by Karen Tracy
I finish packing my van and begin driving to the fabled BurningMan event on the playa on Wednesday, 6:30 in the morning, with my cat Bela. Arrive in Black Rock City late Wednesday – 16 hours of driving. I’ve never driven 16 hours before. Ever. The rare air circulating about this near legendary event kindles a kind of sleepless excitement.
Wake to meet my neighbor. Lovely little woman named Ace. Her show-and-tell includes a found object, just lying there in the dust as she was walking back from the porta-potties, a butane lighter with a color image of the Ace of Hearts on it.
“Sucker works, too” she told me. Thus the magic begins.
Attribute one sparkle of this magic to use of handles. Not love handles. Handles like CB handles which take the place of names that your mother would recognize. “Playa names” they’re called. Mine is Joshua. Curiously, folks use imagery in their monikers, which could be famously flattering or perhaps quite the opposite. Beast. 2Wild. Misery. Wicked. Junkyard. Tadpole, Mysterious lovely people with unknown identities make for magic.
Ace is camped with PortaPlaya. He takes me couple of nights later to a local hot spring for a hot soak under simply magnificent stars. The $20-out-then-back-in policy lapses for staff and other early arrivals leaving to use the hot springs. Up to the time the event opens it’s OK to go soak and return free of charge as long as you have your laminates. But I get ahead of myself.
Black Rock City, the playa, Burning Man. One place, infinite characterizations. The curious first-timer needs an open mind and a near death-grip on the BurningMan.com Survival Guide. The experienced Burner still strains to relate an encapsulated version:
The town I call home in Reality Camp or Default World or the real world is one-third the size of Black Rock City. For one week every year, the magnitude of this experiment in radically self-expressed community-building challenges a vastly expanded imagination. Matt Taibbi reporting for Rolling Stone even calls it “God’s own playground”. Matt also complains that the entire event speaks to elitist, self-selected, white art snobs with techno-savvy mascots building dream machines and adult toys.
I disagree. The dream machines and adult toys, present in abundance, are manifestations of this mostly white club of “Burners.” All cultural creatives are invited, however. The irony of picturing Michael Franti next to color-restricted claims did not escape this participant. While the strife-torn black community self selects as a matter of survival, the Burner community lacks nothing in vitality or validity by virtue of being intentionally constructed. On the contrary, intentional communities notoriously fail for trying too hard. Not Black Rock City.
Larry Harvey, Burning Man’s demi-god & first Burner speaks now of a “gifting economy.” Bring what you have and give what you can. I make necklaces of ribbon and Chap-Stick. Another Burnette brings her Polaroid and lots of film. Each encounter produces a color keepsake. Playa gifts are a tradition but so are the enormous art projects.
In years before I became a Burner, commonly accepted protocol demanded “No Spectators.” Participants, well, they participated. Producing theme camps. Erecting massive art worthy of any large city. Interacting in compulsively creative applications, like the long gone drive-by shooting range. But logical extrapolation to the current 35,700+ census requires morphing the previous protocol.
Now Burning Man embraces rules, and spectators. Witness the recent “Malcolm In The Middle Goes To Burning Man” episode. Like any fair sized city, we have constructs and constructors. DPW, or Department of Public Works, builds our streets and our signs. They’re a grungy, kinda goth, highly effective bunch. Early in the week, I lose my laminates, those precious plastic ID cards we worker B’s wear around our necks. They just unclipped themselves and dropped into the dust somewhere. Several hours later and a mile from where I noticed my lams missing, I’m taking in the assembly of a 3-story wooden clock tower. A DPW rig rolls up with the driver holding up my laminates comparing the photo with my face. More magic.
Place I “work” is inside the fence the cops call home. Sign even says “Law Enforcement Only.” On the playa dust, I find a spray-painted body outline like a crime scene, with shell casings scattered about. Humorous Law Enforcement art installation. One of Black Rock City’s cops, Cladwell, has gone and left home without his shaving kit. He’s not minding the growth on his face but lacking a toothbrush and toothpaste, he’s hating the growth on his teeth. He asks me plaintively if I know the unpleasant effect of trying to get by with soap and a fingertip instead. He’s impressed to tears when I produce a case of both toothbrushes and Crest. I function as one of Black Rock City’s emergency dentists, among other things. Cladwell is his playa name and his idea of being well clad is wearing a condom on his head. He’s a virgin Burner, here for the first time and he fits right in. He’s now completely convinced of the magic in this place.
Bunny, a fellow Ranger grabs at a flying piece of paper in the wind. Turns out to be a vehicle pink slip. Walking windward, she discovers a family setting up camp and they ask if they are OK to camp here. She’s not even in uniform; she has the cutest smile. She reads out the name on the pink slip and hops away after handing the astonished participant his pink slip.
“Synchrondipity” my wordsmithed creation conveys the synchronous serendipity that permeates Black Rock City. Late in the week, I exhaust myself on the silks learning to climb and do tricks on vertical fabric ropes in Firefly Ariel Dance School. I share with Cladwell that I’ve developed a very sore throat and we both smile knowingly when he produces an unopened bag of zinc lozenges.