This is my experience at Burning Man 1999, my third. 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.
Just before each Burning
Man I seem to end up embroiled in a desperate battle to meet deadlines
which by either haste or delay have been made to coincide with
the day I must leave to go to the yearly festival.
In the meantime, I have just bought a house in Palm Springs, and the bulk of the move coincides with Burning Man! We arranged to have all my stuff moved first, aided by friends and paid help, then the professional movers would move the rest of the house while I was gone at Burning Man. It was all quite a shoehorn job but somehow your subconscious self oversees just what you can do in a given time, and I knew somehow even in the worst moments that as long as I proceeded methodically and didn't get sick I would make it. I had worked under enormous pressure for so many weeks the fact that the end was in sight was one of the things that kept me going.
I strip away the rest of the room except for the desk with the computer feeding an illustration to a client over what I assumed were balky lines.
There was one more small task, I had to select some images and send them off to another client in the next few days, but this series was urgent to get out. Again in a while the attempt was interrupted, and I was starting to worry as the hours available for such attempts began to dwindle! In a short while another try was made and I returned to assisting the packing of the truck with boxes, desks, and more boxes. Hours later, aching, battered, and sweaty, I noticed the process had completed. I checked the FTP site and confirmed file sizes in place consistent with what I sent, but to make absolutely sure they had them I made full resolution maximum quality JPEGS of each file and sent them as enclosures to E-mails. I even went online later to see if they had been bounced back because of their 4mb size, they had not, I was sure I was in the clear and could rest at last from my duties.
The next day I bundled up my computer after making the disk I had to send out, packed that disk in a box among the 'Burning Man' pile on one side of the room, where items I knew I would need there were being placed during the sorting process connected with moving. Of course all my practical photographic assets are in that pile, as are camping gear, canned foods, first aid and other supplies. I try to anticipate the extreme conditions I will experience 2 days, and in a moment of reflection I imagine a tunnel of time with the flat playa on the other side, and me in the future on the other side.
On Saturday, the back of the truck was rolled down, most of my material possessions snugly packed within. My wife Cheryl drove one car with much of my stuff, I carried mostly my artwork and selected data, my friend Mike drove the truck which due to a speed inhibitor device lagged behind me. As we drove from Los Angeles to my new home in Palm Springs I could glance first ahead, then around me and finally through the rear view mirror and see my entire life being taken to a new place. This was a feeling I hadn't known since my move out of Salt Lake City a decade ago. I left with no regrets, after some ups and downs L.A. had on the balance been very good to me.
Having unloaded the truck
by nightfall, we drove back for my last night in Studio City.
The movers had packed most of the remaining things in the house,
and only the kind of work they specialized in was needed now.
I would sleep, help pack some more, then leave as soon as possible
on Sunday. I had to clean out my upstairs apartment, (I rented
two apartments during my last year there, my work being in the
apartment directly upstairs from our home unit)
Finally, after some last packing for Cheryl and finally filling my Mazda with all the camping stuff, I got out of town at days end.
The last thing I did as a resident there
was to walk to the back yard of the apartment, which was atop
a hill with a commanding view of the San Fernando Valley, and
take in the familiar view one more time. The flatness of the valley
was emphasized by a light mist seemingly crowded near the horizon,
above which the tan mountain ranges to my north carried the golden
light of 'Magic Hour' on every western side of their serrated
ridges, angular slashes of purple shadows defining every gully.
Above all the mountains a dirty golden plume of smoke rose from
a huge wildfire raging a few mountain ranges away, in a region
I must pass through shortly. The wide plume flattened and was
smeared to the East by higher winds, forming a suggestion of a
storm 'anvil' in the process. A few curls of smoke even made it
between some of the layers of air this side of the mountains,
looking like ghostly coppery snakes lazily curling while lying
on an invisible wavy mattress. On the way out I bought some canned
foods at a nearby market I had frequented, then finally I was
on my way to Burning Man.
When I returned in 8 days I would be driving to Palm Springs. Quite a transition between one life and another!
Driving into the night, I passed Palmdale, then through regions filled with the smoke of the wildfires. The Moon, nearly full, rose coppery in color behind the dark brownish pall, and one could imagine being in a storm from the moonlit outlines of anvil like shapes along the edges. Then an orange glow erupted from the horizon above the hills ahead of me, a roughly ovoid fuzzy region maybe 15 degrees wide which flared up, persisted a bit, then faded away. My first impression was of distant lightning, except for the apparent size. Only distant lightning events along the horizon get reddened that much by air, maybe cloud to cloud 'sheet' lightning was being seen through a curtain of smoke between us...? Then another flare, similar enough in behavior to the first to rule out lightning...what the hell was that..?...then another slightly brighter orange burst, then nothing. During the next 15 minutes or so they tended to happen in bunches of several minutes duration in between longer periods of inactivity. Gradually the freeway veered left past one of the mountainous borders to the Mojave desert, unveiling at last the first direct view of the fire itself. It appeared to be running like a river of lava down the mountainsides a couple miles to the left of the freeway. Near the fire the smoke glowed a lurid orange, billow after boiling billow feeding an enormous plume which was carried by the wind just above a small town on the right of the freeway ahead of me, the huge elongated mass was locally lit from below by the towns lights and silhouetted elsewhere against the moonlit sky.
I was coordinating my trip with some friends, one being the person I attended my first 'Burning Man' with in 1997. We would meet in a specified motel in Bishop, a town on a beautiful stretch of highway 395 which winds along the base of the vast scarp of the Eastern face of the Sierras. The moonlit mountains looked like a ghostly cliff passing from horizon to horizon. It was just past Midnight when I finally made it to Bishop, as it turned out only 20 minutes after my friends, whom as it turned out were running terribly late themselves. During the night I called Cheryl, and described the flashes I saw, and she related them to events in the news, what I saw were the propane tanks of burning houses exploding, lighting up briefly an area far outside the normal range of a house fire. Somehow it seemed ironic that buildings and fire were accidentally brought together along the way, and my destination was an event which in a way is built around fire.
After leaving the motel we stocked up on last minute camping items, food, and some water. We would leave room for and buy lots of water, but most of it late in the trip.
On an impulse I bought extra tent stakes, and a cheap sleeping bag to make up for the one that didn't get packed somehow. When paying for them a penny fell out of my pocket, and I impulsively bent down to get it. In a way I am superstitious about not throwing away money and bent down to retrieve it on principal while remarking out loud that a penny wasn't worth the calories it took to pick it up. On the way out of town the disk containing the images I promised to send were dropped off at a Federal Express office, thus completing the last of my assigned tasks. I was free at last.
Driving North East into Nevada, I underestimated my fuel capacity when going uphill and ran out of gas on a mountain road, thankfully near a pullout I could coast to. I expected a warning light first and indeed it came on just as the engine sputtered still.
My friends soon noticed my absence, and came back from the next town a couple miles ahead with a gallon of gas. Soon I was filling up my tank having lost less than an hour of travel time. We decide to bypass Reno during its Monday afternoon commute period, and wound up driving along a series of lovely secluded valleys nested among some of Nevadas parallel mountain ridges.
Much of the time we are the only car visible along wide stretches of roads, but as we continue vehicles packed for camping steadily appear. Larger slow trucks are encountered and passed in due time, and the scenery starts to dry out around you. There are signs of vast actions of running water, but long ago before the oldest scrubby trees appeared.
In the stark dryness near the Black Rock desert the arteries of America peter out into barely paved capillaries threading among the barren mountain ridges which shelter isolated green oases supporting a few groups of houses. Along such a road, two hours north of Reno, Nevada, a small temporary off ramp is announced with painted plywood signs. A small sign with an arrow announces
The turnoff could almost be a sign for a child's
Kool-aid stand, except for the volume of traffic turning off and
going apparently nowhere. I drive very slowly behind the dusty
trail of someone going too fast into the featureless straw colored
dried lake bottom, a Playa. It is a blank slate covered only with
a mosaic of cracks, about to be written upon by many people converging
to this spot from across North America and beyond.
Turning off the two lane highway onto a dirt path, one grimaces at the protruberences studding every yard or so of the improvised road and one only hopes by trying for the highest mean path for your wheels you will avoid scraping the vulnerable parts along the bottom of the car...finally after an interval of 100 percent hyper-attentive placing of your wheels the lurching wavy surface gives way to a softly rutted smoother region, and finally a smoothed temporary 'dirt road' on a very flat but deeply cracked hard dry mud surface. Along a series of posts of a fence signs with single words slowly built up messages...
I stopped at a series of
gaudily painted wooden kiosks manned with greeters, produced my
ticket, had a portion torn off and the rest returned to me, the
part with the printed warning to the effect that " You are
risking death or serious injury by attending this event...you
are responsible for bring what you need to survive for a week
in the desert...no firearms, explosives, or fireworks...no spectators,...leave
no trace" I am queried with an air of enlightened friendliness
by a man in a loosely fitting clown suit to insure I have understood
what I'm in for, I announce this is my third 'Burning Man' in
a row and that I brought enough food and water to last at least
10 days. Relieved, he gives me a map and helps me locate the camp
I am to be a part of. This is 'Tethered Aviation' camp, run by
friends from the San Francisco Bay area who are really into kites.
This year Black Rock City is designed in a radial and concentric grid which lent itself to finding things. The radial circles were centered on the 'Man', isolated within an empty space perhaps a kilometer in radius within the innermost road circle, named for the orbit of Mercury. Nine concentric circles were named for the planets in the proper order, while a series of radial lines were marked off as numbers on a clock face.
All these became major streets along which incoming auto and ongoing bike and foot traffic proceeded. One could say they were located at 6:30 and Mercury and be close enough to have a good chance of being found.
Some portions of the city were designated as 'noisy', others quieter 'no generator' zones for those who don't want to experience the event while sleep deprived.
As I describe the things that happened there I have tried to indicate when I am relaying heresay and rumors as opposed to events I witnessed with my own eyes.
Black Rock City Emerges
When I arrived night was falling, with only isolated campers and tents dotting the flat plain. Therewas still a sense of the stillness and isolation of the place on that first night.
We were on the innermost road 'Mercury', with a 'front row seat' of the Man. (which was not yet up that night) While waiting for the balance of the expected arrivals at this spot, people who had been there throughout the day told of hundred mile per hour gusts and sheets of dust scouring the ground. As if on cue, just as I started to put up my tent a dense mass of dust forced me into my car. Later as the winds died down, The balance of my companions arrived in an RV, including some I had seen last year. Among them was Carter Emmart, a fellow space artist and computer animator who had flown in from New York to Las Vegas, was picked up by the big RV at the airport, and then taken straight to The Playa.
Last year Carter was caught in the act of moving, and was only able to make it for the last day after an agonizing drive. Now things were more relaxed, we had arrived after our own adventures in our own little settlement with our own modest agendas.
I got my tent up with help at a critical moment, then I oriented it to maximum resistance to the prevailing nightly winds from the North. As it turned out my impulse to buy tent stakes was a fortunate one, some had become lost from the original batch. Soon I had a tight secure tent, with two and a half gallon containers of water at each inside corner...that tent was going nowhere! I now had a small private space in what was still a big empty void under the stars. Scorpius was above the nearby Southern mountains, the lowermost tail stars were not quite visible due to the mountains as well as our fairly high latitude. The Milky Way shone like a powder puffed decoration across the diamond studded black velvet dome of the sky, and the waning gibbous Moon soon brightened the Eastern sky and gave light to the Playa.
At last I was beginning to let go of the deadlines, the continual 'on call' status, and the hassles of moving, all fading into another life.
By bed time it had gotten surprisingly cold, in fact I ended up borrowing a wool blanket and was still barely being warm enough to sleep! This was different from previous visits, another aspect of the extremes of the place was revealing itself. The coolness allowed me to sleep late the next morning, as the Sunlight quickly heats the still air inside the tent. If there's a breeze opening the wall flaps of the tent will help, and since I use eyeshades and earplugs when I sleep only the temperature must be worked around. I considered covering the tent with silver mylar as I did last year but I never really needed to sleep late enough to justify the added insulation from the Sun, considering the conditions.
Tuesday Morning was relatively cool until past Noon, with graceful cirrus clouds sweeping across the otherwise Cobalt Blue sky. Once in a while dust devils, sometimes very large, would plow a path across the valley. Usually a dense violently swirling car to building sized mass would briskly roar its way through a neighborhood, feeding a rising tube often surprisingly smooth in shape towards the bottom, with layering sometimes evident as outer then core regions carried more dust along the length of the 'pipe'. Garbage could sometimes be seen a hundred feet or more up the dust tube, suspended where it became more dispersed and chaotic.
The Playa was extremely dry. I opened two packages of Pork Jerky from a specialty house in New Braunfuls, Texas, and let them air out to prevent mold growth which had spoiled a batch in an earlier journey. In a few hours, when trying the jerky it had become so dry one could almost imagine eating heavily flavored crackers crumbling into dust between your teeth.
Without proper attention to the physical demands of the place you could become a victim of the elements in a short time. Just before the event a story made the rounds that a local resident in Gerlach, visible as a few buildings and trees crowded on the Southern horizon, had stalled his truck somewhere out on the playa and was seen by a passing aircraft to be walking away from his truck, a big mistake. Nothing more was heard of him, perhaps somewhere out there his dry corpse mummifies.
You lost water without sweating and had to drink at least a gallon a day to keep up with the toll of the environment. Excessive alcohol consumption would be quite counter productive in a place like this. Around Noon the brilliance almost requires sunglasses, and I used some for the first few days. The heat climbs into the 90s and radiates from below as much as above.
As part of the morning routine I would wash myself off with a wet towel and then liberally apply over exposed skin the strongest sunscreen I could find, rated 45. An Arab style headdress was cut from sheets I accrued at the start of the trip, tearing out a sash sized strip to breath through in case I was caught in an intense dust storm such as I experienced last year. I would wear these with a semi rigid wide hat over everything. Such a hat was worth having, especially at night with flares and firework clinkers raining down at random. At bedtime I soon learned the usefulness of a wide brimmed bottle and I usually took a little Tylonol PM or similar elixir to help me sleep. Better still I tried to get to sleep by 2AM. When Auriga rose, it was time to wind things down, and you really wanted to be in bed before the entire constellation of Orion rose.
As the days progressed a community took shape, trucks stopped and disgorged parts of oddly shaped things, piping for scaffoldings, cables for lighting, and bundles of camping and food and especially water. I deliberately brought more water than I would need, just in case some was stolen or I wanted more than a couple showers. One never knew when one just might end up stranded here long enough to cause the authorities to have to make food drops to us! You have to be ready for what the Playa has lurking amid its vastness. The great majority of the attendees realized this, and few were wanting for the necessities of life-or a good sampling of its pleasures. Here and there larger tents and extended shade structures sprang up, scaffoldings rose and sprouted banners, and many more small tents, RVs, and home made dwellings formed the dominant 'ground cover' between the streets. There was enough space for the density to never quite get claustrophobic.
Many painted signs appeared announcing various groups, attractions, rallying times for this or that celebration or march, and slogans. A kind of gypsy tent city grew around you into a kind of dappled pattern of of shapes, sizes, and colors like a giant mosaic emerging from the Playa.
The population of Black Rock City
are people who travel there as if to a fabled paradise and bring
an attitude of humor, wonder, and a spirit of adventure to an
experience they are there to help bring about.
Many are there to be the persona they feel the freedom to assume there. You see people willing to help each other, with little episodes appearing periodically where a little gesture of kindness can do so much, like using your flashlight to assist a stranger in finding something, producing tools to help a neighbor complete a vital task, or joining a mass of people spontaneously rushing to help someone lift some huge heavy object while on the way to somewhere across the Playa.
People were setting up things brought there in broken down sections that would fit in a truck. Many buggies and pedaled vehicles were elaborately decorated and altered into functional art objects. One golf cart was turned into a stone age buggy from the cartoon show 'The Flintstones', another was made the base of a paper mache' lighthouse, perhaps 15 feet tall. A pedaled cart towed a placard emblazoned with warnings on pernicious effects of Television. One fellow simply towed an empty skateboard behind his bike, reappearing now and then with his characteristic noise through the event.
Many portable works of art were designed to elicit a quick laugh, others demanded closer examination or reading of quotes.
Standing a ways out in the playa one camp had several large signs one would visually sweep across the panorama while reading: WISH HOPE PRAY DREAM.
cut and gaily painted partitions and structures sprang up in many
camps. One nice item was a submarine seemingly frozen in the act
of surfacing in the Playa, made with two well placed sections
modeling a tilted nose and partial conning tower with the rest
of the suggested bulk being underground.
In the noisy Northwestern
zone, large stages with banks of lights supported by bannered
scaffoldings sprang up along the inner 'Mercury' circle. The size
of some of these seemed astonishing, considering everything was
built (and powered) by resources brought in from outside.
Once in a while something would happen without warning yet widely witnessed. I saw someone in a 'paraglider' type rig hurtling nearly straight down like he was going to splash into the playa, then in a swooping turn at the last moment ended up parallel with the ground slowing to running speed. I witnessed this but did not get tape, I made it a point to shoot video only a fraction of the time I was there. This is too unique a thing to only experience through a viewfinder, but I carried my tiny DV camcorder in a small pouch virtually all the time just in case. I was a 'good guy' and regestered my video camera with the Media Mecca people, but I had to tuck the 'tag' into the strap to keep it from clinking against the camera in the wind.
The pattern of development of Black Rock City proceeded as before, with the demographics I had noticed elsewhere. The bell shaped curve of population age seemed to peak in the thirties, with a scattering of infants, children, and old people (meaning markedly older than me).
Perhaps 7 percent of women wore no tops (or virtually none), maybe 2 percent of both sexes were entirely naked, although some were painted over their entire bodies. It was a matter of having fun and being a little crazy, not a display intended to invite sexual attention.
Compared to what I saw last year there seemed to be less display of body piercing, although there were many with large tattoos.
There was a sense of being with a large group of extended friends of friends, and people were in a good mood. Some costumes reminded one of Mardi Gras, there are over-the-top drag queens. Insane things appeared and occured wherever one looked.
The above, however, are mere trappings to what the event is about. People seem to go there to participate in various ways in creating an alternate world for a while, one where creativity of individuals and groups build up many wonderful and funny things which somehow adds up to something. The potential of inspired resourceful people permeates the tent city. It is an extraordinary thing to see appear from nothing, develop, and roll to its climax, which usually coincides with the Labor Day Weekend.
Even with all the excellent behind the scenes work by the hosting organization, most of the activity making the event possible is that of the participants themselves, who by the selective process inherent in the nature of the event are generally intelligent self sufficient people with a different world in mind than the one they have all traveled from. Once one sees what happens there for ones self, it assumes the kind of extraordinary air of a total eclipse or some such predictable spectacle, with something beyond the sum of the parts emerging from the efforts of its participants. Rarely does one see the sheer inspiration which is brought out in people, and how ideas emerge in others from seeing many examples of extraordinary things being created from ordinary materials.
In Black Rock City
Exploring Black Rock City is invitation to adventure. Even a trek with a destination in mind, in this case the village of Disturbia 1999 where some friends lived, was an unpredictable experience along its length. grabbing a still camera and filling my canteen, I set out along the road 'Mercury' and zigzagged as things caught my interest. A short way into the empty zone were a group of 'twin' sized mattresses painted like dominoes which people played by lifting and dropping the mattresses in appropriate places along the ground, dust puffing out as they landed. Further on, work was proceeding on a large ruggedly built horizontally pointing parabolic dish, looking like the energy weapons used against the aliens in 'The Mysterians'. I wondered what it was supposed to do! One especially odd sight was a tall clear plastic container set up in the Playa with extensions for arms and legs, with access through a hole in the top reachable with a ladder. The container was filled with water, then someone climbed up, placed a skin divers arouse in his mouth as he wriggled down into the water, and stood there for a time, bubbles rising in batches as he was in effect scuba diving on the Black Rock Desert!
One intriguing structure was a series of three scaffold towers with a large geodesic sphere suspended between them. A little further along was poor Barney the Dinosaur, displayed crucified with other plush dinosaur stuffed toys posed looking up at Barney in imitation of many an old painting. One camp had a map with pins and a sign inviting passers-by to stick one where they came from. Most of the pins were on the Western U.S., with Denver and the East Coast well represented. Some pins protruded from Western Europe, Japan, Philippines, Australia and New Zealand.
The thing I was most impressed with in my initial explorations were a series of very hefty fighting robots which were worked by remote control. I did not see them in action due to crowds, but even motionless they looked formidable. One was built like a bulldog the size of a bear with viciously curved spikes in its articulated jaws. Another was a hefty scorpion with an electric arc built into the stinger. This was nearly 7 feet long and must have weighed over 1000 pounds. His most impressive robot, however, was a tracked vehicle with a massive jointed arm ending in a three pronged claw which reminded me of one of those devilish machines depicted in the old 'Mars attacks' cards people were shown dying horribly in. It looked like it could pick up and kill a cow!
Finally I made it through the menagerie
to Disturbia. Just inside the empty playa from 'Disturbia' stood
a grandfather clock, odd in its isolation. Disturbia was a village
bordered with wooden tank traps and 'Danger-Mines' warning strips.
Here and there disturbing images and constructions were displayed.
Despite the formidable boundaries, once I found my way inside some of those who recognized me from last year welcomed me warmly.
I dropped off copies of video tapes I had shot in previous years to a couple residents I had promised them to.
Early in the festival one 'Camp' made themselves an excessive nuisance during their stay by continually yelling virulent insults to people with megaphones. After continuing their harassments despite official warnings, and even spray painting graffiti all about the population of the camp was evicted from the event, something you have to really try to accomplish. They let people do terribly risky things, and there's damn little they won't let happen, beyond a few reasonable things listed on the ticket. Consideration for your neighbors and a good attitude are things you should bring, and although every specific contingency cannot be written into the rules, when individuals continually act in a manner which can be destructive to the festival something has to be done.
More creeping restrictions do seem to be added to the event every year, each justified in the interests of safety, yet over the years it is a sign of how the event must accommodate the Real World as it involves more people. The most evident changes from the earliest years are that no firearms are allowed, or at least displayed, and driving conventional autos is not allowed once you set up.
These are of obvious benefit to lowering the risk of death to everyone and as such are a distinct evolutionary step. Other health department related taboos have more quietly crept into place, again absolutely justifiable to prevent mass food poisoning and many people sharing limited volumes of wading water. Prohibitions on digging sizable hollows in the playa are consistent with the 'Leave No Trace' policy which permeates the event. The new rule that got noticed this year was that the traditional Disgruntled Postal Worker group cannot wear realistic phony weapons.
I saw no guns this year except on police, who were on wide wheeled buggies and in occasional official vehicles. There were several paramedic trucks parked across the city, and even some fire equipment. A surprisingly large number of people had portable CB units on hand, feeding information to ephemeral networks feeding the flow of events into villages and command centers, and ultimately into the Black Rock City staff somehow running the event. One imagines the events unfolding a little as Napoleon mused on how the orders of the day were at best the opening act of a situation which takes on a life of its own once it begins. Most of the trouble that crops up is reported to and dealt with by a small army of Rangers, who are trained to compassionately exercise authority, yet to them is given the power to banish people from the event in case of real trouble. Occasional attempts at gate crashing is another task to deal with, ultimately dangerously violent crazies wielding weapons and such are handed over to the Police.
As it is the Police patrolling the event are remarkably restrained in their activities considering the draconian laws on personal behavior they could invoke if they wanted to. You simply never aided a stranger in obtaining forbidden things, and imbibed with the utmost discretion yourself if at all. This was not like a rock concert where many openly smoked Cannabis, from a casual stroll you would think no one was doing such things at all.
The fact remains, however, that without the invention of Psychedelic drugs and the rediscovery of natural flora with similar molecular attributes this event would be vastly different or nonexistent. Everywhere woven into the thread of the decor are mushrooms and hallucinogenic motifs invoking such states of mind.
An unknown percentage of participants probably smoke Cannibis and take psychedelics, especially the night of The Burn. A sizable number of late arrivals foreign to the population of Black Rock City drink a lot of beer and leave their bottles laying around in the darkness for hapless individuals of the former population to trip over.
Although the local cops were probably on the lookout for people being careless about such things and probably had the 'narcs' out, it is fair to say there was little evidence of the cops actively imposing themselves as 'lifestyle police', they were there to fill the role they should, to keep violence in check and to help people in trouble. Other transgressions, such as public nudity, were ignored despite probable laws to the contrary.
I don't really see this as a childrens event. If I were a parent I might be afraid to let children out of my sight over there, not so much for fear of bipedal predators but for the general low level danger factor. They need to prepare them for seeing nudity and highly off colour attractions, yet there are families which deal with this and bring their children. For independent older kids with bicycles what an adventure this would be!
What I don't like to see are people bringing small children and trying to change the event to accommodate them. Don't bring them if you don't want them exposed to what happens there.
Another problem are dogs. When visiting an elaborately painted camp I was accosted by a snarling dog, another larger dog was seen running along the roads barking and snapping at the legs of passing bicyclists. It is cruel to both the animals and the other participants to bring them.
The steady buildup of Black Rock City continued until late in the week, when something of a community emerged, growing in density and sprawling outwards as more arrived. Some 24,000 people attended the event in all, approaching double the number of last year. As the population grew, the lines to the arrays of portable toilets lengthened to half hour waits. At times musicians would play for those in line, and decorated embellishments appeared on the green plastic portapotties. One entire bank of them near my tent were plastered with large prints of photos of a young smiling woman lying in a tub, her breasts just above the water which was nearly covered with colorful rose petals. Once the wait was over, one always found the stalls in clean and functional condition, with little of the urine cemented mud buildup on the floor as in previous years. There were always long lines, even well into the night.
On Wednesday night a large
meteor or re-entering rocket debris streaked from one horizon
to another, breaking up into multicolored shards in the process
as the crowds roared in astonishment. (I did not witness this
myself but I heard the crowd.)
On the first nights one could see the Milky Way but as the city grew so did the light pollution. Nevertheless I was able to try out taking some polar star trail type time exposures near some of the towers built in the dark empty part for the annual opera.
The producer of these operas, Pepe, is a genius as a sculptor and a composer. I don't like opera myself but when I came upon one of his rehearsals I regretted the loss of not having made it to his earlier operas on the playa. He seems to try to evoke the feeling of ceremony and symbolism of ancient rituals in modern language and associations. The music ranged from African / Middle East like chanting to dreamy violin laced intervals. This year his temple had two towers topped with with pin headed skulls. My words are inadequate to do justice to how impressive I found the efforts of Pepe and other inspired artists whose work made the week unforgettable.
Lots of projects came to
fruition during the event, ranging from elaborate walk-through
environments to downright dangerous stunts.
On Thursday 'Johnny Jet pack' was going to make another attempt to fly using a home built rig. Word spread of this hazardous event and of the explosion which quickly ended his last attempt two years previously. He recovered from his failure both personally and materially and was ready to try again.
As I arrived a ring of firemen and BRC Rangers had cleared a circle of some 200 feet radius around 'Johnny Jet pack', and a couple attendants were making final adjustments to his 12 foot tall apparatus. The jet pack was tall enough to require a ladder to mount, with plumbing and tanks recalling the home built rockets of Robert Goddard.
Finally the attendants are acting like they want to get out of there, ladders are hastily carried away and Johnny Jet pack is alone in a home built man carrying rocket.
The countdown echoes from speakers, a switch is turned, and with a hefty hiss 'Johnny' rises, supported by a column of opaque gases...the contraption lurches sideways as soon as it is airborne, careens for a horrifying moment along the ground and smashes into the dried mud...hisses of burst pipes announce the impact, hidden in the gathering flames, I presume he wriggles out of his harness, soon fire is spraying from the mangled mass of tubes and tanks...the crowd mummers in apprehension, a fireman moves forward and sprays the wreckage as someone in near panic runs, grabs at his long coat and repeatedly shrieks "GET AWWAYYY!", they scramble away and the flames get hotter. Without warning the entire thing becomes the source of a deafening bang, and hundreds of brilliant glaring bits of white burning metal spray from the initial flash, their halo like glows overlapping until late in their flights. The echo of the explosion passes across the playa and attracted the attention of everyone. So ended the saga of 'Johnny Jet pack'.
Another rocket related event was
scheduled for the next day, a container of ashes of a gentleman
was placed on board a projectile which was widely rumored to be
about to be launched downrange a distance of 300 miles which would
briefly place the capsule in space. A launching ramp was constructed
with a 40 degree tilted track aimed to the East, and again a 200
foot radius restricted zone was placed around the ramp as the
countdown wound down. There were red neon lights along the structure,
and the rocket was obviously too stubby for the rumored flight.
These facts, plus the fact that no one was being cleared from
the distant playa along the 'flight path' brought a rising skeptical
outlook to the whole thing and finally, at the end of the countdown,
the gag rocket rose a few feet, fell, then exploded into a mass
of fireworks. A column of fire and sparks roared heavenward from
the spot. The entire launching structure was thoroughly sown with
fireworks and sparklers, and larger golden sparks whistled from
the fire and skittered upwards and occasionally along the ground
for a long time as the mass burned. A sizable fire erupted in
the distance, as the camp populated bt the banished group was
burned to the ground with no regrets. It flared brightly and left
a long trail of black smoke, the first of many huge fires seen
over the next couple days.
3. Black Rock City at its peak
By its maturity the tent
city was among the top 10 population centers of the state of Nevada.
an enormous sea of shelters, RVs, larger structures and towers
sprawled across about 3 miles, with empty zones established which
were studded with isolated art objects.
On Friday I climbed a 30 foot scaffolding (one rung at a time, pay attention to what you're doing...damn, it's shaky...) and stood up atop the structure as it jiggled under winds and the motion of other climbers, shooting 360 degree panoramas with high resolution Kodachrome 25 and my digital camera.
Gaily colored traffic moved along the radial and concentric streets below, people on foot in costumes, or wearing less than they could elsewhere...bicycles, some sporting flags and decorative constructs, and dust eternally climbed in the distance from where people were still arriving. At the center of it all, visible down all the radial streets, was the Man, similarly configured as last year on its roughly pyramidal hay and wood pedestal.
One attraction which ended up literally next door to me was an FM radio station, whose DJs had extraordinarily excellent material. I taped several hours of their broadcasting with a small 'walkman' type recorder for possible use as soundtracks for my video of the event. My tiny DV camcorder was stowed in a modest pouch hanging from my belt when not in use, freeing me to experience things directly most of the time, only bringing out my camera when something unbelievable cropped up. I tried to do a little of every kind of photography I brought - DV, digital, and Kodachrome slides. The low light capability of my DV camera was especially useful after sunset, and I even managed a sizable amount of smooth tripod videography, something I hardly did at all the previous two years.
Sunset on the playa is an extended process. First with little warning the shadows of the Western mountains creep across Black Rock City, causing the brilliant flat surface to dim slowly around you with the daylit region crowding to a narrow zone along the Eastern horizon. The mountains deepened in color and shadowing for some time afterwards. Coral pink lit and purple shaded desert mountains stood for some time as a beautiful backdrop to the fluttering and sparkling tent city. Finally the sunlight would leave the scenery and the clouds would have their moment against the deepening sky. At night the city really came alive, it was wonderful to walk and ride about in the night air, when the winds generally quieted down.
Each evening grew a little more intense in its activities.
Colored glo-sticks were liberally used in many variations to adorn costumes, with more elaborate electric displays carried about on a few pedaled vehicles. One example was a characteristic blue fish outlined in glowing tubes (Springs coated with phosphors with current passing through them) which were identically emblazoned on a couple dozen bicycles which congregated among themselves so as to suggest a school of fish. One of them had an animation of frames of a dolphin leaping out of the water playing over and over.
The neon lighting on the Man was this year a red outline accented by flashing amber tubes along the trunk. at perhaps 200 feet radius from the effigy a circle of lights was planted in the ground, the wiring buried with weatherproof globes exposed. At night they were centrally controlled to cause pulses to orbit the Man in a wide circle along the ground in a variety of speeds, widths, and frequencies. At night the Man became a place of pilgrimage, and the pedestal was often crowded with people standing and huddling between the legs. There was always a ranger present to protect the Man from careless people climbing where they shouldn't, smoking on the Man, etc.
Wandering about in the playa could be risky for various reasons without a flashlight, especially a head mounted one. Not only is it prudent to see where you are stepping, some damn fool with fireworks might just see your beam and avoid aiming one your way.
From the empty region centered on the Man one saw towers and large tents with colored lights illuminating them from inside standing out from the otherwise fairly flat line of lights along the horizon, all lit by thousands of generators. Here and there strobes and spotlights stood out, and fireworks would occasionally erupt from somewhere along the horizon.
Several centers of attention seemed to be buzzing with activity, I was astonished by a truck filled with electrical equipment and bearing a large Tesla coil, standing atop the vehicle like a tall metal mushroom. It periodically sprayed loud bolts of electricity from the top, and as I watched a man appeared, announced as 'Doctor Megavolt', wearing a silver armored looking suit with a bird cage 'helmet'.
He flailed his arms like the 'Lost In Space' robot as searing bolts leaped across his arms and body. The audience roared as he seemingly fought off an enemies weapon, massive purple sparks jumping and crawling along his arms and caressing the cage covering his head. The ring shaped fluorescent light atop the cage glowed nearly as bright as it would when plugged in.
It must have been deafening for 'Doctor Megavolt', but he was among the most discussed attractions of the event. Heading out towards the nearest edge of the inner 'empty' circle, a flashing strobe light illuminating a large disk attracted my attention.
As I approached, familiarity merged with revelation as I learned what the dish I saw earlier was for. Two strobes , not quite synchronized, were flashing from the focal point to the dish surface which was simply wood painted silver, and a rhythmic sound loudly warbled in a rhythmic 'wobbly spinning bowl' like manner which turned the immediate neighborhood into a unique environment.
There was a microphone nearby where people could add sounds which were amplified and repeatedly echoed, the current participant was wielding an Australian instrument called a digerri-doo.
People stood about and took in the flashing and noise, stared and listened, then moved on. Wandering about Burning Man was a bit little like tuning along the shortwave bands and pausing at the mysteriously complex sounds in the night, immersing oneself in sone strange place, then moving on..
A kind of audio backdrop
to the entire event was the constant drumming and techno music
in overlapping waves from one part of the valley to the other,
throbbing in the night. Some of the music was a kind of shapeless
clashing somehow adding up to something continuous. If you didn't
like the music, you continued on your way.
Brilliant lasers swept across the night like glowing rapiers slicing with impossible speed through the vastness.
Walking back to 'Tethered Aviation Camp', I passed a new sculpture composed of a framework, some front surface mirrors, and a green laser in the watt power range. The green beam was bounced repeatedly to form a kind of wireframe geometrical form about 20 feet high, defined by the constant dust in the air. Close to the beams every tiny mote shown like densely packed green stars.
The marginal echoes of a dozen rhythmic outpouring into the night blended like a choir of monstrous robot crickets the size of locomotives. The audio backdrop added up to something like the chugging of some great Victorian era machine, the heartbeat of Black Rock City. The music and especially the drumming continued well into the morning, only fading out in the last hours just before sunrise.
Friday night was a kind of turning point as the population was infused by more casual observers, collectively referred to as the 'Frat Boys', who generally come to drink and see naked women.
Women were drunkenly urged to "show me your tits!" and bottles began to be left on the playa. By this time your camp was hopefully designed with strategically placed cars, tents and such to discourage foot traffic by strangers through your camp except along the public thoroughfares. While earlier you could behave fairly casually with valuables, in the last weekend surge I considered it prudent to put anything you really didn't want to lose where it would be at least inconvienent to get to.
Despite the fact that up to half a dozen expensive bicycles were left laying around in front of our camp with little or no supervision not one was taken, and I heard of no thefts. While obviously I could know little of the big picture some hint as I perceived of the overall risk as compared to urban environments left me feeling quite safe there. In order to charge the batteries for my camcorder I brought an 'inverter' which plugged into the cars cigarette lighter and fed power into the battery charger for the two hours it would take while my engine was idling. I actually left the area while this was in progress, something against your instincts to do! Here I knew my car would not be stolen.
Black Rock City poured its light and rythims into the flat black vastness.
The whole thing was a kind of beacon from which the spirit of things I had once thought dead glared brilliantly. Attractions there existed for their own sake, not to sell products through. It was the kind of thing you might imagine if a migration to another world by futuristic pioneers sick of encroaching societies were to take place, especially if most of them came from the San Francisco Bay Area. This is NOT the work of 'hippies' or 'Deadheads' types. Although these groups loved a good time technology was not a major emphasis of the general philosophical approach they were known for. Individuals in both groups did evolve with the times, and many more grew up in niches of civilization which were nurtured towards acceptance of individually directed beliefs and lifestyles.
Some people need someplace to escape from the outside world that works so hard to pry into our private lives, and the thousands who made it there were a collective celebration of that freedom of spirit. This was a place where magic could be brought to life, where the collective wish was to have fun, to amaze and be amazed. It was like being in a vast dream where you bounded from one bizarre thing to another and you never knew what you might next see. Above the silhouetted domes and peaks of the tents a pastel colored haze merged together from the dusty glows around various major lights. Here and there soft conical beams shone skywards, with arcing red flares and occasional fireworks blossoming into spreading trees of chromatic dazzle.
year marked the maturity of the lasers.
Huge 5 watt green lasers burned glowing columns from one horizon to the other, clearly illuminated spots on mountains 5 miles away. Using elaborate beam splitting devices the beam was alternately split into a green spray of radiating lines, then smeared into a thin sheet of light which as it moved revealed every dust and smoke filled eddy in the volume of air above the playa as green cross sections, a large scale version of the display lasers make in enclosed smoky music events. It was as if a thin section slice of the dust laden eddies of air was repeatedly presented for our inspection. It was astonishing to see the mountains and clouds caressed at will with the green radiance. The operators were generally careful to keep the beam above eye level after instances requiring refinement of safety protocols last year. The lasers were a wonderful addition to the event and gave the skyline a uniqueness befitting Black Rock City. The operators seemed actively conscious of the responsibility of aiming something you could use as a weapon where no one would be from my observations.
There were only two occasions I saw the beam touch the ground, once when I was taping the display. I am glad I was only looking through a video viewfinder with my right eye and the other eye covered by my left hand as I held the camcorder! The lowest dip of one cycle of movement grazed the ground and dazzled my cameras view for an instant. I thereafter tried never to put the source of the beam anywhere near my central visual field when I was anywhere near the laser itself.
The sheer purity of the color made it a transfixing thing to gaze at these impossible luminous lines slashed across the dusty playa skies.
Another welcome side effect of the laser was its discouragement of the kind of continuous intrusion of the air space by police helicopters. They seemed more interested this year in patrolling the outermost stretches, perhaps looking for wanderers beyond the authorized perimeters of the event.
In a way the laser display brings to mind the technological underpinnings of the event. Radio stations fed music and commentary to anyone with an FM radio, and some even set up TV, web casting, and a short wave station was said to be set up out there!
4. The Extended Climax
In previous years the surge of madness was spent the night of the Burn, with weary people hurrying to pack and get out of there the next day. This time Friday through Sunday had a generous share of the fun, a 'buffer' day on either side of the Burn itself.
Meeting up with friends in Disturbia, we all were given blue glo-light plastic tubes thin enough to fasten into necklaces and headbands, all the better to pick one another apart from the nighttime surroundings. We wandered about, marveling at what we found. An especially bright floodlit center of activity turned out to be Hockey rink enclosed by a circular partition. A Canadian flag rippled in the wind as shredded masses of dust passed in and out of the spot lit region above the rink. A lone electronic cricket sound chirped from a tiny chip placed on an isolated empty metal drum.
The Day of the Burn marked
the traditional time to explore the community as much as possible.
The event has grown enough to make it hard to see everything,
one can in fact experience a good deal simply by staying in one
limited area for periods of time and let things travel by you.
I 'suited up' for the coming evening, with my stout hiking boots, down jacket filled with flashlights, batteries, a little food and lots of water. Lastly I remove my cosmic wizard hat which has been my companion for several days and donned my wide brim woven pith helmet, better for what lay ahead. I have been through two of these events and realize the importance of protection from clinkers falling down from fireworks. I stop and soberly resolve to do my best to keep a lookout for danger, and to do my best to avoid becoming a casualty.
The air of anticipation stirs through the roving currents of people as sunset drapes its coolness and darkness across everything.
Sweeping brushstroke like clouds low in the South catch the coral pink last rays of the sun along their under hanging tufts. The blueness of the sky withdraws to the West and one by one the life signs of this city assert themselves against the dimming backdrop. A curving skyrockets path grows like a time lapse film of some luminous titanic blade of grass, it bursts and sprays graceful frond like masses of dissipating glitter against the sky. Small fires begin to compete with the electric lights in outlining the horizon below the silhouetted mountains. The sky above is steadily unveiling the stars and later the Milky Way, which still shines even though the valley is covered with a glittering carpet of radiance. When photographing the nighttime scenery I had to attatch my camera to a tripod and hold the shutter open, but a coin was needed to screw the tripod head tight into the camera. The only coin I found was that penny I had barely wanted to expend the calories to pick up!
The usually random paths of people
began to converge towards the Man. Isolated gusts carry billows
of dust playing across the lights, forming a kind of ground fog
in which hundreds of silhouetted people are seen in a mass unhurried
exodus into the center of the darkness.
In the distance the masses almost merge ghostlike into the dust, the silhouetted people nearby were are outlined by lights playing our direction. Most walk, some are on bikes, and a few ride vehicles adorned with lights and glow stick decorations.
Here are the bicycles with the blue fish outlines held flag like above the rider, so is a bar on wheels complete with benches all around filled with sitting patrons. Here and there in the distance fires began to bloom. Wagners 'Rite of the Valkerie' blares out and echoes across the night from a Viking ship on wheels, filled with a dozen Norsemen in costume and weaponry. Other groups march or ride towards the focus of the event like parades from the various provinces in an ancient Roman festival! A contingent of yipping carriers of tall poles topped by blue glow sticks surge by, at times gathering themselves so as to bunch many of the sticks closely together.
An especially brilliant sheet
of fire seems to float in the distance like a magic carpet of
flame. As it approaches I resolve it into dozens of very large
torches being held erect by a fairly disciplined group of carriers.
They are about 10 feet tall and held slanted forward slightly,
all burning at the same height with enough strength to make their
immediate surroundings quite bright and warm.
As they march past, the night quickly regathers itself, and a new set of lights and sounds heralds a new presence.
There's a phalanx of about 12 motorcycles in a 'V' formation, their headlights forming a moving arrow zeroing in on the center of attention.
The Man still lays on its side as the masses converge, something isn't going according to plan. The fire dancers form intricate paths in the night air with the torches and blazing finger extensions they caress the darkness with.
niche in the outer crowd, one young woman wearing paper devil
horns on her head picks up two long torches and proceeded to twirl
them with amazing facility. She twirls a Hula-hoop while swinging
her torch bearing arms so as to avoid contacting the hoop, her
face an intense study in inner concentration.
I want the chance to see what was happening all around at the time of the Burn this year, so I didn't get there really early and endure immobility and crowd dynamics just to get the closest view.
I find the periods of timejammed in crowds to be the most unpleasant, especially when people lay their bicycles flat in the ground. The growing presence of discarded bottles bring another growing concern about looking where you stepped. groups of friends settle into place while people continue to converge on the area.
Seeing the Man burn is a little like seeing a rocket launch, the overview is as impressive as the closeup and in some ways better.
By the time the fire dancers around the Man are joined by a pair of vertical flame throwers the Man is up again, with part of the neon working. Presumably they tried to repair it and finally decided to just get on with it. A kind of ephemeral village has appeared from nowhere in a patchy circular zone just outside the congested part of the crowd. One cordoned off wedge of territory is devoted to emergency vehicles, firemen, and medics beginning a busy night.
Scattered through out the crowd are vocal characters, one especially loud man seems to spew his pent up vocal rage at the World around him in a roaring tirade at anyone within earshot. " God damn you! You chickenshit motherfuckers could be really fighting for your freedom instead ypu're just doing this, yer all a buncha pussies, alla ya! Fuck your silicon valley, fuck your bank accounts, FUCK your houses, fuck your BMWs, FUCK YOOU!!!" "Hey, man, ya gotta look for the LOVE in things, its obvious you haven't been getting enough of that" one young man retorts. The curses are drowned out as I moved on by someone shrieking in mock frenzy of our imminent death, but he sounded like he was just teetering this side of bursting out laughing.
Arms are down so I don't think the lighting is imminent, and I
turn around to get back towards my camp for a while.
Suddenly I see my long shadow in front of me and a hundred others converging from a mounting flare behind me, whirling around, I swear and get my camcorder out of its hip pouch, wondering if there had been a mishap or if the arms couldn't be raised after all.
A phosphorescent dazzle fills the night, turning the surrounding air into a vast diffuse volume of glowing mist as the man erupts into a growing burst of light. It roars like hundreds of backfiring motorcycles as layer after layer of bursting sparkling masses are shed and renewed. A tremendous column of smoke gathers itself , lit by the conflagration. This would be visible from space if anyone is watching.
Dense curving columns of rising light burst and subdivide like titanic subatomic particles fragmenting into diverging paths. Hundreds of meteor like masses burst from the thing and shoot into the air, skitter along the ground, and whirl about randomly, very few probably reaching the crowd due to the efforts of those conducting the event. The brilliance of the burning metals is just masked by the smoke to safe brightness levels, and the tall wooden mannequin soon dominates the view as it is converted into a massive flaming tower. The green laser beam passes through the upper part of the smoke, while another set of beams are fashioned into a broad fan like array of light dominating that quarter of the sky. The high and low tech lights of the night intermingle beautifully yet maintain dominance in their regions.
Finally the Man collapses into a massive heap of flame, great swirling masses of sparks spreading downwind over part of the crowd. It was part of my promise to myself earlier that I avoided being in the inner downwind zone of the fire plume, although I never saw anyone in distress from being burnt by things dropping on them.
Other fires dominate corners of the horizon, one very large fire seems as big as several houses, sending great rolling bulbous masses of smoke through a thin layer of dark underlit vapor in a manner reminding me of some volcanic eruption photos.
Drumming ripples across the darkness, shouts and horns send out responses to everyone and no one. People dance in small groups, here and there couples share intimate moments which will live forever around thousands of unseen people. The lurid glow of several fires embellish the horizon, but the brightest by far is near the green laser. I stare at the sight of these two juxtaposed sources of light, and I see the beam, aimed at a low angle to the ground, pick up dense knots of smoke along the outer stretches of the luminous pencil of emerald brilliance.
I 'flash' on a celestial sight this spectacle resembles, and for a moment I imagine I am seeing the dominant galaxy of this part of the universe known as M87. The round golden glow is as the spherical cloud of yellow stars forming this vast volume of stars seen partly above the horizon of some nearby world, the beam brightly lit in places resembles the blue luminous jet which emanates from that great galaxies center, with rolling knots of incandescent energy passing from the energetic core regions along their length.
The distinctive buzz of the
machine played with by 'Doctor Megavolt' rips through the air
and as I approach that area I again marvel at the violet edged
manmade lightning being fended from his head by a flimsy bird
cage. Standing atop the truck he presents a piece of wood to the
searing caress of the writhing bolts, the crowd roars approval
as he waves a new torch against the sky filled with stars and
sparks. a tall scaffolding with complicated piping attracts its
own masses, it is a set of drums somehow activating valves which
cause fire to spew from sets of nozzles in front of the drummers.
just beyond reach! Fire and drums blare as one and the crowd loves
Many people drop the bottles they brought wherever they empty them, and the toll of this littering grows. People run in the night and roll into glass without warning, and others lie dazed and hurt here and there as people surge about them. Forgetting to watch my way for a moment, I step on some ones arm, and I yell my apologies at a man lying on his face..I ask if he's alright and he murmurs a positive response "uh HUUUHH" and I move on...to my left a wide bonfire forms the backdrop to a forest of bobbing heads and waving clapping arms. Above them stride people on stilts in costumes making them resemble grotesque Balinese shadow puppets against the fire.
To my right another costume using long stilts extending the arms and legs creates the impression of a giant crab ambling about.
I come upon someone slowly rocking on his back holding his knees...I ask him if he's alright, he slurs out "No, I'm NOT alright!" and he mumbles about his feet. They are bare, with little things hanging off them, pieces of skin and glass. I tell him to stay put and I'll get help...threading my way past the bizarre ephemeral landmarks. I finally arrive at the emergency personnel zone, and a medic starts to deliver the same admonition to keep the area clear she must have given a hundred times by now...I interrupt yelling there is someone needing medical attention, and after a quick consultation with a co-worker she follows me back to the poor man on the ground. I start to run and she warns me she isn't running out there, I think a moment and agree. She tells me there are casualties mounting all over.
As the person gets looked at I wander off into the madness once more. People are igniting spray cans and other flammables under pressure and spraying eight foot long gouts of fire from outstretched arms. Another person sprays gasoline on the playa and lights it, the initial burst quickly turning into a mass of dancing blue ripples flowing across the cracked mud. I pass another casualty being tended by medics as I begin to make my way back to camp.
Finally I stumble into Tethered Aviation and find a few inhabitants sitting back gazing at the frenetically stimulated darkness I had just left. The laser sweeps the skies like a vast luminous mechanism seemingly defying the laws of physics with the ease of its rapid movements. A small ring of red lights glow around the edge of some kind of balloon suspended high overhead, a Burning Man UFO.
The rumble of a hundred bands and a thousand parties flows across the darkness and returns from across the valley. It is like hearing the lonely rippling cacophony in the nether world on the AM band between radio stations late at night, where surges of this and that signal bob in and out of the interleaved voices and songs. It is a fantastic thing to experience, I thank the gods of randomness for sparing me and as Orion towers above the laser beams I prepare for rest at last.
5. The last day and night
The idea of an extra day
after the Burn was brilliant. Not only did people have a chance
to sleep it off from the nights revelry, all the 'frat boy' types
and others just there to watch took off leaving a community more
like the Black Rock City of a few days before. A distillation
of the community had occurred with something akin to a sense of
relief in the air. It wasn't all dissolving like a hoard of cockroaches
when the light's turned on, there was some sense of vitality and
A sense of the prevailing
attitudes is given by an incident occurring right in front of
our camp. A collision happened between a motorcycle and a camcorder
using bicyclist, throwing off the rider and badly bending the
The motorcyclist was apologetic, and was ready to pay for damages, etc. but the cyclist was unhurt, and thrilled at recording every aspect of the experience. He was babbling about how he was overwhelmed by everything, how he had never seen anything like this in his life and how this bike was fated to end up this way and he was fine. In the meantime some fellow campers took the twisted wheel off and pounded it back into usability with tools at hand. The two people who had met so abruptly soon shook hands and parted company, each with a story to bring back.
Night was as about as intense as Friday, but with more of the sense that you were among friends.
People would form marching bands, with small torches and glo-sticks held and worn by people as they followed in merry columns through the streets.
Here and there people would haul out large objects and sculptures saved for the last night and burn them. Near us one 15 foot tall paper mache' head was dragged to the empty zone and fitted with a fuse which was in turn extended with a long pile of black powder. Several drummers started up, the couple who set this picked up torches, danced, and they added their flames with a third participants torch as they ignited the far end of the powder. It fizzed fitfully in the breeze, and with a little help from the torches the womans head, covered with written memos and phone message notes varnished into its surface, was ignited and burned furiously with a tall hot flame for some time. Other fires, a few of surprisingly great intensity, were present but at each there was less of the uncontrolled mob feeling of last night, these were more deliberate and almost a kind of local affirmations of the spirit of the thing. I wandered to Disturbia and noticed on the way a small home built Burning Man effigy being torched. This was probably about the size of the first one, and made me ponder the possible influences of all this.
A fountain of fire ahead of me at first resembled a peculiar firework spewing sparks only at a low angle, but upon closer inspection it was a motorized post bearing baskets on chains filled with burning steel wool. As the posts whirled bits of burning steel whirled outwards, at first nearly sideways then arcing down in a similar curve in all directions forming a kind of inverted bowl. The pieces burst into smaller sparks as they struck the ground.
At Disturbia I joined a party celebrating the engagement of Teiwaz and Debra announced the night before, in a geodesic dome walled with thin colored fabrics. A wedding band would incorporate the melted metal blobs from the machinery of the grandfather clock which they burned last night.
I volunteered to walk back to my camp to grab some needed supplies, and in the course of my 2 mile walk I took the shortest route through the dark zone, which was particularly active with random fireworks bursts at the time. It brought just a tiny bit of the apprehension soldiers in World War One must have felt when crossing a zone of shelling to make my way through the random explosions. My head mounted light was kept on in hopes of discouraging accidental encounters with such events.
The laser flickered its emerald shafts of light across the dusty and smoky sky for one more night, and when I finally arrived back at Disturbia we had a bit of a party for a couple hours. I was videotaped while I had just a toehold in this world for a bit, I probably looked like an imbecile but for the short time involved you can certainly afford to let go once in awhile.
The next day was time to go, I packed leisurely and periodically took refuge in my car from dust devils tearing through the region. At least there was no danger of being mired by rain like last year.
One by one embracing goodbyes
were exchanged with those I had spent the last week with, and
at last I was the only one left in Tethered Aviation Camp. The
most obvious sign of the population I saw were numerous dark patched
where water was dumped. Some of the smaller ones were orange,
a sign not only of their internal origin but that a lot of people
didn't drink enough water.
Another trace of what had happened here were hundreds of tiny bits of colored 'feather boas' you would see drifting and bouncing from the breeze along the ground. They were every color, white, fluorescent primaries, black, and seemed like seed tufts scattered by some strangely mutated plant.
Finally I finished packing, and like last year I used up some of my spare water washing my car. I wanted to look fairly clean as I drove to my new home. On the way out I donated my remaining water to the cleanup crews who had to get the playa back in shape for an upcoming inspection. Since I left late in the afternoon I only waited about 20 minutes in line to get out, then a left turn onto the road to Gerlach, Reno, and California.
There seemed to be a lot less litter than last year,and indeed the appalling litter along the roads out of the event seen last year was strikingly absent, not one garbage bag tossed along the side of the road. I had a scary encounter when a bag full of trash accidentally spilled from a truck, but I had to admire how either the word got around this time or the local law clamped down mightily on litterers.
I was amazed at how large the event could grow and still work, and I'm sure many lessons will be incorporated into next years event.
There seemed to be as many creative things brought as last year, but they were more spread out in the tent city.
I think a lot of people were inspired to try something next year, if there was anything that made me feel great about being there it was the awakening of the realization of creative possibilities this event brought out in people. I'll never forget listening to the delighted excitement of a woman being shown how to use a pole with a long flexible trailing banner to trace large persisting paths in the air after having watched someone else do it. She was like a child learning about the beauty of the world. This kind of awakening is what the event means to me.
Palm Springs, California