September 1, 2000
In the eldritch light of evening in Nevada's Black Rock Desert the eye plays tricks on the brain. The intensely clear, dry air and the level, unbroken emptiness of the Playa -- the sterile, arid lakebed upon which, each year, the impromptu Black Rock City appears in the week before Labor Day -- sabotage all perspective. You'd swear the mountains that encircle and embrace the vast, desolate moonscape are almost within reach -- although, in truth, they are well more than a day's strenous hike distant. The scale of the place is at once so huge and so devoid of points of reference that the merely human mind cannot truly grasp the immensities with which it is confronted.
In the hour before sunset we turned off Highway 447 some ten miles North of Gerlach, Nevada -- a tiny collection of small, plain houses and rough-and-tumble saloons huddled in the sage brush-studded grazing lands that form the Western border of the Playa. With its ungainly cab-over camper jouncing over each bump, our pickup truck jolted across the rough, gravel road that joins the highway to the featureless expanse of the Playa, at the edge of which stood a small cluster of toll booths -- the Gate to Burning Man 2000.
From the Gate, where we surrendered our precious pasteboards -- arriving Friday evening, we could not have purchased tickets at the site itself -- we could see Black Rock City in the distance: an elongated horseshoe of encamped humanity still a good 25000 strong, despite the raging duststorms, blazing heat and freezing rains that had all beset our soon-to-be fellow revelers earlier in the week. It wasn't all that impressive a spectacle from the entrance: just an indistinct, U-shaped mass of boxy vehicles and tents.
A steady, mile-long grind took us to where our Greeter -- one of 1200 or so volunteer workers at Burning Man -- gave us copies of The Black Rock Gazette, Burning Man's newspaper of record, and Who, What, When, a listing of events. She also made sure we understood the basics of Burning Man etiquette and survival and had sufficient food and water before sending us on our way.
We got off easy. Greeters pretty much have carte blanc to do their job in any fashion they choose, so long as the basic information gets delivered -- and some volunteers use the opportunity for a little performance art at the expense of those who have the misfortune to arrive on their shift.
During the drive up Feet Street, past the Deparment of Public Works yard and along the outer perimeter of the campgrounds, we began to get a better idea of the sheer size of the event. As usual, Black Rock City was physically laid out as a series of concentric arterials -- named, this year, for parts of the body -- all connected to the central Esplanade by radial roads named for the hours between 10:00 and 2:00. Center Camp, where the "official" performance space and coffee bar were located, was at the 6:00 position at the bottom of the horseshoe.
Our immediate destination was the Spock Mountain Research Labs theme camp at 4:35 Head Way -- a great location, right on the Esplanade -- where we'd be staying for the next three days.
SMRL is the research arm of the Pigdog crew -- a loose association of former BBS sysops and other, mostly Bay Area-based, Internet-savvy square pegs that, among other things, publishes one of the hipper zines on the Net, the Pigdog Journal. A Burning Man fixture for the past three years, the SMRL theme camp is famed for its radio-controlled "sqrats", its fanciful Spocktails -- and for its hyperwhiskey, a fiery concoction the labcoat-clad "researchers" freely offer to all comers.
Our big, ugly truck fit right in with the decor -- and the view from the front porch of SMRL's Cyberbilly Shack was amazing.
We could see the entire Esplanade -- the half-kilometer-wide performance and art installation space that lay between the horseshoe-shaped encampment's legs -- with the stick figure of the Man itself roughly in the center. A procession of other large-scale art works and installations visually connected Center Camp to the Man and dotted the enormous open area beyond it, each piece casting its lengthening shadow across the Playa.
The whole exhibition area and its component projects taken together made up an exhibition space called the Body -- a space whose outlines were defined each night by a 2000-foot-long replica of the Man etched in laser light. It was a spectacle that could only be properly viewed from the air -- and, in perfectly paradoxical Burning Man fashion, that could only be fully appreciated from the ground.
The entire perimeter of the Esplanade -- in fact, the entire area between the innermost three perimeter roads -- was lined with theme camps of every description. Some of them featured elaborate art constructions and installations, while others offered services, performances or goods-in-trade as part of Burning Man's determinedly anti-capitalist, barter-and-bestow economy. There were hundreds of them -- funky, futuristic, or just plain weird -- spread out almost literally as far as the eye could see.
And before, around and among us moved a ceaseless parade of humanity.
Some had donned elaborate and fanciful costumes, dressing as aliens, animals, road warriors, ballerinas and other, less easily-identifiable characters. Others were clad in more utilitarian fashion, while a determined few wore only a layer of glitter or a pair of running shoes and a hat, despite the knifelike wind and temperatures that plunged as night fell around us. Some stopped to converse and drink hyperwhiskey, others paused to briefly perform for us -- and all the while the undiminished crowd along Head Way streamed steadily by.
Weaving among them was a fantastic menagerie of vehicles and conveyances -- everything from scooters through golf carts to a full-sized bus or six -- that had all been transformed into mobile works of art. (These so-called "art cars" were the only type of civilian motorized vehicle -- which is to say, non-BRC-department/non-law-enforcement vehicle -- permitted to roam Head Way and the Esplanade and each one first had to be licensed by Black Rock City's Department of Mutant Vehicles.)
There was a bicycle, atop which sat a pyramid that completely enclosed and concealed its rider, and over there were dozens of others that surrounded their own riders with complex and beautiful light sculptures. Here came a motorized couch, trundling through the throng -- and there went a motorized hammock. There was a fire-breathing dragon the size of a small bus -- and passing in front of it was another, larger dragon the size of a small train, with an open bar and a full load of passengers. We spotted a van transmogrified into a boxy, upside-down sheep driving by on the Esplanade and coming down Head Way we saw a VW Beetle that had been turned into an oversized mouse. In the distance, a pirate ship sailed one direction, while a Viking longboat floated the other.
It was creative chaos and artistic anarchy done together, with enthusiasm -- a stunning, often hilarious and occasionally piercingly-lovely spectacle straight out of a Samuel R. Delaney novel or a Salvador Dali painting -- and it wasn't even spoiled by the large number of BLM police, state troopers' and county sheriffs' cars.
We had only minutes to gape at the parade before SMRL's Food Mistress rang the dinner bell. After eating, we decided to hike out to the center of the Esplanade for our first closeup, night-time view of the neon-lit Man.
We were halfway to our destination when the rain storm started.
The wind suddenly gusted around us, as the fat, cold raindrops began splashing on the backs of our necks. We were instantly freezing and miserable, but -- since the wind was behind us -- we decided to press on toward the Man and hope that the storm would blow over before long.
That didn't work out at all well. The rain continued pelting down on us with undiminished vigor and the cracked, sun-baked surface swiftly turned into a sea of thick, gluey mud.
The stuff of which the Playa is made is a truly remarkable substance, protean in form and relentless in its ubiquity. As dust, it has the consistency of talcum powder -- and the wind moving across the arid environment of the Black Rock Desert charges everything with static electricity, so the stuff clings tightly to every exposed surface. As mud, it has the adhesive properties of bathroom caulk -- it instantly forms a two-inch-thick layer on the soles of your shoes and it tenaciously resists your most vigorous efforts to scrape it off. And once it dries, Playa mud sets as hard as plaster.
As a result, we were soaked and cold and our shoes were caked with glop by the time we made it to the Man -- and we still had to hoof it back through the the pelting rain all the way to the Shack. After that experience, we were more than content to spend the rest of the evening staying out of the rain, quaffing fortified beverages and watching heartier souls brave the elements.
Around midnight, during a lull in the downpour, we made a dash for our camper and spent the night huddling under a pile of blankets, grateful for its shelter against the storm.
September 2, 2000
We slept until mid-morning and awakened to dry, chill, partly-cloudy conditions. It was early afternoon before we got up the gumption to make the hike down Head Way to Center Camp, where we registered at Media Mecca and my wife's camera was tagged. (Burning Man requires all professional media types to register and tags professional still cameras and all video and movie cameras in order to enforce its rule that requires journalists to obtain attendees' permission before taking any pictures of them that might see publication.)
Afterward, we wandered down the other side of Head Way, checking out theme camps until we reached the Death Guild's replica of the Thunderdome from the Mad Max movie. It was deserted, with no fights scheduled until that night, so we struck off across the Esplanade toward the SMRL camp. We stopped midway to struggle through the confusion of the aptly-name Maze, eventually finding our way up to the platform whose access ladder lay at the installation's heart. From there, we saw -- and photographed -- the entirety of Black Rock City spread out around us, before we slid down the firepole that returned us to the ground and pressed on across the Playa.
We stopped at SMRL for a quick hoedown with Banjo Girl (www.banjogirl.com), then headed for the 3:00 Outpost in search of the good folks at PlayaNet (www.playanet.org), who provided an IP-based wireless intranet for Black Rock City's residents. There, we met Chris Petrell, who explained what they'd accomplished and demonstrated a clickable, zoomable map hooked to a database of theme camps that was a good deal more current than the paper copies we'd gotten at Center Camp.
It was an interesting interview, but daylight was growing short. It was dinner time again -- and right after that it would be time to burn the Man.
Bolting our meal, we hustled across the Esplanade toward the towering neon-lit figure -- and we would have reached it in time, had the burn gone as planned. Unfortunately, there was a short in the lighting circuit for his left arm, and as it was raised in preparation for the burn, the Man caught fire prematurely.
As we ran toward the towering figure, pausing every few hundred feet to shoot another picture, fireworks shooting out of the blazing arm spread the flames first to the Man's left leg, then to his right arm. Gasping and sweating in the chill breeze, we made it almost to the surging throng at the base of the swiftly-burning Man before his left arm fell off -- just as we ran out of film.
While my wife was changing rolls, the Man toppled, crashing backwards into the Playa to the roaring approval of the crowd. The climactic Burning Man festivities had begun.
The night swiftly became a blur of art, performance and light -- and everywhere there was fire. At the Thunderdome, a half-dozen Death Guild fire dancers twirled and spun flaming bolos in hypnotic patterns, while the dragon-train rumbled by in the distance, snorting puffs of flame. A trio of flying saucers -- bicycles transformed by light -- ghosted by on the Esplanade. Pyres blazed all across the Playa as we stumbled through the dark, heads turning constantly to take in the spectacle.
Later, we stood transfixed by the crackling halo surrounding a huge Van der Graaf generator as tongues of lightning licked the darkness. Still later, we wandered gleefully through the fluorescent colors of Black Light Village, illuminated only by the powerful glow of its ultraviolet streetlights, and stood in line for an hour to enter Debbie's Petting Zoo. And everywhere, everywhere there was music.
Techno, trance, drum-and-bass and hip-hop MP3s pulsed from every direction, augmented by live DJs mixing and scratching. Scattered among the myriad theme camps, bands of all descriptions and musical persuasions performed on postage-stamp stages for crowds of all sizes. Thrash bands, metal bands, funk bands -- even a Grateful Dead cover band or two -- we heard them all.
We never did make it out to the large-scale sound installations at 10:00 or 2:00, where earplugs are basic necessities -- exhaustion brought us down long before then. But the party went on without us, winding down only with the advent of dawn.
September 3, 2000
Sunday was a day of rest and recovery -- until dark, when the SMRLers determined to construct and burn a 12-foot effigy of Jed Saunders, their mythical partiarch and founder. They were far from alone: other theme camps all up and down the Esplanade were burning their structures and art in sacrifice and benediction -- and because anything that burned was one less thing they'd have to pack out.
"Leave no trace" is a fundamental ethical tenent of Burning Man. The Playa surface is surprisingly fragile -- burn scars, fluid spills and the like persist and accumulate from year to year -- and what is left behind remains there almost indefinitely. You must pack in everything you'll need for your stay and, likewise, you must pack out everything that you brought. And -- because the DPW volunteers have their hands full just coping with community sanitation and the ash loads from sanctioned burn platforms -- there is no one to pick up after Black Rock City's residents except themselves.
September 4, 2000
On Monday morning, as we tried to stay out of the way of the Pigdogs dismantling the SMRL Shack, the Exodus from Burning Man began. The day was clear and sunny, but the air was cold -- the temperature dropped 30 degrees in the shade. By early afternoon, every egress road was clogged with traffic as the 20,000 or so departing residents were funneled onto Burning Man's single exit road and into the long trip home. Afraid of running out of gas, we left the line of cars, parked our camper and waited for the jam to clear -- and were engulfed by a string of dust storms for our trouble.
But we made it home alive. Eventually. And we had to admit that, strenuous as the whole thing was, we were both looking forward to doing it again next year.
It was a uniquely modern experience, and yet for me there was something strongly familiar about it -- possibly because so many of the residents of Black Rock City work in the Internet and telecom industries, as I do. Perhaps, though, there was something more than mere professional affinity at work.
The zeitgeist of Burning Man reminded me somehow of the best aspirations of the community events of the Sixties -- not of Woodstock and other such rock festivals, but of the be-ins and happenings that took place at countless neighborhood parks and campuses, where spontaneous art was likely to break out at any time. The citizens of Black Rock City might wear more modern clothes than their hippie predecessors, but their emphasis on mutual support and sharing, on participation -- the cardinal rule of Burning Man is "No Spectators" -- and on a scathing disdain for capitalism are right in sync with those of their forebears.
That kind of fire burns on, year after year. And -- who knows -- one day it could set the world ablaze.
Stranger things have happened.
(Copyright© 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)