text © Don Davis
This time I wasn't going to miss it. Although
I was grateful for the web cam images broadcast last year, this
time I was going to be on the other side of the camera. The most
complex full dome animation I had ever done was finally in a state
I could send the last scene, of a visit to the central black hole
of the Milky Way. As I packed for the week ahead I could let the
complex tribulations of the last year begin to relax their hold
on me, and I began to be excited about the playa. Current TV was
beginning to ramp up in its coverage of Burning Man, showing some
short documentaries and announcing an hour long live telecast
the night of the Burn. Seeing video images from last year on Current
reawakened the sense of strange familiarity of what I had been
through and would soon do again.
Once in a great while I dream of Burning Man, or at least do so with strong influence from my innermost associations with the event. A few days before my going I had a vivid dream of driving to Burning man, being there among many people and camps although odd differences exist between the dream and the reality. The dream event always takes place behind a low cyclone fence within a big city, to me reminiscent of San Francisco. I always am there at night, with the fenced off event grounds covered with lawn grass, not the dusty playa flatness, and somehow I wander from the event and try to negotiate my way back through various distractions as though struggling against a current. Just before I left I noticed a thread in the Burning man E-Playa discussion group about dreams associated with the event, to my astonishment Finding several similar dream accounts to mine, the theme of Burning Man in a fenced off large park within a city. Thousands of subscribers could easily bring several similar dreams to a forum, however despite my comfortable rationalization of the odds this seems uncanny to me.
I ordered my ticket too late to have it mailed to me, so I was destined to pick it up at 'Will Call' inside the gate. I brought a printout of the ticket purchase transaction with the confirmation number just in case of any trouble once I got there. I rented a mini van so I could take not only my food and shelter, but my laser projection setup and, for my first time, a bicycle. I left Palm Springs about noon, driving up the Highway 395 through the Mojave desert until the arid scrub lands gave way to groups of mountain peaks, some of volcanic origin, rising above the desert. In places lava still lay in thick black slabs in testimony to eruptions from vast fractures in the Earth I was starting to drive over. The Sierra Nevada mountains majestically emerged from below the horizon and behind the blue atmosphere. Beyond this great wall of mountains rising from the desert one could see peeking between massive pyramidal peaks groups of jagged granite spires in the blue distance. The Sierras from the eastern side truly appear as a mountain range should, for here a vast slab of the Earth's' crust has tilted up as if upon a trap door with a hinges a hundred miles to the west.
Michael was to drive in from the Bay Area, staying at Grass Valley as usual. I chose this route to save time and gas on the overall trip and we would meet Monday around 1 PM for the last leg of the journey past Reno. During my drive I got an agitated phone message from him stating that he had realized he had left his ticket at home over half way through his journey, and he was turning back, aborting the visit to Grass Valley and leaving home again at 5 AM! I was then glad that at least I couldn't lose my ticket, it already being where I was going.
I reached Lake Crowley, a name I associate with the eccentric 20th century mystic, and pondered the fact that only a kilometer below me there was molten lava. Someday, perhaps within my lifetime, the highway I was driving on will have to be rerouted to go around a new cinder cone which is expected to emerge as have others in the regions recent geologic past. After 7 hours of driving I reached Mono lake, and with it my destination, an inn well suited for the start of the next leg of my trip. It was pleasing to see the once imperiled lake so full again, due to plentiful rains and the attention paid to the stealing of its water by southern California. That night I took a short walk and looked at the stars with a special pair of glasses I had made especially for focusing on infinity. A couple weeks before I had been disappointed at the degree of light pollution from the south and east visible from Joshua Tree National park, a traditional dark sky refuge. Here at the slopes of the Eastern Sierras the skies were black, the stars shimmering like diamond fragments of many sizes reflecting light from a perfectly dark velvet tabletop. Just above the nearby tree line I could see the center region of the Milky Way galaxy highlighted in the uneven glowing pathway stretching overhead as a brighter patch of luminous mist rising from the 'teapot' shape in constellation of Sagittarius.
I had just finished my first attempt at an animation of a journey to the center of our galaxy, and in my mind I could see the vague glowing band as a mist composed of stars as droplets, too fine to visually detect. Overhead the Cygnus milky Way could be seen merging with many stars just detectable to the eye, and the soft streak of the Andromeda Galaxy loomed from beyond the stars and the Milky Way itself, the furthest thing generally visible to our eyes.
The spiral arms of galaxies like ours are marked along their inner edges by long arcs of dark 'clouds' of dust merging into great spiral patterns, from which stars emerge and spread. These dark nebulae appear as dark 'fog patches' among the luminous cloud band, tending to crowd along the 'plane' of the galaxy more closely than the stars so that in places the dark nebulae seem to divide the Milky Way along its length. Hidden behind many layers of such clouds toward Sagittarius is a giant black hole marking the gravitational center of the mass of the entire galaxy. Immense streamers of cloudy matter can be seen with radio telescopes spiraling into the central 'whirlpool' like patches of suds covered water stretching and winding their way into the funnel of water swirling over an opened drain.
Monday I met Michael at the casino in Fernley where we fill up our cars and ourselves coming and going. Fortunately I was getting excellent mileage from my rental car, and I determined I would not need to top off the tank further along the journey. Michael was traveling on 5 hours of sleep, but determination and caffeine can do wonders. The highway 447 gently winds in its northern course among the shores of Pyramid lake, and among eroded hills still bearing terraces left by the retreat of a vast lake which covered the region during the last ice age. A wide gentle rise in the terrain gives way in a dramatic moment to a sweeping vista of the road ahead tapering into a thin thread within a wide beautiful valley.
The sighting of the first patches of bare flat playa on either side of the road is a kind of visual prelude to where we will be. By this time we are part of a caravan of Burners gathering from many directions to converge on this route. Some of the vehicles are modest and unassuming like mine, others are gaily painted buses and heavily customized trucks with bicycles, poles, tarps and bundles tied and piled upon them like one might imagine in a Gypsy migration. One begins to feel safety in numbers, as if the predators in uniforms one tries to avoid meeting are likely to assume others are more worth checking out than me.
The speed limits are rigidly enforced here, and I make a proud show of adhering to the 25 miles per hour speed limits through the towns of Empire, Nixon and Gerlach. Finally the playa itself comes into view and excitement can barely be contained. There is dust ahead in the ivory colored flatness and the glitter of metal along the horizon. The 'special event' sign directs us off the road onto a wide dirt path leading to the entrance, now as part of a line of vehicles of all sizes. There are a few people holding up a finger in a 'one?' gesture like people who used to hang out at Grateful Dead concerts when ticket sales were limited. This mystified me, as anyone could buy a ticket if they have the money. They look like ragged hitchhikers with at most a knapsack, poor candidates for a week of survival under these conditions! I hope they don't get in, particularly if they are going to be a burden on everyone else.
After a little while the first layer of greeters is reached, and I am directed to the 'Will Call' area. The traffic here is clearly hopelessly jammed, attempts to split the traffic flow into looping branches stalled in their tracks by tightly contested arteries of movement inching their way back to the main ticket holders line. After a quick discussion with Michael, I grab my documentation and a 'walkabout' radio and leave my car in the stationary mess to sprint to the ticket booth, ready for alerts from the other radio if my briefly immobile car starts to impede traffic. after a modest wait in line I presented my drivers license to the woman inside the window, and after a brief search during which I nervously handle the printout I brought 'just in case' she emerges and hands me my ticket. Relieved, I run back to the car, where the traffic didn't seem any the worse for my not moving for those few minutes. The path to get back into the main admittance lines was a slow and torturous one, although I was a good guy and let a couple people in ahead of me during a couple episodes of chaotically merging traffic. It takes nearly two hours from the time we first left the highway until we finally reach the point we are asked to show our tickets, at least half of that due to the poor management of the substantial 'Will Call' traffic. I resolve at that time to buy my ticket earlier in the future. The next layer of greeters tear the detachable part of the ticket which I possessed in whole form for but a few minutes and we are waved on past some large vehicles being searched for stowaways.
I am then asked by a short young woman sporting a dusty tan to open a side door to check for anyone hiding under my top layer of stuff in the back of my van. A brief stirring of what she could easily reach convinces her of my good intentions and after a yell of 'He's clear!' I am directed to the final greeter who is trained to convey the basics of knowledge of what conditions visitors are in for, including the need to be lit while about at night on bike or on foot. Apparently relieved after I told her this was my ninth burn, she hands me the city map and the literature outlining scheduled events and the yearly survival guide.
I had the foresight to bring four video camera registration sheets, two for the video cameras I had brought and the others for digital still cameras also capable of recording video sequences, according to explicit directions relayed in the later e-mail messages concerning the event. Interestingly, this greeter, a tall young woman wearing a dusty costume reminding me of the middle ages, states no such registration is needed for the video capable still cameras, so my DV and HD camcorders are the only ones to sport the new long red and white numbered tags all video cameras brought to the event must have.
Moving slowly along the fenced off path The tersely worded series of introductory signs parade past, expressing welcome and cautions against littering interspersed with philosophical quotes and short expressions inviting mystical mind sets.
At once it is obvious that thousands of people are already here at nearly six P.M. Monday, the opening day of the event. The flood of people would have officially started at midnight, but many people, if not thousands, managed to get in early for camp preparation. besides these 'sanctioned' early arrivals the gates were opened Sunday afternoon as an emergency measure because early arrivals were backing up over a mile of the highway while waiting at the gate. There are numerous theme camp reserved blocks of land among the concentric and radial 'partial spider web' plan of Black Rock City, but past the sixth street out from the innermost 'Esplanade' circle finding a good place is not hard. Just past the '7 O: clock' street we turn into a sparsely settled region in the middle of the block, quickly determining there are no likely prior claims to the spot, and at last park our cars. From the inside out the streets this year are named Esplanade, Anxious, Brave, Camp, Destiny, Eager, Fate, Guess and Hope.
That first step on the cracked playa surface is exhilarating even through the initial rush to set up the ground cover and tents. Fortunately there is still plenty of light left, during my tent setup I notice the Sun dipping below the nearby mountains and I know it would be another hour before it actually reaches the true horizon, with twilight proceeding thereafter for most of another hour.
I had prepared for this trip better than ever before, not only setting up the same tent a week before at home to insure no problems, I had also cut and taped together specially trimmed sheets of thin 'space blanket' mylar to make a form fitting covering backed by many strips of plastic postal tape on the inner surface to reduce the paths a tear could take. During a lull in the winds I slipped it over the tent with a loud metallic rustle and with a series of spring clamps attached the cover to the four tent poles on several points, an arrangement which held through out the stay despite episodes of violent winds. The bottom couple of feet of tent walls not covered with the mylar were protected from the Sun by folded sheets which were clamped at the same points as the bottom of the mylar covering, all which never came loose. I was considering an idea of sprinkling gray water on the sheets for evaporation and cooling, but it never seemed necessary.
After my bedding was unrolled and laid over the clean floor I sat inside my shelter drinking a cold beer and letting it sink in that at last I was there. The outside world effectively lost its effect on me as soon as cell phone coverage dropped out past Fernley, a fact which by now had brought to me a sense of release from the tensions and hurried toil I had experienced for so long I was forgetting any other life I had. After getting minimally settled in, I took my bicycle out for the first of many trips into the Playa. it was exhilarating to cover such distances in this way, and I immediately knew this was something I should have done long ago.
Monday night already looked like Thursday night used to in my early years here, the trend toward frenzied buildup of the Tent City obviously increasing with all available resources. There were areas masked by blowing dust herded along by pockets of wind flowing across the playa in the darkness. I passed by the familiar sunburst shaped Center Camp' tent and its surrounding 'business district'.
Along the Esplanade a large mobile art project
caught my attention, first in gaping disbelief then in a schizophrenic
appraisal of what different people out in the world would make
of this! A bus had been incorporated into a sculpture of the United
Stated capitol building, with an airliner frozen in the act of
crashing into the dome! parts of the shattering dome were sculpted
in mid air like a frozen moment captured in a photograph. It was
a kind of bizarre image of what the hijackers of United flight
93 intended to do, thwarted by the battle by the passengers to
reach the cockpit. The airliner had the Republican party emblem
on its tail, so the political statement was clear however outrageously
A bright light cast shadows of the comparatively modest temple complex by David Best toward me into the fog like dust clouds, creating from my angle an eerie series of dark apparitions wavering in the turbulent spotlit dust like stylized giant shadow puppets. In the far distance a massive broad construction towered like an anvil above the dark opaque dust, lit a bright green and intriguing in its sheer size. I waited until later days to start exploring this and other Playa wonders in earnest.