BURNING MAN 2002-PAGE ONE OF SIX
It's getting more difficult to
decide what to include in this years story, partly from a desire
to avoid repetition with my previous accounts. Comparisons with
last year occur to show the process of learning and change from
year to year, but I will try to highlight things which went differently
at the expense of repeating similar observations from previous
years, except in the obvious climactic moments. What is so obvious
as to go unsaid should be again be highlighted, the fact that
no account even relying on a hundred widely spaced observant individuals
could possibly claim to tell the whole story of what happened
on the Playa those incredible days. Burning Man is like life itself,
it is a dynamic system bigger than what can be directly experienced,
and the role of randomness is such that no two individuals will
have the same experience. Often I turn to the skies and weather
as a unifying experience many will recall. Here and there I rely
on other than direct experience, in such cases it will be stated,
often with an opinion of the quality of the information above
my basic threshold for offering it up as fact.
I offer my story as one among many, in my continuing efforts to be at places where extraordinary visual things happen.
1. From the world to the Playa
Since the last Burning Man it had
been a bad year for much of the world but thankfully a good one
for me. Since 9/11 American society seemed increasingly willing
to be treated like prisoners under surveillance, cameras springing
up like weeds in many public places. Broad application of surveillance
and airport interrogations brought a taste of 'strong arm' government
to average Americans. Liberalism was being vilified more than
ever on the cable news media and radio talk shows while they repeatedly
peddled fear to the public for ratings. A libertarian acquaintance
committed suicide by shooting himself, apparently in a state of
despair at world and personal developments. Grim things seemed
only just around the corner, but at least I could be grateful
that I was working, and on a fun project at that.
I labored all the year on the third of the full dome projection animations which I have created the visuals for. This show, 'Cosmic Safari', was a Planetarium adaptation of a television program done a few years ago for the 'Discovery' channel. This show was especially demanding since I had to animate several kinds of hypothetical alien life on worlds of varied types. Although the project would not quite be finished by Burning Man I was able to let go of the production at a time when the critical work was done.
Burning Man 2002 was a distant concept to me as this work filled my time and my life. I woke and slept in time with the rendering intervals of my computers so no machine would lay unused more than a few hours. During bouts of cynicism I actually toyed with the idea of not going at all, but I knew it was really important to be somewhere else for awhile and I finally bought my ticket before I had to pick it up at the 'will call' booth as was the case last year. From e-mailed event news I learned that the only noticeable added rule from past years was a ban on using flashing lights which could be mistaken for those of emergency vehicles.
Once I received my ticket I felt like the boy who climbed a tall fence by tossing his hat over it and thus obligating himself to follow it to the other side. A couple days before having to leave I set up my tent in my front yard so I wouldn't have to re-learn its particular difficulties in a possibly windy Playa. As the final scenes were being prepared I began buying items such as mylar wrapping for my tent, film, and canned food. This time the car which I had driven to Burning Man the last 5 years was no longer reliable enough, and I rented a dark bronze 'Alero' four door car.
I drove Thursday, August 22, 2002 from noon until a bit after 9 P.M. to get from Palm Springs to Redwood City, a southern suburb of San Francisco. After leaving the desert it felt good to be under a familiar cool breezy Mid peninsula evening. Shredded patches of fog drifted among the few visible stars, seen past the mature oak trees lining the streets. The next day a few last minute items included more batteries and more space blankets (five of them allowed for one extra if repairs were needed) and some canned food. Saturday morning we set off for the now traditional 'base camp' in our journey, the Seagraves house in Grass Valley. Resting that evening, cooling down from a still summery day, the Sun reddened and faded behind a horizon hugging smoke pall, although far less than that seen the previous year. The Sun could just be seen disappearing behind the otherwise unseen coastal mountain ranges. That evening we stood together under a waning gibbous Moon, a couple days past full, which was bright but still allowing the stars and Milky Way to shine down on us. I noticed the valley before us had become peppered with lights inside the tree filled blackness compared with my memory of only a few years ago. It was warm but with the help of some fans I slept soundly.
About 10 AM I awoke and prepared to get going by noon, not wanting to set up my tent at nightfall as happened last year after a late start. On the way out of town Mike filled up two large plastic containers with water freely available from Bitney Springs. The drive across the High Sierras was done without incident, the air clear and the gray granite mountainsides projecting above the carpet of pine trees. Reno, now not quite the 'biggest little city in the world' it once was, came and went looking more like Las Vegas than ever. The arid scenery beyond was divided by broken walls of mountains here and there, and a large refinery dominated a piece of the landscape to the right.
Dry tan mountain ranges came and went and tremendous stretches of the surroundings were covered with a random tightly dotted pattern of bushes. The afternoon skies were clear and beautiful with only a few high clouds peeking from behind the mountains. Across their brown slopes could be seen remnants of the ancient terraces, each made in a period of stalls in the overall decline of the giant western lakes during the end of the last Ice Age. The drive down highway 447 took us past Pyramid Lake, also outlined in the road map on the screen of my GPS receiver sitting on my dashboard. Although the map indicated a huge lake to my left only two scraps of the real thing were visible between the nearby hills. There was a good deal of event related traffic compared to last year, and the only police vehicles I saw roared by in a convoy, aggressively passing groups of inbound vehicles.
For some time during the last desolate stretch between Fernley and Gerlach we were driving by ourselves and Mike had lagged badly behind me. I began asking him to keep up with me on my two way radio, his answer was that his engine was running hot and he was trying to 'nurse it along'. I told him to run the car heater full strength, but the temperature indicator still rose to dangerous levels and we pulled off the two lane highway 36 miles from our destination. His car had over a quarter million miles on it and had been checked out, but here we were. What to do? If it was a major tow and mechanic job the process could take days, not to mention the cost of a possible tow to Reno! We decided that if it came to that I would go ahead and set up camp in the area we had been last year, and good luck finding me later!
Soon someone pulled over and suggested a procedure to detach the thermostat and use a soft drink can to preserve containment if that was the problem. The other obvious possibility was the radiator was low. Fortunately Mike felt possessed to buy a large container of engine coolant before leaving, and when the radiator pressure seemed reduced enough to open it was indeed found to be nearly empty! After filling up, we resumed our journey and stopped at Empire, the next to last small town on the way, to fill up and buy a few last minute food items and more engine coolant! The heating problem never recurred.
The last winding road through the tiny oasis town of Gerlach was driven with the same restraint and special attention to the stop signs and speed limits I had observed in previous years. In particular the closely spaced 55-45-35-25 speed limit signs required attention. The gas station, last stop for supplies before the playa, was predictably crowded, vindicating using the facilities at Empire earlier. The road then ran North with the lengthily mountain ridge continuing to our left, and emerging from between dark gate like ranges bright flatness appeared to our right, first as a narrow roadside zone then opening up to vastness separating distant mountain ranges. At the turnoff was the same smartly painted weathering 'BURNING MAN' entrance sign, and as we turn into the dusty side road we are 'there' once again!
The access road was gravel giving way to a worn light path in the cracked light dried mud. Again the entrance road was excellent, the tricky rut straddling maneuvering from earlier years a distant memory. The first layer of greeters insured we had our tickets 'in hand', and large vehicles are given special attention to guard against people without tickets being smuggled in. At the actual entry booths not only was my ticket taken, I was able to register my video camera with a ready form and receive the little 'tag', although this one bore not a number but a small picture of a fish.
I was asked if I had any firearms
or explosives, and I naturally said no. Others were asked if they
had drugs, and presumably they all heard similar replies. One
wonders why they felt the need to ask. I found out the greeters
were in place since last Thursday, and from the looks of things
perhaps 5000 people were already here at Sunday afternoon, at
an event scheduled to open tomorrow noon! I got some booklets
and other literature, then continued my journey to the site of
Black Rock City. As always bits of instruction and wisdom are
presented a few words at a time on signs along the fence to our
As we turned left to enter the camping region I noticed a brilliant 'Sun Dog' to the right of the Sun, superimposed on high clouds sparsely decorating the western sky. The human presence on the playa was obvious even when approaching the turnoff, as we entered the outskirts of the event late in the afternoon prior to the opening day It looked as if at least ten per cent of the city was already there! We turned left a couple concentric streets from the innermost 'Esplanade' street and searched for the site of our encampment last year. Upon reaching the region we found a wide expanse roped off with a big 'DPW' banner hanging in the middle of the open shade structures. As we drove along we noticed an increasing trend toward roping off generous lots for presumed future arrivals over and above the posted reservation for registered theme camps. There were dozens of fenced off locations well inwards from the main 'Esplanade' ring for perhaps three blocks out, although outer real estate seemed always plentiful.
Fairly soon we found a less spoken for block Just after 240 degrees and 'forecastle' street, where we stopped and chose a region near the middle of that 'block' which ranged from 240 to 255 degrees. We deliberately set up camp near the middle of the 'block', anticipating being later surrounded by other settlements. The wide plastic tarps were on top of my things in the trunk, and my large green plastic sheet, still bearing traces of last years playa use, was stretched out.
The ground was a very pale ivory ochre tan, hard packed and very smooth with visibly worn cracks outlining 'tiles' averaging several inches wide. Only scattered vehicle tracks and little wire flags marked the natural textures in our area. For an instant I looked ahead when this and the spots below our cars and tents will be the only remaining pristine surface a week from now, then draped the tarp over the flat cracked surface. We then parked our vehicles over opposite sides, East and West, of the sheet to secure it. My tent was quickly set up on the South side with the entrance facing North, as last year.
There was little wind this time and I had no trouble erecting my tent. I had brought just a little extra water, purchasing four two and a half gallon containers, two gallon jugs and a six pack of smaller bottles. I used the big containers to anchor the corners inside my tent so even a very big wind wouldn't move the tent. From experience I would usually end up with one of those two and a half gallon containers unused.
After helping thread the poles through Mikes tent we put up his smaller 'extra' tent to place our washing water in. This was all done while the Sun was still shining on us, then we relaxed as the shadow of the mountains began to creep across the Playa and a cooling breeze began. A few days ago the temperature reached 107 degrees, but we were in a cooling trend. There was far less dust in evidence compared to last year, this last winter having ended with a wet but not frosty episode. By the time darkness came I had taped the silver mylar 'space blankets' over the East and South sides of my tent, those parts I thought would get the most early sunlight. I would do a more thorough job tomorrow.
Looking around once our immediate
concerns were met, it was astonishing to see how many people were
already there. As twilight brought the stars to us the Moonlight
had to compete with plentiful colored lights adorning the growing
tent city. The Man was already up and as evening came its neon
embellishment came to life. This year, in keeping with this years
oceanic theme, the outlining lights were a uniform light blue
with indirect inner white light highlighting the top if the inverted
pyramid head. As always the head reminded me of a traditional
Japanese house with the papered wood lattice. Below the head the
intricate stick figure stood about the size and configuration
I recalled from earlier years, a skeletal but sturdy series of
tapered structures suggesting skinless biplane fuselages. The
design trend preventing direct access to The Mans legs and towards
increasingly elaborate bases had continued.
This year the pedestal design brought
to mind a vertically squashed version of the great Lighthouse
of Alexandria, with the Poseidon statue atop the third story replaced
with The Man. The first two wider levels of the structure were
directly accessible by steep Mayan temple type stairs. The view
through the third story windows were available only to those who
acquired a 'golden dubloon' after a series of journeys to first
acquire other trinkets to trade for one. The view from the second
level was sufficient for me.
As before, at least one BRC Ranger was present at all times on or around The Man, making sure some damn fool doesn't torch it accidentally or otherwise. Walking out into the darkness beyond, the early vibrancy of the community was obvious. People seemed in a hurry to bring the place to life as soon as possible. A couple bands roared in the distance in a cacophony of music rising like an aural mist. A fog like dust was lit from within by the headlights of a thickening stream of arriving vehicles.
Overhead the gibbous Moon brought a fair amount of light but the stars were largely masked already by the local sky glow! After some exploring I settled into my tent. The temperature was almost but not quite cool enough to want to enter my sleeping bag, the sheet I had brought to possibly tear into another desert garment instead was instead wrapped around me, capturing just enough of my body heat to be comfortable.
2. The week begins, the city emerges
After sleeping well, I was awakened a bit early by the sunlight on my tent which caused heat to radiate from all the tent walls it touched. I decided then to finish applying the insulation to the tent. I got up and in still air began opening more 'space blankets', cutting them to roughly match the gaps in the coverage and taping them to the mylar and the tent. Wandering about later, I saw many beautiful camps already set up along the streets. Everywhere there was hammering, sawing, painting, drilling and welding going on. That night I walked up to the man and climbed the accessible portions of the elaborate wooden pedestal
The blue neon lights defined the outlines of the Man, largely hidden from the walking areas of the pedestal. The blue neon bathed the surroundings where people milled about, sat and lay in couples and small groups along with various parked bicycles. The blue illumination faded off toward the horizon, which was defined by the bright string of distant lights.
The Temple of Joy, the work of Pete Best
who was responsible for last years monumental 'Temple of Tears',
was also visited. This was already magnificent even though days
of work still clearly remained. Piles of similarly shaped wooden
parts were carefully laid out across the nearby playa, and rows
of assembled units like the chandeliers were arranged in rows
waiting for final placement. The dust clouds passed through the
porous structure like it wasn't there. This year the temple was
designed not so much as an enclosed space but as an elaborate
arch, roofed in crazy angles supporting the upper towers. Again
a sense of a Japanese ceremonial building was suggested when looking
at it from the front and rear., however from the sides it appeared
as a rectangular outlined three storied building, again superficially
reminding me of the great vanished Alexanderian Lighthouse.
On the way back to camp a brightly lit
major construction site in the inner boundary of the enclosing
tent city caught my attention. A yellow school bus was being fitted
with prefabricated curving wooden shapes arranged as vertical
'ribs' defining the contours of a ships hull being built around
the vehicle! These were nailed into place around a stout framework
closely fitted around the bus. Most of these 'ribs' were in place
late Monday night, and Lord knows how long they worked here and
at their home in Oakland to get to this point.
Where we camped it was fairly quiet. It was later necessary to cross through some of the wider camps established around us and it was made clear we were always welcome to do so. A few dozen yards southeast of us on Monday night some other neighbors were practicing spinning around little metal baskets filled with burning steel wool, sparks spreading over 20 feet downwind. My camp wasn't in the path of the shower of sparks but theirs was, so I felt they would soon get wise about what they were doing. I had to visit the bathroom before sleeping, and noticed a sharp ended iron bar end anchoring the 'port-apotties', and to do a good deed I went back to my camp grabbed a couple paper towels and duct tape, returned, and taped some folded layers of paper toweling to the end. I intended to do others but never got around to it.
TO PAGE TWO