I said a bit ago that I’d be offline for a couple of weeks because I was going to the Nevada desert. As some folks correctly surmised, I was headed for that bizarre congregation of extremophiles called “Burning Man”.
And what is Burning Man? It is an eight-day festival of the impossible. It is a celebration of artistic mania. It is a place with a different set of rules. It is an ephemeral vision called “Black Rock City”, where crazy people go to get sane and sane people go to get crazy. It’s a periodic festival of art, music, and madness held in a dry, dusty alkali lakebed. It is a circus city of 80,000 performing participants that appears, riots quite happily for eight days, and disappears without a trace. Here’s are some Google Earth photos showing increasing detail of the location and the city:
Black Rock City, often called “BRC”, comes into existence once a year in the Black Rock Desert, which is about a hundred miles (160 km) north of Reno, Nevada. The lake below Reno in the map above is Lake Tahoe. The lake between Reno and BRC is Pyramid Lake. Here’s a view of the whole lotta nothing between Pyramid Lake and BRC.
Next, a larger view of BRC in the middle of the light-colored alkaline desert called “the playa”. Playa means “beach” in Spanish, but it only looks like a beach from a far distance. Up close, it’s alkaline dust and crust.
You can see the shadowy semi-circular outline of Black Rock City around the red pin above. Finally, here’s a close-up of the city itself.
It’s a mile (1.6 km) across the empty space in the middle of the city, the inner playa. The faint dot in the exact center of the inner playa is a statue of the Man, which is burned on Saturday night. The other dot, across on the upper right side of the red pin from the statue of the Man, is the Temple, which is burned on Sunday night.
The main radial streets going from the center straight outward are named after times, from two o’clock at the right, around (clockwise, naturally) by half-hour units to ten o’clock at the top. The inmost street running around the inner playa is the Esplanade. Surrounding concentric streets are alphabetical from the inside outwards. This year the streets were named Andromeda, Bacchus, Cupid, Diana, Echo, Fortuna, Ganymede, Hyacinth, Icarus, Jove, Kronos, and Labyrinth.
The dot surrounded by a larger circle at six o’clock (lower left above) is the huge round tent of the City Center. It is surrounded by a circle of various official and semi-official areas (Rangers, medical, ice, radio station, and the like). Here’s a view of the City Center tent.
I got to go because my friend David said he had a ticket, and did I want to buy it and go burning with him? … now, my rule of thumb is that when opportunity knocks, the answer is always yes, so we were soon on our way to BRC from where we live near San Francisco.
Once we left Reno, the only real feature was Pyramid Lake. It’s a gorgeous body of water incongruously stuck in the middle of a bone-dry world …
We got away easy with our trip from the road across the playa to BRC. It only took us a bit under three hours to cover the few miles from the road … the traffic jam is insane. But we were part of the early crew, entitled to go in before the start because we were there to work on building the city. Every Burning Man celebration has a theme, and a sign at the entrance to the playa itself announced this year’s theme to be “Metamorphoses”.
Here’s what the backup looked like …
As I said, at under three hours we were lucky. Just before the official start of Burning Man, the wait can be six or eight hours …
The weirdness started before we even got to BRC, like the mutant vehicle with green brains … I didn’t mention the part of Burning Man which used to be called “Art Cars” but are now called “Mutant Vehicles”. There are hundreds of these of various sizes from little two-passenger units like this one to huge dragons carrying a couple dozen people.
Let me say a few words about the rules of the city. First, there’s no cash, no buying, no selling, no trading. Everyone just gives things away. Bizarre, huh? But it works. Another rule is, everyone is a performer, there are no spectators. Another rule is, clean up everything. If you drop even a small scrap of paper, pick it up. As a result, there is never any buildup of trash in the city, it stays beautifully clean.
Once we got through the entry crush, we went to 3:30 and Bacchus streets, where our camp was. In addition to individuals who go to Burning Man, much of the city is composed of “Theme Camps”. Each camp has some theme. Here is a page out of the city guide given to everyone at the gate. This page shows just the camps right around our camp, a tiny fraction of the camps in the city.
I drank more than once at the “You Can’t Camp Here” camp dedicated to David Hasselhoff. And I enjoyed the description of New York Dangerous above, which says “Do all those dangerous things your mother warned you not to – your mom’s not here, but we are!” There are camps devoted to everything you can imagine, from grilled cheese sandwiches to yoga to music to bike repair, the list is endless.
My friend David who I went with is a member of the Voodoo Soup camp, home of soup and live music. We served soup every night, late. And we played lots of music. People loved our soup. It was a great thing in cool late nights to eat something hot. Here’s the sign at the back of the Voodoo Soup tent.
The night I got there the folks in the camp across the street were setting up a huge round circus-type tent, so I walked across and gave them a hand. I learned a new knot, one used to tie the tent roof downwards to the vertical poles. I was surprised to see they were using a Tirfor to hoist the tent roof up the center pole. They were surprised that I knew what a Tirfor was, so I guess we were even …
I wondered what the big circus-like tent was for … a few days later I found out it was for a circus. Go figure. Here’s an aerialist from one of their performances:
So we got the Voodoo Soup kitchen and tent set up, along with the piano, mikes, and drum set. A guy named Keys tuned the piano every day. I played it every day at some point. Here’s the finished exterior.
But mostly what I did at Burning Man was, I walked the city and I gave away mist. When I first went to Burning Man in 2012, I pondered a long time about what I could give away. My final conclusion was to get a misting sprayer, and a Camelbak pack for water, and give folks a cooling mist. If you want to recognize me if I ever go again, here’s what I looked like with my sprayer. Clearly a desperate man.
Now, that misting sprayer is the very best one I’ve seen anywhere on the playa. Twenty bucks on Amazon here. Most people at Burning Man used sprayers that just shoot water. This one makes the finest mist. This is crucial because the finer the mist, the more it evaporates on the way to the target, and thus the cooler it is.
So I wandered the city every day, cooling people down, talking to folks, and feasting my eyes on the mad carnival that is Burning Man.
And of course, it’s a thirsty job, so I’d stop at a variety of bars, and experience a variety of drinks. Imagine yr. author wandering through the city in a state of perpetual half-intoxication and total amazement, drifting from one camp to another, and the things that were there to be seen. Here’s Dr. Gatsby’s Snake Oil Elixir wagon, no telling what they’re giving away …
The Burning Man bike course, which I rode … part of. Couldn’t manage the teeter-totter, but the moguls were great fun.
Stumbling further down the playa I find Dorothy’s house from Oz after the tornado …
… complete with the dead witch …
I walked out to the middle of the inner playa to see the statue of the Man, which would be burned on Saturday night …
… and from there, I walked to the outer playa, to visit the temple.
The temple is where people meditate, and also where they put up cards with the names and pictures and thoughts about people who have died since their last temple visit. I put up a card for my sister-in-law Salli who had hundreds of friends; for Kenyon, a consummate seaman and a gentleman; for Paul, my fiddle playing companion; and for Kim D., a wonderful wife and mother who was gone too soon.
Walking another day, I found the Black Rock Philharmonic Orchestra practicing in the giant tent at the Skinny Kitty camp.
And everywhere there are mutant vehicles.
Even the US Post Office has several offices in Black Rock City, operating as the Black Rock City Post Office, including a mobile BRC Post Office mutant vehicle with the obvious name …
In addition to the vehicles, the signs are great … one for a carnival ride:
And one for a bar, this one at the Surly Camp:
Here’s the Altitude Lounge, six stories tall …
However, it’s not all blue skies. Whenever the wind blows up, you can get anything from a bit of dust to a total whiteout, and you’d better have your breathing mask and goggles … here’s a circus performance at the base of the Man in medium dust.
And always, the wonderful people.
Skinny Kitty teahouse circus ladies …
Me, I offered a cooling mist to everyone. If they said yes, I misted them all over—face, front, back, arms, legs, everywhere. I’d explain that this was no cheap mist-by-night operation, this was a professional misting. I’d tell folks “I have the best job on the playa, misting people”. When they asked why I’d tell them four reasons.
First, I carried my misting sprayer for my job, so I could mist myself any time I got hot. So I stayed nice and cool all day long.
Second, I got to make people insanely happy. The mist was cold enough to make some strong men go YIKES! when I sprayed their backs. Everyone loved it.
Third, nobody ever complained about the quality of my work … and how many jobs can you say that about?
Finally, I told them, to mist someone’s calves and shins, you have to bend over and get down to knee level to mist them evenly. That meant that I spent all day bowing to everyone on the playa, bowing to their back and bowing facing them …
I mean, how awesome a job is that, where I get to bow to hundreds of people every day?
And meanwhile, the Burning Man madness continued. Here’s an effective anti-theft sign on a lighter I saw on a bar … I didn’t touch it …
… oooh-kaaaay …
And everywhere there is art. Small art. Giant art. Bizarre art. Wonderful art. Inspiring art. Art in the sunshine and art in blowing dust …
Finally, the carnival began to wind down. On Saturday night, the Man was burned. And on Sunday, they burned the Temple. The heat was so intense that it created dust devils that cooled down the surface. You can see one on the right of the main fire in the picture below.
And all too soon, Burning Man was over. After the crowds left, we stayed on and took down the Voodoo Soup camp …
Some biking folks packed up all their bikes to take them home.
Everyone policed up their own area, carrying away even the smallest bits of trash, leaving no trace, and the carnival moved on.
What remains? Odd memories. The best quote I heard was from a Canadian woman. I asked what her camp did. She said they had a bar. What did they serve, I asked? She said:
“We have one rule. Whatever the customer wants, we serve them something else.”
That was a perfect Burning Man attitude.
And the best writing on the PortaPotti walls? You know how those just hold the excrement and urine until it can be pumped out, so you can see what other folks have contributed? … the sign on the wall said:
“Y’all need Jesus … and more fiber.”
What else did I learn? Well, I learned more about acting without expectation of reward. Almost always when we do something for someone else, we expect to get something in return. But with misting, I got nothing back in return. There’s great freedom in that. Heck, at the beginning I wanted folks to show their appreciation, or to thank me, and I was grateful when they did … but by the end of the week, I didn’t even want that in return. I just misted them and wished them a wonderful day and moved on.
The final thing that remains unsaid are my thanks to all the folks at the Voodoo Soup camp who welcomed me to their ranks—Craig and Michelle, Reverend Jim, Keys, my friend David who invited me in the first place, and all the rest unnamed but not unnoticed, you all have my great appreciation.
Anyhow, that was my week and a half in the Nevada desert. I can assure you that I was glad to go, glad to be there … and glad to get back to my home here on the hill overlooking a tiny bit of the blue Pacific Ocean.
My best to each and every one of you, my wish for all is warmth when it is cold and a cooling mist on the hottest of days …
PS—Let me answer a few questions I know will come up:
Is there much nudity? Clothing is optional, and people go around in every possible state of dress and undress. After while you don’t even notice when a buck naked couple painted in shades of green walk by holding hands …
Is there much sex? I assume so. My gorgeous ex-fiancée didn’t come with me, so for me no … but there were lots of camps whose tents were rocking. I didn’t go inside.
Is there much drug use? Again, I assume so, although the main drugs I saw were alcohol and tobacco.
How about kids? Some people, not too many, brought kids of all ages.
And pets? Thankfully, none. Otherwise, the whole city would be coated with dog poop and there would be endless dogfights, lost dogs, and dog bites.
Are there police? Yes, including BRC volunteers, Bureau of Land Management rangers, and other police forces. All relevant laws apply inside the City that apply outside the City.
How about health services? There are two levels of medical care. There are medical tents across the city, staffed by volunteer nurses and doctors. In addition, the nearest hospital maintains a fully stocked ambulance to take people who need it to a more intensive care facility outside the City.
Are there mental health services? Yes, the Zendo project has sites around the city with volunteers to talk to people if things get too strange.
Is it dangerous? Only to one’s mental equilibrium.
Onwards, ever onwards …