In the dusk, looking NE from the town of Gerlach, I could see an oasis of lights in the middle of the desert, and a line of dust which lead there from the main road. It reminded me of seeing the town of Hawthorne in the early evening while descending from Lucky Boy Pass, but this was a bit eerie because it just didn't look like it belonged there. It lacked any of the nearby geographical features which cause a town to be located where it is. This was senselessly in the middle of nowhere. The line of dust begins at the edge of the highway. Make that turn and now you're riding on this flat dusty playa which is the Black Rock Desert. You putt down this temporary "road" at 15mph (to avoid kicking up excess dust) for what seems like 15 minutes. Black Rock City slowly getting bigger until you realize you're practically surrounded by it, and its immensity begins to sink in. By Sunday this encampment will hold 14000 people. This evening its population is less than half that. At the gate I see somebody on an R80ST fumbling with his tank bag. It's Charles Petrie. We'd left the bay area at about the same time and unknowingly leap-frogged each other a couple times during our stops along the way up I-80.
Black Rock City is organized as a semi circle which wraps around The Man at its geometric center. There are five ring roads with 41 spokes. I'd guess the diameter of the outermost ring is two miles. The inner playa contains randomly scattered sites/exhibits/structures, and there is the near infinite playa which extends beyond The Man. Use of motorized vehicles once camped is strongly discouraged. Bicycles are popular. In fact once you enter, you are expected to stay until you leave. As you must bring in everything you need to survive for this week, including water, this is not a motorcyclist's event. Fortunately I managed to latch onto the efforts of my friends Lissa Shoun and Eric Bong to truck in supplies.
Following map and street-signs, Charles and I found The NeighBARhood, and within it Cloud9 which was the pilots' lounge. From there we got directions to The Acolytes of Icarus, a Flying-Dead-Bikers theme camp owning to its inhabitants of pilots, Grateful Dead fans, and riders of dirty old boxers. We set up our tents under the Bong-engineered shade structures.
An adjacent camp is loudly playing techno as a half dozen people dance and wave scarfs under the flashing colored lights. I've learned to appreciate much modern dance music. But unfortunately many of the tracks they're playing aren't much more complex than three electronic drum notes in a loop for ten minutes. Charles expresses the hope that by the end of Burning Man he doesn't find himself actually liking this style of music.
I changed into one of my costumes, hopped on the Chinese BMX bicycle I had picked up from a thrift store the week before, and took on my roll as the Crashed Pilot from the 1930's. The back of my scuffed bomber jacket explained how I might have gotten into this situation: "DOG IS MY COPILOT".
I wandered around Black Rock City and the surrounding playa most of the night, superficially surveying the art, fire, lights, and music which surrounded me. I was most drawn to the industrial noise being performed at a solitary site on the playa. It's impossible to explain just how enticingly surreal this all is.
For the heat of the desert sun my garb consisted of a wide brimmed black hat and a dark gray graduation gown. Carrying a leather-bound Salvation Army Regulations book with me, I was some kind of Friar of the Wild West. See http://cdr.stanford.edu/~petrie/dave.gif
I thought it would be better to arrive and first explore Burning Man at night before seeing it in the daylight, and I think I was right. The light made it easier keep the structures around you in physical perspective, and it's more fun initially lacking any reference of reality. Today we stopped by the Airhead camp. There were two bikes there, both oilheads, and one of them hadn't even been given the dignity of being removed from the back of the pickup truck which brought it there. Everybody there was still fully dressed in ordinary street clothes, so it seemed too "normal" (except for the R11GS in the pickup, that was cool, heh). Dave Rankine did have a huge box of leis, and we found a solid white one which I shortened and used to enhance my old- west friar outfit with a Catholic Hawaiian accent. Later I found Eric Blume's (or was it Eva's?) G/S and left him a note, but he wasn't at camp when I stopped by Airheads, and I wasn't at camp when he stopped by Icarus. So we never did meet up.
At Pedal Camp, where you can borrow an art bike to ride around the City if you failed to bring one of your own, there is constant welding, hammering, and wrenching going on... much of it seemingly without any express purpose. But there's one project at Pedal Camp constantly getting attention. A large bore V8 dragster engine, complete with blower and open headers, sits in the bed of a pickup truck as they fiddle with it. You can imagine this motor got swiped straight out of Mad Max's car. I wonder if they're wrenching on this engine to later use it for something, or if the public wrenching is just an artistic statement in itself (as much of the welding and hammering seems to be).
Back "home", Eric's brother James and his wife Tara created a comfy living room at Icarus Camp complete with recliners, a coffee table, and throw pillows. Even a complete tea serving set. Charles wanders back into camp, glowing orange after swimming in a vat of food coloring; he's quickly acclimated to Burning Man. Late that afternoon we had a quaint tea party right there in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. Charles and I then wandered down towards center camp and played a game of flaming croquette. The croquette balls are translucent with lights that flicker when you hit them, and the wickets have built-in kerosene torches.
Later that evening I found myself even more quiet and introspective than usual. (If I had first read my copy of Piss Clear, one of Black Rock City's newspapers, this wouldn't have been surprising.) I didn't really want to be so reserved, but I resigned to my mood and just immersed myself in the magic of the lights, sounds, and people who were free of the inhibitions which constrain them in normal society. Radical free self-expression the organizers call it. The journalists here will take a few pictures of some nude people and sum it up as that. I come to realize there is a difference between an "observer" and a "spectator".
Out on the north end of the playa, a group from San Francisco has put together some artsy-techno-music-videos and projected them on the back of a sheet. People go between the projector and the screen, some dancing, some just passing by. Their silhouette becomes part of the video.
Nearby, the neon outline of a horse gallops across the playa, and for a moment I wonder if I'm hallucinating. Well I am, but it's an artist- induced hallucination. Do you recall the early stop-motion photography that was used to prove there's a moment where all four hooves are airborne simultaneously? Well this guy made electro-luminescent outlines of those 8 or 9 stills, bolted them to a bicycle, wired them to a sequencer, and synchronized the speed to one of the bicycle wheels. The effect of this thing being ridden at night is nothing short of entrancing.
The next day the wind starts to pick up. This is good news for the creators of the giant land sail. Your typical land sail is a lay-down affair for a single passenger not much bigger than a go-kart. But this thing was the R1100GS of land sails, with a mast that must have been 50 feet tall, a huge chassis with truck tires on the outriggers, and a captain's perch complete with one of those big marine steering wheels. Some people were gathering around waiting to see it launch, but the wind died down so I headed off to Piano Bar.
Piano Bar is a huge structure on the south end of the playa constructed from old TVs, hi-fi equipment, and of course, pianos. After it is complete, the plastic components will be removed, and the remaining structure will be burned. After a while here you don't even wonder why, much less ask why. In the context of Burning Man, it all makes sense.
But my attention is drawn towards a smaller item. A pedal-powered vehicle consisting of a functional piano, a seat for the player, three bicycles on each side, and a trailing wheel which carries the cooler of water and beer for the passengers. Some nude guy starts playing the piano and I feel like I'm in the middle of a Monty Python skit. A critical mass of people is reached, and five others and myself start pedaling this thing across the playa singing along with the piano player. I'm on one of the two outermost bicycles which have the brakes, which makes me one of the copilots since this is how the rig is steered. The builder/owner/artist, and his dog, jog along side us occasionally shouting directions left or right. After the second time nearly running the piano into something, he admits he's dyslexic. I suggest he shout bass/treble instead of left/right, but he doesn't know the first thing about how to play a piano either. So he jogs ahead of us and we just follow him.
By the time we get back to Piano Bar, the wind has gotten quite strong and I soon learn what a playa dust storm is like. There's a rumor that the giant land sail crashed into the Temple of Rudra (site of Pepe's opera). There were a couple minor injuries, the worst a broken ankle. The pilot which caused the accident escaped uninjured and wishing to remain uninjured he quietly and quickly left the scene. Pepe and his crew were not amused. They had a cutting torch handy and began chopping the errant land sail into pieces and throwing them aside.
Back at Icarus I hear that Charles was taken to the hospital with a compound fracture and I relate the story I heard about the land sail. Eventually we realize we're talking about the same incident.
See http://cdr.stanford.edu/~petrie/burn.html for details and photos.
After several cycles of the parachute shade structures getting blown down, putting them up again and reinforcing them, only to get blown down again, the wind finally dies down. But by evening it starts drizzling. After a shower the playa becomes a muddy mess. The clay sticks to my boots and they now weigh five pounds each. The rain has people covering speakers and shutting down lights and generators. Black Rock City seems dead, yet I feel almost guilty for thinking such a thing. No spectators. Everybody is a participant. If things aren't lively enough for me, by definition it can't be anyone's fault but my own.
During one particularly strong rain shower, Nancy, hesh, and I duck into Bianca's for cover. We overhear some guy there agree to give another guy what I'll call "a presidential" on a dare, but says he feels a little weird about it because a girl he knows is there. Fortunately as he gets down to it, the rain quits and we leave. I guess they don't call this camp "Bianca's Smut Shack" for nothing. While not being judgmental, I'll say that if you don't experience _something_ at Burning Man that you find disturbing, you must not be conscious. Nancy and hesh decide they've had a full day and return to Icarus.
I think I'll tough it out long enough to see Pepe's opera, but it's delayed from midnight till _maybe_ 2am. Nevermind. Back at Icarus my tent floor is wet because I had my rain fly rigged as a shade rather than a rain fly. I'm tired enough to fall asleep though I'm damp, smelly, and uncomfortable. At 3am Eric comes by doing his best wino imitation, loudly encouraging everyone to get up to see Pepe's opera which is now scheduled for 4am. I ignore him, though I'm mildly annoyed as I'm having enough trouble sleeping in this damp bag as it is. I don't regret coming to Burning Man, but tonight I'm doubting I would bother to return next year.
In spite of getting only a few hours of sleep, I was up at dawn. Getting up was better than spending more time in a smelly wet tent. I made some coffee and found a bagel. I thought I should wear something, so I put on a pair of sunglasses. Then I sat down in a lounge chair and watched the sun rise and the residents of Black Rock City begin to stir. It was a clear morning and my mood was improving already. A quick splash under the sun-shower made me feel even better.
I took a different approach to my day on Sunday. Instead of perpetually exploring around on my bicycle, I walk. I spend lots of time hanging around Cloud9. I run across Katrina Glarum, a DoDer I knew from the early days of the Tuesday dinners. A fellow named Harvey, with two Japanese guys in tow, comes by Cloud9 looking to find his associates which were supposed to bring the helium for his weather balloon. We chat about his RC-balloon-inside-a-balloon project, in English; while Katrina practices her Japanese on his friends. Each day at Burning Man has felt very different. Today I feel relaxed, sociable, comfortable.
After dinner we head to center camp for the cocktail party and The Burn. It's a warm clear evening, the music is going, drums are playing, people are dancing. The weather is perfect and there is a feeling of euphoric celebration in the air. Partly because it's the culmination of the week, and partly because it was such a relief compared to the miserable damp of the night before. Due to Lissa's thrift store shopping, each of us carries an absurd plastic cocktail glass of some obnoxious color. And Eric carries a fuel bottle filled with wine.
Numerous small groups of people surrounding music, mostly drums, rove around center camp. I've had very little to drink, yet I feel no inhibitions joining in the dance. There have only been two places where the environment's made me comfortable enough to dance without feeling self-conscious: a Jerry's Kids concert (GD cover band), and Burning Man. The free self-expression must be contagious.
Gradually more of these groups start moving towards The Man, forming a procession of sorts. Once there, people form a huge circle (nearly 14000 people!) around The Man. The Black Rock Rangers do an excellent job of getting the innermost people to sit so that those standing in the back can see. Inside the circle, all around The Man, dancers on stilts swing around flaming kettles and whatnot. The music is provided by various people around the circle, surrounding me with countless asynchronous drum beats blending together at different volumes depending on their proximity. In the distance I hear the unmistakable sound of a mean American V8 starting, revving, and quitting. Then it comes again, but a little louder. Pedal Camp is parading this engine around the inside of the circle, carrying it like slaves used to carry Roman kings on mobile throwns. Repeatedly starting it, letting the blower and open headers roar, and killing it. This emperor V8 was the ultimate post- industrial statement: visually, musically, and perhaps even socially and politically. Like much of Burning Man, the mind can run wild contemplating the possible meanings of all this.
All I can say about The Burn itself, is that I have NEVER seen a pyrotechnic display of this intensity before. The best choreographed Fourth of July displays will now seem mediocre compared to Burning Man.
After The Man collapses in flames, the circle begins to disperse and the ultimate party continues. Walking across the playa, I happen to arrive at one of the Tesla coils just as they fire it up. Somebody dressed as a robot stumbles around the coil, sticking his arms out and creating spectacular arcs of lightning between his hand and the coil. But my must-see destination this evening is Drano, where the much touted artist Scott Generic will be performing. While the band sets up, we dance to the soundman's CDs. He's playing a danceable assortment from classic Al Green soul/funk to modern acid jazz from Soul Coughing. And I'm in just the right mood for it. [I thought it was funny I not only recognized the soul music, but remembered it was Al Green. The last time I really listened to that was on AM pop radio as a child. Now, thinking of "Al Green" I find myself unable to recall what any of his songs sound like. Would that mean my memory is unidirectional?] The soundman starts to play some Cake, and I'm impressed to hear two of my favorite modern rock bands in the same place. However he cuts it off 30 seconds into it, apparently upon realizing the track he selected wasn't particularly funky or danceable.
If you ever have a chance to see Scott Generic and F-Space perform, for crissake go see it! Using a myriad of gongs, empty chemical drums, and other metallic objects, these guys create an hour of the most inventive percussive music you've ever heard. And visually, they throw around and eventually burn/destroy their instruments so aggressively they make Pete Townshend seem a sedate wimp.
[ I'm of course leaving out much of my Burning Man experience. It's incredible how much I saw, heard, and did during my 3 1/2 days there. Weeks later intense Burning Man memories (or flashbacks? hmmm.) are still evoked from normal conversation. For instance just now the DJ on KSCU mentioned Devo, and suddenly I recalled the image of the band which performed a Devo satire (lacking only the red flower pot hats) late Saturday night. Or maybe it was intended to be a "tribute"... but it had me ROTPLMAO!
For a far better written description of Burning Man than mine, read http://www.thesynthesis.com/features/burningman/0503.html ]