feeling the burn

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(photos by stephanie)

“There are no spectators here, only participants. No audience, only players. Here on this desolate plain, our community springs from the desert floor like a strange and beautiful mushroom, a post modern Brigette in an ancient wasteland. Its name is whatever you name it. Its wealth is whatever you bring. Next week it will be gone, but next week might as well be never. You are here now.”

-Black Rock Gazette, September 3, 1993

“Precooked, they’ve come, roasted by society, soul-seared, half-baked, and hard-boiled; sun-dried, heat-blasted, and cheese-fried to a crackly crisp, they’ve come over the mountains and into the desert to smolder as one at the feet of the great symbol of their own relentless combustion. They have come to see the Burning Man.”

-Lawrence Gallagher, Outside magazine (1994)

Burning Man has arrived. I know this because I can see Black Rock City from where I’m sitting now, expanding out on the horizon. People kept saying this day would come; they said, “Oh sure, it’s quiet now, but just you wait until Burning Man! The visitors will be beating down the door.” Turns out that was patently not the case: I’ve seen maybe ten more people than I’d expect to in a normal week. I can’t really blame the burners, though. They know what they’ve driven to the Black Rock for—to each and all their own—and this nebulous yen is floating out there on the playa somewhere. It’s certainly not in the BLM visitor center.

For the past month I have watched the playa-bound traffic on County Road 34 grow from trickle to torrent, wadi to washout, an automotive freshet of humanity pouring onto the desert—first the semis laden with shipping containers, portable toilets, cranes, earthmovers and scaffolding; then water trucks to dampen the playa dust; then moving trucks of all shapes and sizes, colors and make; then hordes of law enforcement officers and other BLM staff; then—in the biggest pulse yet—burners by the tens of thousands, burners in their Winnebagos, their Airstreams, their retrofitted school buses and their Subaru Foresters.

They are the latter-day emigrant, said one BLM staffer to me, trading in ox-drawn carts for truck-hauled trailers. They seek the hazy, haphazard promise of this mecca in the desert, thrust up from the hardpan like some dormant xerophyte watered by humanity, blooming for but a week and then gone. They are eager, fervent, hopeful. And by Monday evening—opening day of the city—they are gridlocked, the stream of traffic unbroken from the playa’s Eight-Mile entrance to Empire, a distance of fifteen miles. Through the night they seep along at two miles per hour or less, precisely the pace of emigrant wagon trains that traveled this route 170 years ago. The waterway is full, turbid, the current stagnant.

From the visitor center window I watched the channel widen as one watches, from upstream, a dam sprung a leak—that is, with detached foreboding, complacent in the face of imminent doom. From my desk I witnessed my northeast vista transform: Black Rock City rising shimmering from the desert, its halide lights blazing through the night. “It looked better before all this,” I found myself thinking, but my peevishness felt misplaced, unsubstantiated. I watched from afar as the desert flooded with humans and their appurtenances; I stood at the banks and took in the swirling eddies and the flotsam, jetsam and lagan drifting past. It was a chaotic, roiling mess—it was stream dynamics personified.

I wanted to wade in, test the waters, plumb its depths. Is it oxymoronic to speak metaphorically of Burning Man as an aqueous, fluid phenomenon, polar in its attractions and universal in its solubility? Maybe. But I don’t care.

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A big orb? Some kind of tower?

On Tuesday I am admitted into the city, partly for work and partly to mingle with the likes of upwards of 70,000 thronging burners—many of whom have motored past the station in their buses, their U-Hauls, pooping in our vault toilet without stopping in to say hi. I don’t resent them for it. Perhaps I will find occasion to return the favor.

In Stephanie (Friends of Black Rock’s stewardship program manager) I find the ideal playa-mate: skeptical and circumspect, yet willing to suspend an almost staggering sense of disbelief, at least for a night. She too is attending the festival in a work-related capacity. Both of us are Burning Man neophytes, allowed one evening to see the city in its nocturnal splendor.

Tuesday afternoon, around two o’ clock. I have spent the better half of the day riding around on a bike, picking up trash as an “Earth Guardian” volunteer dedicated to leaving no trace upon the landscape. The euphemism used is “MOOP”—material out of place—and the stuff is strewn voluminously about the playa: cigarette butts, carpenter nails, feathers, streamers, sequins, earrings, bracelets, glowsticks, PBR cans filled with urine. All the previous night’s gaieties  and indiscretions laid bare, standing out in high relief from the moon-like surface. Cycling around the city, I enjoyed the task immensely. There is much too much to see. Hundreds of themed camps line the streets, sporting names that are colorful if nothing else. Camp Beaverton for Wayward Girls. Camp Sweaty Betty. Astral Headwash. Love Puddle. Dusty Poon Saloon. Inebriation Station. Trifucta. And so on.

In the afternoon swelter I convince Stephanie to join me in finding my brother Frankie, who drove here from San Francisco with his girlfriend Alex, both first-time burners. Frankie is in the process of going native when we reach him at his camp. Wearing only shorts, shades, sunscreen and sandals, he appears ready for the beach, which I find ironic on several levels. There is no standing water here, not for a dozen miles at least. We’re sitting in camping chairs atop the accumulated sediments of Lake Lahontan, possibly the largest Pleistocene lake in North America but now a sere salt flat. Those leveled sediments are collectively known as the playa, Spanish for shore or beach. So Frankie, beach-attired in the desert, is perhaps dressed as fittingly as one could hope for. It is the look du jour—less is more, that sort of thing. There’s certainly no shortage of exposed flesh within the Black Rock populace.

Muscular and crew-cut, Frankie apparently looks enough like an undercover officer to arouse suspicion among the barflies. The night before, while waiting in line for a drink, someone called him out on it. “Hey man, are you a cop?” asked this heckler, whose tone was pure business, “Why’s your hair so short?” Frankie was baffled. “Someone literally asked me, ‘Why’s your hair so short.’ Who says that?”

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A giant cockroach?

Tuesday evening, dusk. As darkness descends on the playa, a sea of fluorescent light bobs up to illumine the city and its inhabitants—millions of lights adorning every lightable surface, from art installations and art cars to bicycles to the inhabitants themselves. The colors are garish and fantastical, the coverage truly impressive: a blend of Christmastime excess and carnival chic, crepuscular Candyland on acid. People weave foot-long glowsticks into the spokes of their bikes; they twine them into backpack compartments, affix them to clothes, wrists, hair. There are pyrotechnic features to many of the artworks, so that the twilit hours are punctuated by pneumatic hisses of gas followed by spurts, jets and billows of flame, their heat discernible sometimes from ten, twenty feet away. Or further. Musically, the nighttime city is reminiscent of raves, or trendy clubs—lots of electronica. Thumping bass issues from myriad speakers. They are everywhere, inescapable. They blast from the exhibits, from trunks of cars, from roofs of cars, from stages, from bikes; walk ten feet and the song is changed, remixed, fading out from one track and into another.

At one point I remark to Stephanie that we are vastly underlit, sporting only the glowing spokesticks on our bikes. “Oh!” she exclaims, pulling off her backpack and rifling through it. “I totally forgot that I have this headlamp. And a flashlight, too, if you want it. We don’t want to be darktards.” Stephanie, already current with the city vernacular, explains that a “darktard” is the dim-witted individual without adequate lighting, who thus is at nearly constant risk of being run over by bikes, cars, drug-addled burners, what have you. This is a sound concept, adopted by almost all. The ancillary effect is that everything—moving and stationary, artful and artless—shines with unnatural, otherworldly effulgence; and this, on top of everything else, sets an utterly incomparable tableau for the senses.

We wander around on foot, visiting the art and the bars and the truly zany attractions. There is a Thunderdome. There is an arcade, complete with skeeball ramps. There is a fifty-foot flaming pachinko machine. We catch a ride on an enormous rainbow-hued art car named “DiscoFish”. It is modeled after an anglerfish; a disco ball serves as the lure, hanging over a circular dancefloor in front of the cab. People dance while the fish car putters around, blaring music and occasionally spewing fireballs from its head. At the bumper car track, a man with a cloth bag approaches us almost demurely, saying, “Hey you guys, come here. Check this out.” I immediately suspect that we are being offered something illicit. He digs into the bag and produces a keychain, a bottle opener. “Burning Man 2013,” they say. “This is exclusive Burning Man swag. Official.” The way he says this suggests a sense of awe is appropriate, as if we are being initiated into a cult. We stare at him. “So yeah, we’re giving it out to everyone, all this stuff. Take it, there you go!” He thrusts the bottle opener into my hand. Walking away, Stephanie says, “I don’t want this shit. Do you want it?” No, I say, not really. We glower at our stupid, plastic-wrapped trinkets. I was expecting something better, to be honest. Drugs, maybe. Not geegaws.

Has visiting the city effected a sea change on my perception of the event? Have I, after stepping in and seeing, hearing, smelling and imbibing of its wares, warmed to the burn? Zach seems strangely convinced that I will become, in his estimation, “fucking burner scum” after my foray into the city. I admit to no such thing. I continue to profess complete ignorance of the ethos, the zeitgeist of the burn—its significance eludes me. I don’t get it. But it sure is pretty at night.

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The Man and his domain

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One thought on “feeling the burn

  1. Third whole paragraph starting with “They are the latter-day emigrant…” is absolutely brilliant. I loved the comparisons between the burners and xerophytes and the burners and westward travelers 170 years ago. Peter, you really deserve a full-time paid journalism position.

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