I’m not a fast writer. It takes days for me to fully absorb something and hours to write about it. But I’m touched by the Burning Man inquiries I’ve received this past week, so I’m going to try to formulate some thoughts right now while D’s in school, Z’s at the library w/friends and the boys are napping. My goal is to write small sections at a time and come back to a new installment next time I’m free. It won’t be easy, but you’re worth it, all twenty-three of you…
Black Rock City is a temporary counterculture in the high desert of Nevada, nearly 4,000 feet up. To say the conditions are harsh is to say Hitler was a big meanie. “Burning Man Arts Festival” is a tortured dance between Horrendous and Spectacular. Fortunately for me, Spectacular won by far though I seriously can’t overstate how challenging the conditions are. This is not the emotional truth, but well-documented fact. The air can be well-over a hundred degrees in the shade. The sun is so strong it bakes and cracks the hard, dusty playa floor. The playa dust is as fine as baby powder. It gets everywhere, but everywhere. They say a year from now I’ll still be shaking it out of my belongings. It’s so alkaline that it took a day or two for it to stop stinging my skin. It never stopped stinging my eyes or nose. Goggles and a bandana (or dust mask) are absolutely mandatory. My nostrils broke into crisp, bloody sores which haven’t completely healed. Feet crack. Hands blister. Skin burns. This is on a good day. On a bad day the wind can become unbearable, causing white-out conditions. I experienced mild dust storms, thank Goddess, but tales persisted of the dust storm that blew in last year and brought a white-out that lasted eight solid hours. They said visibility was less than two feet. In that case there’s nothing anyone can do but hunker down and wait it out. Sleep is a rarity. Aside from the heat (which is sweltering in tents) there is noise and lots of it. Techno music with deafening base blared around the clock. One morning I noticed a relative lull from 6am to 7am. Other than that the party never stopped. I often wondered what the hell these people were on which enabled them to go so hard for so long. Hundreds of them. Thousands even. At eight o’clock in the morning a giant art car would cruise by, music ablast, with forty people screaming and dancing at the top. But by and large the community laid low during the day like prides of lions splayed out in the heat, slowly seeking water and shade, panting in the dust, waiting for night. Night was when things got interesting.
Playa Bling consists of flashing LED lights, glow necklaces, glow sticks, laser pointers (especially those with a trippy speckle-option), magic wands, light sabers, portable disco balls, sequins, lemay and all things blinky. Basic bike lights are required for safety, but most take this to the extreme and really pimp-out. Bikes are, after all, yet another form of radical self-expression. (TC said, “If only I’d known years ago all it would take to get you to ride was a fifty-dollar bike covered in fur!”) Traffic control is nonexistent on the playa. Bikes, cars, and pedestrians go frontways and backways and sideways and slantways and any other ways you can think of, and yet there appears to be plenty of room for everyone. I was surprised to learn that only one point eight people die each year at Burning Man. True, it’s only a week’s time, but Black Rock City is twice the size of my husband’s hometown and burners are probably taking several hundred more risks per day than the average New Englander takes all month. You might assume drug overdose is the leading cause of death. I was told no. “Lots of people fall off shit,” explained Lucky, an eleven-year veteran burner. A young girl who thought they’d come to a stop, stepped off the back of an art car. It was dark and the car was towing a trailer which struck and killed her. He spoke of several unfortunate accidents. People had fallen off art, wasted people had jumped from high places, sometimes structures had collapsed. This information was not verified, but it sounded reasonable enough at the time (which was about 4am).
The city-wide speed limit in Black Rock City is five miles per hour. It creates the illusion that mutant vehicles are floating through darkness, and in its vastness, the playa gives a unique, ghost-like depth to all objects on wheels (in the day too, actually). Art cars are decked with bright lights, throngs of people and often a few featured nudists (many long, lean, tan ladies who I imagined spoke in delightful Balkan accents). Serious tunage thumps through the upper and lower platforms as they sway and bounce their way across the city. I saw enormous floating dragons, pirate ships, houses, rockets, boats, even an awe-inspiring rendition of the Golden Gate Bridge. These cars were anywhere from twenty to fifty feet long and one to three stories high. Falling off one would most likely hurt. When an art car stops spontaneous dance parties encircle it. I was part of several dance-offs, my favorite being the Soul Train. It’s conductor sported a giant fro, gold lemay hotpants, a gold vest, gold glasses, giant gold boots and a brown rippled biceps and chest. He stood high in the air, calling to us with his gorgeous vogueing arms and we answered, dancing until we could hardly breath. After several impeccably chosen sets, the train headed off. We sprung up and down, waving goodbye in its wake, as headed off to spread its magic across new lands. People hugged. Regularly. It wasn’t the least bit odd to hug and kiss strangers before setting off in opposite directions. Many times I ventured out with burners I’d only just met. As our journey unfolded our group grew larger with others we’d picked up along the way. Where one adventure ended and another began was anyone’s guess. There’s a special little something known as Playa Time. It reminds me of what many stoners first encounter in college. One has every intention of getting from point A to point B, but en-route to D somehow gets lured away by C, and so it goes on and on through the alphabet. On the playa there are no such things as promises. One wanders in and out of company without guilt, expectation or accountability. Time is marked by individual moments that are embraced and set free. Oh, most glorious practice! An entire city keeping time I can actually live by!
Rather than follow a map or the guide to What, Where, When, I engaged in what is referred to as pinballing. My bike carried me this way and that, this way and that, without rhyme or reason except to follow the brightest flashes in the sky. I’d start out at location ten o’clock, see flashes at three o’clock, follow it, notice bigger flashes at nine o’clock, follow it, etc., etc. It became quite clear why this event takes place in the desert: much ado about fire. (Insert propane statistic here.) I saw a couple of naked girls holding flamethrowers as an audience gathered. Fire! we chanted. We had to. Equally as exciting as the fire spectacle was the obliterating sound it created and the way it kicked the girls back several feet each time they pulled the lever. They dug their thigh high boots into the sand, so powerful and insignificant. Many of the art cars and large installations have fire features. Some are interactive! A new Aussie friend and I pounded out a rhythm on the lotus tree which shot our flames twenty feet in the air! We screamed, WHOOOOO! Everyone did. Fact: fire makes people yell while jumping up and down. Elsewhere on the Esplanade was a group of vertical pipes, like giant smoke-stacks, shooting patterns of massive flame into the night sky (similar to water patterns at a playground splash pad but monstrous and deeply alluring). I stood back. It was hot. Hundreds of burners stood on the pathways beneath the pipes. A new pattern came. People danced and cheered. I moved closer. It was so hot. A new pattern came. People barked and howled. It was hotter still. I moved closer. More fire. Closer. Cheers. Fire. Closer. Burning. Hypnotic. Fire. Fire. Fire. It couldn’t be helped. I soon joined my mothy brethren, goggles staring upward at the inferno, crying Fire! Fire! More fire! Others stood among us subdued, quietly burning, mouths gaping, moaning Ahhhh each time it came again. I teamed up with a couple of fellow virgins. We were on our way to Daft Punk @ 4:30 & Extinct (the city is set-up like a clock). But the fire kept coming here, there, and everywhere, and eventually I veered off again and again, in pursuit of the brightest flashes of light. It was exhausting, but I couldn’t stop. I must have covered more than twenty random, pin-balling miles. It was like being afflicted with a severe case of pyrotechnic-ADHD. I had no choice but to keep burning. After arriving back at Hushville (my camp) I noticed how cold the night had become. The Mallards, still drumming on the corner, informed me that it was almost 5am. They were waiting on the sunrise. I felt faint. I crept into my tiny tent, fell flat on my dusty, deflated air mattress, managed to insert both earplugs, pull a hat over my head and sink into what felt like a dizzy, survivalist sleep. I knew it was indeed sleep when two hours later I was suddenly awakened by the Titty Pirates.
The great Ship was returning from a hard night at playa sea and as it approached music began to vibrate in my rib cage and buzz the flaps of my tent. Within seconds of docking the Titty Pirates had commandeered new subjects for their community art project – a giant mural of pressed-titties. Never lacking participants, subjects young and old traipsed up to the ship and a happy pirate assembly formed. Pirate #1 was in charge of breast painting. With a paintbrush he created an array of shapes and patterns. Pirate #2 would then firmly press her with his body or hands against the canvas (usually amid squeals of delight) thus creating a multicolored bulls-eye effect. The participant was then hosed down and toweled off by Pirate #3. People sometimes gathered to admire the process and the work before moving onto the next thing. And on the playa there was no way of predicting the next thing.
Aside from the No-Human-Should-Ever-Live-Here-Ever conditions my wanderlust found its home in Black Rock City. A strong sense of freedom, generosity, creativity, respect and responsibility is shared by all. People are willing to extend themselves in a wide variety of ways while respecting one’s personal boundaries. Friends are surprised by how tame of my experience was and frankly, so am I. I attribute this to a system-wide overload commonly found on the playa. Imagine what it must have been like for the first human to walk on the moon. Prior to actually stepping on its surface, the moon had only ever been in pictures. The brain needs time to process and organize mind-altering information. While my head attempted to sort it all out, my whole navigation system defaulted to Subconscious-Impulse. My legs averaged six moon paces per earth step. By the time I regained operational status it was time to go. This is why the “festival” is a week long. It takes one to three days to adjust to the weightlessness of Burning Man. After that (if done correctly), Conscious-Impulse slides into the captain’s seat and unleashes the vessel formerly known as you, and the rest can never be fully explained or understood, and is often referred to as a Burning Man thing. Something to note here is that Black Rock City abides by Nevada law. Police, DEA agents and rangers are always roaming around. Tickets are written, arrests are made. Contrary to popular belief people aren’t fornicating in public – generally, one must enter a dwelling to behold such extravagance). Everyone says they wish they’d done more and I’m no exception. If I had maintained some semblance of thought-control I might have sought out some of the more specialized listings in the events book. Many piqued my interest as I poured over it at home. Like any other arts festival an event is listed with a date, time, place and description. Here are a few titles of events/camps/offerings at Evolution, Burning Man 2009…
Giant LEGOS! ~Playa Madlibs ~ Pee Funnel Camp ~ AA Meeting ~ Chanting of the Lotus Sutra: Nam Myoho Renge Kyo ~ Naked Twister ~ Reading from “The Origin Of Species” ~ Kegel-O-Meter ~ Clean and Sober Bike Ride ~ Strip Glow Bocce ~ Talk on Evolution and the Mind ~ Masturbatory Art: Say Whaaaattt? ~ 2nd Annual Silence of the Lambs Dance Contest ~ Topless Disco ~ Boston & New England Reunion Pahhty! ~ Late Night Tea and Sympathy ~ Square Dance (club hash) ~ Lebowskifest Playa Edition! ~ A Course In Miracles ~ Socially Appropriate Boner Day ~ NA Meeting ~ Ask a Vegan ~ Come to the Dark Side-We Have Cookies! ~ Morning Nature Walk ~ Fisting & Anal Pleasure Workshop (women only) ~ Shabbatluck dinner ~ Couples Massage Workshop ~ Dance Music Was Perfected In the 80’s! ~ Revenge of the nerds challenge ~ pack up your shit and go home!
So you see, there really is something for everyone. It’s not just heathens running around naked in the desert. It’s much more than that. The notes I took are in pencil. They move erratically across the page as if an emergency were unfolding – or as if I were wearing goggles and a face mask, and straining to see and breathe and remember. Embedded in me is the atmosphere, the energy and environment of Burning Man. But until I read my notes today I’d almost forgotten the specifics of what kept me so busy…
So I never forget, here are my notes…
- Over Mt. Hood! Hurray! Cranking Lo’s tunes: Freedom by George Michael. Whoohoo!
- If I were a descendant of someone who engaged in genocide via small pox blankets to the people who actually discovered American would I carry the burden of guilt with me today? Would I long for forgiveness?
- DRAMA! Coasted for 62 miles on fumes. Arrived @ gas station in tears. Horrible time. Hate desert.
- Dust clouds! I can see Black Rock City!!! I’M HERE! I MADE IT! Dragged from car by Viking Man. Forced to the ground to make dust angel, escorted to giant bell, handed sledgehammer, instructed to scream, “I’M NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE!!!” I’m home! Can’t stop crying.
- Arrive @ 5:00 & DNA. Boys across way w/bullhorn. I sit in their advice chair and ask how to set up my camp. They hand bullhorn to me. I call for Davey. Davey sets up my camp! So nice. He’s from NE Portland! Ha! These people are w/Mallard Camp. A lot of drumming.
- Neighbors take me in, give me water, food, a chair, shade, make me rest. I’m overheating.
- D finds me!!! He’s wearing florescent orange wig and crazy clothes. Follow him for first bike tour. Blown away. Cannot keep mouth closed. So vast. Eyes hurt. Speechless. D amused.
- Dizzy Headache Nose Throat Dizzy Ouch
- Want to rest but can’t. Too much to see. Keep going. Press on. Eyes popping.
- Boobs. Ouch. Neighbor-men want to help. Eager and curious. boobs boobs boobs ooooooow
- Sitting in Mallards advice chair sharing cold chicken from home. Love chex mix! Nose scabs.
- Night. Sparkles w/silver duct tape across lady-parts, blinky bike going going gone. Traveled WAY across playa. Dancing. New friends. More dancing. MUCH FIRE!!! Much much fire!!
- Midnight visit to Temple. Tears for family. Words to honor Keith Goodman. Crying again.
- 2am cashew and lemonade with naked 70something man. good times. Lucky comes to offer tour of RV. I go. Asks he can kiss me. Very polite people here. no thank you.
- 4am no sign of parties slowing. Cold. Need hat. Boobs: OUCH OUCH OUCH. must pump into dirty cup. Nose scabs forming. Ow. Feet: yuck. Where are my earplugs?
- 6am up with Titty Pirates. Neighbor brings me coffee!! Triple Americano! They are SO nice here! G sends me to Kidville to find infant who might nurse. I am considering all options. Ouch.
- Kidville 8am. Most disturbing experience. My bracelett is removed from my wrist by special needs child. Dare not take back. Parents asleep. Aching boobs dominate my thoughts.
- 9:30am bike tour of art, visit to the man in daylight! Temple, dragon, rocket, dancing, free drinks, spanking still going on. these people do not sleep! PHONE CALL home!!! Thank you, Rob from Seattle and your beautiful Iphone! I miss my family!!! Crying.
- Resting @ Center camp to hear lecture on Cultural Morals and Money. Very interesting.
- 12pm. Frozen drinks @ Karaoke dome. Dancing in cages. Walk Like an Egyptian. Shedding pounds in this heat! Also, might be little bit drunk due to no food. This dome is like oven… smmells so bad…ew… dripping… recognized by someone! nooooooo!… from my daughter’s school! hahahahahaahahahahaha!
- Snowcone party @ Mallards. “Tits or Ass?” they ask. “I dunno, tits, I guess.” (I thought it was a certain kind of drink). No, I’m supposed to show my tits! heheehee. Glad I didn’t pick ass! HA!
- Foot massage by K. Should try to sleep. Can’t. Boobs aching. K stands outside my tent w/my hand pump while I sit inside. Wish I had picture of it!
- 5pm dinner w/Strange Charm. Costco ravioli is the best ever!
- 7pm off to Houka Den. Lush, red, velvet, smoked fruits, acid jazz, people of all kinds. College kids enter and ruin the vibe. I’m the only one who can tolerate them! Heeheehee! Pajama Man and Turban girl finally leave. No one likes these obnoxious kids. Meet “Dream” – oooo, yesss. so very yes. Dread locks, white linen, beautiful brown skin, silky voice. Lovin’ this boy! (officially achieve cougar status)
- 9pm rocket launch total disappointment. finally leaving. New friend, Jack, joins us. Bike across windy playa. can’t see. coughing. nose – ouch.
- 10pm santa/zombie con. my plastic cup is chained to the bar. too funny. free drinks are everywhere! If only i was a drinker. Aquire R, man w/actual breastmilk fetish – is this a small desert or what??? Has had four hook-ups in real life. Crazy. Both repulsed & intrigued. But my boobs are clearly off limits. Must keep boobs pure for my sweet baby, D. the only one who needs me still.
- 11:30 arabic dance party. AWESOME!!!!!
- Midnight Poutine by Quebec Camp. Fries, brown gravy and cheese curds. The most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten in my life!!!! Worth the hour and a half wait!
- Lip-sync party at Quixote’s. Dancing to “Preacher’s Son” w/yet another youngster! I am terrible. Too much fun. He says, “Do you want to go outside and make-out with me?” Loving the manners of the playa in general. I say no, but I’m asking myself why? Why? Why? Why?????
- J rides back w/me to fetch sweater. Proposition denied. ew. wtf.
- 2am to FIRE! More fire! SO HOT! FIRE! FIRE! Awesomeness!
- 3:30am @ Jazz Cafe. New friend, LE. Writer guy. Listening to live jazz A to Z. Blown away. Keeping warm w/LE. Fading. Eyes heavy. Alphabet completed around 5:45am. Waiting for sunrise.
- 6am riding across playa alone. Standing before man burning his art. People are still dancing! But how??? Bedraggled, stupified, mesmorized us staring into fire. Sun coming up. People howling from all directions. (this happens each time the moon comes out too). Beautiful. Warm and cold. Shivers. Must find my camp. Camp, camp, where is that camp?
- Mallards still awake! Someone gives me popcycle. So nice.
- And poof! Just like that, I totally fell asleep.
- 7:30am up. Eat breakfast sausage w/fingers. Share. Spray people with ice water from my cooler. My neighbors are packing up to hit road right after burn tonight. Visit with Mallards.
- Dust storms. Center Camp for shelter, coffee, observations. D finds me!!! Simulating conversation and chai. Such a treat! LOVING this place. D encourages me to test out his old Secret Project. I do. Very intense. Is this a burden? Yes. But no. Will continue. News of sybian at Camp Beaverton.
- Must crash. Eating much chex mix. Falling asleeeep @ Center Camp.
- 5pm awake to BRC Annual Fashion Show. Cool. EWWWW! Marie Antoinette straddles bottle and shoves it up her vagina. bleck. really gross. I caught one of the cupcakes she threw. Yum! ahaha.
- Mallards giving away toothbrushes. Sparkleman riding by stops to stick one up his bum! YUCK!!! Lots and lots of applause.
- Night? Time? Burn delayed – wind. Duck into Love Shack w/Strange Charm. Meet sweet Brits w/snacks under covers of round bed. Love it here. Check man – arms up!! It’s on! Ride! Ride!
- The burn. Feels like major sporting event. Whoa. Hot. Fire! AWESOME!!!! The man won’t burn. “That’s not The Man. It’s wolverine! He’s mocking us!” yells young Frenchman. New friends. Would love to make-out w/gorgeous glamazon next to me! Rrrrrrreow. The man finally catches, but won’t fall. It happens. Hypnotic fire. Crowd begins to break up. Lots of people dancing around blaze. Too crowded to get close.
- 1:30am. Searching for sybian at Camp Beaverton. No luck.
- 3:am. Hang w/Mallards. Drama. K9 unit sniffing around Titty Pirates. Mallard girls hiding their pot.
- Sitting on Mallard couch out front. Gonna miss this place. Need sleep. GO TO BED. Please.
- Up @ dark. Goodbye & thanks to Mallards, still partying. Mushrooms. Can’t wait to see my family!!!!!! Just after sunrise – driving away!!!