I decided at some point that I should check out the dating service ‘Costco’ this year, and Thursday morning seemed like a good time. I borrowed Chris’s bike and rode out. My tie and cowboy hat costume of the previous day had provided poor protection, and realizing the extent of my sun burns I decided to sport a Hawaiian shirt. The kind folks at Costco explained that the rule is you bring someone along that is similar to the person you’d like to be matched with. (The right sex, age, and interests perhaps). I figured that I’d run into someone soon enough, so I grabbed my forms and headed back to camp. Shortly after, Laurie arrived back in camp and I managed to *cough* sucker her into filling out the forms and heading back down with me. Riding on a blue bike with pink ribbons this time, I managed to keep up despite the awkward contraption beneath me.
At Costco we dropped off our forms and hit the bar at the waiting area. I ran into a guy there that was steampunk’d out, complete with a sundial strapped to his wrist. Interesting fellow, I enjoyed talking to him so I gave him a bead. Presently, we got around to our interviews, which were undoubtedly deep and insightful examinations of our slightly drunken souls. I had fun with it, and talked to the people around me for a little while after. At Laurie’s suggestion, we went across the street to District, the biggest day time dance scene at Burning Man. There was a crowd dancing out on the open playa, and another gathered at the bar. We met a guy dancing on a skateboard balanced on a pipe, and he was happy to let us try. When we had proven to ourselves that we were not very good at this, we moved on to District’s bar to further impair our motor skills. Sipping our drinks and chilling in the shade, we met a beautiful girl in a peacock costume which she had put together herself. She expressed regret over the messiness of the feathers, but said she had been collecting stray trash to even things out.
Bored with this, we decided to move on. Laurie wanted to go to Nectar Village for yoga, and I wasn’t really interested in that, so we said goodbye. I came back to camp to return my neighbor’s bike and pick up my mask. I hadn’t really seen much of the art yet, so I decided to go back through Centercamp and out onto the playa.
One of my first stops was a sort of philosopher’s lounge… Stylized metal flowers sprung up around it with descriptions of different philosophies inscribed on them. In the center were some benches and a gazebo. Some folks were hanging out there, and after reading the inscriptions I poked into their world views a bit. More people arrived, we shot photos and chatted, and then I realized it had been quite some time since I’d used the facilities. I made my way to the nearest bank of portapotties, but after I had done my business I realized I was missing my camelback. I found it back at the philosopher’s lounge, but just as I got back an art car pulled up and out poured a procession of people. It looked like something interesting was about to happen… I didn’t have to wait long for the bride and groom to arrive and conclude that this was the perfect spot for their ceremony! Stashing my stuff and grabbing my camera, I grabbed front and center and recorded the moment that Rod and Anne were pronounced man and wife. There’s no wedding like a playa wedding… ‘nough said. I congratulated the lucky couple, imbibed some champagne, and continued on to The Man.
After three flights of stairs, I looked out over the playa. The site of Esplanade, the temple, and all the art exhibits from that view is amazing. It’s rendered more wondrous by the fact that a few days away, the structure will be burned down, and no one will see quite the same view again. That remains true despite all the pictures on Facebook, despite the fact that it will all happen again next year. Impermanence… a recurring theme at Burning Man. True for the rest of the world, but more poignant here.
I made my way back down to the playa to be greeted by an anniversary ceremony. A man and his wife were standing naked, butt cheek to butt cheek and bound together with rope from head to toe. A serious girl in a colorful dress was directing the ritual. The look of serenity on the man’s face convinced me that however weird it may have seemed to me, he had found something precious.
Ever attracted to shiny things, my next stop was a pyramid of mirrors. Terry was the artist, if I recall, and she and her crew were putting the finishing touches on the piece, and searching for some acrylic polish. Not having anything suitable on my person, I wished them luck and headed on.
It was a bit of a walk to the temple, but I’d come most of the way on foot already and wasn’t expecting the royal chariot any time soon. The design of the temple made me think of the air that would flow through it as it burned. It was a pyre, plain and simple, and I had no doubts the fireball would be impressive. As I walked between the wings of the structure, I read the messages that people had painted, penned, markered, and stapled to the side. One massive ball of human suffering, dwarfing me on all sides. Paper cranes flew across the wall, their meaning clear. “We miss you,” a thousand times over. I saw a wedding taking place there. What a terrible place for a wedding. I couldn’t watch, and I fled before I was overcome by emotion. What could I add to this? Let it burn.
It was dusk, and time for me to go. My feet ached, and I was not looking forward to the walk back to camp. On the lamp lit road leading back from the man I noticed a guy with a camera tripod walking alongside me. I strode faster to catch up with him, and asked him about the camera. He introduced himself as Peter, and said he was from Denmark and part of a crew doing a documentary on Burning Man. One of their goals was to produce a painting which would be a collage of many different scenes. We walked back to my camp and I got his contact information. I have no idea what happened to it. Perhaps I should have a better solution for collecting these things next year…
I ate my dinner and chatted with our neighbors Chris and Aaron. Chris was done for the night, and said I could take his bike out for a spin. I wanted to see if I could find the Irish pub where Julie, my ‘one true love’ was staying. Unfortunately I had lost those directions too, so it was a bit of a fool’s errand… or a good excuse to get lost depending on your perspective. I ended up at 3:00 and staring off into the distance, saw fireballs curling up around a stage. Gotta tell you, I’ve got a soft spot for fireballs. Like a moth, I flew straight to it, locked my bike and went in to dance amongst the crowd. Apparently the name of the place was Opulent Temple. Their DJ booths were in mini geo-domes, the whole area was lined with propane torches, and they had a contortionist on a silk line to complete the show. When I had danced to my satisfaction, I jumped back on my bike and headed down the dark alleys, intending to make my way back towards camp.
I was stopped by one of the most impressive displays I’ve ever seen. The fire was the first thing that caught my eye. The girl holding the flamethrower was the second. I didn’t see much else after that, because I stopped to stare. She was shooting up towards some steel targets, and after each burst she did a little happy dance. Fire. Happiness. Awesome. I noticed the camp crewman standing next to me, grinned at him, then turned back to the show. Hoping to get a chance at the flamethrower myself I got off my bike and hung around at their bar. The camp was Incindiary Intent, and they had an appropriate drink menu. I ordered something with napalm in the name… it involved chili pepper infused vodka, and it was a unique experience! A few minutes later I got my wish when I was offered the chance to finish off their propane banks. The gun looked like something out of a sci-fi, with tubes and hoses running across the outside. It had a charging bank to pressurize the propane, and would burst a nice fireball of 6 ft or so. Once done with that, my day was complete. I bid those folks good night, went back to camp and dropped off to the sound of distant thumping bass.
Friday morning, I got up and borrowed Chris’s bike again, on the condition that I would pick up some ice for him. I went back down to Costco, to see if I’d been assigned a match yet. Randomly I ran into Tom, one of my traveling companions, and we made some basic plans for my pickup on Sunday. I had a match, as it turned out, and she was only a few streets down. I made it down to the address and found my match Elizah and her friend Jenn lounging at their shade structure. Another camp mate was packing up while we sat and chatted. I liked Elizah, she was smart and pretty. Unfortunately, also in a relationship, and with another programmer no less! Drat my luck. Company’s a fine thing though, and as she was wanting to see some art on the playa, we made plans to meet up at Centercamp that evening. I told her to look for a metal mask with a mohawk of glass beads — pretty easy to find in a crowd.
We said our goodbyes, and I went off to grab ice for Chris. The ice line is always long, but it moves pretty quick. I grabbed two bags, cracked a joke to the folks behind the counter, and loaded my payload into the fur covered bags on Chris’s bike. I dropped the bike and the ice off, then went down to Salon Soleil to check out the event Leigh had told me about on Wednesday.
Salon Soleil had a long line, and rightfully so. Burning Man is an uncomfortable place to be, and the healing arts are a boon to us all. I took my place in line and listened to the calming sound of a flute player who was playing for a group in the nearby shade. His music was strange, beautiful, and calming. I stepped out of line for a moment to offer him a bead and a smile before returning to my place. I was angling for a Thai massage… I’ve had them here in Phoenix and found them to be wonderful. I got my name on the list, then went to sit near the flute player. He introduced himself as Julian. He had a box with 12 flutes, and as he took each one out he would describe its history and cultural significance, then play a tune. To my ears it was masterful, and I was content to sit and listen. I interjected at one point to tell him about the bead and how it had been made. Somehow the topic of martial arts came up, and we broke off for a moment so he could demonstrate the movement of Bagua, the Chinese art of circle walking. My name came up for a foot bath, and though this wasn’t the Thai Massage I’d wanted, my feet were sore, so I went for it. Surprisingly, the dude who gave me a foot bath wasn’t Jesus. In fact he was wearing a kilt made of comic books, which was kind of cool. He seemed like a decent fellow, and gave some good advice for my calloused feet, so I gave him a bead for his trouble.
I saw Leigh bustling around a couple times, but as busy as things were I didn’t want to distract her. Also noticed a stray girl that I’d given water earlier in the day… funny how you keep running into people. Feet feeling better, I made my escape and took the dusty road back to camp. It was nearing dusk, and I had an appointment with Elizah, so I grabbed my mask and went to Centercamp. I walked around a time or two, then settled down on a bench. Centercamp is a fun place to people watch… there’s always movement and color, smiles, and gifts changing hands. I drained about half of my camelback due to sitting it wrong on top of the nozzle… hate it when that happens. The sun was going down and I still hadn’t seen Elizah, so I decided to head back to camp and prepare for my night journeys. Before I left Centercamp, I got my photo taken for camp WDYDWYD’s project. ‘Because my mind is a fireball, propelling me to unknown destinations.’ …or something like that. Yay for fireballs.
Back at camp, I ate dinner and accepted Elijah’s offer to take his bike out for the night. I drove it out to Centercamp and parked it there, intending to find an art car to ride around. That didn’t quite work out… It was dark and right about the time I got out there a giant dust storm blew through. I hung tight for a while, and when it subsided for a bit, I introduced myself to a group of people who turned out to be looking for a car as well. I think maybe it was the storms, but there weren’t a whole lot moving around out there.
Wandering a bit through the intermittent dust storms, I sighted a structure with a curved oriental style roof. The lights there made it stand out from the gloomy brown that filled my vision. As I got closer I saw that it was a stage, with some kind of play going on. The characters were dark silhouettes against the clouds of dust that blew through, and they jerked around as though in their death throes. Just off the stage there was an old man on stilts with a long beard and a top hat, and he would gesture longingly towards the forms on stage and savor the few moments of contact that he received. I watched with interest, thinking to myself that no where else would I experience this. The storm was a part of the experience, and it lent an even greater gravity to the dark subjects portrayed. I talked to some of the other observers, and tried their home made beer. An IPA, and a delicious one, which I told them. After a while, I went around to the side to where there were stairs leading up to the second level. I climbed the stairs, then a ladder, and ended up on the roof of the structure. Peering down I could see the lights of art cars through the gloom.
After some time I grew bored of the view and decided to go down and check if any of the cars were headed out to the playa. I hopped on one or two, but they were cramped, stationary, and playing shitty music. Still wandering, a robotic six legged vehicle caught my attention. I had seen pictures before, and as it was currently parked I took the opportunity to climb up and peer inside the cab. I found two burners there, having a conversation. They didn’t know where the keys were, which was probably a fortunate thing for the owner. Climbing back down, I looked around me, then decided to hoof it to the giant statue of the woman. A must see, I supposed, and I hadn’t seen it yet.
After a long walk I joined the crowd around the base of the statue. The detail of it was incredible. The main structure was formed by a grid of metal latices, and over this was stretched a screen which provided further definition. Taking cue from a photographer I’d met earlier in the day, I took my cowboy hat off and used it to prop my camera up and take some still shots of the piece. They turned out beautifully.
At this point, I was really dreading the walk back, but finally, I was in luck. An art car had just rolled up and stopped to let its passengers disembark. It was not shaped like a dragon, or a boat, or a butterfly, but of a more practical design, and best of all it had some sweet beats flowing from its speakers. I took the chance to hop on and discovered that its owners had had the forethought to build a DJ booth into their car. Hats off to Camp Surly for a job well done. I rode this car for the better part of the night, as the dust storms came and went, and we drove around the playa. Occasionally we would stop and people would get out and groove on the de-facto dance floors created by lights projected to the sides of the vehicle. I met some of the camp crew, and a girl from Camp Gratitude. She explained that Camp Surly normally delivers insults to passerby’s (Fuck you! Want some pancakes?) whereas camp Gratitude gives people compliments. They were allowed to ride on the Surly car on the condition that they kept their compliments to themselves. We stopped around Nexus Mobile at one point, and had a great view of the dance floors and propane infused geodome. After several tours of the playa, the car headed back towards 3:00, and it was only as we entered the city that I realized that it was going home, and home was very far away from Centercamp, where I had left Elijah’s bike.
I jumped off in haste and found myself walking alongside some other former passengers. They were headed for a bar called Burningdales, and I decided to tag along. When we made it there the bar was dry and things were winding down, so my stay didn’t last long. Heading back out, I took Esplanade from 3:00 back to Centercamp, grabbed Elijah’s bike and headed home.
Saturday I woke up before dawn. I wasn’t happy about the fact, but decided to make the best of it by catching the sunrise. I thought at first that I would only have to walk a little while along H, but I couldn’t see over the motorhomes and tents. I walked down 6:00 towards Centercamp, but still the line of mountains wasn’t visible to me. Finally I made it out to Esplanade, and here I could see. The sun rose for me between the giant plant sculptures out on the playa. There were no fireworks or explosions, no dancing hippies (at least in view), but it was nice. I stood there for a few minutes soaking in the scene, then headed back to camp. Our neighbors the Israelis were packing up, and they offered me some beef jerky and almonds, which I promptly took to the neighbors across the street and shared a breakfast.
Most of the day was spent lazily – I was worn out and just wanted to relax. Towards the evening my neighbor Rick invited me wind sailing. I borrowed Elijah’s bike and we rode out to the trash fence near 9:00, where some folks were already out playing on the boards. Rick had done this the day before, so he gave me a few pointers. The wind was strong, and when I started out keeping control of the sail was difficult. After a bit I managed to get a stable acceleration, then whoa! Pulling too hard into the wind, I picked up pace and after a few seconds lost my balance and biffed it, rolling in the dust from my momentum. Well, that was fun! Hopping back on my board, I managed to keep an even pace for another 100 feet, then got off the board in order to turn it around. Riding through a turn was a little beyond me at this point. The wind carried me back to my starting point, and as I pulled in the wind was coming in stronger gusts, making riding dubious. Rick had found his own board in the meantime. He made his run, and we talked to some of the more experienced boarders before heading back to camp.
After we got back we had some dinner, and Rick and I decided to head out to the burn to grab a good spot. It was a relatively uneventful walk out to the man, just as the sun was going down. The rangers had cordoned off a border for the crowd and we grabbed a seat in the second row. In front of us was a family with a couple small kids. A friendly girl named Anna sat down beside me, and we talked as we waited. The man in front of Anna introduced himself as Derwood… He had come from somewhere in the south and seemed mesmerized by the experience. He gave me a home made necklace with a clay figure of the man.
When the sun had gone down, the procession started with a marching band circling the space around the man. Following this, the fire dancers came out in a blaze of glory. I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest fire dancing show in the world, or close to it. Hundreds of them tracing orange paths through the night. One event which I thought pretty comical was a man in a fireman’s suit, swinging a 1 foot-wide metal ball and using his whole body as a counterbalance.
When this was done, the fireworks began. Go find video of it on the web – it’s the best fireworks show I’ve seen in my life. Though the weather had stayed calm during the firedancing, it picked up fiercely during the fireworks show, and what we saw was intense bursts of light being immediately swept away by the storm. I’ve never seen anything like it. When the charges went off and the structure was lit, it too was beautiful to watch. The structure could be seen in detail from the bright light of the fire, as stairs peeled away, but the supports held for quite some time, until the whole thing came down at once. The man was barely lit when this happened, but he burned anyway in the rubble of the tower.
After the burn it was chaos. I lost track of Anna and Derwood immediately, and Rick soon after. The crowd swirled around the remains, people striding along to get a better view of the remains. The art cars stayed where they had parked, forming a string of dance venues around the man. I migrated along this string, going where the music pulled my ears and dancing for all I was worth. I saw fire, neon signs, yachts on wheels, and lots of celebrating dancers. When I’d had my fill I began the long walk back home. Along the way I stopped at a small shack which was enterable via a small round portal at the base. Inside was a sleeping girl, and two traveling companions who sat together and greeted me as I ducked in. The walls were covered in paper feathers. In the center was a low table and on it was the question – answers to which were written on all the feathers. The question was “What’s holding you back?” or something along those lines. I added my answer to the wall, and headed out to finish my journey back to camp.
Sunday morning was interesting. I had breakfast, then started to roam. People were pulling their camps down, and I saw them working to get things done more than on any other day. I heard Radiohead and chill out music playing as I walked through the camps. I dropped by Salon Soleil first to say ‘hi’ to Julian and Leigh. I managed to find them, though it took a bit of questioning as their camp had evaporated. I arranged to have dinner with them and accompany them to the temple burn. Dinner was planned for when the sun was a hand above the mountains. Next I dropped by the camp of my traveling companions and arranged to pack my supplies into the minivan that evening. They agreed to park the minivan at 6:15 and J, where we would meet after the temple burn. Having some time to burn I sauntered on down to Centercamp. There I listened to a presentation on alternative energy. The speaker was talking about the Nissan Leaf along with a number of other things. I asked him, perhaps with annoying persistence, about the possibilities of creating a range extender for the Leaf ala the Chevy Volt. His response was basically that the markets were different, and if you wanted a car tailored to that the Volt might be a better choice. Hmm… we’ll see. I am very fond of the electric/range extender concept.
I had a nice chat with my neighbor Mike. He had spent the morning at the temple handing out his coffin necklaces. He had brought a full sized coffin which he used as a carrying container, then as a table when he arrived. He told me he had heard amazing stories – a line formed and people would talk to him about their loved ones as he handed out the tokens. I knew this meant a lot to him, and I’m glad he got a chance to connect with those people. We started talking about food and I mentioned that I was looking forward to having Indian food when I got back to Phoenix. He remarked that that he wouldn’t of expected that of me. We had been talking for a few minutes more when our neighbors walked up and offered us Indian food. I hadn’t expected that! I remembered my plans for dinner, but this was too good to pass up. Indeed, that was some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had, and I gave my hostess a bead for her angelic mind reading. Before I could check in with my friends I still needed to get my tent and bags loaded into the minivan, so I first headed to camp WDYDWYD to grab them. We drove out and picked up my stuff in short order, and after parking back at their camp I hurried to Salon Soleil to catch up with my friends there.
When I got to their camp, the sun had just set but I was fortunate to find them once again. They had finished dinner and were doing their final packing. I helped one of their fire dancers carry equipment to her car, then stood around talking. Julian asked me if I played any instruments, and when I said no, he disappeared into his tent for a moment, then returned carrying a small clay flute. It was an ocarina, and he offered it to me with a smile. I accepted gratefully, and offered to teach him Go in exchange for music lessons. Go is a strategic board game which has been popular in Asia for the last 4000 years – if you’re reading this and interested in learning drop me a line.
We embarked on an art car shaped like a fish, courtesy of some friends of Salon Soleil. We packed the thing down pretty good, but it took the weight and made it out to the temple with all of us. There we got out and joined the crowd, sitting down close to the front. Sitting amongst masseuses and healers is never a bad idea. We passed the time trading back rubs and talking. The temple burn started with a line of sparks that shot out the side, then a green glow from some sort of incendiary towards the top. There was a murmur of “I miss you’s” and a few people were crying. The flames swirled orange as more of the pyre caught. We all had something to release into that flame. The blaze became an inferno, with a tornado of fire swirling out of the highest point. A sea of smoke passed overhead, dotted with sparks like a million fireflies. Impermanence. Lives passing before us. This was mankind’s legacy, a ritual performed since times long forgotten. An acknowledgement of our place in the universe. It was beautiful, comforting, and sorrowful. Julian’s voice rose within the crowd, a song without language. It was a part of the moment, inseparable and connected.
When the structure collapsed, we rose as one and moved forward. Our group held hands to avoid becoming separated in the wave of movement. When we came to the front we were assaulted by a wave of heat… even standing a hundred feet back the inferno was too hot to bear. A man had stepped into the center of the rubble, between where the two wings of the structure had stood. Through what power he resisted the heat, or the will that possessed him to come to that place, I do not know, but it was symbolic for me and I took pride in his stand.
We let the crowd take us away from the blaze. I told my Leigh and Julian that I needed to meet up with my traveling companions, and they walked with me across the playa. As we came to Esplanade, someone handed us their last bowl of grits, which we shared. It had cheddar and bacon in it, and wow did it hit the spot. Leigh split off, and we said our goodbyes. Julian walked with me until I found my companions, then took off towards his camp. The minivan was nowhere to be seen, but Bassel and Dana were there waiting for me. I was about a half hour late, and they said they had sent the minivan ahead to wait in line, and we should hurry to meet it. We walked out to the gates, then along the road where the cars were streaming. The cars were not being phased out in 15 minute blocks as we had expected, so we had no idea where our ride was. Dana and Bassel had no food, water, or protection from the temperature which was in the 50′s and dropping. I bit my tongue and pressed on. At one point we came into disagreement about which side of the road to walk on, and whether to cut across the curve of the road and head straight for the ranger checkpoint in the distance. I was fed up with the bickering, so I took off by myself. Worst case, I thought, I would have to hitch a ride home.
I made it to the ranger checkpoint first, and was met by one of the rangers who promptly asked me what the hell I was doing. I responded that our minivan was ahead in line and we were trying to catch up with it. She told me that getting separated from our ride was pretty much the worst possible idea. I agreed. We stood and waited until Bassel and Dana arrived. Another ranger got here about this time – I believe Malice was the name he gave. He delivered an excellent speech about the idiocy of our ‘plan’, for which I must thank him, because it saved me the trouble. After some asking he managed to find us a ride in an RV. A former software programmer from Reno… can’t remember his name, but his help was much appreciated. A few miles down, where the dirt road met the pavement, we found our minivan. We thanked our ride and transferred over. Todd had been worried about us, but everyone was safe, and we started out on the road. We drove straight to Reno, arriving around noon on Monday. We lingered until 5 or 6, staying with Bassel’s sister, then continued our journey to Phoenix. Glad to be back home, I took a shower and made some food before heading to bed.
Both times I’ve been to Burning Man, I’ve tried to capture my experience. The first time with pictures, and the second with story. There’s probably some irony there, considering what I said earlier about impermanence. In any case, I hope this has been entertaining and insightful to those who have never been to Burning Man. To those I met along the way, thank you and good luck in your journeys. I especially want to thank my neighbors, Chris, Aaron, Rick, and Mike for all their help and good conversations. If I got your name wrong, or if you would like me to get your name wrong, let me know.