Alberta is a vast cold pine forest in central Canada. The capital Calgary is so perfectly snow-covered that it once hosted the Winter Olympics, and the regional Burn there is held on an elk farm in the summer. The elk wander around, gazing at the otherworldly lights from the darkness of the forest and probably wondering what’s going on. The regional is called Freezerburn, and it is so far north that the sun comes up at 4 a.m.
I met a sound engineer from Alberta at the Global Leadership Conference this year. He belongs to a camp called Space Gnomes, and is asked by fellow campers to “fix the sound,” meaning to redirect sound waves.
Most of the time, flat speakers broadcast, sending sound waves in all 180 degrees; he focused the waves on certain areas, on a dancefloor, in one direction. That works for high frequencies, but “bass is more omnidirectional,” he said.
“So bass waves spill more,” I said.
“Basically,” he said.
Bass is so spilly that bass speakers have a second hole to let the extra waves out. A bass speaker with a back port has to be shoved against a wall so that all the sound is forced out the front; if it stands apart from the wall, the extra waves will run out the back, hit the wall, and bounce back, producing an echo.
Burning Man is spilly. It is what happens when waves hit land and adapts. It tells some truth. It makes something emerge. The waves find their way out, irrepressible, charming to the molecule. Love is omnidirectional.
There are probably about a thousand Burners in Vegas, indistinguishable from the rest of the population, who could all be extras in a heist movie. It is dry, dusty, and hot, hit all day by clanging electronic bells and digital flipping of pixelated cards. The first place the Burners tried to hold their regional was in a town in the mountains called Parrumph. It was conservative and looked at the Burners as a pagan tribe of glitter, drugs, and buttsex. They didn’t get the permits.
“Parrumph?” I asked the Australian from Vegas.
“P – A – R – R – U – M – P – H,” he spelled out.
“You might have guessed from the name.”
They hold the Burn now in an abandoned rock quarry – about 600 people. It’s called the Forgotten City, and the stone mined there was dolomite. The canyon is called Bootleg Canyon and the stone is so hard that they have to drill holes for their tent pegs. Nothing is unBurnable there, they can make fires like giant clouds, explosions can eat up oxygen and not even mark the rock. Conveniently, there is also a Taco Bell about a mile away.
This year the Las Vegas artists are recreating a 1950s bar that overlooked the Los Alamos nuclear testing facility. Patrons of this bar used to sip cocktails while watching atomic tests pound Nevada into oblivion. Martini, oblivion. Martini, oblivion. Manhattan, oblivion. You can go be a part of this on the Playa this year, if you can find it in the dust. It’s called Nuclear Dream and it’s a giant unexploded bomb with a bar inside.
The mountain area around Albuquerque is, in some seasons, a tinderbox. Pine forests drop rafts of needles that become a combustible carpet. The wind is very strong and will fan any spark; sometimes the New Mexico regional events happen under a total fire ban and they have to substitute propane. It’s not the same, say organizers. People like to gather around fires.
If you drive north for seven hours, you will reach the Rockies, which reach almost three miles into the sky. There are two main approaches, the Western slope of the Rockies, spare, tough, and lonely, where burns number 100 people, and the Eastern slope, where 1000 people ascent from a string of cities at the mountains’ base.
In the last two years, record-setting fires have raged throughout the Rockies, miles and miles wide. In 2012 alone, wildfires burned an area five times the city of San Francisco. During the Apogaea regional Burn that year participants could see the massive glow from the fire in the distance at night. “It’s a huge roaring sound,” said a camper, “like a freight train bearing down on you.”
The camp is almost superstitiously wary of fire. They place barrels of wet towels next to every flame, and also fire tools, which are shovels and rakes to frantically scrape a dry patch of land around the perimeter of a fire, should one break out. It is tempting fate, to light fire in these mountains, like inviting the devil into your camp. He passes in dark blue in the night, narrow, nodding slightly and watching. Devils see the waves.
Flipside is on a river in a dusty overgrown orchard of pecan trees, abandoned and throwing off the pruning of human cultivation. This is the second location; the first had to be abandoned after they unknowingly placed the camp over a vast network of fire ant tunnels.
Flipside is the largest regional Burn, a glimpse of the future. “You don’t even need to go to Black Rock City anymore,” say various organizers. “Most of these people have never been to the Playa.”
Across the country there are acculturation classes, workshops to brainwash the virgins; one regional holds a dress rehearsal for those going to the Playa for the first time, so they can get used to all the stupid shit that is supposedly preparing all of us for the collapse of civilization.
Stoned, drunk, the virgins have to erect tents in an orderly fashion in the dark, which is precisely what I will be doing if the Apocalypse comes. Nothing teaches the principle of Immediacy better than not knowing what the fuck you are doing.
They say that Burning Man is now global in scope, that the Playa doesn’t matter anymore. Burning Man diplomats fly around the world spreading Playa culture like Coca-Cola. Burning Man has changed local rituals, and been welcomed in most places. Optimism is simply the intent to continue until tomorrow.
I wish I could capture all the songs that are sung in these places. They ought to be tallied and added to the sum of the human race. We humans invent new forms of love as often as we invent new forms of violence; love always stays one step ahead of the violence, that is one thing we can depend on. But it will always take perseverance of some kind, the going up into the mountains, the lighting of fire in the night.