This is my experience at Burning Man 1998, my second. I am relaying my own observations, and I do not speak for any other individual or organization. The experience is so unique I felt the need to try to submit it to History in my own words.
For the official Burning Man site click here.
After a 10 hour drive from Los Angeles along the eastern scarp of the vast tilted block of the Sierra Nevada mountains, I arrived in Reno where I would get my last bath for 11 days at a Travelodge Motel. There I met a man who had rented and driven a truck with friends from the Boston area. He had never been to a Burning Man before, and I briefed him on things to watch and watch out for. Happily he already had a good base of knowledge, since he wisely perused the www.burningman.com web site like anyone going to the event should do.
Man takes place on a deserted flat dry lake bottom, a 'playa'
as it is called, about 2 hours north of Reno. The road there winds
through some of the best scenery Nevada, a bleak state indeed,
has to offer while the small towns along the way get smaller and
fewer. Gerlach, the last ramshackle settlement nestled among an
isolated group of trees, is populated by Piaute Indians and people
who like being away from it all. Each year their gas station and
modest stands and stores sell as much as they can carry, and they
are generally friendly and always willing to swap stories with
The Playa welcomed it's visitors with a wide blank canvas of a crackle textured light tan thin crust extending for miles with no more than a centimeter of relief. Below this is a very fine powdery layer which gradually gives way to the mud remaining of the lake which covered this flatland months ago. Here and there along the intricately cracked surface are small stones as black as coal, giving the 'Black Rock Desert' it's name. Long ago immigrant groups suffered and died here, and the extreme dryness combined with the baking heat requires continuous water intake to survive. 100 degree temperatures are not uncommon, the shimmering heat reflects from the ground and into your surroundings even in a modest shade, and storms often roar through the region. The purple mountains jut upwards in tapered masses, bluer and more distant ranges peeking from behind the darker more naturally colored foreground peaks. Crisp billowing clouds boil up and disintegrate into fractal shreds against the deep blue skies, with extended cloud formations along the horizon shedding dark diffuse columns of rain. Distant thunder rumbles through the emptiness, answered by whooping from the arriving participants.
The site was across the county line from last year, in a section of the Playa under the jurisdiction of a local government more friendly to the event. This time the event was designed to allow a horizontal expansion of the tent city into a crescent formation a few miles across. A miles long fence established the limits of the event, and acted to catch the masses of inevitable wind carried debris from over 15,000 people expected.
The priority slogans are "Leave No Trace", as well as "No Spectators".
As I arrived, A gate greeter took my ticket, tore off part of it, handing me back the portion on which was printed the warning that I was knowingly risking death or serious injury by attending Burning Man.
A map was handed me bearing the concentric and radial pattern of roads established and labeled in advance, centered around the isolated focus of the event-the Man itself.
His inverted pyramid shaped head stood perhaps 50 feet above the flat surroundings, atop a skeletal wooden effigy with it's legs wide apart. His body and limbs, which during all but the last minutes of its life are pointed downwards, appeared like skinless wooden airplane models whose partitions stood exposed, like the floors of tall buildings laid bare by earthquakes.
Form fitting neon tubes wrapped around some of the contour pieces, others outlined the broad form of the figure. Surrounded by generators and banks of lights, the Man stood as a landmark over the gathering community like a red and purple neon Colossus of Rhodes. This intricately cut and built abstract mannequin was built by the guild of carpenters of the Burning Man project, based in San Francisco. The Man was on display in the city, crowded by and towering among the buildings, for some weeks before being transported to its final site where it dominates the scene. On the vertical faces of it's ziggurat-like platform, made of lumber and square hay bales, was painted a Celtic-like interweaved knot pattern.
As soon as I arrived, on the afternoon of Sunday August 30, pitching my tent during a lull in the wind was my first priority. Only a truck and a few vehicles of fellow residents had arrived then, and the flatness was interrupted elsewhere nearby only by the wide row of pristine porta-potties recently deposited, as they were throughout the site. 'Disturbia' was one of over a dozen distinct villages set up by organized groups of people, this one was composed mostly of people from Boulder, Colorado. I was part of the village of Disturbia, the sense of community in our village was for the most part achieved on a fairly large scale due to the efforts of some 150 people in touch during the weeks of preparation over the internet.
This was my second year, last year I was astounded at what I saw then and my experiences this year brought better appreciation of the mechanics of this yearly miracle on the Playa.
I pitched in on the building of some local structures, and volunteered to paint a batch of needed signs which others would attach to posts.
People did specific things which added up to the creation of Disturbia, and in the evening we shared our meals. I brought a lot more food than I ate, since everyone around me seemed to cook too much and gave a lot away.
Evening comes swiftly on the Playa.
As the diffuse shadow of the mountains sweeps along the Playa the surroundings dim steadily, and suddenly you notice the sunlit area is confined to a narrowing zone along the Eastern horizon. As the shadow line climbs up the mountains beyond the flatness the serrated peaks glow with the last coral pink sunlight, contrasting vividly with the indigo shadows.
Beyond all this the deep blue green shadow
of the Earth itself appears and climbs. This rising dark veil
of night, appearing as a vast dark broad soft edged dome most
prominent opposite the vanished Sun, is bordered from the deepening
blue skies above by a brighter orange diffuse band.
At an ill-defined moment the diffuse border of this widening darkness passes the zenith, and the sunlit atmosphere becomes confined to a narrowing pink region hugging the western horizon. Soon the stars appear, on this first night when few have arrived the Milky Way asserts itself among the brilliant stars like a trail left by someone carrying a leaking sack of diamond dust across a vast jewel studded velvet carpet. Overhead the great bird Cygnus sails along the Milky Way's path, while along the Southern horizon Scorpius along with neighboring Sagittarius guard the secrets of the shrouded core of our galaxy.
Hard lessons were learned and spread around early in the life of Black Rock City, a hay bale set alight had spread it's flames to a nearby thatched roof structure, leaving one of it's inhabitants homeless and wheezing in oxygen through a plastic mask while lying prone in an ambulance. The word passed on about this incident may have prevented a disaster later.
The official opening was Monday, and an amazing number of people arrived promptly. by the second night over half of the people seemed to have arrived, and Black Rock City was well underway. The tent city was poured into a design chosen with the lessons of past years in mind, and to lessen the much feared possibility of a massive tent city fire by allowing lesser density of tents per square mile than in previous years.
Tents sprung up in all sizes from 2 person pup tents to great circus sized structures, tall scaffoldings rising among them with tall poles sporting lengthily colorful banners writhing in the breeze.
Here and there playgrounds of sorts
sprang up, with things to lay on, bounce on, and climb on appearing
and being gaily used.
Among the assemblage of varied habitats giant mutated art objects were placed, a great octopus like being sprawled across the playa space staked out for a group called the 'Nebulous Entity', an 8 foot tall Rubric's cube, a giant cell phone, towers with wind catching tassels, a full sized jet aircraft made from paper mache', and so much more.
Among the things that stood out in my mind in particular was a 30 foot square Taj Mahal like structure made of framed chicken wire panels on which was embedded in transparent plastic millions of scraps of translucent plastic toys, dishes, and junk, all which was shaped into patterns which at night, when lit from within by rows of fluorescent lights, shone with the glory of stain glass windows! Little scenes within opaque outlined arches along the sides bore Van Gough like trees and figures whose shaded forms were defined by plastic of carefully varied thicknesses.
In the center camp was the nucleus of activity where info boards, first aid, and other services were available. The official 'Radio Free Burning Man' radio station was there, giving survival advice and music along with several other stations, all broadcasting in the FM band and all quite unlicensed.
At the border of the inner inhabited crescent at center camp was a beautifully modeled tree fashioned out of welded copper tubes. It shone in daylight with a ruddy metallic sheen and was filled with pumped water which dripped from the tips of some of it's branches by day, (under which many congregated) and was by night filled with propane gas which blazed from many of the same holes. Between the 'One Tree' and the Man, nearly a mile distant, stretched a row of tall lamp posts, on which the white robed lamplighters (a privileged yet humble monk like group dedicated to this function) hung lanterns each evening. They walked in slow single file rows, each bearing many lit lanterns hung along either side of wide horizontal wooden boards carried on their shoulders.
2) My Small Project
The project I had set for myself
was to build a large sundial, with PVC pipe, masonite sheets knocked
out of the bottoms of old flat file drawers, and old jars of cartoon
colour cell animation paint slowly going bad in my closet.
At noon I aligned the centerline of my 'painting', composed of side by side rectangular masonite rectangles staked into the ground in case of wind, to the shadow of a pipe driven into the ground at the angle above the horizon of our latitude, about 35 degrees, and aligned to magnetic North. (for a weeks worth of time keeping I could be quite arbitrary about the exact angle of the shadow stick.)
At hourly intervals I marked the shadow location, until darkness filled our location at half past 6 PM. I then painted a wide half ellipse with the convex outlined area within the half ellipse filled with a color closely matching that of the Playa, as if defining half of a fisheye photo's perspective. At the center of the ellipse, near the shadow stick, I painted detailed cracks emphasizing the surface detail around me. This detail gave way at the edges to horizontal streaky detail suggesting continuation of the foreground textures, all sharply cut off by deep blue painted skies at the outer portions of the masonite rectangle.
Radial to the center rising above the painted curved horizon into the blue were the black lines of the shadow markers, bearing fluorescent pink Roman numerals painted atop brilliant white gesso, to give maximum visual impact.
This occupied me until Tuesday night, and at times it was terrible painting in the hot sun. I had to sit in my air conditioned car at one point as I felt what I took to be warning signs to get out of the sun. A bottle spraying water mist keeping my cloths wet was vital, as well as diligently drinking 1 gallon per day. A daily paper handed out at Burning Man was called 'Piss Clear', emphasizing the sign of drinking sufficient water.
The heaviest sunscreen lotion available was liberally used and prevented me from burning, although I did get painful reminders periodically of patches of exposed skin I missed. In the early afternoons of a couple of the days all one could do was cower in the shade, but not in the furnaces of our tents.
Whenever one had to use the porta-potties in the day it was a terrible thing, sitting in a plastic sauna with the worst kind of humidity, feeling good only when the swiftly accumulating dripping sweat was cooling outside in the breeze. Later one had to be selective about which toilets to use, a flashlight at nighttime a must. Urine cemented mud covered their floors as the days progressed but the paper was always kept in supply. Many never got the word you were supposed to close the toilet lids afterwards to minimize the smell in between visits.
I had applied silver mylar sheets to the outside of my tent, and by doing so extended greatly the time I could sleep in the morning. Normally one would be awakened shortly after sunrise by the Sun baking the tent fabric and heating the air within, but with the reflective coating I could sleep until nearly noontime.
This gave me more flexibility in my evening activities and still get the 8 hours of sleep I so dearly love.
Music reberverated from a dozen places, live and recorded. The bands there were surprisingly good, pouring out hours and hours of ethereal dreamy music, with drumbeats always audible day and night. Out in the playa you could hear many sources of music, like tuning into one of those empty places in the AM radio band at night and hearing many faraway stations of discordant types warbling in and out of the distance, nearing any one sound source immersed you in that particular musical experience.
One definitely needed earplugs to sleep, but anxiety about occasional nearby explosions made even this measure only partly effective at times.
(3.) The Wonders of the Playa
Each succeeding evening got a bit wilder, with more arrivals and loud partying everywhere.
At least half of the people were from the San Francisco Bay area, with nearly half the remainder from the Boulder-Denver area, and the rest from everywhere else. I saw English visitors, and some from Germany, France, Israel, Japan, and Australia.
The average age seemed between 30 and 40, with representatives of all but the oldest in the population. There were few children, but a special camp existed for their needs.
Some of the men and women exhibited pierced nipples, a few with widely distended cavities forced into their earlobes. Many bodies were adorned over large areas with artful but prominent tattoos, and many women sported nose rings and pierced lower lips. Hair coloring was widely and garishly present, and perhaps 5 percent of women declined to cover their breasts, a smaller percentage of men and women walked about entirely naked, but mostly about their own camps. After a while it seemed normal.
And so it should be.
Our minds are so screwed up by the commercial media that any effort to reclaim an Eden like innocence has to run the gauntlet of shame and leering barbarians which are the legacy of what has been shoved down our throats all our lives.
Many people wore costumes evoking the personas they wished to live for that moment. Here you can be yourself, just being respectful of others along the way.
One indulgence often seen was people playing with explosives and fireworks.
Late Wednesday night I followed two shadowy figures carrying a large package out into the emptiest part of the dark playa.
At first they were afraid I might be the Law, but after I reassured them otherwise they confided they had some major and very illegal fireworks, I believe they were nicknamed 'star shells'.
I was then advised "You don't want to be here" !
Satisfying myself with standing not far from the person not actually lighting the rocket's fuse, less than 100 feet away, through the DV camcorder's viewfinder I saw a glimmer of flame, then a blast of sparks spraying against the ground as the skyrocket whooshed into the night. A column of sparks bearing the invisible rocket climbed higher, higher, I craned my neck to follow the dizzyingly racing projectile upwards until hundreds of feet directly overhead a dazzling spherical blast of blue and white brilliance steadily filled the sky! The sound of the blast roared across the black flatness as the Dandelion shaped mass raced to all horizons at once, it's far side sparks noticeably more crowded in perspective than those in the near half of the hollow spherical mass! They all went out before they reached the ground, and although I was concerned about hot clinkers falling on me none materialized.
It was terrifying and wonderful!
Then I watched the moonlit smoky remnants of the explosion, a radial patterned mass of spiky smoke trails, drifting like a huge ghostly long spined sea urchin against the stars beyond. The linear smoky spikes near me revealed perspective in their greater apparent motion compared with those stretching skywards.
I thought for a moment of Carl Sagan's 'Ship of the imagination' from the TV series 'Cosmos'.
A second rocket was lit, with equally spectacular results, crimson and green blazing spots on an invisible expanding balloon threatening to take over the sky. The moonlit smoke remnants were entrancing.
Thursday I finally explored the entire city, which took hours. Many were racing about on bicycles, some on odd home built contraptions pedal and motor powered.
Once you arrived, there was no driving about on the playa, a rule which ended the major cause of past serious injuries at Burning Man. The exception to this were the 'Art Cars' which entertained wherever they went.
Many of these cars were still recognizable automobiles covered with thousands of toys, etc., while a few were completely reshaped sculptures built over the essential parts, such as a 20 foot long shark including a tail which swished from side to side as controlled by the driver. Even less orthodox motor vehicles were there, including motorized couches, beds, a picnic table, and large functioning bars and performance stages complete with drinking patrons and amplified musical acts.
astonishing to me was a giant land yacht, with a sail some 40
feet tall and a massive sprawling metal framework extending from
the passenger area bearing big truck tires, two at a time.
This great land yacht ended up being involved in the biggest disaster of the event two days later.
Wandering into the emptiness here and there you would come upon isolated things people had set up. A metal sculptured sunflower sported leaves which in the wind banged out a hollow zinging rhythm. At an isolated spot was placed a full sized jet black monolith such as appeared in '2001-A Space Odyssey'.
One distant wonder was a peacock tail like array of radial violet banners, flowing and glowing vividly in the wind. This was made by the same individual who created the wonderful colorful giant tent I had so admired last year.
A triple towered structure, the 'Temple of Rudra', was another prominent but isolated horizon landmark, bearing a stage with large steps leading up to it between the 30 foot towers, and a group of metal mesh humanoid figures with insect heads sporting long antennas guarded the corners of this giant sculpture. One such figure sitting above an oval opening bore the multiple limbs of a dancing Shiva.
So many weird and wonderful things
were there, one camp had shallow swimming pools in which a group
of naked people were being coated with food coloring, creating
yellow, green, red, and blue people.
A rickshaw carried a young naked woman in a sheltered beanbag with shading palm fronds arching over her, with the driver pouring bags of dry pinto beans over her. She said it felt good. I can't count the times I made a point of NOT raising my tiny camcorder every time a woman passed by with no top!
Quite frankly human bodies are a quite common thing, while most of what I shot when I happened to have the camera with me were the art installations, the clouds, and of course the dust storms!
A group wearing U.S. Post office uniforms displayed model automatic weapons, in homage to the expression 'Going Postal' forged from so many grim American headlines.
Bill Clinton's effigy was made into a 'presidential lotion dispenser', with an erect model penis the vessel of delivery. Ah, well, he brought all that on himself. A bowling alley was set up, the 'Cock and Bowl' lanes, with naked players trying to knock down a set of penis shaped bowling pins. Their aim was very bad that day.
A chorus of Middle East style "YI-YI-YI-YI-YI-YI" cries brought attention to a long single file line of women riding bicycles naked or bare breasted, a tradition during the last full day of the event. This apparently became a tradition coinciding with the overall peak of the communities existence, just one more insane thing you can do en masse here and hardly anywhere else.
Colored smoke grenades dabbed the sky along the horizon with puffs of pastel hues. while occasional zipping model rockets left thin white trails against the mountains, twisting and dissipating quickly under the pervasive winds.
Thursday night was especially intense, in my wanderings I beheld two things I had never seen before. The first was something visible throughout the area, a laser beam more powerful than anything I knew could be made portable. It was an intense green, and burned a path through the sky like the heat ray of H.G. Well's Martians! It was so bright the column of light was stopped only by the clouds and distant mountains, the latter showing plainly the illuminated spot wherever the beam touched. I was told it was a FIVE WATT laser, and whatever it touched was too bright to look at. Someone put their hand into the beam and jerked it back in pain, a small sizzle pit suddenly in his palm.
actually lit his cigarette with the beam!
One person a quarter mile away suffered a swipe across his retina when he happened to look towards the direction of the laser at the wrong moment, but the spots in his vision were gone by the next day. I repeatedly warned the operators of the laser and everyone nearby to avoid exposing retinas to the beam, and I shielded my eyes with my hands whenever I was anywhere near it. Once when I was in my tent looking outside my car was brilliantly illuminated by the beam, vivid green crisply shadowed as the column of light passed my way for a moment.
Several times I walked out to the Man
to be immersed in it's isolated neon glow along with other pilgrims.
During one such excursion I beheld a glowing column of some bizarre
electrical parade making its way along the dark playa towards
us, and soon I was treated to something amazing.
Imagine complicated patterns of interweaved glow sticks flashing on and off in sequence so as to make dancing repeating patterns like that of complicated neon signs! It was a group of people wearing armatures over their clothing made of coiled flexible wires. These wires were coated with phosphors which glowed under electrical current passed through batches of such wires in sequence.
One such array
was placed over a bicycle which simulated through a rapidly changing
sequence of outlines a galloping horse!
Another wonderful such thing was a large butterfly with flapping wings, driven by a man sitting in a chariot behind, wearing a glowing streamlined winged helmet! This seemed like the infancy of future wonderful things, and was put together by a group reachable at www.earthcircus,com, or so they said.
Fountains of fireworks sprayed from far behind the foreground structures back at camp, and wild warbling music echoed through the region. The giant white tent nearby was lit by colored lights like a giant rainbow, with banks of lights on towers illuminating the nearby musicians. A great shower of sparks erupted skywards as a heavy grinding wheel had iron bars deliberately fed into it.
Wherever one walked, astonishing things appeared.
A huge hot air balloon, it's gondola held by several people, lit up its surroundings as a jet of flame was periodically unleashed to heat the air within. This was done only while the opening of the gasbag was actually over the burner as the breeze rocked the giant balloon back and forth. It's upper surfaces gleamed in the turquoise moonlight against the stars when the burner was silent. It's sheer size was astonishing against the sky.
A buzzing roar and distant flash of light attracted my attention, and another walk across the moonlit darkness was rewarded with the sight of a large Tesla coil, its metal horizontal toriod shape atop a tower spewing forth purple edged lightning like bolts, writhing and branching as their deafening sputtering roar tore through the night. This attracted quite a crowd, which roared their approval when the display ended.
A MacDonald's like clown figure was used as the target for a group giving lessons in making and throwing Molotov Cocktails (you use palm oil as a favored thickening agent in the gasoline) Mock Jesus effigies were displayed here and there, not so blasphemous as last year but I'm sure some would object. Burning Man is not for the weak hearted.
Some Cultural icons, such as Disney, The City of Reno, and the recently deceased Shari Lewis and Frank Sinatra, were leeringly represented by sick humored parodies. Unprintable lyrics were sung by a pair of women with loudspeakers to the tune of 'New York, New York', sometimes with such drunken glee they broke out laughing during the performance.
The music and explosions made sleep impossible for me that evening, I might have dozed off for an hour before noticing the orb of the Sun peeking above the distant mountains, adorned with coppery streaks of distant cloud.
Finally as the temperature climbed in the tent I gave up on sleep.
(4.) The Wind and The Rain
For awhile Friday morning
I stumbled about, knowing rest would be impossible until after
nightfall. A neighbor brought a solar heated shower rig, so at
least I got to shower (you just stood naked against the world
along with many others-no need to be shy there!) and washed my
hair, a very welcome thing after several days in the Playa!
Normally I soaked a towel with water and wiped my body off once or twice a day to keep, or at least feel, clean. Then I changed into some clean cloths. My comfort was to be short lived.
The initial brilliance of the harsh morning Sun began to be relieved by the shadows of the gathering clouds, and gradually it became obvious that weather was about to take center stage in the drama around me. There is a feeling you get when weather gets exciting, with every earthly concern, even exhaustion, being swept away in the awesome play of the elements around us.
Bursts of wind swept loose objects along the ground while towering cumulus clouds rolled skywards and merged with their neighboring towers.
I was half way across the tent city when I saw this approaching storm pouring out a thick column of rain. Around the dark rain was an eruption of dust being stirred up by the surrounding down draft.
People yelled "Take cover!" and sirens on towers and bizarrely customized fire trucks wailed in warning. The dense dust cloud, more or less shapeless in the distance, grew as it approached, and I hurried back to Disturbia.
As I arrived I saw great ground hugging
blankets of light tan playa dust on either side of me in front
of the mountains, with smaller local clouds of dust springing
up here and there around me. I made sure everything was secured,
paying particular attention to the flat masonite pieces I had
brought. Then a wall of dust rose before me, and first distant
then nearby structures disappeared beneath it's dense mass.
Then it reached me.
I stood outside with my still camera, taking pictures as others ran this way and that amid the swift flurries of powder sweeping past us and merging with greater carpets of ground hugging dust, large broiling turbulences sending diffuse billows high into the sky. Only nearly overhead were the comparatively quiescent cumulus cloud masses still dimly visible, all was tan below, with very dense gray patches racing past in a dizzying pace. Finally I was completely immersed in the densest part of the storm, turning about and taking pictures of nearby objects such as my tent disappearing into the opaque mass until there was simply nothing left to photograph. There was no visibility beyond 20 to 30 feet, and the shrieking gale carried scraps of tent fabric, plastic cups, empty water jugs, and anything else light and loose along with it in and out of sight. Suspended fabrics and sheeting rippled and strained against their binds with violently swift shudders. Larger suspended parachute roofs filled and emptied their volumes in great rolling waves along their lengths, frantically grabbed at by their tenants.
Among the shrieking winds I heard crashes of things impacting, screams of the afraid, and whooping hollers of the thrilled.
It made me think of Pompeii for a moment being overwhelmed by volcanic ash.
I could no longer face the wind due to dust in my eyes, so I turned my back to the wind, but it was starting to be hard to breath as fine dust passed down my throat. I put the neck of my shirt above my mouth and closed my eyes for a bit. I then strode to my car, and after closing the door sat in a relatively dust free environment, my last line of personal defense, with the wind rocking my car and whistling against it's sides. Yells and other sounds of chaos continued from within the irregular gusts around me.
For 10 minutes I might as well have had painted windows, but during a period of less dust I saw something which brought me out of my car in a hurry.
My tent was being drastically misshapen by the wind, the normally convex shapes of the dome tent turning concave on the windward side! I was afraid the fiberglass poles might snap or something, so I scurried into the tent, and held it's shape in place from inside against the buffeting wind bursts with outstretched arms.
Finally the wind subsided, and I moved out of my tent. Then I felt the dust, in every cranny of my cloths and body and hair. My long hair felt awful, it's bulk seemingly doubled by the dust. As the Sun reappeared, the dust, sunblock, and sweat mixed together into an unpleasant body coating I valiantly tried to ignore.
I had opened the window flaps to reduce the stress on the tent during the worst of the storm, and the consequences of this had to be dealt with next. Everything in the tent, sleeping bag, pillow, and cloths not in the suitcase had to be taken out and shaken to remove the very fine flour like dust which had passed through the insect screens. The floor has to be swept, and a tear in the mylar insulation repaired. But the tent had held.
The dust storm then passed by us and swept onto the nearby mountains, at times suspended in a discreet detached layer stretching along the horizon. For an hour I felt stunned, and avoided external stimulation while I recovered emotionally from the crisis. Nobody nearby was injured. I was hoping this would discourage the more casual visitors from returning, with the event more likely to be populated by those really part of the scene. As one member of Disturbia loudly announced, "This will separate the wheat from the chaff!"
Sprinkles of rain falling at dusk were almost welcome, but the moisture was not quite enough to do anything about the dust. Night fell, the fireworks and revelry ratcheting itself back up in the last full night of Black Rock City. More giant lasers, one a brilliant red, were in evidence whipping their beams this way and that.
Eruptions of fireworks shot from the horizon, and red flares arced above the sea of lights of the tent City. Some were fired from within the city.
Somehow amid the music and occasionally alarming noises, more subdued tonight because of the weather, I dropped off to sleep.
Never was I more grateful the next morning.
Saturday was the last full
day the community would exist, and I explored a good deal, photographing
and admiring the many of the imported constructs on display.
About 14,000 people had arrived, mostly dedicated Burning Man people arriving first then later a few thousand 'locals' from Reno and other smaller nearby towns. During the first several nights one had little reason to fear theft, but late in the event the word was out to lock any valuables in your car trunk when you weren't around.
Saturday was also a day the weather repeatedly made good on its own glowering threats.
Twice that day the dust storms returned, but this time I was better prepared. I had torn a sheet into a long strip I wrapped around my head leaving only a gap to see through. A set of swimming goggles with watertight edge seals fit under my glasses and I walked around my tent looking for problems, scissors, tape, and mylar in hand. The opaque gusts were more energetic and erratic than yesterday, but the open ventilation flaps caused less stress to the tent than before. The jerks and tugs of the wind, however, took its toll on the silver mylar coating. and as rips appeared and spread I leaned over the tent roof and made repairs. For perhaps 20 minutes I paced around the tent keeping up with the damage in the covering I depended on for a comfortable sleep. After the storm subsided the mylar looked like the skin of the Frankenstein monster with the patches and tape all over it, but the covering was intact. I noticed people looking over the scene from atop the 30 foot hollow wooden pyramid I had assisted in beginning to set up, and they warned about another wave of dust approaching.
Reasonably satisfied with the prospects for my tent, I entered the ground level entrance of the wooden pyramid and watched the man who built it use a power tool to seal up the opening with long screws. A structural weakness on that wall caused the side to begin to tear off during the last storm, so I was stuck there, with others seeking refuge until the storm subsided.
The perspective from the
small peak platform was a welcome change from being 'in the soup'
Most of the dust sweeping by was below me, and some sense of the scope of the event could be appreciated. Many smaller dust clouds moved in unified radial perspective as they approached, with the roads becoming hazy bright partitions of dust contributing significantly to the aerial mess. Low sheets of tan powder swept by a yard or two high, with masses of taller plumes racing along in swift surges like a raid from a ghostly horse mounted hoard. In the distance a fuzzy blanket of dust thickened and climbed on one side higher and higher, to fill that part of the sky with dust clouds extending from along a third of the horizon.
Groups of people were holding onto ropes, corners of big tents, and pushing against the wind on partitions to keep them from being torn loose, like sailors of old weathering a bad storm on a sailing ship. Most people had some kind of mask on, concentrating on their tasks as they passed in and out of visibility. I videotaped all this from my high vantage point, and conversed with others who had taken refuge on this small platform atop the bright silver pyramid.
Finally the storm passed us by, the stampeding cloud of dust swept up along the sides of the nearby mountains, settling into the valleys between the peaks like a ground hugging fog in an aged Chinese silk painting.
Someone told me 'Your hair has just gotten a lot grayer!" and sure enough even from this high up enough dust filled my hair to make a little cloud in itself as I shook my head. Trying to brush such dust out of long hair is an exercise in unpleasant futility, I took another shower, washed my hair, and was more fortunate in the weather afterwards than the previous day.
After I had dealt with my immediate concerns, word trickled in of events elsewhere in Black Rock city.
People were endangered by flying debris, tents were destroyed, and a giant nearby shade structure nicknamed 'Shadezilla' had to be renamed 'Shredzilla'.
Most disastrous was the fate of the giant land yacht mentioned earlier. It had been cavorting about when it was caught in the wind, piloted by an operator unwittingly incapacitated, with a dozen people clinging for their lives. In the gale it careened uncontrollably, tons of mass speeding towards the edge of the tent city with many cowering in their shelters. The giant sailed vehicle crashed into the triple towered Temple of Rudra mentioned earlier, it's terrified passengers hurling themselves off the out of control colossus just before impact! They were flung about like rag dolls, with one unfortunate victim having a leg crushed flat as the giant tires ran over him.
After the accident the poor driver lay prone on his back, wildly delirious.
It was at first assumed he was terribly liable but it turned out he had innocently accepted a drink from a short haired man with a portable gasoline powered blender. He had apparently throughout the day deceptively dosed several people with a powerful disassociative drug called GHB that I had never heard of.
The last day of Black Rock City
Here and there the fabric of responsible control the event depends upon began to unravel on Saturday. (the following story is probably not true, but I include it for it's warning value and because it's a good story)
A couple merrily wandered from their campsite leaving three Rotweiler dogs chained to a pile of beer six-packs, who shortly after being left alone struggled to free themselves as a plastic fire somehow started and spread in the camp.
The dogs frenzied struggles finally pushed down the pile of beer bottles, which in turn caused the upsetting and ignition of 20 gallons of stored chemical solvents. In the ensuing fire the dogs and three sports utility vehicles nearby were consumed, all while the couple blissfully wandered, perhaps wondering about the plume of black smoke extending over their neighborhood of the city. (this story is not verified by Burning Man sources, who would have known it it was real, so it can be dismissed as a rumor, one of many circulating during and after the event.)
A few people lost cameras, radios, and bicycles they didn't secure. Others underestimated the dosage of their indulgences.
Night fell, the fireworks and revelry ratcheting itself back up in the last full night of Black Rock City. More giant lasers, one a brilliant red, were in evidence whipping their beams this way and that.
In the darkness clouds regathered and it started to rain, first in isolated sprinkles like last night, then with sustained pouring, steadily turning the playa into a sea of mud. This mud would get on your shoes and pick up yet more mud, giving one instant platform shoes of different thickness from step to step. Fortunately the storms rarely last long here.
I retired to my tent, listening to the raindrops pattering on the fabric and the curses of those trying to walk any distance outside. I thought of the possibility of lightning, and of the metal scaffolding 30 feet from my car. Later in the darkness the rain subsided, and I decided to take a walk, then the rain began again. The activity this evening was more subdued, few bands outside and fewer fireworks. While glancing about by chance I caught an undocumentable special moment, a modest skyrocket burst nearby sprayed branches if golden sparkle about, two downwards and a larger mass which split three ways to form a transient figure on the retina of a figure not unlike Burning Man! I heard a woman from beyond the nearest row of tents exclaim "look! It's Burning Man!".
The brilliant green laser was fully engaged, this time as two parallel beams which tonight were shaped into two wide ribbon shapes, highlighting every raindrop within them. The drops revealed differences in the density of the rainfall and cross sections of smoke from cooking fires along their considerable length.
I then noticed something odd, an apparent dense region of rain which remained stable in its location as I stared at it. How can rain maintain any shape like that over time, I asked myself, then I walked closer to that part of the beam to examine more closely this queer phenomenon. It receded as I approached.
Suddenly in a flash I realized what I was seeing, something that very possibly has never been seen before. It was a laser rainbow!
The two parallel ribbons of green light bore two thin segments of a narrow arc of exclusively green color, with darkness on the 'outside'. Inside the main band was another narrower weaker band, then more crowding together into the outer fringe of the brighter zone of refracted light inside the bow. A weak secondary bow was seen outside the main 45 degree arc, with the characteristic darker zone in the space between the two bows. There seemed to be subtle sharply defined broad zones of light and dark well outside these more familiar rainbow features, and a distinct brightening at the distantly illuminated portions of the sky directly opposite the laser light sources, at the center of the arcs. With my back to the light source while examining these features the color was a pale green, but as I turned to face the illumination the falling drops shown with the stunning emerald green.
I walked under the twin beams and beheld an amazing 'V' shape against the black sky, an apparition of apparently infinite size, yet its shape could be altered by moving a little to one side.
Later, taking advantage of the dampening of the activity, I slept, aided by a healthy dose of Melatonin, earplugs, and headphones outside the earplugs listening to the white noise between FM radio stations. I was exhausted, and slept 10 hours that night. I would need it.
Just after I fell asleep my friend and fellow space artist Carter Emmart finally arrived, with his loudly but well painted station wagon sporting a wide acrylic dome on top and innumerable toys filling its interior.
When I learned of his arrival Sunday morning I showed him some of the sights, and wandered about myself as well to looking for things I might have missed. There is so much at Burning Man one is hard put to see it all, even over a week.
That evening it would dissolve
There was an edge of excitement
which steadily built throughout the day, as burnable material
was piled into heaps well apart from the main tent city.
A small truck passed by, bearing a scaffolding from which some conscious person swung suspended from hooks passed through the skin and muscles of his back!
The Man himself was swung down on its ankle hinges, being loaded with pyrotechnics inside a guarded fenced off zone around one side of the pedestal. From horizon to horizon drumming steadily gathers in amount and intensity.
Discreet unloading of explosives and fireworks were taking place, and piles of wood and hay were steadily gathered well apart from the main city here and there on the playa. Already bonfires were springing up here and there, and people carried and dragged flammable sacrifices to the flames of the evening.
About 20 people carried on their shoulders a wooden framework pyramid divided into many subsections. The music steadily picked up its pace and volume. shouts and sirens blared in the distance, and megaphoned maniacs made phony pronouncements, spewed stream of consciousness patter, and berated passers by appearing too much like 'spectators'.
Dusk settled in above a dying crimson remnant of sunlight on the modest cloud cover. drumbeats filled the gathering darkness from beyond several bands whose craziness carried the sounds made by their instruments into a careening warbling barely structured musical cacophony. It was dramatic and zany, the constant pounding beyond phasing in and out of the foreground music at hand. It all added up to a many faceted sprawling experience wrapped in the blazing sea of lights filling half the horizon, spotlights and lasers piercing the sky above while flares and skyrockets climbed toward the few remaining stars and arced back down.
Crowds gathered and shifted about, there was little focus to everyones attention, even the Man himself attracted only a minority of the population.
As Carter and I headed towards the towering figure, I noticed the first substantial change in it's shape over all these days-the Mans arms were up in a 'V' reaching for the sky instead of by it's side.
The end was near.
Three large wooden balls on tripods stood apart from the Man in an equidistant triangle, and they began to burn within, soaked in chemicals that brought a peculiar light blue color to their flames. Dancers, stilt walkers, and fiery baton twirlers raced back and forth and about the man, trumpets and drums thundered into the night as the crowd gathered around the 100 foot wide safety zone and yelled "Buurrrnn!!!"
Smoke plumes along the horizon climbed and merged, lit orange beneath and fringed with the light of the rising full Moon behind.
The Moon first appeared from within a patch of distant high clouds, as it asserted its maximum brilliance on this of all nights. Just above it was the steady bright beacon of Jupiter, the two brightest celestial bodies passing slowly across the sky in close formation all that night.
The Death of Black Rock City
Most people gathered in front have actually sat down, and chants of "BURN...BURN...BURN..." pass in and out of general synchronization.
One nearby man stands and intones in a low glutteral resonate voice:
"BUUuUuRrRrRrRrRrRrrrrrrrrnnnnnn!!" , lower and lower each time until it's leonine almost gurgling vibration brings shivers to me. It sounds like he is channeling Satan or something! His voice rises in a threatening tone and you can imagine him showing his lower teeth: "BUURRRNnnnnnn!!"
Other voices shriek out that word, often initiating another round of rhythmic roaring. Staffs and torches move with the chanting:
Flame throwers pointed straight up are wheeled into place, the hammering of the drums seemingly adrenaline enhanced as twin 50 foot fountains of fire roar and billow upwards beside the Man!
A naked statuesque woman stands between the legs of the Man, atop the pedestal like a signal trumpeter perched on a castles tower. She is stretching one arm to extend her staff skywards as her body arches in the poses of ancient graceful statues. Framed by columns of smoke, she looks up and gestures as if giving the OK for the energy building up the past week to be unleashed!
Fireworks spray into the sky from inside the fringes of the crowd, exploding and disappearing as red flares arc down and leave wiggly trails on their way back down. More fires appear along the horizon.
A flash of mobile flame! A fire sprite! A stunt man in a burning coverall replaces the woman between the legs, walks to one leg than the other caressing key locations, then gets the hell off the pedestal just as it is enveloped in solid white fury!
Fire spreads like lightning along the Man's limbs, one barely has time to appreciate the start of the key event of the gathering when a loudly sputtering sparkling mass envelops the torso, white spears of light erupt upwards on all sides of the brilliant center, and an overwhelming mass of hundreds of incandescent spines explode outwards in a dense diverging swarm, spreading and arcing down like a titanic tree of light.
Disbelieving screams come from the crowd and adrenalin powered drums and horns fill the air around me.
Dense smoke broils from the hidden Man, sparing our eyes the searing brilliance of the masses of burning magnesium within. From the top of the towering brilliant plume roars spears of glittering fire, exploding and splitting into golden branches extending far above us.
The crowd roars it's dazzled enthusiasm at the spectacle! and the burning of the wooden man once again becomes the focus of attention as the pyrotechnics subside.
He is blazing from head to toe, the inverted pyramid head partly blasted away. The neon has died, and a many streamers of disintegrating adornments pour from the outstretches arms. The hay bale pedestal is furiously burning along its entire surface, the entire structure creating a great mountain of flame still shaped by the design of it's fuel.
The drumming reaches a fever pitch, the fire brings the silhouetted wooden skeleton in and out of view, and still he stands...an arm sags, then collapses, and for a time the Man stands like it is giving a "Seig Heil" salute from whatever corner in Hell the hard core Nazis are kept. The association vanishes as the remaining arm tumbles into a shower of sparks. The full moon ripples crazily above the flames, fluttering like Mars seen through a telescope on a night with very poor seeing.
The other arm falls, turning the rest of the structure into a kind of flaming effigy of the Eiffel Tower.
And finally the end comes, the house of cards collapses in on itself starting as the structure so carefully built into the man at last tumbles into a chaotic heap atop a flattening mass of blazing hay and wood. A final roar arises from the crowd as their prayers are answered, and the organization of the event gives way to frenzied anarchy as a surge of people run into the zone a moment ago off limits around the Man. The giant bonfire resulting is danced around, often naked, and the fringes of the crowd break off into dissolving and reforming wandering groups pausing at a hundred dumbfounding spectacles
are in no sterile theme park run by a corporation, you take your
life in your hands this night, with fireworks firing and misfiring
Merging columns of smoke from house sized bonfires luridly glow in the moonlit night, and a crazy drumming cacophony accompanies arsonist mobs running, dancing, and wandering from one center of brilliant fiery eruptions to another. You move about in danger, senses primed for your life and you try to avoid crowds, and especially crowds and fire.
Running figures scurry about, some in concern, others in mischievous deliberation. Fireworks are hissing skywards everywhere, I pause to look at a nearby display happening where I was about to go, then a big rocket explodes at ground level, bathing a scattered crowd I was about to be in the middle of with branches of shimmering fire. Someone runs, carrying a long board with a mass of flame on the other end larger than he is. A pile of speaker boxes burns furiously, hammered and gouged at by three men with long '2X4' boards. The smoke is crisscrossed by the great green laser acting as a rotating fluttering fan of multiple beams.
Bursts of fireworks explosions rise almost wherever you turn your gaze. A very loud sharp bang is felt as much as heard, leaving a sizable mushroom cloud billowing atop a tall smoky stalk, moon and fire light playing across its rolling contours.
A crowd has gathered around the local attraction, a Las Vegas show-girl attired woman dancing on the back of a large golden calf modeled with exaggerated male organs. I am reminded of ancient Babylon, and as I moved on in the distance the crowd erupted as the dancer dismounted the bull and possibly gave them really something to look at!
A fairly large tent (hopefully expendable) ripples into flames along its length in moments, loosened cloth fluttering amid the yellow masses of fire. Some very big fires are now visible, surrounded by silhouettes of heads and lance like staffs. One fire seems perhaps a half city block in size, well into the playa and pouring a very wide region of red smoke skywards. Many columns of smoke merge, lit luridly near the ground. People wearing variations of glow sticks stride and dance in groups. A big flexible glow-stick jump-rope is being tried out by a naked couple, unfortunately neither the rope handlers or the jumpers seem up to the task at the moment.
The community begins to die in great fiery sighs.
People throw things into the flames and run back for more. Horns screech crazily and drums ripple like thunder reberverating through the night. The roaring of crowds and the crashing brass bands echo against each other as clouds of sparks boil in shimmering whirling masses. Between the smoke clouds the broad curved masses of distant moonlit clouds stretch across the skies.
In one elevated pavilion people stand up to microphones, made to answer hostile questions and often provoking enraged amplified responses by an invisible OZ like character, accompanied by tall twin jets of flame which light up the entire region!
In the darkness around my feet a dark spot flits about, I dismiss it as an ash mote caught by the wind, but as I approach it seems to zig then zag as if consciously avoiding me. Could this be a small dark mouse? I try to get close enough to see in the darkness but it never lets me get near. It disappears under a strangers sleeping bag, I tell him I think I'm chasing a mouse and he says "It's the drugs, man!" I consider the possibility as I wind through the scattered groups of revelers and giant bonfires. The drumming and layers of throbbing echoing music in the night add to the surrealism.
I head back to 'Disturbia' to see how things are there. On the way I see the fabric walled pyramids near my camp occupied, one by a couple beginning to have sex, I veer away towards another with a man sitting cross legged inside, I recognize him and say hello just as I get close enough to see his forehead and face covered with streams of blood! His serene expression is jarring in contrast, just as I ask him if he's alright he explains with a grin he had been dabbed with animal blood by the Esthetic Meat Foundation camp, where wanderers were daubed in a kind of mock Catholic ritual. On into the dark corner inhabited by my car, the light left on in my tent did it's job, nothing disturbed...I wander about, climb the scaffolding and peer into the chaotic sparkling darkness.
All looks well, but just beyond the huge circus tent a wide formation of great underlit rolling masses of smoke rise threateningly. People report smelling burning hair. From uncomfortably close whistling shafts of glittering sparks scream skywards and explode. At times I amuse myself a bit estimating the time and distance of explosions between seeing the flash and hearing the bang. Many are less than a second apart.
It is reasonably safe, the worse of what can happen here has passed us by. Slowly the Moon travels over a vast party which steadily unwinds over the hours as the fires without and the chemical consciousness within slowly peters out. Steadily the pace of the action slows, more are lying prone alone or with lovers and little more than the drumming can be heard in the last hours of darkness.
As dawn finally breaks dozens
of smoldering heaps of ash are spread across the scene, and the
tearing down of what has been set up commences. Some will be here
for days and even weeks cleaning up the Playa, I remove every
trace of my visit, hauling to a nearby bonfire all the wood I
brought, including my sundial. The ashes will be collected and
removed by the Project, along with the contents of many incinerators
they have erected along the border between the tent city and the
Amid the frenzy and confusion somehow no one died, although over a dozen were hospitalized, and nearly 200 required medical aid during the event. Many of there were victims of burns, heatstroke, traumatic injuries, and drug overdoses.
A few were hurt in auto crashes outside the event, and several people were arrested while being stupidly arrogant about visibly flaunting the using and selling of certain intoxicants when they should have known better. As far as I'm concerned any place that would treat someone smoking Cannabis like a car thief or bank robber is guilty of a Human Rights abuse, however one must be discreet in a society which hates and fears and lashes out without reason but with much clout.
The day of the cleanup to avoid the long wait to get out I took my time, even using some of my extra water to wash the dust off my car out there on the Playa! That got me some stares!
Time after time I waved good-by to car and bus loads of outbound people, exchanging comments of 'See you next year' and gesturing appreciation for it all.
As I finished my cleanup a last wonder appeared for me from the far side if the valley.
A very tall thin swaying funnel cloud, made of dust, lazily danced like a translucent levitating rope. The edges appeared denser as the hollow pipe of dust revealed its structure like an empty bone under X-rays. The entire thin column drifted by, weakening as it approached. When I saw its point of contact with the ground go by perhaps a hundred feet away it had turned into a small but intense 'dust devil', swirling and gouging at a yard wide zone at the base of the dimming vertical snake of dust.
More rain gathered at the horizon as I finally left the Playa, after hugging my good-byes to those with which I had shared these 8 days of adventure.
Stopping at the same Reno Travellodge on the way back for a bath and stable rest, I again met the individual from Boston with the rental truck I had crossed paths with on the way in, and for a bit we exchanged tales of wonderment at what we had just experienced.
Many people obviously came away from this event with changed lives.
What does Burning Man mean?
Is it a joyous cynicism about the religious and legal institutions of society expressed in a hundred major efforts?
Is it a place to share the art and theme camps you create in a massive interactive assembly of insane and beautiful art?
Is it the need to create the land-of-do-as-you-please that society so hates and fears?
A place where you can be with many other like minded souls and go naked 'get crazy' if you wish? In a way it is all these and much more, it is a place where people consciously create a community where people share their inspirations, food, and at times help each other in a hostile environment.
There is both individual self sufficiency required and a sense of creating a communal entity to live within and consciously maintain in action and attitude. The needs of mass human interaction must be allowed for as much as the needs of the individual. The tricky part is balancing these dynamics towards maximizing individual freedom. Chaos and opportunistic mischief snap at the heels of the grand idea and always threatens to topple everything, and if necessary the community will dissolve and alight somewhere else like a moth moving to more comfortable perch. It lives as we give life to it.
The trappings of civilization and the many symbols of government and big business which we grow up under are mere talismans waved by people wanting our attention, obedience, and money. They amount to no more than tools to manipulate us to achieve a desired end.
In many cases these icons themselves simply appear in Black Rock City as parodies within the context of various art pieces as portions of a larger vision than the originators of these symbols try to push on us.
The gods on the corporate totem poles are taken down a few pegs and laughed at.
The malleability of the world we live in is manifested by our own individual wills, not those of the society that tries to write their definitions from above.
It exists for us a lot more than we do for it
Perhaps that is the real meaning of Burning Man, the power we always have but are so often blinded to or deny ourselves being exercised to create a world where the sum total of civilization and it's advanced technology is used to bring a human experience into being which goes as far as ingenuity can go just for the fun of it.
These days that is a good deal more than our aged sacred institutions can dish out.
The vitality of the yearly blooming of Black Rock City changes the lives of those involved in it, and marks the focus of potent creative forces. It and other expressive movements will spread into the culture the realization of the power within us. This was first hinted at during the early stages of the continuing shedding of cultural shackles whose most visible transition period occurred during the late 1960s. It grows and mutates as inspired genius directs it and as hungry souls adopt it. Despite such inevitable comparisons with past movements this is not a continuation of anything so much as a coming together of people to create a place to be for a week, where little is sacred and nothing is impossible.
Where such mass expressions will be sucessful is by the degree that they help increase rather than restrict the options available to people. Governments want predictable societies and will gleefully enslave us to do it. I suspect a lot of people are coming away from these events realising the existance of more possibilities than before.
Studio City, California.