Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
In the desert, everything begins and ends with the sky. Tonight a deep, dark red streaked the clouds as the sun sank behind the mountains. An omen? Who cares? I joined the thousands of other burners, howling and screaming to greet the coming night.
First up: face painting. No, first the margaritas, then the face painting. Stu made me a damn fine desert margarita and Michael painted my face with minimalist dots and lines. Next we painted up Fuzzy to resemble a demonic circus ringleader, appropriate for tonight when he’d lead us in the burn of his faux tree, the Burning Conifer. I dug up a cube of sugar for my coffee, in it went, but hold on a sec; where did this cube come from? Was it even sugar? Admittedly a little paranoid, but I put in another cube just to be sure (along with yet another in my pocket should I need it later) and drank my coffee down. If nothing else I would be awake this crazy night.
Darkness now total, our straggling mass of a group migrated onto the open playa, headed out to Fuzzy’s Conifer and our show. The desert pulsed with light and breath. We passed the Laughing Scorpion Puppet Theater with its little window out to the open playa. I told Crazy Dave, another lover of sugar in his coffee, to admire the windowed view. He took a look as the rest of us wandered on. The next time I saw him, Burning Man’s neon glinted off his teeth, and his eyes, wild and big, spun in tight circles as I told him the story of BEING. But that comes later, much later. Right now we’re walking across the playa, just me and Michael and Glenn. Wait, where’d everyone go? I had no idea. Lost to the playa, I supposed. I told Michael to break out the flare gun, but it was stuck shut; we couldn’t get the spent shell out. Glenn and I wanted to bust the damn thing open, but Michael wouldn’t let us.
Playa feels good under one’s feet. It demands to be walked over, urinated on and burnt up; it withstands all, and soon returns to its unmarred state, dried and cracked and forever. Like it needs our abuse to prove its imperviousness. It’s the hide of a giant elephant and we’re the insects skittering over its back. We skittered on as all around us the night burned with flares, fireworks, screams and a general pervasive madness as thick as the thing creeping around my brain. And by ‘thing’ I mean the whole of Burning Man. Whatever it was supposed to be, whatever the Man himself was supposed to signify, whatever any of this was supposed to conjure up for any one of us out here, this entire thing crept into my head through my eyes and ears and skin and I tell you it worked perfectly. Look around! Smell the air! It breathed, this thing! It lived! And it was us! Fires erupted in the distance, and there we stood at the foot of the Man. I looked up and thanked him, his omniscience and benevolence glowing as brightly as his neon bones. And on we walked.
Towards the Main Stage a family of four, strapped to a couch, accelerated into a burning television. It felt like the whole playa was on fire, and I don’t think you had to have attended a prior Burning Man to know that the only way to tell where to go and what to look at on any given night is simple: Go Look At Fire.
We came upon a large circle of people standing around what looked like flying balls of flame. What on earth was happening? People kicked the fire, flung it from sticks! Zack – hey, there he is! – ran into the middle and joined in, and I got it. So simple, so beautifully simple. Rolls of toilet paper, dunked in gasoline, lit and kicked/flung/batted at each other! And all without the slightest regard for personal safety! I smiled. Everything was going to be just fine, wasn’t it? And I thought: who needs to build a giant tower and stage an opera when all you really need to have a good time is a stick and fifty rolls of flaming toilet paper?
I stuck a purple glowstick in my shoe and raced off to the Conifer staring at my foot.
The Burning Conifer resembled a typical eight foot tall tree in most respects, except for its square, 4×4 trunk, made from foot long hollowed-out segments, each filled with gasoline. Yes, this tree was built to burn. Fuzzy attended to the flame-thrower while I set up amps and instruments for the musical portion of the show and still others affixed the ceremonial rebar up the ass of Elmo the Muppet.
Elmo goggled stupidly from his rebar perch, his demonic, evil voice, high and distorted, screaming “THAT TICKLES! HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE! THAT TICKLES!” (For you see, earlier in the day we’d removed his guts and wired them to an amplifier, currently cranked to 11.)
Elmo was a monster, and he deserved to die.
I sat before my theremin and turned it on. Brad and Tano and Jake tuned up, and soon we played a crackling bent imbroglio of noise while Fuzzy doused Elmo with gasoline. The musical intensity rose with the growing cries of the crowd. A flame at Elmo’s foot, and up he went! He cackled through the flames, through the cheers. Our music grew and evolved, bits of order emerging haphazard through the chaos. I had no feeling for the people behind me, nor the desert, nor our city – only the circle of light around the Conifer and the people within it.
A man nude save for silver shoes, shorts and hat threw buckets of gas on the stubborn Conifer, slow to ignite and really burn, despite our coaxing sounds. More gas and now flames leapt from its branches. Now it really burned, just like everything else out here. We and our audience were satisfied. We stowed the instruments. Pulled up rebar. Dumped water on the still smoldering, molten Muppet. And headed off to the opera.
Waiting too long for it to begin, the tug of distant fires growing stronger, an ancient princess fed me wine from her breast and hummingbird-like glided away. A great fire sprang up in the distance. “Why are we here?” I asked. A moment more and Jacob and I took off running. Go look at fire!
The opera lasted forever.
Last year’s giant wicked bug opera impressed me. It didn’t make a shred of sense and it, too, went on too long, but somehow that was part of the charm. It had scary, hypnotic music filled with screams and pounding drums, naked writhing bugpeople and a tower that engulfed in flames collapsed to the ground. This new opera had its moments, but it didn’t work; the circle was too big with too few dancers filling it. It was empty, cold. And that bastardly tower NEVER FELL (I checked the next morning: still standing). I waited forever. I wanted closure, needed it. None came. Still, I didn’t want to leave either; the fire was warm, and being late, the desert opened cold on all sides.
Screw the cold, I had to be elsewhere, started walking, noticed the purple glowstick in my shoe. It lit my whole foot and the playa around it, and I thought, I like wandering through the night unseen, popping into view suddenly around fires, disappearing as mysteriously. That’s what a moonless night is for. So I pocketed it. And walked.
The Man, that’s where I headed. I couldn’t have gone anywhere else. My brain squirmed and wiggled. It wanted out, but I would have none of that! Get back, you! The lights and darks in my vision intertwined, shifted and jitterbugged with the visible playa around me. The darkest of dark strips – the line at the horizon – jumped and shook like a monkey on a stick. Do you want to buy a monkey? I did. I approached the Man and thought about the city of Black Rock. I liked this city and the Man watching over it. I thought about Friday when Fuzzy and I noted the Man looked smaller this year. We discussed the rumor of his shrinking incrementally year by year until he vanished completely. Foolishness! The Man had to be there. He was the Man, wasn’t he? Who else would watch over the city? Who else would guide and protect us? Who else would we burn? But eyeing his neon late in the night, buzzing and chirping like a giant, radioactive cricket (say, there’s an idea for next year), I realized it made perfect sense: he had to shrink. Each year people create larger, more intricate, more peculiar camps and art to wonder at, wander through and burn. Burning Man is the people who come to it. It is not something one attends to look at, it is something one attends so that it exists. The entertainment is created by everyone, and everyone is a part of the entertainment. A city created from scratch out of the desert floor, the strangest conglomeration of art, people, technology and cultural scraps that ever existed. It would continue to grow and consume the Man himself as he shrank. Why not?
Should I lick the Man? I’d never done that before. There stood Crazy Dave on the platform between the Man’s legs. I said Hi. Dave wordlessly described the random firing sequence of a billion faulty neurons and crept closer to a giant neon leg. Were we “blocking traffic”? Getting in the “way” of something? Dave wondered. There are worlds better sat on, I implied. “What is the story of BEING?” he asked. I said, “Dave, the story of BEING is the one where guided yet rudderless we sail to find distant cries and smoldering ashes. We float in a wooden box, eyeless and diaphanous, we exist with a desert on the inside and space on the out, we sleep with neon and wake to find our minds hardened into the seed of a seedless watermelon, stunted and white and useless save for growing an intestinal watermelon tree.” There is no such thing as a watermelon tree, I have heard it said, but I didn’t tell that to Dave, whose eyes glowed with all the power a 40 foot wooden monkey can impart. He appeared satisfied with my senseless yammering. I left him with a last piece of advice, “Don’t lick the neon.”
Walking, easy guideposts, every step dogged by wiggly brain waffles- “I am NOT Mrs. BUTTERworth!” did someone say that? I arrived in Center Camp with no memory of the journey. The big wooden ice-ball encasement looked stupid. It looked like a failure. I’d eat my looks in the morning (ice-ball = genius) along with a slice of watermelon given me by Jacob. Was there a watermelon tree out here after all?
Dust and more dust. Thirsty. My water bottle had run dry as burnt toast at the opera. I needed to go somewhere. I needed to go to camp where water waited in abundance. No, first I needed to go to the Smut Shack, where quesadillas waited in abundance. Surely they’d have liquid there. The Shack looks after her children. Say, I sure liked that bone archway. Sat down in front of it. Few people around this late. I looked at all those bones. Cows and horses and desert squirrels. They’d seen better days. An archway of human bones would spook folks more. Maybe if a camp of doctors came next year they could build one. I’d like that. But I liked this arch enough, and its presence demanded something of me: that I single-handedly, quickly and lucidly determine the Meaning of Life, right then and there. I looked at the arch, at the bones, and I tried. Hard. But a mischievious gnome had sneaked into my head, and every time I connected up two thoughts he’d grab one about the neck and thump its little head into my skull till it died. The gnome played this game for a very long time. The Meaning of Life would have to wait. If only the world had known how close we were to an answer! The only part I remember is how the perfect murder would be to pelt a guy to death with frozen waffles.
Along the road to the Smut Shack I passed a low circus tent featuring a spinning tube of multicolored lights. Lights for sleepy trippers, I imagined. I flopped down on a blanket and stared deep into the blinding pole. Linked yellow-orange rectangles spun and pulsated. Thin brown doors between them flapped and sputtered, and the whole thing moved from the foreground to the background to somewhere behind my eyes and I wondered if I wasn’t permanently damaging my optic nerves. Nah, people wouldn’t set up something DANGEROUS out here, I thought.
The rest of the beachfront road was sparsely populated. Out here, late, a soothing peace had fallen. I neared the end, dark and empty, and heard music, all encompassing, thick and slow and grooving. I turned the corner and saw its source: the Smut Shack. The place was hopping! I could see people stuffed inside, spilling out the doorways, painting themselves, dancing. I stopped first at the side of the road, at the fire pit, and warmed my chilly fingers. To my right the Smut Shack thrummed with life. To my left the playa disappeared in darkness. I was at the last outpost in this blighted land. I expected Mad Max’s dingo to run up and bite my leg.
I went straight for the Smut Shack kitchen, doubting they’d be making food at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m., but they were. Oh great merciful heavens, yes! A whole batch of grilled cheese sandwiches sizzled in a pan. The chef sliced them, stacked them on a tray, and looked into my paint-streaked face. If there’d been any moisture in my mouth it would have dribbled down my chin. Another guy stood next to me, almost as eager, so the chef smoothly asked which one of us wanted to serve. I did! Cripes, he did, too. We arm-wrestled for the privilege, left-handed. The other guy grabbed the table edge with his right hand and leaned down to the ground. Damnable cheater! I could have held him off for a while, but to hell with it! I needed grilled cheese! He served, I ate. Bliss.
The Smut Shack throbbed and bulged with people. I leaned against the back of a sofa in the Jesus Room and found Jon there next to me sporting his orange mohawk. We bitched about the good old days when seats were plentiful in the Jesus Room, then recounted our nights’ adventures to each other. We plucked pita from a passing tray. Our server smiled and said “Yummus hummus!” and we knew what she meant. I liked her. Shortish, with a slightly scrunched face, she made me feel like I was in Turkey with my camel tied up outside. She had an all-knowing look going on. Between her teeth like Clint with his cheroot she held a glowing toothpick and shifted it side to side. On she walked, “Yummus hummus!”
Then something strange happened. Everything in my field of vision broke down into smaller and smaller interlocking geometric shapes, as though the whole world consisted of a two-dimensional plate made entirely of miniature, octagonal, multi-colored bathroom tiles. Wow. I walked slowly around the Shack, looking at objects, people, the air, but everything was bathroom tiles. Very, very tiny ones. Then I noticed something else: everything outside the lit area beneath the tents had turned into strange and unknown territory, possibly empty non-existent space – the edges of the universe, perhaps. I tried to remind myself that it was only more desert, cars and tents and so on, but my brain refused to hold on to this information for longer than 5 seconds. Anything not directly in my vision ceased to exist as anything but emptiness; I stood on an island, an island built entirely of small, colorful tiles.
I returned and sat next to Jon (finally, seats!). Blue and white stripes covered his head and face. We talked. There in the last outpost we watched dusty nomads walk in, rest, and re-enter the desert beyond. On a bed in the next room shapes like crumpled night writhed under the sheets. Music washed over us. How lucky that a haven such as this welcomed us from the cold outside. We were safe in here. Toothpick aglow twixt her teeth, our Turkish server returned and fed us graham crackers. I curled up on a futon and slept.
Time passed. I opened my eyes. The sky glowed, the sun was on its way. I walked outside, saw a fire still burned in the pit. I sat on a stump and watched the flames, then the sky. The faint, watercolored blues and yellows of morning spread across the mountains and the playa. Streaked clouds above lit up deep red. It was beautiful, silent. The colors faded, the sky grew lighter. I felt I had to be in my tent before the sun appeared, and I walked back to camp along the road.
I didn’t really think I’d sleep, but I had to try. I shed my clothes, the dirt and smoky aroma with them, and crawled into my sleeping bag, awaiting a brief and insufficient rest. When it came, I welcomed it.
I dreamed of fires, bones, the desert outpost, and the clouds, painted in morning colors, knowing soon no trace would remain, save the wind and the knowledge I’d been there.