Burning Man: Welcome Home, Part 1

Welcome Home!
The Burning Man greeting applies to Newbies, too. From years in New York City hearing from previous attendees, through a summer’s advance planning in the Catskills, to the two-hour drive up from Reno, I had felt the magnetic pull of Black Rock City. It’s a difficult thing to describe, even for a writer, but the moment I arrived, I felt like I’d always meant to be there. For a full week, I felt entirely and completely at home.

A You Tube video of Burning Man as seen from a glider, 12000 feet in the air. If you follow the view, you can make out the shape of the (here, inverted) 2-10 o’clock face that forms Black Rock City: the remaining quarter of the clock face is left open to the Playa. After playing the video, YouTube offers related vids from BM 07: many are better than anything I filmed.

Welcome All

Burning Man preaches Radical Inclusion, by which it means all are invited, none discouraged. As a result, it must be noted from the outset that the citizens of Black Rock City encompass a steady range up and down the age scale, from babies to pensioners and back again. There’s the predictable share of crusty hippies, for sure, of jam-band kids too, and there are plenty of what I recognize as life’s outsiders, along with the grown-up Californian ex-ravers. But there are artists, musicians, writers and film-makers. Professors, drop-outs, travelers and teachers. Men and women, straight and gay, camp and butch. There are plenty drunken revelers and there are people in recovery. There’s noise everywhere but there’s also Hushville. Radical Inclusion means that Burning Man is what you make of it, not what people tell you it is.

The vastness of the PLaya, with the Temple in the background, as seen from our double decker bus Kidsville Art tour.

How To Check If Your Son Really has Asthma: A Primer for Paranoid Mothers
Let your husband take him to Burning Man in the desert where the dust immediately gets in your pores and stays there and asthma is such a prevalent curse that it has its own section in the Survival Guide. Have your husband tell the Burning Man greeter that your son is a BM Virgin, so that the boy is instructed him to get out of his dad’s rental car at the gates, lie on the ground and then roll over a few times to get a decent coating of Playa Dust. Just have dad forget to tell the Greeter that the boy is asthmatic. Wait to see/hear if kid has asthma attack over coming week. If he doesn’t have one at Burning Man, he probably won’t have one anywhere.

Our tent at left; we’re in the Knitting Circle!

Burning Man: Where Sharing Is Second Nature
Burning Man’s ten guiding principles include Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression and ‘Gifting,’ the latter of which is easily misunderstood as the desert equivalent of distributing party favors. A better word would be Sharing. When we arrive in Curmudgeonsville, the Groovy Parents corner of Kidsville, our closest neighbors (who have a camper van) immediately offer us use of their shade structure, chairs and table. By the end of the week we are also sharing each other’s food and drink, as we are with several other immediate neighbors in our camp. This sharing concept permeates the entire City, a modern embodiment of the “loaves and fishes” parable. Sharing can be as simple as bringing a spray-mist to the long coffee line, offering your neighbor a beer at cocktail hour or walking around camp with freshly made cookies; it can involve helping set up or breaking down a neighbor’s tent or a group shade structure; it can be as ephemeral as the six-strong vocal group that walked up to our shade structure and sang us a beautiful a capella song one afternoon; it can be as complex as setting up a bicycle repair shop, or bringing in a satellite phone and offering people free calls to the outside world; and it can be as familiar as the end-of-weekend-rush to distribute all that excess food and alcohol we probably might have consumed had we not all been so busy sharing. For the week that we live together, it really does seem like there’s another way to exist than in the selfish world of Camp Reality, and that this is it.

More art on the Playa…

Barney’s On Fire

Dad makes a CD of Burning Fire songs as gifts. Campbell’s favorite track, not surprisingly, is the comedic one: ‘Barney’s On Fire’ by Weird Al Yancovic. Asked to help round up kids for a visit to the Burning Man radio station (BMIR) on his first full morning, Campbell does one better: he brings the CD with him, and is soon heard over the Black Rock City airwaves singing along to the chorus: “Oh boy, Barney’s on fire, this is our secret desire, we’ll help the flames burn brighter, but don’t you try to put him out.” Dad is so proud of him.

Burning Man: So Good They Burned Him Twice
We get to Kidsville Tuesday afternoon to discover that we’ve missed Monday night’s big event: a premature arson attack on “the Man,” whose Saturday night burning is the official climax of the annual event. There is, of course, some irony in using the word ‘arson’ at an event that celebrates constant fire, and for the rest of the week the camp newspapers and radio stations and café are full of debate. Is the act, for which 35-year old San Franciscan Paul Addis is arrested, jailed and subsequently released on bail, a wanton display of selfish and dangerous destruction? Or is it a legitimate protest against the apparently increasing commercialization of Burning Man? Long-term burners lean towards the latter, seeing it as a necessary kick-up-the-arse for a festival that’s become too rigid and controlled and too focused around the weekend bacchanal of burning rather than the week-long festival of sharing. A fellow parent and long-term Burner at Kidsville puts it this way: “The Man Burned. You Missed It. Now figure out what you really came for.” His comment proves surprisingly similar to Addis’ own statement of intent. (Click here, scroll to Update 18.) Regardless, the Event, so we are told by those who know, simmers with a rare unpredictability for the rest of the week – and the Man is rebuilt, almost from scratch and by a team of volunteers, in plenty time for his Saturday night “official” cremation.

Foreground: Campbell with friend on the Lego Tarp at Kidsville; background, one of the many trampolines that serve as the Kids lounge and meeting place.

Kidsville: the Place To Be.
“Wow, a Kid! Hey kid, what do you think of Burning Man?”
If Campbell could have a dollar for every time he’s asked that question, he’d be a rich man. But there’s no commerce at Burning Man, so he has to just smile and say, “It’s cool.” And how could it not be? In Kidsville (population, 400), the kids get to spend all morning bouncing on trampolines the size of small football fields, or playing with an entire tarp’s worth of Legos. Or just waiting for other Camps to show up and entertain kids with hula hoops, songs, free ice cream, fire shows, abstract expressionist theater, or the Yum Cart. Wednesday afternoon, the kids of Kidsville climb on board a big double decker art bus for a daytime tour of the major Art Exhibits on the Playa. Other afternoons (when there aren’t major dust storms), their moms and dads take them for free snowcones, and in the evenings, after “dinner” (pretzels and peanut-butter sandwiches), they get to wander the Playa with those parents and take in and travel on the art cars, see fire shows, and go Disco Roller Blading or playing Putt Putt Golf in the middle of the desert. Some of them even sleep on the trampolines at night. The kids don’t have to take a bath every night, or be told to get off the Playstation or stop watching the TV because, at least in our tent, there is no bath, Playstation or TV. They don’t even have to change their clothes often because everything’s covered in dust all the time anyway – and hey, at least they’re wearing clothes, which is more than can be said for some of their parents.

An attempt at a Kidsville family picture: this is probably half the residents, at best.

What Dad Does Not Do At Burning Man

Stay out all night, drink spirits, get drunk, take drugs, get naked, have sex, get violent or stupid… in short, none of the things our friends at the mainstream media (and VH1) would have you believe are pre-requisites for attendance at Burning Man.

Why Dad Does Not Do Any Of these Things

Because he’s a dad, and bringing his 11-year old son with him to the desert inspires his parental DNA to kick in and govern his actions for the coming week. Dad is helpless to argue with said DNA.

What Dad Does Do At Burning Man

He enjoys it more than any festival event he can recall attending, thriving on more sleep than expected and a subsequent surfeit of energy, all the more so for seeing much of the event through his son’s equally excited eyes. Is somebody maturing around here or what?

Dad’s Dual Personal Highlights of the Week

For the above reasons, Dad does not get to dance in the desert at sunrise to one of the Burning Man’s many ear-shattering sound systems. He would like to have done, but he allows that he has danced at dawn in Berlin, Ibiza, Miami, New York, California, London and more, and that he can’t have it all. Still, on Thursday and Saturday mornings, after Campbell has breakfast and goes off to the trampolines, dad dons his running shorts, picks a bottle of Gatorade out of the cooler, and runs into the heart of the desert, out towards the Temple in the middle of the Playa, where he experiences an almost cosmic sense of freedom: he never imagined he would one day be running in the desert, or that when he did, it would look so vast, so open, so magical. Then he makes a 90 degree turn back to the fringes of Black Rock City, where the loudest sound systems of all, their speakers pointed out to the empty Playa, are still going strong – if, that is, they ever bother to stop. Thursday morning, he hits up those at the 2 o’clock extreme, where he stops to take in some psychedelic trance amidst a ragtag group of tired young crusties. Thursday morning, he heads to 10 o’clock and the Diva Boot Camp, a vast dome where the DJ is kicking out some funky sunshine disco-techno. He puts the DJ behind him, faces out to the endless desert and the increasingly soaring sun, and has an aerobic workout like no gym dance class could ever provide. Half an hour later, he throws up a peace sign to the DJ and runs back to his camp. Just before he reaches Kidsville, he spies one of the trucks that deposits non-potable water on the “roads” to prevent them kicking up too much dust; he chases after it and enjoys a full body spray-shower. He gets back to his camp energized, emotionally charged and clean. His watch, however, has been put out of commission by the power of the spray. Fortunately, it’s his old, cheap watch; he now throws it away. Time is an abstract in the desert.

The Star Wars Sand Crawler as seen from our art tour bus on Wednesday afternoon. Cameras can only tell part of the story and I left mine back in the tent most evenings.

What is Burning Man?

People like to say it’s Mad Max as filmed by Fellini. Yeah yeah yeah, we all need to make comparisons, especially us writers. But for this writer, it’s somethig more tangible, part of a continuum with other events he’s attended over the years. Burning Man is directly related to the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, and the much-lamented Wigstock in Tompkins Square Park, all venerably camp New York City institutions. Burning Man is connected to Europe too – the Ibiza vibe is all over Black Rock City, and the sheer sonic and visual force of the mobile sound systems (and the nudity) reminds me in no uncertain terms to Berlin’s Love Parade. Someone in the café compares it to Goa, and I’m sure they’re right. No doubt there are more global reference points, for Burning Man does not exist in a vacuum. It may, however, be the only such event to take place in a desert.

The recycled bicycle arch at the Central Cafe.

Everyone who’s never been to Burning Man, my wife included, is eager to know: do the girls go topless at Burning Man? The answer: Hell, yeah!

It should be noted that a lot of the men go bottom-less.

Shirt Cocking
The term of non-endearment for guys who only go naked from the waist down.

Daisy Ducking
The term of non-endearment for women who do the same thing.

How To Get To Sleep At Burning Man When You’re In A Tent (But Not Out Of Your Head)
Lie down on the desert floor and tune in to one of the fifteen different sound-systems that will be playing for the next several hours. Give yourself in to its groove. You’ll be asleep in no time.

How To Wake Up Bright And Early At Burning Man

Bring a kid.

Why It Doesn’t Seem To Matter That You Don’t Get That Much Sleep at Burning Man
Because nothing makes you feel more alive in the morning than Glorious Sunshine. And boobies.

Welcome To Burning Man: Where Nature Makes A Serious Effort To Kill You…

…So reads one of the stickers I see at the café – but it may date from the days before Burning Man had a café, along with ice sales, medics, and so many RVs that almost every last tent (themselves fast becoming the minority form of shelter), is at least partially protected from the elements. Still, nature is not to be trifled with. Daytime temperatures are in the 100s and the humidity is so low that your skin dries out in minutes. If you don’t drink water – constantly – you will be on an IV drip by nightfall. Those nighttime temperatures frequently descend towards freezing on the open Playa, though we get lucky on this, our first year, and end up not needing most of the sweaters that clog our suitcases. We do get two consecutive days of heavy dust storms, however, and I am glad in both cases to be relatively close to home when they hit. Should you find yourself a mile or two from home camp without a dust mask/bandana or goggles in such a scenario, you’d better make yourself a friend in a camper van or RV and quick. Fortunately, everyone’s your friend at Burning Man. Besides, let’s put it in perspective; how do you think the soldiers feel out in Iraq, dealing with the same conditions while wearing full body armor? We choose to be here, and we’ll be home in a week. They don’t and they won’t.

Watching our tent take a hammering during the Friday afternoon storm – from the sanctity of our neighbors’ camper van.

Welcome To Burning Man: Where Nature Makes A Special Effort To Thrill You.

The line at the café is so long on Friday afternoon that by the time dad gets his caffeine fix the weather has turned from clear blue sky to white-out. As the café crew discusses incoming rain and the imminent closing of central camp, dad (just) gets his cup of coffee and then breaks one of BM’s cardinal rules: he heads into the white-out alone, to fight his way home and find his son. Fortunately, dad’s been here long enough to identify various tents as signposts and makes it back without a wrong turn, even though visibility is close to zero. He finds Campbell, as expected but not assured, sitting in the neighbors’ camper van happily watching a DVD with their toddler, asthma attacks the last thing on his mind. Dad joins them, looks out the window and watches as the Fletcher tent collapses into the floor in the 60mph winds and then pops up again, its fiberglass poles and rebar-replacements-for-tent–pegs doing a sterling job. When the rain starts falling, we all get really worried: long-term Burners tell us that the desert can turn to quicksand in minutes. But the rain stops after a relatively short and harmless spell, the clouds of dust disappear and in their place, arcing from one end of Black Rock City to the other, is the most crystalline rainbow I’ve ever seen up close. In fact, it is so close you could swear that the pot of gold is only one side-street over. As Black Rock City citizens climb onto their camper vans to admire the rainbow’s shimmering perfection, Mother Nature gives us all an added bonus for weathering the storm – a second rainbow which hovers, if only briefly, up above the first like a proud parent. It’s enough to make grown ravers cry. And it must be cocktail hour already. It’s going to be one hell of a Friday night on the Playa.

The double rainbow on Friday afternoon stopped the City in its tracks.

Welcome To Burning Man: Where a Sense of Humor Is Essential
Burning Man is an easy target for satire, and it’s helpful to remember as much even in the midst of it. After all, how much of an exercise in Radical Self-Reliance can this be when a Central Café serves $4 mochas and $3 hot chocolates? How much of a café can it be when the line is usually thirty minutes long and the Bring Your Own Cup line is even longer? Why do the café volunteers, who probably couldn’t get a job at Starbucks, expect cash tips at a non-commercial venture – but the rangers, medics, and other volunteers all work real jobs for free? Can you keep a straight face when you see a hippy walking round with a sign that reads Free Hugs? Can you keep a straight face when you see a topless chick playing a didgeridoo alongside an Aborigine at Central Café first thing in the morning? Why are 95% of Burning Man participants Caucasian? Where did all the frat boys come from? Why are so many people here just to party and get laid? Why did the Critical Tits Dyke Bike Ride not set off in the dust storm? Why did so many people recommend I shop at Wal-Mart in Reno to pick up my supplies? Does that 55-year old woman really have to walk around naked with a completely shaved body? Does that 20-something girl really expect to walk around naked with that body and not expect me to look? Why is it a rule that the art cars must give you a free ride if you ask for one, but if you ask for one they’re always either “full” or “going back to camp to get more ice.” Why did that eight-year old kid just call my son an “asshole” and do I need his parents’ permission to smack some sense into him, or can I just encourage Campbell to indulge in some Radical Self-Expression? And why am I just about the only dad in camp not wearing a kilt?

Topless didgeridoo performance in the Cafe, first thing in the morning: for any number of reasons, it can’t but bring a smile on your face.

It Was Better Last Year

A lengthy, treacly poem set to the rhythm of ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ greets us on our way into Burning Man, line by self-indulgent line; addressed to but clearly also sanctioned by what citizens ominously call “the Org,” the gist of it is that “Burning Man was better last year.” Campbell asks why that should be. I respond that for those who were in earlier on something than someone else, everything was always better last year. And I have my sympathies for the original Burners, Paul Addis included, and their memories of the 1990s back when guns, motorbikes and dogs had not yet been banned, to be replaced by kids, RVs and a central café. I can’t necessarily argue that, for some people or to some extent, Burning Man is now an alternative Disneyland in which too many ticket-buyers act like tourists rather than as citizens – especially when, as per this year, the population explodes by 20%, and many of the newbies (like us) haven’t yet figured out how to properly contribute. I know how it feels to be in at the start of a movement, a neighborhood, a fashion, or a cult – and how it hurts when the vast masses latch on and dilute it. But all that said, the current Burning Man, with 30,000 week-long residents, is still the first city I’ve ever lived in that felt like Utopia. The hard-core originators, those true radical societal outlaws, should be proud of themselves for founding such an event, and if they can’t cope with the Gentrification (for that’s what it is), they should feel free to move on (if they haven’t already), start a new community or event, and if this time they skip the “radical self-inclusion,” I’ll understand. Meantime, as Campbell says upon awakening his first morning, looking forward already to our plans to bring Posie and Noel next time, “Hey, maybe for us next year will actually be better!”

A YouTube video of the ‘Welcoming’ signs on the mile-long entry to the City.

Can It Be A Festival If The Toilets Are Clean?

At an event that preaches Leave No Trace, where MOOP (Matter out of Place) is strictly a no-no, and where to urinate or defecate on the playa is not only illegal but invites ticketing by one of the three law-enforcement agencies that patrols the City (despite the media image of complete lawlessness), one can only hope that the Portapotties are kept in good shape. They are. The Johnnyonthespot services team show up every morning and night to flush away our stinkies and, in return for their well-paid but thankless task, the vast majority of us citizens honor the credo that “If it wasn’t in your body, it doesn’t belong in the potty.” The only exception is single-ply (not double-ply) tissue and though Campbell and I buy it in droves in Reno, we find we don’t actually need it: the toilets are restocked twice or thrice daily. Thank you, Burning Man, for setting a solid example from the bottom on up.

The Green Man?

Larry Harvey, the Burning Man co-founder currently fighting a lawsuit over ownership of its good name, likes to give the annual event a theme, as an inspiration for Mutant Vehicles, camps and art exhibits alike. Let’s give him benefit of the doubt and suggest that when he decided, 13 months ago, to make 2007 the year of the Green Man, he didn’t know that the Green trend would turn into an epidemic. For if ever there was a way to convince the cynics that Burning Man is now following, rather than setting, the alternative agenda, labeling it “Green” in 2007 would have to be it. Some of those cynics are furious because they consider Burning Man to be an inherently green event: these are the people who live inherently minimalist lives that involve eating simply, avoiding consumerism as far as possible, walking around as naked as nature intended, and who leave no trace. But the bigger majority recognize the hypocrisy. Burning Man is anything but green. Participants leave enormous carbon footprints just traveling here, whether flying from the east coast and renting a car in Reno, like Campbell and myself, or driving sub-10mpg $200,000 RVs from California, Idaho, Arizona and Oregon, complete with generators for 24-hour air-conditioning so their owners can sit out the deadly afternoon heat in comfort rather than in a naturally-made shade structure. Besides, the essence of Burning Man is fire, and none of it here comes from rubbing two sticks together: it comes from propane, which is natural gas, a fossil fuel. I would love to know how much propane is used by the mutant vehicles and art exhibits for their endless and for-entertainment-purposes-only flames, let alone the mass pyrotechnics that herald the event’s conclusion; it’s surely enough to fuel a small city for a whole week. Wait a minute…

A not uncommon interpretation of the ‘Green Man’ theme.

Best Alcoholic Drink at Burning Man

Most citizens have learned from experience: when the heat is on all day long and the dust is inside your nostrils and lungs making you perpetually thirsty to try and flush it out and you know you have to drink drink drink continually continually continually to avoid dying on the playa… Drink Beer. Cheap beer. Light beer. The beer you wouldn’t normally look at back home. Beer that is wet, that quenches your thirst, that gives you a light buzz but doesn’t get you wasted or too dehydrated. The best thing about it? You can drink it almost all evening long and still never need pee! Homer Simpson would love it here. I certainly did.

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October 2021