"I've come across the desert to greet you with a smile..."The Black Rock Desert of Northwest Nevada is the largest expanse of flat land in the entire contintental United States, consisting of 400 square miles of alkali desert. This is, of course, an excellent place to burn a forty-foot wooden and neon man with a Japanese lantern for a head.
The Burning Man Project began in 1986 when Larry Harvey set an eight-foot man-shaped effigy on fire at Baker Beach in San Francisco. Theories abound as to why this was done; his girlfriend dumped him; it's a pagan thing, you wouldn't understand; an Indian potlatch ritual, blah blah blah. Moved enough by the rite to make it a yearly event, Harvey's Burning Man get-together grew exponentially until the local constabulary complained.
Our advance instructions indicate that this desert survival thing is no picnic; cars flip over in the muddy playa, people get lost, dust and rain storms ravage the area. There is a yearly prize for the "best" survival faux pas ("The Donner Award," named for the hapless snowbound 1846-style pioneers who started chewing on each other to survive); last year's "winners" burned down a historical ghost-town building to keep warm after they became stranded.
We enter the playa trailing a massive dust cloud. The checkpoint guy is insanely happy, bouncing and running up to our SUV. He checks our ticket, and gives us desert-type directions. "Four miles straight, take a right, then three miles straight." Our tickets cost $35; this pays for land use fees, printing, portable toilets, etc; last year, the organizers came out $1000 in the hole. More trailing dust clouds as we're flanked by three other camp-bound vehicles.
"Okay...the madness begins."Our first problem after arriving at camp is making sense of it all; there are two pirate radio stations, ten bands, a set of theme camps, several performance art installations, two rave camps, and a daily newspaper, all scattered liberally amongst an estimated 3000 campers. Spin magazine is here. Tom Tomorrow of "This Modern World" is here. CNN is here with a editing-suite RV. Hotwired & Discovery online are visiting. This must be Important.
After erecting our tent, I gingerly remove a small bit of metal confusion from a nylon bag. It's a backpack stove I borrowed from a friend of mine. His last words after handing it to me: "sometimes the fire got high enough that we weren't sure if we should have put it out...or run like mad." Dinner time! As I'm fumbling with the gas tank, a guy rides a bike up to our camp.
"You're from Michigan?"It's true; 90% of the people here are from the Bay area of San Francisco. Our little media friend (I don't really consider myself to be "media." I will consider myself "media" when I finally crack open my copy of "Strunky Funky Whitey" or whatever it is for more than twenty seconds. Or use a spell checker. We need a new classification for people who write for themselves and then let other people read it. "Diarists?" "The Journalites?") is from some type of Alternative Press syndicate, or maybe he meant just the "alternative press." I don't know, I was too busy beating on the stove. Per the norm, the best bits of conversation occur after he turns his tape recorder off. He proffers a copy of a smallish Burning Man-themed magazine named "Piss Clear." "Oooh, gimme gimme!" After he left, Scott and I enjoyed some desert-cooked spaghetti in comically small bowls we bought just for the trip. I think they were made for dogs.
Time to explore! Our first stop is the Burning Man himself, to pay our respects. He's got a smoke alarm attached to his chest. I think I could take him in a fair fight. There are several other companions for Burning Man scattered liberally around the camp; Burning Dog ("Burning Man's best friend"), Burning Woman, Flaming Man ("Burning Man's gay brother"), amongst other nice flammable things. This whole place is gonna blow! Get out of here!
Second, a whirlwind visit to several of the theme camps. The theme camps are arranged in a large circle around "Central Camp," headquarters for music stages, the community bulletin board, a cafe, marketplace and medical station. Our first stop is the picturesque Art Car Kamp. The author/director of "Wild Wheels" (book/movie about art cars), Harrod Blank, is here with "Oh My God!", a vividly-painted/decorated VW Beetle which has somehow developed the ability to crow like a rooster.
There's also a blue/orange van here with an anthropomorphic VW Beetle (which appears to be clinging to the van with frighteningly-realistic legs) on its roof. It elicits just the right balance of awe and disgust. There's also a car shaped like a shark, hauled on a trailer by, obviously, a matching van with two huge seven-foot shark fins.
Arriving at Birthday Camp ("It's your birthday today! Here's a present!"), one of the organizers squelches post-Burning Man commentary: "You can't write about it, take pictures or video...it doesn't do it justice. You just have to come." I forgot to get my present.
Onward to a twenty-five foot double-scaffolding camp entitled "NYC Playground," put on by an organization named "Crux." These twin towers of Burning Man are an easy climb, and afford an excellent view of the entire camp; Kodak(tm) moment! There's a woman hammering one of the guy wire posts with a sledgehammer. I am intrigued, and tempted to go into Active Pursuit Mode, but there's no time. Too much to see! Too much to do! Down on the ground, someone's shouting random bits of comedy into a bullhorn.
"Everyone...go home...the man will not burn."Who is Bullhorn Guy? What are his hopes and wishes? I want to hug him, for he is Bullhorn Guy. Behind him, there's a three-wheeled banana bike rolling along. You actually sit inside the banana itself. It's beautiful.
We arrive at central camp with a box filled with assorted X Magazines. People are grabbing them, sitting down, and actually reading the damn things. This is good. Something looming and scary is on the horizon. Dust storm! We run back to base camp. It overtakes us quickly; everything turns into blurry shapes. A big nylon tumbleweed tent rolls by. Our tent strains at its moorings, but holds steady. The dust storm subsides a few minutes later, followed closely by a rain storm. It doesn't last long, and gives way to a triple rainbow that ends, from our vantage point, right behind the Burning Man.
We return to the bulletin board area of central camp to post a note for Doc in case he makes an appearance. Scott picks up the on-site newspaper for the day. Amongst news, cartoons, and comedy, there is a Burning Man Buzz Phrase Generator(tm) (brought to you courtesy of the Black Rock Gazette):
Drummers pass by (this is also like saying "while gravity continued to
function"), part of this Dusty Pagan Absurdist Happening.
Night begins to fall. Burning Man glows in the distance;
red neon on the one side, blue on the other.
A handy navigational aid.
We visit the "Conception" kinetic neon art piece. Powered by generators,
Conception is a spinning whirlagig of roughly thirty frames of a lone
minimalist neon sperm fertilizing a lone minimalist neon egg.
The piece spins around, hanging bars from each frame make contact with
live posts and the neon flashes for an instant.
Despite the artist's best intentions, it doesn't work in toto;
yesterday was apparently a better day to experience Conception.
As we walk in total blackness to Rave Camp, Scott spots some type of airport runway with blinking lights all over. Five hundred feet later, we're on top of it; bunches of LEDs jammed into the ground in strange patterns. In the middle of nowhere in the center of nothing.
There are two rave camps. One of them seems to be dominating the biggest crowd. There are two pyrotechincally-minded women here having a fire catfight via 12-inch flaming Lee Press-on nails. And then, what the hell, they swallow each other's finger food fireballs. I found this whole scene incredibly erotic, and was surprised I didn't faint. Scott and I "rave," beloved canteens on the ground.
On the way back to camp, we hear something ridiculously loud. There's a glowing THING out in the middle of nowhere. It's moving back and forth. It stops occasionally.
"Some type of plane trying to take off?"We both believe it's best to just leave well enough alone, and bed down for the night.
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