I don’t think a lot of people know what Burning Man actually is. I certainly didn’t until I got out there. I had a vague idea, but no real grasp. Someone told me it was a music festival. Another person told me it was a mega hippie commune. A lot of people just think it’s about the drugs and the sex and the fire. Those are all kind of true, a bit, but here’s the best description of what it is: a pop-up, counter-culture, leave-no-trace, full-scale, fully functional city based on the concept of gifting as opposed to the exchange of money for goods and services. I’ll break that down for you.
A pop-up, (it only lasts for a week)
counter-culture, (lots of artists, hippies, nudists)
leave-no-trace, (no trash cans anywhere – if you brought it in, you took it out and you attempt to leave the desert in as pristine a condition as you found it)
full-scale, (58,000 people attended)
fully functional city (there were clearly marked streets and streetlights, there were toilets, there was an ambulance and fire department, there were policemen, there was an airport, etc.)
based on the concept of gifting as opposed to the exchange of money for goods and services (except for the Center Camp, where you could purchase ice and coffee, no money is allowed to be used – only gifting, and mostly people would be charitable and just do things for nothing in return)
Here’s a map of Black Rock City, as it is called, with some landmarks pointed out for you. This shape, called The Playa, is based on a clock. The spoke-streets are named after times, and the concentric circle-streets are letters of the alphabet, making it quite easy to navigate this rather large city. I stayed at 5:15 and J, for example.
Cricket and I, being from the East Coast, did not bring bikes with us, nor did we purchase super-cheap ones at the local Wal-Mart like many of the backpacking foreigners. We walked everywhere. We walked a lot, like six miles a day, which doesn’t sound like that much except you forget that you are in the desert and a fiery ball in the sky spends its entire day trying to burn you without any respite. In lieu of roasting your flesh directly, the flamey ball makes the temperature close to 100 degrees, and then there’s the dust. Oh dear Lord, the dust. I was in the elevator at work yesterday and someone had tracked a bit of mud into the elevator. The mud had dried to a light color and puffed around a little, so when I got into the elevator and looked down, I shrieked, like, “Dust! Are you following me?! Be gone with you!” I have post-traumatic dust disorder. Here’s the deal: the dust is dry and extremely powdery and light… and caustic. So when the wind blows, and sometimes the wind blows hard, this powdery nightmare gets all up in your face and your camera/car/electronic thing and ruins everything. Cricket and I had to take Claritin the whole time to keep from having violent sneezing fits. Here is a picture of Cricket and me hangin’ out in the tent. He looks moderately okay, I look like I lost a loved one recently. What is wrong with my face – my nose is sunburned, my eyes are all jacked up from the dust and my expression conveys that it’s 96 degrees and there’s nowhere to hide from the heat. It’s a real evocative expression.
Before I left New York, I conveniently forgot how much I truly hate being in the outdoors. That does not mean I hate nature, far from it. I donate a big ole chunk of my income to various environmental organizations. I love nature, I just don’t want to be out there, with the stupid chafey elements, and gnats. Oh, and bees, don’t forget bees! You know what my four elements are? The beautifully alliterate group of Air Conditioning, Carbs, Cable and Klonopin. That’s what I need to survive. I do not need the extreme environment of the desert. Cricket and I had planned to stay for three nights and three days, but we busted out of there the morning of Day Three which was a-okay by me. Granted, we missed the Burning of The Man, but we saw the burning of thirty-four other pieces of art so I feel like I got the sense of it. Also, super-bonus, it took us between 10 and 15 minutes to get to the highway. After the Man burns, so many people leave at the same time that that same drive takes EIGHT HOURS. EIGHT. SOMETIMES TEN. We ended up going up to Lake Tahoe for a day which was lovely, but we’ll get to that in a later blog entry.
Back to Burning Man: The gifting thing takes some getting used to. We arrived just as the sun was setting, so we quickly set up camp and started ambling around trying to get a sense of the place. As we walked down one of the roads, someone came up to us and said, “I make chili-pepper-infused vodka. Would you like to try some?” My initial reaction was to yell, “Stranger danger!” and blow a rape whistle, but this is a different world, a friendlier world. So we wandered over to this makeshift bar where the nice man gave Cricket the aforementioned vodka and I tried his homemade chocolate liqueur. And after saying thank you, we continued on our journey. That’s how things work out there. People either have a skill or a food or something and the act of sharing it with others is all the payment they require. When you first arrive, you’re given a book of the various things or activities offered at various camps. Here’s a sample:
Tissue and a Plan
Lost? Confused? Runny nose? We are dedicated to making sure no burner wanders the playa without a clear plan and a clean tissue. Available all week. Tissue and a Plan – 7:30 and Columbine.
Our goal for our Miso Soup Camp is to prevent electrolyte imbalance for Burners. We must eat salty food on the playa. Please bring your own cup. Miso Soup – Dandelion and 5:45
It’s Not Sleazy Being Green
Got nothing green going? Come ogle our Gray-B-Gon Evapotron! Learn to turn gray water into vapor and minimal waste. Get pumped to reproduce your own! Cartoon Commune – 7:30 Portal.
BRC Perimeter Run
Wanna run in the middle of nowhere? Meet on the north side of the Man at 7:00 a.m. for a group run along the BRC perimeter fence.
Recitation of the Lotus Sutra
Chanting of the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and Lotus Sutra. Join us to learn about practicing Buddhism and reveal your enlightened nature. All welcomed. Buddhacamp@TheLotusDome – Foxglove and 4:15
BYOC Hydration Station
Is your bottle/cup empty? Come fill it and hydrate from our booze-free jugs of tasty and varied beverages and sit awhile. Until supplies last. WhoofARTed? – Begonia and 9:15
In addition, in the book I found all these other things:
a confessional, singing telegrams (staffed by thousands of volunteers), a mini-film festival, welding and repair services, a dojo, a radio station, a bowling alley, a library, knot-tying classes, a wedding chapel, a gym, dance classes, an open stage, a karaoke club, foot massages, a skateboard park, woodburning (like the boy scouts do, with the patterns and whatnot), a clothing boutique, a daycamp for kids, figure-drawing classes, an ear/nose/throat clinic, hat and costume decoration and repair, giant Jenga, giant Twister, speed-dating, circus-arts classes, LED repair, AA meetings, glass-blowing, solar battery-recharging station, a barber shop, a marching band march-off, body-painting, improv class, drum circles, a family portrait studio, roller derby, pickling classes, and bronze bell-casting.
And, of course, I found quite a few things that were what I would consider very bad gifts. These people would not be getting a thank-you card. No sir.
Baseball is so much more exciting with fire! We have mitts and leather gloves to share, but bring your own if you can, and wear fire-safe clothing! !Zoom! – Esplanade and 7:15
Dr. Scrote’s Circumcision Wagon and Calamari Hut
Dr. Scrote, certified medical technician, offers fun and fast service, along with fresh ‘n’ tasty calamari rings. Hither and Yon – See Playa for Directory*
Invigorate your senses with Sriracha facials and massages while immersed in a kaleidoscope light show. Kaleidospice – Located within The Hive
Morning Coffee Enema
Enemas have been used for health and pleasure for thousands of years. Join us for our world-famous coffee & conversation Black Rock style. Since 2004. 9:00 and Iris – see Playa for Directory
Here’s the full list online if you wish to look at all of them.
Since Cricket and I are in a committed relationship we did not investigate any of the polyamory events, nor did I go to the women’s circle jerk (bring your own toy!) although, I won’t lie, I was tempted to saunter by and peek in because, hey, when are you going to see something like that again (“Do all those nice ladies have epilepsy?”) But I did not. Nor did Cricket or I partake in any fun substances of any kind because that really isn’t our bag. I came to see all the artwork and Cricket came to protect his investment (me). While it is near impossible to see every piece of art on display, I would say we did one hell of a job.
On the first night we headed down to the Man because it’s right in the center and I got to see a variety of the camps as I walked by.
As you can see, lights are incredibly important. There are lights on everything – you, your bike, your hat, your car, your tent, etc. It makes it look incredibly other-worldy, like a Bedouin Las Vegas. It’s really hard to take night-time photos because it’s extremely dim, so I apologize now for all the blurry shots forthcoming. It’s the best I can do.
If you watch the first 1:45 of this video, it gives you a much better sense of The Playa at night. Fascinating.
Tomorrow we’ll delve into some of the creative night pieces I got to see.
*Please, please be a joke or an art piece. Please.