This is my seventh consecutive experience
at Burning Man. Again this year the underlying vitality I have
continued to see expressed there is thriving. The number and intensity
of major art projects grows over the years, highlighting a vast
colorfully adorned tent city which functionally exists but for
a week. This annual art festival has taken on a life of its own
beyond easy categorization. A state of existence exists at Black
Rock City which is created by the participants which is to me
the main attraction of the event. That pulsing throbbing improvised
ephemeral society which flutters a thousand vivid colors by day
and roars a thousand songs by night is what I lived within for
another of its yearly life cycles. It is the developed state of
that existence I will largely dwell upon here, condensing into
afterthoughts most repetition of travel, camping and health related
issues covered in detail previously. Each year has an announced
theme, this one was 'Beyond Belief', which left a lot of open
Obviously I cannot credibly pretend that I saw anything resembling the majority of attractions there, for as in life many avenues go untrod and many things are heard of but not directly experienced. Another individual would notice some of the things I mention but merely within the context of the infinite variations of their possible experiences. The event has for some time surpassed the ability of anyone to see it all or even a definitive account to be written beyond obviously quantifiable things like number of attendees and a few statistics, and sadly the fates of people who become statistics. I am obviously wildly sympathetic to the event, but I present an honest account of what happened from my perspective or to the best of my knowledge, and major things going right or badly receive attention. The truth is that the vast majority of the experience was joyous to myself and essentially everyone around me. The tragic events which made world wide news this year receive due attention as a few sad paragraphs in this account of a brilliantly positive group experience.
The weather is the overlying backdrop of the occasion and is experienced by practically everyone so I give the background drama of the skies special prominence in my account, especially when it asserted itself as it did this year. As certain things happened I will mention them in order, although again let it be kept in mind that I attempt only to provide a reasonable sample of a necessarily limited personal experience rather than anything aspiring to completeness. I have added reports from various news sources including the Black Rock Gazette, as well as what are judged to be plausible reports from the Burning man Project web site's 'E-Playa' discussion group pages, with an evaluation given on how high above the threshold of credibility I believe it to be.
Once again I stopped at the home of dear friends in Grass Valley, spending the night and leaving for the playa following my friend Michael just before noon opening day. Unfortunately I slept horribly but since I had just made a longer trip with only a few hours sleep (and a short rest stop nap) I knew I would be all right for a drive only lasting 4 hours. I was frankly so excited I hardly noticed anyway, passing through the Sierras and past Reno and toward the empty parts north. As before we refilled up our tanks at Fernley, knowing I could easily make it to the Playa, run the car for a few hours to recharge camera batteries, and make it back to Fernley and save waiting in lines of vehicles of all sizes at the two closer filling stations. Driving along the 447 highway the widely undulating terrain gave stunning views of the next valleys ahead as one crested a rise, and the little GPS screen displayed the large outlines of this side of Pyramid Lake following the road to my left, or westward, The lake, nearly the size of Lake Tahoe, is only glimpsed from a couple spots along this road. There were obvious Burning Man bound vehicles of varied types visible during the entire trip. By the time these last stretches of wilderness were reached many vehicles of obvious destination stretched into the distance, but still widely spaced and moving at the speed limit.
The familiar entrance from the past years past Gerlach appeared, well roped off. We continued to the new entry way turning onto a good gravel and dirt road while slowing to Playa speed and then to a standstill as the line of vehicles backed itself up nearly to the road. We just missed waiting on the highway itself as the backup developed behind us. As we crept along in line I had time to regard the already well developed tent city lining the horizon ahead which a lot of people had obviously building for days.
The winds then picked up and we were introduced to the first of several dust storms to roar by that week. The Playa wasted no time in announcing what we were in for. 'White out' conditions briefly enveloped us followed by long sinuous tendrils of dark dust floating with the wind, caressing the ground and moving on like shadows of flocks of birds. The shadows of cars ahead of me made triangular prism shaped dark volumes in the airborne dust. The many orange plastic cones marking the entry route were uniformly coated with dust on their north sides, suggesting the prevailing wind direction for reference while planning the camp. It was about 3 in the afternoon, and for perhaps half an hour the line of cars steadily crept ahead as shrill gusts periodically rocked the cars. I thought of pitching my tent in such conditions, but at least there was plenty of daylight ahead.
As we approached the gate the pace picked
up, and soon the first layer of greeters were telling everyone
to get their tickets out and have them 'in hand'. A prominent
sign appeared reading 'NO DOGS'. This was one of the new rules
for this year, the other being that all but people on lists as
theme camp builders could show up no earlier than midnight Monday.
A young man with a slim knapsack had his hand up, finger pointing
up in a 'one?' sign such as what one used to see at Grateful Dead
shows when people didn't have tickets and desperately hoped someone
had an extra. This seemed weird to me, since tickets could always
be had, and he had nothing to survive with unless he had a stocked
vehicle parked nearby.
The first greeters to interact with individual drivers asked to see our tickets then motioned us on to the next greeter station, where a benevolent burly fellow with a big knife in his belt greeted me, saying "I'll take your ticket, and I'd like to take a quick look in the back, to make sure you're the only one in here" Amused, I said OK, and he opened the back door of my rented SUV and poked around to the point he saw the huge transparent plastic containers full of tightly fitted stuff and he was quickly satisfied there were no stowaways on board.
Apparently a few people have been making it a challenge to smuggle unticketed people in, some quite elaborately. One story was of an RV interior dashboard which had been removed and modified to hold someone inside, and on opening the glove compartment a greeter saw someones face looking out!
I asked if there was a nearby 'Media Mecca' outpost to register my video camera and he referred me to their official location near Center Camp. Another 50 yards later the final most interactive layer of greeters warmly met us. A young woman greeted me with a sincere "welcome home!" and a hug. She beamed when I told her it was my 7th Burn, thereby relieving her of concerns that I didn't know what I was in for. I was then given the entry packet including a beautiful site map, booklet, and opening day copies of the 2 main Playa newspapers. She also had a Media Mecca form and video camera tag ready, and we briefly discussed whether my Nikon digital still cameras cruddy video capability warranted a tag, and she assured me it didn't.
Past the gate the many consecutive signs fed us shreds of wisdom one at a time as we slowly rolled past. Some of the many signs read:
Speed limit 10 MPH
the vacant heart
of the wild west
burning man is a
self service cult
wash your own brain
Belief is thought at rest
"Now that we have seen each other"
said the unicorn "If you believe in me,
I'll believe in you"
Lewis Carroll, through the looking glass
Burning Man is a disappearing act
leave no trace
Finding a space in the heart
All equal far reaches no bounds
sound swallowed away
no waters, no bush, and no grass
no shade but your shadow
no flatness because
no non flatness
no loss, no gain so
nothing in the way
the ground is the sky,
the sky is the ground
no place between
just wind whipped breeze
tent mouth leeward
time being here
the awareness of emptiness brings forth
a ['heart' symbol] of composition
Black rock Rangers
making reasonable excuses
for your behavior since 1991
A miracle is beyond belief
but what is a miracle
but witnessing something
what was previously believed
to be impossible
once witnessed you now know
that it is possible
if you believe anything is possible
there are no miracles
only awe of what is
Josef P. Rosen
No life God on duty
are not here
to pick up for you
clean as you go
Black Rock City 2003 stretched like a
spider web patchwork of dense habitation forming a big 'C', shape
about a mile and a half (2.4 km) wide. A dark layer of tents and
vehicles hugged the ground, with whitish upper layers standing
apart made of RVs and dome tents. There are many white SUV and
truck boxes visible, but also plentiful shade structures made
from parachutes and other materials covering living spaces, with
many smaller tent and car setups as I prefer tucked in between
the major encampments and villages. The man already stood tall,
with the wide pedestal well on its way to completion.
At 10 AM July 31 a little ceremony took place accompanying the driving of a gold painted cement stake at the exact center of where the man would be, which had been reused for some years now after being pulled out from the bottom of the charred remnants. From this point the entire city was mapped out and built. The inner boundary road of the tent city was called the 'Esplanade', at a radius of 2100 feet (about 600 meters) from the Man. The 40 foot tall man, central focus of the layout and of the event, was located this year atop a 40 foot tall pedestal centered at -119 14 11.105358W, 40 45 17.162029N.
The concentric streets were named, from the inside out, Esplanade, Authority, Creed, Dogma, Evidence, Faith, Gospel, Reality, Theory, and finally Vision at the 4100 foot (about 1.2 km) radius. As before the radial streets were arranged in 15 degree intervals, minus the northern '10 to 2' portion of the dial which is sparsely populated with art objects. In practice people often converted the street names into clock face numbers rather than relearn the new yearly names. I will only mention the street names of roads I drove past while looking for a camping site.
The wind was sweeping wide barricades of dust into the distance as we finally turned right on the first accessible radial road in the '6:30' location, named 'Sublime'. At the fifth street in, 'Creed', the roped off zone dedicated to theme camps presented itself, and we turned left, the usual direction we take into the young tent city. We passed large regions which were staked out with nobody there. We assumed this would give way to more open space as we went along but through out the inner four concentric 'blocks' beyond the limit of dedicated theme camp area all one saw was a patchwork of staked out plastic barrier partitions with perhaps a quarter of these also enclosing wood, piping and other signs of ongoing effort.
Somewhere in our clockwise travel between 'Faith' and 'Gospel' past the radial roads 'Literal', 'Ridiculous', and 'Revered' a large camp had not only taken up the entire block, they had decided to establish an extra road in the middle, further reducing the space available for camping! They expressed hostility at our expressions of disbelief that this was being done, and we then moved out past 'Imagined' diagonally into another block to find that one cordoned off as well. Finding the other end of the block empty but still within the territory marked by fuzzy pink bar stools, we got out of our cars and respectfully appealed to those building the hot pink stage for some space at their far border, and to their credit they took us in, admitting there were probable 'no shows', and laughingly proclaimed us honorary members of 'Pinkeys' camp. Later they made no fuss as about 40 percent of the far northern end of that block bordered by the '9 o'clock' street 'Real' between the 'Reality' and 'Gospel' radial roads was filled by later random arrivals. We were about equidistant from all three of those streets, at -119 14.784 and 40 45.678. according to my GPS unit
Although I had a satisfactory outcome, we were still a little too far from the center for easy access on foot. I wondered if I shouldn't get on a list next year to arrive early unquestioned. This issue was specifically given attention in the new rules mandating no early arrivals, yet a large enough number of people had apparently either gotten on a work crew list or had simply been admitted starting Saturday so that people arriving the first day would find the inner blocks already taken. I don't know that the far eastern portions of the 'C' shaped city limits were similarly overclaimed, this observation is for the region between the entrance and my final camp site. Next year I will go counterclockwise toward the north east and try my luck there.
The initial tent set up was quickly done in lulls in the wind, and there was even a little time to wander around before darkness. There was a nice sunset that night as thin high clouds caught the red glow of the last sunlight filtered through great lengths of clean air. That night I slept well, with dreams of the Playa easing me into real similar circumstances.
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