***I found it rather curious as to why a place that is so adamant about ‘packing it in, packing it out,’ ‘leaving no trace,’ and
picking up every speck of ‘MOOP’ (Matter Out of Place,) can be so careless about air quality. If they are so strict and rigid about keeping the desert meticulous, then why is it okay to pollute the heck out of its air? Almost every night in Black Rock City there was a burn. And, not just a cute little sing-along-the-campfire type burn, but a massive stand-back-100 yards-beyond-the-guards kind of burn! One night, it seemed that the whole playa went up in smoke. There were around forty works of art that met their fiery doom, all at the exact same time! These large structures barely survived four days in this city before destruction! It was crazy! Bikers were pedaling as fast as they could from one burn to the next to see which one burned the wildest, and which would crash land most violently.
On a different night, Mr. Burning Man himself was sacrificed, but we all knew that was going to happen. The sad thing is, his burn isn’t even all that significant anymore with all these other bigger, and crazier burns. After he burned, the following night was “Burn Wall Street’s” inferno, which was much more intense than Mr. Man’s! “Burn Wall Street” was a mini version of New York’s Wall Street – four large ‘buildings’ to represent our nation’s greed. Each building signified the
culprits – ‘Chaos Manhattan,’ ‘Bank of UnAmerica,’ ‘Merrill Lynched,’ and the Capitol. The whole lot was titled “Burn Wall Street” and that’s exactly what they did. It was reduced to smoke and ashes. And, on the last night, the most significant burn was that of the Temple. The temple is a ‘holy’ place, where people come to pray, reflect, remember, and cry. With its burn goes a lot of pain, sadness, and suffering. As the smoke rises, the past disippates, and renewal takes its place. Whereas, I love the idea and purpose of this, I still belive the Man should be the main focus of this event, and the one whose burning means the most. Why the Temple outshines him, and why so many other things are burned, is beyond me. It seems that the Burning Man event is run by pyromaniacs who use any and every excuse to light things afire. The thrill of the fires burned out so quickly for me that I began saying to everyone, “If you’ve seen one flame, you’ve seen ‘em all!” Personally, I believe the new focus should be to, “Keep the air clean, let the artwork stand, and keep the big man as the big burn!”
***After a few days of cruising the playa, it was time for me to explore somewhere else. Being located near the center of Black Rock City, it is hard imagine that there is life further out. But, apparently there is, so I decided to head out to what I call “The Boondocks,” because of it’s quieter, smaller population. The further you traveled from Center Camp, the more sparse things got. But, don’t think there wasn’t plenty of life out there in the ‘burbs, because there was, but it was mellower, darker, and less ‘city-like.’ It was much quieter back there, but not completely dead. There was a lot more space between camps, and people, but there was still plenty of activity. I cruised around during the day, and also a few nights later and can come up with this interpretation:
Those that camp on the fringes tended to be what I believe were older nudists, who came to join the party, but also have their peaceful, quiet times, as well. I’d see them playing cards at their picnic tables, lounging around naked, or milling around their camps. I’m sure they probably ventured around Center Camp, the Deep Playa, and wherever else floated their boats. I also saw some younger camps out their, as well as good sized work camps, and because BRC is so big, there were some mini-Center camps (called Plazas) situated a distance from true Center, and far enough away from each other so that all camps (and campers) had a bustling area of activity to go to hang out. At night, the Boondocks came more alive, though the loud, boisterous camps were fewer and farther between than towards Center. There were camps lit to the hilt, blaring music, some overflowing with people, but not as many. In those ‘hoods, you can get away from the craziness if you want, where it’s much more of a challenge in the more populated parts.
Exploring the dusty roads, you will find every kind of campsite imaginable. Everything goes – and I mean, everything! I happened upon places called, “Slut Garden,” “Naked Bar,” “Fuck ‘n Suck,” but the one that got me to slam on my breaks and stop in awe, was when I came across the French Quarter Camp! Just like in New Orleans, there was a huge, two story building that looked like it
was plopped there straight from Bourbon Street. Upstairs, complete with wrought iron balconies where women were strutting their stuff, entertaining the crowd with their sexy dance moves. And, if that wasn’t enough to impress everyone, every night at 9pm, they handed out hot bowls of Gumbo to hungry Burners. Oh, but there’s more – FQ Camp also had a ‘Phat Tuesday’ celebration, as well as a Jazz Funeral, with a brass band processional and all, for ‘The Man’ after his death by fire the night before. Check out this video to see how fun this camp is: http://vimeo.com/30277666 And, as anyone knows who’s ever been to New Orleans…it wouldn’t be complete without the famous “Café du Monde” coffee and beignet café. Every morning the playa version of the oldest coffee shop in NOLA, “Café de la Fin du Monde” or “Coffee at the End of the World” serves up fresh coffee and warm, freshly made beignets. This place was bustling, and pretty incredible. See more here: http://www.blackrockfrenchquarter.org/ I stopped by one morning to partake in these treats on my way to a much needed hair wash at yet another camp, “Pope’s Massage & Hair Washing,” which was conveniently located right across the road.
I got lucky to be at the Pope’s camp just as he was rolling out of his RV for business this morning, and was his second customer. This man offers a nice, relaxing hair washing (and, unbeknownst to me) a lot more if you’re interested. His was part of the “Sensual Pleasures Camp,”which offered various other treatments for ladies -’Playa Foot, Playagina, leg and bikini shaves, etc.
Somewhere in this camp was the “Orgasmator,” a place to go and enjoy, well, you know… So, because his name is ‘Pope,’ and he is called “THE Pope,” I decided to go back to my camp, clean hair and all, and dress up in my Catholic school girl outfit. Burning Man is about free expression, dressing in anything, everything, or nothing, that makes you feel good. So, I packed a variety of odds and ends I came across while perusing Thrift stores in preparation for this event. This day I found the perfect reason to wear my ‘uniform,’ including knee socks and cross – I had started my morning with a visit with the Pope!
***Black Rock City has it’s own newspaper, which this year informed us was going to be titled ‘Dustpocolypse” and “The Dust Bowl of 2012.” I guess weather experts think they can determine these things in advance, but in my experience, weather people are wrong more times than they are right, so to them I say, “Pfffffft!!” What this year’s ‘Black Rock City’s Independent Newsweekly’ also informed its readers is that 60% or the nearly 60,000 attendees this year were ‘newbies,’ or ‘virgins.’ This could
be a good thing, or a not so good thing, in that the majority of the community would be clueless and inexperienced. The downside to this would be that they would take advantage of the freebies that are handed out, and clean everyone out of what they offer. The upside would be that they would ‘get it,’ or learn that this is a different kind of community from which they/we come, and that they take the experience with them into the real world and spread the positive word. A great example of a group of newbies who ‘got it,’ was a camp that offered a loungey type bar. I didn’t actually get the opportunity to visit it, but a fellow HOTD camper did, and talked very highly of his experience there. This group of mid-20 to 30 yr. olds, some who were newbies and some who were only here for their second year, understood the concept so well that they came back this year as a bar/lounge. They realized immediately that ‘it is better to give than to receive,’ and so they left BM last year with this imprint. Returning this year with some first time Burners, they set up their camp, paying it forward, to share and enjoy with others. This is what Burning Man is about – to reach out to others, not to take what you can get.
**The Night time is the right time – and a much better time for a bike ride than during the heat of the day. Every night when I needed a break from bartending, I was off on an exploration. Some nights it was down to the Esplanade and deep playa, and other times it was in the other direction, to what I called the ‘Boondocks.’ Both were very different. The majority of the energy and activity is found on the deep playa, which becomes like a mini Las Vegas with all the colorful lights, noise, and masses of people. The art cars come in hoards, filled with people; there are traffic jams caused by bike
riders; and there are bunches of people walking around. Music comes at you from every direction, blaring loudly, which you would think would be annoying and obnoxious. But, in reality, because there is so much of it blasting out different vibes, it becomes almost like white noise, blending together in a comforting monotone. Being out there, in the middle of the desert, yet amidst tens of thousands of people, art cars en masse (and all lit up,) and hundreds of bright and colorful art structures, it is hard to imagine that this place is barren and desolate for the other fifty-one weeks of the year! There is absolutely no life here – no birds, bugs, plants, water – except when 50,000+ humans decide to transform this place into this ‘city’ for the week. It’s a mind-boggling concept!!
When, and if, you get tired of pedaling, which you will, Center Camp is a great place to hang out and be entertained. This is the largest temporary, freestanding tensile structure in the world. With almost an acre of shade, a full-service coffee shop, two stages, art exhibits, and acrobats, this is a place bustling with activity. If you want a latte, or chai, here’s the place to get a decent one, but don’t forget to bring some cash, since it’s one of the only places that charges for something. Inside Center Camp is truly a circus – there’s no better way to describe it – bursting with art and entertainment. A musical stage features participants playing world and instrumental music, and another stage features poetry readings, comedy
acts, and theatrical performances. There was constant activity inside this ‘center of the city,’ which made it a nice place to hang out, mingle, be entertained. I found shelter here one night after getting caught in a white out while out riding on the playa, and found it to be one giant-sized, comfortable living room. Of course, it was packed as always, and there was entertainment everywhere. I had the pleasure of seeing a boy (probably around 12-13 yrs. old) performing on a pair of vertical cloth panels that hung about thirty feet off the ground. He climbed them, wrapped himself up in them, hung from them, wound himself up and then dropped from them, receiving gasps from the crowd who thought he was falling to the ground. It was an act that resembled one from a Cirque de Soleil performance, and one that mesmerized the crowd. This kid had talent!
**Day Two of early arrival (aka. one day till the start of Burning Man!!) revolved almost entirely around setting up our camp, ‘Hair of the Dog’. Since we have a good sized bar and sitting area, as well as a pretty big stage and viewing area, we had lots to do. And, we did it – raising the roofs, setting up chairs and tables, putting up the stage, and finally, stocking the bar. But, this was no ordinary bar, this is a Burning Man bar, meaning that all customers are served for FREE. Although, we do have a motto: “You bring the booze and music; we provide the music and booze.” In other words, we get it stocked and rolling, but we can only stay open as long as people continue to help us out by donating alcohol and mixers. And, they do!! People on the Playa are amazingly kind and generous-it’s just too bad it can’t be like this in daily life! So, after many hours of work, and we were all set up and ready to go for tomorrow, I was on my bike again to explore. This time I was impressed with the elaborate campsites, from huge Native American teepees to a Taj Mahal style tent, a mini version of New Orleans’ French Quarter, mini-golf, Twister camps, dodge ball, roller derby, domes, parachutes, RVs, and various random vehicles that had been transformed into campers (school buses, ambulances, tour buses, a hearse, etc.) Something that I noticed immediately was that so many of the campers, RVs, and trailers were vintage 1970s. It felt like I flashbacked into my childhood after seeing so many of them, as well as other ‘old skool’ camping vehicles. I guess, because people either took over their parents’ campers or they bought them cheap off eBay, they were represented en masse here in Black Rock City. Ya gotta do what you can do with what ya got..!
Music emanates from everywhere in BRC – the art cars, campsites, playa clubs, even some bikes – so it feels like one big outdoor nightclub. In reality, it’s a big circus, complete with costumes, characters, and the strangest sights you’ll ever find in one place. And, it’s a city that never sleeps with noise, activity, and energy in constant motion. It’s pretty crazy to think that, for one week out of the year, BRC is the fourth largest city in Nevada, and for the rest of the year it is completely barren and deserted!
Wind and playa dust kick up without a moment’s notice, so you need to be prepared with a dust mask and goggles at all times. White Outs happen pretty regularly and are pretty miserable. You can’t see more than a few feet (sometimes inches) in front of you, so for survival and sanity sake, just hunker down and wait for it to pass. This is a good time to kick it in your tent, hang out at a new and/or fun camp, or come to ‘Hair of the Dog’ and throw down a few drinks while chillaxing at our bar!!
According to the Urban Dictionary, the definition of playa dust is as follows: Playa Dust – n. (plah-yah dust) Dried, packed, and ground up alkali lake bed dust, specifically from Black Rock Desert, NV. It’s an unpopular souvenir from Burning Man that gets into absolutely everything. So miniscule are its particles that you’ll be getting them out of whatever you bring for years to come. No means known yet to man is effective for completely removing this substance from items that have been to the event; all attempts to do so will merely end in utter frustration.” You don’t really realize it while you’re there, but this dust has a bit of an odor to it, and a chalky taste, which is in and around everything. It really stands out when you return home and start kicking up the dust while unpacking. Suddenly, I was slightly revolted by the smell that consumed my life for a week at Black Rock City…as well as fascinated by the stuff. In fact, while doing a little research on it, I came across an article that listed what playa dust is made up of. See this if you’re curious: http://silverjacket.typepad.com/blog/2008/12/whats-in-playa-dust-and-pixie-dust.html But, even more fascinating to me was that there is a Facebook page dedicated to this dusty stuff! Yep, it’s true…check it out for yourself: https://www.facebook.com/playadust. There are even Youtube videos on the darned junk! Sheesh….I guess there’s more to it than just dust in the wind!
Keep your goggles and dust masks on….there’s more to come!!
**Because we would be part of a working camp (Hair of the Dog Bar & Rock Stage) we were assigned a particular address. Black Rock City (BRC) is very organized, and is laid out in the shape of a circle. (more like three quarters of a circle) with alphabetized street names intersected by the times on a clock. In fact, picture a clock with The Man in the center and roads spanning out from him at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00. Then, when you get to Center Camp and the living area, there are more times added (2:15, 5:30, 7:45, etc. However, there are no camps between 10:00 and 2:00, as this is the Deep Playa where massive numbers of art structures are on display for all to see.) Then, bending around the semi-circle are the street names (Alyssum, Begonia, all the way to Lilac, this year.) Each year, with more attendees, a road or two are added to the outside circle. Currently, they are almost halfway through the alphabet, so there is plenty of room to expand with population.
Our camp, Hair of the Dog (HOTD,) was situated at 5:30 and Alyssum this year, so once we found it, it was time to set up our small camp within the larger one. HOTD has been a staple at BM for twenty years now, so they have experience, a good reputation, and pretty large number of members. When we arrived, we were greeted by about 10-12 who had arrived the day before, and by the time we were in full force a few days later, we had about 40-50. We had a few hours to unpack the Groove Tube and truck, help out a little with the setup of the HOTD nightclub, then my friendly driver (JR) went off for a shift at the Dept. of Mutant Vehicles. (DMV*) I crashed in the camper since I was existing on one hour of sleep from the night before.
*The Dept. of Mutant Vehicles is the place where those who bring art cars, must register them and have them approved as playa vehicles for the week. An art car is a unique, motorized creation that shows little or no resemblance to its original form, or to any standard street vehicle. Mutant Vehicles are radically, stunningly, (usually) permanently, and safely modified from their base vehicle. They come in all shapes, sizes, and creations – fish, boats, animals, you name it – but must adhere to certain regulations to keep everyone safe on the playa. Since Burning Man is a foot-and-bike friendly event, maintaining safety is essential. Because of this, not all vehicles that apply can be licensed., and is crucial that they travel at no more than 5 mph, which is the speed limit throughout Black Rock City.
Volunteering at Burning Man is a big way for many people to ‘pay it forward’ or ‘gift’ their time. Gifting is a huge part of the BM community. In fact, it’s one of the main focuses of this event, as no money is exchanged (except to buy ice at ‘Arctica’ or coffee drinks at ‘Center Camp.’) Gifting one’s time is supposed to be done for nothing in return, but if you work a certain number of hours, the BMorg (Burning Man Organization) kindly feeds you meals at their Commissary, and may discount your ticket for the following year. (And hot dang, tickets aren’t cheap! This year they cost $400!) There are plenty of ways to volunteer – BRC Rangers, Recyclers, Ice Distributers, Medics, Guards, etc. – which is a great way to get involved and be a contributing member of the BRC society.
When I woke up from my snooze, it was dusk, but I could hear a lot of bustling activity out there. My curiosity got me on my bike and out for a cruise. I really had no idea what to expect, and I was amazed at all there was to see! The main drag is called the ‘Esplanade’ and I made a bee-line for it. (It’s also where the DMV was, and I was curious to see that.) On my cruise, I passed the Playa radio station, BMIR 94.5, whose music amplified down the Esplanade; Swag Mart, an oasis of creativity where you can create accessories to embellish your Playa wear; Pimp Yer Bike, a place to bring your bike for ‘bling;’ and a whole host of places to do, or have, just about anything your heart desires. Yes, there were even places called, ‘Slut Garden,’ ‘Naked Bar,’ and ‘Kamp Suckie Fuckaye,’ to just nick the tip of the iceberg. Believe me, the list goes on and on!
My eyes in wide wonderment, I cycled around the Playa a bit, but didn’t do too far, as it was getting dark and my bike hadn’t been ‘pimped’ yet with lights and reflectors so that I could be seen by others. This is a must for bikes if you want to avoid a collision, as it is very trafficky out there. Also, the population of bikes on the Playa is enormous, so blinging yours helps it stand out amongst others when you need to park it for awhile. On my journey, I came across an area called the ‘Fire Conclave Convergence,’ where the pyromaniac art car owners apparently congregate. This evening there seemed to be a duel going on between two of them, which caught my attention, as well as many others. These ‘cars’ are equipped with what I can only describe as fire spitting cannons that are mounted atop the vehicles. When triggered, flames spew out with such force that it lights up the surrounding area with a blast of heat and noise. I often heard unsuspecting girls scream from being startled by a sudden blast. Tonight, two of such vehicles were competing across from each other for the best and biggest flames. It was quite a show, as many times the flames are accompanied by sounds, a beat, or a pattern. I watched for awhile in amusement until I noticed a parade of absolutely fabulous art cars lined up at a structure nearby. Lo and behold, I found the DMV!
And, what a sight to see!! Cars of every imaginable design were lined up for inspection, and I was mesmerized. I had never seen anything like this before! There were cars turned into picnic tables, playgrounds, octopus, Viking ships, gorillas, sofas, snails, trains, dragons, etc! What a show! Just seeing what people’s creative minds came up with for a car is mindblowing! It makes you realize that you aren’t just dealing with some wannabe hippies here; these people are smart, creative and talented designers, engineers, and builders. Oh, one art car was made up entirely of oversized Legos, so you can tell what kind of kids these people once were. It was a riot seeing what people came up with.
Taking a break and chatting it up inside the DMV (which was really an open wooden structure standing on the Playa floor) I got my first real sense of just how dusty this place gets. There were a variety of old couches to lounge on when times got slow, and little did I realize that each one of them probably contained a few pounds of dust, until I sat down and a big puff of the grey stuff appeared all around me. At home, no one would touch filthy couches like these, but on the Playa it’s normal life. This was just the start of a week covered in Playa dust so thick that your clothes, shoes, skin and hair all turn ash colored. This dust infiltrates everything – tents, eating utensils, sleeping bags, chairs, food, luggage – and becomes your worst nightmare, and your comforting friend. You eat it, breathe it, drink it, sleep in it, get caked in it. It’s a bizarre relationship, to say the least!
**This program has been interrupted to bring you ‘The Adventures of Burning Man’ (2012.) ‘Walking in Memphis’ will be continued when the dust of Black Rock City, Nevada settles once again.
Burning Man (http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/about_burningman/bm_timeline.html) is a twenty-six year old gathering of people that has been described by some as an experimental community offering displays of art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance. It began with a few friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco, and now takes place in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, attracting nearly 60,000 people (and counting!) You can read about Burning Man all over the internet, but here you will be reading about it from my eyes – the eyes of a first-time newbie birgin! (Oh, you can also Youtube BM videos, for a pretty good visual of this event.)
Getting ready for Burning Man isn’t easy. This is a camping trip into the desert, where nothing lives except dust, wind, and well,
dust and wind! Campers have to bring in everything they will need for the week – water, food, clothing, shelter – as well as desert survival kits of dust masks, goggles, vinegar (for ‘playa foot’,) baby wipes, lighting, etc. Bikes provide transportation, unless you have brought along an artcar (explanation later,) because once you have parked your vehicle and pitched your camp, you’re pretty much in for the duration. Luckily, I had the good fortune of finding a ride (and a camp) with experienced Burners who were equipped with everything. I just needed to scrounge up a few personal items and jump into the passenger seat. Burners do not travel light! You will find every sort of packing on such an odd assortment of vehicles, making the drive to and from Black Rock a parade in itself. I was in a truck that towed a1967 camper trailer that had been colorfully painted to reflect the hippie era it came from. Appropriately named ‘The Groove Tube,’ it attracted loads of attention on the road, especially by fellow burners. While driving to the event, pitstops for gas, food, and other necessities, bring you to locations where you run into other Burners, who are very friendly and happy to be going ‘home,’ as they call Black Rock City during the event. The rest of the year, Burners refer to ‘The Default World’ as the every day, real world we all live in. Upon arrival, we are all greeted with shouts of “Welcome home!” and hugs given freely by all. At first I thought these people were a little overzealous and weird, but later in the week I came to wish that the real world could be more like them. Traveling from Reno, which is the last big city before things become gradually more desolate, through little towns like Nixon, past the last body of water to be seen for the week (Pyramid Lake,) through the tiny and abandoned town of Empire, to Gerlach, and then..there it is: Black Rock City (such as it’s called for the week,) the fourth largest city in Nevada during the week of Burning Man! On the day we arrived, there was a bit of a wind storm (not uncommon out here) so the dust was kicking up and the visibility was pretty poor. The drive in is a long one, as they like to get the camper traffic off the two lane highway as quickly as possible. Bouncing around on the uneven playa surface, as well as the very low speed limit, keeps traffic moving slowly and safely towards the entrance. Upon arrival, we first had to show our early arrival tickets (being with a working camp, we were allowed early entrance on Saturday, in order to set up for the rest of the campers who will arrive on the official opening day, Monday.) Next, it was over to Security, where a tiny pixie fit through what small spaces were left in the camper to check for no-nos. Once okayed here, the next stop was ticket collection, and in my case, Birgin initiation! I was kindly ordered out of the car and on to the dusty playa floor, where I was instructed to lay on my back and make a ‘snow angel,’ flip over to my belly and do the breast stroke, then given a metal rod to bang a gong and shout, “I’m not a birgin anymore!” Now sufficiently dirty and dusty, I was given a big hug by my ‘debirginizer’ and allowed to enter. And, so begins my experince at Burning Man!!