Burning Man: Welcome Home, Part 2

Please read Part 1 first

Best Mutant Vehicles
Our first night at Burning Man, we step into the Playa shortly after dark and are immediately assaulted by mutant vehicles heading in every which direction, half of them loaded up with sound systems, live bands and/or cocktail bars, a good proportion of them breathing fire, and ranging in size from converted motorbike side-cars to overgrown station-wagons and on up through massively mutated double-decker buses. We love the Star Wars Sand-Crawler. The robotic giraffe. The fur-coated cat. The boom box. The Egyptian slave-walkers. The Egyptian Sphinx. The cocoon that is parked next to us at Kidsville. The Polar Ice Caps complete with polar bear and penguin. Our first night Campbell is offered a ride on a Cyclops, and it’s only marginally less magical than the day we took him to Coney Island and saw his look of wonder at his first ride on Astroland. We laugh the night that we chase after a disco bus, jump on its trailer and find ourselves amidst a crowd of love’d up youth. We are grateful to Puff The Magic Dragon for stopping to pick us up the night of the Temple Burn when we really need the ride. But when all’s said and done, the image that most sticks in my mind is not of an officially authorized Mutant Vehicle/Art Car at all, but on Saturday night, Burn Night, of a tandem cycling across the desert, its second rider wearing dozens of flames so that, as he pedals, he looks like he’s burning from top to bottom. At Burning Man, one’s imagination is one’s only limit.

A small percentage of the Mutant Vehicles/Art Cars we saw over the week:

Best Art Exhibit

Burning Man is many things to many people, but at its core it’s an art festival held out on the Playa. More so even that the Art Cars, these pieces come in a multitude of shapes and sizes. The biggest, most widely viewed is surely Crude Awakening, in which 30ft iron figures symbolizing each of the world’s major religions are shown worshiping a 100ft oil derrick, the burning of which, on Saturday night, will prove the fiery climax to our week. But it’s hard not to be similarly overawed by the Big Rig Jig, two giant trucks welded together vertically, the interior of which is climbable. Or the Iron Tree House, powered in part by a 1920s steam traction engine, Campbell’s knowledge of which, on Thursday night, finds us pushed to the front of the tree house line by the engine’s captain, and Campbell and I climbing the interior of the tree house in the dark, with revelers coming and going above and beneath us in all directions. We also visit the fire-for-fire’s sake propane explosion shows, the metal woman reclining against a metal tree in the middle of the desert, and the optical-illusion swinging monkeys; art pieces with names like the Apocalypse Stagecoach, Burninator X, Halcyon Haven and Psychonautilus Mutante; the self-evident MoodSwing; and a similarly simplistic array of balloons that, the designers tell us, represent “nothing whatsoever” and are all the more attractive for doing so. The biggest of these art pieces – most notably Crude Awakening – receive funding through our ticket purchases. But the vast majority are labors of love, constructed over the course of a full year by their designers for the express purpose of being brought out to Burning Man. Some of them even go up in smoke at the weekend, never to be seen again. If ever there was an exhibition of art for art’s sake, this is it.

Some of the major Art on the Playa, including Crude Awakening, the Big Rig Jig, and the Tree House before it was finished:

Best Esplanade Entertainment.

Who doesn’t like a walk along the beachfront after dark? At Burning Man, the inner ring of the clock-face is known as the Esplanade, and it’s where the sound systems and participatory exhibitions are placed. Nocturnal Roller Disco? Walk on up and state your shoe size. Moonlit Crazy Golf? An English girl from NYC hooks us up with golf clubs, balls, pencil and cards, explaining that a number of different teams across the country have worked together over the last year to each design their own crazy golf hole. A cinema showing humans fighting dinosaurs accompanied by a theatrical and comical lecture on the birth of man? Find yourself a seat. But the award has to go to Dance Dance Immolation, a hot take on the popular arcade game Dance Dance Revolution, except that in this larger-than-life version, mis-steps are punished with a dose of fire – to the face. Admittedly, participants don fire-retardent suits before stepping up to the plate, but still… this is Burning Man taken to the extreme. There is, naturally, a long line to engage all night long.

What To Do If Burning Man Can’t Cure Your Violent Tendencies

Head to the Thunderdrome, get strapped into a swing and beat the living crap out of your opponent with a baseball bat – but only a rubber baseball bat, this being non-violent Burning Man. And yes, the Thunderdrome does look just like the one in the Mad Max movie, and yes, midnight does find people clambered all over its geometric dome. It’s a sight to behold. See below:

Best Overheard Conversation.

“I’m Polyamorous. She’s monogamous. But I’ve agreed to try monogamy to meet her halfway.”

Best Sound System

It’s not the Opulent Temple at the corner of 2 O’Clock and the Esplanade, where Paul Oakenfold and Rabbit In The Moon are both scheduled to play Friday night, but which is packed with trance-heads to the point of no escape (some people just love being in a crowd, don’t they??) It might be Diva Boot Camp on the opposite side of the clock-face, where I have such a great time dancing on Saturday morning. It could well have been the house-bastion Deep End, had I been able to stay up all night and not worry about leaving Campbell asleep in the tent. But when’s all said and done, it’s probably the club called Coda, just a couple of doors back down from the Opulent Temple, where that same Friday night finds maybe 150 people enjoying the outdoor club, with plenty of space to do their thing, and the DJ spinning a techno mix of ‘Bring The Noise’ amidst other funky funky gems. I’m supposed to have hooked up with another dad from Kidsville but, being Burning Man, we’ve got our meeting place confused, so I have my own jig for an hour or so before walking home and hitting the hay. If only I could do this every night!

Piss Clear
One of the watch-words of Burning Man (as a runner, I know the importance of dehydration, and my pee is still the color of a blood-red orange all week) is also the name of the unofficial newspaper, published every other day. The people at Piss Clear have been coming to BM so long that they now hate Larry Harvey and The Org with a passion, and their four-page rag rages with invective. But they love the essence of the Event so much that can’t stop themselves returning each year. They also throw a massive mash-up party on the Esplanade and it’s to my regret that I don’t get to catch it. Still, I look forward to their every-other-daily rag like it’s the BM Bible. Their cynicism is educational, their glossary of BM terms is hilarious (I worry for myself and my Second Year Fever), and their satirical ‘Why Can’t I Get Laid At Burning Man?’ is worthy of The Onion.

Biggest Regret
That I don’t feel comfortable leaving Campbell alone (albeit with friends) for long enough during the day – wisely so given the two consecutive days of dust storms – to borrow a bike and discover the other camps on the inner streets of Black Rock City, those that offer massages and meditation, or chill music, or workshops, or God knows what because I don’t get the chance to explore them. I estimate that I probably see no more than 5% of what Burning Man has to offer. And that’s another reason why it will be better next year.

Burns Night

Because of the massive Friday afternoon storm, the Crude Awakening burn is postponed to Saturday night – to take place directly after the Burning of the Man. For the first part of this rare two-for-one, double-your-fun package, Campbell and I join some of our Curmudgeons camp friends out on the Playa, sat safely far back behind the art cars that have huddled around the perimeter of the Pyramid. The Burning of the Man is, at heart, an annual ritual that represents renewal, but while I understand this symbolism, the same part of me that didn’t mind the man being burned early feels somewhat unmoved by the Burn 2.0. Mostly, it seems like a good excuse for some old-fashioned fireworks, the long, slow burn of a giant wooden effigy – and, as you can see below, a very big fireball that thrills us all.

Fireball during the burning of the Man If the Burning Man Burn (2.0) didn’t amaze us, maybe we weren’t close enough: my thanks to Craig Steinberger for sharing this amazing photo of the fireball.

But it’s only a teaser for what’s about to come. Our friends return back to camp; some of them are leaving early Sunday morning. I ask Campbell, who’s looking very tired by now after five long days and nights, if he wants to join them back at Kidsville and he says no way: “I have to see the Crude Awakening burn for my future career as a pyromaniac!” (Exact quote.) It’s a long walk over to one o’clock and the playa, and we’re unable to hitch a ride on any of the Mutant Vehicle Art Cars that are roaring round the desert like it’s the last night on earth. By the time we reach the circular perimeter set up for the Crude Awakening burn – this perimeter set, ominously, some several hundred yards back from the actual exhibit – it’s long past 11pm, we’ve already walked a mile or two, and Campbell is so tired he curls up at my feet and goes to sleep. I know it’s going to be a long wait for the Crude Awakening Burn – the fire crews have to finish overseeing the Burning of the Man before they can prepare for this vast exhibit – and so even I manage to catch 40 winks as the various art cars take up position behind us and pummel us with dance music, while fire-breathers entertain us in groups, and one of the volunteers on the perimeter line engages in a cheer-leading dance.

An hour and a half later, somewhere round 1am, the loudest air siren known to man-kind wakes Campbell from his slumber, and he bounds to his feet like it’s Christmas morning. The noise ricochets around the desert as fire trucks drive in ever longer lines out from the Crude Awakening exhibit, leaving a thick wall of smoke behind them. A few minutes later, we’re treated to a fireworks show that makes the earlier one for the Man look like an amateur back yard fling; in fact, it’s on a par with the July 4th shows held for the public in New York. I start filming, but by the time my camera runs out of disc space, the show is only just gathering steam; I look around at everyone with proper video cameras and know that a better film that I could make will be up on YouTube by the time I post this essay, anyway.

Eventually, the four legs of the Oil Derrick are set alight, the quadruple glow fanning out across the playa. And when it happens, the fireball we’ve been warned about all week still turns out to be hotter, wilder and more shamelessly, gleefully, unabashedly hedonistically pyromaniacal than we could ever have imagined. This fireball erupts from above the derrick several hundred feet into the night sky, a giant red mushroom cloud singeing our eyebrows and causing us, even at our several hundred yards’ safety distance, to instinctively cover our faces. The roar emanating from the crowd around us is equal parts awe, admiration and pure shock: Burning Man may essentially be a festival of participation, but the Crude Awakening burn is surely the greatest fireball and fireworks entertainment exhibition any of us have ever witnessed. And then, moments later, the fireball is gone and the derrick is burning, burning burning though the symbolism – that man’s worship of oil will lead to his own destruction – is sadly not carried through to its logical conclusion: the metal figures set in prayer around the derrick are too valuable to be destroyed. We watch the derrick burn until it finally keels over and collapses. After which we turn around to make our way home.

Pyromaniacs will love this: a decent video of Crude Awakening’s awesome fireball. Campbell and I were in the front row!

The sight that greets us is the wildest of the week. The art cars and mutant vehicles have all but come alive – they’re blinking and flaring and strobing and flaming, pounding music, breathing fire, shooting off lights, the Saturday night bacchanal now in full fiery swing. Some have parked up where they are, fired up their sound systems, and have already attracted audiences numbering in the hundreds. The night is just beginning, and for many people out here on the Playa, it won’t end until long after the sun is up.

This video of the fireworks and fireball was shot from almost a mile away: now imagine it from up close!

But I’m a dad, it’s the middle of the night, and I’ve got an insanely tired boy to get home. Fortunately, I know exactly from where on the clock face we watched the display. I point us in a straight line to get back to camp. Only problem: there is no straight line. There are crowds of day-glo, cross-dressing, raved-up dancers. There are fire-breathers, fire-dancers, bicyclists, art cars and more of the same. None of them are standing still. Our straight line takes so many angular turns that, fifteen minutes later, my hand tightly clutching that of my son, I find myself standing in the middle of the Nevada desert, fire all around me, lights all around me, music all around me, feeling like I’m at once both inside the biggest nightclub of all time and yet out in the widest expanse I’ve ever called home. It’s the most psychedelic moment of my life, and believe me, I know my psychedelic moments. Campbell’s a game companion; though tired, he too appreciates the sheer hedonistic pagan lunacy of it all. But truth is, I have absolutely no idea where we are. We could walk in that direction and it will take us home; or we could walk in that direction and it will take us ever further out into the desert. All the landmarks of the Esplanade are completely hidden in the vast array of art cars and sound systems tripping the light fantastic.

Though he’s equally disoriented (the process not helped by a number of art disco buses that represent the ‘Disorient’ camp all driving round blazing that word), Campbell has less pride than his dad. “Ask someone for directions,” he insists. “I will,” I reply, “as soon as I find someone who looks like they’ve got their head screwed on.” And when I find that someone, he tells me that we have, of course, walked steadily even further away from central camp than we already were. Our new walk home – we just can’t seem to catch a ride, every single vehicle is full of crazed revelers – takes an hour but, step by step, lamplight by lamplight, flag by flag, milestone by milestone, we arc our way back to Central Camp. We finally catch a ride the last few hundred yards back to our sidestreet – and Campbell is asleep before I get back from the toilets to tuck him up. The part of me that wishes to party the rest of the night gives in to the part of me that’s a parent and I zip up beside him. Which sound system shall I sleep to? That one will do. Goodnight. That was the greatest fire show I’ve ever seen.

The Temple of Peace

Sunday understandably finds the whole City (population having peaked on Saturday at close to 50,000) rather tired and emotional. Many of the Kidsville campers have packed up and left, others spend the day breaking down their shade structures, preparing for a late Sunday or overnight exodus, hoping to avoid the experience of previous years, when it’s taken them up to 12 hours to get out of camp. Kids are fast disappearing and Campbell declares himself, for the first time all week, “a little bored.” I sympathize, but when I hear one family in our camp talk about scattering Grandpa’s ashes at the Temple, I realize we haven’t visited it up close all week. And after tonight, it won’t exist.

The Temple, Sunday Sep 2.

We set off, on foot again because we don’t have bicycles and we’re good walkers, with some of our excess food – dried fruit, pretzels, cashews, granola bars – which we give away with ease on the Playa: it appears that as many people have under-packed food as I under-packed beer. During the course of this, our one afternoon spent out in the unmitigating heat of the Playa, we climb the Big Rig Jig, reclimb the Iron Treehouse, chase balloon shadows and contemplate the Mood Swing. But our destination is always the Temple, and when we reach it, I am overcome by emotion. This is the most gut-wrenching place I’ve found myself in since the wake of 9/11.

Made entirely of light, easily burnable, balsa-type wood, the Temple is an annual Burning Man installation, a non-denominational place of worship that during the week is used for contemplation, prayer, introspection and peace. Come Sunday, the day after the Man Burns, and the Temple transforms into a temple for mourning, a funeral pyre if you will. We arrive to find hundreds of people in tearful silence writing messages of peace and love to the dead, departed and dying on the temple’s wooden walls. The silent power of this human outpouring is larger than the Crude Awakening fireball; it sweeps everyone up in its wake. It is, truly, the most holy of places and, far more so than during the fiery bacchanal the previous night, I understand the truly rejuvenating purpose of Burning Man. I choke up under the weight of it all, but I’m not alone; there are people positively shaking with emotion as they lay tributes to dead parents, lovers and friends. Someone has brought along and laid down his skinned pet dog for the evening burn. Another has tacked to the walls a 20-page tribute to the death of their father, a USAF WWII pilot of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ There’s a cardboard cut-out of George Bush wrapped in an American flag with the message “We forgive you,” to which I see someone add the words “I’m working hard on it.”

The Temple of Mourning from up close

I ask Campbell if he can leave a message to his dearly departed uncle, taken from this life by brain cancer in what should have been the prime of his life. My son does not disappoint. He seizes on the admirable slogan ‘Fuck Cancer!’, adds the words “Right On!”, connects them up and adds our family’s names to a private message. I’m so proud of him that I can’t stop crying and he hugs me and it’s alright because just about everyone else around the Temple is crying too and I know that you may be reading this off your laptop in some coffee shop somewhere thinking “what a bunch of sentimental hippy crap” but if you could have been there, you too would have been crying, you too would have understood the sanctity of that place, that afternoon, and you too would have felt the surging power that comes with knowing you’re alive and living in the moment when others have not been so fortunate. God but it was beautiful there.

Campbell adds a message to the Temple of Mourning

I go to take a photo of Campbell’s message but my camera tells me to “please replace the batteries.” Maybe it wants to keep the message private: photos rarely capture the sole of this place, anyway. Campbell and I spend a few more minutes at the temple, soaking up the peace and the pain, and then we make our long slow path back across the desert to our camp.

Our camp mayor has been donated a couple of bicycles and, with fresh batteries in the camera, I borrow one of them and cycle, without Campbell, back out across the desert to the Temple, to take a photo of my son’s message. But it’s now getting closer to sunset and the walls have started coming down, literally, gradually being gathered in on themselves to form a funeral pyre. Religious groups have started holding services, and volunteers are guarding the inner sanctum. I circle the Temple for fifteen minutes, but I can’t find Campbell’s message. I guess the Gods wanted to keep it private. Hopefully it reached its destination.

Later that evening, after dark falls, and despite Campbell’s now evident tiredness, we set back off across the Playa to watch the Temple Burn. The mood is in direct contrast to the previous night’s wild abandon. The art cars that travel out to the Temple do so slowly, quietly, respectfully. With perfect timing, one called Puff the Magic Dragon stops in our path and the driver asks if Campbell needs a ride. (Is the Pope a Catholic?) We climb on back to find a small group of tired young Californians; they’ve been operating Camp Lemonade from just outside Kidsville all week (one guy getting through 100 gallons of water just on his own), and I didn’t even know about it. That’s how vast Burning Man is.

the Temple Burn, Sunday Sep 2.

The Temple Burn is the diametric opposite of the Man and Crude Awakening burns. There are no fireworks, no explosions, no fireballs, no pyrotechnics. The vehicles all dim their lights and it’s almost as if the creatures many have mutated into bow their collective heads. The Temple burns brightly, it burns quickly and it burns quietly – the solace and silence of the occasion interrupted in our immediate domain only by the loud sobbing of a grown man. A stranger puts his arm around his fellow stranger and clutches him tight. I don’t find the burn of the Temple quite so emotionally wrenching as I did being amidst its mourners a few hours earlier, but then I hear the crowd cheering. It’s a gutteral cheer, and though it turns out to signal the launch of a Mexican wave, I don’t associate it with the crass collective behavior of a sports crowd: the meaning behind it seems deeper, more pure, more about a release, a rebirth.

Puff the Magic Dragon: somewhere behind this is a truck!

Puff the Magic Dragon takes us back to central camp and its occupants are all silent; one way or another, everyone is spent. Back at Kidsville, I’d like to say I fall asleep as quickly as Campbell but I don’t. Black Rock City is busy packing up and moving out and our street-front location feels suddenly super-dangerous now that so many RVs and camper vans are driving on it, especially as Campbell has been sleeping right by the road all week. I’ve posted extra solar flares outside the tent, and only a drunken/raging fool would drive into it or over it, but it’s now the end of a drunken/raging week and it only takes the one fool. I lie awake in the tent most of the night, listening to the traffic making for the exits, waiting for it to calm down, dreading the worst. But finally, sleep overtakes me, and I wake up in the sunshine to find Campbell standing over me, brushing my full beard. He’s alive and well and the traffic has died down. There are no sound systems blaring. In fact, there’s an ominous quiet in what’s left of Black Rock City. It’s time to head home.

A much depleted camp, Monday morning. You can see how close we were to one of the side roads (Coral Reef), which was filled with departing vehicles all Sunday night.

And how Did you Spend Your Labor Day?

I’m no more inclined to leave Burning Man before the Temple Burn than I’d leave a Palace Cup Final match before the final whistle. And I’m not very good at getting up at dawn. I don’t mind then that we take our time in the morning, packing properly, getting one last cup of coffee, doing MOOP patrol, exchanging phone numbers and e-mails, giving away food to the volunteers who will be living here another week or two to clean up behind us. Our flight to Houston is not until midnight, after all. Still, I do try and leave early enough that we’ll make it to the Water Park in Reno, 100 miles away, as a treat for Campbell and a chance to clean up, and I figure our 12 O’clock departure should ensure success. I’m wrong. When, at 3 O’Clock, we’re still stuck in eight lanes of traffic getting out of Black Rock City, wilting under the 110 degree heat, but with good vibes maintained all around – no road rage in our group, I think the heat prevents it – I realize that the water park may not be an option after all. At some point it occurs to me that it’s Labor Day, a Public Holiday, the last day of summer. We’re spending it in a traffic funnel, but I don’t really mind. I’m happy to drag this out as long as I can.

One of my favorite pictures: Campbell plays with shadows from the balloon art as we walk on over to the Big Rig Jig (in distance) and then the Temple, Sunday afternoon.

All The Way To Reno

We finally arrive at the Water Park at 5:45pm. It closed for the season at 5:00. Campbell promised not to cry if this was the case but he has a hard time keeping his part of the bargain. (I cut him a break: he’s had two hot meals in a week, about half his usual sleep, he’s covered in an inch of playa dust all over his body, he hasn’t even communicated with the outside world for seven days and he’s starting a new school three time zones away in just over 24 hours!) Fortunately the water park shares consumerist recreational space with a bowling alley, a video arcade and a mini golf course and I inwardly laugh at just how quickly we’ve returned to the capitalist world as I pay for the same form off mini-golf than we were playing for free out in the desert.

But the Burning Man vibe follows us to the very end of an expedition in which nothing has really goes wrong all week. I discover that my Blackberry is out of juice and when I ask for a payphone, a security guard offers up his own cell phone so we can make a free call to Posie, tell her we’re back in the big cities, there’s been no asthma attacks, we’re safe and healthy and happy. We go out to the car to get something; two middle-aged couples who embody that middle-American conservative look see the playa dust on our car and ask us about our Burn; they’re thrilled that Campbell got to attend, friendly as American apple pie, eager to hear more details. As per the security guard, it’s evident that Burners leave a good impression on Reno – and, occasional errant trash dumping aside, why should they not? These are fine people I’ve spent the last week living with.

A few hours and one illicit shower later (thanks to the dude who risked his job to get us clean, I’d write more about it if I could), we are among dozens of Burners taking the red-eye to Houston. Several of us gather in the bar to enjoy a fresh draft beer after a week of luke-warm cans. I take great delight walking round, offering out my excess trail mix in the spirit of the Burn. It raises laughs, opens up conversations. A week ago, while waiting three hours at Houston on our way out to the desert, we’d barely exchanged more than eye contact with fellow Burners; now we’re all best friends, even though we’ve never been introduced.

The TV is set to VH1 Classics and a show called The Drug Years. As our flight is called, it switches to a segment on Ecstasy, which itself closes with a clip on Burning Man. The TV shows crowds of drug-addled youth wrestling in the mud, tripping their nights away on makeshift dancefloors, struggling helplessly to save their tents as the winds and dust storms tear them apart. The voiceover says something about how Burning Man is the natural culmination of the Ecstasy Generation and those of us in the bar shrug our shoulders. What may, just may have been true several years ago does not gel with our own experience; it’s become something else, something much bigger. I look at my fellow Burners, young and middle-aged alike, all of us tired, dirty and, yes, crusty, but all of us beatific, clearly enlightened and emboldened and renewed by our experience, and I want to apologize for ever being part of a mass media that disseminates this mis-information. But it’s alright. We know the truth of our own experience and that’s enough for us.

Welcome Home

Twelve hours, two flights and three hours driving later, Campbell and I pull up the driveway to our house. Our new house. Over the course of the week that is Burning Man, we have officially changed addresses. No longer holed up in the ski mountains of Greene County, we are now citizens of the hamlet of Mount Tremper in the town of Woodstock. The lady of the house, the toddler of the house and the house cat are all here to greet us. It’s a strange welcome, the oddest of house relocations. I had made the booking to Burning Man in large part because the pressure of building this house had found me forgetting the reasons I’d moved to the countryside, especially the majestic Catskill Mountains, to begin with. I took my son once I realized how much more I would enjoy it with his company. And here we are, suddenly in that new house, and though we are tired beyond belief and Campbell will be up at 6:30am to start middle school and I will sleep thirteen hours and right through that early start, we are also reinvigorated, and for my part, I know I have indeed reconnected with all the things I love about the human race, and I can apply what I have (re)learned to life in our new house. Our Burning Man neighbor had likened the event to her New Year, and she wasn’t wrong to imbue it with such significance. My first Burn marks more even than that: it has heralded, buffered and introduced a new stage in my life. We’re home.

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October 2021