Friday, September 10, 2010

Going out in a blaze of Burning Glory ... Man

Burning Man defies explanation - I feel words will absolutely, utterly fail to do it justice. Trying to get a grasp on it, without having gone, pictures will only mislead and confuse - the place is simply too enormous, too vast, too diverse to capture in any photograph. But, it is absolutely amazing. From the setting in the middle of a hot, barren, and foreboding Nevada desert, to all the very, very different people who come to witness it, to all the amazing and ridiculous art installations, and to its final culmination on Saturday and Sunday nights when the Man and the Temple burn - no matter where you turn, where you look, you never fail to be surprised, to see something downright amazing, never-failingly absolutely unique going on.

Just a few of the things that happened in Black Rock City - in no particular order, in no way suggesting that these are special, this is just what is likely to happen to you at Burning Man - normal parts of 'every day life' here, which make the place as unique and amazing as it is. I watched water burn, I rode a mutant city bus with a large ship installed on top of it, I walked a tight rope, I was shocked by one Joule of energy, which I had myself generated, I stripped off my clothes to do a dance in exchange for an early morning mimosa, I watched people fight in the ThunderDome, I climbed a tower that would've been deemed exceedingly dangerous to be climbed anywhere outside of Black Rock City, I found the fence in the middle of the night, then walked along it looking for corners, finally finding a movie theater in the middle of the desert, and settling in to watch the sun rise at a nearby bus stop ... where an hour later, a bus came by to pick us up, delivering the happiest moment of the week. I slept for an average of three hours a night, I inhaled an inordinate amount of dust from the air every day, I didn't shower, I watched my deodorant actually melt... I was ready to leave when Sunday rolled around, yet I was eager to go back as soon as we were confronted with civilization outside of Black Rock City. I felt free, unrestrained and happy the whole time there! I hung out with some of the most wonderful and interesting people you'll find anywhere on this planet...

We arrived late Tuesday night after a full day drive from Portland, Oregon. Our driver, the dominatrix (yes, that is her actual profession... seemed completely natural, unsurprising, and downright par for the course for this place) pulled up to the gate, presented all of our tickets and shared that she had two BM virgins on board - Laurie and I marched out, feeling just a little bewildered, each rang the gong, then proceeded to roll around in the dust, making a Playa angel and becoming one with the environment. A gigantic yellow moon hung low over us looking in on the spectacle, as an hour long cavalcade of cars was lining up for entry - on Sunday night, the wait had been six grueling hours(!). We found a parking spot on the outskirts of the sprawling Metropolis and wandered into the heart of town. Kyoto street to the center actually felt a lot closer than I had imagined, then rational thoughts ceased to be formed - we rode the Surly Bird around the Playa, passing a brightly lit Butterfly car and a preening Prey Mantis showing off the incredible detail its designers had dedicated to it. We saw The Man, holding its high and central position over the Playa. Laurie and I, the virgins, quietly tried to take it all in - I was absorbing the spectacle slowly, rationally, not feeling overwhelmed just yet, simply finding the scene around us astounding, ridiculous, bewildering. By the time we returned to the RV and went to sleep at 3 in the morning, the crowds had not thinned out at all, the music had not quieted down a single decibel, and the bright, screaming lights in the middle of this desert, a completely desolate piece of land for 51 out of the 52 weeks of the year, did not dim one bit.

The following morning, our happy Portland RV crew split up and we each went to our respective camps. I found Camp Caribbean, met Irina, proceeded to set up my tent ... which suddenly seemed awfully insufficient to house me and all of my things... a week's worth of food, water, clothing, and more. Irina and I headed off to explore the Metropolis in day light - and now, it really begins to blow your mind - there was just too much going on all around! The center of the Playa was closer than I had expected, but the encampment seemed to sprawl forever all around it. The landscape was dotted with insane art cars, incomprehensible, yet often gorgeous, art pieces ... camps that had their own decorations, their own entertainment options, their own food and drink, all of which they were ready to share with you. There's no money on the Playa - you bring things and you share them with the rest of the Black Rock City population, freely and happily. And in the end, free and happy were the strongest emotions that were on display here - you can do anything you want and you, and everyone around you, will be happy about it!

The Paradox in the desert - late Saturday night, the Man was set to burn! The biggest party in this week of partying over-indulgence, and its biggest oxymoron - we had all gathered to camp in this wild and desolate place, supplying all of our own food, water, power, garbage collection, and on this night, 50,000 people had gathered in the middle of the Playa, looking up at The Man, and surrounded by all the sites and sounds of civilization that you should never expect out here! The Man was surrounded by a ring of Art Cars, their music blaring loudly, their lights shining brightly, the drinks on board flowing freely. It was the one party that brought all of us together, making us feel like we weren't in the wild desert at all, but instead at an ornate celebration of our freedom, our freedom to incinerate the very symbol of the place that we had all come to see. Then the fireworks went off, blanketing the statue in their high-tech trails, making you forget about the desert setting that much more, until the flames were unleashed, and leapt up towards the statue, bringing with them a sense of wild nature here in the middle of the night on the Playa; consuming the giant statue in a matter of twenty minutes. The following night, the Temple followed the Man in its fiery course... but the Temple is the spiritual centerpiece of the Playa, and the setting was dramatically different - the Art Cars still patrolled in the background, but the sound systems were off, the lights subdued, the crowds relatively quiet... right up until the last of the Temple tumbled down onto the pile of ashes and glowing ambers, and a primal scream was unleashed... And then we got up and headed back for our camps and vehicles as it was time to leave. For those staying the night, the City remained vibrantly awash in light and sound, drawing in anyone still with the strength and endurance for another night of mayhem.

And finally, Evone, Steve, and I were in our U-Haul truck heading out of the City and on through the night towards San Francisco. Passing the entrance gates in short order, and then, thrust into a continuous traffic jam waiting, struggling to get back onto the paved roads, almost as if the real world was balking at letting us back in. For the three of us it went something like this: we'd pull up to the car in front of us and stop, waiting for it to move again. Which it would do some five to ten minutes later. Which was plenty of time for all three of us to fall asleep. Now, there would be some hundred feet of open dirt between us and the car ahead and either Evone would wake up first and get us up there, or one of Steve and I would wake up, nudge Evone, and we'd go. Rinse and repeat for some three hours until we finally hit the highway and were able to continuously move again, which seemed to help keep Evone focused and awake (while letting Steve and I simply pass out). The Denny's stop in Reno at 4:30 in the morning (along with every other car that had left Black Rock City that night) was a God-send!

Overall, what can I say about the Burning Man experience? In some ways, it did meet some of my expectations - I'm not entirely comfortable dealing with large crowds of people, and being thrust into a crowd of [mostly] strangers, fifty thousand strong, was a bit of a shock. On the other hand, in a lot of ways it exceeded a lot of my expectations - the over-riding feeling I got from everyone there was that of being happy and free, which was amazing, and made it easy and comfortable to get along with these thousands of happy and free strangers. The art, I also hadn't expected (how could you, really!?) - there's so much of of it ... everywhere and all around, it's incredible, astoundingly detailed and brilliantly designed, and all marvelously well fitting with the theme of the Metropolis (the Playa art tour was one of my favorite experiences of the week). As for all the expected downsides - the dust, the heat, the cold at night, the lack of showers? This didn't really register - maybe it was the lack of sleep (leading to lack of focus... or was it the alcohol that led to the constant lack of focus?), maybe I was just used to harsh conditions from places like Mongolia, Egypt, Nepal, Bolivia, etc, but I was able to take the harsh environment in stride... Not to say that I enjoyed the harshness of it - the first shower back in the real world, upon reaching San Francisco, felt like the most wonderful, healing, relaxing, profoundly existential experience, but, while there, I felt I could handle the intense conditions the desert threw at us. So, will there be a sequel next year? Much too early to tell - I'm intrigued about going back into that foreboding environment, meeting again the amazing people I had met this year, and finding more new ones... Then again, I might actually have a real job by next year, so will I be able to just take a week off? Will I want to go through the nightmare of logistics and planning again? What about the dust, heat, desolation, etc... conditions were actually far milder than normal this year? I don't know yet - I made up mind to go all of two weeks prior to the start this year, I'll probably let it go just about that long again next year!

Pictures... They still certainly fail to put anything into proper perspective, but that didn't keep me from taking lots of them. Instead of posting a bunch here, I'll just redirect you to the two photo albums already up on Facebook:

Click above for my main Burning Man album (or follow this link:

And click this picture for an album full of just the Black Rock City art (link here:

No comments: