Thursday, September 11, 2003
I went to Burning Man last week and came home with my bags full of dust and empty sake bottles-and memories of the most magical, surreal, sparkling, physically challenging experience I''ve ever had.
Burning Man was first organized by artist Larry Harvey on a small beach in San Francisco in 1986. He and his friends wanted to blow off some steam, so they built an 8-foot-tall wooden man and burned it down. That small, curious ritual has now grown to a yearly gathering of 30,000 people watching a 40-foot-tall Man perched on a towering pedestal burn to the ground, in the name of art, community and self-expression.
Burning Man is many things, most famously a bacchanalia of people costumed in glow toys dancing all night in front of a wall of speakers. But it''s also an instant desert survival course (BM is set up every summer in the remote Black Rock Desert, two hours northeast of Reno, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet), a city designed to run entirely on a barter economy, and the world''s largest outdoor art gallery.
Visitors must bring all their own food, water, shelter and entertainment, even after paying $165-250 to get in the gate. One of the key words here is preparation.
Inside that magic gate, anything can happen. You might get the chance to discuss political theory with a Buddhist monk while two women make out behind you and 25 people do morning yoga next to you, while a motorcycle transformed into a wooden zebra glides by.
I was a BM virgin, baptized in a seven-day fire at the Church of Beyond Belief (the 2003 festival theme). As a first-timer, I was invited to ring a giant bell as my friends and I inched through the front gate in "Odge," our not-so-trusty borrowed RV (Odge was a Dodge who lost his D in a tragic accident; we strapped big blue eyes to his hood in sympathy).
The Black Rock City streets are laid out in a semi-circle around the Man and are named in a vague way to relate to the year''s theme. My friends and I wanted to camp on Ridiculous, but it was already pretty full. We settled for the intersection of Revered and Reality, pretty much in the suburbs.
We set up a basic camp, partly sheltered from the wind and constant dust attracted by Odge. Then I gulped some water and skimmed through "What Where When," the informational booklet handed me when I arrived.
Should I begin at the CostCo Soulmate Trading Outlet camp, hurry over to the Altar Building Workshop, or dive right into the Rope Bondage Class at the Camp Arachnid? I opted to relax in my tent with a quart of water, watching the city rise around me, until sunset cocktail hour-or as my campmates called it, "beer-thirty."
Just after sunset, BRC starts to throb. People set up camp or nap during the hot, dusty afternoon, and now the music begins. From boom boxes to $20,000 walls of sound, every kind of sound from Led Zeppelin to bass-heavy techno and Afro-Celt Sound System churns out. Live bands sprout from tents and play Rage Against the Machine covers. James Brown screams and groans several streets down. It''s one big song.
After dark it''s wise to adorn oneself with lights or glow sticks, to avoid being run over by a drunken person riding a bike, the most common form of transportation.
In the center of the city is a giant open space surrounding the Man. It is here that Art Cars and mobile bars prowl. Cars this year ranged from golf carts carrying big grasshoppers made of lights, to flame-throwing machines resembling tanks, to a life-sized white whale. All Art Cars must be approved before carrying passengers; unfortunately this year, a woman was killed getting off one.
At night, Black Rock City sparkles and glows. A green laser shoots across the two-mile width of the city, dancing with the dust in the night sky. It''s mesmerizing. A sign above a giant dome skeleton beckons people to Thunderdome, built by the Death Guild to re-enact Mad Max-style fights-two people dangle from the top on bungee cords and battle it out.
This scene continues every night, all night, for a full week.
Normally visitors are permitted to climb the steep steps of the Aztec pyramid where the Man stands, to view the city and the desert beyond. One can look down upon a labyrinth or out to the Temple of Honor, the largest art piece besides the Man. But on Saturday morning of the final day, I am stopped on the pyramid''s second step because the Pyrotechnics team is starting to stuff hay bales into the structure''s base and wire up the fireworks.
That evening, the city cheers the sunset and I dress all in gold and red: The Man burns tonight.
This is a pyromaniac''s wet dream. Hundreds of fire spinners and fire dancers-the Fire Conclave camp-circle around the blue glowing Man and energize the crowd with their exotic dances. The Art Cars line up and people clamber on for a better view. The Man''s arms are raised in farewell, but one accidentally falls before the burning. A sudden explosion makes everyone step back, then the fireworks start.
The size of this year''s base creates a spectacular blaze. It roars at the Man''s feet and eats up his legs and body. All too quickly, he lists to the east and falls into the burning pyramid. Dozens of dust devils, or heat spirals, swirl off the bonfire and toss ash into the air. The crowd stares and screams in delight.
Many later proclaim this the best burn ever. It is a community release after all the hard work building a complete, yet temporary city, setting up two newspapers, several radio stations, countless bars and clubs, art galleries, a security force, a thriving gift economy, thousands of camps, and much more.
Sunday we begin to tear it all down. Sunday night, the Temple of Honor burns, a black and white monument to those who have passed on but are commemorated by friends and family with photos, words and mementos.
On Labor Day, the sad, exhausted exodus of cars snakes its way out of camp to the paved road leading to I-80. My head is pounding from heat, dust and one too many drinks.
I am already thinking of next year.