Burning Man: It Was Better THIS Year
It would not be fair to expect Burning Man to provide me with the same emotional impact as it did last year, my first year. In fact, sitting down to write these notes on BM08, I prepped myself by reading my account of BM07 (Part 1 here, Part 2 here), and I feel quite shattered already. What I went through last year was the most profound experience of my life. Really. Even re-reading it feels like I’ve taken a trip out there. (And if you’re new to the Burning Man experience yourself, you should probably read the two posts yourselves before reading this one any further.) Burning Man 08 could never hope to match it.
But that’s just me. My 12-year old son Campbell, still too young to digest all the profound spiritual implications of Burning Man though he certainly gets the gist, concluded otherwise. Deliberately playing on the Burning Man catch-phrase, as exemplified by “The Museum of It Was Better LAST Year” situated just behind our camp, Campbell quickly determined, about two days in, that “It was better this year.” Some of that may have been the couple of days we allotted either side of the trip in San Francisco, a tourist holiday like he and I have never enjoyed together before. But much of it was because he was no longer a novice, no longer a Burning Man virgin. As a veteran, a kid who understands Black Rock City’s give and take, who knows to trust in fate and that the Playa Provides, he was free to enjoy it to its full.
And so: me, too. Being my second year on the playa, everything felt that much easier, seemed that much less stressful. I felt like I ate better, drank better and slept better (how do I manage to sleep so well in a tent in the desert with all that noise around me? Probably because I’m so exhausted by the end of every day), and because of deciding to maximize my/our time on the playa by getting out and doing things, the week passed that much quicker as a result.
And so, partly in Campbell’s honor but also in my own, here are some of the reasons that It Was Better THAN Last Year
THE HAND OF MAN
For many of us this year, the art on the Playa lacked somewhat. I heard quite a few people saying (and have subsequently seen posted on various boards) that they longed for something on the level of last year’s Crude Awakening or the Big Rig Jig. Not Campbell. The moment he set his eyes on the Hand of Man he knew that if he could only get to operate it, his Burning Man would be made. A giant robotic hand capable of picking up and dropping large vehicles, operated by a human hand inside an aluminium glove from a raised sofa fifty or so feet away, the Hand of Man is every 12-year old’s dream toy. (Well, at least in the absence of a PlayStation3.)
After we saw it on the playa on Wednesday morning, with no-one on, um, hand to operate it, Campbell spent the entire day discussing what he would do with the hand once he got the chance – and I mean, all day. (I could recite entire Bibles internally and he would still be talking about it!) We went back out on the playa that night, when all the other interactive art was up and happening, only to find it not working. But the following morning, after Kidsville took over Burning Man Information Radio, we trekked back out to the hand to find its inventor, Christian Ristow, and his team of assistants busy setting it up for a wedding taking place in its clutches a couple of hours later. (People get married by the dozen at Burning Man. This is Nevada, after all.) Christian, as cheerful as you would hope for of a mad scientist in a desert, was thrilled to allow Campbell – and then 11-year old Kaylin, already on her sixth burn – to join him on his sofa and operate the hand.
Picking up the remains of a car and dropping it on the desert floor a couple of times over, from fifty feet away, just by moving his fingers – without making any mistakes – was certainly Campbell’s Black Rock highlight, and because it was his, it became one of mine, too. Ristow has been bringing such pieces to the desert for over a decade now; his assistants readily describe him as a “genius.” Here’s hoping he never loses his love of technology – nor his way with young children. Thanks Christian, for making my son’s week.
FOOTBALL ON THE PLAYA
I was determined this year to get out of Kidsville more often, in part because I knew Campbell would feel secure in camp and be ready to let me wander, in part because I bought a crappy bike for $45 from the roadside on our drive in with which to do so. Tuesday evening, having studied the What Where When guidebook in relatively thorough detail, I pedaled out to the Playa and participated in a game of pick-up footie. (Or, damn it, soccer as it was referred to in print.) The match was between the host camp, who were dressed in red bunny-type togas (this is BM, almost everything is fancy dress) and the rest of us. The pitch was pretty much the whole of the Playa. The goals were marked out by Margarita mix bottles. The temperature, even (especially?) at 6pm was still probably 90 degrees or higher. And the quality of football was better than you might have expected, the game appearing to have attracted many of the resident Europeans and South Americans. However, closer to 7pm, somewhere at the point that the teams reached about 20 players a-piece I figured it might be losing its focus – on the subject of which, whoever decided to place the goals directly in line with the setting sun was hopefully sober (or at least sane) for the next pick-up game, the following night, and placed them at a different angle. Partly because we were attacking into that setting sun, my team lost. It was painful getting beaten by people dressed in red bunny outfits – and hell on a bad knee that has subsequently healed but was not rested by all the sharp turns on such a bumpy surface. Still, it was tremendous fun. And that was only my first evening…
PLAYING STAGE MANAGER AT THE ROCK OPERA
I wanted to give back a little this year which, given our light traveling status, meant giving of my time rather than of anything physical/material. So when a request came in asking for stage managers for the Rock Opera, I thought, Happy to Help. As I gradually got to see the so-called stage directions and listen to the so-called music, I realized that I’d let myself in for one of the most confusing events of my life. Imagine, if you will, a pyramid, with four quadrants and four platforms, which allows for up to nine different assignments a song; imagine a dozen different fire teams, any of them with up to fifteen members; imagine a soundtrack pre-recorded but inaudible on the night; imagine that there’s another stage manager on the opposite side of the pyramid with whom you’re meant to be co-ordinating; and then imagine that pretty much none of your performers have read “the libretto,” seen the stage directions or heard the music. Then remember that all of this is taking place in the dark in the middle of the desert, and you might just have a sense of the likely level of chaos – and that before anything goes wrong.
But you know what? A number of professional fire teams had trekked across from their camps to take part. All they wanted was to be told when to head out into the performance area, in which direction, and for how long. And they were very grateful that someone was willing to take on that role: Campbell. Well, that’s almost true: he got totally into the spirit of it and was soon to be seen pointing goth chicks with large pois in their hands this way, that and the other – and they loved him for it. The pay-off for trying to keep something inherently chaotic in some form of order? A front row ticket for the first major burn of the week.
THE 5k RACE ON THE PLAYA
After the fun I had doing so solo last year, I spent much of the past twelve months vowing to organize a run this year at Burning Man. I knew that amidst all the party animals, there would be more than a handful of dedicated runners who would love some company and some kind of goal. I even corresponded with someone from Kidsville about how we should do it – but of course we never got it together. Then I arrived at Black Rock, opened up the What Where When, and found that someone else had already taken it upon themselves to organize not just a run, but a proper, five kilometer race.
“Look for the race clock and dorky runners,” suggested the note, and when I showed up at the Fleeble Flobbler shortly before 8am on Thursday outside the central café, sure enough, there they were: a race clock, and twenty-thirty dorky runners. The race clock itself wasn’t working, and the organizers had misplaced the safety pins for our numbers on their ride over, but hey- at least they had a race clock and numbers to begin with. And everything else about the run was textbook. A vehicle was sent out to the desert with a GPS device to establish distance. We all signed in and were allocated numbers. Most of the runners looked dangerously fit and many were wearing top-notch shoes. (I’d only bought a previously-“retired” pair of Asics I fully expected to trash at the end of the week – as indeed, I did.) Suitable Playa Prizes were tobe given for top male and top female: a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon each. The race went directly out from the center of camp, through the Man himself, around the Temple, and another half-mile or so out from there, before turning around for an equally near-straight route back.
You have to be a racer yourself to understand the joy that can be had from expanding your lungs so drastically first thing in the morning, but suffice to say, that joy was had. While I quickly realized I couldn’t catch the first five runners, I stayed head-to-head with a few others for much of the race, and felt duly satisfied at leaving them all behind me in the second half of the run. I came in sixth out of precisely 40 runners, in 21:30, respectable enough considering I hadn’t raced since the Escarpment, hadn’t run in a week due to excess traveling and general tiredness, and especially, allowing for the temperature. (Although the lower humidity in the desert seems like an ample compromise for the near-tropical conditions we have in the Catskills in spring and summer.)
Before we set off, we were introduced to a couple of crazies. There was the woman who had run a marathon on the Playa on Tuesday morning. (Presumably she had her own GPS device to confirm distance; she ran it in 5hrs, 30mins, pretty good going given the playa heat.) And then there was 71-year old Geores Buttner Clevenger, fresh from San Francisco’s Escape From Alcatraz triathlon the previous Sunday. In case you don’t know what that is, and I didn’t either, the first leg of the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon involves, literally, swimming the mile and a half from Alcatraz to San Francisco, and in sixty degree water. From there it seems comparatively easy: just an 18 mile bike ride up and down San Francisco’s unforgiving hills followed by an 8 mile run through much of the same. Buttner Clevenger says it was “the first, last and only time” he would compete in it, but I doubt if it’s the last interesting venture he’ll set for himself. This is the man, after all, who ran the 2500 miles of Route 66 when he was 66, and covered the whole of Route 69, from Texas to Minnesota, on both bike AND foot, when he was 69. (The second run was his attempt to “give back,” he told me. Route 69 covers some of the most obese counties in America, which are, not so coincidentally, also America’s driest. In dry – i.e., no alcohol – counties, people drink soda; the empty calories pile up, they develop sweet tooths, and next you know, they can barely walk, let alone run. Buttner-Clevenger hoped to show the people en route that you can be old and you can be fit – and though he’s not sure he convinced many of his fellow meant-to-be-retirees to take up running, he says the kids loved him all the same.)
I have digressed enormously. But that’s partly the the point: the media and your mother would have you believe that Burning Man is a “drugfest,” to use the most common term I hear to describe it, and yet here I am, at the geographical heart of the festival, talking with a septogenarian athlete who clearly disproves that point. As did the race winner, a younger triathlete built like a Greek god who sailed home in 17 and a half minutes. There’s always one…
THE PINK PUSSYCAT CAMP
Sunday morning, I decided to repeat my positive experience from the previous year, put on my running shoes again, and head out to the farthest point on the clock face, in faith that the sound systems that had been blasting all night, while I was sleeping, would still be blasting now that I was awake. And this year I had a friend to join me: take a bow, Painted Dave, who spends more time getting ready to go out than his teenage daughter, though when you see the results, you can understand why. At around 10am, the sun already high in the sky, we rode our bikes out to the temple, ran from there directly out to the trash fence, and followed the perimeter back around the outside of the City until the sound of sound systems pulled us, like magnets, back in. There we encountered, at the corner of 10 o’clock and the Esplanade, the tribal techno of the Space Elevator camp.
Call me a sucker, but I love twisty tribal techno, and as I sipped from my Gatorade bottle and, already energized from running, danced under the gentle mister built into the camp’s shade structure, gazing out upon the desert and the mountains, I thought things couldn’t get any better. Then, after half an hour, we moved along the Esplanade, and when we found the Pink Pussycat camp, we realized that things not only could get better, but that we might possibly have died and gone to heaven.
The Pink Pussycats are well known at Burning Man, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can find them if you look for them, or that you’ll find them in full swing if you do; this is a big city, after all, and people keep odd hours. But as we came across the camp, our thought was more along the lines of, How could we possibly not have been here before? After all, there was a giant gantry towering over the camp, its participants were mostly dressed (to the extent that they were dressed) in loud, furry variations of the color pink, the music was gleefully throbbing house, and the vibe was the most inviting I’ve encountered, perhaps anywhere in this universe of dance. As we slipped into the camp’s welcoming embrace, we immediately warmed to the presence of the Pink Pussycat participants: gay and straight, male and female, most of them impossibly beautiful (especially that girl) and all of them looking more or less like they’d just gotten up for the morning, when logic surely suggested they were still dancing through from the night before. As we made our way past the DJ around to the back of the camp, we found at least one explanation for the camp’s contagious good spirits: a table laid out with water, Gatorade, bananas, power bars and trail mixes, chewing gum, eye irritant relief, a lone bottle of (barely) cold beer, a few cans of alcoholic energy drinks and, to my delight, for the fact that nobody had stooped low enough to drink it, an open but completely untouched bottle of Yellowtail Chardonnay. (I was more impressed by the person who had celebrated Burn Night with a $50 bottle of Flowers Chardonnay.) Keeping the table clean and tidy as we descended on it was Alan, one of Pink Pussycat’s organizers, and I was thrilled to hear that the entire crew were from my former home city of New York.
I’ve danced outdoors in the early morning hours at Tresor following the Berlin Love Parade, and at Space in Ibiza, the latter of which lays claim to being the most famous such Sunday morning club in the world. And you know what? Neither of them held a candle to the experience of hanging out with the beautiful and beatific crowd at Pink Pussycat at Burning Man. Here, admittance was free, food and drink were free, the vibes were generous, the music was great, the people were stunning, the temperature was perfect, there was room to dance, and the view across the desert was impeccable. This, truly, was the most perfect moment of the week. I wish we could have stayed all day.
THE LONGEST DAY
Why do I love Burning Man so much? Because I can do or get just about everything I want to do or get, all in one place, and all without use of money. Even the lack of contact with the outside world is welcome for a week. (Though I think I’d have preferred to be away the week of the Republican National Convention, not the Democratic one. What a pathetic shitfest the RNC was to return home to.) On the Thursday, which for me feels like the creative/energy peak of the week (by Friday, the burns start and with them a certain weekend madness), I managed the following:
That 5k race first thing in the morning; taking Campbell and some other kids to appear on the radio station; heading out to the Playa and having the kids operate the Hand of Man; cycling to the far side of BRC to meet with the rock opera people; picking up snow cones for Campbell on the way home; taking a steamless sauna in a form of igloo with about a dozen other naked men and women at Nectar Village and feeling the dirt just rush to escape from my pores; cycling over to a Rolling Stones party (self-explanatory and certainly exuberant) followed by a mash-up party, complete with regulation Burning Man open bar; watching a mini-Thunderdome get set up in Kidsville with mildly disastrous results; playing a gig with Painted Dave and his friend Kevin (who turned out to have been the cameraman from VH1’s recent Year In Hell, as well as the man who shot Clash on Broadway for Don Letts; the people you meet!) on the stage in the Central Café with just the one rehearsal; going out dancing at the Opulent Temple, where Lee Coombs and Ali B were among the DJs, and where a souped-up mix of Chemical Brothers’ “Hey Girl, Hey Boy” was my personal highlight; visiting as many as a dozen more dance tents/bars/lounges/punk clubs – wish I could name even three of then – over that same far-flung part of BRC before walking home alone, cold enough in my shorts as to need to stop at almost every burn barrel en route, and huddling into my sleeping bag, tired and contented, about 20 hours after I’d gotten up in the morning. My only disappointment: that I didn’t push it 24 hours and watch the sun come up over the Playa. Next year.
As I discovered last year, Kidsville really is the ideal place for me to be at Burning Man. It’s full of parents much like myself, by which I basically mean people who are open-minded, warm-spirited, adventurous (they have to be to be here!), have likely been through some version of the music-arts-rave-travel scene and come out the other side of parenting still enthused for more of the same, who remain up for enjoying themselves but are responsible to their own children – and to other people’s children, too.
At Kidsville, our day jobs (assuming any of us have them) are irrelevant; here, we are all more or less equal – although those who have air-conditioned RVs, cooking equipment and large quantities of alcohol are certainly more equal (or popular) than others. Some highlights of my time this year at Kidsville? Ron from Reno cooking me a vegetable burrito for dinner one night, complete with cut peaches on the side. (Cut peaches?! I thought I was at a restaurant, it was so good.) Kids bouncing on the trampolines in the middle of a white-out. Sitting by the burn barrel late at night just shooting the breeze with other parents. The mini-Thunderdome, the short battles therein and the number of kids crying thereafter. (Not sure we should bring that one back next year!) The Russians hosting the Bloody Mary session (with Stoli! Not Crystal Palace!) on Saturday, a splendid way to spend a long dust-storm. Clarissa kindly hosting Camp Cereal. Gordy driving us all out to the Temple Burn on Sunday. Mysto the Magician stopping by a couple of times to seriously stun even the most cynical of us with his card tricks. Our neighbors from last year and their road-side shade structures. Our own compound’s RVMC Mark blasting Eminem and MIA first thing in the morning. Mark making coffee. Mark cooking dinner. Mark essentially being our mother for the week. The rehearsal session for our Center Camp gig on Wednesday eve: live drums, guitar and keyboards in Kidsville. The other dad who set up his own drums in his own tent and played along to a David Bowie album and then a Ramones album one morning – and then blared out “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols across Kidsville. Ron from Reno lending extra blinkies and a two-way radio on the last night, when a really serious storm kicked in as all the vehicles leaving kicked up yet more dust and I had to move the car to shelter the tent and did genuinely worry that it would collapse nonetheless (and Campbell, of course, slept through it all). And Gordy, Becky and Lora, Kidsville’s wonderfully patient Mayor. Over 500 of us camped together for a week; we had no lost kids, no police interventions, and only one intra-parental bust-up. Try THAT in the real world!