by Rob Orndoff
Well this year was my first burn. I heard about Burning Man about 5 years ago in Wired magazine. I was very interested and always wanted to go. So in 2001, I finally packed up, and moved out. Here is just a one day journey of what two friends and I did at Burning Man. Things you should probably know: I come from a pretty structured background (military) and have not experienced things of this nature before. So many things in this story may be nothing to your hard core Black Rock citizen, but to a GI from New Jersey, it is a life -enhancing, perception-changing, experience. So here we go…
I woke up about 8:30AM because the sun was baking the side of my tent and it was almost causing me to die of heat stroke. I rolled out of my sleeping bag and sucked down about half a gallon of water. I eagerly woke up my fellow camp mates so we could leave the tent for the first time in the light of day and could finally see the objects that where making weird sounds and bright flashes all night long. Now I could experience the wonders first hand that I had imagined for weeks leading up to Burning Man. It was worse than a Christmas morning for a 6 year old. When I finally unzipped my tent and stepped outside, it was awesome.
Like a post-apocalyptic world. I saw my neighbors with their bar-on-wheels doing a morning tequila shot to spruce them up. I turned my head because I heard the slight noise of a motor, only to see a man with a cowboy hat riding what appeared to be giant wooden black and white horse powered by a go-cart motor. I then noticed some techno music that was providing me with some nice background music, and tried to locate it’s direction and admire the people that would wake up and play my type of music at 8:30 in the morning, loud as hell. The only thing I could think was “beautiful”. I wanted to go play.
Our group got ready and we had decided to donate some physical labor to Burning Man since we had read that you must participate and build this event to make it all work. We headed out to the playa towards the man and heard hammering from what we later found out to be the maze. We went out the maze and found the first guy with a construction belt on and asked how we could help. He put us to work. From about 10:00AM to 1:00PM we nailed the walls of the maze in place. It was hot, sweaty, and dirty, but out here I would get my first lesson that nothing goes unpaid. I came upon a man that was working on the lighting system and started talking to him. I told him my story, he told me his and then he showed me the trick to getting around the maze. That really made my day. Try working in a maze you don’t know how to navigate or where you are, it’s very frustrating.
After securing the walls I found the foreman and asked him what else needed to be done. He was standing with a look of total shock on his face that took me while to notice. He asked ‘Did you see that?” “See what?” I responded. He then began to tell me about how a gorgeous girl decided to treat the maze workers to a show and brought her man to the center of the maze, in view of everyone, and performed oral sex on him. This impressed me and gave me more insight on how this event worked. I contributed to the maze, I was kindly shown how to navigate it. The beautiful female pleases the workers, she gets to use the maze. What a nice system.
So after depleting our water supply at the maze we decided to go back to our camp and fill up. When we returned to camp we see that our neighbors are building something pretty serious. We wonder over an ask what the hell is going on. They tell us about the vision they have of “Pinky’s Bar”. A bar shaped like a pirate ship, with a sun roof, a dance stage with a brass tripper pole and all the down home punch you can drink. Seeing how our first experience went on the maze, we asked if we could help. “No problem!”, they immediately gave us tasks to complete. Well, in the end it took two days to complete the bar, and it really look astounding. We were told that we wouldn’t have to barter a drink as long as we were on the playa. We only took him up on the offer a few times, but it was great knowing it was available and very much appreciated.
After working on the bar for about 2 hours that day we decided that we needed food badly. So we wandered the 50 feet back to our camp and cracked open our case of military style MRE’s, which stands for Meal Ready to Eat. These thing were great for this environment and I was glad I made the choice to bring them. We chowed down and rested until sunset because we were drained from the sun exposure. After resting, it was time to go out and enjoy some new company on the vast playa. We headed down to drum camp because we heard the loud rhythmic pound of… drums. After observing for a little while we saw that every day Joes were just walking up and pounding on a drum of choice. This was the first time I realized that if it’s there, you can play with it. My buddy and I got on either side of the largest drum there that was resting upright on a large stand. As we pounded away, we controlled the beat of 7 or 8 other drums that where playing copaceticly. That was truly awesome itself.
After handing my sticks over to someone else, I turned my attention to the large contraption that I will now do my best trying to explain. It was a large tripod stand about 15 feet high with a large horizontal wagon wheel contraption spinning on top. The wheel had about 6, 50 gallon drums on the end of each spoke that were filled with wood which was presently on fire. The large fire ridden barrels had designs cut out on them that looked like primitive cave art so that the fires from inside would poke out the archaic designs. I noticed I was also standing next to a contraption that looked like a large welding tank on wheels with a long tube poking out of the top at a 45 degree angle toward the barrels. The end of the tube had a pilot light on it. All of a sudden people ran around asking people to stand back. Once everyone was clear, the tank let out a large pop of liquid something or other over the barrels, that exploded like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was so bright I couldn’t keep my eyes open. It was so hot I couldn’t help but turn around. It was day time, like standing on the surface of the sun day time, for a few seconds. After it was over, I involuntarily cheered like no other.
After the large display of liquid fire, it seemed a little dull there comparatively, so we moved on. We headed to a bar that looked like a large mason jar half buried in the sand. When we entered it seemed like a bar I frequented in NYC. Very nice inside. I saw the tenders making drinks and noticed a basket for bartering goods. I left them two glow sticks and got myself the best dam rum and coke I’ve ever had. After sucking it down, I turned around to move on, but an older fellow was standing behind me that was semi-conservative, resembling dear old dad. He had a large 1-gallon glass jug of pink juice. “What’s that?” I asked. “It’s home brew, you want some?” Well being an average guy I couldn’t pass up good booze when presented to me, I drank a few mouths full and then drank a few more. It was like nectar of the gods, it was awesome stuff. I drank more than I intended because a few minutes later I was pretty umm, drunk.
We then moved down to center camp. The journey there alone was worth the trip. On the way, I saw a truck with a man standing in the back with a bull horn screaming “BLOW JOB! BLOW JOB! BLOW JOB! BLOW JOB!” over and over. Then I proceeded to take 10 whacks on the ass from a spanking machine. I saw a glow stick in the middle of the road and reached to pick it up, only to find out it was attached to a string by some knave fellow and he yanked it away before I could grab it. I thought, “only at burning man.” I examined a to-scale wire frame buffalo and proceeded to check for it’s gender accuracy, and then I made a playa puddle.
Center camp didn’t impress me much. I thought, that like any city, the place to be was the back alleys, the underground. I wanted to check out what happened where the lights were lower. I walked around and found a large open box in front of a camp, and in every way it looked like a treasure chest. I looked inside and then someone behind me said “What do you want? You give, you get.” I said “Well I really want that bottle of gin, but I don’t have much to trade. How about a massage?” The young lady agreed. I gave her the best massage I had in me, she gave me gin. A win-win situation.
After housing some gin, I moved on exploring the “Give a plastic spoon, get a metal spoon” camp and also the thunder dome, where 2 volunteer contestants bungee cord themselves into a dome and battle it out with large sticks mad-max style. I found myself walking down a dark street with no one on it. A large scaffolding was standing before me, probably 50 feet high. I then noticed a bowling ball on the ground at the bottom with several ball imprints on the ground immediately around me. The proverbial light bulb went off. A young brave soul passed me and asked me about it. I shared with him my idea on the situation. We climbed to the top and he dropped the bowling ball off onto the ground. A very simple concept, but where else on this earth would you get to do such a thing?
While roaming to my next location I found myself out on the vast playa and really couldn’t see much due to the dust blowing around. I could hear what sounded like a marching band off in the distance. I stopped to see if it was coming or going. It was getting closer and then out of the darkness, a full fledge marching band, with uniforms and all, marched right on by. They came from darkness and headed right off into it again, just playing their hearts out.
I wondered around the rest of the night meeting person after person. Dancing in club after club and generally wearing myself out. I made it back to the Man probably around 4:00AM where it was packed. I talked to several people and we all watched the sun come up. That night set the tone for the rest of my time in Black Rock City. It took me a while to adjust to a world that had almost the opposite rules I had lived with all my life: E.G. If you DIDN’T dress up funny you are the weird one.
Burning Man to me was like starting a new job, only more fun. Let me explain that analogy: You know what your going for, but you don’t know exactly what to expect, who you’ll meet or exactly what is expected of you. There is certain lingo you have to learn quickly and doesn’t make much sense at first but becomes part of your daily vernacular: E.G. playa. Once you adjust to living in Black Rock City, it’s hard to immediately remember the rules of the other world outside of it. When I got back to the my old society, I, in some small way, had the same feeling I had when I first got to Burning Man; strange, different. I could feel myself adapting back to my old life. But did I really want to?