by Russell Wilcox
1996. My first Burning Man. I had just driven through Gerlach. Behind me, a trailer held the solar-powered electric car I had built in Sacramento, ready for its first test on the playa. I found the entrance to the playa off highway 34, but from there the directions were vague.
“Go straight out two-and-a-half miles and turn right.”
“What should I look for?”
“Just keep going. You’ll see it.”
The route on the playa was a trackless free-for-all. A corridor of dust indicated there were other cars driving near me, somewhere. At the expected point on the odometer I turned, and faced the wind so the dust was gone. Still, I could see nothing but mirages in the distance. Trusting, I continued, but increasingly worried that this was to be a grand tour of the largest expanse of flat land in North America. Suddenly, tiny spots appeared in the mirage pools, and then more, and then a vista of tents and trucks and cars, with a few taller structures that were unrecognizable. Clearly this was the “city”, but why had it been so hard to see?
Later, I realized the trick. See, when the ground is hot, the air near the ground is less dense than the air above it. This makes light rays always bend a small angle upward when they are near the ground. Rays from the distant sky head ground-ward and are bent to horizontal so you see the sky where the ground should be, making mirages. The rays of light from Black Rock City are bent up toward the sky and are never seen from ground level, except when you get close.
Black Rock was the Invisible City, shrouded in mirages by heat and flatness, those old friends.
In Sacramento I had been working fourteen hour days for a week to get the Solar Car running, and didn’t slow down when it was time to test it on the playa. A four wheel, four seat pedal car with solar panels and motor added, it was a kludged-together beast. Everything was going wrong, but I was prepared with tools and spares and determination. One by one I fixed the problems, lying on my back under the chassis, soldering flamed-out transistors. A topless babe in the next camp wanted a ride, and me being new to this bare-titty attention, I worked with ever greater enthusiasm, not pausing for a second to eat or drink till the job was done.
It was time to take her out for a good, long ride, my reward. She sat back and enjoyed the view, holding onto a metal support tube that went up to the solar panels. We were zooming past Water Woman when she exclaimed “this pole is getting really hot!” I resisted the impulse to make crude puns, and told her it was normal, no problem. Suddenly smoke started to spew out of the metal tube, and the wires above our heads caught fire. I stopped and she leapt screaming from the car. I flipped the emergency power cutoff switch and the fire went out, but it took a bit of convincing to get her back in the car so I could laboriously pedal her home. We finally got back, she ran to her campmates and I resumed my soldering and wrenching, ever more determined to find that short circuit.
Soon, I felt a bit faint.
“You need something to eat” said my friend, and started to make dinner.
“Excuse me. I think I’ll lie down till then.” I said. I went behind the tent, barfed my guts out all over the playa and collapsed. When I could walk, my friend took me to a more cushy camp where I could recline in a soft lounger and they fed me water and a fresh tomato and Swiss cheese sandwich on sourdough. It was one of my most memorable meals.
Later that night I was well enough to go watch the burning of the Hellco tower.
I was supposed to meet my friends in center camp to catch the bus to Fly Hot Springs, but missed them. The next bus was so late, I gave up. “But wait,” I thought, “I’ve got my Solar Car. I’ll make the scene in style!” The journey was four miles-longer than the car had ever been run-so things started breaking. Toward the end I had to rip the main power cable off the emergency switch, strip the insulation with my teeth, and jam it by hand onto a copper terminal to keep going, green sparks falling on my head when I ran over bumps.
When I arrived at the springs I felt triumphant, but my friends were already gone. “What the hell” I thought. “I’ll take a dip since I’m here.” There was a huge main pool that wasn’t too hot, and so deep that you had to tread water unless you stayed near the shore. I found a quiet, secluded spot near some bushes to relax in. Soon I noticed that a half-immersed man and woman near me were holding onto each other, moving up and down slowly, and grinning. And there were two other couples nearby doing the same thing. I began to think that my Solar Car wasn’t the babe-magnet I had hoped (at least not when it’s on fire!). Feeling surrounded and out-of-place, I swam back to the opposite shore and prepared to leave.
All of a sudden there was a loud noise overhead. The news media helicopter roared over us and circled around and around, pointing the door down toward the bathers so the cameramen could get shots. Here was this warm water oasis, where naked people were discreetly making love, and now it sounded like a war or a police raid. Suddenly I felt indignation and outrage, a sense of invasion and violation. Being a cinematographer and voyeur myself, I was surprised at my visceral, emotional reaction. I shook my fist and cursed at them. Now I could understand the disdain so many burners felt for the newsmen and the peeping-Tom camera freaks. Ignoring me, they finally left, cameras full of porno.
I fixed the car and drove back. I was clean, renewed, and felt a closer connection to the city, now beginning to glow in twilight.
I was driving the Solar Car far out on the playa, cruising for art. I stopped at a line of images stretched across my path. A photographer had been working on a book of pictures from the Apollo space missions, and had tacked a series of prints to the ground in a line that told the story of going to the moon. Walking along the line, I saw a picture of the astronauts’ moon buggy on a desolate lunar landscape. It looked shockingly like my Solar Car.
As I drove off. My Solar Car was the moon buggy. The playa was the moon. I had landed at a densely populated space port. For a few minutes, I could believe this.
At Burning Man I was surrounded by artists but didn’t count myself as one. Despite my many previous creative projects in various media, I didn’t think I had gone through any kind of initiation that would define me as other than a dilettante. The Solar Car an Art Car? Nah! It was a statement of belief in “green” technology, but not art.
By this time I grew tired of the Solar Car and decided to create something new. I built a playa installation called The Tetrahedron, my first laser sculpture. Metal towers and wooden pylons rose above the ground, supporting a glowing geometry of laser beams above people’s heads. They would see the figure at night from afar, and come over to walk underneath and marvel. I was always there when it was on, so I watched and talked to them. All kinds of people had different positive reactions, but a few seemed to strongly connect with the sculpture and “get it.” One or two verbalized their feelings; “contemplative” “like a constellation.” These were exactly the words I used when trying to explain the work’s intended feeling before building it. Somehow, by creating a completely abstract work, I was able to communicate to a few people with surprising precision, making my words pop into their heads almost by magic.
Two-thirty in the morning, and no-one was coming by. Time to shut down. Freezing cold, I couldn’t feel my lips anymore. The moon was framed in a triangle of laser beams above my head. I thought about the effect my work had had on people over the last few nights. Looking up, I said “I am an artist.”
It was a revelation. A pivotal moment. I now had a new purpose that has become the most important thing in my life.
The sculpture thing had taken off in a big way. Now I was being funded to make the Beaming Man, a 4000 foot long human figure that was the year’s theme-art focus. I had a crew of twenty people, a shop, heavy equipment and all the support the Burning Man organization could lend. Fourteen days of round the clock work in the worst weather ever. Our shop was a metal container with mechanical, electronic and optical work benches, often with three guys laboring in there at a time. One guy practically keeled over when the temperature hit 120, but it was the place to be during the dust storms. Me, I was in workaholic paradise, flying on a work high the whole time, never stopping. The more nurturing of my crew would practically have to feed me like a baby bird so that I, oblivious to my physical needs, wouldn’t injure myself.
We’d had the arms and legs working for a few days but, slowed by the storms, we were still assembling the head on Saturday. As it was getting dark, we began the nighttime alignment procedures we had developed from the previous setups. I worked the electronics to move a low-powered laser beam while a guy far away with a walkie-talkie told me where it was pointed. Move the spot along the ground until it’s in front of the tower, then move on up to the target. Just then, light and smoke and fireworks flew up in the distance.
“Damn! They’re burning The Man already.”
“Oh well, I’ve seen a few.”
“Yeah, let’s continue.”
We systematically aligned the last laser beam to its target, so I sped over to the laser source on my bike to crank the beams up to full power. The geometric form of the Beaming Man’s head glowed brightly, and my crew whooped and hollered over the radio. A thundering whoop and holler went up far away, thousands of people going berserk. They couldn’t have seen the head come on from that distance. The Man had fallen.
He’d died finally, and his escaping consciousness came to inhabit his spirit body, the omnipresent, lighter-than-air body that floated above the playa, and would be gone forever the next day.
Having missed the burn last year, I was determined to see and appreciate it this year. I knew I’d have to go back and activate my laser installation for an after-burn party, but for now I would be a spectator. The full array of costumed and lit-up burners had arrived in all their wacky vehicles. Party buses and mobile lounges ringed the outside, while people milled about wearing E.L. wire and glowsitcks and LEDs and fluorescent UV lamps. Having made The Grid-another laser art piece-I didn’t feel sheepish walking around in a T-shirt.
A reporter was interviewing a couple of beer-swilling yahoos. “Why doesn’t anyone report on my experience of Burning Man?” I thought. Minutes earlier, I had been interviewed by NPR. Still bothered about what I hadn’t said, I wandered through the crowd imagining brilliant sound bites.
Fire dancers. Fireball cannons. Fireworks. And then The Man started to burn. It was a terrific conflagration, fuelled by him and his wooden pedestal, creating a strong updraft that lofted smoke and embers high into the sky. Those who wanted to appear enthusiastic shouted “Burn him! Whoooo!” I stood serenely by until the flaming column started to spawn twisting tubes of smoke that moved on their own across the circle. One after the other these smoke devils headed out toward the crowd, running into each other, joining, disappearing. Everyone went nuts. I-the calmest, most rational person around-was yelling my head off too. Nature had decided to pay a visit, make a special appearance, upstaging everything as usual. Her power and beauty dazzled even those of us who’ve seen it all, and we were honored.
As Burners, our way is not to approach Nature with head bowed, knees bent, and hands proffering a humble sacrifice, but to look Her straight in the face and scream and laugh and jump up and down.