Burning Man Festival, September 3 - 6, 1993.
"People are the best part of nature" - Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy
"No Spectators" read the 30 - foot banner hanging across the central part of the campsite. 7 hours out from San Francisco, we (me & my wife and our almost-kindergarten daughter) had reached the site of the Burning Man festival, out in the featureless middle of the endless mudflat that is Nevada's Black Rock Desert. It was late Friday afternoon. Scattered loosely around the 100-yard central "square" were everything from pup tents to RV's to a fancy old bus with a satellite dish on top. The only pattern to the situation was provided by the neat clumps of portapotties a couple hundred yards to the north, west, and south. This was a true TAZ, with very little infrastructure besides the installations, costumes, vehicles, fireworks, and, of course, *water*, brought by the participants. The attitude towards nature was less reverential than one might have felt in a smaller group; not too messy, certainly not much waste going on, but we were the humans, and we were thre to play with our toys and each other. The setting was a tad harsh to lead one to think too much of harmony with the All. To be honest, the heat and emptiness created more of a dialogue or call-and-response with "nature" than a soothing featureless harmonic hum. The Black Rock Gazette, the onsite newletter, proclaimed: "There are no spectators here, only particpants. No audience, only palyers. Here on this sere and desolate plain, our community springs form the desert floor like a strange and beautiful mushroom, a postmodern Brigadoon in an ancient wasteland. Its name is whatever you name it. Its wealth is whatever you bring. Next week it will be gone, but next week might as well be never. You are here now." And all 900 of us lived up to it, mas o menos, and made the festival a place where off-duty religion and untamed theatre could meet out back for a smoke and maybe a round or two of Graham Cracker. We were there to burn the genderless Man, a 40-foot high wood frame construction festooned with neon tubing and fireworks. Why? " If we didn't destroy him, we wouldn't have to make him again." said Larry Harvey, alleged instigator of this custom which started on Baker Beach some years ago and has been a desert festival for 3 or 4 years now. What followed was a wonderfully wrought combination of chaos, planning, and spontaneity. The festival included a number of fun rituals, for example, the Sunday predawn Java Cow Ceremony, where a cow-thing miraculously yielded coffee: "we'll take it black!", responded the parishoners. Saturday night, 24 hours before burning the man, there was a lesser burning, of a mud-covered spiral sculpture a short ways away. I got to be a torch-bearer, swinging fire around, missing people's heads. Several ceremonies were held at the Dog Head, the 20-foot plastic doggy that once adorned the Doggy Diner, including sets by Mudwimmin and Three-Day Stubble. Some folks from the Cacophony Society ( 415-663-0351 ) held a Christmas party, complete with eggnog and misteltoe, 95 Farenheit, humidity zero. Some stuff that had been advertised before the festival never materialized, such as a Friday night potluck, a baking workshop, and a quilting something-or-other. But then, the "cafe", which was nothing more than a shade tent in the middle of the camp, took on a bit more form on Saturday, as a esspresso truck form Davis showed up for business, and another guy set up a taco and beer stand. I did my volunteer bit by personing the information table, which meant I tried to start rumors ( "a motorcycle club from Houston is coming up here to practice Sumerian rituals and eat acid-laced beef" ) and spread any that came my way, as well as pointing various arriving techies towards the two busses which seemed to contain audio and visual and pyro equipment of various sorts. My table-mate was glad to be in a gathering of folks from both ends of Cali where we could be free of SF vs LA rivalry. "It's great here, people can be so equal" she exulted. "It doesn't matter what kind of car you drive". Of course, being out in the wilds was big fun in itself. We went to a hot spring about 8 miles away, navigating there basically by pointing the car between two mountains and flooring it. It was a big plastic-lined trench near a railroad, very warm at one end, too hot at the other. We smeared mud on ourselves, swam, and almost convinced some other mud bathers to "stay away from that part over there, we stepped on a ribcage." Afternoons were spent in whatever shade could be found, drinking water, eating melons, and drinking more water, but the heat actually wasn't uncomfortable. Dust was a bit of a problem, but it didn't cause any distress really, no sore throats or sneezing. The windstorms on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon were pretty obnoxious, with tents getting blown over and stuff. My daughter didn't like the windstorms at all, but she came up with great ideas for holding down the tents with various large objects :) There was a wide range among the participants, both in degree of involvement and degree of camping experience. Aside from the freakout that mmetz reported, and one real sloppy daytime drunk, it seemed like people helped each other out, traded food, etc, pretty well, and there was certainly much less random rowdiness and stoopidity than at yer basic state park. We hooke up with some friends that we'd cajoled into coming and saw several more people that we hadn't seen in a while. As the weekend went on, the organization of the event became a bit more apparent. The "Black Rock Rangers" really did kind of roam the nearby desert and guide lost people home. And the pyrotechnical stuff was kind of professional. The large "events" seemed planned; but it seemed possible for anyone to pull any kind of stunt they desired, and to recruit whomever wanted to join. Such things, of course, start more easily when there's some pre-existing clumps of people to snowball around. For my money, these tongue-in-cheek ritual tacked together from a rummage sale of old jokes and genuine archetypal stuff like fire, dancing, bathing, and drumming, made for a lot more spirituality than any museum-like reconstruction of Native American, Celtic, Sumerian, or whatever cultural borrowing happens to be chic among alienated urbanites. ( Nothing against Native Americans, Celts, or Sumerians, I'm just not one of 'em ). Unabashed clowning made for a genuine carnival, a true holy-day for what the Subgenii called "inherently bogus religion". The Burning Man Festival spoke to me as being truly of my postmodern, eclectic, culture, a veritable Rio Grande of whatever meaning one's heart desired. It was serious fun, "serious" in the sense of demanding some effort and commitment in even getting there, and better yet in having a shtick; "fun", well, if wearing odd costumes and dancing and shrieking around a huge bonfire with firecrackers going off isn't your idea of fun, well, you jes' don' eat chicken on Sunday. Religion Lite, perhaps, but I'd call it a true affirmation of humanity, given the comparative absence of other species and the age old significance of fire as monkeyfella's first serious attempt to lift naturebuddy by the scruff of the neck and shake till there's a snap. Made me feel real anyway. he actual burning was everything one might hope for. First a formal cocktail party in the central area, with tuxedoes, drag, mud, naked bodies, and LL Bean all glittering in the blood-red sunset. Then a few dozen volunteers raised the man to standing position by hauling on a rope. Then the whole festival formed a procession, torches, drums, and all, out to the man, an eight of a mile away. Heat lighting played in the mountains. The expectant crowd grew ever more expectant ;+). The lowering sky darkened. The lightening grew more frequent, until we were surrounded, at least 300 degrees. Once night had truly fallen, the neon was turned on, and the man stood in its glory, glowing blue against the mountans, now barely visible. A few minutes later, and its arms were raised up. Then the torches were applied, and the man went up in flames. The neon failed on one limb, then another, and fireworks went off throughout the man. A little while more and he crashed to the ground. The crowd moved in a little, as people formed a dancing circle around the burning wooden carcass. Young men leaped over some glowing ribs. "Why they doin' that?" asked my daughter. "Because they can", I replied. Lightning probed the rising smoke, and the very air started to move. After fifteen more minutes of hanging around this festive scene, my daughter had had enough. It was Time To Go To The Bathroom, on the other side of the festival. As we walked, we felt the first drops of rain. Then the rain quit and the squalling Baby of All Windstorms roared into being. Resisting a contrarian urge to pee into it, we found shelter in the portapotty, and started back to the tent. The wind got windier, the dust, dustier. We had to stop, couldn't see, and soon enough got back by dead reckoning. It was pouring rain as we entered the tent. But the rain got no rainier, and after an hour or so it stopped. Serious rain might have made the mud impassable, but all that really happened was some tents and other stuff blew away, and some peopl had to take shelter with strangers or their cars, for a little while. I remained in the tent for the night, since I didn't ant to leave while there was any chance of the storm cropping up, and besides, it would have been hard to top what had happened, anyway. Nature sure chimed in, as if to say very gently, in response to all our incohate energy, "mess with me, and I can mess with you too, buddy". On the way home the next day, we stopped at Pyramid Lake to rinse off the dust and sulfur in the nice cool agricultural runoff. Then lunch at The Nugget casino in Sparks, just for cultural balance. But as drove down the Western Slope towards home, we saw a real life piece of a rainbow floating in the thin overcast clouds. "God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, the fire next time". Somehow this divine irony seemed a little late.