The Rites of Passage

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North America » United States » Nevada » Black Rock Desert
September 2nd 2011
Published: June 23rd 2012
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Another DoorAnother DoorAnother Door

Lost in the middle of the Another Door art installation

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Today is my birthday.

For better or worse, my age now has a zero on the end again.

Ironically, Burning Man is one of the few places on earth where such a thing has little meaning.

Most of the rest of the United States treats it as a major rite of passage.

People consider birthdays like this as a time to reflect, and then get really depressed when reality doesn’t match up with dreams set a decade or two ago.

Burners, by contrast, believe the mismatch means people should just find other goals to pursue; ones suited to current reality.

Authentic self expression within a community can happen regardless of age or circumstance.

If someone told me I would be here a decade ago, I would have asked what drugs they were taking.

Temple of TransitionTemple of TransitionTemple of Transition

The most spiritual place at Burning Man, and one of the larest artworks at the festival

My tent cover really proved itself this morning.

I got to bed near dawn this morning.

I woke up after noon, in the hottest part of the day.

My water is cold enough to drink, too.

Adapting to the Desert

Veterans warned that to succeed on the playa, a participant needs the ability to make intelligent adjustments, along with proper preparation.

Something always doesn’t go as planned, and dealing with it can sour the experience heavily.

When I compared this to how the trip as a whole was shaping up at the time, they pretty much agreed with me.

I had my first changes today.

The alkaline dust is doing a number on my feet.

Enough burners have this problem that it has a name: playa foot.

I applied a little vinegar to neutralize the alkalinity, and then cleaned with baby wipes.

I’m going to wear sneakers from now on instead of sandals, which should help keep the dust away.

The more serious problem is feeling queasy.

I’ve camped enough to realize this is an early
Inside the TempleInside the TempleInside the Temple

Inside the central tower of the temple. A gong from the Gamelatron sits on the lower left.
sign of dehydration.

I need to carry and drink much more water during the day.

Thirst is caused by the imbalance of water and salts within the body.

In a dry desert, people sweat both water and salts, so thirst doesn’t appear until it’s too late.

Even worse, the sweat boils off so people don’t feel sweaty either.

I need to get in the habit of forcing down water constantly.

Thanks to these issues, I’m not really feeling festive today.

Skipping a birthday in some places is grounds for psychiatric counseling.

In Black Rock City, it’s a personal preference; people celebrate what they feel is important.

I feel this milestone is important, but I should handle it when I can give it the engagement it deserves.

I’ll celebrate tomorrow.

Leave No Trace in Black Rock City

During breakfast, I got another lesson on the reality of life on the playa.

Specifically, one on Leave No Trace.

The places I camp back east are all moist.

The moisture means that the soil has bacteria that break down organic waste.

When something drops
Earth HarpEarth HarpEarth Harp

William Close plays the Earth Harp at the Temple of Transition
on the ground back east, I pick it up, but usually don’t worry about tiny crumbs.

On the playa, organic matter dries to a crisp and then blows around.

Every last little bit has to be disposed of or it turns into debris.

This desert is absolutely unforgiving when it comes to trash.

This morning I ended up scraping desert dust to capture a little bit of powdered milk that spilled while making breakfast.

I’m going to cook over a drop cloth from now on.

Like yesterday, I hung out with my neighbors for a while.

We ate more food and swapped more beer.

I mentioned that I need to get ice from center camp today.

Hauling it back to the suburbs is a pain, especially since I only need to cool a small amount of stuff by this point.

One of my neighbors has empty space in their cooler and offered to lend it.

What a huge change from the default world outside!

The playa provides 😊

Temple of Transition

Today, I’m feeling Burning Man culture shock.

The festival is an endless
Love, playa styleLove, playa styleLove, playa style

The LOVE sculpture on the playa at Burning Man
sea of sensation and new experience, with little time to process it all.

I need somewhere to understand the culture I’m now immersed in.

In Black Rock City, that place is the most spiritual location on the entire playa, the Temple of Transition.

Along the way, I passed another great piece of playa art, Another Door by Calen Barca-Hall and Paul Hempstead.

The installation is a maze of painted doors.

Every door is connected to at least one other, so opening any door changes the paths somewhere else.

What Ken Lum’s mirror maze is to depression (see Cutting Edge Art, Past and Present), this installation is a great metaphor for what it’s like to explore modern life, or Burning Man for that matter.

Every year, the temple is designed as a blend of sacred architecture from around the world.

The entire thing is made of wood and cardboard.

The cardboard in particular has intricate carving.

The design this year has a tall central tower that looks like a cross between a Chinese pagoda and a gothic church tower.

Bridges run from this tower to four other towers with a similar

Skydivers at night over Black Rock City
design that surround it.

Inside, the main tower contains one large room.

A balcony runs around it that connects to the bridges.

When I got there, the room was filled with people.

Many were sitting or lying on the floor, meditating, praying, or just lost in their thoughts.

Unlike much of Black Rock City, this place is nearly silent.

The walls of the chamber contain a series of gongs.

Each has a clapper connected to a remote control device.

Collectively, the form a musical instrument called the Gamelatron.

Periodically, the computer plays the gongs, creating music like the change ringing heard at Christian cathedrals.

This version is softer than those, appropriate to the space.

The temple walls are absolutely covered in offerings.

Some are just words in marker; others are photos, posters, and letters.

The temple celebrates transition.

People offer things of high emotional impact they wish to release, such as old loves, guilt about friends that have passed on, fear of future events, and anything else that needs processing.

I picked up a marker
Pyschic BarPyschic BarPyschic Bar

The Pyschic Bar, where fate decides your drink
and left one of my own (which I’m not describing).

The entire temple will burn at the end of the week, releasing these things to the ashes of the past.

Although I understand the purpose, I’m very sad that a building so beautiful will be destroyed in the process.

Wandering around the outer edges of the temple, I heard drums.

Following the beats brought me to a large drum circle.

A large sea of people in outfits of all sorts was dancing around them.

Although I’m not a big fan of tribal music (I prefer the electronic variety), I joined the party.

At first it felt awkward, until the vibe finally swept over me.

Burning Man is incredibly non-judgmental, so it doesn’t matter how graceful or talented people are.

All that matters is taking the risk to express myself.

Dancing at the temple forms a microcosm of the entire experience.

Burners don’t judge how people choose to engage with the festival; as long as they contribute, respect others, and provide for their own survival.

Every person experiences Burning Man in
Trojan FireworksTrojan FireworksTrojan Fireworks

Fireworks during the Trojan Horse burn
their own way; however they choose to express themselves.

All are equally valid, as long a participant follows the principles.

Whatever feelings of failure I have from being overwhelmed by sensation disappeared.

Earth Harp

A long set of strings runs from the center tower of the temple to a small pagoda that serves as the temple entrance.

These strings have large black things on them in various locations that look like weights.

The strings are connected to a device over the pagoda labeled ‘Earth Harp’.

I was about to head home when someone climbed the pagoda and started to tune it.

The device is a resonance chamber.

People play the harp by running their hands along the strings.

The weights tune the sound of each string.

William Close, its inventor, then took the stage on the pagoda.

It’s called the Earth Harp because the strings are plucked like a harp and the earth itself forms part of the instrument.

While it exists it’s one of the largest single instruments in the world.

Then he started playing it.

On one level, the earth
Hug DeliHug DeliHug Deli

Black Rock City's legendary Hug Deli
harp can be described as sounding like a giant cello.

That description is about as accurate as calling a redwood forest (see Forest from Another Time) “a large group of really tall trees”.

The earth harp sounds ethereal, like music from some far off mystic land.

It’s perfect for the temple, transporting people to a spiritual place.

Two different people played original compositions.

Most of them were based on Tibetan musical ideas.

I found it beautiful enough to almost consider becoming a Buddhist afterward.


See it in action thanks to the magic of Youtube:

After the concert finished, I had to deal with one of the big negatives of solo camping.

I’m out of food, and nearly out of water.

I need to get more, and the only way is to hike all the way across the city to my tent site.

This is a rather long walk!

I can understand the motives of some participants who join theme camps just to get more advantageous locations within the city.

Night on the Playa

I saw some more
Temple of BoomTemple of BoomTemple of Boom

The incredible Temple of Boom stage
incredible playa art along the way.

A large metal sculpture glowed off in the distance while hiking back from the temple.

Heading over revealed large metal letters spelling out the word ‘LOVE’, a sculpture by Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg.

After being at the temple, it looked surprisingly peaceful; glowing alone in the vastness of the desert.

I then tripped over the simplest sculpture yet, a collection of clear plastic balls with little lights glowing in the desert.

They looked like eggs laid by some alien species.

Still in open playa, I encountered a group of cars parked on the desert with lights on.

This is highly unusual; normally only art cars can drive in the city.

Then I noticed everyone was looking up.

A tiny trail of sparklers was visible against the stars.

The sparklers got lower and closer.

The skydivers carrying the sparklers finally became visible and landed in the area lit by the car lights.

Now knowing what to look for, I saw more of them above, a whole group of people parachuting at night over the playa.

No matter how
Kinetic sculptureKinetic sculptureKinetic sculpture

Kinetic sculptures outside Temple of Boom
much I experience at Burning Man, the festival still holds surprises.

Now in the city streets, I had another experience so typical in Black Rock City, the Psychic Bar.

Half drink emporium and half performance art, I never would have found it by looking for it (which is partly the point).

A tarot card dealer pulls out a set of cards.

Instead of using them to tell my destiny, he used them to decide what drink I would get.

I don’t know the name, but it packed a punch.

While making dinner, I saw fireworks arc across the sky.

The first set was a tall column of red sparklers.

That was followed by flashing dots and starbusts, over and over.

It ended with a huge ball of flame that lit up the desert.

I found out later that the Trojan Horse, one of the largest sculptures on the desert, had been burned.

I would normally kick myself for having to see a spectacle like that from a long distance, but not here.

At Burning man, it’s just another part of the
Boom BoxBoom BoxBoom Box

The boom box art car.
experience to take without judgment.

Dance All Night

By this point in the night, low base beats echoed across the city.

I found them rather strange.

The outer parts of Black Rock City are normally pretty quiet.

I decided to find out what they are.

I reached the inner ring and the beats, now louder, still echoed.

I walked into the open playa.

This can be a little scary at night, feeling like a single spec in a vast open space.

I ultimately found myself a ways from any camp, facing a large tractor trailer flatbed truck absolutely covered in speaker equipment.

The speakers were surrounded by two by fours.

This thing is basically a mobile nightclub that can blast the entire city.

The problem is, absolutely nobody was dancing despite the inescapable noise.

(LATE UPDATE) I found out later that this “stick truck” generated more noise complaints (WARNING: May be offensive) than anything else in the festival.

Since I’m not going to party at this truck, I wandered toward the nearest edge of the city.

I soon had another of those serendipitous encounters
Flaming octopus!Flaming octopus!Flaming octopus!

This year's most memorable art car
that are such a part of the Burning Man experience.

I found the Hug Deli.

Set up like a grade school lemonade stand, the people in this booth disburse hugs.

Very clever idea.

Back at the city, I first encountered a camp with a stage underneath an absolutely enormous LED screen, the Temple of Boom.

A band played on the stage as videos played above them.

Constructing this one took real expertise, and it’s all done as a gift!

Unfortunately, the band played live dubstep, so I quickly got bored.

Near this camp sits more playa art.

One piece consisted of light projectors attached to pendulums, which created dancing patterns on the desert floor as they swung.

Another was a collection of huge balloon stars.

Finally, another camp had a large collection of metal mobiles, twirling in the dry air.

I also saw two utterly amazing art cars, one shaped like a giant boom box outlined in neon, and a steel octopus.

This octopus shot flame out of every tentacle!

I eventually ended up at Opulent Temple, one of the most famous sound camps.
Opulent TempleOpulent TempleOpulent Temple

An incredible dance floor disguised as Mad Max, the Opulent Temple

The dance floor was surrounded by a set straight out of Mad Max.

Towers of twisted metal rose everywhere.

Four of these held two big video screens, one on either side of the DJ booth.

Those towers also held flame throwers, which went off during songs!

Those will never appear at Movement (see Children of the Night, Step Into the Light).

To complete the look, lasers swung over the floor creating a glowing roof.

Unlike the dubstep that so many Burning Man camps are addicted to, this one featured DJs playing house and trance.

They were really good.

This camp deserves its reputation as one of the best parties at Burning Man.

Opulent Temple is next to another of the more famous camps at Burning Man, Osiris.

This camp consists of an absolutely huge white pyramid.

DJs play at the back while video artists project on the walls.

Most of the videos were abstract collages of one form or another, timed to the music.

While I enjoyed the videos, I quickly wore out on the music.

Osiris featured yet more dubstep mixed with other genres.

Inside the Osiris pyramid

I’m really sick of dubstep by this point, and I’ve been here three days.

I headed back to my campsite when my water ran low.

I got another little surprise.

A glow appeared over the mountains.

I then saw the sun rise as I reached my tent.

Many Burners have this experience at least once, and many have it for the same reason I did.


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