Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
I had been working so hard on the Airstream. Six in the morning until ten at night, gutting it out, installing new skylights, replacing the floors. The first smile came to my lips when the solar panel was connected to the two 10 Watt Halogen lights. Blue light filled the concave interior like a shower from the moon herself. The fridge was connected to the gas tanks and fired up. Today I’m finishing up the with the woodwork, which I can do in my sleep. I’m not humming yet.
We end up leaving late. Dina has to drive Kimia and Sema to Cindy, who will have six small children to take care of. She lingers to help. I’m exhausted, but extremely happy with our little mobile house.
We pack up the fridge, nice and cool, with wine and Non alcoholic beer and pre-made meals. Dina thinks the inside looks like our house: A big white room, unfinished pine panels, a black designer fridge and two Louis XIV chairs that have seen the world.
We’re on our way at 4:30pm. We have until midnight to enter Burning Man. I still manage to stop at Radio Shack to pick up a portable radio, a must in my mind. We take the windy highway 49 from Placerville to Auburn. It is the first time I’m driving with a trailer in tow. A twenty-two feet monster at that. But with the exception of a gentle sea-like rocking, it hardly manifests itself as a burden. We stop at Auburn to get gas, blocking up the entire station. The Airstream looks old, peeling paint, dented everywhere. It screams Burning Man.
Passing the Tahoe Mountains, into the Nevada valleys, the sun is fading fast. I realize the running lights on the Airstream are not working. Which means we could get pulled over by the reservation cops and that would be the end of our adventure. Every time we pass a cop, I break and gas at the same time to light up the back lights.
Finally on the highway 447 to nowhere. It’s close to 10 pm and there are not too many last minute visitors driving up. The desert is profound around us. As we come down the last hill towards Gerlach, an explosion fills the air, far far away. It isn’t thunder, but almost. Me and Dina smile at the same time. Time for scientific power in the hands of spirituals.
“So you’re our squatters” says a burly man with missing teeth. “Welcome to Camp Clutter. I’m Tony. And this is Tony. That over there is our central tent, we do yoga at sunset and tonight I’m roasting a lamb’s leg. Sick of my vegan wife. She won’t even use my knife on her bloody potatoes.”
The other Tony is wearing a blue dress with white pearls. We only saw him in dresses the whole time. Cheap polyester stuff, silk scarves. There was trouble at night, a couple of local kids tried to break into the camp without paying. When they were caught, they started shooting, but no one got hurt. We arrived late last night, parked anywhere and went out checking it out. The people is what I like best. Everyone kind, beautiful, well dressed (or undressed). We didn’t go very far, just up our street, Wheelhouse, to 135o, down to La Playa. Music coming from everywhere. Big domes burning with disco lights. I’m in a haze, directed from place to place. On the way back, I almost pass out.
Glorious morning, perfect weather. Got my heart pounding, running after the water truck, wrestling with two naked girls and three naked muscle men to get a hold of a quick shower, while the truck is still driving away. We all fall to the floor and get covered in mud. Much dirtier than before. We’re laughing and rolling, and promise to do this every morning.
Really the last day before the burn. Dina is wearing a see-through top, red shorts, a red cowboy hat and long black boots. She’s turning heads. They call her a desert apparition, and everyone gives us drinks. We’re sitting in a Mexican truck, drinking margaritas, talking to a lisping giant of a girl from Mehico and her boyfriend from Vancouver. She is loud, and drunk. The truck drives aimlessly through the flat white sand, heckling anyone in sight. An oriental girl is spotted and hauled in. She has the biggest nipples I have ever seen. They give her beads and a pair of underwear. She ties them to her nipples. They don’t need to be cold.
We get off at an odd construction in the middle of nowhere. It seems filled with optics. “The observatory”. It has a miniature model of itself, with a captain standing next to a fireplace, in a dark wood paneled study. On the fireplace is a picture of a girl. I walk in ahead. There is a back room, an exact replica of the model, with a monitor on top of the fireplace. People are staring at it and laughing. Whoever enters, cameras capture from underneath. Rude, but I’m laughing. Dina’s happy she didn’t have her period.
We walk to the cathedral. This year it is truly impressive. Much taller than last year’s. At least three stories up. It is the most ornate structure you ever imagined. Curves within curves within walls. There’s a huge pathway to the Burning Man, then to the central camp. This year everything is more architectural. Central squares, streets, streetlights (antique kerosene lamps). We sit in the patchy shade and listen to the wind. We look at the horizon and share our bottle with a beautiful African queen dressed in green feathers. She laughs deeply. We are intensely happy. For nothing.
Various installations on the way. Nothing is not impressive. Not even a small field of computerized lilies adorned with bejeweled dragonflies. We meander in the desert, I play an old organ for a small audience, repetitive riffs that carry far. Everyone sitting on wooden benches in the shape of whales. We’re near central camp. And it calls us in for the best Chai in the world. We’re exhausted already, the heat intense, and crash out listening to a young bass player with a white fuzzy hat, playing some of the best funk I’ve heard in years. He has so much class, and he’s so young and beautiful. Where do they come from. It’s as if, everyone to my liking, conspired to gather up and serve me. An older women approaches me and asks me if I want a head massage. She produces a battery powered instrument she’s made, with dangly copper extensions. I oblige and I’m immediately transported to heaven. The music is like honey and I’m melting away.
It is at night that the desert comes to life. As a prelude, the two Tonys rush to tell us they’ve just been at the most incredible party two blocks up. We should check it out. Just before, Dina asked me if I saw the Boob Parade. She said it was unending. Thousands of bicycles are parked ahead, the music is strange, not quite African, not quite fast. Green and gold bodies are swaying in a mini dust storm. A man dressed as a butler comes to us with a tray and champagne glasses. “Champagne?” Sure.. Dina disappears to get the camera, the dancing is so intense. By the time she comes back a real storm is brewing, and everyone is urged to leave because of the danger of thunder. The music is fading in and out of the howling wind.
Instead of coming back we head out. It is getting dark, and we walk to the Burning Man. There is an entrance at its base. You can get in only if you participate in the treasure hunt. Finding gold coins at specific locations. We have them, but I don’t want to give one up, they’re so pretty. Dina goes in. She’s gone for hours. She’s the most gorgeous tonight.
As I’m waiting at the base, and listening to two oddballs with megaphone calling for something over and over from various distances to each other, a woman in yellow transparent plastics says “Stunned” to me. I don’t understand. She says she’s bummed because she can’t get in. I give her my coin. She looks at me in surprise. She says have you seen it? I say no. She gives me a hug and goes in. I feel great. “You missed quite a sight.” Dina says, emerging and holding a love poem someone wrote for her. I feel even better.
We read the guy’s poem on the way to the cathedral. I feel compelled to write something and leave it. I write one on the future, and a sad one for my sister. We leave the guy’s poem with his coordinates there. Dina thinks it’s a mean thing to do. “Were you going to call him?” I asked? “No.”, “This way, someone else might. It won’t go to waste.” It’s a shame we won’t be around when they burn the cathedral. I keep returning to it. There’s a wedding in progress between two brides, dressed in wedding gowns. They are holding hands, and looking in each other’s eyes with such purity, such love, that I weep. They are shaking in the desert heat. Fragile little things standing against so much hatred in the outside world. The outside world. I want it gone, this instant.
We walk towards a great noise. The Thunderdome. It is a geodesic dome made of metal rods. People have climbed all over it so it looks like a dome made up of people. Inside, there’s a show going on. Something like a Cirque du Soleil. A kind of acrobatics and dance, done with ropes. It is great. I would have paid a hundred bucks just to see this one show. A woman dressed as a spider is flying, Peter-Pan-like, over her victim. The gestures are powerful and perfect. It follows a series of mock battles between fairies and mages with different kinds of power, fire, water, knives, hypnotic, and so one. Modern dance at its best. A little boy is crouched between our legs and watching it with wide eyes. I can imagine the experience. We must bring Kimia and Sema next year.
Tiredness, alcohol, hours and hours of walking, and we still can’t make ourselves leave the clubs, the shows, the conversations. I don’t remember much, there was so much. I remember waking up to a beautiful face inches from mine, while the roof was spinning overhead. We must have been on a spinning something. On and on. Until falling asleep in the Airstream, listening to the local pirate stations. And what stations! One was playing nothing but a weird stretched out version of “Dark side of the moon”, every thing laid out on the coolest rave rhythm, unending. I dreamed of the dark moon. I dreamed I was swimming in a silver lake, part of a school of fish. All reveling in each other’s company, everyone ready to sacrifice itself in the face of sharks, men, mines.
The atmosphere is electric. The music is driving. Everyone is anticipating the burn. We get up early. So comfortable in the airstream. Such luxury to have cold drinks and a good size bed. I make brie cheese sandwiches for everyone in our camp. We have visitors. Russians and Israelis. The Russians are quiet. There’s a drumming circle going strong at nine in the morning. There’s a glance at me and David, the loud guy from Israel. I shake his hand, and give him a sandwich, to show no hard feelings, which I feel none. I am easy going, offering people portraits, making signs.
We separate to meet at central camp. I put the finishing touches on a couple of poems. So easy to write in here. I’m half asleep, listening to a man with long hair playing an electric cello. He has a sampling machine and overdubs himself, layer after layer. The effect is eerie, like waves. People are loving it. Dina joins me and off we are to the “Holy church of the Buzzard” where I find another gold coin. In a floating bed, we meet a young guy that I christen “The King”, for he’s the wearer of the King card of the Go-Gos.
Go-go is a game going on, based on a single tamper-proof set of cards. In order for you to obtain a card, you must do something for a person who has a card that you want. To have the King means you went through a lot. He is cool, with a calm stare, scanning the horizon. He’s going to meet the Ace, ready.
A man comes to Dina and asks for a kiss. He says today is his birthday and he’s soliciting kisses from pretty girls. He is at four hundred and twenty and by night fall he wants to be well over a thousand. He wants to see how far he can get. He’s carrying a booklet attached to a chain on his neck. We get out before a giant yellow rubber ducky. It has been recommended to us for having the most amazing drinks. But before we reach it, an old Russian motorcycle with a side car, in the shape of a mouse, kidnaps us for a ride. The guy keeps apologizing for its condition, saying he got ripped by the Hell’s Angel who sold it to him. Dina’s loving it and keeps taking pictures. She’s always been fond of old bikes.
We end up at a shrine surrounded by a professional light setup. We have an excellent and long conversation with the installer, a guy from Texas, who’s doing standup comedy in NY. We share Kids-in-the-Hall stories and laugh away. He’s telling us about his light installation, that it requires the flight paths to be diverted overhead. This is the flash we saw from far away. He has a gigantic diesel generator that produces 30,000 Watts, enough for a couple of city blocks. We promise to come back at night, but never end up doing it.
Too many other encounters, but on to the burn. Everyone is gathered around the Man at dusk, 35,000, in the shape of a star. There are thousands of fire jugglers in the middle and all kinds of fire hurling dragons and machines of all sorts. This year there’s a heavy duty fireworks happening before the burn. They raise the arms to everyone’s cheers and the fire starts. Really thick black smoke towards south, firemen in asbestos clothes running away. It seems out of control. The heat is so intense, there’s tornadoes forming around the Burning Man. I’m a bit afraid of the energy of the fire and the crowd, but it’s all good, the thing finally crashes and the real party starts.