It looks like its made of the scraps from one of those wooden dinosaur models, but the pieces are large and thick and designed to hold the weight of crowds of people. The Temple of Stars had long narrow walkways on both sides, and a large multi-leveled structure in the middle. It was a quarter mile from end to end, with outlying spires of more dinosaur bone scrap material. It took them until mid-week to finish construction. On Saturday night, The Temple gets burned to the ground.

Black Rock City has a few cardinal rules: there are no spectators, only participants. Drink lots of water. Nothing can be bought or sold (except for ice and coffee, sold at specific locations). And, leave no trace. When it’s over, you take all your garbage with you. Whatever gets left behind by those too tired or stoned or inconsiderate to pack out, staff and volunteers collect. The dry lakebed is left vacant and lifeless for another year.

Going Native

Black Rock City has it’s own traditions and institutions. It has a post office, a DMV, and a Department of Public Works. The Black Rock Gazette is the official daily paper, and Piss Clear is the alternative not-quite-daily. When the water trucks drive around and spray the roads to keep the dust down, people run naked behind them to get a shower. People say “Have a Good Burn” when they walk away and “Welcome Home” when they meet you. If you make them mad, they’ll call you “Yahoo” or worst of all, “Spectator.”

Some people are put off by “Welcome Home.” One day as we sat under a neighboring camp’s geodesic dome, a woman from another camp was saying that we all have homes somewhere else, and if we lived in Black Rock City all the time it would cease to be special. She has a point. On the other hand, Black Rock City is home to no one besides those who visit. Not being a permanent city, it has no permanent residents. So there can be no distinction between visitors and natives; everyone who shows up is a native. I’m sure some veteran burners would argue that the natives are the ones who have been coming for five or ten or twenty years, and the rest of us are all yahoos. But the fact is, Black Rock City is nothing more or less than the people who dwell there, and what they bring with them. This is why it’s so important to be a participant and not a spectator. If too many people came to just soak up the sights, the city would be hollow.

When I first decided to go to Burning Man, I figured I would go as a sort of journalist, exploring this fascinating American subculture. Then I learned about the rule against spectators, and had to re-think my approach. It became something I struggled with. In any strange situation I tend to adopt the role of Observer, making Sketches and having Insights. But that just wasn’t going to fly in Black Rock City. I went with Troy and Alyssa, both playa veterans. We called ourselves the Ball and Scones, and our theme was being the ultimate secret society/seat of conspiracy. (As it turned out, the extent of our theme camp was the banner Alyssa painted.) I tried to think of a sub-theme or costume that would force me to interact with fellow burners. I thought about carrying an assortment of colored Sharpies and being a human graffiti wall, but I’m too hairy to write on anywhere except for my head. So I figured I’d wear white clothes people could write on. While shopping for my dust mask I found a white coverall to be worn while painting–perfect! But I never got anyone to write on me. The whole thing reminded me of the end of 6th grade when we all signed each others’ t-shirts, and it just felt too lame to bother. It was hard to imagine exactly how I could be a participant until I’d been in Black Rock City for a day or so. And by then it came perfectly naturally.

It took us a couple of days to drive to Black Rock City from Portland. The final approach on the outskirts of the fabled city is slow. Every vehicle is stopped twice. The first time it’s the Tossers, searching the vehicle for unticketed passengers. Mostly they dress like Mad Max. The woman who stopped us relished her role as the hard-ass, saying we’d have to wait until we get to the Greeters for any kind of friendly reception. She was actually nice to us, but it was pretty obvious we weren’t hiding anyone in our cargo van. The second stop is the Greeter’s Station. A Greeter gives you a map and some other literature, impresses the commandments on you one last time, and with a “welcome home” directs you to a camping spot. And if you are a virgin–i.e. this is your first burn–the Greeter initiates you. It was a short distance between the Tosser and the Greeter, but our line came to a dead stop for some reason. The Greeter stations spread out in a line perpendicular to the road, and I got to see a lot of initiations. Mostly they involved pulling down pants and getting spanked. While this happens, the spankee rings a bell hanging from a pole and yells, “I’m a virgin!” No big thing, as Burning Man things go, but for me it produced a sense of impending doom. I’m pretty much cripplingly repressed. I did not want to hang my ass out in front of the playa with my bits and pieces blowing in the wind. Is this what it means to go to Burning Man? Do I have to confront my fears, overcome my limitations just to get in the door? I had only minutes to think about it, and decided I would do whatever was asked of me to become part of the community. I thought if I went into my initiation intentionally, it wouldn’t necessarily be a humiliation to spoil the whole trip. Or at least I could muster the denial until we went home.

We got to our Greeter, and Troy sang out, “We’ve got a virgin here!” So our Greeter (a normal guy, looked like someone you’d see at Home Depot) went through his spiel and then offered me my initiation. “I want you,” he said, “to go out there and make a playa angel.” Are you kidding? I was so relieved, I dropped down and ground my arms and legs into the dust with gusto. I had yet to learn how tenaciously playa dust sticks to clothes, and skin, and everything else. My arms and legs were coated. My clothes were coated. And it never went away. After a few days it made me feel like a desert animal, wearing my environment in order to live in it. My companions took sponge baths every couple of days, but not me.

A lot of people use different names in Black Rock City, playa names. Troy’s playa name was Hippie Shit, as in “Get that hippie shit outta here!” Alyssa was sometimes Summerleaf, sometimes Swaggy O. I had never thought of a playa name I would want to use, although Dirt Angel occurred to me after my initiation. I like the paradoxical element–angels’ feet never touch the ground, or so I learned second hand from a mythological novel. I liked the idea of an angel dedicated to baseness. And there was something about taking on a name based on my experience, rather than me making up some fantasy name– it felt like a ritual of transformation. But “angel” is just too loaded with piety for me. I tried the name on for the first day or two, then stopped using it. In a lot of ways I failed to overcome my limitations. At one point someone asked us what we had done during the week to push past our boundaries, and all I could come up with was talking to strangers. But then again, Burning Man was not the spiritual journey into deprivation I thought it would be. How could it be when we drove in with three coolers full of goodies, plus costumes, bikes, art supplies and other toys?

I suppose I took my initiation as permission to just have a good time. Most people who come to Burning Man come to party. Still, Black Rock City feels sacred in a way. It’s a fragile place that would disappear forever if its people had the wrong attitude. It seems like such a chaotic mass of high-energy realized visions would foster the worst kind of flaccid new age pseudo-spiritualism, where everyone swears they’ve found utopia without bothering to think about what utopia might mean. But people aren’t like that here. That’s spectator thinking.

The next day I decided to take my jo out onto the playa and practice some aikido. I still had some anxiety about doing the wrong thing out here, and part of me thought practising weapons is just what Ren-Fair yahoos would do at Burning Man. (And I’m you’re basic Ren-Fair yahoo through and through). But I’m also a Dead Poet’s Society yahoo, so I had to go be in the desert with my self-expression. The high winds forced me to wear my dust-mask. Not one of those little paper SARS masks, but the full-on painter’s gas mask, with novelty goggles for good measure. And before I’d gotten through the 31 count kata, people were coming up and asking about aikido. Bang – participation! I was part of the show! I had new friends in Black Rock City! By simply walking out and doing something I enjoy doing, I had crossed over. I was one of them. I was home.

A Day in the Life

Most of the daylight in Black Rock City is spent lounging in the shade, waiting for the sun to go down. Often it’s just too hot to do anything else. This year was unusually cool. The temperature never got above the 90s, and we had no oppressively hot days. However, every veteran we talked to said it was the windiest Burning Man ever. Wind on the playa means dust storms. We spent a lot of time behind our dust masks.

As the week wore on, people continued to trickle in, and the space around our camp filled up. We enjoyed our neighbors; The Boa Babes, The Vulture Gang, an Aussie named Mick. An irritating and noisy family camped right next to us Tuesday night, but moved Wednesday morning. We had a typical leisurely breakfast. We’d been walking the Promenade in the evenings; the inside edge of town, around the playa, where the more spectacular theme camps are found. This morning I went for a bike ride in the other direction. For some reason I’m intrigued by the edges of this place, the boundary between Black Rock City and desolate wasteland. Plus I have a thing for solar system/planetary folklore. The ten orbiting streets of the city are named after the planets, and I got a kick out of following Sedna for awhile. I took in the non-theme camp sights, then headed back toward the center. I rode aimlessly around the playa, stumbling on mysterious monuments. This time I made it all the way out to the Temple, still under construction.

By the time I got back to camp the wind had set in, and we had constant dust storms the rest of the day. After lunch, Troy and I went walking anyway. There was supposed to be some kind of massive Lego event at Center Camp, but we didn’t find it. Center Camp is a sort of community center, a large tented area with benches, stages, and the cafe. Later in the week we saw a wedding there, with everyone dressed as characters from Alice in Wonderland.

We stopped at the post office so I could send a postcard home. It took me a long time to pick up on the fact that the guy at the window wanted some kind of bribe to mail my postcard. Lots of people carry around little things to give away. In fact, if you set up a mailbox at you camp, people will leave things in it. We received stickers, buttons, carabiners, and other stuff. But standing there at the post office window I had nothing but my sketchbook. I let the guy flip through it, and he chose a drawing of a car framed in the Boa Babes’ geodesic dome.

We went back to camp to batten down the hatches, but there weren’t any hatches. One corner of the Vulture Gang’s shade structure had ripped away from its stake in the wind. We repaired it with duct tape and reinforced our own shade structure. The stakes themselves were two-foot lengths of rebar. They weren’t going anywhere. That day a couple of our neighbors had to drive into Reno; one injured her foot, the other felt sick. It’s no joke, you have to drink water constantly. Towards evening some clouds rolled in. We had a sprinkling of rain. The wind finally died down. We cooked dinner on the camp stove and hung out with the neighbors. When the sun went down, we got suited up and headed out.

The chemical suit never quite worked out for me. As I said before, I just wasn’t into the idea of people writing on it, although I did draw a replica of Alyssa’s banner on the back. The second or third night out, I discovered that wearing my assorted lights inside the suit produced more of a hazy glow, which was cool. However, early in the week I managed to rip out most of the crotch seam. I had other clothes on underneath, but I didn’t want to walk around with big white crotch seams flapping everywhere. I patched it up with duct tape, but in doing so I somehow took out all of the slack in the lower half of the suit. Wearing it like that made me feel like a dorky serial killer. I tried unzipping it and tying the sleeves around my waist, but that didn’t work too well either. I finally gave up on it the night of the burn. Next time, I’m bringing a better costume.

Anyway, we went back to the Promenade but went counterclockwise this time. We stopped in at Frolic’s camp, who I had met on the playa practicing aikido. At the 3:00 plaza we saw some sculptures made up of orange traffic cones. We saw some fire spinners at a rave camp, and danced at a rave camp with a big green glowing cat head. We stopped to rest on some carpets by a big Earth floating in water in a giant nest.

I don’t know how late we stayed out. By Black Rock City standards, we were on retirement home bedtime schedule. Lots of people are out until daylight, hitching rides on art cars, roaming and partying. But we dragged our exhausted selves back to camp. That night, although I was completely beat, I didn’t want to go to bed. The air was still, the sky was clear. I sat on the roof of the van for awhile, watching a light show play across rising hills in the distance. Then I went for a short walk in the streets around our camp. A dance floor with flaming smokestacks drove by. I saw a long, bright shooting star. I felt like I was in a trance, like if I kept walking I would leave myself behind, and enter a new life of endlessly varying debauchery. But I was too tired, I went to bed instead.

My tent had been zipped up tight all day. Even so, the wind had driven a layer of fine dust through the fabric, covering everything inside.

The Dessert Cart at the End of the Universe

Some random snapshots:

Alyssa found a giant zoetrope on the playa. For you non-officionados, a zoetrope is an early animation device using small drawings that spin on a carousel. When viewed through the spinning slits, the drawings appear to move. This one used life-size mannequins and a strobe light.

At the theme camp Bop, people duel with stuffed animals on long poles. Another theme camp had two combatants with boffer-swords under a Thunderdome, complete with bungee harnesses. I wanted in, but there was always a line and too much to see elsewhere.

One theme camp looks like it was placed there by the devil himself. The main attraction is a crude roller coaster in the shape of a U. It’s surrounded by gouts of flame, half-nude people dancing in cages, and terrifying hillbilly barkers.

At night Black Rock City roars. Techno music blares everywhere, and rock, and folk, and just plain noise. One windy night we came to the Bunny Hop camp which was playing music out of cartoons from the 40s, so we danced like 40s cartoon characters in our dust masks and goggles.

Out on the playa the noise dies down. One night we visited a monolith that drowned out all other sound when you got near it. Alyssa said it sounded like a giant cat purring, which it did, although the sound never wavered or stopped. We took turns lying in the hole, looking out at the lights of theme camps and art cars and being dwarfed by the sound.

Art cars. Some are small, one or two-man affairs, some are built around golf carts, some are big as busses. I heard that last year there was a dragon vehicle so big, its segments had to trucked in and assembled on site. People drive around in human heads, a Gonzo head, giant animals, giant bugs, a scorpion with a flaming sting, parties on wheels, a pool party on wheels, a motorized couch, a hammock and palm trees…if there’s room you can always hop on.

Riding my bike one day in 3:00 plaza, near the traffic cone sculptures, a guy with a traffic cone for a head and a crossing guard vest motions for me to stop. With his two ping-pong paddles he silently waves a tiny invisible procession along the ground in front of me. Then he motions for me to carry on.

Walking around with Troy, the grim reaper passes on the other side of the road. “Hi, Death!” Troy calls out. Death responds with a guttural “Heya!”

Remember the old vector graphics video games? Someone built the tanks from Battlezone out of PVC pipe around these pedal-powered rigs, and lined the pipes with green EL wire. Occasionally we’d see Battlezone tanks gliding around in the distance, looking exactly like they did in the video game. When we found the camp, we took them for a spin.

The first night, we walked out to the Man, then back along the road between the Man and center camp. A little ways off the road was a crew of people setting up a sculpture representing the sun. They told us that it was part of a set of sculptures representing all the planets, which would be spread around the playa in a scale model of the solar system. When we came back in the daylight, the three innermost planets were within sight of the sun. Each sculpture hung inside a pyramid framework. On the ground below was a triangular plaque with a map of the whole project. Each planet had its own shape, its own materials, its own selection of music and sounds playing quietly. I found the whole thing beautiful and fascinating.

One day Troy borrowed a bike and the two of us rode out to the far side of the playa, and we happened across the Uranus sculpture. We decided to try to find Neptune. Most of the territory out there was empty space, and flat. We figured as long as we headed in the right general direction, we would spot it. There were some other sculptures using pyramid frames that fooled us, but eventually we found Neptune near a lunar landing module. Other than that, we seemed to have left most of the playa art behind. Black Rock City looked impossibly distant. It was also mired in dust storms, but we had clear, still air. The music coming from the city was audible, but faint. We decided that after coming this far, we ought to go find Pluto. We consulted the map on the ground under Neptune and headed out.

Surprisingly, there was still a long distance between us and the orange plastic trash fence, and Pluto was practically right up against it. They say Jericho was the first city built by humans. Sometimes I try to imagine what it was like living in the world’s first city, with nothing but wilderness beyond those rough stone walls. How would it feel to stand on that border of fledgling civilization and gaze into unfeeling chaos? Or to cross over into the void, and see how far you dared to go? That’s sort of how I felt going out to the trash fence, with humanity on one side and miles of wasteland on the other. The noise of Black Rock City faded away completely. A familiar pyramid framework appeared ahead of us. I anticipated glorious desolation, mystical emptiness out here with our solar system’s most remote island. I did not anticipate frosty chocolate drinks.

The Pluto sculpture was all rawhide and sinew. Coarse and eccentric, content as the planetary black sheep. But I couldn’t really hear the music for Pluto, because this guy was there with his dessert cart, asking us if we wanted a chocolate drink. He opened his little cabinet doors with a doctored Starbucks logo reading “Crappuccino,” pulled out a blender, and poured us each a cup. It’s a Douglas Adams universe after all.

The Burn

Saturday. Hot, but no wind storms at all! It’s a burn day miracle! We wander and lounge during the day. The plan is to pack up everything we can get away with packing tonight, before the burn. Tomorrow morning we’ll get on the road early. Hardcore burners stay for the Temple burn on Sunday night, but we’ve got to get back to our lives. We share a spaghetti dinner with the Vulture Gang. At dusk we head toward the Man.

A circle was marked on the ground around the Man, maybe 50 yards out, and a crowd had already formed around it. We got a spot three or four rows back from the front. Behind the people sitting and standing, art cars circled like covered wagons, a continuous wall of lights and music and monsters with people clinging everywhere. We sat on the ground and waited. After it got good and dark, a procession of fire spinners started up, making a slow circuit in front of the crowd. For the most part, this was tedious. I kept waiting for some big synchronized spectacle, but all they would do is swing their torches forward and back. Eventually some cool stuff came along: people doing tricks with flaming swords, flaming fans, flaming hoops, a flaming whip. The best part was the row of fire breathers who passed a fireball through the air. But most of the show paled in comparison to fire spinners we’d seen at random on the playa. People started screaming for the Man to burn. One guy behind us screamed like a quintessential sports fan, “BUUUURRRRN THAT FUCKER!” After all the amazing things we’ve been immersed in all week, why are we so anxious to see this big statue lit on fire?

The spinners faded away, and the fireworks erupted. Giant sparks fountained up around the Man, shooting from the ground to high above his head. Then flames appeared in the structure beneath the Man, creeping up slowly, slowly. They crept up the sides of the dome, crept up the Man’s legs, continued the slow creeping even when the gallery below was a raging inferno. The blue lights adorning the Man went out one by one. The guywires holding his arms in their upraised position snapped. More sparks shot from his hands. The burning dome shifted and dropped, but some unseen support kept the Man in place. The flames still hadn’t reached his head, but finally he toppled into the blaze below.

Afterwards we wandered around the playa. The whole city was out there, roaming by foot, pedal and motor. It was easy to lose our bearings without the Man; when standing, he had been a landmark visible from anywhere in Black Rock City. Eventually we came back to the pile of crackling embers. A crowd moved around the edge together, by some random unspoken consensus, in a slow circle.

My sensei talked to us about magic one day. Magic is in how we treat things, he said. For example, take the wooden weapons that we practice with. We bring them to class inside a protective covering, we bow to the shomen when we take the weapons out and when we put them away, we carry them around the mat in a certain way, we sand them and oil them to maintain a fine, smooth finish. After doing all this long enough, it doesn’t matter if you believe in magic or not; you have a different mindset when you hold that weapon in your hand. It’s not just a piece of wood, it’s a tool for transforming yourself, which is what magic is all about. That’s why we train, or at least that’s why I train– to become someone who can cope in a crisis.

So look at how the Man is treated. He has a whole city dedicated to him, for Frith’s sake. He is the center of a ritual that arguably lasts the whole week, or for some people the whole year. In order to see him burn you have to live in an environment that breaks down your concept of reality. The potential for magical energy is staggering. But for what? What does it mean? That’s the absurd beauty of the thing; it means NOTHING! It’s just a bunch of weirdos building things and doing things that no one has ever built or done or seen before. As a community it’s nothing but a rich primordial soup, with random cultural institutions spawning and dying in the eddies of pure imagination.

By itself, Black Rock City is clearly not a viable organism. As a rant in Piss Clear pointed out, the gift economy utopia survives on food and water and gear trucked in from the world of dirty ol’ money and mundane work. The place would fall apart if not for Honey Bucket Inc. emptying the toilets twice a day. Black Rock City has to have a fleeting existence, there’s no way it could sustain itself over the long term. But it has the romance of the superstar who dies young, to be remembered in all its glory before the trash has a chance to pile up.

I did feel transformed after Burning Man, at least for a short time. As we drove away Sunday morning, I had a sense of taking the playa with me, that it would be there under my feet wherever we stopped. For several days afterward I was still a native of Black Rock City, working in Beaverton without a green card. We went to a park and I joined a Frisbee game with people I’d never met, as naturally as anything. Now, almost a year later, it’s all long gone and I’m as socially inept as ever. More than ever it seems. Someday I’ll go back. I’ll wear a real costume, and bring a bundle of things to throw on the fire.


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