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After using a rest room I broke out the
electrolyte solution bottles packed in the cooler and started
drinking one bottle and gave the other to Michael and told him
to do the same. Being cooled helped, it was orange flavored and
felt good going down. Of course I was nearing dangerous levels
of dehydration, and taking off my coat I saw that it was soaked
with sweat, but the blessed coolness of the breeze washing over
me felt so good. I felt compelled to get as much from the experience
as possible, so I kept looking for extraordinary sights to savor
and capture. Well into the morning I wandered from one center
of activity to another, once in awhile meeting and embracing good
friends I came upon.
A favorite camp was deserted, but several of its people drifted in and before long we had a small party in progress. They had a perfect spot to inhale Laughing Gas, a 10 foot roped in square filled with pillows and cushions of all sizes. This was the 'Flailing zone'. I was lounging against soft pillows and immersing myself in a shrill white noise from which spinning patterns formed and dissolved, listening and watching the lights in the distance. The fires steadily dwindled and the laser kept playing across the dust and smoke. Beats from a dozen stages rolled across the darkness echoing among each other and strange things on wheels came and went. More boxes of gas appeared, and gradually as the activity waned around us Jupiter climbed high and Venus, the Morning Star, rose in the East. Alarmed at seeing this, I said my good-byes and wandered in the moonlight the mile back to camp.
There were stories of people getting burned horribly, but the rumors seemed to distill themselves into garbled accounts of incidents Saturday and Sunday night with possible interchangeable details. The alleged casualty this night was supposed to be an accidental fall while running over a region of burning coals. Another fellow tried to detonate a pipe bomb which failed to go off, then he called the Rangers who in turn called in the police and bomb squad, which detonated the device. The perpetrator took off, a hunted man. I eventually hobbled exhausted into my tent, ate the last of the dried apples and tried to sleep. Perhaps four hours of sleep were achieved once I finally nodded off before the temperature made sleep impossible. I noticed when I left my tent our neighbors had left and the tent stakes were returned near the entrance in their little plastic bag.
Sunday was cooler and a bit less intense,
indeed one could see disassembly of things taking place. Alas,
the more involved the camp the longer the setup and breakdown
times. The smoke from a few fires were still drifting up here
and there, but the site of the Man was surprisingly small. This
burn was apparently well designed to minimize the effect on the
Playa. One person who had been up all night described seeing the
Moon setting behind the western mountains as the sun rose on the
other side of the sky.
That last day I made it a point to visit some people I had missed seeing up to then. There seemed to be a noticeably smaller population with a more relaxed atmosphere. Quite a few actually left that day, but a terrible accident happened that afternoon when someone with a trailer lost control when trying to pass, causing a head on crash in which a Burning Man participant was killed. The ensuing traffic jam brought outbound traffic to a halt for hours.
The big event that night was to be the burning of the Mausoleum, during which it would change into the 'Temple Of Tears', if I heard the artist right. The coming of darkness was the invitation to gather around this amazing structure. The crowd around the Mausoleum was kept behind a taped off perimeter. The wind kicked up and dust clouds drifted over the region, bringing near white out conditions to the crowd. Again those nearest the barrier were asked to sit down, with people standing further away and perched on vehicles beyond. Fireworks detonated in the distance were invisible except for an overall glow in the dust. The wind stopped but the dust simply hung in midair hiding the Mausoleum from view. Surreal red glows filled the scene as flares drifted down, beams of flashlights held by firemen lighting a few yards of dust. For an hour and a half past the scheduled burn time they waited for more of a clearing while dust settled on people and cameras, and impatient comments rang out of the crowd.
Most people were there to obtain
a sense of closure from the grief they had shared and expressed
in the Mausoleum, and had no need of efforts by a well meaning
but out of tune Ranger near us who tried to work cheers out of
the crowd. His yelled query "Who loves Black Rock City?"
was met with jeers rather than cheers. Finally fires appeared
in one after another of the lesser nearby structures, then the
temple itself. It was swiftly enveloped, great masses of flame
roaring through the open structure. Eventually the upper stories
collapsed and as in the previous night the crowd surged out toward
the new bonfire but in a quieter fashion than last night.
Later I was to learn of a terrible death involving someone seen that night staring at a large fire, perhaps that of the Mausoleum, while assuming a meditation pose. He was heard to say there and at an earlier instance something to the effect that "This fire needs a sacrifice". He then stood up and calmly walked into the flames. After a terribly long interval immersed in flames he was taken to a Las Vegas burn center where he died September 15. Other weird things happened later in the event such as a very drunk belligerent man impersonating a Ranger who reeled from camp to camp. The event was large enough so local incidents could only affect their immediate surroundings.
Elsewhere the now traditional pyramid was also taken out and burned with some pageantry, and for one last night Black Rock City partied for all it was worth. The Moon was finally full that night and visibility was excellent all night.
5. The long stretch home.
Earlier we had packed away everything
we didn't actually need to sleep that night, so as to be in a
position to leave as early as possible when we decided to go.
We ended up with two garbage bags full of trash each to somehow
fit in each of our cars. I thought I would sleep well because
of getting so little rest the night before and so much exercise
the next day, however I kept trying to sleep, perhaps too hard,
hour after hour. I played out the usual visualizations I try to
doze off by, but despite the fairly quiet surroundings and reasonable
comfort I never quite drifted off, only starting awake a couple
times as my sense of time started to slide from wakefulness. When
I saw the light of dawn through the tent fabric I declared to
myself "Fuck it!" and decided to get the hell out of
there right away, I was going to get only more tired with time
so at that point the sooner the better. The weirdest part was
to awake Michael, fast asleep in his tent. He let out a startled
cry as I shook him awake. After I told him my plans he readily
agreed and as I broke down my tent he shook himself awake for
a few minutes before starting to do the same. It was just past
6 A.M. and the full Moon was about to set.
Frantically I rolled up my sleeping bag, folded my blankets and pillow away, then threw every loose small thing in my tent into a compactor bag. Next the tent itself and the tarp below it were folded into something which would fit into the car trunk. I managed to fit everything else in without blocking my rear view. By the time we started on our way it was 7 A.M. and the sun was just peeking above the horizon. I was desperately tired but I took a moment to admire the yellow globe of the Moon setting behind the mountains. We drove out to the zone the lanes of traffic would soon be divided into, with nobody yet around. The 'magic hour' of lighting was in full force, yellow orange illumination and indigo gray shadows making the surroundings refreshingly beautiful. Only in the last stretch when a single lane had to be formed did we wait a few minutes in line, but soon we were on our way past Gerlach. During that long stretch to Fernley I dispaired of being able to stay awake, but when we stopped there and had a nice breakfast and coffee I was greatly energized. I had not had coffee during the entire week so it was more of a benefit to me at this time of need. After an uneventful drive we arrived at Gordons hours earlier than he expected. Fortunately he allowed for our arrival enough to leave their house unlocked and their dog knew us. By the time Gordon and Karen arrived I was still soaking in their large tub full of hot playa colored water. By the time I fell asleep that night I had been awake about 36 consecutive hours, with 4 hours sleep in the last 50!
6. Some concluding thoughts on Burning Man 2001
The massive event seemed to go
well, in some ways more so than in previous years. The infusion
of ideas into the culture continued as thousands were introduced
to the experience and changed. Many thousands more continued their
own traditions. Wonderful things were built, shared, and will
live on as memories and inspiration for further works. The overwhelming
impression seems to be a very positive one although the word 'dust'
will come up early by most when asked to summarize their experiences.
Mishaps happened, as they do among a group of so many people but
despite some accidents and hard feelings Black Rock City underwent
its yearly life cycle beautifully. Clear signs of evolution of
the event to address problems of previous years were seen through
out the festival such as design changes in the man. The population
seems to have stabilized at a bit above 26,000 people and the
efforts to catch up with the needs of so many people finally paid
In response to strong-arm tactics of the previous year meetings were conducted with law enforcement and BLM members to educate them on the 'culture' of the event, that it was not a big 'rave' but in fact a huge art festival where people bring their creations. The consensus seemed to be that the police paid attention and modified their approach from the hard line of the previous year, since only 5 arrests were made by them. Invasive tactics such as shining lights in peoples eyes to look for pupil dilation at night were not reported this year. The BLM, on the other hand, seems to have politely listened, then did what they pleased, writing over 100 petty citations.
It was said that the local BLM officials called in redneck cowboy types from distant rural regions who were told in effect to harass as many people as possible. These BLM thugs were given night vision equipment and watched for people using a lighter or urinating far away in the dark playa. They would then roar up in their buggies, at times drawing guns on the isolated perpetrator, and issue citations. Increasing attention by various three-letter organizations has deeply eroded the idea of a 'Temporary Autonomous Zone' Black Rock City historically represented.
Burning man changes over time, growing safer and tamer just a bit each year. Every specific step is absolutely justifiable but over time the 'old timers' shock the current attendees with stories of what could happen only several years ago. If Burning man is truly heading for a 'Family Atmosphere' as people bring young children then crackdowns on some expression and behavior seem predictable. At some point my accounts may excessively repeat themselves and the magic and novelty may recede, however I still plan to go next year to find out.
Upon reaching home I heard of a disastrous rave type event that Labor Day weekend, held on Indian reservation land near Lake Havasu. This event attracted many thousands more young people than the organizers were apparently prepared for. As over 15,000 folks danced and reeled about several wandered off to die from the effects of drugs and the elements. The contrast between a well and poorly organized event involving many people was obvious and I was glad to see professionalism reign supreme during my adventure.
In the beginning there is the Playa, then trucks arrive and little beings prepare the wide patch of ground, followed by a boom in population as vehicles swarm in, congregate, and sprout a multicolored ground cover like flowers emerging from a field of scattered seeds. The dazzling clusters of built up forms buzz, roar, and sparkle in a swift peak, then with a bright fiery flourish melt away, leaving some trucks from which methodical cleaning and grooming of the region then takes place. Finally the flat endless Playa is all that's left, the smooth windswept expanse upon which dust and shadows silently glide.
Postscript: The Decompression.
Finishing the 2001 account was
delayed by the final touches on 'New Horizons' and by the distractions
of the events and aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001.
For a time afterwards memories of the Playa seemed like the rosy
recollections of distant halcyon times, but repeated episodes
of writing impressions while they were fresh in my mind culminated
with an early October inventory of my images and videotapes. The
bulk of the essay was finished shortly afterwards, and refined
over the weeks resting in the Bay Area between the decompression
The evening of Saturday, October 15, 2001 the decompression, a reunion of sorts, took place along a three block stretch of Indiana street in San Francisco. Several larger art items and many smaller ones were laid out in a fairly concentrated sample of the Playa. People paid between 10 and 15 dollars to enter this neon wonderland. The Azteca temple was set up and several other large art objects were laid out here and there, such as a pair of stylized 20 foot tall skeletons leaning against a stage structure. Many small attractions I had missed on the Playa could be seen here. A tent with numerous fluorescent colored toy fish hung along fine strings appeared as objects floating in midair under an array of ultraviolet lights. A number of sources of ultraviolet glow could be seen in any given time, making bleached cloth glow a light blue.
This was a nice event to share with some close friends. For various reasons some of my friends will never make it to the Playa but having an accessible sample of the event at least allows people to get some hint of it all. For hours we wandered and marveled at the outrageous things gathered there. Like a dream one would weave among beautiful glowing wonders and rejoin different combinations of your companions now and then.
A large wooden catapult dominated
a stretch of the street, one of the heaviest weapons available
in the era before gunpowder. I tried to use a telephone pole to
steady my digital camera for a long exposure of the scene but
an intense looking fellow, drenched in sweat, adopted the pole
as a plaything while dancing. I found another surface and composed
him as part of the scenery as he began performing with a trash
can. Once in a great while a burst of fire would squirt above
the heads of the crowd, but so quickly that it might have been
missed by the officials who would surely object. Some of the things
feasible in the Playa were impossible here, and the crossing concrete
ribbons bore freeway traffic which must not have fire visible
from them. Music and drums echoed from the walls of the nearby
warehouses. Along the upper portion of one large building an elaborate
graffiti script had been sprayed rather neatly in silver with
a shadowed black outline.
After the horror of the last few
weeks it was great to see so many people reaffirming the need
for this kind of experience. Several women even went topless.
There was a relaxed atmosphere and there seemed to be as much
introduction of people to something new as it was a reunion of
Burning man attendees. Several people were standing along the
elevated freeway overpasses crossing over the event, looking down
A young man had a large tray of Playa dust before him and was flinging spade fulls of the light powdery stuff into the air, sending small clouds of dust drifting into the crowd downwind. For a moment I marveled at the sight and wondered where else in the country one could do this without people and authorities thinking it was an anthrax attack!
Eventually the midnight hour approached, and the flowing avenue of artistic strangeness proceeded to fold itself up and drift away. Some of the wonderful electro-luminescent wire art objects glowed in dark cubbyholes, sculptures of a starfish and a seahorse scribbled in three dimensions in radiant colored paths. Car batteries supplied the power they needed.
As we reached our cars around the corner along a nearby industrial stretch we shared a last puff together as old friends since high school in the '60's. Among the group was Karen, the friend who accompanied me to my first Burning Man. While a few of us were clustering our hands together around a lighter against the breeze rapid bursts of red and blue lights suddenly played against the buildings nearby announcing a police car in a rush to be somewhere. The car rushed by and skidded loudly in the gravel at the stop sign just beyond us. A siren wailed among the walls as a fire engine then zoomed along the rather narrow street, followed by more police cars. The skidding at the graveled portion of the road at the stop sign rumbled loudly at intervals as some of us walked away after shouting good-bys to others at the car parked there. On the way to our vehicle I saw people clustered along the railings of an overpass directing their attention down at the railroad tracks below us. Uniformed people walking along the tracks directed their flashlights to the hidden regions beneath us.
Apparently someone fell from the overpass to their serious injury or death. One was tempted to assume someone attracted to the event became too intoxicated for what he tried to do but I don't know for a fact this actually happened. For a moment I had wondered what such a mass of emergency vehicles might be headed towards in those days following official warnings of upcoming terrorist attacks, and I was frankly relieved to learn it was not a reaction to a dire scenario along those lines. We are able to be in a special place of our creation despite the terrible events beyond the horizon.
October 31, 2001
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