Part of Sep 2009 by
Burning Man 2009

First Person From Burning Man

It is not easy to explain the Burning Man experience. This is something I have wanted to attend for 10 years. Having read regularly about the event I thought had a good idea of what it is – but upon arrival it was a hundred times more than imagined. It cannot be fully explained; it can only really be experienced. But I will try and build a modest word-bridge to the event.

To cut to the chase, Burning Man is the most amazing, transformative, optimistic, spectacular, human event my partner Mark and I have ever attended (and we have got around). We arrived at this temporary city of 50,000 inhabitants at 3am after a harrowing ten-hour drive from Las Vegas in our rented RV. The I-95 “highway” from Las Vegas to Reno is just two lanes (one in each direction) dotted with seedy little brothels and behind them run down trailer parks where the ladies live.

The road winds between mountains and hills and powerful winds surge down from these heights across the road, pummeling our RV, which rode much like a wet mattress with wheels. I cant drive at night so Mark did the whole trip in one go, perfectly. The last 75 miles through an Indian reservation were the toughest and the section in which the most traffic accidents occur for “burners”. And indeed we passed a really nasty one, a tragic reminder to be careful.

We got a warm welcome from the BM greeters, rang the bell for virgins and set off to the city, which was a blaze of lights from the various camps and mutant vehicles. All over the encampment huge balls of fire shot into the sky from fire cannons. It is on a playa, a dry perfectly flat pan, the remnant of an endorheic lake about 30,000 years old, twenty-five or so miles across with a hard clay surface that when disturbed produces a fine, silky sand (more a dust) that is invasive and pervasive and, as we discovered, is the defining factor in BM life.

As we drove into town at 5mph we were awed by the scale, the vitality and energy of what we encountered and that began to envelop us. Even at 3am the place was alive, people everywhere in extraordinary costumes. At night, because it gets cold, fun-fur infused with light is the favorite material for outré outfits. Dancing was happening everywhere. Dozens of strains of music blended in an out with surprising if eerie compatibility.  Performances were taking place everywhere, singers, dancers, and musicians. Despite the cold many “burners” were happily nude.

We found a map showing the theme camps that painted onto the dance floor of the center café (the only place in BM that one can buy anything and then just coffee and soda, commerce is not allowed) and set off to find a camp, Comfort and Joy, a gay group out of San Francisco that we had decided to use as our base and social club.

The city is designed as an arc shaped fan. The streets from the top to the bottom of the fan are time zones in half hourly increments (1.00, 1.30, 2.00 etc) the lateral street are alphabetical with a Darwin theme. It was very easy to find addresses.

We arrived at the theme camp (8.30 and F) to find lots of comfort and joy taking place. By a sheer fluke the camp had just decided not to use a piece of prime land, right on the street, just five streets from the Playa. They welcomed us warmly to their camp even though we had no connections to it of any kind and offered us this great spot. (Otherwise we would have had to park at the far rear of the already crowded town.) Their camp was beautifully designed, lots of tents for dining and partying, the Pink Gym, an amazing entrance made up of giant opium pods twenty-foot high in orange and green with both interior lights and exterior UV lighting to make them glow like neon.

The next morning we got out our bicycles and began to explore. Thousands of friendly happy people were out in costume and not, in clothes and not, the mutant vehicles were beginning to patrol, camps offered free breakfast food, not a full breakfast at any one spot but bacon here, pancakes there, eggs a few blocks away. These theme camps are manned by groups who create a camp around an idea and then raise the funds to make it happen. The sole purpose is to give. Bear in mind nothing can be bought or sold. One can make gifts and bartering is O.K. so long as it is not dollar for dollar (a drink in return for a hug).  Everything is open to everyone.

We cycled out onto the main playa, this is the open area in front of the camp. It is gigantic and the site for dozens of huge artworks that had been created from the burning man, a massive complex structure 60 x 80ft, to the three-story temple (which burned on Sunday night) and everywhere, the inventive mutant vehicles.

Enthusiasts bring them to BM every year at their own cost. They vary from a little two-seater pedal-powered slices of chocolate cake and a small motorized diamond skull a la Damien Hirst, to magnificent 60 foot long dragon ships spouting thirty foot plumes of flame, elaborate three story Victorian houses, haunted houses, Mississippi riverboats, giant insects. Some are more like floats but most serve as busses and one can climb on and off at will. During the day they are amazing and at night are even more so. Their moment of glory comes Saturday night at the burning of the man.

At first the weather was great but slowly the wind began to rise. Then came the sand storms. One moment one is looking at a sculpture twenty feet away and in the next second its disappears and visibility is down to five feet for anything from 30 seconds to ten minutes. Thats when we realized that a good respirator mask and the very best goggles in the world are the keys to survival. (We had neither.) At first the dust really bothered Mark, indeed he went functionally blind for two hours! Scary…but that passed.

BM is great fun during the day but it really exists for the night. That night the sand storms slowed down and as the sun began to set over this gigantic clay bowl ringed with black mountains, the camp really came alive. A throb of activity begins that keeps growing and is incredibly exhilarating. The darker it got the more people thronged the streets, lights appeared everywhere, parties were being held every hundred yards or so, dance clubs (again all free) sprung to life, open bars served drinks to anyone who asked, more costumes and of course the mutant vehicles, now aglow with light. The beauty of the people was amazing and everyone played up their charms be it eccentricity or eroticism. If saw a party that interested us, we simply drifted in (usually to an enthusiastic welcome) then visited another event, party hopping. It begins to peak in energy around 1 or 2 in the morning. One can do any number of events, but finally it is all about stamina. Ours was not in good shape. We had driven through the night before and we crashed early.

The next day we learned about dust storms. They are difficult but are important. Firstly, they keep away those people who may just want to come and gawk. To camp here one has to be prepared to endure some serious discomfort. So the camp only works for participants not for tourists.

We woke up around 9am with a major dust storm already in progress, the wind got wilder and wilder through the day and visibility changing all the time, down to a few feet then suddenly it would clear a little and one could see for a few hundred yards. This was the day of the burn so it was worrying. If it did not clear up, the festivities would not happen. But it just raged on and on for fourteen hours. The dust gets everywhere, into your mouth, nose, clothes, food, hair. Eventually one just accepts it and its not that unpleasant. What is most interesting is the absolute silence. Its not like rain. What amazed Mark and I, in our first major sandstorm, was how the people around us just went on with life. The Pink gym opposite was busy all day with naked body builders working out no matter how intense the storm became.

A particularly wonderful moment was when one of the members of Comfort and Joy decided to perform a dance piece during the middle of the storm; a beautiful woman, totally naked, appearing and disappearing as the storm whipped around her and much as Loie Fuller danced a century ago with giant diaphanous fans of cloth, our dancer partnered the swirling dust beautifully, all viewed from the safety of our RV in which we spent the entire day.

By 9pm it began to look grim. The storm was still really bad. Then abruptly at 10pm it stopped. It felt like a miracle. Within minutes everything went to normal. The night was suddenly still, cool and wonderfully surreal. By now the entire city was cloaked in white dust, it looked at though it had snowed. Then out of this surreal ashen darkness tent flaps began to open, people emerged, mostly in light costumes all aglow, generators were started up, exterior lights went on everywhere, and we all streamed towards the burning man sculpture, walking, riding bikes (that had also been transformed into light sculpture).

Mark and I were lucky enough to get onto a really wonderful mutant vehicle, a riverboat that blew long streams of flame from its three chimneys. People were dancing on its upper floor. Our “boat” slowly wobbled its way to the centre of the playa. From our perch (perfect visibility now) we saw the most amazing sight. Tens of thousands of people leaving the camp and heading out to the center playa, illuminated clothing and bicycles creating trails of light and color.

What we headed to was the most wonderful sight I have ever seen-all the mutant vessels, hundreds and hundreds of them, with their elaborate lighting in superb bright acid colors had gathered in a huge circle maybe two miles diameter around the Man. Music was coming from a dozen different places but made one sound. Around the man five or six hundred flame dancers had gathered and were performing, with balls of flame on chains, flaming hula hops, bull whips, twirling their fire and dancing around the man.

The whole camp was now assembled and the burning began first with fireworks, then the giant burning man sculpture went up in flames. The wood structure was a kind of honeycomb and created wonderful patterns as the flames ate through. At one point a giant fireball erupted from the center of the structure shot up in the air and formed a massive umbrella of heat and light over the whole crowd.

Then the parties began, not at the inner camps but along the Esplanade, the front row of the city facing the open playa. We danced at about five or six of the clubs. Many had free bars. The vibe was unreal; we did not witness an argument yet alone a fight, everywhere one was welcomed in like a friend. Some of the party camps were huge and could take 1000 dancers others were small intimate and personal.

The mutant vessels continued to prowl the playa all night. Lots of nudity but no lewdness (except at some wilder clubs but they were inside tents) little drunkenness, a couple of people struggling with drug overdoses but very few. No ugly smells. Not a piece of garbage to be seen. If trash appeared someone immediately swept it up and dealt with it. All of this taking place beneath a huge sky with a full moon and a cool breeze caressing ones face.

Actually as I write this I realize that my skills are not up to explaining the sheer magic of the night, so many people, no strife, everything done without commerce, every event the result of the creative spirit, every person seeking to add a little excitement or texture to the night. Some of it was corny and fun, some was sophisticated and pure art. We wondered around, had some extraordinary encounters with strangers, and no matter how much we saw or did, five minutes away was another environment that left us slack jawed with awe.

We gave up at dawn when the sun arrived, dramatically as always, presaged by a golden glow. Maybe we had done a third of the celebration by then. We woke up three hours later, a little wrecked by also insanely invigorated by it all. A new storm was starting to blow and we decided to leave a day early. Saturday night was the peak moment anyway. When the guys at the Comfort and Joy camp heard we were leaving they generously cooked us a quick bon voyage lunch and invited us to become official members of their group.

Just as well we left when we did. The storm went on for almost the entire day. It took a long time to get out of the playa (2 hours) but what was amazing was seeing 10,000 vehicles leaving the camp, following the rules, not a single police or traffic warden, no one cutting in line, no rage (indeed the opposite, dancers on top of RVs, hula hoop dancers, kisses blown from passing vehicles) when we reached the highway just two BM volunteers guided us onto the road. Alas, most of our drive back to Las Vegas was at night again, the same scary road but this time filled with trailers taking the mutant vehicles back home.

We think we did well for virgins. We will bring different foods next time. Our choice of sarongs as primary clothing was perfect, they made head shawls, great scarves, skirts (minis for daywear and full length for nightwear) and we used the ones we were not wearing to dress up the dull corporate interior of the RV (interior design in part of the Gay gene and is inescapable even in a dust storm).

We are eager to return for 2010. This time we will be there from the first day to the last. With better goggles and respirators we will manage just fine.
We will return this time with something special to give. Ideas vary but we thought of setting up a one-night cheese and wine bar or a 1950s bohemian coffee shop. Our “light” costumes for the big night are being designed in my head as I write. I feel younger than the man who arrived at the camp ten days ago and much more optimistic about humanity.

Long May the Man Burn.

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  1. JRice says:

    We too have longed to attend this event—-your description and feelings were as usual exactly what I thought it would be like—we have an RV so it’ll be a great thing to do—we’ll get advice from you when we see you in Chicago at SOFA—greenhorns for sure!