I'd never heard of it until I went to this party at my friend Don's place. He had printed out the burning man info from the Web . Almost like a pad of paper it was so thick. Before I knew it, I had stopped deciding whether or not to go and I was trying to decide whether to take my bicycle along.
The village is designed to be a small self-sustaining community, with shops and places to visit and things to do. A security force, several radio stations, a newspaper, streets, and lots and lots of people.
The most amazing thing that I noticed was the almost complete absence of outside world commerciality. When you go to the Bay to Breakers, every sign, every piece of paper, everything, has some brand name of some huge corporation that contributed something for the privilege of blasting its identity on some surface so that large numbers of people will see it.
At Burning Man, nobody was selling Coke or Pepsi or, in fact, any commercial product. Vehicles and products that people brought had their brand names on them, but that was about it. No giveaways of free candybars that are covered with grainola so you think they are healty. No invasion of teeshirts or carrying bags from some corporation. No fly-over banner planes or blimps. Hand-made signs. Advertising was sold in the newspaper, but it was for camps and "businesses" at Burning Man only, and it was paid for by barter. This is a policy enforced by the organizers.
The location is the Black Rock Desert, an hour or two north of Reno Nevada. The playa (PLY-a) is a dried lakebed of cracked mud, offwhite in color, almost like potato chips cut to fit together like puzzle pieces. It goes on for miles in all directions and is very flat. The first vehicle that drives over the playa, unless it is slow and careful, breaks up the chips. Subsequent vehicles can kick up substantial dust.
The lake fills up part of the year. Over the centuries, the mud has been leveled as best the laws of fluid mechanics can do it. This leads to a unique space where you can look out and see for miles and miles in all directions. In my memories, I keep on visualizing certain places being downhill or uphill from each other, but none were.
The materials they sent me told of all sorts of wild events and camps.
For instance, Winter Wonderland Camp was where someone brought white fuzz cloth and little props to make it look covered with snow.
"Chaos Camp: Like to stay up late at night and make loud noises? Chaos awaits. Location: far out n the NE quadrantof our camp. How far out depends on how chaotic things get."
"Art Car Camp: Art Cars of all kinds will converge on our camp from every corner of the nation. You too can have an art car. Bring your vehicle to the Art Car Workshop and convert that ordinary clunker into a unique object of truth and beauty."
I decided, jokingly, that I wanted an art car. My old car was getting old and there was no way I was going to invest in getting it repainted properly. I bought a new car more than a year ago, but I couldn't bear to get rid of the old car - it was trusty and cheap and great for rugged situations where minor scuff marks and damage was not a problem. I'll probably drive it into the ground.
Some people ask me about the gender balance. Now think about it - which gender wants to go hang out in wilderness, spend a few days without a shower, and watch stuff burn for entertainment? Surprisingly, there were some women there, about one for every two men. HEY FEMALES, HEAR THAT?!?!!? THERE'S LOTS AND LOTS OF GUYS HERE SO COME BY NEXT YEAR FOR CERTAIN!!!
I drove up with Mike Shuster, who had some job working with the people outfitting the fireworks in The Man. He was going to rendezvous with them by watching for a bottle rocket they will shoot up at 11pm. We were supposed to arrive at about 7, but I'm not the most punctual person in the world.
So we arrived on the playa. We drove in the night through dustclouds, each following the one ahead. Miles. It was a good idea to not drive directly behind someone else; you couldn't even see them. This lead me to start fearing that somehow the path would evolve away from the right path. After not too long, however, we started seeing lights on the horizon; we drove to them. A cluster of tents and cars, more sparse on the edges.
Right as we pulled into camp, a bottle rocket went off. It was 11pm. This was the signal. We drove toward it and quickly Mike found his friends. They had already had quite a time. Someone made some remark about how someone touched some woman's breasts. There was a joke in there that I didn't get.
Making camp is a bit funny. Normally when you go camping, there's trees and little clearings, so each clearing is a campsight. On the playa, however, it's one big floor. Park your car anywhere. Your campsight extends out to the furthest scattering of your posessions.
After we got settled, Mike and I headed out to the center of the village. As we did, we were careful to note local landmarks that could be seen at night; most notably, two flags and a pole with a red and blue light at the top. Then we headed in.
We were invited to "Tiki Camp". It turned out to be a sortof barter saloon. Look for the palm tree props. All we had was a bottle of vodka. We cut a deal where they made some sort of blender ice drink for a bunch of people including us.
They had a stage and a band in the center of the village. Behind that was a cafe which was one of the few places to spend money.
I found the art car place. At nite it was a bit spooky. Nobody was around. There were already some cars there. I talked to a guy. He said to bring my car by and they'll take care of it.
There was this fast food place named McSatan's. A spoof on McDonalds. Never got any food there, but I think they cooked food sometimes. It might have been barter also, like you bring in food and they cook it.
There was this woman I met. She said "Wanna touch my breasts?" Not really knowing what to think, I answered what any red blooded american boy would have. She pulled away her jacket to reveal this plastic form of oversized breasts she had taped to her upper torso. So I got to touch them.
So Mike burned out at about 2am. I stayed around a few more hours and then tried to find my car. No luck. There were two high landmarks you could see at night: the radio tower, and the burning man itself (it was lit up with neon). I remember approximately how they looked when I left, but that narrowed it down to hundreds of cars and tents. Everything was dark. The red and blue lights had been turned off. The moon had set. The only time I could see anything was when a car turned its headlights at what I was looking at. This was true about half the time; people were still arriving and even light from two miles away made a difference.
I heard the beat of music in the distance. I followed the beat out into the desert. There were other people, and cars, making this trip, in either direction. I had heard about this place: the Rave, a place to go dancing late. The distance was enormous. You walk the distance there, but you only got about half way. So you keep on walking, and it seems to receed as you approach it.
I finally got there. Some scaffolding and a dj playing music that never stopped. Props hanging from the scaffolding, blowing in the desert breeze. No drinks, no services, just music and people. I danced and napped and watched the sun rise. In the light, I walked back and finally found my car.
So, I guess I should do the art car thing. "Look, this is pretty weird. Are you sure you want to do this?" A car like that is not exactly the vehicle of choice for a first date. But I had another car that was good for a first date. I packed up everything and drove over to the art car kamp. Nobody was awake yet so I had to find something to do.
There were two people nearby talking about a footrace. Apparently it was going to happen in a half hour; assemble under The Man.
I signed up. The guy running it had apparently contacted Runners World magazine and had gotten official-looking number tags to wear on our shirts. This was the only promotion I saw in the whole weekend. Those who were running naked were instructed to write their numbers on their ankles rather than attach the number tags with the supplied safety pins.
They took us out into the desert in a truck. Way out. They figured that if they had us running away to a distant place we couldn't even see, it would take the rest of the day just to round us up, so instead they trucked us out three or four miles away, and had us run towards the village, which we could see. The finish line was under The Man himself. I had heard about the heat of the day, but I had arrived at night, so I wasn't exactly sure what to expect.
From that distance, everything is a speck on the horizon. The whole camp was dots along the horizon. Nothing had height, not even the four story Man. As we ran, the sun climbed out from behind the clouds it was hiding behind, and the radiation began in earnest. You know I'm used to running along a trail with landmarks so I know each location along the way. But nothing was stopping me from running in an entirely different direction - it was miles in all directions to the nearest object that would present the most minimal of obstructions. Suddenly, I was running. And running and running. The crowd had scattered into the fast and the slow. I'm not a particularly good runner. No immediate danger, hey, there's several other people in the race, and the truck is stopping every mile or so for water. But I knew that if they all disappeared, if suddenly I was transported two weeks later, in the same place at the same time of the day, I would be out of luck and would really have to depend on my wits and my ability to walk miles and miles before I could wet my lips and put on some suntan lotion. And the way it was, its flatness, you could walk for miles and miles, and it still looks like you're at the same place. And the sun was scorching like a laser beam, a beam that was so wide it covered the whole playa. And we were running, panting, to get to the finish line.
It hurt, you know the hurt in your collarbone?
I finished in the middle of the pack. We all congratulated each other, even the late stragglers. Prizes were awarded for the top ten. I think I was number eleven. It was 10am; I had been at Burning Man for only 11 hours.
The guy who did the Art Car Camp himself, Tom Kennedy, had a car that was a huge shark (see back of my car, or else check out the art car web site ). There also was a distinctive car that was a VW bus with two huge shark fins coming out of the top, each aligned with a wall of the bus. But the best art car was this one van that looked like it had a huge insect draped along the top of it, with legs oozing out to the sides. After a minute you realize that the bug on top is made from the body of a VW beetle. You have to see it, it's wild. The people inside had some story about driving around the country; the concept of a job or source of income didn't appear to make sense to them when I inquired.
Tom described the process. This is a workshop. They would help me paint my car; they don't do it themselves. They have paint, brushes, cleanup stuff. Oh, and I should solicit people to help me. Some other people were there to help me out; it wasn't clear what affiliation they had, they were just people. This one woman, named Penny Smith, helped me pick out a theme, so it wouldn't be just random junk. Then they all left me alone. They all went off with the people in the next camp, who were the Disgruntled Postal Workers. They all had real USPS uniforms. I think they went off to the Drive-By Shooting Range. Something like that.
My theme was equations, chemical structures, and code snippets, and, well, maybe anything scientific or technical.
So I started painting a few formulas. The brush was old and not very good, the paint had partly dried in the can, and I really didn't like the job I did. The paint was running in places, and I'd wipe it, and the wipe would go all over the place. After about an hour or two, I decided to stop and consider what I was doing. Actually, I felt like erasing everything and forgetting the whole thing, but it was too late for that.
Then, people started to come back. Penny helped me out. She just started asking people if they wanted to paint something. About half the people she asked, did so. These were just random people who happened to be milling about around lunchtime near the center of camp. Soon there were about a half dozen people painting things on my car, in different colors, and all I had to do was to make sure they didn't paint something like a pig wearing a police uniform. I plan to continue using this car, you know. Maybe not for first dates.
It was amazing what these people came up with. Some of them knew nothing about science and just painted what they wanted. Some of them had PhD's in biochemistry and were afraid to commit to a chemical structure because they thought that maybe they'd misplaced a nitrogen. I decided that it was better if there were mistakes in it. Some people just wrote error messages or other cryptic statements from computer systems they knew. There's things on there that I'll never understand; the people who painted them are gone, lost in the crowd. I decided that this car wasn't so much a cheat sheet or a reference text, it was a description of what science and technology looks like to people. Formulas have mistakes. Never is it entirely comprehensible, by anyone, even the owner.
While I was there getting painted, Don and Ann, my friends, arrived. Don took me around the corner and showed me a red flag. "That's where our campsite is." He said he had some sort of red four wheel drive, not his usual car.
So the paint had dried reasonably well and I drove my car out to get to where Don's camp was. I drove around the corner, and looked toward the red flag that Don had showed me. To my horror, there were about twenty red flags of different kinds visible, above the crowd of tents and vehicles that could be seen. Square flags, triangular flags, flourescent orange flags. In addition to several random red flags, there was a whole encampment surrounded by red flags. This must have been the largest assembly of red flags in the whole village.
I drove around looking for Don and Ann. I looked for their red vehicle. Didn't know what to look for because I had never seen it before and I had forgotten the brand. Had never seen their tent, either. I drove around looking for red 4x4s, looking at the people. Some campsites had no people in them. Guess they took off for the day. Maybe THAT one is Don's. No, over there. Some of them had people who were wearing big hats, or sunglasses, because the sun had come out in full force by now. I've never been camping with Don before, I usually meet him at night, don't know what he looks like with a big hat on, probably like anybody else.
Meanwhile, I was afraid to drive it around too much; I didn't want to pick up too much dust in the fresh paint.
So I was looking at people, hoping for a look of recognition back. That's it, Don would recognize my car. "Yeah, you, I know you. Here, this is where you're supposed to be, right here." That's what Don's look would say. Unfortunately, I now was driving an art car. EVERYBODY was looking back with a look of recognition on their faces. "Hey, cool car, man!" People would call out to me, congratulate me. Some were the people who painted on the car. Many were people who looked like Don or Ann at first glance. Don was nowhere to be found. I was famous and I really didn't want to be famous. I couldn't believe it.
I finally found them when I was driving around. Actually they found me. They led me back to the camp. Finally I had a place to call home.
So I parked my car and started settling in. I cooked some food that really needed to be cooked and we had lunch. There were clouds over the playa. I thought this was desert. Maybe this is desert. Maybe it's normal for there to be clouds along the edge of the lakebed and swirls and what is that? People said it was rain in the distance. Maybe they heard it on the radio. Streams coming down from clouds. I decided to set up my tent.
We had everything under a tent or a tarp when the storm hit. It came up pretty quickly. Suddenly, instead of rain, it was a duststorm. The wind was blowing really hard. People's stuff was being blown away from their campsites. You know you just set your stuff down on the ground because nothing is moving, and a half hour later, it's all someone else's stuff, and your stuff is scattered over a quarter mile swath starting at your campsite. But you can't get it now. Sand was everywhere and it was impossible to see. I dove into my tent. Even inside my tent, there was dust blowing around.
So I came out of my tent, stuck my head out while the duststorm was going on. Don had taken cover. Ann was there laughing, tangled up in the cords and nylon of their tent. She must have gone and visited the Tiki Camp. The wind had died down enough for Don and I and some neighbors to untangle Ann just in time for the rain to hit. It didn't last long, but was intense while it was going on.
The storm had been amazing. All loose lightweight objects had been blown into some other campsite, then wetted and rolled in white dust so it blended in with the playa. I was thinking for a monment that this was some preplanned socialist scheme to redistribute possesions among the participants. Nawwww.
The sun dried everything up in about an hour.
There were lots of fireworks all over the place, most of which were not officially sanctioned. Heck, there was no office to sanction stuff like that. That night, we went to this band that made a big deal about how they were going to torch some stuff. So they spent all this time on the buildup and then they took so long everyone was piseed and we were all throwing matches at it to start it off early and yelling at them. So finally they lit it and it didn't burn well so it sortof sucked. Right when it started to burn, suddenly it started to rain. Like mad. We all ran back home, but by then the rain had stopped. I ended up changing clothes. Don and Ann went to the rave.
I slept. Too tired from the nite before. More stars than you have ever seen before, the biggest possible sky above your head.
So Sunday morning, I got this idea that I wanted to go on a bike ride with Ann's mountain bike. When you have a bicycle there, it's so liberating. It's so much easier to traverse the distances. There looked like a storm might be coming, so I left quickly to avoid it.
But not quickly enough. I took a spin around the village, but about half way through, it started raining seriously. Suddenly the playa surface became slippery mud. Well, hey, I'm doing this for physical fitness, right? So I decided to just fight it, I switched to a lower gear and struggled. It was a completely different game riding a bike under those circumstances, and I was getting into it, but that's when the hail started. I quickly ran to someone's tarp; they let me stand under it despite the fact that I was drenched and muddy.
The soil of the playa assumes a myriad of forms. After the rain stopped, it became muddy clay. Not only could I not ride the bike, I couldn't even walk it. Every rotation of the wheels would add another quarter inch of offwhite mud. The excess would be scraped onto the forks. The caliper brake areas were huge globs of mud with cables sticking out. The back wheel was frozen.
I finally found that it was easiest to drag the bike back to camp, letting both wheels slide sideways in the mud, while grabbing the seat to pull by. When I got back to camp, we were trying to pick the mud off the bike. Don actually found a CD stuck in the mud in the back tire. That's a normal sized CD; someone down the way had a bunch of them as part of their theme camp and one had gotten buried in the tire.
Here we were in the desert. It was hot, the sun was beating on all exposed surfaces in full brilliance. But it was raining at the same time. I looked up and sure enough, straight up was a dark rain cloud, and off to the side, the sun was blazing.
Navigation was always a problem. It was not unusual to spend a half hour finding your campsite, especially at night. You would remember where your camp was by noting landmarks. In normal camping, you notice characteristic trees, bushes or rocks, none of which move. None of these are available on the playa. Instead there are tents, cars and flagpoles. Tents are erected and removed. Cars are driven away or moved. Flagpoles change their flags.
As time went on, more and more people were arriving. Since a street was nothing more than a space between two campsites, new people would end up camping in the middle of them, changing the neighborhood layout.
Even the Man himself, one of the most prominent icons in the sky day or night, and essential for finding your bearings, was eventually burned, and it disappeared from the sky.
Order did not come until I used a compass and got a reading off of the main radio tower and navigated home that way every time. Just getting the angle from the radio station was enough; I could get to my campsite from any direction.
The radio station was bizzare. Actually there were several; it's the ideal place for weak pirate fm stations. Gone are the usual FCC regulations or even typical societal restraints. Imagine Live 105 or KALX with no FCC restricting it and no requirement to be profitable, correct, constructive or even polite.
So sunday night came and they had the celebration to burn the man. It wasn't nearly as spectacular as I had anticipated. The left arm never really caught fire and they eventually pulled it down. It was pretty weak. Then they burn this other thing that's some sort of sculpture inspired by sex organs. That was OK. There was lots of other fireworks and stuff around. I guess some people just show up Sunday day for this - I think they missed out on most of the fun.
So we end up in this place that's like a typical SF niteclub. Instead of a back wall, there's some scaffolding to make it look the same. Everything looks like a disorganized mess, but music is blasting and people are up on the floors of the scaffolding. They don't even look like musicians, they're just throwing out drumsticks. They're throwing drumsticks into the audience, sometimes one at a time, sometimes handfuls.
So at first I didn't really want to get too into this, someone might get hurt by a flying drumstick. But I ended up with a drumstick in my hand, and everyone was beating theirs. There was a big piece of rusted wreckage in front of us, I don't know what other people were beating their drumsticks against, there was metal stuff and wood stuff there and just stuff to bang against.
And as the crowd made the music, it all made sense to me. This drumstick, it wasn't some musical instrument. It was THE musical instrument. It was the first musical instrument ever, and was so fundamental to a human that he must do it. Other instruments are needlessly complicated and distracting.
It wasn't a musical instrument. It was a metaphor. A man's daily bread, one slice a day. His chopsticks, which he eats with. His car, which he drives with. One bath a day. One shit a day. The chair he sits in. The shirt he wears on his back. A boy and his dog. A farmer and his plow. A lumberjack and his axe. A carpenter and his hammer. A barber and his scissors. A knight and his sword. A cook and his rolling pin. A soldier and his rifle. The power of one human making its own music, not dependent upon any central music facility, the music speaks for the human because the music comes from the human.
Well, ok, so I had two drumsticks in my hand, and most everybody else did too. And nobody was taking baths in the desert this weekend. But I had a nice time.
I couldn't sleep that night. As the sun was coming up, I decided I had one last chance for a great bike ride. And, if you don't sleep, you have lots of time for other activities.
I decided I'd had enough of this infinite desert thing. I wanted to get to the bottom of the issue. Or, the side I guess. So I took the bike out and rode and figure I'd ride and ride until I got to the edge.
So I rode and rode. And I rode and rode. And I could see the mountains getting bigger. Sortof. You can see playa with maybe a few tire tracks immediately in front of you. But the land goes off into the distance, then you see these mountains rise up from the horizon. But you think you can see how far away it is, it's just over there, so you keep on riding.
But I was used to it by now. You cover what you thought was the distance, but you're still far away. It was a bit scary, sortof like, how much more effort am I going to invest in this? It's just going to take that much longer to come back. But look, it's just over there, not much farther.
So, you cover what you thought was the distance, but you're still far away. It was a bit scary, sortof like, how much more effort am I going to invest in this? It's just going to take that much longer to come back. But look, it's just over there, not much farther.
It wasn't hard to cover what I thought was the distance, but I was still far away. It was a bit scary, sortof like, how much more effort am I going to invest in this? It's just going to take that much longer to come back. But look, it's just over there, not much farther.
It wasn't hard to cover what I thought was the distance, and then I saw the mountains converge to the playa, and I could see land that wasn't playa, actually some wet spots, a bit of grass. Nothing exciting. But it was good to reaffirm that the playa was in fact finite.
That morning, there wasn't much else to do but pack up and go home, so that's what we did. Say goodbye until next year! Back to Allan's Web Site.
1996, the year after