Burning Man 98

Things I learned at Burning Man:

  1. Never leave camp without your water bottle. Gulp, don't sip.
  2. You can learn a lot about body paint from women who offer to decorate your penis.
  3. SPF 45 is sufficient clothing, but make very sure a friend helps get all those hard to reach spots.
  4. I look really good in brightly colored glitter nail polish.
  5. Parachutes make decent sun shades, and are fairly impervious to wind. Even with a robust structure (we used a modified first order geodesic made from 10 foot lengths of 1.5" schedule 40 PVC) the latter is a liability in a 60 MPH dust storm.
  6. Platform shoes, especially when made unintentionally from caked clay on the soles of my Tevas in the aftermath of a rain storm, can be damned uncomfortable.
  7. Everything tastes better with playa dust. At least I think it does, I never got the chance to try without.
  8. Dry ice is cold. Salad dressing is best poured, not chipped and served flaked.
  9. Don't trust that there will be toilet paper.
  10. When two guys carrying something that looks like a mortar say "you might want to detour around us, this could be dangerous", that's probably a good idea. When one of them says "shit, I forgot my lighter", take that as a cue to find a place to watch from about a quarter of a mile away. Chances are you won't be disappointed (we weren't).
  11. A person with short hair can bathe in a quart of water. A half-gallon shared is total luxury. Totally redefines the 15-20 gallons we normally use for a shower.

30 miles east of Reno we left I-80 and turned north, through the small reservation town of Nixon with pickup trucks parked in front of stone front houses built into caves in the cliffs. For 65 miles we drove up 447, through brown grazing lands, sandstone cliffs and formations of various hues, along the two lane highway with a 70 MPH speed limit. We stopped in Empire, home of a U.S. Gypsum wallboard factory and little else, for a final bathroom break, the sign proclaiming "Last store for 93 miles". 5 miles later, Gerlach, with its bars and a few decrepit motels, apparently catering to the local hot springs, and then we hit the playa.

I had trouble getting my mind around the playa. My images of deserts include sand, cactii, the occasional sagebrush, that sort of thing. The playa is the bottom of an ancient lake, a huge expanse of very flat flat, cracked, white alkali clay, broken by the occasional half-dollar sized black stone. It's 3 to 5 miles wide, bordered on both sides by stark bare mountains that we never did get into, and extends for tens of miles, nearly a hundred. There is no life on the playa, except what the humans bring with them.

One of the flyers begins "Survival is a personal option." In the dry heat of the day a person drinks 2 gallons of water, not to mention the incidentals which kick usage up another gallon above that, high winds make the standard tent stake 2 to 3 feet of iron rebar pounded into the ground, chilly nights and occasional rain means we pack for every contingency. Everything brought in must be taken back out. With all of this one could imagine a group of uncomfortable people huddled together in shared misery for a week. That it's exactly the opposite is a wonderful example of the human spirit.

The camp is a portion of a circle with an inner diameter of probably a half a mile, arranged around the man, a 40 foot high neon lit sculpture. Tents range from two person domes to hundred foot long circus canopies. Occasionally, towers built of scaffolding hold banners and provide views from high above the city. The back of the city is mainly residential, tents and RVs parked amongst occasional makeshift gardens of imported trees and flowers, signs and various exhibits of small art. Towards the front the exhibits become larger, with various stages and dance spaces. Between the front line of the camp and the trash fence, probably another mile and a half out on the playa in the direction of the prevailing winds, and to some distance on either sides, people have built art in the desert. This ranges from wicker creatures to be filled with mementoes of things best destroyed by fire, to large structures dispensing mass showers at predetermined times, to trebuchets built to hurl flaming hay bales, to the truly surreal.

When I build the full web page there may be some photos, but I realize now why the pictures I've seen, be they of the ramshackle camps, or bizarre sculptures, or naked mud baths, don't capture the essence of Burning Man. The prime directive is "No spectators", and it quickly becomes obvious that there's no way a picture can possibly capture the feel of the community. We can only experience by doing.

I quickly got used to the basic level of surrealism; the traveling bars, people giving rides on mobile living room furniture or gasoline powered canoes, bicycles of strange topology, body batik, inflatable creatures and stuffed animals placed in orgiastic tableaux around various camps, and I can't hope to capture the full experience in prose. The place is total sensory over stimulation, with so many happenings they can't possibly be recounted, but here are a couple of images that might give glimmerings of the feel of being in that space:

The experience was about the doing as much as the places people created. We entered a bridge into a sacred space and ended up building a 10 foot dream catcher by moonlight. Our neighbors cursed that the popsicles they'd brought had melted, so I volunteered a slab of dry ice and the next day we stood in the central plaza handing out treats to passersby. The sense of community was marvelous. We all cared. We all talked to each other. I forgot my bike at the bathrooms, came back half a day later and it was still sitting there. There was always a helping hand.

When we go back next time we'll be doing more, taking costumes, building art, maybe creating a space to find a mood and mode of interaction that doesn't exist in our day to day culture, experimenting to find things we can apply in our real lives.

Catherine described the main theme of the camp as a place where men can be kids. The energy is very male, lots of big flames, big explosions, industrial toys. There are other festivals with other energies, and we want to explore them too.

I lost track of time, and Saturday became Friday, the Budmilloors swilling mundane tourists showed up in SUVs and pickup trucks, sitting on tailgates yelling "show us yer tits", but even they didn't manage to ruin the different sense of place.

On the final night fires rage in the distance; flickering glows interrupted by huge bursts of flame. The man stands, his arms raised as if in surrender. The tents empty as pilgrims swarm from the semicircle of the camps out along the road to the man. Around the man, dancers twirl flaming batons or wield nunchucks trailing fire, to drum beats from a hundred drummers. Chants of "burn him", start, then dwindle in pockets. As the beat quickens, a person appears standing on the platform beneath the man, holding a torch, dwarfed by the neon lit legs. The figure walks to each of the corners, holding the torch to the crowd, then towards the man, to encouraging cheers. Finally, returning to the center, the figure pulls down the torch, bursts into flame, and walks to one leg, then the other, and as the flames roar up the man, runs from the altar.

In the course of the daily routine, if there is such a thing on the playa, we were aware of the man, but he didn't dominate our thoughts. Yes, we made the pilgrimage and stood in front of the 40 foot entity which had brought us all here, but by himself he wasn't the largest sculpture, nor the most moving. But as the flames race up his legs, and explode in spectacular fireworks, and the stylized head catches fire to reveal two magnesium eyes which light the dancing crowd as bright as day, and then as the structure comes apart, first one arm crashes to the ground, then the other, then the whole being topples, blowing up a cloud of sparks, tears well up and I sob for the end and for the new beginnings.

It's a reenactment of one of the most powerful myths in our society, he is sacrificed for our sake; so we must leave, go back to the other world, taking the spirit with us, and find a way to bring just a little bit of that other place back into our regular lives. Maybe now I understand a little bit better the source of Christanity, even if I still can't puzzle the meaning most people take from it.

I'll be doing a larger page later, with photos and descriptions of the structure we built (I'm rather proud that it survived), links to the pages of art we enjoyed, I just wanted to get this out while the memory was still fresh.

Wednesday, September 9th, 1998 danlyke@flutterby.com