Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
by Doctor Fun
Burning Man. A cross between Woodstock, MardiGras, Carnival in Rio, New Year’s Eve in Times Square, Halloween in Lahaina, Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, the World Krishna Conference, the Super Bowl and virtually every other totally-off-the-wall event you have ever been to, seen or heard of. Times ten.
Humorous, bizarre, absurd, outrageous. Cirque de Soleil meets Mad Max. The most hedonistic conglomeration of naked, writhing humanity imaginable. Hundreds upon hundreds of sprawling camps, each one more elaborate, strange and original. Thousands of “art” installations dotting the sun-cracked desert floor, each more colorful, intricate, creative, mind-boggling and spectacular than the next.
I arrive in a raging dust storm; abrupt tornadoes rise suddenly from the desert and scour the earth, suddenly turning and weaving through the tattered camps, some of which have been bolted to the desert floor for a month. An entire city, laid out in a gigantic semi-circle, complete with four hundred porta-potties, a Department of Public Works and a medical tent. Sim City comes alive.
I had no idea there were this many original ideas left in the world. Scary to think of this much talent and creativity gathered in on place; luckily it’s the middle of the desert where there’s room to expand. Unfortunately there’s only so much room in my head and within an hour of my arrival it’s already exploding. I slip into total sensual overload. It is simply too big, too wild, too untamed, too unusual to comprehend. And this was just the first of six days.
Many of the art installations take years to build and another month to assemble out on the Playa where they sit for a week in the wind and sand and dust. Original paintings, sculpture, electronics and indefinable art worth millions of dollars (just in the parts, not counting the labor) gather the dust of the earth but not of the spirit.
Some people spend $50,000 on their camps. Some people spend more. Much more. One of my friends spent $150,000 including two imported Argentine chefs to roast huge carcasses of pig, lamb and cow each night, as well as six motor homes, three bands and 100 gallons of top-shelf Vodka to keep everyone entertained. Everything. You name it, it’s here. Times ten.
There are no ‘reserved for VIP’ areas. There are no ‘headliners’ or ‘celebrities’. The people throwing the hundreds of elaborate parties each day and night are totally anonymous, spending tens of thousands of dollars to entertain their friends and everyone else who cares to join in. Everyone at Burning Man is equal; a dead flat landscape mirroring the equality of all-men in fishnet stockings, women painted black…everything so strange that nothing seems strange.
My address for a week: Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada, USA, Earth. Composed of entire buildings and small communities, movie sets, enormous three-ring circus tents, several hundred bars, dance halls, massage parlors, yoga and art studios, discos, living theater, roller rinks, recycling center, ten gas stations with no gas, all rolled into one. Everything is totally FREE at Burning Man; there is no commerce-just trading and giving.
Burning man is an eight-day, 24-hour-a-day, out-of-control rave. Times ten. It is a combination of art, music, religion and cooperation that one must experience-and absorb-to even begin to fully comprehend. Some veteran burners start planning a year in advance. Others start a month early to ‘ease into the burn’. For some people…. Burning Man is their life. Truly.
I was not really able to fully reconcile the seemingly disparate combination of art, music, sex, spirituality and overboard partying at Burning Man. While not mutually exclusive-indeed any two of these are often seen together-when combined at this level it’s like the grand finale at the world’s largest fireworks display. Times ten.
Exactly how do you explain the motivation or visual impact of ten thousand bare-breasted women all riding bicycles in an endless, winding snake that meanders through the scorching desert for an hour in the blazing afternoon heat? Smiling, laughing, cheering, screaming for joy. A crowd of another ten thousand cheers them on. More painted and sunburned boobies than I have seen in my life. Times ten. There are a hundred events like this. Each day. Everywhere you turn.
Over forty thousand people living within the packed, harsh and stifling confines of an area that would create anarchy, chaos and malicious mayhem anywhere else on earth. And yet, barely a harsh word is spoken, never mind an actual conflict. The overwhelming sound echoing over the sand is wild laughter. I think the flat, heat-rippled desert spaces on all sides-and the ink black desert sky at night-provide room for the bad spirits to dissipate. For one week the Black Rock City is the fifth largest city in Nevada.
Within two weeks there will be absolutely no sign that anyone was ever here. Thousands of volunteers will scour twenty square miles of parched desert floor picking up every flake of glitter, thread or piece of hair. Literally. Although this is one of the hundreds of stipulations that the Bureau of Land Management puts on the festival organizers (along with the million dollar fee), the real motivation lies in the nature of the event itself: come, enjoy, go crazy, leave no trace.
The first artists arrive a month early to start planning their creations. A few weeks later the masses start arriving, slowly at first, then building to a Labor Day crescendo that bursts open on Saturday night with the burning of the Man and goes into total overload on Sunday night when the largest art is burned. Flames scorch the atmosphere as a million pounds of lumber pours forth enough heat and light to be easily seen from the moon.
There’s no cell phone service, no internet, no Starbucks. And there’s no water. Everyone takes care of themselves and takes care of each other.
The average cost of a ticket is $250. Wow isn’t that a lot? Based on what I’ve paid for other ‘entertainment’, I would gladly pay that for just an hour at Burning Man. If the average cost of some shitty Hollywood formula movie is around eight dollars, that extrapolates into a Burning Man ticket value of around….oh….. $3 million.
Saturday night is the ‘burn’: the wildest pyrotechnics display on the planet. Times ten. Times another ten. It reminded me of the scene in the original King Kong movie where Kong first appears out of the jungle during a frenzied fire dance and peers over the stockade at the madness before him. I can identify with his astonishment.
The burn starts with a hundred fire dancers in the ring around the Man, gradually working their way into a blazing frenzy of twirling flames. At one point a huge flaming rope-at least 100’ long-is stretched between two people on stilts perhaps ten feet in the air. They begin swinging the rope and suddenly another person on stilts twirling a flaming hula-hoop around his neck jumps into the rope and starts jumping. The fire-toting, stilt-walking jump-ropers are both male and female. The crowd of 40,000 goes nuts.
Suddenly the temple around the man explodes into a continuous blaze of fireworks that erupts onto, inside, above and around the Man. The crowd goes from nuts to berserk. The noise is deafening as the fireworks continue to gush into the sky. There is no pause between the displays; for ten solid minutes the sky is filled with unimaginable glitter.
Then, as a cascade of sparks flows down, the Man bursts into flames that climb 100’ into the sky within seconds as the desert-parched wood turns into an untamed conflagration. The crowd goes from berserk into fanatical chaos. Times ten. The heat pours into the crowd as thousands of naked dancers start churning and writhing on the sand. I stand still in an ocean of pulsating bodies.
Then the real party begins and I don’t remember much of the night. It is, after all, my 55th birthday. Really.
Next day begins the slow migration back to the real world for many of the participants. I leave in a blinding dust storm as the winds once again swallow up the desert, perhaps symbolic of the blurred line between man and nature.
Burners-people who had walked around without clothes for a week slathered with mud and paint, men in lingerie, women who normally wear dark suits buttoned to the neck-begin their hesitant trek slowly. The wild, the weird, the corporate and the confused. The mob that had gradually drifted in over the past week is now leaving all at the same time, creating a massive desert traffic jam as ten thousand cars try to merge into a one lane dirt road that leads back to civilization. Ten thousand cars, slowly and patiently waiting their turn. Ten thousand cars and not one of those mindless, irritating, magnetic yellow ribbons stuck on the back. These people really care about the senseless war, they don’t need to display their misguided loyalty to a political agenda based on ignorance and greed.
Sorry to preach but sitting in a dust-boiling mass of motor homes inching their way along the road gives me time to ponder life.
So what did I take from Burning Man? I think the biggest lesson-and actually not a lesson for me but rather an affirmation of something I have believed since I was a child-is that society can work when there are guidelines but no rules.
Rules are firm and hard and fast. Rules are open to interpretation and because of this people tend to press the limits-or ignore the rules altogether. I know: that’s what I do.
But when there are guidelines, clearly acknowledged and understood by all, there is no need for rules or rigid enforcement. Society becomes self-regulating. Everyone is a citizen and a cop. Here’s what is best for everyone, but you can do whatever you want. The usual consequences are simply ostracizing; it’s up to all of society to guide everyone’s public behavior. Be nice, be kind, be generous, be honest. Accept everyone for who they are. Say thank you. Slow down. Smile.
Of course this is all highly idealistic but I can truly say that from firsthand experience in a potentially very stressful situation-crowds, heat, dust, noise-it can work. Perhaps only for a limited time, but then again isn’t our time always limited?
I’ll have a year to consider returning. I’m already contemplating some camping and costume ideas-more wigs, less booze; a solar-powered LED-spangled hat and some tall, gold, high-heeled shoes. A dozen industrial dust masks. A huge bag of plums from my tree. A thousand glow sticks in a hundred colors.
Who should go to Burning Man? Anyone trying to release their inner anything. Anyone just visiting this planet. And anyone wanting to attend my next birthday party.
If you’re offended by nudity, profanity, loud music, weird looking people, crowds, dirt, heat or cold, go to Burning Man: you’ll soon get over it.
You will see and experience things that you cannot conceive of and certainly cannot describe. Pictures only tell one-hundredth of the story. Words don’t even come close. Ask anyone who has gone to describe it and you’ll be greeted by a slowly shaking head and the words, “Sorry mate, can’t be done”.
Oh, and one more thing: it was pretty cool being in a happy group of 40,000 people and knowing that not one person here voted for Bush. So perhaps there is hope for the world.