Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 29, 2005 Burning Man: I arrive.

I’ve wanted to go to Burning Man for a long time. Or perhaps I should say that I’ve been aware of its existence for a long time, and felt it was so weird that I should check it out. So I organized my travels to get there this year.

Burning Man, for those of you who have never heard of it, is an annual festival – or free-for-all – held at the end of the summer in the desert of north western Nevada. According to legend – which I later learned was false – the event began when a San Francisco man, frustrated in love, invited his friends to a local beach where he burned a tall wooden effigy of a man. The truth, apparently, is that the creator of the burn was an artist who decided that building and then burning an effigy on the beach would be an interesting act of art. Perhaps the invention of the legend was a later act of art? In any case, Larry Harvey and his friends made it an annual tradition, and it grew to include increasingly large and unmanageable crowds. At some

point the event outgrew the San Francisco beach, and they moved to Black Rock Desert in Nevada, an area owned and managed by the US Bureau of Land Management. From there it grew to its present size, some 35,000 people, and became increasingly organized in order to cope with the numbers.

Anyone who has been to Burning Man will tell you that there are as many ways of experiencing and understanding the event as there are people who participate. For its creators and perhaps for the people at the core of running it now, it is first and foremost an arts festival. There is art there, mostly interactive sculpture that moves and lights up at night and invites viewers to climb it or push it around or ride it. And “art cars,” vehicles that have been turned into works of art driven across the desert, with lights flashing, music playing, and passengers dancing on the roofs or lounging on couches or perched on bar stools drinking as they cruise around. There were a few art bicycles as well, ones converted to fish or sperm or camels or giraffes. There is performance art as well, a twenty-four hour schedule of bands and musicians and poetry readings held on the stage of Center Camp, and all manner of goings elsewhere on the desert – or the playa, as it is commonly called.

Burning Man is also a community, a whole city in fact. Black Rock City, to be specific, with its own Rangers, Department of Public Works, Fire Department, Department of Mutant Vehicles, Health Department, and a real U.S. Post Office. For one week a year, Black Rock City is actually one of the largest cities in the state of Nevada. The city streets are laid out in a neat pattern, nine wide avenues in concentric circles crossed by arterials that run from two o’clock to ten o’clock. The innermost avenue is called the Esplanade, and the other eight are named in alphabetical order; this year they are Amnesia, Bi-polar, Catharsis, Delirium, Ego, Fetish, Gestalt, and Hysteria. (I camped at 7:30 and Fetish, with a group of other VW folks.) Where Amnesia crosses six o’clock the pattern is interrupted by a much smaller circle, in the middle of which is a large tent called Center Camp. Center Camp has performance areas, a café, lots of art, and lots of places to enjoy the shade and the passing scenery. At the center of the whole circle is The Man, the one who will be burned; he's just a dot in the photo below. There are no streets between ten o’clock and two o’clock, but where twelve o’clock would cross the Esplanade is the Temple, another structure to be burned. Beyond the temple - out to the left beyond the edge of the photo below - is a wide open area referred to as the Deep Playa, scattered with sculpture.

Surrounding the whole complex is an orange fence, which serves both to catch blowing trash – or moop, as it is called in Black Rock City, "material out of place" – and to keep people from entering without a ticket. One of the duties of the BRC rangers is to patrol the trash fence and catch would-be interlopers. The Bureau of Land Management also patrols the fence; I don't know what they're after.

In addition to being a city, Burning Man is, for some participants, a week-long frenzied costume party, filled with drugs, alcohol, sex, and nudity. Or such is its reputation, one that the organizers work hard to dispel in their efforts to control how the press presents the event. The nudity was obvious – though there wasn’t really very much of it – but I must admit that the drugs went right by me, as did much of the alcohol. And I assume the sex was largely in private, though I did occasionally see used condoms on the playa. Hey, at least they were using them!

As I drove to Black Rock City from Crater Lake, I could feel the event hovering in the air. In Klamath Falls, some two hundred miles away, I stopped to stock up on water. The man in the supermarket asked where I was headed with all that water, so I told him. Ah, he said, a group of burners had passed through earlier in the day and bought 130 gallons of water. As I crossed the state line from

Oregon into California I saw other vehicles heading my way. They were unmistakable; overloaded vans, trucks, and cars, with huge water jugs inside, bikes strapped to racks, piles of couches and chairs, and all kinds of crazy structures balanced on the roofs. The people were different too; guys with long hair, women with dozens of tight braids. No one looked like the local herders native to this corner of Oregon, California, and Nevada. In the gas station in Alturas, California, a friendly couple greeted me, “hey, we know you, you’re Joy!” They turned out to be on the VW BusCamp listserv, had seen my posts and checked my website. They were splurging on a motel that night, their last chance for showers and sheets. I headed on to Cedarville, where I camped for the night on the side of the road, and woke up to find myself alongside a glowing pasture at the base of a mountain. It was my last look at the quiet countryside before I plunged into the world of Black Rock City, though I didn't realize it at the time.

In the morning Cedarville was full of Burners buying gas, eating breakfast, dealing with vehicles that had given up the ghost on the Cedar Mountain Pass coming into town. I had breakfast with a group of folks from Seattle, one of whom had just moved from New Orleans and was anxiously tracking the hurricane warnings and the evacuation of her former home. I talked a bit to some of the locals about what they thought of all this. They were mostly very amused, and hoped to get to Burning Man themselves someday. Not quite what I expected – but then, I suppose the ones who can’t stand it aren’t hanging out chatting with the Burners, either. An hour down the road, I stopped in Gerlach, the town nearest Black Rock City, to buy gas and watch the scene. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the City; stopping en route to get a sense of the context seemed appropriate.

I arrived at Black Rock City itself in early afternoon, in the middle of total white-out. I knew that Black Rock Desert was renowned for its wind and dust, but I didn’t appreciate what that meant. My windows were open as I pulled in; first mistake! When I hopped out of the van to pick up my “will-call” ticket, my arms, legs and face were slapped with grit and dust, and I could hardly find my way to the window. Ticket in hand, I closed the windows – after the cows had gotten out, so to speak – and joined the line to get in to the City. Progress was slow. Each vehicle had to be inspected by the unfortunate volunteers caught out in the dust. Sporting goggles, turban-like scarves, and dust masks, they were coated in gray. They were pretty good humored about it, though, especially when I offered them my sopping towel to clean their faces. But I guess once you are totally coated with dust, it really doesn’t matter how much more flies in your face. The whole process stopped a few times when visibility dropped to nil, but eventually I got through the line and headed to 7:30 and Fetish to set up my home away from home at BusCamp.

Fortunately, I’d just seen the worst of the dust storms; nothing that the weather sent our way for the next eight days was as bad as the initial welcome!

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