"I think maybe what gets me is when people say Burning Man
is a cultural phenomenon. Phenomenon, you know? Like it's some broken part of a bigger thing. Like it's your weird Aunt Cecilia people only talk to at funerals. It's not a phenomenon. It just is itself. It's a whole thing by itself. You know what I'm saying?" says the man wearing the Pippi Longstockings
costume. His 3-day beard stubble offsets an orange-red wig with pigtails curved upward at each cheek.
The thermometer on my RV says it's one-hundred eleven degrees outside, but it doesn't feel a degree over 99 here under the Sears and Roebuck portable shade structure.
The 6-foot three inch Pippi Longstockings offers me a cube of ruby red fruit from a salad bowl full of watermelon cubes. I take and eat one. A tiny oasis of cool in the alkaline desert dust.
Terry takes one. Picks up a bottle of Patron Silver and gets off his lawn chair. Says, "Can I offer you a shot?"
Pippi says, "No thanks. I'm already tripping on the acid in the watermelon."
Terry puts down the bottle. Slumps back into his chair beside me.
I say, "No shit," my brain spinning, my blood pressure heading to infinity.
Terry says, "You shouldn't eat things people give you here."
"You ate it, though."
"Well, you did first. I figured I'd keep you company."
"And there's no antidote," I say.
Terry shakes his head. I take the bottle of Patron and swallow two huge mouthfuls.
"I want to be drunk for this."
The guy is dressed like he just stepped from the Australian bush. He's coated in beige dust. Steps into the RV. Takes a perfunctory look around. After a second it's clear he's not searching for guns or drugs even though he was standing next to a sign that said his job was to find those. He's looking for stowaways. Finding none with me and the blonde haired girl, he turns to give us the lecture.
"Look, there are at least three law enforcement agencies here this year. Two county sheriffs and the feds. Both uniformed and undercover. So when you're using your recreational drugs, be discreet. I'm saying, be careful, OK? And if you're using alcohol, remember this is the desert. Dehydration is more than a problem, it can kill you. Tickets."
He scans the two tickets I hand him. His scanner beeps happily.
"Head on up to the greeters," he says, and leaves.
I drive us 50 yards forward to where there's a teepee on the ground. Two young people approach the RV, a guy and girl, both barely dressed in things resembling shredded industrial machine covers.
"Welcome home," says the guy, at the driver's side window. "We wondered when you were going to get here. How many times have you been to the Playa?"
"First time," says the blonde haired girl.
The guy shouts, "Virgins!" and he and the girl invite us out of the RV.
"We have a tradition," the girl says to me after a big hug. She is sweaty and smells like she has been raised by wolves. "You need to be baptized. Please lay down on the playa and become one with the dust."
There's about 1/2 an inch of fine beige powder on the ground all around us. Geologically speaking, the Burning Man "Playa" is the bed of a long evaporated prehistoric lake hundreds of square miles in extent. It's flat as the polar ice cap, but covered in fine silt that piles in tiny dunes a couple inches deep, at most. It's like laying in cake flour. Tastes bitter. I stand up, coated. Wolf girl hands me a stick.
"Now ring the bell and scream as loud as you can shout,'I'm not a virgin anymore!'"
I step up to a A-frame structure within which hangs the top half of an acetylene gas tank. I smash the stick into the hanging tank half. I yell what she commands. There is no choice. She tells me it is the only time in my life I will get to do that.
So it is.
More dusty hugs. The couple hands us maps, books, pamphlets. We drive off at 5 miles per hour, seat belts fastened so we don't get tickets from the cops, whom we are assured are everywhere looking for revenue generating opportunities.
The blonde haired girl flips through the 150-page book of events. She stops on one notable happening.
She reads, "Here's a Thursday event. Anal Probe nine-dot-oh. Celebration: the art and x-ploration of the anus and beyond."
I say, "And beyond? Like how far? The colon? The duodenum? Is nothing sacred to these hippie freaks?"
"Wednesday: Plaid and Pancakes. School Girls, Punk Rockers, and Golfers unite for breakfast."
I'm still hung up on the prior event. "Nine-dot-oh? What vile horrors happened with versions 1.0 through 8.9?"
She says, "Tots and Shots. The Dust Monkeys expands its Mr. Potatohead theme with Tater Tots, Vodka Shots, and non-stop fertility dancing. We could go to that one today."
"I guess I'm up for that."
"Or we could go to the Good Head Wonder Party."
I'm not sure how to react to my wife's suggestion. I try to raise one eyebrow like the guys on Star Trek, but both always go up.
She bursts into laughter. "It's a microbrew beer tasting event."
I say, "Whew. Thank god."
"What did you think it was?"
"I thought it was what you said."
It started with some guys burning an effigy on a beach in San Francisco after being dumped by their girlfriends. It ended up a multimillion dollar international phenomenon.
Irrespective of its counter-culture utopian ethos, huge sums of establishment money are spent on Burning Man every year. Millions of dollars on art projects. Electronic dance camps. Individual preparation. Attendees arrive by private plane. Military aircraft. Parachute. Helicopter. Motor vehicles of every form and fashion.
Celebrities arrive incognito. They also arrive in plain sight and cordon off their camps with fences and body guards.
Massive installations are created by professional riggers with cranes and heavy machinery.
Tens of thousands of "regular" people swarm the gates, then populate Black Rock City. They inhabit the high desert. Endure the desert summer heat. The wind storms. The dust storms. The rain storms. They exist in ridiculously difficult circumstances relying solely on the resources they pack in with them.
Within a vast 2-mile diameter circle an entire city is erected, inhabited, and then burned and vacated in the course of a month. Volunteers scour the ground on hand and knee for weeks afterward to make sure the dry lake bed is returned to its geologically prehistoric state. Literally, not a speck of detritus is left behind. That's the deal with the BLM.
There can't be anything left. Leave no trace, is one of the fundamental tenets of burning. Another is Radical Inclusion. Everyone is allowed, irrespective of how freakish or inappropriately pedestrian. Gifting. Respect. Everyone must participate. No observers. Radical Self-reliance. No mooching.
Ask before you take a picture of anyone. It's not a tenet, but it's a rule.
Burning Man is a high speed model of human existence. It is brought into being, flourishes in a cacophony of sound and light as loud and bright as the city can physically muster, and then disappears.
A ticket to Burning Man costs somewhere between $250 to $420 each, depending on when it was acquired and from whom. For that fee you are allowed to be there. For your ticket fee the Burning Man Organizing Body, known to many as the BORG, sees to it that the permit is obtained from the federal government. They pay for gazillions of porta-potties to be put out on the dry lake bed. They grant funds to struggling artists who want to bring installations to the desert. They make sure the geography is staked out in terms of streets and avenues. They make sure the airplane runway is clearly delineated. They organize thousands of volunteers who serve coffee, load ice bags, patrol the streets for safety or to warn you to put away your paraphernalia because the cops are coming, bandage wounds, and man the radio station.
They construct and burn "The Man," which is known by all attendees as such. All directions are referenced from "the Man." All time is linked to the moment of the inevitable conflagration that consumes "the Man."
But even with the level of infrastructure they provide, it is not possible to exist in Black Rock City on the resources provided by the BORG for the price of your ticket. To live in BRC, one must bring his own food, water, and shelter.
While the use of federally printed currency is discouraged, one can buy coffee beverages at center camp, and ice at three locations in BRC known as Arctica. I suppose if you let the ice melt, you can say you've bought water from the BORG. But the rest of the city functions on what is known as a "gifting" culture. That is to say, people just give things to each other without seeking any form of remuneration.
This generally works.
While sitting in your camp, minding your own business at Burning Man, people walking past will simply come to you and hand you things. On a hot day someone gave me a snow cone, another gave me two cookies, another gave me the afore mentioned threatening watermelon. Many camps have a bar. To use the bar, one simply walks up to the bartender and asks for a drink, which one receives.
It is customary to have your own cup. In an effort not to create excess MOOP (e.g. litter = Matter Out Of Place), drinking containers are generally not provided.
This year the BORG got permission to increase the population of BRC from last year's 50,000, to 60,000. BRC is twice the size of the city I live in during normal phases of my life. Within that city there are probably hundreds of bars. Tens of fix-it shops. Bakeries. Candy shops. Ten or so massive dance concert arenas where thousands congregate nightly to writhe to techno and rock.
There are neighborhoods in BRC. One says, "I live around the corner." Or, "I live at 6 o'clock and Dandelion." The streets are laid out in a radial spoke pattern with the hub at "the man". Each spoke is designated with an hour of the clock. Concentric rings are labeled alphabetically. Addresses are then given as a time and a ring name. Sacred Spaces Village was at 9:45 and Edelweiss. Whiskey and Dust was at 7:15 and Columbine.
The circular street names change every year. This year they were named after flowers.
It is as possible for any one person to see all of Black Rock City as it would be to see any other entire permanent city. Much worse, nearly every camp on every block displays some form of art and offers interactivity, whether it be an open bar, a dance workshop, or an art installation. There are many thousands of things to "see", any one of which could occupy the better part of a day. And BRC only exists for 10 days.
Burning Man attendees call themselves "burners." They ask each other about the status of the other's "burn".
"How's your burn going?" you may be asked.
Burners live on the "Playa," which is the colloquial name for the dry lake bed upon which the whole thing is taking place.
The Burning Man living quarters are all arranged in a crescent south of the Man. Elsewhere is the Playa, or the open Playa, and farther north of the man, toward where the actual desert wilderness is, is called the "deep" Playa.
There is actually a fence around Black Rock City. It's called the trash fence because all human-made crap is supposed to stay within its confines. One can cruise the circumference of the city by following the fence. Most people don't go to the deep Playa as there's nothing out there but nature in the raw and perhaps a lone art installation. Rumor has it the BORG and the law monitor the fence with IR cameras and radar. Anyone penetrating the fence is apprehended.
From the farthest point in BRC - the 12:00 stake 6000' north of the Man - one can see the city as a ripple on the horizon. Barely above the desert silence one feels the low thud of the bass from the techno camps and the art cars like the machinations of a distant army.
Or the approach of a killer alien robot.
At midday it was very warm on the Playa. We were cruising down the Esplanade on our bikes, heading to the "Necklace Repair Workshop" when a man clothed only in a paper cup stepped in front of the blond haired girl's bike.
The cup was on his head.
He said, "Do you want ice cream?"
I pulled up beside her. She said yes. I said yes.
He motioned toward a large tent-like structure with a big LED sign outlined in feather boas that said, "PINK HEART"
We parked our bikes and got in line under a big pink awning at Pink Heart.
We were near the front of the line. A topless woman walked past us and squirted water at us with a plant mister. The water mist smelled of Chanel no 5.
After five minutes, a tall woman wearing a bikini and high-heeled boots handed us each a cone bulging with white soft-serve ice cream. She said, "It's completely vegan. Non violent." It was coconut.
We rode onward slurping our non-violent coconut ice cream cones shouting "Pink Heart," to those asking us where they were procured.
"See the naked cup guy," I said. "He'll set you up."
Necklace Repair Camp was way the hell out at 10:00 and Lilac and when we got to it, like many things in BRC, it wasn't there. What was there was a bunch of people on bikes with broken necklaces slurping ice cream cone remains. Eventually someone figured out that the necklace repair people had arrived in the middle of the night and had set up their camp one block over because they couldn't read the street signs.
We all trundled over to the proper camp, and sitting on the ground under various Sears and Roebuck shade structures began threading beads and tying new knots.
The guys sitting to our right were discussing the morning's events. They had been at a camp that was geared toward allowing straight people to experiment with homosexual encounters in a non-threatening setting. They abandoned their quest when one of the camp participants examined the male apparatus of one of the group and exclaimed, "Who you think you're going to satisfy with that?"
So they left and came to Necklace Repair Camp.
"So much for 'Non Threatening,'" said one of the guys.
To our left was a guy who had struck up a conversation with the blonde-haired girl. He hadn't known he was coming to Burning Man until the last minute, when he answered a Craig's List ad placed by a German who needed a ride to Burning Man from Atlanta, Georgia. So he decided to drop everything and drive the guy from Georgia to Gerlach, Nevada for a free ticket.
There was also a couple with their four-year old daughter.
The blonde-haired girl gave the kid a bunch of our spare beads. Then we got on our bikes and rode out to the Temple of Juno.
Burning Man is a celebration of non-sequitur juxtaposing - the randomness of fortune and misfortune. Pandora's Bike Repair and Margarita camp. Hugs and Pancakes. The steamy escape of the primal forces we suppress to maintain civil culture. Love. Hate. Fear. Joy.
The more magnificent a structure, the greater the emotional release when it is destroyed.
The blonde haired girl and I opined on the topic. Weren't the most beautiful virgins the ones sacrificed? You gave the gods the best of the harvest, not the worst. And we can examine the cultural origins of arson, the misplaced sexual energy in fire, the innate need for man to immolate his most precious possessions. What is there and solid is reduced to ether and embers.
As if we are all of fire. When we burn things they become sealed in our past, but also, they become us.
We watched them burn beautiful art projects built by regional Burning Man affiliates.
We watched them burn a 3-story tall model of the Egyptian god Anubis.
Behind us, lasers cut through the night sky. Speakers blared thousands of watts of music. LEDs blasted images. Vehicles the size of small buildings rolled by, replete with their own multi-storied bars, dance floors, and ultra-lounges.
But everyone stopped to see the fire.
Plain old, ancient as dirt, fire.
A piece of burning plywood is more interesting to most people than all the technology anyone's millions could muster.
"Zuckerberg is here," said a guy at our camp who was working at the BRC airport. It was Larry-Look-Alike day at the Thirsty Camel Bar.
Larry Harvey is one of the guys who started Burning Man, and is the guy who generally owns the copyright now. He always wears a cowboy hat.
Most people showed up to the Larry-Look-Alike party wearing a cowboy hat and little else.
The guy I was talking to was wearing as much as I was, which is to say, we spared any onlookers the indignity of seeing our naked forms beside those of some much more photographically appropriate bodies.
The guy said, "He flew in this morning. Had some people set up an RV for him. Hired some guy to do art for him. All he does is show up, lives in the RV, parties, goes home. Someone does all the setup and breakdown for him. They even follow him around mooping, so he doesn't have to worry he dropped anything."
"Seems like that must violate some deep burner principle. While everyone else is scraping by, crapping in stinky porta potties, not bathing for days, this guy comes in with everything."
"Page is here. And a bunch of Apple big wigs. Ellison is here, too. They are all totally self-reliant. It doesn't violate anything."
I knocked back my margarita and went to the bar with my red plastic cup for another.
The topless toothy girl behind the bar smiled and poured me another. I drank to self reliance.
I went back to the guy who had been working at the airstrip.
"I wonder how those guys feel about them blowing up Wall Street this year," I said. I had met some of the guys who had built an effigy of Wall Street itself. They'd not only packed it with diesel and ignitors but also a couple hundred pounds of black powder. It was going to be the biggest thing immolated in Burning Man history, and they were going to blow it to smithereens to boot.
"They'll probably be pretty happy about it," said the guy. "Zuckerberg's probably got some Wall Street hit squads after him. This is the safest place for him right now if you think about it."
I thought about it. I actually could think about it. I knew about the Facebook IPO debacle. I knew the stock had plummeted, and when the insiders cashed out, it went worse for the ordinary shareholders.
I knew that. I wasn't actually a freaky hippie wearing tie-dye, riding a piece-of-crap Huffy around the Playa, begging for cigarette butts and bread crusts.
I was just pretending to be.
At Burning Man they build a temple. They call it something different every year. This year they called it the Temple of Juno.
The Temple of Juno is now photographs and history, having been burned to ash last Sunday eve. I wasn't there to see it happen. I couldn't bear it.
The Temple collects the damaged people of the burner tribe. They kneel within its grounds and write upon its walls in ink and pencil. They install bits and pieces of their lives in the spaces between the boards.
In time, everyone visits the temple. Everyone leaves something behind. There is no one of us who has gone through life without a dent.
Here - see the father who passed before I could tell him I loved him. Here is the daughter I lost to cancer. Here is the leg torn from me in the car accident that killed my sister and mother.
Here are my sins. One by one. Here are my regrets. Here is the life I have damaged. Here are the soldiers, my children lost in the war.
Forgive me. I was selfish. I was scared.
You enter the temple grounds. A wave of solemn energy steals your breath, drowns your thoughts. No one speaks.
You hear the bass from the electro dance rave behind you. But here everyone prays.
Here is my grief. See how much I hurt.
They come dressed as characters from Mad Max. As furry animals. As strippers. As bikers. As humans.
They are wearing rabbit ears. They've stepped from absurdity to the sublime.
My father is the first person close to me whom I lost. He died a terrible death of cancer. I can't forget it. Since then, I've lost numerous friends and family. But my father represents them all.
I took a black Sharpee. I wrote on the temple wall:
This can't be it. You have to be somewhere. Otherwise I don't mean anything. See how scared I am? Of what use is this terror? Of what is this love?
I folded a picture of my dad and squeezed it between two ornately filigreed pieces of laser-cut wood and I sat next to the blonde haired girl and listened to quiet murmured prayers. Awestruck by the gorgeous architecture. The pieces swaying in the wind. The pieces locked together without nails, illuminated by light like candle flame.
A tall blonde man came into the temple. His face was drawn. His hair was wild. His eyes red. His clothes were mottled in sweat and dust. At first he seemed drunk, the way he staggered in. But then I could see he had an artificial leg.
He staggered to a place on the ground in front of me and fell to his knees. He placed a picture on an altar they had made at the center of the room, clasped his hands into a ball and rested his face against his fingers while he sobbed. Eventually he dropped to his side and lay in the dust, crying.
I see him now in my mind as I write this. I remember how I thought to reach out to him, but didn't. I remember how he got out, nearly running, hobbling toward the Man. Toward the city. Toward the lasers firing green light to infinity, toward the endless repetitive techno beat, the thousands of writhing dancers, the art cars and mutant vehicles, the resourceless desert and it's promise of sere nothingness.
I've seen pictures of the temple burn. It went up like a flare. It took everything, somewhere.
We come from nothing. We are here for a while. We scream. We do our best to leave a mark, but these hills are older than our dreams. We can't touch them. All we have is the fire.
Then we are gone.
Just like that.