BURNING MAN 2001
1. Getting there
Once again work on a computer graphic
animation project lasted until the day I had to leave for Burning
Man. This animation, 'New Horizons', is a tour of the surfaces
of planets and various moons designed to be video projected in
a tilted dome. I had nearly worked myself to death for half a
year. By the time my wife Cheryl and I took off for the Bay Area
from our Palm Springs house on Thursday, August 23, I was almost
acting on automatic with a faith that I would be glad to be away.
My first stop was the beautiful city of San Francisco where I stayed at the house of my step son, Matt Harris, a member of a 'retro psyche' band of rising fortunes named 'Oranger'. He has a nice house with other young professionals in the hills of the Golden Gate Heights district, from where the waves of Ocean Beach can be seen and their roar is the low background noise of the peaceful night. Just after arriving a fog rolled in, filling the air with wonderful glows from the street lights. After many weeks in the 100 degree plus Palm Springs weather, being in the fog was wonderful.
The next day, Friday, I drove to the Redwood City house of my friend Michael, and we then picked up last minute camping and food items. Finally we bought our water, the amount carefully chosen because of surpluses of previous years which risked overloading my car. This time I bought four 2.5 gallon containers which gave me my gallon for drinking each of 8 days plus some safety margin and washing. I stored them valve side up to avoid possible damage and leakage. To fill some unused volume I also bought three 1 gallon containers and a few quart sized bottles. Running out of water at the Playa is a worse case scenario.
Saturday we drove to Grass Valley, spending that evening in the pleasant Sierra foothill surroundings of our friend Gordon and his family. As we shared refreshments on the balcony of his house that evening the smoke from several fires dirtied the twilight near the horizon, but the stars gleamed down at us even through the light of an amber colored half moon. The magnificent Cygnus region of the Milky Way was beautifully displayed, like a trail of florescent powder irregularly dropped by someone carrying too much of it across a black carpet loosely strewn with diamonds. The next morning I took a hot bath in their big tub, the last time I would be able to do so for over a week.
The trip to Black Rock City took place entirely within sight of a massive fire 25 miles West of lake Tahoe, named the 'Star Fire'. From Grass Valley it looked like a distant brownish thunderhead looming over the Horizon, the upper winds carrying the top of the 'anvil' a good distance to the north. While we were still seeing the western side of the fire, great cauliflower like masses of this 'pyrocumulous' cloud slowly rose, their pale tan color bleaching to nearly white in the uppermost regions where they looked just the rolling billows of a storm.
As we approached the crest of the Sierras the plume proceeded to fill the sky until we were beneath it for what seemed most of an hour of freeway travel. The sunlight was filtered dramatically through it until only a feeble orange light outlined the fading shadows. The outside world appeared as though seen through copper tinted windows. Here and there on neighboring cars dim red dots replaced the usual dazzle of the reflected Sun from painted and chrome surfaces. When we stopped briefly at a vista point near the Donner Summit to have a look, the blue sky was visible only along the horizon below a rusty brown smoke ceiling. This ruddy canopy had a well defined lower boundary, the wider contours bearing great wavy undulations like a vast sheet in a slow motion wind. Tiny bits of white ash continually floated down around us and in the short time spent there thin fragile drifts began accumulating on our windshields. By the time we passed Reno the sun was nearly back to Normal, but this giant fire were visible the rest of the journey.
During the long northern stretch past the tiny town of Nixon trucks and other vehicles obviously heading to Burning man dotted the road ahead. Contrary to our plans sunset actually occurred for us well before our goal, although the mountain ranges far ahead were still sunlit for quite some time. At one point after cresting a modest hill the road ahead was drawn by perspective into a fine line in the vast shadow filled desert valley. The smoke above had thinned and stretched itself until it revealed vast lazy waves in that high layer of the atmosphere. Great rows of gentle troughs and crests swept graceful curves across the sky as they passed overhead, then began to overlap each other towards the horizon. For a while the crests were lit from by the sunlight above, then as we approached Gerlach the undersides of the shallow smoke valleys caught the dull reddish rays of the setting sun.
Breaking tradition, I declined to fill up my gas tank at Gerlach. After using my odometer to accurately figure my actual gas use I knew I could drive back to the station at Fernley if I had to and still idle the car for a few hours to recharge camcorder batteries. It was my experience that such idling uses negligible amounts of gasoline. This decision was prompted by the gathering darkness and my hoping for some light while setting up my tent. Arriving at the event always brings a flood of relief. All the uncertainties of planning, preparing, and travel are then behind me, and only the immediate task of setting up shelter remains. This year I complicated things a bit by buying my ticket too late to have it mailed to me, so I had to go to the 'Will Call' booth at the event. I told this to the first layer of greeters, who seemed to be there largely to provide initial directions and look through large vehicles to make sure everyone on board had tickets. I was courteously directed to the 'will call' trailer to the right of the line. After a very short wait, what I had feared could be a protracted hassle actually proceeded smoothly and swiftly, and I soon headed back to my car, ticket in hand.
At the main 'greeters' gate I was asked by one cheerful fellow about my degree of preparation and to his relief I stated this was my fifth year in a row. I then proceeded to slowly cruise past the many little message signs, staying below 10 miles per hour to minimize dust. Finally the great spider web like street layout was reached, flagged and posted on the then still largely empty canvas of the Playa. As before, the Man was at the very center of a mostly clear circular zone perhaps a couple miles across, with the inner and outer boundaries of the city delineated by concentric streets named for various identities of the themes of this years event, the 'Seven Ages Of Man'. Clock numbered streets extended radially into the roughly horseshoe shaped habitat zone so from each the Man could be seen along their entire length. I steered left, well to one side of the theme camps whose reserved zone extended not only along the innermost boundaries but deeply into the Southern habitat region.
While scouting out a good spot, the radio 'walkabouts' we used to communicate between cars were often chattering with directions and commentary from other sets of arrivals. I stopped between 8:30 and 9:00, a little inwards of 'Lover' street near the center of a 'block' to avoid being near the lanes of traffic. Fortunately it wasn't windy as our tents were set up. We laid a large plastic tarp down on the light cracked mud surface and secured it by driving our cars over it's corners on each side. This provided a decent protected space we could set up our two tents around, plus a third smaller tent we would use as a relatively clean washing and storage area. Within a couple hours the basics of our camp were up. A lot of unpacking remained for later, but it was good to finally relax a bit and try to make out in the darkness what was happening around us.
It was obvious many more people had arrived early than last year. On this Sunday night it looked like thousands were already out there. Dull thuds of music competed with the whistling of wind gusts and gathering lights flooded out the stars. Ground hugging masses of playa dust dimmed the lights beneath them. One local windstorm had us wondering if we should break out our breathing masks. We bought rather good masks at a hardware store which used screw-in filters, such as I used when airbrushing. The gusts passed and we settled down, ate, then prepared to explore a bit.
A young man walked by us, warning that a group of people in a large tent next door to us were being busted by the police. We discreetly walked by the scene a couple times while watching and listening. Some cops had been snooping around while slowly driving, and spied a scene of people dancing, drinking, and smoking while peering through an opening in the flap of the tent entrance. They out of their car and proceeded to separate the participants of the parties to obtain interviews as if a serious crime or auto accident had occurred! There was a Black Rock City Ranger truck there, and the Rangers seemed to be trying to cool things down. In the end the police settled for harassment rather than internment, and the party continued with just the intoxicants sanctioned by the state of Nevada. No one was taken away, which at least showed some relaxation from earlier times in that state when possession of Cannabis could get you decades in prison! At the start of next year Cannabis possession will cease being a felony crime there and will become a fineable offense as in California. The degree of human rights abuse represented by the earlier state of affairs is apparently steadily being recognized and corrected.
The word got out quickly from this and presumably other incidents of this type to be very discreet while smoking Cannabis. In the survival guide a section was devoted to outlining our rights under the law and reasonable precautions to take, in response to queries made to the organization following the feeding frenzy of harassment last year. So far as the idea of the enjoyment of pleasures among consenting adults is concerned, police and particularly the Bureau of Land Management are a bit like terrorists-if you allow them to intimidate you from enjoying your freedoms, you're letting them win.
For a few moments I again appreciated the size of the early crowd and tried to imagine what it would be like in a few days. As I settled down my tent was steadily transformed into a little home. I placed my battery powered fans and flashlight within reach before extinguishing the lights, and I then started the first of many peaceful nights of sleep won by choosing a relatively quiet location.
2. The city develops.
Monday, the official opening day, started out with the pall of distant smoke still filling the sky but gradually dissipating. The sun had warmed my tent promptly as soon as it fell on the fabric, so I spent the rest of the morning while the wind was quiet applying sheets of thin mylar 'space blanket' material to the outside of the tent. Pieces of the brilliant thin silver sheeting made metallic rustling sounds as they were applied to the curving tent poles with the brown plastic wrapping tape. This tape stuck to the mylar quite well and in places the mylar could be secured by the tape extending from a silvery corner being passed around the holes in the edges of the tarp beneath the tent, then sticking the stuff to itself. Standing over portions of finished wrapping while applying yet more was a brilliantly heated ordeal when you happened to be where a lot of the sun reflected back.
While sorting out some of the many hastily packed items, I couldn't find my cigarette lighter and was glad I at least had matches to light my stove and such. It was getting very hot by noon, the dry air warming my nostrils when inhaling. I got out the sheeting I had cut last year to fashion kind of Arabesque headgear. I guessed the temperature was between 105 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit when Michael asked how hot it was and wishing he had brought a thermometer. I laid out the beef jerky strips Cheryl had prepared as well as dried apples from a favorite fruit stand onto some flat clean clipboards inside my car, where in the extreme dryness the remaining moisture would soon be leached away.
When resting in my tent just after noon I noticed I had developed a cold. I drank an instant vitamin C drink then sprayed myself with a misting bottle and turned on the little battery powered fans, the only means of keeping it cool enough inside the tent so not to be sweating. Going back outside later I soon found the very dry environment dominated my impressions and not my internal state. We struck out for other camps where friends were setting up, and soon were trading impressions with them. A merry gentleman distributing copies of the Black Rock Gazette passed by, and like Santa Clause pulled things out of a sack to give away. He peered into the bag, handing me a little lighter and Michael a tiny thermometer!
There was a constantly replenished dust plume emerging from the stream of incoming vehicles to the west. A lot of building was in evidence wherever we went, and finishing touches were still being applied to some of the major isolated works of art.
itself was upright, the neon lights in the upper body being attended
to by someone atop a tall 'cherry picker' crane. The design of
the Man was similar to previous years, with the 'skinless airplane
fuselage' like trunk and limbs and the traditional inverted pyramid
head. The pedestal was entirely redesigned as a tall Mayan temple
like building, the Man standing at the top beyond the reach of
the people. Although there were two levels inside, gone were the
days when one could stand between the legs. A hasty repair job
last year after some of the neon was accidentally damaged probably
was a factor in this change. The sides of the Mans pedestal
building facing the main procession broadly resembled a big letter
'A' with the second story opening giving a panoramic view of the
surroundings. To be allowed up there one had to have a 'passport',
handed out near Center Camp, stamped by responsible parties of
each of the seven major works of art along the main axis of the
event. Fortunately some of these art projects had stamps and little
tables out there unattended, but others required being at the
right place and the right time to obtain. I rarely missed the
chance to be out in the empty Playa at the time of sunset. The
lights were a good deal brighter than the previous night and the
noise level a notch higher, a trend which from past experience
would continue until the night of the Burn.
By Tuesday morning my cold was reaching
its maximum but so long as I was outside I really didn't notice.
It was an adventure beyond myself and there was too many remarkable
distractions to think about being a little sick. To a degree I
found it all hilarious. The environment drew the moisture out
of me as well as any antihistamine, but the dust occasionally
brought the need to blow thick blobs of dirty mucous from my nose.
I simply kept drinking water and moving about and the attention
demanded by the environment sufficiently overwrote my cold that
it was swept away in the experience. I noticed when in my tent
the few parts of my fabric getting direct sunlight radiated heat,
while those parts shaded by the mylar blanket were still cool
to the touch. I then opened up another mylar blanket, cutting
and taping pieces to cover the remaining gaps. I ended up entirely
covering three of the 4 sides, my uncovered entrance side facing
north. I was able to stay in there without the use of a fan until
the ambient air temperature climbed above 90 degrees around 11
A.M. If I had been willing to cover the entrance side as well
and figure out how to allow easy entry I could have made it cooler
Tuesday saw many more arrivals causing a backup extending from the event entrance through Gerlach and beyond. The smoke was nearly gone from the sky but the wind intermittently drove volumes of dust across the growing tent city. Once in a while a massive dust devil would parade across the region, standing upright and very tall. The temperature was at least as hot as yesterday, well over 100 degrees, and for a time around noon I cowered in my tent with my battery powered fans buzzing and a water sprayer in use.
A little later I underwent what would become a lengthily routine whenever I wanted to venture out in midday. First I would rub sun block over my arms, neck, face and ears, then put on the white sheeting, strips of it extended from the headgear and draped over my shoulders to protect them from the sun. My light but fairly rigid 'pith helmet' had a thin nylon line looped through the inner head supports so the loop under my chin could be tightened with a tug on the loose end hanging from the right. A portable misting device hung around my neck proved invaluable during the hottest times, periodically pumped to send a fine sheet of water over my face and front body. Between this and my canteen I could wander at will, swathed against the environment and peering through clip-on sunglasses. With my upper and lower face protected from dust as needed I rarely decided to bring my breathing mask with me except during the very worst weather.
Many people I saw out there were unconcerned about exposure to the sun, with quite a few baring all to its brilliant rays. There seemed to be a larger percentage of people going naked than last year, perhaps 5 percent overall and more equally divided between men and women. In some villages clustered through the tent city the percentage was considerably higher. There seemed to be less elaborate tattoos and metal body piercings in evidence than in previous years. The age group seemed to peak in the late 20's-mid 30's with members of every age group also represented. There were few infants, and fewer dogs, although I felt sorry for one black Labrador retriever which must have been absorbing a fearful amount of heat that afternoon. Such a dog was reported abandoned days later. I have never seen a cat on the Playa. Apparently people are more sensitive to the comfort of cats than dogs although there is no evidence I know of that either can take such conditions better than the other.
More large art projects were springing
up out of the Playa. One tan colored tent like structure in the
distance revealed itself after a long walk as a major building
project, a magnificent latticework of wood sheeting cut and shaped
into a cross between a Japanese pagoda and an Indian Hindu temple.
This structure, widely known as the 'Mausoleum', was actually
to be renamed the 'Temple Of Tears' at its intended burning Sunday
night, although at the time there was some question about the
state of the burning permit process. Still being finished, it
was already the most incredible thing I had ever seen on the Playa.
Many sheets left over from wooden cutouts used to fabricate dinosaur
skeleton models were adapted to create this amazing work of art.
Mentally 'book marking' this place, I walked on into the emptiness.
Finally the shadows began to break up the glaring flatness of the ground and the breeze turned almost cool. In this last 'Magic Hour' of daylight I no longer needed the dark glasses and I had to shake myself out of a sense of protective withdrawal to appreciate the wonderful character of the light around me. Walking out into the flatness, much of the surface was covered with a couple inches of powder preserving every bicycle and vehicle track, with rougher patches of less trodden ground bearing a fine pebbly looking veneer, actually tiny clods of the same dust cemented together by the last rains. Every curving rut and coarse surface roughness was outlined in yellowing highlights adjacent to their dark violet shadows.
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