Dan rants: Burning Man '99

I've washed off my sun screen, donned my street clothes, and returned from Black Rock City to the "real world". My feet are cracked and bleeding, glitter nail polish chipped and peeling, my hair dry and knotted. I've lost weight, my ribs are showing, and various muscles ache. Out of habit, I have a drink nearby at all times, and I'm constantly sipping.

Everything tastes like it needs salt.

And although the extravagant waste of water that is a shower, or a toilet flush, or even doubly rinsing the dishes I'm cleaning, feels like a luxury, and I don't have to apply sun screen first thing in the morning and then on throughout the day, I've come back reluctantly.

This was my second Burning Man , last time I went with Catherine and arrived on Wednesday, this time Todd and I were shooting for Sunday, but ended up arriving Monday, with Steve and Lori joining us on Thursday and Charlene on Friday.

And despite my complaints about the vibe over the weekend, it was still too damned short.

Todd and I arrived in his Ford Behemoth towing a U-Maul trailer on Monday afternoon. We had 2 55 gallon drums of water, assorted smaller containers, two coolers, one with regular ice and one with 200 lbs of dry ice.

We took two structures, a beefier version of last year's dome made with 2" PVC, and last year's 11/2" pipes covered with a smaller 'chute and wrapped in muslin. Later in the week we put a carpet and Charlene's massage table in this second one, cut some windows in the muslin, and bartered body work.

Apparently we arrived after Monday's big storm, described by some as "the apocalypse", but the winds were still moderately strong as we set up the second dome. In a foolish attempt to reduce the wind profile I staked part of the dome further out than I should have, not realizing that this weakens the stiffness of the dome, and we got an inversion of one of the sides. We quickly fixed this with a guy wire.

A reiteration: The security of 3' stakes is quite nice.

The storm did have a very good side, it scoured the playa of dust, so for the next few days we had amazingly clean conditions. Didn't have to start yelling "slow the f*ck down, @ssh*le!" 'til Thursday or so.

It was cold this year. Where last year I was naked well into the evening most nights, this year the sun falling below the mountains set me on a bee-line back to camp to slap on some poly-pro. Unfortunately this impacted many of my costumes negatively, something to think about for next year. Aside from that, after Monday the weather was totally mild, winds never got too huge, no rain, tolerable temperatures.

Todd and I have decided that next year we're taking capes and tool belts and are gonna spend the first couple of days in costume as handy-man superheroes, carrying around enough rope and tie wraps and pipe clamps to help people get their structures erected and their art up and stable.

For one thing it'd help to be carrying the repair basics, to not have to blast through crowded streets on a dangerously loaded bicycle for that shank of rope or length of rebar while the other person is hanging on to some structure that's threatening to catch the wind and carry the both of them clear to Reno.

I made steps towards becoming more of a participant this year, but it's an ongoing process. The quadricycle (Todd dubbed it the "Flutterbike", a name which might stick) was a start, as was our public space, and the bears (which didn't work all the time and need some mechanical tuning), but it's clear that Burning Man needs more art if it's not just going to become another lame rave. But we assuaged our consciences by spending the first few days running around helping wherever we could, from trying to help Kiki get her Firefall up and running, to holding the roof down on a yurt while people madly laced it up trying to beat the incoming storm, to the aforementioned mad dash for rope and stakes to hold down a playa art piece, and so on.

Then we painted the muslin on our shade space.

Speaking of firefall, it didn't quite come off the way Kiki had planned, fuel distribution in the upper tray wasn't even, but it was way cool, and I singed a bunch of the hair off my arm playing in it. Thanks, Kiki!

As the week went on it became plain that the energy shift I talked about last year is a continuum. Not necessarily a straight line, but the coolness of earlier in the week deteriorated into Saturday's vibe, with Leica and Hasselblad toting Bermuda shorts wearers shamelessly snapping pictures of naked women , making no attempt to participate. I gave up on my SLR with the big zoom lens in the strap-on harness after a short time because even though I wasn't taking pictures, and even though I was getting some laughs, I felt like having a visible camera at all was just adding to the spectator vibe.

Saturday night the man burned. And it was weird, the crowd energy was down, there was little dancing, there appeared to be a misfire and the man went up all at once rather than in stages. We all split in various directions for the open playa; rather than feeling like a celebration the ritual felt oppressive.

Sunday morning we took a bunch of trash bags and went to the man. After a bag or so the newcomers, Todd and Charlene, each independently needed some alone time and headed out to the playa to meditate on what it meant to be a part of a crowd that'd trash a space the way that crowd did.

As I scraped watermelon rind and broken beer bottles and glitter and picked trash from the playa surface I pondered again what it meant to be a part of the culture that'd be this careless. And more than ever I need to make a trip up to help with the clean-up.

It is important to not take too much of a downer note from this. Black Rock City isn't perfect, especially over the weekend, but it's a base to start from that's very different from the current community. Along with the yahoos it attracts many cool people, and we as individuals must work to solve the problems ourselves and drag the culture in the directions that we want it to go.

Ideas for next year:

Tuesday, September 07th, 1999 danlyke@flutterby.com