Sunday, Sep 12, 2004, 12:00 AM in Fun
Chris and Melissa Go To Burning Man
[ed: all pictures clickable. b/w pictures used without permission.]
"Welcome Home," was the first thing my wife and I heard when we pulled into the greeter station at Burning Man 2004 in the Black Rock Desert just outside of Gerlach, Nevada. We'd spent most of the last year gathering information about how to prepare for this year's Burning Man gathering, the last few months actively preparing, e.g. menu plans and kilt shopping, the last week packing and buying the last few things we needed, like bagels and fur for homemade bikinis (a dark one for the day and a light one for more formal evenings) and the last two days driving in our loaded-down Ford, spending the previous night in a surprisingly pleasant Best Western Travel Inn Motor Lodge in otherwise desolate downtown Alturas, California.
The greeter was a very enthusiastic, bouncy woman obviously enormously excited to welcome another of her "family" to the world's largest and most extreme art festival/party in the middle of a lifeless bit of desert in North Western Nevada known to its temporary inhabitants as "the playa." The greeter, who introduced herself as "Star," was dressed in what I would consider a plain, but flattering shift, obviously the only piece of clothing she was wearing (did I mention that she was "bouncy?"). As it turned out, this outfit was downright puritan given the range of costumes and coverage I was to experience in Star's family who had mostly taken residence over a circle of 2 square miles (although it seemed much larger), split between a half circle of camping areas
and a half circle of art structures ranging from hand-blown glass
to the interactive exhibit at the base of the man attraction: "The Man."
In the early '80s, a man named Larry Harvey
was camping with his friends on the California coast and, in a fit of boredom, decided it would be fun to construct a life-sized statue of a man out of 2x4s and burn it in effigy. This turned out to be so much fun that it was repeated the next year with a larger set of friends and a larger statue. Eventually, the yearly gathering and the statue of the man, now being carted in in pieces across multiple vehicles for the main event, grew too large for the camp ground and a new home had to be found. Now this "camping trip" takes up 10 days the two weekends and the week before Labor Day, housing camp sites in a desert that is so harsh and so alkali that it is home to literally no life during the 355 days when "Burners" (what Burning Man alumnae call themselves) are not present. This, of course, doesn't count the several weeks before the main event it takes for Burning Man staff and volunteers to layout their circular city and then to tear it down and clean it up afterwards.
As the 7th largest city in Nevada during the event, Black Rock City (BRC) is home to a post office (complete with surly Disgruntled Postal Workers that have just recently been disarmed [no case of a worker heading for a local clock tower has even been documented), an airport (two plane crashes last year -- this year's statistics are still being compiled), a hospital, an ice house, a coffee shop/exhibit hall/lounge known as "The Cafe," three separate daily papers (the main paper, The Black Rock City Gazette, the alternative paper called "Piss Clear" [after the measure one is advised to use to ensure appropriate water intake]
and the alternate, alternate paper called the Spock Science Monitor), an information booth/rest area/message board, a police force known as the Black Rock Rangers and the group responsible for the creation, maintenance and destruction of the city itself, and most importantly, in excess of 100 porta-potties, the BRC Department of Public Works.
However, as much work as you might imagine planning and running a city may be, the bulk of the work is done by the attendees themselves.
Unlike your typical Renaissance Fair, where middle-class America feels comfortable bringing their family for a bit of light debauchery, making sure to clear out before dark when the real debauchery happens in the Staff Only area, Burning Man attendees are all participants in the event. Even curious attendees like my wife and I are "specipicipants" in that we're part of the continuous pageantry in my fur vest, working miner's helmet, combat boots and kilt ("utility" not "dress")
and in her naughty nurse costume and go-go boots, complete with Vanilla Rum-filled IV bags for convenient access.
The only true spectators are known as "tourists" or "frat boys," due to their prophecy to sit apart from the crowd on their RVs in polo shirts, drinking beers and hollering for the hotties to show them their tits.
Still, while the frat boys at at the bottom of this particular social hierarchy (finally), they hardly need bother with the hollering. I saw more of every kind of body part, male and female, young and old, short and tall, thin and fat, black, white, green and purple (really), topless, bottomless (also known as "The D" for Donald Duck, i.e. a top but no bottom)
and full-on nude than I imagine the population of the 8th largest city in Nevada to be in its entirety. However, the amount of skin that people shown paled in comparison to the costumes that they used to display it. It was like Mardi Gras, Carnival and your local gay pride parade all rolled into one ever-increasing majestic, perverted display that a conservative Midwestern boy couldn't have imagined, let alone taken all in. As evening approached each night and we migrated towards "Center Camp" where the theme camps were gathered
and the main activity took place,
the crowd grew thicker and the regalia more fantastic. Even in my kilt (my token attempt to fit in), I felt much more like a tourist than a participant, giving myself continuous whiplash trying to assimilate.
And it just wasn't the skin that drew my attention (although I admit that took first priority). Burning Man's primary theme during it's life has been "extreme expression," which includes all manner of art expressed as costumes, of course, but also paintings, sculpture, dance, "art cars" and structures of all sizes, some for inhabitation, some for burning and some for both (like the interactive exhibit/neon highlighted Burning Man sculpture itself). For example, an "art car" is the only type of motorized vehicle that's allowed to drive on the playa, and only if it's sufficiently decorated to pass muster by the BRC equivalent of the Frence Ministry of Art in most ways that matter, e.g. a tricked out pimp mobile will stay in camp will the two-story observation deck/bar on wheels can cruise all day and all night.
Artless cars, on the other hand, drive in to their camp site, park and stay parked 'til it's time to head home. This for two main reasons. The first is because of the 35,000 attendees, most of them spend a large part of the time experiencing alternate consciousnesses, aka drunk or stoned, a lot of which happens in the dark (BRC is definitely a 24x7 kind of place). Cars and motorcycles just don't mix in a friendly way with altered, darkened pedestrians and cyclists (the preferred mode of travel for more than bumming cigs off of the neighbors).
However, there's another reason high-speed vehicles are grounded in BRC (even art cars are forbidden to exceed 5 MPH and pedestrians and cycles always have the right of way as they stumble/weave their way in and out of traffic): dust. Dust rules the playa. Even after a 24-hour break in Reno and 6 hours into my trip home, I was still popping antacid tablets like candy to combat the heartburn caused by the pounds of playa dust I ingested. The combination of the dust, the elevation (4000 feet above sea level) and the humidity (0%) laid both Melissa and I low with gripping headaches after our first afternoon and kept us in naps during much of our first full day. And therefore, to keep the dust down, no vehicle is allowed over 5 MPH in camp or over 10 MPH within 10 miles of camp. Few things causes harsh treatment in the accepting environment populated by the most repressed members of society that can actually afford to attend Burning Man (our 5 days probably cost us $1000 in gate fees [$450], food, travel and fake fur) than stirring up dust. I mean, you can serve up home brew from a dispenser in the shape and location of your penis (really) and be patted on the back for your public service, but stir up an unnecessary amount of dust and be prepared for a beating.
Dust gets into every nook and cranny. Dust stops you from being able to cook or eat. Dust stops you from getting to the toilet (which is an important thing to be able to do when you are trying to drink a gallon of water every day). Dust stops you from keeping the roach going. Dust gets into the vodka tonics dispensed from kegs. Dust stops Camp Arachnid from their daily morning seminar on Beginner Rope Bondage ("Bring your own favorite rope"), which screws students up that need the practice before the evening seminar on Advanced Rope Bondage (this is one of those classes where the prerequisites are something to which you should really pay attention). Dust is the enemy and everyone carries some kind of dust mask and ventless eye goggles where ever they go
lest they be trapped in a storm (this year was especially rife with dust storms, I'm told) and can't take of Wednesday's World Naked Bike Ride - Black Rock City Chapter ("Oil Dependency Bad! Freedom of Expression Good!").
So, if dust and water are the two most important things that a Burner needs to manage, the third is the toilet. A camp spot is judged most importantly by it's proximity not to the hub of activity at Center Camp (in spite of the availability of ice, lattes and the continuous parade of skin) but by the proximity to the local row of porta-potties. And not just any porta-potties, either. For example, we were about half-way between two sets of porta-potties, one was towards the center of camp and one outside the fence of the main camp. One morning, one of our camping neighbors came back from the porta-pottie outside the main fence and declared it Christmas, because it was actually clean and contained toilet paper (both luxuries on the scale of water and shelter from the dust). Word spread like wild-fire and the "Christmas Toilet" was what we preferred for the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, so did everyone else in a 1000 person radius, as you can't keep news like that to yourself. Soon enough, the Christmas Toilets turned into Morning After Hang-Over Toilets and we were back to scouting for suitable seats and bringing our own toilet paper.
So, with Burning Man as an interesting mix of extreme self-expression and survival camping, you may ask yourself, "But is it fun?" The answer, for me, was "yes and no." Ironically, I enjoyed the survival camping bit the best. Or, I enjoyed gawking at the people and the structures, but the camp I was in was filled with veterans. This was intimidating. For example, when some really attractive naked person wondered by or when I read about Xanadu Roller Disco ("Don't have skates, it's ok, you can use ours."), I was supposed to pretend that this wasn't worth a comment. What the hell fun is that? I want to point and laugh and enjoy myself with like-minded folks. Instead, when they passed around the pot pipe, I was befuddled by the carburetor and pass it on w/o a toke. Hell, in spite of the ton of alcohol we brought, neither Melissa or I ever even got drunk (let alone stoned) because our fellow campers were into "softer stuff" (beer and funny brownies, apparently). I have to admit that, at least for the first year, I'd have been more comfortable on top of the RVs with the frat boys then down on the ground with the blas vets.
What this meant is that after 1 day of setting up and headaches, a day of laying around recovering, I talked Melissa into a day in Reno (100 miles southwest of Black Rock Desert) for some social relief. There we showered for 45 minutes cleaning off the playa, played nickel slots, enjoyed free casino drinks, took in a hilarious comedy show, lost $100 bucks on Blackjack and generally had a very nice time. Then, we headed back and dressed for the burn.
The afternoon of preparation for the burn and the evening of was easily the best part of the trip. According to the Travel Channel, the burn is the best party in the world. I have to say, it was pretty cool. The event was 35K people wrapped around the center of the camp, watching what seemed like hundreds of fire spinners, then the fireworks and the burn of the man itself. When it came down, the crowd rushed the burning pile and we went in, too, 'til we could touch the protective fireman and things got just pushy enough to feel like control would be lost at any moment. Then we ducked back and walked the desert where hundreds of separate parties of all kinds were taking place. Still, without friends, neither Melissa nor I felt like partying, so we wandered for an hour or so and then headed back to camp for what was comparatively an early evening (midnight is bright and early for many burners).
In the morning after the burn, we were awaked near dawn by the exact same music and drums and revelry that we'd fallen asleep to the night before. One thing that made burning man interesting was while you expected it to be hot during the day (mid-90s this year), you didn't expect it to be so cold at night or in the early morning (50s). I remember Melissa being at her most beautiful bundled for the chill that morning (you can't quite see the BM tattoo on her chest, but it was quite fetching):
To avoid a 2-hour wait out the door, we were packed and heading for one last trip to the porta-potties by 8am and out the door by 8:30. Since then, the car's been cleaned but my garage still houses the playa-encrusted tent and other camp equipment we haven't yet put away. I don't know if this trip was worthy of Rory's song (let alone Jason's remix), but I'm glad I went and I would go again. However, I would need some much closer friends to go with. I'm big on acceptance and tolerance and new experience, but I don't bond easily with new people and getting sufficiently stupid to really enjoy burning man requires a level of intimacy that I only have with my closest friends. Without those kinds of friends, just BM wasn't "home" to me, despite the greeter's welcome.
Interestingly, the greeter's words of "Welcome Home," while they threw me off having never attended BM before, were echoed by others as a standard greeting through-out the week. I came to realize it's importance. For folks that would prefer an alternative to our puritan culture and are therefore forced to enjoy their proclivities of self-expression and enjoyment underground, BM provides an environment of open acceptance, tolerance and, for the lucky ones, even love. This is an important thing to provide for an otherwise disenfranchised group of folks and it's easy to see why one man's camping trip turning into the enormity it is today.
However, while I consider myself accepting and tolerating of other people's lifestyles, my own is fairly puritan (mostly by choice : ). The "Welcome Home" that I most treasured was the one I got from my sons on our return.
I hope to return next year, so if you find some people to go, we should meet up.
It's really a great experience to go with people you can trust. I went with a few people I trusted and a several I had never met. That ended up being a great combination as I soon bonded with those I didn't know through their relationship with the people whom I did know.
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Friday, Sep 17, 2004, 1:59 AM
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