September 11, 2004
Burning Man

We’re back, as of about 7:30 Monday morning, having driven through the night. That wasn’t the original plan, but when we heard the description of the *other* burn, and then saw the Temple itself, we decided it would probably be worth it to trade the night drive for the witnessing. And we did.

What’s it all like? It’s a genius graphic novel made manifest. It’s an exercise in total interreliance on gifting, abjuring money. It’s 35,000 people, very few of whom look remotely the way they do at the supermarket. It’s Carnival saturated with booming Techno music in 57 different varieties. It’s a lot about fire, and a lot about profound physical discomfort, and a lot about vodka.

It takes place about 120 miles northeast of Reno in the midst of a huge perfectly flat basin ringed by a low range, and when there’s a normal amount of rain in the winter, it’s a lake. In summer the surface is alkali hardpack, very nearly white. A huge city is plotted out of concentric rings (planetary names, Mercury to Sedna) and hourly radii, and installations have addresses like Venus & 3:30. The main-street ring, The Esplanade (a non-planetary exception) is fully half the radius out from the center, leaving an enormous pure white blank arena known as The Playa, where there are no streets, only three Promenades (3:00. 6:00, and 9:00) converging on The Man at the center. Up top at 12:00 is The Temple. Within this huge circle (dunno, but it feels like more than a mile across) are scattered art installations, all unsigned.

You buy ice and coffee, anything else you bring for yourself and others–gifting is profuse. There is no electricity unless you generate it yourself, there is no water unless you bring it, and you damn well better not pee on the Playa (portapotties abound). Near freezing before dawn, maybe 100F by 3 pm, and then there’s the wind, which can clock 70mph in gusts. Most people tent, though there are lots of RV’s as well.

And the vehicles. No normal transportation except feet and bicycles, but mutant vehicles (pre-registered) are amazing. A three-story white filigree balustraded wedding-cake bus with a bar and a white upright piano on the second story. A huge free-rolling Ferris wheel, powered by three people on bicycle seats. A Viking ship. A robotic armadillo. A purely beautiful translucent illuminated lotus blossom. Cars and trucks come in, make camp, and stay put–only mutants and pedestrians and bikes move. Bikes mutate, too–one with the seat seven feet up, presided over by another seven feet of flagpole and banner.

People are elaborately costumed, or bare naked and bejeweled, or painted orange all over, or in t-shirt and cutoffs. On a stroll around the Esplanade you can be offered (a) icy cold crudites served by a French maid (M or F), (b) a disgusting drink made with vodka and sickly sweet, high-caffeine Red Bull, (c) fresh tuna sashimi, (d) handmade jewelry, (e) a kiss, (f) . . . Or stand face to face with a young man wandering about wearing a water tank on his back and receive a quick, blessed shower. Stop in at an establishment and get (a) your feet washed with vinegar water to soothe the alkali, (b) your hair washed, (c) a verbal affirmation of whatever you say you’d like to feel good about, (d) a blow job, (e) instruction in spanking, (f) watching a movie, (g) a nap . . .

So we arrived at 7am Wednesday, having left about 12 hours later than planned (radio show final deadline), and located an area at 3:30 and Saturn where a couple we know were going to camp, someplace reputed to be relatively low-key and even sometimes quiet. We’d bought a 16 x 20 silver tarp and draped it over the area of Sheba (our Dodge maxi-van) and the tent, wrapped Sheba’s nose in another tarp, and pounded the whole rig down with 18-inch rebar instead of tent stakes. As temperature control, it all worked better than expected, and we only roasted in the afternoon, and then only in the tent–Sheba stayed pretty moderate, and we left the ice chests in there.

By afternoon, the wind cranked way way up, and it was hours of white-out–the dust required filter respirators and made contact lenses interesting, but since we’d only just put this camp configuration together, the worst of it was hearing the tarps whapping up and down and wondering if everything would fly away. It didn’t. Don’t recall if it cleared up that evening, but it was OK the next day–until midafternoon, when I’d biked myself way the hell and gone across the solar system, and here came an even worse white-out. Not such violent wind, but *really* thick peasoup dust, and so I holed up in one of the gazillion free bars, this one offering rum and coke or rum and coke. I sat and drank and talked with a nice older guy, a French restauranteur from Salt Lake City. Well, actually, from Bordeaux via Washington DC, and quite a raconteur. (Saturday I took the minidisk and interviewed him for the program.)

CB did a lot of wandering around with the minidisk and mike, sound-gathering. He’s had the inspiration to do a radio piece where two elderly women (the Burger King ladies from one of our trade-mark sketches) wind up by mistake at Burning Man (she was going to SF to visit her daughter, got the dates wrong, and the roommate said she was at Birmingham, near Reno–well, that’s the way they heard it). It’s halfway written now and will be on an upcoming show.

Lots of things get burned at Burning Man, but the two climactic ones are Saturday’s burn of The Man, and Sunday’s burn of The Temple. They’re very different. It was noticeable as the week crawled on toward Saturday that the yahoo element became more predominant. Sure, there are losts of what one might call Contrarians, if not Anarchists, at things of this ilk, but their head-butts against Authority are usually grounded and salted with humor. As the week wore on, things got louder and meaner–on Sunday morning, I had my bike run off the road by a leering pile of guys on a wide golf cart that had to veer across the avenue to sideswipe me. Guys roared more and seemed to enjoy it less.

(“Are you roaring more and enjoying it less? Try WAR.”)

The lodestone of this energy is the Saturday night burn, which is pretty damn spectacular. The spectators are kept back a safe distance, making a very broad circle within which the firedancers can operate, building up momentum for ignition. At first, their moves are pretty simple and repetitive, but even so, it’s startling to see 100+ firespinners in rhythmic sync. Then they’re cut loose to perform as individuals (within their sector), and there were some whose passion and focus and physical skill were unforgettable. You kind of got offered everything from the toothy pneumatic analogue of a football cheerleader to the whiplash blaze of a priestess of lightning. The major challenge was where to look, given the vast spread of the banquet.

Eventually, the big igniting torches made their appearance, the base was lit, and the paroxysm began. A bellow of flame, ferocious cheers from the crowd, explosions of fireworks, peak level from the drummers, huge columns of sparks–and a general super-voltage wave of YES. It’s a total tribute to the organization of the event that this monumental energy is channeled through the burning, that people don’t riot and begin to clobber each other. Then the big tease is how and when and which way does He fall, and every shrug and twitch is greeted by a tsunami of sound. Eventually, He collapses, and the wardens open the circle, and everybody packs in as close as they dare.

Biking back across the Playa to camp is a major project, since the horizon has altered completely from when you arrived. Landmarks carefully observed for return are obliterated by the school of mutant vehicles with their own twinkles and neon, and you’re got a mile of space to traverse in the total dark on faith. Many of your fellow travelers are stoned or tripping or drunk out of their minds, so it’s hard to predict what’s not a collision course. I guess most of us made it.
Sunday was very different. Some folks had already gone home, but that still left a huge crowd. Again the big schlep across the Playa, outbound in twilight and returning in blackness, and across even more distance. Again the disorientation, the distant lighted landmarks obliterated by the swarm of ornately illuminated multi-story vehicles. There wasn’t any pre-show, so to speak, except for the appearance of three gorgeous anemone mylar kites, one of which kept losing it and sinking, then rising, sinking again, all three over to one side as if guarding and watching the spire of the temple.

The crowd was pretty demure, up to a point, and then began grumbling about how long it was taking. Some down-front people decided to stand instead of sitting, setting off a rowdy exchange between the Down-in-Front faction and the It’s-My-Artistic-Expression faction, but it didn’t get grim. Eventually, without much ceremony at all, the structure was set alight.

The Temple is a year a-building, with planning and prefab happening offsite, and the actual assembly maybe two weeks. If I remember right, it started about five years ago, when some artists were planning a burnable structure, and then a friend died in a ghastly accident before the festival. The plans reoriented toward a remembrance, and that tinge has remained. We were told that the 2001 temple burn was amazing–people had brought thousands of little tokens to tuck into corners, sigils of remembrance or intention, and when the burn happened, it was silent, awash in tears. Almost as if there were some collective foreknowledge of what was to happen a week hence.

This year’s structure was reminiscent of Angkor Wat, maybe sixty feet tall at the spire and a quarter of a mile wide–a pair of elaborate walkways approaching the center with a pair of steep hemisphere bridges before the stairway ascents to the spire. Gorgeous filigree and ornamentation made of discarded plywood from a toy factory’s cut-outs, lovingly layered on a structure upon which people could safely climb for two days, leaving their written wishes and celebrations and remembrances in ink on the wood. A little Eiffel Tower of the heart.

A year’s worth of delicate design intended to be taken by flame in twenty minutes. And once it began, it did indeed become powerfully silent, except for the bass pummeling of the flames. Even people saturated with vodka and Red Bull. Everybody just watched and felt it. I’m glad we stayed.

Getting back to Sheba was otherworldly. We’d completely broken camp in the afternoon, and planned to leave as soon as we got back from the burn. We’d biked these streets any number of times before, but now it was murkily different. Whole landmarks were entirely gone. There was no light from all but a very few encampments. People had stolen all the streetsigns, and in the dark it was even hard, sometimes, to tell where the streets *were*. Are we on Mercury or Saturn? Was that 2:30? The macabre sense was the difference between a living body and a corpse. And how *small* it all seemed, area by area, within this vastness, and how gritty and grim. The magic had all gone home.

We managed to locate Sheba and cram the bikes inside and gear up to leave, which was a very long process. I think the pavane to the regular highway (two-lane-no-shoulder) took the better part of an hour. Then the 100+ miles toward the 80 and Reno, vigilant against personal midnight drear, and recognizing that a significant number of fellow drivers may be, um, impaired. (We passed a substantial number of vehicles pulled over, or fallen over, to the side.) We made it home in three shifts.

Now the entertaining process is not just unpacking, but cleansing. You have no idea what all playa dust can get into. Today we finished hosing out Sheba, doing two crates of laundry, and there are two crates more. Wednesday we hosed off the tarps, camp-stools, and folding chairs, and yesterday came the bikes. We’ve emptied out and washed our shoulder bags and all three ice chests. I’ve sponged the shoes, mirrors, makeup pouch, pounded the sleeping bags, decided which ones need to go to the supersize laundry. We’ve pumiced our feet, applied unguent and antibiotics (cracks, y’know) and slept in socks. Aussie Miracle has been repeatedly applied to hair. It’ll be another week before it’s all tended.

But yes, it was worth it. Once. But definitely worth it. It’ll be a while before the full value has surfaced, beause this kind of thing rams experience deep under the surface, and it takes time. Time. Well spent.
–Elizabeth Fuller