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Friday, October 09, 2009
How I Spent My Summer Vacation
It's right around midnight and I'm standing in the middle of nowhere waiting to climb into the belly of a 40-foot tall art-deco rocket ship. People covered in neon lights are rappelling down the side and I'm hoping I'll get to do the same but there's a long line and it's barely moving. Behind me, someone is cracking jokes with an accent that sounds like it belongs to a Bond villain.
It's a rail-thin woman dressed in a white bikini and a long, fur jacket. Standing next to her is David Carradine. Sure, Carradine supposedly died a few months earlier in a bizarre accident in Bangkok but there he is standing in front of me. Whoever this man is, he's the spitting image of the late actor. This guy even sounds like him. He's wearing a bowler hat and a jacket that matches his date's.
Carradine's doppleganger says his name is Happy and I spend the next twenty minutes locked in one of the more...interesting conversations of my life. At one point, the woman takes it upon herself to coach me in the "art of proper hugging." Apparently, the trick is to squeeze the other person as tightly as you can and she demonstrates this repeatedly. Before I head up into the rocket, she gives me a lighter and Happy hands me a necklace with a shiny, brown stone pendant. I have nothing to offer these people in return but bemused bewilderment.
Encounters like this are par for the course at Burning Man. Anyone who attended the event in the '90s will tell you that the current version is a Disney-fried, overly compromised mockery of its former self. I wish I could have seen the old days when Black Rock City was supposedly "completely unhinged" (a description offered by one long-time Burner I spoke with) but I still feel like I got my money's worth. I was jostled awake at 4 AM one night by a nearby theme camp blasting Daft Punk's "Around the World" so loud it made the earth shake. According to the rumors floating around the next day, those responsible were actually Daft Punk, who had shown up at the festival for an impromptu, late-night concert.
I still haven't bothered to confirm if the electronic duo was really behind it all. I guess I'd rather not know.
I went to Nevada expecting to find something close to Barter Town in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. After all, there's an actual Thunderdome that's built every year where combatants bounce around while whacking each other on the head with giant foam mallets. Instead of spending six days wandering around in a faux-post apocalyptic orgy, I spent that week mesmerized by an annual event so overloaded with good intentions, overall weirdness and contradictions that a 1,000 page tome could never cover the whole thing.
The goal of Burning Man is to bring 40,000+ people together into the middle of a godforsaken playa covered in corrosive alkaline dust to build a temporary utopia for a week and then wipe it all away in order to preserve its natural beauty (and avoid hefty fines from the Bureau of Land Management). While the efforts of the volunteers who clean up the mess afterward are nothing short of extraordinary, it's hard to argue that the festival is green, despite its high ideals and "leave no trace" policy. The amount of fuel and resources required to bring everyone together in the middle of nowhere could power a battleship battalion for a thousand years.
So it's easy to scoff at Burning Man until you actually spend a week out there. Environmental impact aside, the general good vibe is nothing sort of magical, man. I was won over when a woman from the UK flagged me down one morning and invited me to attend a free pancake feed/dance party. There's this sort of thing going on at all hours. Free clubs, free food, free mini-golf, free drive-in movie theaters, free admission to a "death camp" featuring hundreds of suicidal Barbie dolls and free, ummmmm, this thing. Once you shell out the price of admission, money and bartering are verboten and the city operates on a "gifting system" that I never did quite get the hang of.
And on Saturday night everybody gathers around a humongous effigy and watches the thing burst into a gigantic fireball before running circles around it. Last year, someone fell into the flames and later sued the organizers.
It all falls somewhere between the Oregon Country Fair, a never-ending rave, Las Vegas and a modern art show but with explosions, "mutant vehicles," and 12-hour dust storms. On the day the festival's namesake went up in flames, I found myself stuck out in the middle of the playa, far from my camp and getting pounded by dust and wind. I could see, maybe, eight feet in front of me. Somewhere in the haze I spotted a giant shadow and made my way towards it. It turned out to be a Victorian house on wheels. I sought shelter inside and spent part of the afternoon chatting with two German guys and "Professor Birdbath," the pilot of this strange vessel. He was waiting for his colleagues to repair the engine.
The question friends, coworkers and family all asked me when I got back was "is it worth it?" Going to Burning Man involves buying or borrowing all sorts of camping equipment that will forever be tarnished by playa dust and subjecting oneself to a week of nonstop noise, extreme weather, freaks on stilts dressed in bondage gear, rank body odor and the potential for grave bodily harm. The back of every ticket essentially states "you could die. No, seriously." I don't regret going out there for a second but I can't see myself ever doing it again. Ok, maybe, if I could borrow an RV.
I was left with the impression that most of the people who still attend Burning Man go to, well, get smashed and stare at weird shit. Still, there's a spiritual side to the festival that some attendees take Very Seriously. One of the event's reoccurring centerpieces, "The Temple," is a 3-story tall wooden shrine that sits along the central Esplanade. Every year, attendees head out there to write on the walls, leave tributes to their dearly departed and sometimes mourn for hours at a time. The outpouring of emotion the structure endures over the course of the week is incomparable. On the last night of the festival, long after most of the crowd has hit the highway, the temple goes up in flames in a solemn ceremony.
Reports of life-changing experiences and transformative moments are easy to come by online. While my week lacked any sort of huge epiphany, there was one incident that will haunt me for years to come. I'd love to share it with you but this sort of thing is far too embarrassingly earnest to go around posting on the internet.
So instead I'll wrap up this overlong blog post with this anecdote: I set my tent up near a group of Australians who had filled their camp with Christmas decorations from the land down under. One morning while I was jump starting a neighbor's RV, I chatted with one of them about an incident that happened the year prior. They were camped out near the festival's air field when a 21-year old woman wandered over from a plane that had just landed. She was wearing a bathing suit, a cowboy hat and a pair of boots. The only thing she had with her was a small bottle of water for a week in this ragged wasteland.
She had hitched a ride on a plane that had flown in from Reno and they were all aghast that anyone could be so daft as to display such a complete disregard for their own personal safety. After lecturing her, they immediately asked around for supplies. Slowly but surely their neighbors offered her an extra tent, food, clothing and enough to get through to the end of the festival. You can probably guess the punchline to this story.
"We were wrong. Actually, she brought everything she needed with her."
Also: here's a link to a prerequisite Flickr gallery.