Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
by Barbara Sicuranza
burningman2000 — Back from Burning Man, and man alive it was a trip, not all peace and love, but that’s what I sought to put in my heart, as did many, many others. But then there were those who hung around to boast or gloat, in some strange one-upmanship…this their 8th or 5th Burning Man, I a mere virgin. And then the true revelers, such as my pal pogo, and there was beautiful ritual magic chants and ecstatic dance to be had by all who wanted any.
I burned up a small man of my own, a piece of wood just blew by me at our camp and I carved a man upon it, colored it glitter and gold and infused it with all I wish to purge from my striving soul, all fear and anger, my filthy dirty ego. A stranger happened by just before I set it a blaze, asked what I was burning and so I explained my effigy, and he asked if he could drop some hate into it and I said hell yeah bring it on, burn it up…it was a glorious fire…Wait, where am I?
Sign, sign every where a sign..I saw the writing on the wall, and it read, “Burn your ego.” What was I doing in the middle of the desert with 30,000 other folks (freaks). Burn it up. Burn it down. I was down. I was more than down, I was in it. But the writing wasn’t quite on the wall, no real walls to be found in the desert. I was reading the writing on the porto-san, and grateful this time not to be ankle deep in human waste. Today’s service at this Johnny on the Spot had been outstanding. A few loyal citizens of Black Rock City, Nevada, had taken it upon themselves to make our eliminations just a little more enjoyable. As I waited in line, I was offered a toilet seat liner, baby wipes, water, beer, candy, toilet paper, reading material and various other particulars that seem a luxury in the harsh desert. These items were provided free of any compensation, but many (myself included) returned to replenish their supplies and thank them for a fine toilet experience. Needless to say everyone left the public piss site smiling and that is an extraordinary job well done. Once inside the porto-san, I became aware of the accompanying recording, in the style of an announcer from the 50′s, a deep male monotone that well suited the situation; “Please remain seated at all times, please keep hands and arms inside the vehicle, please hold onto hats and keys.” I was seated, a rare indulgence, taking full advantage of my seat liner, I look up and read “Burn Your Ego” on the porto-san door.
Be kind rewind.
Getting there is half the battle. Or rather half the fun. We fly to Las Vegas, arriving after midnight and stayed overnight in a sleazy hotel. Ah, last showers, last beds. Next morning catch an 11 a.m. flight into Reno. It’s cheaper than a direct flight. Once we arrive in Reno we head over to the car rental where I’ve reserved a car for our trip into Black Rock City, only to find I haven’t enough money on my credit card to cover the cost, and my husband, Chris, hasn’t a driver’s license, so we’re stuck. Can’t help but notice the boys renting a van next to us are heading out to Burning Man as well….very much in the spirit of this tribal event we’ve soon gotten a ride with these boys. Kevin the director and Mike the photographer, our new travel companions are also from New York City. A few stops in Reno, last minutes supplies; thirty gallons of water, mostly non- perishable food, and a pink bird pinata top our shopping cart. A stop at a thrift store gets us some last minute costumes, its near Halloween so we are in luck; skeleton outfits, a batman mask, and a coffin add to our supplies. Its dusk when we arrive at the gate, our tickets are taken, and we are greeted into Black Rock City with a warning of potential drug patrols; Ranger danger, and a heartfelt, “Welcome Home.”
We set up camp at 7:30 and Gut. We’re quickly introduced to Mojo Tony, a mystical town crier of sorts, he’s camped just next door in the voodoo shack.. It does smack of home to me. Tony tells us not to sweat the Ranger K-9 units, though we see no dogs, he says, “They can’t smell anything, their noses are packed with playa dust.” Poor pooches. Our first peek around is after nightfall and full of neon and florescent piping, but many are building away, long into the night. There are giant projections and rave camps. Center Camp sells coffee and juice, the only hard cash exchanged at Burning Man according to tradition. It is a huge impressive shelter, couches, pillow, carpets, very lush. We lay around a spell and watch the beautiful world go by.
Next day we are up early and there is oh so much to see. People continued to arrive all through the day and night, and oh what the sun does against the mountains. Incredible light. Everywhere is a fantastic show, its almost overwhelming. Every faction of subculture is represented, along with everything else. You got your hippies, your goths, your ravers, your frat boys, your voyeurs, exhibitionists, modern primitives, media exploiters, and anything else you care to shake a stick at. And they all don’t like each other either. An undercurrent of sarcasm and hostility bubbles beneath this collective community. Chris was remarking on how it was a reflection of the world climate, a sign of the times. There just wasn’t all this anger at Woodstock. The first one, that is. The one he was at… Not the last one, the one with looting and fires. A different call to burn.
The man we’ve come to burn (at least myself and many others bent on pagan ritual complete with ecstatic dance) is being adorned with rope fuses and surrounded by bales of hay…finishing touches. Dust storms are raging, we invent flimsy but stylish masks with scarves and sunglasses. The larger sculptures and installations around the man are being constructed. The overall theme is the body. The head, the vulva, phallis and the anus being most prominent. The head is an impressive 20 foot high three sided face, made of metal, grass, and wood respectively. We discover a group of folks rigging together an aerodynamic go-cart racecar construction of sorts. They are laying down tracks and using bungee cords to propel the car across the desert. The wind picks up and slows down progress a spell. Rangers roll by and prevent any further progress on the bungee car. It is never to be seen again. Chris and I seek shelter from the storm (I’m blind and eating sand) at Center Camp. The storm is brutal, the worst yet, even the semi-shelter of this massive camp offers little protection. We crawl into a small geodesic dome within the camp for shelter. Inside the dome four people are tripping their faces off as ambient and sometimes disturbing sounds are piped in.
We lounge until the air outside is breathable, then wait two hours for mochas, this is not a bore nor a chore – the wild world surrounds and stimulates. We read the Black Rock Gazette and Piss Clear; the two papers printed at Burning Man. I learn from the local news that the head on the playa may do wondrous things. The head made of metal will cry fire and sing heavy metal. The head of grass will cry water and sing opera. The head of wood will cry sand and sings the blues. (We later caught the metal face in action.) Tears of fire. Magnificent. The Gazette seems straightforward, Piss clear is the alternative rag so they reveal Gazette cover ups and ask “Are frat boys and commercialism ruining burning man”? They may be onto something, but the dust is settling and off we go exploring theme camps.
Theme camps are a softly structured way to hang around with freaks who under any other condition may seem difficult to approach. A door. A way to mingle. Perchance, to tingle. First we stop at the BRC Post Office. Lots of action here. Some folks getting stamps, ink stamps, on their hands, boobs, where ever. There is a train of the usual suspects so we join the line up. The postal workers seem accurately disgruntled, and are giving people a general hard time. We arrive at a window, are given some forms to fill out and sent on our way. Strangely bureaucratic and deliciously absurd. The forms require we do service for another theme camp, in order to obtain our green cards. Our Green Cards will identify us as citizens of Black Rock City thereby exempting us from spectator status. A precious postal officer, Teddy is dressed ever so smartly in officers jacket and he is familiar with Mr. Stein, the rocker. Soon they enjoy a brief fencing match in the midday sun. Never a dull moment.
Moving along we discover the passport office, standing around trying to decide if I want to approach the information table or the humiliation table. We find ourselves chatting up a beautiful Indian guy named Two Feather. I must have called him Toothfeather 50 times before Chris corrected me. I thought he said Toothfeather. Well Tooth and Chris and I and a couple of naked folks are plucked off the end of the long line and asked to fill out some more crazy forms and to draw our pictures in our new passports. Chris and I bribe our way through the system with beads and trinkets and are rushed through to see the doctor for our physical examination. The women in front of us had drawn a portrait of her vagina on her passport, so there was some question as to proper verification her identity. After some discussion and closer examination they determined it was her all right, her portrait an “uncanny likeness”. Well, actually it was a weak drawing (up close her pie was much sweeter than the crude likeness drawn with magic markers on her passport), but after all, she was up on the table with her legs and lips apart, smiling. Lets hear it for that. Yee Haw.
My passport, issued by the ARF deems me “a free global citizen, and is not subject to political, economic, or social boundaries.” And that’s not all, it also states; “As a citizen of the Artists Republic of Fremont it is your duty to exemplify a code of social conduct which furthers the freedom of artistic expression; to question authority; wage a continuous assault upon the forces which seek to censor us; to be loyal to your own artistic integrity; to stand united against the lies and injustices with which our enemies assail us; to be pure of heart and soul; to lawfully and unlawfully uphold the morals of the anarchists code. de Libertas Quirkus.”
Traveling on we encounter another dust storm, they are sudden, sporadic and occasionally brutal, not to mention hot as hell, in search of shelter we stop over at Camp Haiku where I trade a Haiku for a drink, as per their request:
The perfect playa
settles thickly in my nose
where the hell am I
Marching on, we pass camp Menstrual Cramp where a bevy of personal feminine products are offered to all. Chris spots Two Feathers bike outside a tent and notes he’s probably fucking white women. Well, we certainly hope so. Stick a fork in him, I think he’s done. Maybe it was the fencing at high noon in the desert. Chris has had it, so he heads to our camp to rest and refuel. I press on, pulling my shawl tightly about my face to block the onslaught of dust.
Next I stop into Costco; the soul mate trading post to duck out of the storm and check out the soul mate reassignment process. It seems I’m short a soul to offer for trade in so as I prepare to turn and face the extreme elements, the good people of Costco introduce me to a sweet and slight brown boy from California who is also in need of a soul to drop in for exchange. Then Sam and I (no he does not like green eggs and ham, yes, I asked him, Sam I am.) He gave me some water and I gave him a “beautiful burner” bracelet I had made that morning. I filled out some more forms, what I liked and disliked. I couldn’t think of anything to dislike except ego and anchovies. They asked boy, girl, or both; I think I said yes or D) all of the above, but I requested a girl and hoped for the best. They took a video pic and I was on my way back to camp to re-hydrate.
A stop in at my favorite Johnny on the Spot on my way back. I am a sieve. Those kids are still out there, going strong. Making it a pleasant rest stop for all. I take some baby wipes and a seat liner. Ah luxury. I glitter these bathroom attendant boys up this time on my way out. Silver and gold glitter abound. Don’t leave home without it. Gotta get your sparkle desert shine on. Some kind of crazy diamond alright.
A few hours later, Chris and I are out again exploring. Copious amounts of fluid must be consumed at all times, so where else am I but on line at the porto-san AGAIN when my soul mate spotted me. “Barbara,” it shrieked and rushed at me. A flutter of crimson hair, a flicker of white vinyl (or was it masking tape)? Suddenly, it was on me, all over me, shouting, “I am Li Lu, I am your sou lmate”! Waving a sheet, proof indeed, the one I’ d filled out at Costco, complete with my tiny video image on it….How was I spotted? There are 20,000 odd people here. He/she said my sequined American flag hat was the giveaway. It seemed my soul mate was a drag queen dressed as Li Lu from the film, “the fifth element”. Ohhh. That explains everything. Chris comes screamingly swimming out of the porta-can and quickly snaps our picture. As we departed, Li Lu promised to visit, the form has my coordinates Umm.. Great. Our current home. Good ole 7:30 and Gut.
It begins to rain softly as Li Lu leaves us. Chris explains to me how he overheard some people whining that the soul mate exchange service “did everything backwards.” He says someone complained they had put down on their form that they disliked German tourists, and can you guess who they were fixed up with… you got it, A GERMAN TOURIST. Suddenly, I had a newfound fondness for the soul trading post. I began hoping our little Li Lu would drop by. What was his/her story?
I stop by Costco to pick up my soul mate finder form, and lo and behold, MY soul mate is not Li Lu. They assign different people to everyone. Bloody Brilliant.
Here it comes. The big rain. Like Travis Bickel says, “Someday the big rains gonna come and wash all the scum off the street”. But here the classless saints and scum reign free on the desert plane. Anything but plain. We pass the porto-sans during a rather disgusting cleaning process. Chris remarks on the immigrant wage slaves who are probably getting paid fifty cents an hour to literally hose the scum out of the porto-san to mingle with the scum in the street. Sand rather. No streets on the playa, unless you count the location grid.
With street names like Head, Brain, Throat, Gut, Anus, Knee, and Foot, intersected by time intervals. (i.e.; our address of 7:30 and Gut, the Garbage Acres, the self proclaimed white trash camp located at 315 and Throat and so on.).
We hightailed it back to camp to seek shelter, and discover that 20 dollar tents from K-mart are not a good idea for anyone ever. Wet, curled, and cramped the night creeps by.
Its maybe our third day in the desert, Hurray, I’m losing track of terrible time, a sunrise spectacular, and Kevin and Mike (of our Reno hitch and current home) have some eggs and bacon cooking like good little campers. Mike seems forever gloomy, Kevin consistently drunk and cheery. Odd couple. Chris and I can barely stand up straight, so damp and bent was the night. On a lighter, brighter note, a beautiful breakfast is had by all.
Today is cooler and calmer then the past and Chris and I make way over to the pyramid where Pogo invites us to take off our clothes and come on upstairs for sweet shade and comfort. Pogo, my friend from New York, a fantastic free spirit, is looking a splendor in his apeman costume for the upcoming Opera this night. We enter the pyramid; it is a massive and impressive structure. The ground floor trembles with drums and dance. We climb upstairs, strip, and are soon laying about having our tarot read on a rolling homemade deck. Everyone is naked, some are intimate but most are sitting chatting, chanting. Indulgent, soon I’m eating cheese, then chocolate, rare treats in this environment. The whole experience feeling deeply sensual but not overwhelmingly sexual. I sit in the small window and let glorious light crawl over me. Oh, so lush. Chris lounges and fills my eyes, so lovely. He entertains his own eye, forever the photographer.
Soon I ruin the mood and ask Pogo if he would be interested in checking out some forms so Chris and I can apply for our Green Cards. He laughs and says, “Sure I’ll take a look at your forms”. The form requires we do service for the camp. I do a little belly dancing number for Pogo and the tribe. Chris offers his photos he has taken of Pogo, pending development. Pogo eyes him, unsure if he has fulfilled the required service, and marks the paper accordingly. The form also asks, “Was soup consumed”? Pogo writes, “Not Yet”. We hung around the pyramid absorbing a bit more magic before turning in our forms to Teddy at the post office. Teddy with a keen eye notes Chris’ service discrepancy, and after some discussion and bribes, he is approved. Our passports were stamped, we were issued Green Cards reading: “OFFICIAL BLACK ROCK CITY CITIZEN This card certifies that the Bearer of this card has successfully attained the Black Rock City (BRC) Immigrations, Nationalization, Socialization Services (INSS) citizenship through the INSS Spontaneous Volunteerism Program (Form 18794A/2C). The Bearer of this card is a known participant of BRC, and as such is entitled to all of the privileges encompassed therein and is exempt from spectator status. Should the bearer of this card be found spectating, it should be known that they have earned entitlement to this activity. Also let it be known that the Bearer has either eaten or promised to eat soup”.
Sun was setting, growing darker and cooler, we venture to camp costume up and consume, yep, you guessed it, consumme, or rather, some soup straight outta the can. Those polyester skeleton suits we found at the thrift shop come in handy as the temp drops from 90 to 40. Mike happens by, the photographer boy of our hitch is home, he asks if I’ m eating my soup cold. I say “yes”, merrily. He says, “yum” and darkly withdraws.
Now for something completely different, Kevin flys in. The other half of our hitch, all brawn and beauty in his batman outfit and a charming cowboy to boot. Yee Haw. Night falls, and we crawl. Pitch blackest, save star spots leaking, peaking through the clouds. We weave through camps, sight by torchlight, Christmas lights, flashing disco lights, glowing raver sights, firelight, neon and sparkling light. I wasn’t even on drugs and the scene was a wild and crazy trip. Chris and I fall into the stereo egg chair and sit cupped comfortably together, and get down with James Brown. I stop in at Elvis Yoga to fire out a few rounds of sun salutations and your basic yoga wrap and roll, executed to ” shake rattle and roll.” A 12 foot neon head rolls by, I think there are a couple of people in it. I see Robots. A thirty-foot fire breathing dragon is battling a smaller dragon, puppets are serving drinks and insulting people, dancers and dreamers are passing by, pixies and pyrotechnics; this place has everything. Chris comments that this artistic explosion should be an ongoing event. We talk about what it would mean to create such a community, the problems, the potential, this fantastic playground, the escape from our twisted world. Jump start, change civilization, kick culture. He thinks, however, the hostility is too big. Give it another few years, a few thousand more people, and they’ll be killing each other. I hope he’s wrong. I like it here. I watch this technicolor dream drip by and uh oh, oh no, here comes the rain again, drip dry, by, bye.
Retreat to our “home” camp, no treat and another reminder to never, ever under any circumstances purchase a 20 dollar tent from K-mart. The zipper has broken and there is no way to keep the water out. Lightening flashes, and we hear Burning Man radio suggests riding out the storm in a car (its grounded). Stay out of tents, away from metals. Chris and I spend the night in Mike and Kevin’s rental car. Thanks for that hitch, that home. Let’s hear it for the boys. Bleary, sleepless at dawn we dispose of our shitty tent and shake and angry fist at the giant corporate K. We creep to Center Camp for morning ritual coffee and local paper action. A fantastic group of cybergoths are taking their manmachine for a crawl. He is crawling about on robotic limbs. Here a Satyr, there an angel, this guy has more piercings in his cock than I can count. Too much to see…sensory overload.
The heavy, consistent overnight rainfall has weighted the earth. It is much cooler today and there is nearly no dust in the air. My sandals are soon caked with thick mud and my feet look and feel like cement blocks. The two hour tour at Center Camp is capped with an offer of mocha for barter by the coffee counter boy. I rush to the counter with my homespun necklace, flashy red beads which reads, “I’m a burner baby.” Each of my barter baubles bore some unique phrase or design. Aforementioned coffeejerk, scans my offering and flat out refuses. No deal. “No candy raver beads for me” is his reply. Chris responds with humor, “You can’t eat them.” Frat factions in the subculture. This weekend warrior, this 19 year old eurobrat backpacker decides that an artistic labor that bore my sweet sweat in the desert this very day, is not good enough for a bloody fucking mocha coffee. At least he knew what he didn’t want, the picky bastard. Sadly, this exchange briefly affected my mood, but soon we were up, up, and along our merry way, plenty of roads to choose from and miles to go before we sleep.
Back on the road again we by chance run into Cary and Justin, a couple of infamous Dazzle Dancers and all around beautiful folks from NYC. The day is drying out and the earth is cracking up and falling in chunks from my filthy Flintstone feet. The dust is also picking up and kicking up. The air stays fairly cool.
I consider a stop in at Camp Carcass Wash, where you have the opportunity to strip and enjoy being washed off while relaxing in a plastic chair, get your hair washed. But the sky is overcast, the carcass washing water is cold, people are screaming. Maybe later, if it gets above 50 degrees, I’ll get a washing.
Cary pouts about the inclement weather and we ride out another storm at her camp holding onto poles and fabric to prevent the large dome from blowing away. A very gusty storm, we squint out and watch neighboring campers struggling to fill a large portable swimming pool. Cary, reading the tank asks, “What’s non-potable?” I tell her if she goes for a swim, just try not to swallow too much water. We are all squinty and shouting through the roaring wind, suffering a head full of dust when miraculously, a package of dust masks literally blows into Cary’s camp at my feet. The universe provides. Even this barely cheers poor Cary. She’s mostly pissed because it’s too cold for her to run around naked. Well it pisses me off a little too. Cary looks great naked.
Cool weather didn’t seem to deter too many of the hippie, pagan, nudist exhibitionists in attendance. I’ll tell you though, the weather was a factor in our decision not to perform with the Opera as Sunsnake and Moonchild as per Pogo’s request. Could not get into wearing nothing but body paint in 30 degree weather. But on the night of the burn, hundreds of spirited naked suns and snakes did, I couldn’t help but wonder…body paint…..does it keep you warm?
Fire in the hole. Fire up the whole. We caught the man already ablaze and it’s going up ahead of schedule, they say, an unexpected spark. All perfectly normal for playa time. Creatures roll out towards the burning effigy, and all slowly awaken to new ritual twilight. Fantastic spectacle. Most everything burns. Except for the giant man made of books. The artist says he will not burn. “Only communists and nazis burn books”, he says. I decide not to ask him what he means by communists.
We continue to cruise the heavily psychadelic afterburn. Everywhere splashes, flashes and dashes. Whoosh. They haven’t got words for the things I saw. We take a ride on the largest, fire-breathing dragon. Its like a bus inside, equipped with a stocked bar. I trade beads for a cocktail, the pretty barmaid is very pleased to receive them. We hang around a while, waiting to enter battle with another dragon waiting for us on the playa. The beast is too heavy, some must abandon the dragon. Tickets are demanded. “What are tickets?” someone asks. We are informed that tickets are bible pages. Chris happens to have one in his pocket, it was handed to him wordlessly as we sat around in Center Camp days ago. Never know when something might come in handy. We decide to abandon dragonship anyway, wishing the warriors well.
We head off in search of Dr. Megavolt. He’s not too hard to find. Standing on top of a large truck, between two enormous Tesla coils, encased in metal, brandishing a metal pitchfork, Megavolt dances with electric lightening. He splits volts across the sky with his pitchfork and sends currents through his body and out of his hands. The crowd screams for Dr. Megavolt. MEG A VOLT. MEG A VOLT. Wouldn’t you? Yee Haw.
Around 2AM we pack it in and drift towards the main entrance to hitch a ride to Reno to catch our 7AM flight to Vegas, then switch planes, and then on to Denver then switch again and then head finally on to NYC. Only a half hour of begging at the gate, most of the cars are too crowded to take us, but we are told once, “I’m sorry, that’s just not my thing.” We finally land a ride in an RV with a very sweet ride to Reno. Once inside, I fall dead asleep, awaking only when we are stopped for speeding. Our driver, a sober scholar and gentleman, talks his way out of a ticket. I awake again in Reno around 4:30 AM, as our lift stops for rest before skipping on to their base in San Fran. Again, lets here it for the men. We call for a taxi to the airport at an abandoned hotel. Our cabdriver calls us out as burners saying, “Ya’ll smell like cowboys.” Uh huh and Yee Haw. Bet your sweet ass we do. Ripe and right as rain.
We spend the next two hours lurching around the airport with a handful of scattered, scraggly burners. They’re easy to spot in this bleak florescent light. Very “Night of the Living Dead.” “They’re coming to get you, Barbara. Look here comes one of them now.” Except, I’m one of them now. Instead of eating flesh, we smile at each other, knowing, been there brother. Picking up our electronic ticket seems like a joke, isn’t there a form I should be filling out. We are embraced by a total stranger, a fellow burner, no mistaking, we all look like the tired tramps we are. This hulking Scandinavian, laughs with tears in his eyes as we stand on line. We are leaving and nobody is saying goodbye. We are bringing more than stink and dust and material exchanges. I’m getting on a plane with more of myself than I came with. All because, for one week, I was supported and accepted by a community, in the process of being guilty of nothing more than expressing my beautiful “self.” That is the very same spectacular self you’re walking around with and strangling at the smallest infraction of social misconduct. The trick in life is letting it go and holding on to something else, this formless idea of true freedom. Something like faith, a belief in balance, in duality, the all and the individual.
I got a lot thrown at me at Burning Man, a lot of swimming around in my soul. We get what we look for. I imagine some folks got really stoned, saw some really cool shit, got a lot of boners and even got laid. Well, right on. I think everyone is doing whatever it is they need to be doing, at any given moment. That’s the glory of choice. Hey, it’s your canvas, paint it.
Meanwhile back at the airport filled with grandiose advertisements, and judgments, concepts imposing who, what, or how I should be or behave. These lines are so very different. How quickly I remember them, hard, harsh, and crystal clear. I fear, these meaningless things (I do and don’t want), these people (I could be), this “real” world (I’m in and separate from). So aware of different directions. Lines we create where lines don’t exist.
On the plane I dream fight club, pyrotechnics, antiestablishment, lost in my coffee staring at my single serving lie.
But I know a place of my existence
a part of some mad free collective consciousness
the sweetest piece of my being
is a soul swinging
somewhere between Black Rock City
- Byron Bellatrix