Here’s the first installment of my Burning Man story, covering Monday – Wednesday. Stay tuned for the second which will cover the man and temple burn. UPDATE: Read the second half here, or download the PDF.
We arrived at Black Rock City on Monday around midnight. Waiting in line was actually an enjoyable experience, in contrast with waiting in the mid day sun as I had on the previous trip. It had just rained, so the playa was packed down and the air was cool. The moon was a huge yellow orb just above the horizon, and I heard someone ask if it was an art installation. “Yes!” came the reply from a passing biker. “God’s the artist!”
When we got into the city, the people I rode with drove to their camp at 3:30 & D and parked. They went off to find adventure, while I biked down to Playa Info. I found my friend Elijah’s address posted there, as he promised. 6:15 & H. I made several trips back and forth to get my gear unloaded, then set up my tent, had a bite to eat, and crashed for the night. It was cold, and I wished I had brought more warm clothing, but my sleeping bag and a borrowed long sleeve shirt kept me warm enough.
When I woke up to a beautiful Tuesday morning and decided to give Elijah’s solar cell setup a try at warming my oatmeal. Finding the right switch on the inverter, I flipped it, then turned the knob on the electric burner. A loud buzzing sound notified me that something was wrong, and after tinkering with it for a bit I began to lose hope for warm oatmeal. Fortunately for me, the neighbors were kind enough to let me use their gas burner. Lesson learned – bring low tech backup next time.
Elijah and his girlfriend Nicki eventually stumbled bleary eyed out of his red volvo station wagon. They had spent the night huddled there with the heater on to stay warm, and were contemplating heading back home if their outlooks didn’t improve. I tried to convince them to stick around and try to get some help from fellow burners. Apparently things worked out, because they stuck around for the whole burn.
The morning was my opportunity to prepare for the rest of the week. First, I had to get my bike operational. I had a U-lock on it which tended to rattle around when riding, and which I had lost the key for years before. I talked this over with Elijah and he directed me to my neighbor Mike. Lo and behold this man had brought a full metal shop to the playa! He asked if I could use an angle grinder, and I smiled, thinking back to my recent work on the mask. Soon the sparks flew and the broken lock fell to the playa. A few minor tweaks and I was ready to ride.
Now it was time to finish the mask. The paint was dry, and all that was left was to epoxy the glass beads onto the rods of the mowhawk, and attach some foam padding to the inside. Mike was happy to let me use his dremel tool to clean the stringing holes in the beads. He had a whole work bench set up in his van, with running electricity for the tools. I was stoked. When I was done I sat with our neighbors from Israel and worked on adding the beads to the mohawk. This took a while, and while I worked I got to know them and another visitor who stopped and sat with us. When I was done I put on the mask and with our new visitor, went out to see the camp.
We walked down H street as I tried to adjust the mask to a comfortable position. I said “Thanks!” to numerous compliments and tried to keep up with my companion. We stopped for snow cones, which is not a bad thing on a hot day, then decided to head on. We paused to watch a band for a bit, then decided to split up as he went to look for some friends and I journeyed deeper into the camp. I walked at an easy pace, staring out at the crowd from my mask, enjoying the looks and hollers from people that noticed. It’s a strange thing to wear a mask… to be appreciated for something which separates you from the observer. By the time I got to Esplanade I was surrounded by a boiling crowd of color and noise. Letting myself take in the experience, I wandered for a while and just watched the scene. Centercamp was bubbling with activity, as usual. I felt less drawn to it than I was my first year, though I can’t say why. I made a slow circuit, then departed. I was getting hungry, and I headed back to camp. It was afternoon by this time, and I figured it would be good to check in at camp WDYDWYD and make sure my friends had gotten my address. I cast off my shirt to show my henna, grabbed my pink tie and cowboy hat, and set off towards 3:30 & D.
I was moving fast, weaving through pedestrians and other bikers. I imagine I looked like some sort of crazy commuter cowboy from another dimmension. I was going along fine, when I saw a gorgeous girl on a straight collision course with me. I slowed down to let her pass, but to no avail. We stopped just shy of colliding, and she collapsed to the ground caught up in her bike. What does a cowboy do in a situation like this, but help a girl out? She couldn’t get the bike started, so I took a look. Flipped it upside down and ran the petals through a turn or two. “Seems fine!” I said as I handed it back over. When I heard the swanky porn music playing in my head I knew I had met my one true love.
“Where are you going?” I said. “To meet some friends!” “Mind if I come along?” “Come on!”
And off we went. Turns out my damsel in distress was from Ireland, and her equally beautiful friend was from England. They work together at some dreadfully boring job, which didn’t seem at all important in the circumstances. I was, after all, a hero. A fellow hero seemed to be angling for my damsel’s friend, which was ok by me. They weren’t having any luck finding their friends, and an invitation to stop and have lemonade was too tempting to pass up. We sat around and chatted for some time, and I found out that my damsel… Was her name Julie? Let’s call her Julie. Julie was here on a spiritual journey of sorts. Something less to do with partying and more about an inner journey. I couldn’t agree more as I stared into her deep brown eyes. We decided to leave the lemonade bar. My companions didn’t seem any closer to finding their friends, and I recalled my mission to reconnect with the friends I rode in with. So we parted ways. WHAT? You met your one true love and you parted ways for an ERRAND? YOU FOOL!
In retrospect, probably a bad decision. While I did get her address, and at the time I fully intended to visit her again, things didn’t end up working out that way. But let’s move on… more to see, and perhaps true love will come again!
I headed down to WDYDWYD and checked around, but no one from that camp was to be found. The day was winding down and it was about time to eat again, so I headed back to 6:15 and H. The camp on the other side of us was Chris and Aaron – two guys who happened to be from Phoenix as well. I joined them for dinner prep, and we hung out and chatted. Elijah and Nicki had made it back to camp and our neighbor Laurie joined us as well. For some reason I felt perfectly comfortable standing around in my boxers and having a conversation about the day. Perhaps it was the cowboy hat. The sun had gone down by the time we finished eating, and Elijah put on a top-notch fire spinning show. Warm food in my belly and a fire show… I can’t complain. My tank was on ‘E’ though, so I retired to my tent to charge up for the next day.
The next morning my neighbor Rick invited me to a tour of the Alternative Energy Camp. I didn’t have other plans so I said “sure!” We saw hexayurts made of reflective foam, solar panels, solar ovens, a water evaporation device, and even a retrofitted electric bike. At the end of the tour, I was noticing a giant pair of metal hands reaching above the tents of a nearby camp. I assumed (correctly as it turns out) that this was one of the sculptures that was worshipping the oil derrick in 2007. When I arrived the other sculptures were nowhere to be found, but this 30 foot statue of a woman with arms uplifted had become the center of Nectar Village – a collection of camps focused around the healing arts. I wasn’t quite up for a steam bath full of naked people, so I entered their waiting area – a large tent with maybe 100 people inside doing yoga, dancing, and getting in touch with their inner selves. I practiced some yoga of my own here for a bit, and as I went through my poses I became aware of the folks I’d ridden in with, not too far away. They’re all yoga fanatics, so I wasn’t suprised to see them there. I was nevertheless impressed by the serendipity of happening upon Nectar Village and running into them. We said our greetings and I gave them my address, and as we were sitting there relaxing I fell asleep. Shade, cool breeze, friends, and some sort of Mid Eastern or Asian instruments being played made for a peaceful rest. I was awakened by some sort of dance circle starting up. I did some yoga, chatted with some nearby people, and looked through the event guide. I decided to go check out a “True Mirror Game” workshop, or something like that. It was a walk of 4 blocks or so, and it looked like I had about 20 minutes to make it.
I found the cross streets where this “Welcome Home Dome” was supposed to be, but with domes in all directions, who knows? Confusion, confusion. No one knows anything at Burning Man. The neighbors pointed me in various directions, and I ran into a few other people looking for the same dome. Finally we found someone who directed us to walk down a certain street and look for a multicolored dome. Aha! That’s specific. And that’s how we found it. Unfortunately when I arrived I quickly discovered that I had misread the schedule, and the event I came for had just ended. Starting now was a song writing workshop. I started chatting with some girls from a band – Good Heavens To Betsy. They called themselves the Betsy sisters. Ah, what the hell I figured. I’ve come this far; may as well stick around and see what it’s all about. The workshop started out with a lecture from a folk singer. I don’t remember his name because unlike the Betsy sisters, he didn’t give me a pin to stick in my hat. His chat was somewhat interesting though – I learned that ‘girl’ is a difficult word to rhyme (though perhaps not as hard as another word used in a Beasty Boys song), and people are sick of hearing ‘sky’ and ‘fly’. Don’t do it.
We broke up into groups, each comprised of one instrument player and some aspiring singers/songwriters. My group was mostly comprised of Good Heavens To Betsy, so they used the session to jam out and get some feedback. That was totally fine with me… I got to see their notebooks scrawled with lyrics, and I tried to give some helpful feedback. I think they knew what they were doing though.
After the song writing session was up, the Betsy sisters went off to write some more songs, and I stuck around to see what the next event would be. It was announced as a “Sincere Sharing Circle” or something along those lines. It sounded more in line with what I’d come there for, which was to meet some Burners. We had about 12 people to start with, and it grew closer to 18 by the time we were done. To talk you had to take a crystal from the center of the circle, and only the person with the crystal could talk. The second rule, much like Fight Club, was that you can’t talk about it. So out of respect for that, I won’t get into any of the stories that I heard. I was enriched by those stories though – some of them amazing, otherworldly, informing me of cultures and distant lands that I have never experienced myself. Others were closer to heart. I heard stories similar to my own – of dissapointment with our society, our economy, our way of life. Disconnection from the families and friends which we value most. I added my own to that space, and I tried to express a glimse of hope… that the things we see at Burning Man, the things we value such as that intimate feeling of connectedness, the giving nature, and the compassion we show for one another… these things can be cultivated in the rest of our lives as well. The fact that we can create them here is proof that they can be created. Why not at home?
This was the last workshop of the day, and afterwards I stuck around and talked to the organizer and some of the participants. We all felt close after sharing our thoughts in the circle, and I was greeted by smiles and warm eyes. I asked about the true mirror game, which I had originally come to see, and the organizer said there weren’t any more officially scheduled, but she could introduce me to the guy who was leading them. I said sure, and we walked back among the tents to talk to him. We gave our introductions, and he explained that in the true mirror game you hide various portions of your face for several minutes at a time, so the viewer gets to see them in isolation. Contrary to what you might think, he said, people’s faces are not symmetrical, and the exercise makes you aware of differences that you might not otherwise detect. Interesting, sounds like something fun to try!
Coming back from this introduction, I returned to dome entrance, where many of the people from the sharing circle were still talking. I had really enjoyed the time with them, so I reached into my pouch and pulled out a few glass beads and handed one to each of them. One of the girls, Leigh, was camped with Salon Soleil and she invited me to a healing arts event they were having on Friday. She wrote down the address for me, and I said my goodbyes to everyone. Happy to have made some friends, I hopped on my bike and headed back towards camp. It was nearing dusk by this time, and I was ready for another hot meal.
We ate at Chris and Aaron’s shade structure, and Laurie, the neighbor we’d met on Tuesday, dropped by as well. I had heard about a Tesla coil demonstration at the Ogribar, which was only a half a block away from us. I convinced Chris, Aaron and Laurie to head down there with me. Chris provided glow sticks, and we rounded up our bikes. Laurie shot off like the Huns were on her heals, and I looked back to see that Aaron was still setting his bike up and Chris was waiting for him. “Well,” I thought, “They’ll catch up!” and I chased after Laurie.
Laurie and I made it to Ogribar first, of course, but Aaron and Chris weren’t far behind. There was a crowd milling about out front, but no Tesla coil to be seen. We locked our bikes and went inside to talk to the owners, who seemed mostly the goth type, if they’ll excuse my saying so. They explained that yes, the lightning show had been scheduled for their venue, but the space outside turned out to be too small an area to host it. The master of lightning was off energizing the playa somewhere else for the night, and no one could tell us where. At this point, we did what any dissaffected physics students would do. We went bar hopping.
We started by heading down to Planet Earth, a dance club that was scheduled to play 80′s music for the night. When we got there, the music was blasting but the floor was empty. Eh… not what we were looking for. We continued down Esplanade and eventually reached Nexus Mobile, a dance venue of epic proportions. It had a huge under-dome dance floor, and dancers spilling out into the even wider outdoors space. The aforementioned space was enclosed by two wings of the main structure – on one side were various platforms and chains and ladders which people were climbing around on and observing the event below. On the other was some scaffolding and light rigging. Out further on the playa, as a sort of guide post to the camp, was a spherical geodome with flame jets attached at the junctures. It would light up at seemingly random intervals, and sometimes send out shorter bursts.
Aaron had gotten lost in the crowd so Chris went to find him. Laurie informed me that she loves to climb, and we proceeded to climb the chain ladder that lead up to the platforms. We swung around on the chains, danced, and looked down at the crowd. At one point we hopped on a bed which was chained on all sides and could be swung around by gripping a rope and moving your feet. Probably the first in a long time that either of us had played on a jungle gym. Chris found Aaron eventually, and we all hung out on the platforms for a while. When it came time to leave, Aaron went back to wherever he had parked his bike, and we lost him again. We waited for a few minutes but it became clear we weren’t going to find him, so we headed off.
We made our way to Mal Mart – a building of cubes which you could climb up either by ramp or by the scaffolding. Laurie and I of course had to climb up the scaffolding. From the top we could see out onto the playa quite a way. We stood looking out for a bit, and I noted a group of people with their legs dangling out over the edge. I asked them if they could point out the temple, and one of the guys tried to explain it to me, but I couldn’t for the life of me see where it was. I think it must have been too dark for me to see and I said so. The guy wouldn’t let it go. He had a half finished bottle of whiskey in his hand and was getting increasingly rude so we took the ramp back down and left him there to fight it out with himself.
When we climbed back down we found my bike missing. I have to say I was dissapointed… having a bike makes getting around a lot easier at Burning Man, and getting stranded is no fun. I took it in stride though. I had bought the bike from security at my school 8 years ago – a stolen bike which no one had claimed. So maybe it had picked its time to move on. Well, it was time for us to move on too. I hopped on the back of Chris’s bike, which he had covered in white fur, and we awkwardly made our way to the next stop. Yet another dance floor, this one had a wall of honeycomb cubby holes around it which people were lounging about in. We found our own cubby holes and took the chance to rest for a bit and watch the crowd.
We were all tired when we came back to camp, and I was a bit bummed about losing my bike. Back in my tent I took off my hat, emptied my pockets of addresses and trinkets, and hit the sack. I went to sleep looking forward to the unexpected delights that tomorrow would bring.
Continue to the second half.