by Angela Sanders
After seven long hours in the RV, Greg, his girlfriend Pia, my boyfriend Steve, and I pass through the town of Gerlach, and we see before us the vast lake bed known as the playa. In the distance is the sparkling reflection of what looks like a small city. It grows in size at our approach, becoming a colorful sea of tents and structures. Vehicles are lined up for over a mile waiting to go in. We have finally made it to our destination, Black Rock City.
“Welcome home,” says a woman as she takes our ticket at the gate. She is wearing a blue and silver sarong with silver vines painted on her bare chest. On her head sits a dusty pink cowboy hat and around her neck hung an equally dusty pair of ski goggles painted with red flames. We smile and wave and make our way into the festival.
We have arrived a day before the actual start of the event. Although it is dusk and not terribly warm, Steve and Greg get right to work setting up our shade structure, a blue tarp held up by five poles and reinforced with rebar. The heat gets intense early in the Nevada desert, and we want to be ready for tomorrow. Bursts of flame on the horizon tempt me to explore but curiosity cannot overpower my exhaustion. As night begins to fall we each collapse into our camping chairs and, with our first cold beers, make a toast to good times. We sit back and relax to the sound of a distant drum circle.
Early the next morning heat pulls me from a heavy slumber. For a moment, in the fog of waking, I think I am at home. Then the realization of my true surroundings bolts through me like the childhood excitement of Christmas morning. Steve and I dress and step outside of the RV. We decide to explore our new world by walking to the Center Camp Café, where we can buy fresh coffee. Coffee and ice are the only things for sale in Black Rock City, which is otherwise a pay-it-forward community.
Center Camp is enormous. Under a multi-colored pavilion tent, it teems with hundreds of people. Some sit on painted benches watching everyone walk by while others stroll casually through the crowd. My eyes scan the human collage of multi-colored dreadlocks, sarongs, dangling penises, naked breasts, painted bodies, sequin dresses, feathered masks, glittering wings, and dust-covered smiles. An open space in the center holds a group silently practicing an advanced form of yoga. Sitting on the sideline is a man in a dusty orange sarong playing a sitar. His long gray beard nearly touches the floor.
We spend a large part of the day, between trips to the porta-potties, sitting in the shade of our camp. Before us passes a constant pageant: a golf cart covered with plastic goats, fifty people in streaming white gauze marching silently as their leader mournfully chants, a flatbed truck hauling space-suited folks dancing to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” three stilt walkers reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil.
Within a few days I am adjusted to desert existence. I wake, brush my teeth, re-braid my hair, apply some sunscreen and dab on a good deal of patchouli oil to cover the scent of my unwashed body. Our RV’s water pump is broken, so no showers until we get back home. Oddly enough, I am not too upset. The dry heat keeps my skin from getting too oily, and I actually kind of like the earthy feel of the dust on my skin. As I step out of the RV a water truck slowly drives by spraying water on the road to keep dust down. Four naked people jog behind it, showering under the spray. Hopefully I won’t become that desperate!
As we sit under the shade structure with our morning coffee, a new arrival introduces himself as Exactly. I marvel at his clean hair and dust-free clothes and feel a pang of sorrow for him. By arriving halfway into the week he has already missed so much! Exactly excitedly leans forward and tells us about the art installation he has brought: a six-foot tall Mirror of Truth. We beg him to show it to us. Steve helps him carefully pull it out of his trailer and they set it before us. The mirror is housed in a large black lacquer box and at first glance appears no different from a standard full-length mirror. “Look again,” says Exactly. “Your image is a true image, not the reverse that normal mirrors usually show.” I look again and yes, I see it! This is the way others see me. I appear only slightly different, but better in a way. I smile and wave at the real me, changing positions to see different angles until Pia melodramatically pushes me out of the way so she can have her turn.
That night, as we prepare to go out, an enormous shark on wheels pulls up next to our camp. The driver shouts, “Hey, any of you want to go watch some big art burn?” Without hesitation we jump on board. The decision is so spontaneous that I even forget my shoes! The brightly lit shark zooms across the playa and the wind blowing all around me is exhilarating. Dozens of other art cars pass by.
Art installations of all kinds are spread out over the playa. Not having brought a bike to travel long distances, this is the first time I get to see many of them. We stop at a structure called the “House of Cards,” literally built out of ten-foot plywood playing cards. The growing crowd is pushed back to a safe distance while two men use homemade flamethrowers to torch the structure. As the fire grows, waves of heat roll over us and we are forced back several feet. Our driver turns on techno music for the crowd that now numbers over a hundred, and we dance around in joy at having shared an awesome experience.
Our next stop is the “Space Chandelier,” a twenty-foot glowing red lamp that hums steadily with its own power. As we sit appreciating the work, a man runs up breathing heavily. “Somebody please come help us, there has been an accident!” Greg, who is an EMT, jumps back into the shark and they drive over. We wait for half an hour, hoping that everything is okay. After a while, we see the lights of an emergency vehicle reach the accident, and the shark car returns with Greg. Apparently there was an unlit art installation, and a bicyclist fell onto some uncovered rebar that punctured her side. The woman was frightened and in a great deal of pain but she was going to be okay. Greg held her hand and calmed her until the medics came. We drive back to camp a much more somber group.
Saturday arrives and an almost tangible excitement fills the air. It is the day of the burn, when the Man of Black Rock City is set on fire. The census is at a record this year, with over 30,000 citizens in the city. I have been anticipating the dreaded influx of frat-boys and weekenders who come just to watch stuff burn and check out naked chicks but luckily have spied only a few.
That afternoon I decide to take a walk alone to bathe in more of the experience and the community before it all ends. As I walk along and see the people living so harmoniously together, I wish that my everyday existence could be like this. I wish that people could dress how they truly want to, that we could all have the freedom to be the individuals that we can be here. Mostly I wish that the rest of the world could share the kind of love and acceptance that exists in Black Rock City. I feel an intrinsic bond with every person around me, like I have a family of thousands.
Night falls and we go out to find a good place to watch the burn. The crowd is already immense as hordes of people stream out onto the open playa. Around the man several hundred fire dancers swing balls of flame in brilliant patterns of tracing light to the sound of tribal drums. The arms of the man, previously resting by his side, are raised high above his head and the crowd cheers wildly. The drumming intensifies and the dancers spin their fire even more dramatically. Without warning fireworks shoot out from the base of the man, brightening the night sky with colorful bursts more impressive than any Fourth of July display I have ever seen. Smoke begins to rise as flames lick at the legs of the man. In a matter of moments he is consumed in a tower of fire. Though I am hundreds of feet away, the heat is intense, and I can only imagine what it is like for those up close. As the fire builds the entire playa is lit with a brilliance that rivals the sun’s. With a loud crack the man begins to collapse and the crowd erupts into another deafening cheer. The drumming resumes and we dance by the light of the fire late into the night.
The next morning I awake slightly hung over and with an intense feeling of melancholy… it is time to go back to the real world. Greg wants to get on the road as soon as possible to beat the traffic. We pack quickly and say our goodbyes. I watch sadly through the RV window as we pass camps in several stages of deconstruction and wish that it didn’t have to end.
At the gate we see the same woman who greeted us at our arrival, still wearing the dusty pink cowboy hat. “See you next year!” she yells and blows kisses at our RV. A red man in furry chaps sneaks up behind her, throws her over his shoulder and runs back into the city. She laughs and puts her arms out in mock attempt to escape and blows us one final kiss.
Dying for a warm meal, we stop at an all-you-can-eat buffet in Reno on the way back. The bright lights and the clanging of the gambling machines pierce into me and I feel a deep sense of revulsion. The people around us seem faded somehow, a little less alive. We take seats inside the restaurant, spy another group of dust-covered patrons and smile at them knowingly.
Our waiter comes up to take our beverage order and appraises us. “Y’all just come from that Burning Man Festival?” he asks. “What’s it like? Are there really lots of naked chicks like they say?” He winks and nudges Greg with his elbow.
Greg looks up at him and grins. “Naw, man. It’s just a camping trip with a bunch of art and stuff, nothing you would like.”
The waiter shrugs and goes to get our drinks. We look at each other and burst into laughter. Just a camping trip indeed.