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Published: September 9th 2010
Burn Baby Burn
I just finished an epic journey into the high, dusty Black Rock desert of Nevada to be a part of the the most amazing festival in the world. I'm talking Burning Man 2010 - Metropolis. Over 50,000 people and 10,000 RVs made the annual pilgrimage to the playa - the largest dry lake bed in North America that no one would want to live in for more than a few days. The playa could be considered one of the largest beach parties in the world but there isn't any water and the sand is replaced by fine clay silt - dust - that blows up into huge cyclones and blinding storms.
What is amazing about the event is the absurdity of it. Out in the middle of the perfectly flat desert that stretches for tens of miles in each direction, a city erupts for a week every Labor Day like a beautiful cactus bloom. There aren't any cactii or any other plants on this forbidding piece of property - only artists, wackos, engineers and pretty people. I often felt like it was a night club with 50 bars spread across the desert. Then it was a
beach scene, then a nudist beach, then a rave. It is hard to describe because it is so many things.
It is known as Black Rock City (BRC) and does offer about any experience that you want. Watch movies, listen to live music, drink coffee, meditate, kite surf. It was all available for free. The only thing you could buy after getting in the gate was the coffee and ice. Everything else is based on the gifting economy. Groups of people form camps and offer all kinds of free services or products.
Why would 50,000 people go out into the dusty desert in late summer?
Radical Self Expression...
That's what the website (www.burningman.com/) says and that is what you get.
One of the many forms of expression is in the zany costumes that people wear or take off. Fur is a very popular costume, but skin is also in. Nudity is a big part of the event and it wasn't like the nude beach in San Francisco (which means gay beach) that I'd just been to with my brother Eric. Fortunately, many beautiful young ladies like radically expressing themselves by taking off most or
Entrance to the Playa
You can barely see the playa in the background.
all of their clothes. This simple act of self expression cleanses their souls in a sign of rebirth. Nudity offers freedom from the binding bra. But sunbathers beware. The desert sun is brilliant and sunburnt breasts were common - just ask Janet. Sometimes, the best costume is no costume at all.
I did bring quite a few costumes for the event and wore different ones every day. I'd just bought my new surfer dude wig from the Lady Gaga show (more to come on that event soon) and got many compliments on how it suits my face well - let me know if you agree. My Portuguese friends had given me a wrap-on priest's collar that was an integral part of many of my costumes. The surfer dude wig with the priest's collar was my favorite costume, but I also liked the purple velvet trench coat with knee high purple socks and my Surfing Monkey underwear that Grace bought me. I have to admit that I like dressing up and this was a great place to do it.
Another form of expression was the art cars. I would definitely like to make one of these when I go
back because they can protect you from the dust and help you get around the vast expanse of the playa. I have some interesting video of one mutant vehicle that was in the form of a big rabbit. See that here:
The Mutant Vehicles (MVs) ranged from motorized bicycles to semi trailers. People would convert riding lawn mowers into cat cars or chevy trucks into a colosseum on wheels. From floating couches to 100-person yachts, the variety of MVs was immense. We (Janet and I) rode in one art car known as the Big Katuna which sat about 20 people and was in the shape of a big tuna. We talked to the captain who had commissioned the car to get into Camp Tuna. We rode around for quite a while in the car and had a good laugh.
Before Burning Man, I'd been staying with Janet and Dave in Hollister, CA. Janet was interested in going but didn't think she could afford to take the time off to go to he event. On Tuesday, she found out her boss wasn't going to be in town over Labor Day week, so she decided to join me
Janet with Playa Cow
Right above Janet's head is the MAN.
after a late night drinking session. She had wanted to go to Burning Man since the 80s when it started. She called on Tuesday night at midnight and decided to join me. She packed all night and headed out to Reno at 7am. We were on the road and she was at Burning Man within 24 hours of deciding to go. We heard lots of stories like this.
Burning Man is quite a production. The festival broke the 50,000 person barrier for the first time this year. Each person pays from between $160 (if you're a local) to $360 if you're a walkin like my friend Janet. If they averaged $250/person, that's a budget of $12.5 million. They are probably making quite a bit of money off this, because they provide minimal services beyond the outhouses scattered throughout the camp and scarce security. The main thing they provide is art. They sponsor or commission art work across the playa and burn most of it up throughout the week.
Blow Baby Blow
The first burning event we saw was the world's largest fire ball. Way out on the playa, some pyros set off a huge fireball that went
hundreds of feet into the air.
The second burning was the of the mocked up city of Megalopolis. They constructed the facades of 4 buildings and started blowing up the pyramid first. First they had fountains shoot out of some of the windows then various fireworks lit the buildings on fire. Then another fireball lit another building on fire. Next some magnesium flares lit another building on fire. Soon, Megalopolis was burning at full force as you can see in the video. It was awesome seeing the city burn and fall into rubble.
At least a few thousand people had gathered to watch Megalopolis burn with a line of art cars on the perimeter. Janet and I turned to ride our bikes back into center camp when we got hit with our first dust storm. It had rained Monday night and the dust had been rather mild until this storm blew in our faces on Friday night. I hadn't brought my goggles, but I did bring a scarf and stuck it in my mouth and tried to breat through that. Visibility was maybe 50' when the winds picked up again and we could barely see 5' in front
of us. We were stuck a long ways out on the playa and had heard that the storms could last hours. We had to go on. We couldn't see where we were going and had to walk our bikes against the wind and towards the techno music that thumped from camp 24 hours a day.
After about 30 minutes, we made it back to camp where the dust wasn't quite so bad. The open playa was an unforgiving place, but the camps and RVs provided a decent wind break. When we got back to the RV, we were covered in dust as can be seen from one picture. My eyebrows had a frosting of silt that made me look like an old man from a parade.
Most of Saturday, the winds kept blowing and we didn't dare go back on the playa but did make it into center camp. I was in my priest costume and had brought some squirt guns. I indiscriminately started shooting holy water at unsuspecting revelers. Many found it relieving to get a cold splash of water and many asked for more. I gave people wet T-shirts, wet thongs or wet breasts - whatever
This picture is for Kate.
they wanted. Kids didn't seem to like it much though and others complained that we should ask before we shot. We squirted a couple of gallons of water before the sun was going down and we decided to get ready for Burning Man.
Luckily, the winds had died down by the time of the Burn. Everyone went out onto to playa to see the main event. When we got in place, the winds did pick up again and dust was blowing over our heads and to our backs. They set off a string of fireworks and had a pretty good fireworks finale by the time they started lighting the 4 story structure that the burning man stood atop. The electric wires that fed his neon outlines soon burnt through and he began burning in earnest. I think the winds were blowing hard enough that the flames blew sideways and didn't light the man on fire as much as they wanted. It took probably 20 minutes to burn the whole structure enough so that it fell down under it's own weight. The destructive power of fire was impressive and the fire burnt all night. I took some video of Janet
going into the mosh pit that formed around the flaming remains of the man.
The next day, we rode our bikes into the cooler playa and sifted through the remains of the man. I collected some ceramic plugs and some nails as mementos. We rode around the playa and I got some more pictures of the artwork out on the playa - including Bliss in the day. Bliss was a 40' naked lady statue that was most people's favorite. At night, art cars would park in front of it and blast rave music all night. She'd be lit up from the inside with all kinds of colors and was a beautiful sight to behold.
I finally hooked up with some of Carina's friends on Sunday. Jean Marie was the leader of the Swinging Sausages camp which was made up of mostly French men who lived in the Bay area. This was their day of service to the community and what they do every year on Sunday is make a bar out in the middle of the playa near the smoldering remains of the burnt man. They'd done this a few times and in a matter of minutes they
This photo takes me back to the 4th of july celebrations at Chris's.
constructed a bar with a killer sound system. The first song they played was a remix of the Kansas classic of Dust in the Wind - very appropriate.
They were serving Mojitos, Gin and Tonics and a few other choice drinks. People wandering the playa started dropping in for their free drinks and enjoying the music. Everyone stopped to watch a big dust cyclone blow across the playa. One lady danced while we all watched with amazement - check out the video. The cyclone was a precursor to the dust storms that soon blew into the bar. I put on my goggles and scarf, but I couldn't handle the dust for more than one large mojito. I went home - defeated by the dust.
Janet and I were pretty burnt out after that and were tired of battling the elements. Janet's throat was bothering her and we ditched the temple burn on Sunday night. The temple was another structure that they burn on Sunday night is the grand finale. People wrote things on the walls as tributes to things they had lost or were giving up. Burning Man does have a spiritual aspect to it and the whole
This car shot flames out of each of the seven dragon heads. I would make a car like this that could protect you from the dust.
setting is very moving to most people. I did some meditations and studied EFT in one camp that offered many spiritual speakers a chance to convert the heathens to higher principles.
Most people say that you can't fully understand BRC unless you're there. Words can't describe the place and I can't claim that I've covered even a fraction of what goes on their in one bizarre week. How the creator of Burning Man - Larry Harvey - chose the Black Rock Desert for the event is crazy. BRC is a tribute to the adaptability of man and the triumphs that we can achieve. To turn the forbidding desert into a playground for a few days is a testament to what man can accomplish.
Exodus from the Desert
One reason we didn't go the the temple burn was that we were getting up at the crack of dawn to depart before the traffic got bad. We heard horror stories about 4 hours of stand-still traffic to get back to the main road. I woke up at 3am and found out that my cell phone was working. I called Grace and told her how much I loved her since
I hadn't been able to talk to her for 5 days. They activated the cell phones towers intermittently for some reason.
Janet and I finished packing and were on the road at first light - about 5:30. Traffic was pretty light until we reached a bottleneck about 1/3 of a mile from the highway. Lanes were converging into one and we waited for about 45 minutes before we reached the highway. By 7:00 we were in the town of Gerlach and were held up by traffic from a stop sign.
We followed one truck that was pulling a trailer whose load was shifting. It looked so unstable that I held back and sure enough something fell out in a big cloud of dust. I couldn't see what had fallen off and swerved the RV into the other lane and avoided a mattress that became visible as the dust faded. About a mile down the road, I saw the truck pull over and realize that he hadn't tied down the load very well.
About 30 minutes later in the town of Nixon, some native Americans were offering an RV cleaning service. For $60, they power washed the dust
This couple brought in a tea set and served us tea. It was very high quality Taiwan tea that he said was fertilized with milk.
off the RV, truck and bikes. That saved me a lot of time and I almost got the three slides out before the battery in the RV died. I don't know why the battery was dead, but I was able to hook my new generator up to the RV and bring in the slides. When I'd pulled into the parking lot where they did the cleaning, I'd bottomed out the RV and ripped off an aluminum trim piece from the bumper. I screwed that back into place and we were soon back on the road. I was glad that I didn't rip another leveling jack off the back like I did the week before. I'll backtrack to that story next time.
We took another couple hours to get to Reno and back into civilization. The next task was to clean the inside of the RV. Janet is an industrial hygienist and oversaw of the containment of the dust inthe RV. I did a dust rinse of many of my clothes, lawn chairs, window screens and squirt guns while Janet washed the dishes, vacuumed the carpets and mopped the floors. We spent several hours trying to get the dust back
This guy drank tea with us and freaked out when he saw that he had eye liner on. He'd been wandering in the desert for a few days by the time I took this shot.
out of the RV. I beat the cushions while Janet wiped the counters and I bet we got 90% of the dust out while drinking Monster energy drinks.
While we were doing that, many other RVers from Burning Man were coming through the RV park and dumping black water or getting hauled in by tow trucks. Burning Man has significant impact on Reno and the surrounding area for days. Reno airport sees the highest traffic of the year on the days around Burning Man and I-80 to the Bay area is littered with broken down vintage RVs that people keep just for Burning Man. It's easy to spot whose been at Burning Man from the dusted cars and bikes covered in fur. They leave a trail of dust as they head home from days of partying in one of the most forbidding deserts in the world.
Here's a good video from CNN on Burning Man:
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