by Kenny Reff
The only goal I had for my first full day at Burning Man was to get to the grass and shade camp.
According to the What Where When guide, there’s a camp on Edelweiss that gifts a sanctuary of honest-to-god damp sod under the shade. What better destination for this 105-degree day?
It’s my first Burning Man. Being 50+ and from the East Coast, I didn’t know a soul I could invite to join me. So I flew out here on my own and made my home in the walk-in camping area. I look one way and see Black Rock City; look the other way and all I see is the sprawling high desert and barren mountains. It’s beautiful, plus you can actually get some sleep when you want to.
It’s 10am… time to climb on my sparkling new Walmart Huffy and peddle into the city. But within minutes, I am compelled to make my first detour. Little did I know this would be the theme of the week.
Before me, moored in the desert, is a full-sized shipwreck. I climb upon its deck, atop its beams, down into its hold and through the captain’s quarters. It has the detail of a professional Hollywood set and is absolutely awe-inspiring. On the upper deck is a young couple that epitomizes Burning Man. He, dressed in goggles and gas mask, cup hanging off a lanyard. She, naked, save for a thin bikini bottom and a pair of goggles on her forehead. Their joy is evident on this bright, sunny day.
I continue out to the Man, standing atop a wooden base that is five stories high. Inside is a sculpture 40 feet high made of polished wood. No nails have been used; everything is held together with tongue and groove. Yet it is strong enough to support dozens of people who are climbing on it. I marvel both the creativity and the engineering behind the structure. Throughout the entire city, this combination of art and technical prowess is something that will continue to impress me all week long.
The wind starts to pick up, and dust and sand are beginning to fly about. I decide to duck into Center Camp. I walk in briskly to get out of the wind but quickly stop in my tracks. I feel as though I have just entered the Mos Eisley Cantina, the famous intergalactic bar featured in the first Star Wars movie.
Everywhere I turn is a surreal site to behold. There are a dozen women practicing gymnastics and acro-yoga, guys spinning hula hoops, jugglers, face painting, acupressure and massage. There are people drawing, writing, painting, sculpting. There are people meditating, talking, singing and playing instruments. There is a woman on a trapeze. All of this at the same time.
Along one wall of the huge camp is a long bar selling coffee drinks. That and ice are the only two commodities sold on the playa. I wait in the short line to get an iced coffee for three bucks. Later in the week, I’ll get a mocha for five, and those eight dollars will be the only money I spend all week long.
As I peruse the people and art, I come across a couple of tables surrounded by people filling out a census. I pick one up and enjoy myself as I answer its questions. Among the most memorable… “What is your current gender?” and “Do you consider yourself married?”
A guy next to me says the coffee looks good. I say it is, he should go get some. He replies that he doesn’t have any money with him. I quickly offer him the three bucks it takes and joy spreads over his face. I’ve made my first gift.
Heat and dryness permeate the camp, which is open to the sky, and on all sides as well. Soon after my coffee gift, a woman comes up to me with a huge block of ice in her hands. She offers to have me hold it. I do. She asks me to tell her where she should place her ice cold hands. I am sitting cross-legged on the floor, so I say on my thighs. I close my eyes and all the heat drains from my body. Eventually I open my eyes and return the ice. She smiles and heads on her way.
Before I know it, it’s late afternoon, so I start to head back to my camp to eat dinner and change into warmer clothes for the evening. But just then the winds pick up to at least 30mph and I’m enveloped in near white-out conditions. Ski goggles and bandana come down off my forehead and I peddle slowly against the wind. I can see only 15 feet ahead.
I make it three blocks before I come upon something that could only happen at Burning Man: The Human Carcass Wash.
I look into a shaded area under a large tent where it appears that everyone is naked and getting sprayed down with suds. With no shower in two days and playa dust all over me, I count myself in.
I strip down, hang my clothes on the provided hangers and step over to the welcome area. A person who works the camp starts a briefing for myself and four others who just arrived. He explains the process and the important principle of boundaries. I listen, but either he missed something or I did, for when we finish the briefing and I move to the first “station,” it turns out it is me who is doing the washing!
It takes me a moment to figure it out. We begin at the end of the line, where five of us are playing human “squeegee” on a person who has just been washed and sprayed. We use our ten hands to wipe off the excess water. After a few people pass our way and receive our service, our team moves up to the next station. Here, we rinse the person with fresh, cool water in spray bottles. Again, five people servicing one. Next, it’s on to the soaping station, where we lather up the lucky recipient moving through the line.
Finally, after paying my dues through three stations, it’s my turn to go though the middle and receive the Human Carcass Wash. By this point, I’ve been washing others for ten minutes or more, so the feel of all these hands upon me is no longer a shock. In fact, it feels wonderful.
As I dress, I vow to come here again. It’s a perfect way to get the coat of dust off your skin. But over five more days, I never do return. There are just too many other things to see and experience in this most unlikely of cities.
I get home just as the sun is setting and realize I never made it to the sod and shade camp! I can now see that I might never make it there. I unzip the outer rain fly that has been battened down tightly against the tent. I then open the door of the tent itself and stare in amazement. Despite all these measures, the inside of the tent is coated in a quarter inch of dust and sand.
I sigh and sweep it up just a little, but I resign myself to mostly living in the sand, and next year, coming back with a tent made for desert storms.
I have a quick dinner and head back out. It’s now dark and I am standing in the middle of the playa, surrounded by lighted art and huge roving mutant vehicles. The sight is unfuckingbelievable. It’s the scale that blows me away. As far as I can see, in all directions, lights and music and people are on parade. Imagine Mardi Gras and Rio’s Carnival a thousand times over.
The wind is still with us tonight, and I’m glad my bike is lit up with EL wire so it can be seen. I’m also wearing an LED headlamp. Both of these are absolute necessities as you bike across the open playa in the dark with thousands of others.
I peddle out to the Temple of Juno, about half mile north from the Man. It is a sight to behold. It must be five stories high and is surrounded by a courtyard. It’s made from the leftover wood of a toy manufacturer. After the toy parts were punched out of the wood, architect David Best used the remaining negative patterns to build the temple.
Years ago, Best built a small temple to honor a lost loved one. People were taken with it and it became a tradition at Burning Man. Inside, people leave mementos, photos and writings commemorating those they’ve lost. It is quiet and people spend a lot of time sitting and contemplating. Some cry. On Sunday night, the entire thing will burn to the ground, but for now, it is a soothing refuge from the wind storms and the constant thump-thump of electronica music on the playa.
I bike another half mile and discover Burn Wall Street, a cluster of four wood buildings, each four stories tall with neon logos. One building is Bank of UnAmerica. Another is Goldman Sucks. These too, will burn in a few days time.
I head back to the Esplanade, the large street that separates the city from the playa, and home to some of the largest clubs and dance tents. Everywhere is the sound of music. But for the most part, it’s not music I recognize. Rather than commercial tunes, most of it is electronic house music; a steady, danceable rhythm being mixed live by DJs. I stop at a couple of tents to dance a little and people-watch. That’s a pastime here you never tire of.
It’s getting late, and I start to bike to camp, but after just a couple of minutes, come across the Playa Jazz Cafe. Unbelievable! I surely didn’t expect that. I step in, and sure enough, there is a five-piece ensemble playing John Coltrane. The horn player is in a tutu. People are lounging around on bean bag chairs and pillows. The red wine is flowing. A young lady spins a hula hoop expertly. I hang here for an hour and then attempt to head home once again.
As I bike the mile to my camp on the outskirts of town, I marvel again at this city that didn’t exist just a few days ago. The temperature is now in the low 50’s; a drop of 50 degrees in just a few hours! I have no idea of the time, but I saw the moon rise earlier this evening and now it’s close to setting.
It’s quieter now, as I get within a few blocks of the walk-in area where I’m camped. But then I come across a small bar out on the street with six people standing around it. I really shouldn’t do this; it must be so late, I think to myself. I approach slowly. It looks so inviting. And once again, I am compelled to hop off my bike and join the group. Their specialty is Bloody Marys. I love Bloody Marys! Well, it is almost dawn, so why not.
An hour and three drinks later, I drunkenly bike the final few blocks to my tent. I look up at the full moon and see it setting on the mountains in the west. The sky is turning from black to dark blue. The sun will be rising very soon. And then I remember the sod and shade camp I never made it to.
Where else can you have a plan for the day, never achieve it, yet feel totally gratified?
All photos by Kenny Reff
You can read Kenny’s full memoir of his first burn on his website.