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Burning Man: The Playa Provides


There’s a saying at Burning Man. Actually, there are several, including “Welcome To Burning Man: Where Nature Makes a Serious Effort to Kill You” and every pyromaniac’s favorite friend, “Safety Third.” But I’m thinking here of “the Playa Provides,” a kind of reassurance that everything every day will turn out okay and which I have come to translate into a more personal motto, “Trust In Fate.”

Of course you only want to Trust In Fate to a certain degree when you go live in the desert for a week. You still need to bring your water, food, clothing, shelter and enough common sense to dig into all of them at the right times of day and night unless you want the first of the above axioms to be proven fatally accurate. Still, when 50,000 people come together in an exercise that preaches both “Radical Self-Reliance” AND “Gifting,” fate has a welcome tendency to reward your trust. Herewith some examples from our visit to Burning Man 2008:

img_8789.jpg Waiting to get into Burning Man as the sun sets and the dust storm wanes

1) OUR ARRIVAL
Last year, Campbell and I sailed into Black Rock City (by car, of course) late enough in the (Tues)day that we found ourselves putting up our tent at dusk, before we had located the flashlights, with all the kind of attendant panics that result when you’re not used to such a sudden level of pure blackness as in the desert at night. This year, I made a very valiant effort to leave Reno, where we had stayed the previous night and spent several hours shopping for supplies that morning, at a sensible enough time to get us into BRC – 125 miles away – during daylight hours. I might even have succeeded, were the Playa itself not under going a horrendous dust-storm with such heavy winds that, with tents and shade structures blowing across the “City,” the Org closed the gates for four hours. This was, certainly, no idle decision based on any idle storm: we could see, smell and taste the dust as we paused in Gerlach, a full 15 miles away, and were among the thousands of vehicles stuck on a slow crawl through the last few miles of single lane road as the afternoon sun waned. Tuning into BMIR, we at least understood the reasons for the lack of forward movement: nobody was getting in or out, Burning Man being under the closest it ever gets to a lockdown.

As the DJ played “Come Together,” “Made of Stone” and “Little Fluffy Clouds” near enough back to back (and thanks for that), I presented to Campbell the thought that we were probably much better sitting in the car than trying to put up our tent in the middle of it. Campbell, having already adopted his Burning Man mode, took it further. “Well daddy, looks like we’ll be sleeping in the car tonight. That’ll be an adventure.” And he meant it; he seemed totally unperturbed. Alright for him, I thought, he’s got the passenger seat; I’d be stuck behind the steering wheel – and does he know how cold it gets out here at night? Fortunately, as the sun finally set, and the winds died down, the gates reopened and after a couple more hours crawling through the entry roads, we reached said gates, and then the greeters, and around 10 or 11pm, found ourselves finally pulling up at Kidsville, by which point it was already so deep into night that our eyes had completely adjusted to the dark. (And besides, I’d used the time stuck in the car to pull out emergency supplies, flashlights included.) We were greeted fondly by friends from last year who seemed seriously battle-worn by the day they’d just endured of relentless winds and endless flying debris, and all of whom assured us that we were, indeed, way better off being locked on the other side of the gates. And when we found our little compound in Curmudgeonsville, our waiting friend Mark pitched in and helped pitch our tent, expertly – and securely– in what felt like all of five minutes. Compared to last year’s panic-stricken attempt, it was a breeze. (And so was the wind, by this point.) We even had time to take a stroll round an oddly quiet Playa before tucking into our sleeping bags. As an exercise in going with the flow, accepting fate, and trusting patience, it was the perfect start to the week.

img_8904.jpg A cheerfully weird art car

2) The 5000 Fingers of DR. T.
Wanting to get out and about more at Burning Man this year (see previous post), I examined our What Where When during Tuesday’s afternoon shade time, saw that there was a movie called The Point being shown Tuesday night maybe 20 minutes walk from Kidsville, and on the recommendation of those who’d seen it – and with a voiceover by Ringo Starr and music by Harry Nilsson, it sounded right up Keith Moon’s street and maybe therefore my own – convinced Campbell we should check it out before spending the rest of our evening on the Playa. But camp locations at Burning Man, let alone event happenings, are notoriously unreliable, and search as we might for Pleasure Island at 3:00 and Edsel, we simply couldn’t find it. We asked around: no one knew anything about it. Up and down Edsel we trudged, both sides of the 3pm intersection, with no luck. (Seriously, guys and gals of Pleasure Island, where were you?) I was upset that I’d made Campbell walk this far (a mile or more) seemingly for nothing, but again, he was game. “Hey daddy, it’s Burning Man,” he said, resiliently. “And even if Burning Man isn’t as good this year, at least we got to go to San Francisco. So we’ve already had a better holiday.” Suitably cheered – if he wasn’t bummed, then nor would I be – I suggested we check out the 3:00 plaza to see if we could gain something from the lengthy walk. (There are mini-plazas on the clock face at 3:00 and 9:00; Kidsville is located close to the main plaza at 6:00.) Lo and behold if we didn’t stumble right upon the Bad Idea Theater. We could see a movie screen – or perhaps we just sensed it – from outside the elaborate tent structure; inside we found comfortable seating and a remarkably silly American Steel Association Safety movie dating back to the 50s… silly enough it quickly engrossed us, as it had several other people. And when I stepped out to the bar to see if they had a beer, it turned out they’d brought five kinds of home-made brew with them to Burning Man.

Next I knew I was sat with a home-brewed IPA, a saucer of Pretzels and settling down with Campbell to watch The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T – a Dr. Seuss story I had never even read, let alone seen on film. To call the movie psychedelic would be to do a disservice to its creators, given that it dates back prior to that period, to 1953 in fact. But for anyone who knows of Dr. Seuss’ fondness for odd shapes, bad dreams and impossible feats of biology (like the ageing twins “conjoined by beards” as C put it), The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was a feat of majestic film-making. Campbell and I even got to share a laugh at how the dynamics between the movie’s two main protagonists, the piano instructor of the movie’s title and his reluctant pupil Bart, reflected our own occasional confrontations. Two hours of riveting cinema and a couple more home brews later, we skipped the planned visit to the Playa for the long walk home and a good night’s sleep, grateful that our faith had been rewarded. Just when we were despairing of a wasted journey, the Playa had provided as apt (but unknown) a treat as we could have asked for.

This, the Dungeon of Scratchy Fingers, was probably the greatest of the many musical scenes in The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T: completely crazed, totally psychedelic, quite beyond what you would think would be the imagination of Hollywood in the conservative fifties. (Clearly, however, not beyond the imagination of Dr. Seuss himself.)

3) ROCK OPERA NIGHT
Our arrival at the Rock Opera Pyramid Friday night (again see previous post) began with a line I might have expected from a five-year old son, but not one just about to become a teenager: “Daddy, where’s the nearest bathroom?” At Burning Man, though they’re kept in meticulous condition (anyone who doubts the veracity of that statement need only attend a British rock festival for confirmation), the toilets are never quite where you think they are, especially out on the Playa itself. Despite his protestations, there was no way I was letting Campbell go find the toilets on his own, not when we had just arrived at a busy structure out on the Playa, and no way I could get away to escort him there for the next couple of hours.

Those two hours passed mercifully quickly, but didn’t solve his dilemma. So we spent the thirty minutes after the Pyramid burn wandering round the Playa trying to find the row of toilets we knew were somewhere off of the 3:00 promenade. By the time we did, Campbell was understandably complaining that we had all but run out of time and energy to see the art on the Playa that night, and that we’d never catch an art bus out here by the toilets. But when we each emerged from the toilets, it was to find, as if by magic – or at leaston request – a big red fire engine, redesigned as a fire-breathing truck, staffed by a wonderfully mellow crew offering us a ride to the art on the farthest fringes of the Playa. The fire truck’s main “steward” (for want of a better word) even invited Campbell to work the propane guns, and as we got talking, it turned out that he had gotten married at the Brooklyn Lyceum, just a few blocks from our old house, and that he was the organizer of the “shipping container” from NYC on which my synth had traveled to Burning Man. The art they drove us out to see included the Dream Room, near the trash fence a good couple of miles beyond “The Man,” a chill-out environment under the stars that apparently would have been more interactive were the accompanying chill-out music actually playing. But so what if it wasn’t? It was serene all the same and there’s no way we’d ever have made it out there on our own two feet.

After checking out a couple of other exhibits, we were dropped off at around 9pm and the Esplanade – a fair walk from home – but en route back to Kidsville, now thoroughly immersed in a late Friday night, Campbell and I got to engage in a game of Putt Putt Playa and each take turns in the HydroCube. While waiting in the line for this Burning Man-type fairground adventure, we were even given beautiful souvenir necklances (Keep Dreamin’). I checked my watch round that point and it was way past one am; I guess you’re allowed to keep your kid up that late at least once during the week. Anyway, it was our only late night together on the Playa and it would not have been half as much fun without the free ride on the fire truck. Thanks for showing up – at the toilets – when we needed you, guys.

img_8931.jpgCrazy golf in the desert, yo!

4) BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR…
On our Sunday morning bike/run/walk that took us out to the Pink Pussycat camp and back (again, see previous post) , David and I encountered a fair amount of MOOP (Matter out of Place) from the Saturday night post-Burn shenanigans – even though Burning Man is meant to be a Leave No Trace event, (That’s why there’s a trash fence running round the perimeter, so at least what rubbish gets discarded does not spend the rest of its non-biodegradable life blowing around the desert floor but can be retrieved by volunteers.) Jogging back to the Temple from Pink Pussycat, the breeze was blowing a particularly obstinate piece of tissue about ten feet in front of me, at exactly the pace we were moving – as if teasing me. “I wish the wind would die down so I could pick up that MOOP,” I said out loud, and… it did just that. A fortunate coincidence of timing? Perhaps. Scary, all the same? Most definitely. Did I continue to utter out-spoken (and unrealistic) wishes for the rest of my stay, especially concerning that girl back at Pink Pussycat? Most definitely not; I know when to trust in fate and when I’m pushing my luck.

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The Museum Of It Was Better LAST Year put on the most fabulous display, somewhere between a genuine museum of old artifacts, and a total send-up of the entire Burning Man experience. Click on the thumbnails below to read a truthful but hilarious history of Burning Man, archival Museum style. img_8888.jpg
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5) THE SAN FRANCISCO HOTEL COCK-UP.
While in San Francisco prior to Burning Man, Campbell and I had needed to make a decision on where to stay for Labor Day night after the event: in cheap, casino-ridden Reno, or more pricey, but infinitely more exciting San Fran? Campbell not having too much of a concept of finances, he of course plumped for the latter, and by searching around the Best Western web sites courtesy of a computer at the Apple Store, we found two hotels on Geary Street, an old-fashioned one near Union Square (the Hotel California) with apparently the best vegetarian restaurant in town, and a Japanese flavored one (the Tomo) in Japantown, compete with a wall of televisions in the lobby, manga cartoons on the walls, an iPod dock and a 27” LCD TV. Both were extremely well-priced, and so of course you know which one Campbell insisted I book? I just had time to write down the address and phone number before we headed out to Reno and Burning Man.

Our 350-mile drive in on Labor Day was eleven hours all told. Only an hour of that was spent getting out of Burning Man itself, the bulk of it spent on a slow crawl along Route 80 as holiday-makers (around a third of them Burners) gradually headed back to Civilization and the post-Labor Day workweek. By the time we pulled up to the hotel on Geary Street we were tired and… very confused. Somehow, in my hurry to make the online booking courtesy of the Apple Store’s computer, it appeared I’d booked us into not the funky Japanese hotel but the old-fashioned downtown Hotel California, the one Campbell specifically told me not to book into. (And the vegetarian restaurant was closed for Labor Day, no less.) For a kid who’d been looking forward to taking his first shower in a week surrounded by manga comics and big screen TV in a colorful room, the shock of being ushered into an ancient, rather anonymous and very cramped room dominated by its two single beds was a little like being told that Christmas had been canceled.

But again, after some initial despair, his Burning Man spirit kicked in. He liked the Eagles lyrics painted on the ceiling (“You can check it any time you like but you can never leave,” boom boom), but he especially loved the Nintendo console, which I promised he could play with after dinner as consolation for my cock-up. Me too, I found consolation in our location as soon as we’d washed (some of) the Playa Dust out of our hair – via one of the best Mexican restaurants it’s ever been my good fortune to eat at, just a few doors down Geary Street. Colibri stocks over 350 different tequilas, and makes about a dozen different house margaritas using some of them, of which I treated myself to the Margarita Cazadores which, believe it or not, was my first margarita in about five years. I also had a remarkably good cauliflower/mushroom dish the type of which you wouldn’t normally expect in a Mexican restaurant. Campbell was especially impressed with the waitress/greeter, who immediately took back his watermelon agua fresca when he said he didn’t like it and did everything in her power to make him welcome. (“I hope she gets a good tip,” he said, though I didn’t see him volunteering his pocket money! But yes, she did.) In the morning, we made the most of the fact that we were but a few blocks from Union Square. I left Campbell playing a Pikachu game on a Nintendo Wii at GameStop while taking advantage of the Quiksilver store’s end-of-summer sale. So if it wasn’t quite a case of the Playa Providing one final fate, we were still wise to trust in fate: the Hotel California, cramped and a little insalubrious though it was, turned out just fine. As for the Hotel Tomo, hey, so it will be even better next year.

img_8983.jpgIs everyone at Burning Man a tourist these days? I plead guilty to keeping the camera on hand. Sometimes. But not all the time. These tourists at the Temple Burn remind me of that picture of everyone in the cinema audience wearing 3D glasses: still, presumably these weren’t the people who were ruining the occasion for everyone else. Note the little fiery dust devils spinning away from the fire, carrying, perhaps, the spirits with them.

And finally…. THE PLAYA DOESN’T ALWAYS PROVIDE
Perhaps it’s too much to expect 50,000 people to camp out for a week, in the spirit of decadence and Radical Self-Expression, encourage them to go crazy on Saturday night after the Man Burns, and not have a few idiots be disrespectful during the Temple Burn on Sunday night… Except that we didn’t seem to have such problems last year, when the solemnity and serenity of the Temple Burn turned me into something of a quivering tired (and emotional) wreck. Unfortunately for us, the Playa did not provide on the last night this year when we took a ride out from Kidsville and planted ourselves perhaps a little too much in the center of the Temple Burn crowd. Or maybe we just got unlucky. But the vibe was bad from the start, people shouting at other people to sit down and one person yelling out to “you assholes with the children.” This was a Buddhist temple they’d come to see burned/exorcised: would they act like that at a real one? (Unfortunately, the answer to that is probably yes.) The burn was long and it was slow, and while the surrounding art cars treated it with appropriate decorum (i.e. with lights dimmed and no music), the crowd seemed incapable of doing likewise. The low point came with a bunch of frat boys near us in animal clothing who inexplicably started singing “Day-O” and “Kokomo” and were egged on by a girl who thought they were absolutely hilarious. I felt like I had the choice of getting into it with them or trying to block them out; I attempted the latter though clearly, by these very words, I failed. I wish the Playa could have provided in this circumstance, and maybe it did – there was a major dust storm kicked in the very moment the Temple collapsed, causing hundreds if not thousands to lose their way back to camp. With luck, the frat boys were among them, not that they seemed the type who would have paused and considered whether it was Playa Payback for their behavior. Burning Man can be a beautiful event, but its insistence on Inclusion means it does not legislate against Idiots. Hopefully, it will be better next year.

img_8982.jpg The temple burns and with it, many a bad memory and personal memento left within its walls. Unfortunately, drunken frat boys and hostile anti-kid Burners don’t show it the respect it deserves. Not even Burning Man is perfect.

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