Burning Man, 1995
"I've come across the desert to greet you with a smile..."
- Squeeze "Take Me I'm Yours"
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?"
"Can I interview you? All I've been seeing around here is California plates."
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):
Hey, try this at home! Make your own groovy individual buzz phrase by making up a 4-digit number and combining one word from each column! See how many combinations you can make! Bleed on the paper! Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 1 Interactive Cyber Anarchic Happening 2 Postmodern Tribal Absurdist Experience 3 Psychotronic Primal Dionysian Tractor pull 4 Non-linear Ritual Drug-fueled Meltdown 5 Surreal Techno Anti-establishment Freakfest 6 Psychedelic Abstract Hyper-caffeinated Community 7 Proto Pagan Non-traditional Hukilau 8 Twisted Alcoholic Extra-rational Hoedown 9 Neo Apocalyptic Mind-bending Sensory Stew 0 Dusty Alternative Survivalist Pyropalooza
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.
"People are still sleeping - please keep this in mind"
-- Bullhorn guy, noon
Well, I was. There are some women outside the tent, wandering around looking for their own, which apparently rolled off in yesterday's dust storm. Scott informs me that earlier, people were cheering the sunrise.
"That last song goes out to all the morons who went out on the playa right after the thunderstorm..."
-- Black Rock Radio
The magazines are all gone from central camp. Another box for the crowd. We loiter by the Burning Man during a rehearsal of the events to take place tonight.Bullhorn Guy rides the playa on a board, being pulled by a truck. He makes an announcement as he passes.
"This is not fun. Do not ride on a board behind a truck."
A small group of people gather around a strange go-kart which suddenly starts screaming. It's the glowing thing from the night before... a jet car! The driver buzzes camp a few times. His ground crew is trying to get flames to shoot out of the exhaust, with no luck.
"Please stop the truck."
-- Bullhorn Guy
A rain storm washes over the desert, and turns into a hail storm for a brief time. Scott walks around barefoot in the rain, and gets a half-inch layer of playa stuck to his feet. To remove his new platform shoes, he starts running and sliding across the playa. Hey! Fun! I join him. It's a free shower, as well. Some other people start up a naked slip-n-slide. The playa smells like a wet dog, but dries in thirty minutes.
"Pack up and leave tonight - there is nothing more to see here."
-- Bullhorn Guy
There are a few magazines left at central camp, poor soggy little things. Scott and I return briefly for dinner. We're 90's desert men, and it's time to sit on the ole' lawn chairs and Talk Feelings. Scott's happy we came, but probably won't attend next year. I feel a little more enthusiastic about Burning Man, but am disappointed that I didn't make any ... connections. Not like "networking," something deeper. Friends? Mebbe. Well, we can't say we didn't try.
Scott spots another rain storm in the distance. I'm trying to get the stupid-ass stove lit, I'm going through matches like crazy...I'm down to the last match, grumbling and stressing out (this is probably the most tense Scott and I got the whole trip). This is FOOD, man. You don't joke around with food. Part of the survival pyramid. The match lights the stove. The hot dogs are cooked. We survive. Sure, I could have just held the dogs in back of the jet car or asked someone for a flamethrower, but I think part of the fun of Burning Man is surviving it on your own terms, with your own tasty snax.
"Do not use Tiki Camp as a lubricant."
-- Bullhorn guy
The time for the burn approaches; a crowd gathers at the main camp. A naked woman (painted red) chases a naked man (painted blue) through the crowd. A surf band, the Mermen, plays as the sun sets.
Fashion for the burn ranges from total nudity to full tuxedos, with mylar, plastic, turbans, sequins, paint, muslin, tattoos, vinyl, fur, and goggles inbetween. Scott looks resplendent in his smoking jacket (get it?). A charismatic tribal-fashion man leads the crowd toward the wooden man, chanting into a portable bullhorn. He is not Bullhorn Guy, he is Crowd Leader Guy. The crowd follows and responds to his chants.
"Burning burning man!"
"BURNING BURNING MAN!"
Scott and I remain unmoved, clingling desperately to Midwest/East coast cynicism, until about the eighth verse; suddenly the magic of Burning Man washes over us.
"BURNING MAN...BURNING BURNING MAN!"
After awhile, the leader is far enough away that other people in the crowd start creating their own chants. I run with it, and take the lead for awhile.
"Ooo EEE ooo ahh!"
"OOO EEE OOO AHH!"
"My nah WEE ohh!"
"MY NAH WEE OHH!"
Scott and I try to riff a shouted "Old McDonald," but are met with silence and assorted chuckles. Thus humbled, we let someone else take the lead.
The chants break up as the crowd begins circling around Burning Man, who looks much bigger in twilight. There's a 100-foot radius of safety between us and the man, called "No-Man's Land."
As we settle in at the North side of the man, various groups proceed past us, making a circuit just within the throng of people. Naked people. Drummers. A strange quadricycle-type vehicle called "The Veg-O-Matic" with whirring blades. The drummers circulate again. And again, real slow and dramatic-like. As they're passing by for the fourth time, a woman directly in front of us yells out: "maybe the drummers could go around one MORE time!" Scott and I look at each other with eager, wide eyes. "Sarcasm! This is us!" We quickly assimilate and exchange introductions. Tina turns out to be from the NYC Playground camp - it's sledgehammer woman! Accompanying her are Brent, Julie, and Sooz. As we're talking, the jet car circles the man several times, quite a bit faster than the drummers, thank you.
"JET CAR! JET CAR!"
The arms of the man rise. The fireworks begin, shooting from the base of Burning Man. One flaming ball arcs right above our heads, and starts to fall. Scott, speaking as a scientist, attempts to reassure us.
"Don't worry, it will burst before it even gets close... any second now...ummmm...AIEEEEEEE!!!! RUN!"
People begin scattering, and the fireball lands in the middle of the chaos, exploding. Sooz receives minor surface leg damage, nothing serious. Everyone else seems okay.
Two fire dancers approach the man and light him. The crowd cheers. I was hoping to hear the smoke alarm strapped to his chest, but the noise of the crowd drowns out even side comments to Scott and our NYC pals. The fire is intense. A few people wrench on the guy wires; the man falls, aflame. The crowd lets out a roar and everyone runs toward our fallen, flaming hero. Two guys bring a five-foot mask of Elvis to throw in the fire. Of course. The king's always nosing in on everything.
Some people bodysurf the crowd, others jump over the fire. There's a large, penetrating light off to one side of the revelry, emanating from a news crew looking for that ultimate closing shot.
This is the part of the article where most journalists wax philosophical, bringing all disparate elements together to form a synergy of feeling, being, understanding, wanting. Exposition. Introspection. I myself felt lik"NEXT SCENE!"
We head over to the scaffolding; some guy on top is drinking alcohol and breathing fire. The top of the structure affords an excellent view of a 30-foot earthen chimney ("Fire Lingam") igniting and burning.
Crux compacts into Brent, Julie, and Tina; we end up in a large crowd of people who are watching Sharkbait (loud drumming guys) and following their orders to "find a piece of metal...and fuck it up." A few moments earlier, the drummers had thrown large quantities of drumsticks to the crowd. I dive underneath a small scaffold to retreive what I believe is a metal stick, and start banging it into the frame.
"It's rubber! It's not making any sound! I am unable to fuck it up!"
Moving around one side of Sharkbait, we encounter Seemen, a performance art group reminiscent of Survival Research Laboratories back when they just wanted to destroy things. There are some wooden cut-outs of various evil figures: the Unabomber, John Doe #2, the Pope, some kind of weird space cowboy alien thing, a cop, a big ole' business fat cat with cliched cigar and dollar signs above his head, and that most feared of modern-day icons, a candy cane. We're waiting for the show to start; there's a guy working a forge and turning some crank-type apparatus. We wildly cheer him on.
More waiting. Our pre-show banter has a section of the audience howling. Odd, that.
Tina: "Did you notice that none of the nude people had erections?"
Scott: "I'm a firm believer in erections."
Ten minutes later, crazy men start to run around with things strapped to their backs (Klaxon/bullhorn combo, flame throwers). A woman taunts the crowd and plays with her pneumatic ronco dildo-o-matic. A mutant front-loader spits fire from a metal dinosaur head. Another guy starts shooting the cut-outs with a turbo potato gun. The woman begins pseudo-copulating with a large stuffed leopard. Her strap-on appendage turns it quickly into just stuffing. Inspired by her new friend, she screams a sobering statement:
"There's something about having a dick that makes me want to fuck things!"
Raucous laughter emanates from the audience.
"Burn the bitch!"
Scott: "No, we love her! Burn the audience!"
"BURN THE AUDIENCE! BURN THE AUDIENCE!"
The front loader wheedles up to the audience, spitting smoke and flame everywhere. The crowd politely leans as far as it can away from the heat without breaking into a panicky run.
The woman begins an autoerotic stroke dance with her strap-on pal.
"Uh, uh, uh...uhhhhh! uhhh!"
Jeff: "Hey...that gives me an idea!"
The front loader ambles up next to a prop tent. The woman eggs it on.
"CAMPER! Get off our land!"
The front loader destroys the tent, ripping it from its moorings. The potato gun hasn't been doing much to the cut-outs; fed up, one guy takes the flamethrower to them all. Only the corporate fat cat and the candy cane do not burn.
"That fat cat guy probably represents Microsoft."
"Mebbe Bill Gates."
"BURN BILL GATES! BURN BILL GATES!"
Not hearing the audience's request, the show ends, leaving Mr. Gates unsinged.
"Let's burn him ourselves!"
While we're alltalkingabout it, Tina rushes the stage, grabs a two-by-four and jams it into Bill's forehead.
The rest of us join her to throw it into one of the remaining fires. We start to take pictures, we need a group shot. A member of the crowd approaches Scott.
"I'll take your picture."
We gather over a bright excised headlight, next to a fire. The guy snaps the shot; it's the last on the roll.
"My pleasure! You guys were entertaining!"
I start throwing X's on the fire. Brent and an old man watch.
"You're burning your magazine!"
"It feels good!"
The old man speaks.
"There must be a long story behind that."
"About five years too long."
There's only one cut-out icon left now, and it never really fit in the first place.
"SAVE THE CANDY CANE!"
We spirit the seven-foot singed wooden candy cane off into the night.
We bounce back to the scaffolding to get a proper car. Scott, PUI (Passenger Under Influence), somehow directs us back to our camp for cookies and water. Then off to Crux's camp for additional clothing, and to drop off the candy cane. Slowly driving across the black expanse of the playa toward the rave camps, we idle alongside several random walking people, offering sustenance.
"Rave-type, portside! Swing around!"
"Oh, glory! Thank you."
"Did he just say 'glory'?"
"That's what I heard. 'Oh, glory'."
Scott and I tried our damnedest to distribute the rest of the cookies at the rave, but most people were suspicious - perhaps they were dosed! Perhaps theyweren'tdosed! We're there for a total of three minutes.
Counter to any notion of "flowing drugs" described by various campers at Burning Man, we've encountered a severe lack of same. We must look like narcs. To my mind, it becomes comical in nature just to ask random people for drugs; I've given up on the wayward thought of actually implementing them ("I mean, everyone else does them ... what am I, chicken? BOWK BOWK BOWK! I'm not getting any younger, my mind is jelly anyway...what would FEYNMAN do in this situation?"). I address the crowd as we're leaving.
"WE NEED DRUGS!!! DOES ANYONE HAVE DRUGS??!?!"
Two wavy teens approach. Methinks they have drugs, but inside their little tum-tums. They want to leave the rave.
"Are you going back to camp?"
"Do you have drugs?"
"No, but we need a ride back."
"We're not going that way, and there's no room...sorry."
"Man, we're dangerous."
It's short drive over to a group of RV's sporting a trampoline with a parachute blowing over it; you can bounce accompanied by techno music. There are several thousand injuries in the United States every year from people looking at trampolines, let alone jumping on them. Big deal. Bouncey bouncey! Everyone takes a turn; it's fun but surprisingly exhausting. The parachute is a nice touch; at the apogee of your flight, you get all lost in the orange fabric. Maybe that's what drugs are like.
We head back to the scaffolding for one last look at the Whole Experience. Scattered fires and people everywhere. I want to sleep up here. I want to live up here. Did Scott and I just talk about NOT coming here next year? Impossible. We head back to base camp, happy as clams. The last thing I hear as I'm nodding off to sleep is a plaintive growl from a concerned Burning Man resident.
"I want moose and squirrel! Give me moose and squirrel, and no one gets hurt!"
The next morning, we meet Crux at the scaffolding to say our goodbyes and help fold muslin. The "Oh My God!" car drives by. I'd heard the damn thing crowing like mad over the weekend, and it cracked me up every single time.
"Do the rooster!"
"The rooster! Crowing!"
BOWK BOWK BOWK!!!!
There's a naked man with a video camera filming the mass exodus. His car keys are attached to a ring, which is attached to his -- errr, attached to him. Scaffold talk with Tina, Scott, and Brent reveals a strange "may-have-seen-you-in-college"-type connection between Scott and Tina. Bullhorn Guy is still here. "The man will burn in three hours." The man appears to be in no such condition to do so, as he's whipped into a free-flowing scattered-ash frenzy by two people doing the jump rope double-dutch thing over his remains. We went back to Tina's base camp to retrieve the candy cane; she ties it to our roof. As we're returning to the scaffolding, the shark car approaches menacingly off portside.
"Great. We're going to be rammed by a mechanized shark in the middle of the desert."
The shark car turns abruptly, leaving us in peace. We say our goodbyes to the Crux crew, and stir up another beautiful massive dust cloud on the way out. As we pull away from the main camp, I espy a couple screwing on top of a VW van.