Why build a four-story man from lumber and glass tubing, haul him across state lines and torch him at twilight? That's the burning question. So, along with a flock of technopagans, nature lovers, hippies, full-moon crazies, performance artists and ravers from the Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I made the eight-hour drive to the northwest Nevada desert to form an ephemeral town: Black Rock, Nevada, population 500.
We've come to singe, parch, smolder, simmer, deep fry and burn to a crisp in one of the world's largest frying pans. We've driven east to find the West. A lonely and lawless frontier, so desolate and undesirable that you do whatever you damn well please. It's a physical cyberspace.
At dusk, in perhaps the largest Labor Day barbecue in America, he is saturated with kerosene and burned to a crisp.
After calling the Burning Man Hotline, I received a topographic map by mail. A rectangle in the corner, like the cancer scare on a cigarette pack, reads, "Warning: Black Rock Desert may be hazardous to your health. Vehicles may become mired in unconsolidated terrain. Should you stray from the path, remember: Help is NOT around the corner. People have died here.
"Do not rely on your odometer or compass. All objects—humans, cars, our encampment—drastically diminish in the scale of the desert. During the day, the presence of vehicles, and their dust plumes, may serve as pointers, but at night it is difficult to determine the distance of anything. Lights array themselves in random and confusing patterns. Any point may be four, 40 or, should you happen to fix on a star, 400 billion miles distant."
I'm asked to volunteer as a reporter on the Black Rock Gazette, the daily newspaper laser-printed on site. The editor, known as Sir Real, calls me in advance with my first assignment: Find somebody who can loan a Mac Powerbook and a digital camera. And research a 30-foot-tall dachshund head stolen from a Doggie Diner on the Peninsula, crowned with a neon halo and hauled out to Black Rock. "The prophet claims that 14 Doggie Diner heads were originally manufactured," he says. "Find out about the Cult of the Dog Head."
"This is disorienting," I say to Sir Real. "It's like the press reporting on the press."
"This is a strange succession of mirrors," he says.
The packet promises an intriguing series of events: A lecture by Billy Clewlow, an archaeologist who found the largest mammoth ever discovered in North America on the playa. A ceramics workshop where you craft figures from clay and fire them in the embers of Burning Man. A Sunday Ritual in which Kimric Smythe will employ a Fresnel lens to focus the first rays of the morning sun and ignite a fire which will be carried by torch bearers to the Burning Man. Kimric and his wife, Heidi, will strap pinwheels and explosives to their bodies and perform "Pyro Man."
A fashion show will feature costumes that make a statement about the desert. Charles Gadakin will construct a spring-powered human titled "Man in Awe of the Sun." A pre-burn cocktail party—bring formal wear. A mask-making workshop. A Wild West poker game. Baking anthropomorphic bread loaves. A doubles skeet golf tournament. Anyone willing to haul portable toilets to and from Reno will receive free registration.
Along the interstate, we see signs of urban emigration: compact cars piled with impossible quantities of bottled water, costumes, bicycles and lawn chairs. We pass a white VW Bug topped with what looks like a semicircular plywood sculpture of the zodiac.
My travel partner, partly for shock value, partly for reality check, announces our plans to strangers.
"We're going to the Black Rock Desert to watch a group of people burn a 40-foot-tall wooden man. You heard of it?" he asks waitresses and gas attendants.
"Are they a bunch of Satanists?"
"Sounds like that horror movie, The Wicker Man."
"Is that some sort of religious festival?"
An hour out of Reno, we climb over the Sierra. The land dries up and flattens out, turns from green to gold to brown to beige. In Gerlach, last town in the middle of nowhere, a Wild West outpost of bars, slot machines and taxidermy shops, we stop for ice. Stuffed bighorn sheep, coyote, fox and mountain lion line the highway. A pallid girl in a black halter and cowskin patterned shorts and a guy in black bell bottoms with half a dozen rings in each ear and a collection of crystals and bones dangling down his bare chest wander barefoot into the general store. It's the classic conflict between hippies and rednecks, tourists and locals.
The Black Rock playa stretches out to our right, off in the distance, spectacular plumes of dust rise 20 feet above the surface and streak east across the playa like jet exhaust. We see a tiny black-lettered cardboard sign: "Burning Man."
They say if you were placed in a dark, silent room and all stimulation were removed, you would begin to hallucinate within an hour. It's the principle behind a sensory deprivation flotation tank. It's the principle behind the desert.
A black van ahead of us skirts the horizon, disappears into a mirage of heat haze, hovers and then shrinks into a black sphere that floats above the sand.
Dust plumes streak across the hard-packed white alkaline dust lined with a fine lacework of cracks. As far as the eye can see. Nothing. Not even a tumbleweed. Then barren violet mountains in the distance. We floor the accelerator and streak across the desert, 50, 60, 70 miles per hour. The sense of freedom is intoxicating. Room to breathe! No laws! The car skims over the sand, and the sensation is closer to flight than I've ever felt in the air.
Suddenly, we see Black Rock Trauma Center, an egg-shaped aluminum trailer with bones, kerosene lamps and feathers dangling from the door.
A sign warns that broadcast media will be taping this event. "By entering you agree to forfeit all rights to your image for all perpetuity with no compensation whatsoever." A crew from PBS is filming a documentary.
A craggy hippie in a cowboy hat asks us for our $40 registration fee and directs us on the last part of our journey. He hands us the Gazette and an impressively designed schedule for "Black Rock Radio: The Voice of the Playa."
"Stake everything down. We had 40 mph winds yesterday. And at night, watch out for the acid heads driving 90 miles an hour without headlights on, man," he says.
The camp shimmers above a mirage of water in the distance. Desert Navigational Locators, a series of eight sculptures made by William Binzen out of rusting potato mashers and institutional egg beaters, form gateways marking a compass of four directions. This inner circle is surrounded by an outer circle of vans, land yachts, Airstream trailers, candy-colored nylon domes and Port-o-Lets.
A hollow, conch-shaped mud sculpture by Pepe Ozan rises dramatically to the south, the Dog Head marks the west. And on an axis exactly 15 degrees north of due east, the Burning Man lies in state, with the emptiness stretching out behind him, the largest blank canvas in North America. Up close and personal, he's a puny framework of plywood, glued and stapled together. Like Cher or Madonna, the icon seems larger in photographs.
It's soon apparent that the well-intentioned schedule in the brochure is part mirage as well. A vaguely African head made of chicken wire, scrap lumber and copper sheeting marks the center of town. The cafe turns out to be a Monkey Bean Espresso truck. A truck topped with antennas and loaded with high-tech equipment forms the radio station, but when we tune into 89.9, nothing but irritating feedback hum materializes.
The community gathers around a message board near the satellite dish-topped Greyhound bus in the center. In the early days, the bedrock of support came from the Cacophony Society, a group of an anarchic performance artists and costumers. Louis Brill, a society member, overlapped the event into another group, YLEM (pronounced eye-lem), an organization of artists using science and technology that includes Dr. Clifford Pickover of the IBM Thomas Watson Research Laboratory and Roger Malina of the Center for Extreme Ultraviolet Astrophysics on its board of advisers.
Fliers are posted for other organizations that now converge here, each with its own interpretation of the desert. A nature group called Outdoors Unlimited, a group of conservationists known as the Desert Survivors, an activist BBS. A want ad bluntly advertises the desires of at least one of the ravers and Deadheads present:
"I'm looking for some shrooms. Anybody want to sell some?" Enterprising entrepreneurs hawk Burning Man T-shirts and mugs. A woman with cleavage bulging from a black spandex animal-print getup straight out of Married ... With Children sells tacos fried on a full-sized gas stove. Dozens of generators hum beneath the din of dozens of battery powered boom boxes.
Every third resident of Black Rock seems to be making a documentary. I've been out of the car for less than half an hour when a man thrusts a mike into my face.
"I'm just looking for the definitive statement on what this all means," he asks.
I'm too drained by the stifling heat to mumble something about a strange succession of mirrors. We are the Burning Man. Everything becomes performance art.
Like a movie, we suspend disbelief when we walk into the theater. A tent called The Oasis sports an indoor recirculating water fountain decorated with plastic snakes. I tour the Christmas Tent, strewn with tinsel and garlands. The hostess invites me to visit later for eggnog, caroling and fruitcake.
When the sun sinks and a huge yellow moon rises, the playa cools and settles into a surrealistic neon Las Vegas carnival. Various sculptures are ignited and sacrificed. The dog head is rimmed with stage lights, the generators hum and it's transformed into a stage alive with a halo of neon.
Dozens of people line up and, tug of-war style, raise the Man from his prone state. The generators nip on, and suddenly his hollow body is outlined in a dazzling skeleton of glowing blue neon. His head, a faceless, kite-shaped Japanese paper lantern, is aglow with blue. Standing on the low horizon, he takes on a prodigious proportion. With the aid of technology, a lone man in the wilderness is suddenly visible for miles.
At midnight, a rave begins a half-mile north of camp. The night turns to Burning Jam.
The Burning Man is the creation of Larry Harvey, who specifically disavows any spiritual meaning, yet speaks fervently about the Man. Eight years ago, Harvey was looking for a way to cheer himself up after a relationship broke up. On a whim, he decided to burn a wooden man on the beach, in the tradition of the summer solstice. He called his friend, carpenter Jerry James, and they knocked together an eight-foot-tall figure, gathered a dozen friends on the beach and burned it. The sight of the man, arms blazing against the night sky, was far more moving than they anticipated. Each year the Man grew larger, and by the fifth year the police arrived in time to stop the burning and nearly caused a riot.
hey moved the Man away from the law, to the Black Rock Desert. "Life seems infinitely precious against that cosmically vast waste," Harvey says.
The Burning Man finally broke even last year, and Harvey reputedly hopes to make a living off the festival. He talks of adding to the spectacle next year, including laser lights and a Tesla coil.
"We're primal technology. The ritual is derived directly from technical requirements and the logic of engineering the Man," Harvey says. Last year, he was invited to exhibit a slide show of the Burning Man at Cyberarts in Los Angeles. "A lot of cyberpeople come here." The growth is a point of contention among the old-timers, including Binzen, who feels the festival has grown dangerously large. Now the Bureau of Land Management is intervening, demanding $2 per head as rent.
In response, Binzen started Desert Siteworks, a more personal, invitation-only performance work that focuses on ritual and art. "As you get more deeply into ritual, you relate to the movements of the desert, working with desert navigation, creating alignments and time-based performances," he says, talking of car lights creating patterns on the playa, processions of candles and Stonehenge-like arrangements of sculpture mapped to the heavens.
Invite 1,000 of America's most helplessly urban people on a camping trip to America's most forbidding wilderness, and this is what you get. Painfully sunburned smokers sweltering in black leather with no words like "dehydration" or "sun stroke" in their vocabulary, staggering barefoot in the sun, swigging Sierra Nevada and cappuccino. Women dance topless and men wear skirts, oblivious to the threat of sunburn.
They transform Nevada desert into California beach. Just add water. An Arabian sheikh wearing a cloak fashioned from designer sheets pedals aimlessly on a mountain bike. People circle listlessly in ATVs, dune buggies, tricycles, skateboards, rollerskates, scooters. A guy skims across the playa in a deranged landsailer: a four-wheeled plastic horse with a windsail.
Christmas Camp, the first themed camp at Burning Man, made its debut in 1993. Photo by Gerry Gropp
We hear rumors of a hot springs, and with vague directions we head east past the Man, toward the imposing Black Rock on the horizon, speeding away from the anarchic urban madness and back into nowhere. Ten, maybe 20 miles away, across the railroad tracks, we sink into Trego Hot Springs, a warm creek surrounded with vibrant green grass. We continue on to Bordello Springs, a pristine pool surrounded by a lone clump of trees and lush asparagus ferns.
Here, the lawless soak together. A guy from Boulder Creek with two pierced nipples tells me about the loaded shotgun he found a few yards away. "I'm thinking of burning it with the Man tonight. Or maybe I'll keep it," he says. A group of model rocketeers describe a 15-foot rocket that mislaunched this morning and shot back onto the playa. It's now buried eight feet under, and they're trying to figure out how to extract $2,000 worth of metal from the hard alkali. A couple of guys called Desert Rats swagger in, one carrying an automatic rifle. A guy from Oregon asks if he can fire it, and suddenly the desert quiet is punctured with Ramboesque gunfire.
Out across the playa the dust devils swirl and we sit it out in the shade, waiting for the wind to die. By the time we head out, angry clouds are gathering on the mountains that ring the playa. Thunder rumbles. Racing toward the camp, racing against the dwindling light, we're suddenly adrift in a horizonless white ocean.
This was the place where the land speed record was set, some 800 mph. The widest unpatrolled highway in North America. It's nothing compared to the 3.5 million square miles of aridity that make up the Sahara, but the 1,000 square-mile Black Rock Desert ranks as one of top 30 deserts on earth. Explored by John Charles Fremont in the 1840s on his way to the Santa Clara Valley and crossed by the historic Applegate-Lassen Trail, the route of the '99ers, some sections are apparently littered at 50-foot intervals with the graves of infants who died when pioneer wagon trains were lost in the winter snows. The warning rattles my brain: "People have died here."
For an hour we race around in circles, heading toward hazy encampments that appear and disappear on the horizon. Finally, a flare shoots up in the southwest and we race toward it, knowing the Man will burst into flames any minute now. Finally we see it, a blue haze, and the Man begins to grow. We screech to a halt behind the Man. The crowd has swelled and tripled, and white lights creep toward him from all directions as locals risk the night drive to witness the spectacle.
The crowd writhes to the steady drumbeat in evening gowns, tuxedos, feathered Mardi Gras costumes, masks, LED lights, candles and bare skin. Last year, Brewster Kahle, a WAIS, Inc. employee, exchanged wedding vows with his bride while the Man burned.
One by one, people volunteer to strip off their shirts, and a woman in a feathered headdress torches their bodies and pats down the flames. A man and woman rise and shoot flaming arrows into the man's loins. The drumming rises; the crowd whoops and hollers in an inebriated frenzy that belies every denial of this event's pagan heritage. It's every bit as tribal, pagan and hallucinatory as Mardi Gras, the Brazilian Carnaval or a Grateful Dead concert. Torchbearers touch the man with flares and WHOOOSH!—he's up in flames.
Loaded with cheap fireworks and popping neon tubes, the Man starts to explode. He collapses on his back, and a flurry of sparks drift in the sky. People begin jumping over the Man, and a woman slips and falls into the embers, her dress bursting into flames.
Lightning ripples like a Tesla coil cranked by a speed-crazed organ grinder, bright as daylight. The Man is upstaged by a circle of raw electricity. Rain pelts us, turning the white dust into tenacious clay, and a dust storm whips up.
"You better watch out. You're gonna turn white," a man standing by a truck covered with CB antennas says. A local, he owns a ranch and opal mine to the north. "There are probably police infiltrators in this crowd," he says. "The FBI and DEA's probably here." He tells tales of drug-laden airplanes landing in the dead of night, yuppies making cattle drives across the desert just like the one in the movie City Slickers, fights with the BLM over mineral rights. "They'd just as soon git rid of all of us," he says. "If this rain keeps up, the alkali crust breaks and you won't even get out with four-wheel drive. I've walked out of this desert before," he says. "You better go."
We follow an exodus out of the desert, through the blinding dust. I look in the mirror and I'm Beetlejuice, a ghost with white skin and hair. As we escape the whirling, anarchic madness, I still ask why.
Struggling to explain the question of the Man, I talked to my friend Diego, a student of things mystical. "Somewhere, back in their common consciousness, they remember Lugh, the summer horned god, child of light," Diego says. "He dies so we may live." In pre-Christian cultures, a man woven of straw with loaves of bread inside was burned and the bread then fed to the village. The ancient druids also sacrificed humans, who were burned alive so the crop would be fruitful the next year. "The Burning Man also symbolizes the death of love," he says. "In their act of love, he is consumed."
Throughout history, old forms of religion are superseded by new, and the new forms use the most modern vehicles available to them to propagate. But if so, what was the crop we are promised when the Neon God burns? Software? Commemorative T-shirts? Press coverage?
Or perhaps just an escape. I just keep remembering what the rocket man said while I was soaking in the hot springs. "You know, a lot of different people are out here at Black Rock this weekend," he said in a Nevada drawl. "You have the rocketeers. You have the Desert Survivors. You have the Desert Rats. You have the Burning Man people. And we have something in common. We all like fire."