BURNING MAN 2000
text and photos © Don Davis
1. Free at last.
Somehow I continued the tradition
of struggling until almost the last possible moment to finish
a huge project before Burning Man. This time a 20 minute animation
designed to be shown in tilted domed theaters, 'Wonders of The
Universe' was proving a protracted process to wrap up. The day
after a 60 gigibyte delivery of all the final refinements and
corrections was shipped to my client a critical computer suffered
a fatal startup drive failure, ending any chance of a swift resolution
of any further difficulties. It was as if the project, by far
my most complex, lived only as long as it absolutely had to, self
destructing as soon as it's offspring was completed. While contemplating
future backup procedures and sweating out the last days I would
be available for any final touch ups no bad news came, so I steadily
gathered the courage to declare to myself I was done.
The front of my metal file cabinet was adorned with many overlapping labels written on strips of white drafting tape cataloging all the sequences I had delivered on swappable hard drives, with duplicate labels which I left at home to refer to in case of confusion. I stripped them off the cabinet, reflecting for a moment on the hundreds of renders they represented. I stuck the many snippets of inscribed tape together into a flat slab piled on the stiff black cover of a blank sketch book. Last years camping gear was pulled out of the cabinets and inspected carefully for Black Widow spiders which hide in dark places around my Palm Springs house.
The bulk of my survival food and water would be purchased as Michael, a dear old friend who fairly recently decided to go, and I were actually getting under way. We drove to the house of mutual old friends Gordon and Karen and their two girls, shared stories and videos, and from their dark front yard saw a magnificent Milky Way dividing the sparkling sky in half.
2. Early arrival, Black Rock City's vigorous beginnings
We arrived on Sunday afternoon,
concerned a bit that the greeters would chastise us for arriving
so early, and we were ready with explanations that our camp needed
some hands to help get set up, as it did. As I started explaining
the greeter interrupted me to ask if I had a ticket, which I instantly
produced. No excuses required, just a ticket.
The series of small signs along the fence to our right bore similar messages as last year, and I drove slowly enough to make a good example of how little dust I could pick up. Soon I saw Carter Emmart, alias Mistress Barbie, who guided us directly to the Department of Tethered Aviation. We stopped, exchanged hugged greetings, then took stock of our layout. As things turned out our camp acreage was a good deal smaller then the last year, so Mike and I had to park a 3 minute walk away from our camp. After initial concerns at those circumstances the blessings of our situation sank in. As it turned out I had the opportunity of meeting two sets of neighbors, all of which were excellent company. Not only did Tethered Aviation enjoy a stupendous view of the empty central Playa, the role of our gracious camp organizer Ty Billings as distributor of the Black Rock Gazette included the perk of an electrical outlet strung from center camp, erasing any doubts about being able to easily recharge my computer and camcorder batteries when needed.
It was intermittently gusty but there was little difficulty in erecting the tents. After my sleeping quarters were secured, I could start to look about, and it was obvious that many other people were arriving before the official opening at noon the next day. Here and there centers of construction were in evidence, and a number of finished art projects stood above the emptiness. One such piece, by Dan Das Mann, was a triple faced head, one face made of wooden pieces and logs, another made of pounded copper and sheet metal, and a third made of living mossy sod.
The western sky was heavily smeared with the pall of forest fires, appearing as a lighter luminous texture near the horizon in wavy thickening bands. At sunset the higher smoke drifts caught the dirty red rays of the last sunlight as do clouds. Later in the evening Mike and I walked out to the empty Playa past the Man, spot lit and laying in it's 'ground servicing' position. Nearby a 'rib cage-bird cage' metal structure, by Jenne Giles and Philip Bonham, was being welded. The dazzling torch cast our long shadows across the smooth Playa far into the darkness as we walked past with averted eyes . We passed the 30 foot tall phallus built by Pepe Ozan for his opera, with his nearby archway adorned with female organic shapes. These and other body theme constructions were aligned to the central axis of the community, with The Man at the very center. In the twilight I passed a quiet group of dancers, each wearing tall masks like rounded Easter Island sculptures, and they look so natural but alien as they quietly invoke their own magic in their dim corner of this enchanted place.
on bicycles were whizzing by, admiring the works taking shape.
Here and there were tall narrow truss structure towers rigidly
tied down by cables. These were to be part of the laser light
sculpture which would be a distinctive feature of the event in
coming nights. The Man itself would be located in the crotch region
of a mile long pictogram outlined by narrow green laser beams.
Already many lights of established camps were in evidence and
music was heard, but all still diminished by the emptiness. Overhead
the many stars and the divided Cygnus region of the Milky Way
shone in their steady glory, but soon to give way to the artificial
lighting carried from afar. Even on this night before the official
opening there was significant fireworks activity, it being past
midnight before the intermittent explosions subsided.
Monday was a sunny very warm dry day, during which many arrived and new shapes sprang up around us. A large model pipe sprang up near our camp, with a real 'bowl' within the giant sculptured one and an actual mouthpiece at the end of the 10 foot long stem. People began using it fairly soon.
Clouds were building up to the east all day from sunrise onwards. Trucks, cars, campers of all sizes and a generous showing of big RVs poured in, and more shade structures and elaborate tents shaped the local skyline. One tent down our street had an entrance framed with a female genitalia motif formed of bunched red fabric, with the words 'LAWRENCE OF A LABIA' painted outside the oval border. Elaborately customized vehicles of all sizes drove by, many exchanging greetings with us. In some cases staggering multilevel habitats had been wrought out of busses and trucks which looked like the outcomes of dizzying races between utility and expression. Some of the decorated motorcycles were driven by people who were very heavily tanned, but there seemed overall fewer elaborate tattoos then I recalled from previous years. The Man was still being prepared through Monday, neon lights being added to the elaborate wooden structure. It was rumored to have been vandalized sometime the previous night with graffiti sprayed on its head, but this was not in evidence when I was there, presumably the Burning Man infrastructure quickly dealt with it with spare materials on hand.
Amid the influx of people were some who failed to realize they were in a state where, unaccountably, having Cannabis is considered a felony like murder and robbery. Two people were arrested for smoking Cannabis Monday night, fined and released. To his credit, Pershing county Sheriff Skinner evidently aimed for harassment over prison for those his men caught smoking Cannabis, conferences with local judges and district attorneys getting most of the charges brought down from felonies to misdemeanors. This is a vital difference for those interested in voting or leaving the country for the rest of their lives. Fines were usually around 250 dollars, using fully uniformed officers. Rumors spread of sightings of assumed 'Narcs' walking around with walkie-talkies and guns. Even more rapacious over the days ahead were the Bureau of Land Management, who were issuing 250 dollar citations to people caught smoking Cannabis, in some cases taking the fine in cash and in others not even taking the stash away, evidently hoping for another opportunity. Two such citations took place Monday. They were said to be working in co-operation with the FBI, DEA, and other institutional piranhas trying to persecute consenting adults for their chosen enjoyments.
were sparse much of the day, and It was quite hot that afternoon.
The sun and heat could kill an unprotected person within a day,
especially without water. I used 45+ grade sun block on my arms
and hands, nose, and other exposed parts. A fairly wide hat and
dark glasses against the harsh glare of the bright Playa made
the conditions bearable. Twice, while walking past groups of bicycles
laying on their sides, I heard tires pop in the heat, one being
as loud as a firecracker and puffing up the dust around it!
For days the weather pattern was characterized by steadily increasing cloudiness in the late afternoons. Hints of the approach of a large storm system above the local weather came first as delicate cirrus wisps then regions of herds of short finger like clouds merging here and there into great curdling masses with complex dynamic shapes. As the afternoon began to turn into sunset time a distinct linear cloud feature stretched roughly north to south connecting local cloud formations along its length. The transition to night was less dramatic than past festivals, as the sun was hidden behind clouds before it disappeared beneath the western mountains to varying degrees every day of the event.
By sunset the merging clouds to the west had largely evaporated, but several groups of higher clouds persisted to be bathed in the vivid red rays of sunlight heavily filtered by clean air. Drumming intensified from distant places all around me as the sunset matured, and masses of cheers echoed across the Playa. Here and there some very red light appeared on isolated groups of nearby tufts as the blue of the sky retreated westward and intensified. As the sunset reached it's chromatic climax I noticed The Man was up, with magenta and light blue neon lights lining it's 35 foot tall outline. It had already attracted a crowd and I soon joined them, marveling at the neon colors against the blue twilight. This is a sight scarcely worth trying to photograph, the human eye was the only thing able to distinguish the colors of the deepening blue sky and of the lights at once. A low roar nearby led to a small ground tilling machine scooping out a narrow trench in a perfect circle about 200 feet in radius surrounding The Man. Behind the tiller inscribing this engraving into the Playa people were tucking large rugged lights into the trenches, strung together like a giant necklace. The result in several hours of such work would be a ring of lights as last year, with patterns of orbiting shapes of light constantly adorning what would on Saturday be defined as the minimum safety zone for watching The Man burn. The night seemed a bit more subdued than Sunday, although there were more people and the wide vacant spaces seen earlier were filling up fast. I continued the general practice of obtaining excellent sleep that night.
3. The heat is on.
Tuesday it was very hot, the sun
warming the tent as soon as it cleared the distant mountains and
clouds. Many people were awakened by a low flying fighter jet,
which roared by at about 1200 feet and punched its engines at
about the position of the man to roar nearly straight up. Later
someone placed a sign echoing the 'Leave No Trace' slogan with
'Leave no crashed fighter jets'. Occasionally during the event
big transport planes would buzz the region, banking to avoid mountain
ranges above us while loudly flying startlingly low. By noon the
temperature started hovering around 100 degrees, with a measured
high of 112 degrees rumored to have been obtained at center camp,
about 200 meters from us. The Sun was brutal to stand under, and
precious little breeze seemed forthcoming. At one point I cowered
in my tent, spraying water over me and using the portable battery
powered fans I had brought to provide a cooling breeze with the
evaporation currents moving up my body. Although never needed,
I always had my air conditioning in my car as a last resort, engine
idling time having proven in past years to use negligible fuel
when charging my camcorder batteries for hours at a time using
the inverter plugged into my cars cigarette lighter.
There were more art installations springing up across the Playa, and more trucks being emptied of scaffolding and various raw and crafted materials. That morning a story made the rounds of an undercover cop wearing a red shirt busting people, presenting people smoking Cannabis with 300 dollar tickets. During the day the pipe art object was taken down because of what people were openly smoking in it. I was glad I gotten some tape of it in use before it disappeared when I ventured out with my tripod.
weather was cloudier later in the day, with a thin continuous
ceiling of high clouds passing overhead, just hiding the disk
of the sun in a small dense glare spot. At times a faint halo
appeared around the sun glare in the graying sky, suggesting interesting
weather lay ahead. More vehicles decorated like anything one can
imagine passed down the roads, and a few young women glided by
on bicycles with feathered angel and butterfly like fairy wings
sprouting from their backs. The Fern Grotto people, our next door
neighbors, arrived in the afternoon and began setting up their
legendary refuge from the heat where one could sit on comfortable
couches with fine water mists filling the tent, the water used
donated by the visitors. The entire theme camp region was already
rich in elaborate structures, some quite tall. A little Taj Mahal
like palace was suggested nearby through fabric stretched over
metal frame minarets and other elements, with lights inside providing
a multicolored sight at night.
Later on Tuesday the big pipe was replaced, with the functional elements removed. This year was to see an initial marked escalation in the persecution of residents of Black Rock City by federal agencies on a feeding frenzy.
There was an incident in Bianca's Smut Shack around 3 in the afternoon, with the account below distilled from several second and third hand accounts except for a participant in a specifically mentioned group.
Inside the tent of Bianca's a couple people were being spied on from outside by police officers in an unmoving vehicle, who saw them passing a bowl of Cannabis among each other. They used binoculars to peer into usually hidden recesses of the tent, between groups of people at whatever happened to be in their line of sight. Behind Bianca's, relatively secluded from the action, about 20 people were sitting in a circle inhaling a balloon of Nitrous Oxide which was passed along then refilled with a large tank by the next person. One participant in this circle reported the balloon went around the circle twice while the police vehicle, visible between local tents from there, waited. Assuming an interval of 20 to 30 seconds between replenishment this amounted to about 15 to 20 minutes. When the pair of men seen smoking Cannabis left Bianca's a policeman emerged from the car and seized them. They were handcuffed and placed in the car which was soon partially surrounded by an outraged group of Black Rock City citizens. The officers in the car radioed for backup and a sense of helplessness and anger emerged in the gathering. Most of their pronouncements were gross insults, providing no potential for dialogue, when one person altered the deteriorating dynamics by making an impassioned speech to the police. He loudly and eloquently pleaded to what humanity the cops might have brought to the event to the effect that what they were doing to that person wasn't right, and they might as well bust everybody if they were going to do this. He asked them how can they expect to be respected by people when they treat people this way for doing something harmless.
The ugly side of our government ran its course in this instance and many others, however, and roughly 50 people were harassed with fines and a couple imprisoned by the end of the event.
Another individual elsewhere made
the silly mistake of asking a uniformed policeman for a light
for his pipe. The early aura of a sheltered haven was eroded and
an undercurrent of fear circulated about the community for days
to come, suggested by samples of conversations heard among my
travels. One married couple in one isolated corner apparently
brought their quarrels with them, resulting in an assault with
a deadly weapon arrest. All in all, not really bad for that size
sample of the population. I never witnessed an action by police
or BLM officers, so when a story rests largely on hearsay I have
tried to qualify my confidence in accounts of incidents I didn't
see but heard from secondary sources by labeling them as such.
A reasonable idea of the events probably evolves from weighing
multiple accounts and emphasizing the elements in agreement. Nevertheless,
the possibility exists of more than one event contributing to
some accounts based on circulating stories. The Black Rock Gazette
did relay useful information on the law enforcement crackdowns
and other fronts, the alternate paper 'Piss Clear' seemingly de-emphasizing
local events in favor of articles based on general experiences
and on the trends perceived in recent festivals.
Later the weather appeared less threatening but with intermittent
brisk winds. After applying a mylar cocoon to my tent with tape
to ward off much of the heat of the sun I walked near the man
anticipating a good sunset, This one in fact ending up a good
deal more spectacular than yesterdays. The show began with a series
of lower altitude cloud scraps turning a brilliant crimson as
they were bathed in the suns rays like shreds of floating red
hot metal foil. A soft fan like array of cloud shadows
interrupted a wide crimson band playing on the textures of the
cloud undersides. The north was favored, clearly more light was
getting through far to that direction. The bright neon blue and
magenta neon outlining The Man was fully repaired from a mishap
the previous night involving too many people on the pedestal,
and the circular light display surrounding the base was complete.
I was impressed that despite such mishaps accessibility to the
pedestal between the legs was maintained. Later in the night the
great laser pictogram began to take shape, the towers holding
rigid in the wind and bouncing the green beam in huge lines across
I actually slept without earplugs until some roving vans blaring music and cries of "Wake up!" began to make the rounds before seven. I put in earplugs and slept a couple hours more.
4. The wind and the wildness
The next day, Wednesday, was mostly
cloudy, and I proceeded to explore a bit in the comparative coolness.
One thing I noticed quickly was a series of clashing sounds coming
from a large metal sculpture designed to be struck to create a
wide variety of noises. Nearby a kaleidoscope stood mounted horizontally,
several feet long, with a hand turned wheel which tumbled a series
of translucent plastic toys around, a section of which was multiply
reflected. A nearby box of other toys allowed one to vary the
show by exchanging them through an opening in the tumbled part.
A great distance further out on the Playa was an exaggerated stereo
viewer, a 'Telestereoscope' by Cassidy Curtis. Mounted like a
giant pair of mirrored spectacles on a swiveling platform, a pair
of eyepieces backed by tilted mirrors were mounted at eye level,
which from either side flared supporting structures for large
oval shaped flat mirrors centered over 2 meters apart. There was
always a line to look through it, and when gazing out at the tent
city through the eyepiece one could see every tent peak, tower
and banner along the horizon stand out from each other, and nearer
people in bicycles almost seeming to be gliding on thin air. Music
came from every direction with the resonant metallic clashing
of the musical sculpture audible within a fair radius as I moved
As the afternoon wore on the wind picked up and began carrying dust aloft, first in puffs gliding along the ground then larger masses merging into massive sheets of light gypsum laden clouds. They covered the southern part of Black Rock City, steadily passing into the flatness and briefly obscuring the Man from view. Only the nearby structures barely stood apart from the dust, everything else was awash in a light ivory tan blankness. The dust hovered after the greater masses had passed like a 'tule fog' and caressed the tent city like the curious tentacles of a sprawling octopus.
To the south, growing as it headed straight for us, loomed the dense ivory colored ground hugging cloud with chaotic frayed edges I had learned to fear two years ago, it's edges becoming less distinct as it approached. This was the violent winds predicted earlier bearing down on us. I stopped sightseeing on the Playa and ran to camp just as the leading edge of the violent dust storm overwhelmed us. The gusts became continuous then turned to gales, and the shade structure trembled and tried to jerk itself free of the ground. Things fell and bounced along the surface among the writhing dust, with distant crashing sounds and yelling ringing above the flapping moaning background. The poles and cords of the shade structure sliced the swift air into parallel screaming banshees. Under the wind the stretched shade structure extensions raised their pitch from flapping to a hollow vibration. Clang! A critical stake gave way, and Ty, the camp organizer, lunged at it and started stamping the metal spike back into the ground. another sharp sound of chaos, and the stake near me gave, the metal stake whipping about like a blinded desperate swordsman . I rushed to it's side, subdued the flailing appendage and wound the cord around my wrist, pulling and noticing as long as it's tight the shade structure was more stable. It was a critical moment, losing two main support points at once might have been too much. Ty, relieved to see he had only one stake to worry about, told me to just hold on until he could finish his immediate task. Michael was by then holding the central pole against the will if the wind to shove it aside. We then rushed about, hammering here, tightening there, shouting reports and instructions to each other over the shrieking storm like sailors in a typhoon. Many in the tent city and beyond experienced prolonged 'white out' conditions, and were left without orientation until some landmarks could be seen. The violent rippling of the fabric was then joined by the tapping of rainfall. I wondered if we were going to have to endure a thunderstorm with all the towers and scaffoldings around. My tent required attention, mostly moving the 2 gallon water containers to the corners into the wind, so as to inhibit the wind from reaching under the tent.
Finally when our space felt secured I looked
around and shook the dust out of my clothes. There was little
to see beyond our camp anymore but the ochre gray of the bottom
of a massive cloud of Playa dust. We had to start breathing through
masks or cloth in stretches due to the amount of dust in the air.
As the wind tore across the tent city loudspeakers blared Arabic
music. Shouts, whoops and exhilarated laughter suggested the sense
of adventure many carried through the events. The rain passed
by, and the gusts finally began to wane as the storm began to
pass to the north.
The sun was thinly hidden by some broken cloud openings which were particularly bright near the sun. In normal conditions this would be harsh to look at but now these brighter clouds alone stood out from the pall looking like a dim image seen in a daguerreotype, a mere ghost of itself etched upon the tan background. This dust pall was at length swept northwards, although stiff breezes persisted as the temperature steadily dropped.
Across the Playa hundreds of campers nursed their tents with snapped support poles and at least one windshield was smashed by flying debris. Lawn chairs and flimsy tables were redistributed downwind, my tent gave with the wind, assuming a sideways teardrop shape, and I was in no mood to fight the process. We had just been through an adventure, to some exiting and to others just something to survive, and to a few a disaster. The dust rolled on through the valley while the western sky began to clear.
Black Rock City rose proudly that
night and the music picked up quickly, and the community was well
developed by this time,people circulating to and from many centers
of attention despite persistent lesser winds.
Wednesday unfortunately turned in to a legal disaster for perhaps a dozen people or so as the BLM people snooped and spied their way along and engaged in tactics ranging from harassment with fines involving Cannabis possession and use to indecent exposure, apparently as a euphemism for urinating where they could be seen with binoculars. At center camp that evening a woman was searched finding a half filled Cannabis pipe and a divided dose of Ecstasy. The BLM ranger arrested her, and under federal guideline she would be treated like a major dealer. There was a crowd around the event and as she was being led away swift agonized debates raged among groups of people about whether they should try to help her. Finally someone declared that it wasn't smart to risk 'spooking' a hostile man with a gun and once again a sense of helplessness and outraged anguish spread from the tragedy. By dawn she was released when her husband raised the $5,100 dollar bail, and she as if this writing faces loss of her citizenship and travel rights if convicted of a felony. Such is the terrible price of Americas war on drugs.
At the art car camp that night a BLM vehicle cruised by a Volkswagen bus, stopped and got out of their car, and peeped through the edges of the curtains using flashlights to survey the items on interior surfaces. Seeing a pipe, they drew their guns, rapped on the door, and ordered the occupants out of the car with their hands up! Two people received 250 dollar fines. One lighter episode occurred at Picasso camp, where someone smoking a hand rolled oregano cigarette was standing that afternoon within view of the camps video camera. As he asked passing police officers directions, they motioned him to them and demanded to know what the cigarette was, the reply being oregano. The cop snatched the cigarette from his hand, smelling it then tearing it apart. The crumbled oregano leaves flew into the wind and those nearby chanted 'Leave No Trace!'. After a few minutes they allowed the would be smoker, Penn Tanner, to go on his way. The entire thing was captured on video tape.
The dust was mostly confined to the horizon by sunset, and a complexly dissolving overcast revealed itself, hints of vast stretches of cloud visible through yawning caverns in the foreground cloud structures.
Again the region some tens of miles to the north of us seemed to be favored for brilliant displays as yesterday. Modest red light washed over the western clouds, then just as the display began to wane a relatively nearby cloud bank caught the pure red light of unimpeded sunlight along their lower surface, giving an intense blazing end to the day.
Well into twilight the red indirect lighting of the sunsets occurring further west painted the sky with an intriguing lurid afterglow. (A brilliant sunset was seen that evening in Grass Valley) The remaining windows into the deepening blue western sky at times looked like phosphorescent clouds of their own behind the blooming glare of the sea of lights within the tent city.
Colored light clusters and animated sequences of shapes fashioned from luminous wire and tubing climbed the sides of tents and up the towers and scaffoldings. It was like glowing mutated vines springing up in response to a thousand zany whims. Once in a while fireworks would spray glimmering tassels across the sky. Amid the music you hear sirens, train whistles, whooping revelers and more music from one decorated conveyance or other, coming and going and allowing the ambiance of a hundred parties to ripple back and forth across the dark flatness. One art car blared from it's loudspeaker a recording of hysterical laughter.
A 'Tunnel Of Light' was constructed
of many tiny white Christmas tree lights densely wrapped around
a framework pipe like passageway. On the way in you were given
cardboard glasses with diffraction filters which turned each light
source into a star shape with tapering rainbow spikes. The great
density of the tunnel's light sources provided a delightful visual
The dust clouds revealed the wind direction as they flowed past the brighter lights, the brightly colored ones bringing a fantasy world appearance to the scene as hazy spectral glows rose like airbrushed adornments above the silhouetted tents. Walking again out into the Playa along the long axis where the major works were aligned we came upon an odd ring shaped construction with a pair of small bent legs emerging from either side, like a caricature of childbirth. As it turned out it was supposed to represent an anus, the 'circular large doorway' noted earlier being the passage way one stepped through after climbing a steep set of stairs, ending up atop atop a small somewhat uneven platform. I stumbled on a raised portion of the top level, but caught myself on a fabric covered rope strung across the start of the steep slide in front of me. So did Mike, who was just behind me. The descent caused the participant to assume a rather unflattering role!
One particularly prominent narrow cone of light climbing into the sky from a great distance intrigued me, and during our long walk to it we were again caught in a dust storm, rippling at my clothes as I stood there and briefly hiding all the lights of the tent city and other signs of human presence from my sight. Soon the darkness passed, and during the waning stages of the dust flurries I arrived at the cluster of spotlights directed straight up. It was far too dusty to try to record the sight, but for a time we stood transfixed watching the floating powder passing through several parallel bright beams. The eddying and folding of currents along distinct density boundaries was perceptible within the general north to south motion of the airborne dust thanks to the multiple 'samples' provided by the 8 beams then in use. The wind showed little signs of dying, bringing freezing cold air with it and making my return walk dressed for hot temperatures a bit of an ordeal. On the way 'home' a series of large puppet like glow wire 'skeletons', manipulated by their dwarfed bearers, loomed like some surreal apparition through the dust clouds. The wind jostled the tent far into the night.
5. The night of the deluge
On Thursday the weather deteriorated
early in the day, the procession of clouds tightening and becoming
denser until along the north, where the wind was blowing from,
there was nothing but gray and tufts of ivory dust along the horizon.
The dust returned by early afternoon, accompanied by more rain,
this time enough to make the plastic ground surfaces muddy. A
few times there was enough of a calm interval to go out and see
things, but one dared not venture too far from camp. Along the
roads were fresh ripple patterns of fine dust shaped by the recent
winds, first appearing as tiny dunes which merged into ridges
and finally modest heaps of powder covered with parallel ripples
which snaked along roughly perpendicular to the wind. By then
I had fashioned an Arab style head covering from a sheet I had
cut up, breathing at times through layers of cloth wrapped over
my lower face. Many on bicycles were swathed like Sahara horsemen,
a few with elaborate filtered masks but most using the simple
paper types or cloth.
The remaining empty spaces near the center regions were filling up fast, but everywhere I went there seemed room for respectable distances between most tents, especially farther out. There seemed to be fewer high scaffolding towers than last year, and fewer huge tents. There were several respectable stages for bands along the inner edges of the city, and streets filled with bicycles and people on foot. As before, some were dressed to survive, some dressed to party, a few not dressed at all. There was at least as much exposure of women's breasts as before, perhaps 5 percent of people in some regions, but after a while the novelty wears off and I never consciously tried to obtain such a photo for its own sake, my incredulity quota having been satisfied in past years.
By now the city was approaching its maximum size, although here and there art objects were still springing up. One large spherical construction was taking a long time to finish, the artists working feverishly on it even in terrible conditions. The 'body parts' theme was expressed by several large works such as the rib cage mentioned earlier, sturdy enough to climb on and with a wide swing inside like a big bird cage. Another metal sculpture was like a huge heart which contained flames nightly. There was the anus, with a new set of balloons for hemorrhoids, that I climbed through the previous night.
Towers bearing long tassels, fabric covered
domes, pyramids, scaffoldings, and the larger shade structures
and tents stood above the near horizon which was composed of trucks,
RVs, and many smaller personal tents. Gaily colored fabric shade
structures and flags rippled in the wind. There was
a 40 foot track mounted on the ground, aimed into the emptiness.
A racing car like buggy was poised at the rear of the track, and
people donned helmets, got strapped in, and were launched with
a spring catapult into the Playa up to a hundred yards, slowed
by the surface being smooth overall but far from perfect on a
small scale. An isolated small forest of brightly colored large
flags ruffled among each other as I passed by.
I saw the sizable village of Disturbia and passed through, being warmly welcomed by fellow veterans of earlier years. Disturbia had a 40 foot tower bearing a long mylar banner which reflected the sun by day and a spotlight aimed up the tower At night. Dr. Lizard, formally Lizard Man, commented on how the light kept blowing the generator, and upon examination I couldn't imagine the watts required to light such a massive bulb!
I headed back to camp as the weather
began to get questionable again, with bus and house sized masses
of dust rolling across the Playa and trailing low rolling eddies
behind them. I tried to dodge them as they approached, it seemed
a certain threshold of wind strength was required to kick up dust,
but those conditions were soon being met all around me.
When a wave of dust approached I would turn my back on it, see the air turn bright around me, then watch the ground hugging dust tendrils writhe and gather themselves in a frantic attempt to chase the main mass rolling on. By this time I had my sheet wrapped over my lower face, breathing through 2 layers of cloth. Even so, I was starting to cough a bit from the amount of dust I had been breathing. I got to my tent just as the exrtended 'white out' was beginning again. The mylar was tearing and flapping violently, I grabbed my tape and scissors and began repairing it, attaching torn portions to each other and tying some of the tape completely around the tent. A opening was left around the door I could wriggle into by the proper body twists. I cowered inside my tent, the camp having been well secured from yesterday's terrible storm. The rippling mylar and fabric dominated the noise, but reactions of others as well as occasional crashing sounds out there kept me listening.
After an hour or so the storm passed And I emerged and wandered about, anxious to see as much of Black Rock City as possible. There is no way to really gain an overview of what's going on, one can ask about at the various papers, and catch parts of sentences, snatches of expressed thoughts, and thus gain some kind of sense of what kind of time those around you are having. The fear from the early wave of arrests and citations was receding under amazed descriptions and incredulity about the weather.
More people were arriving and near the inner circles saturation had been reached, although the outer regions continued to offer plenty of quiet parking through out the event. Walking out to the Man at sunset was turning into a ritual of sorts, every day there was less sunlight passing through the thickening clouds, and Thursday night only a modest amount of reddened sunlight managed to make it to us, blue and gray cloud masses northward building up amazing overhanging shapes. The north looked particularly threatening as twilight proceeded, and sure enough as I was well on the way across the Playa towards my camp the rain began.
The last remnants of twilight were fading and the laser towers were lit. The rain brightened the beams considerably, and the rolling masses of water carried by the down drafts passed the beams so as to make them waver in brightness along their lengths. I veered from my course in order to see the laser rainbow, as I had 2 years previously. When the beam's source was at my back I saw the vast green rod display a thin slice of a classic rainbow, the primary bow showing fainter 'echoes' along the inner arc, a thin segment of a rainbow composed exclusively of brilliant green light. A darker zone separated the primary and fainter secondary bow as in normal rainbows. The drops within the beam became dazzling momentary emerald fireflies as one approached. I made it back as the ground started to leave muddy inch thick slabs adhering to my shoes. My down coat drenched, I settled in my tent as the patter on my tent intensified. The raindrops steadily became larger, striking the tent in low plops rather than the earlier higher pitched tapping. People shouted, as if in defiance at the weather, then as the icy wind picked up I made my about the tent looking for water leaks and setting up for the night. I turned on a 2 way radio 'walkabout' I brought and pieced together the plights of some caught out in the Playa in the rain. The mud would first adhere to your shoes, building layer after layer until you were walking on squishy platform shoes. Then the ground became very slippery as bodies of water began to accumulate. The mud thickened until bicycle riding became impossible, mud coating the wheels and building up along wheel guards, effectively jamming the mechanism. People were reduced to trying to carry or drag their bikes across the sea of mud which was forming around them. Some simply abandoned the bikes and made their way the last half mile across the mud puddles on foot. The rain continued most of the night, petering out just enough to allow most of the water to soak into the ground by sunrise.
6. The sky clears, The city matures
By 10 AM Friday the Playa had changed
from a cracked flatness into a clod strewn drying mud hole with
fresh cracks forming where standing water had accumulated. These
fresh mud cracks had extravagantly curving plates which looked
as smooth as porcelain. There were many sets of deep footprints
and on established roads many small pedestals of hardened mud
made the footing a bit less carefree than before. The air was
sparklingly clear, mountains and distant groups of clouds decorating
the horizon for vast distances. The dust had been cemented back
together so that or the time being the event would be in refreshingly
transparent surroundings. The contrast between this and the pall
of previous days created an air of enchantment that morning. The
clouds proceeded to appear and crowd each other, bringing an anticipation
of the previous couple of days weather pattern so little wandering
took place later in the day.
I tried to look for our last arrival, although by now I had given up on actually placing him in the spot I had staked out for his vehicle since there were many places to park a short distance outward from there. Having a 'dummy tent' set up was useful for transient storage, among other things. The tarp next to the tent was solely there to discourage parking at that spot, and was otherwise good for nothing but watching out you didn't trip over it's edge, and for collecting rainwater and mud. My efforts did, however, allow me to meet more than one set of neighbors and dispense advise to first timers, of which there seemed to be at least one in every group I conversed with. Most were amazed and inspired, some were overcome by the conditions and hundreds were even leaving early. I think the word of mouth from many who attended the event will tend to stabilize future attendance figures which as of this writing appears to have topped out just below 26,000 people.
One of the most remarkable activities
I witnessed involved the pouring of molten iron into a series
of molds in order to create a giant wishbone sculpture. A modest
tower in itself contained the melting metal, out of which periodically
was poured from a chunky spigot a white hot stream into a massive
metal bucket slung on a pole carried by two well protected men.
They carefully hoisted the bucket to the mold and poured in the
incandescent honey like liquid. Once the oven melted through and
spattered molten metal on the ground and on the protective boots
of those dancing their way from the local inferno!
By night brisk winds periodically tore across the region, although Wednesday's awesome storm was never equaled. As I lay in my tent writing notes for this account Russ, the latecomer of our group, called my name from outside my tent. Finally, well after nightfall, he made it. He actually had to work that morning so he would only spend 36 hours there but it would be the interval encompassing the peak of the event. The wind had subsided and for a couple hours I gave him a tour of reasonably accessible parts of Black Rock City, first out to the Man itself, whose lights had gone out.
We marveled at the wooden leviathan as it stood lit by the surrounding lights and the dimmer glow of the encircling city. The wooden struts, partitions, and skeletal framework appeared as a kind of magnified puzzle of some kind, completed and proudly erected. The shaded parts were silhouetted against the background glow of the city which allowed a decent view of the stars and Cygnus Milky Way only overhead. Drums, clashing complicated rhythms from the noise sculpture, and repetitive 'techno' music competed and blended with one another, echoing and complexly interacting with the wind itself occasionally dominating. This year marked the proliferation and maturity of glow wire technology, with some striking works of art adorning peoples camps or their costumes. One excellent work I noticed was a Japanese woman in a komino fashioned of glow wire on someone's back. Another superb work was a large starfish in some ones camp, richly detailed and colorful. A 3D image of this work can be seen here.
The dust had been modest even late
in the day, but by night enough had gathered to catch the city
lights and scatter them a bit like a fog filter over a camera
lens. Vehicles and bicycles decorated with glowing wires, glow
sticks, and occasionally even neon glided through the darkness
and cruised slowly on the pounded dirt streets. Here and there
bright spotlight like light sources cast diffuse narrow cones
of light skyward. Two large rear screen projected video screens
provided imagery and tape of past festivals to groups of people
passing and lingering. One large screen was used as a 'shadow
silhouette show' using dancers, mimes, and other performers casting
a sharp shadow by using a strategically placed tiny but brilliant
light source. Tricks of scale were played, at one point a dancer
writhing to a 'techno' track opened her legs, and a tiny figure
then emerged as if in birth to grow, and eventually grow become
the main subject. Colored filters and patterns were occasionally
used to enhance the intended effect. Tiki torches and camp fires
were conspicuous in their absence, even in the chilling winds
due to safety concerns, especially with the wind.
After a decent walk, we headed to Center Camp to see how it looked at night. The giant round tent had a large central opening through which the occasional light rain fell, but it was a relative refuge from the vastness outside. The interior was lit red and deep blue from the sides. Many people were huddled into small groups almost burying the tables and chairs, here and there someone sprawled asleep amid the squalor. It was a bustling active crowd nearest the center, where the only food and drinks on the Playa could be bought. We were going to get a Cappuccino, but the wait was too daunting and I decided to head back. Russ decided to remain, so we agreed to meet mid afternoon the next day. The sleep that night was good, the last time I could say so during my stay there.
7. The man falls, the city leaps
Saturday, the final day of the
Man, had arrived. In the early afternoon I walked out to see how
it was doing. The figure was again on it's back, being prepared
for the nights events by the 'pyro' people. The area was cordoned
off with a generous sprinkling of Rangers guarding the perimeter.
Nobody was smoking. One group carefully grabbed groups of cylinders
with fuses and packed them into racks built over the outline and
the head area, the latter group forming a kind of wide brimmed
hat brim just over the inverted pyramidal head. Another group
wrapped incendiary powder into foil packages as if they were preparing
burritos, stacking the silvery potato sized bundles for final
placement. The limbs of the wooden mannequin were wrapped in black
plastic to fend off rainwater. People circulated on foot and on
bikes, one or two others with video cameras trained on the proceedings.
A little later I moved on, enjoying the cool breeze. The weather seemed perfect, with no threatening cloud buildup to the north. I walked all over, partly to see as much of the city as possible as well as an excuse to shoot a roll of fine grain print film I had brought, trying to think of the things which looked familiar now but would appear remarkable in retrospect. I saw the 'water man' setup noted last year being driven about, with a man in a wet suit inside a water cocoon of molded clear plastic. The clear air and bright sun revealed the colorful fluttering surroundings in their full glory. Art projects and individual showpieces were still appearing, and very temporary structures sprang up on the Playa, often accompanied by piles of chopped wood and lumber. Numerous metal platforms were provided for bonfires, on which the wood was being piled. A line of people were pulling on a massive rope to hoist the man in position, an act I captured in a panoramic sequence.
Fire trucks began to arrive and take positions, a presence both reassuring and somehow ominous. As the Playa textures began to stand out in the lowering sun, the tent city formed a complex colorful layer of the horizon as tents and flags revealed more of the same between them. I returned to my camp site, retrieved all three charged camcorder batteries, and made sure all my photographic assets were ready.
two first timer friends and I walked out to the Man well before
it became a major gathering place. The wooden figure had finally
been re-erected, for the last time, and stood with it's fresh
adornments all along it's edges. The 'hat brim' addition was a
new look to The Man this year.
For a last little while people were milling about the neon lit figure outside a modest taped off perimeter. I watched the shredding edges of dissolving cloud masses magnificently catching the sun's last orange rays. I spent my last minutes in which I could be close to the man composing photos with neon and natural radiance balanced, and also paused to just stand and admire the pulsing glowing creation towering above me. The wind was wonderfully cooling, and the sunset light on the clouds revealed twisting and rolling motions of the orange fractal shreds. As I walked back to my spot, the clouds were apparently dissolving faster than they were forming, and a moderate pink twilight glow began it's stealthy shift across the sky.
We three sat down just outside the circle of active lights, which was the minimum safety distance as well as the perimeter of the performance area for the dancers. We were among the first to claim our spaces, and soon others appeared, many with elaborate photo setups. A few unwisely brought tripods, and the rangers had them removed to avoid dangerous situations once the crowd got active. Dogs were also ordered out of the area, for obvious reasons.
Steadily the circle filled up, with no one allowed inside the lights, a fact which helped stabilize the situation for those who had taken the trouble to arrive early. Two lights blinked just in front of my knees, and I kept them nicely cleaned, my friend to the left became a bit gleefully obsessive about polishing 'his'. Once in a while someone would climb the Man to apply finishing touches to the pyrotechnics. One man working in the crotch area, I presumed to apply the ejaculating Roman candles used in recent years.
The magenta and icy blue lines defining the Man sometimes seemed to gently wave in the breeze. Sometimes I was reminded of a drawing on a clear plastic sign using glow crayons lit from within like one sees in some restaurants.
Multitudes were arriving from all over, a giant gravitational source drawing the ant like masses to it from the massive ring of habitation around it. As the crowds behind and around me mounted into the thousands, those in the first several 'rows' were directed to sit down for the benefit of the gathering throngs behind them. This had been sporadically done before spontaneously but the rangers, drawing on past experience, were directing the crowd to do simple things to optimize the experience for everybody. A Ranger in charge of our area darted about, conversed with some of us, and occasionally told jokes and dispensed advice. For a time it was almost like being given emergency instructions by a flight attendant as she advised us that in case of a bad accident those in front might have to get away quickly (through the crowd) and try to help those around them. I thought of what could go wrong, and the worst I could imagine was one of the vertical flame throwers tipping over while discharging and immolating people sitting in front like me. Unlikely, however, and their safety record in these situations is excellent. People were also told to refrain from aiming their laser pointers at the man for the sake of anyone working on the structure.
The sky has turned a deep blue
with the last receding clouds defining the distant horizon, with
a crescent moon asserting itself behind me. Thousands are standing
outside the inner circle, and from somewhere nearby a crimson
arcing light soars into the sky, slowly drifting down on its parachute.
This signal flare is the official signal for the population to
gather. The drums in the distance steadily move closer, and so
do the occasional bang from fireworks. By now the
inward exodus must be approaching its peak.
Some of the neon on the right edges of The Man flickers and nearly goes out, weakly fluttering along the outer arm and leg. The dancers begin to take their places, and a few 'professional' videographers using the kind of massive gear which is invasive to the event invite bitter shouts from people to my right whose view they and their equipment are blocking. This offender does in fact move under the prompting of a Ranger, and we then have the most splendid view of the proceedings of anyone on the Playa. The crowd began to roar, the arms of the Man steadily pivot up to their final position of reaching for the sky. If there is any doubt left across the Playa this visual signal empties most of the tent city.
Now the sky is black, a few
stars appear above, and the neon colossus dominates the entire
region. Fireworks explode
nearby, raining plumes of sparks on part of the crowd with no
apparent ill effects. The drumming reaches a crescendo, and the
hour or so long ceremony begins as batons with fire at their ends
are just being picked up by performers.
Suddenly a collective gasp, then
frantic alarmed shouts! A smoldering failure of the neon lights
noted earlier has set off fireworks along the right arm, and it
is spraying golden fountains along it's length! People near the
man run for their lives as the incandescence spreads to the head
and rest of the fireworks ignite!
The main mass of pyrotechnics then goes up, and the Man disappears in a flash which envelops the immediate surroundings, silhouetting people turning around after running and performers springing into place. Great stalks of golden sparkling rocket trails climb, then explode above us to form overhanging branches glittering and dissolving against the sky. As the Man reappears from the initial burst He sprays parallel fountains in great golden curving plumes like a sparkling version of an Aztec feathered headdress.
Someone in the crowd bolts toward the brilliance, Rangers frantically grab him and prevent him from doing something he might not live to regret, (or so I hear later). With creditable swiftness the fire dancers pick up their batons and seemingly at once dozens of them are whirling fire before and above them, their showmanship somehow regaining the sense of an event in control. The incandescent smoke subsides to reveal the fiercely burning wooden figure, all lights not only out but falling in shattered clouds or as molten drips from the flames.
entire structure now feeds the fire and great billows roll up
along the straw pedestal, licking their way up the wooden stairways,
up and up to caress the brilliant flickering line drawing of the
Man in its final minutes.
In a way this living dynamic figure is the ultimate artistic expression of the event. It was as if The Man took the event in his own hands, as if to saw, "away with the preliminaries!" and went off in his own time. 1998 was the last year things went as planned. At least only trained personnel were nearby when the accident happened.
A fire cannon is rolled nearby,
barrel pointed skyward. Suddenly half my view is of fire, spreading
and radiating intense heat I instinctively flinch from, my camera
shielding most of my face, and through my video camera viewfinder
I follow as through a protective window billowing cataracts of
fire spreading and rising, surging inward in fat rings as if red
hot spider webs are rolling, stretching, and barely containing
incandescent demons struggling to their feet. They form mushroom
clouds and leave great masses of black smoke which are revealed
by further roaring masses of surging inferno. It is like being
next to a massive refinery fire and I wonder if it is too hot
where I am.
The cool winds return and the fire cannon moves on, revealing the frenzied dancers beyond. Drums compete for dominance and clusters of glow sticks carried on tall staffs sprout here and there out of the crowd like fanciful gatherings of medieval magicians. The Man's right arm settles, then swings down and snaps off, momentarily presenting an absurd caricature of a man in a Sombrero giving a Roman/Fascist salute. The entire structure is beginning to lose it's crafted appearance and randomize under the ordeal. The other arm falls, assuming a kind of Eiffel tower outline as the flames race up to the top along the roughly conical heap of blazing wood and straw. Occasional fireworks still scream out of the mass from time to time, mostly directed upward. The drums intensify yet more as the adrenaline surges in those seeing the man totter, then finished off by tugs on cables. The Man finally collapses backwards from our point of view, and at that moment the sense of order maintained so well by the organization dissolves into barely directed chaos
Mike remarks that this was, to him, the Man saying something like "I'm checking out, it's your party now!"
Now the biggest burn is a great bonfire the crowd rushes up to. We get up to avoid being bumped or trampled and become slower elements of the surging throng. Horns blare, whoops and excited exclamations ripple across the crowds. Drumming rolls in and out of the babble and fireworks explode all over.
skyrockets soar high, brilliant trails wiggling like those of
incandescent sperm, and discharge their final moments of glory
overhead, astonishingly close. Other skyrockets waver crazily
in their paths and skim just above the crowd before detonating,
showering regions of the crowd with fountains of hot dazzle. Some
fail to detonate at once, falling and sputtering at peoples feet
and causing local scrambles.
Giant vehicles amble among groups
standing or moving about, decorated with lights and mechanical
embellishments. One large mechanical dragon appears, spouting
bursts of fire from it's fanged moving jaws. Another car supports
a 30 foot tall neon tower, a kind of line in the darkness widely
visible. One car supports a large lit arrow, as if directing our
attention to whatever direction the vehicle happens to be going.
Fires are starting to spring up all over the Playa, practically all on the metal platforms provided by the Project. A furiously raucous extended party takes shape over several square miles with low density regions in between where wandering people and fireworks often share company. From one center of fiery brilliance a stream of brilliant rockets angle skyward, arcing and falling to detonate near ground level. We briskly walk this way and that, pausing to watch a particularly furious procession of fireworks or marvel at the 'parade float' like machinations rearing above the masses.
Another dragon appears, this one astonishingly large, looking as if 4 articulated vehicles, led by a reshaped school bus, were joined like an overblown child's toy train. Great sail like wings extend outwards diagonally from the second section. A German man wearing a cape stands on it's back holding reigns as if he was riding a Wagnerian monster, shouting at people continually in his heavy accent to get out of the way of it's mouth, out of which periodically issues bursts of yellow opaque flame when he pulls a large lever next to him.
Bands atop elaborately crafted and lit scaffoldings give their most, people huddle in groups, and couples embrace and kiss as if there was nothing happening around them. The crescent Moon sinks beneath otherwise unseen mountains behind flickering torches.
I see the distinctive purple outline
of 'Mistress Barbie' among the bobbing silhouettes, many from
our camp are with Carter and we warmly embrace each other as if
it were New Years. Carter then I affirm that we love each other
and are space brothers. Most are in fact in an ecstatic mood.
We come upon a group carrying torches and disguised with variations of mythic outfits dancing about, their elaborately decorated music box blaring 'techno' music. Furious clashing rings out from the great noise making piece, many performers intertwining their rhythms into occasional apparent coordination. Inside a circle of teeming crowds Pepe's opera is running it's course, all I can see above the silhouetted heads are some tall banners and fire rushing up the interior of the tall phallic tower.
A wavering movement catches my eye from the distance, a large barely inflated balloon figure. It is a giant stick figure like apparition writhing in the breeze, barely held to the earth. It is like something in a flying dream, arms flailing and legs losing and regaining a semblance of support as the wind pushes helium filled masses along. It towers over a stage bearing a dancing crowd and somehow it brings the surreal nature of the whole night to a focus for me. Mike suddenly exclaims "Oh...my...God!" then he briefly explains this is just like a dream from his childhood, as if a premonition of over 40 years ago is suddenly realized. The moment reaches both of us in our own ways, perhaps that sentiment was in the air. I see a bicycle carrying a light green neon rod which transfixes me while I try to recall what early memory is being touched in me by that light. I think it is of the green light housed in the apex of an old San Jose office tower I marveled at as a child forty years ago.
Across the dark flatness revelry and adventures both intended and incidental are taking place. At Disturbia a trio of people, some who I know, are forcibly restraining someone hysterically out of his mind on something. At times they resort to laying on him. In many tents and perhaps a few open spaces couples are interlocked, moving in rhythm to at least one of the sets of drum beats rippling across the echoing sea of lights around them. Explosions randomly burst the relative calm of the empty Playa. One always travels with a flashlight aimed at your feet and the surrounding ground to reveal your presence, for those detonating fireworks and especially those hurtling about on bikes often without lights or even brakes! Once I come within inches of such an injurious collision, saved by my reflexes and precautions based on earlier experiences.
Finally we wander back to the man-fire, which has by now become the gathering place for a quiet introspective group. Some couples sit down near the fire, others stand and sit alone, in the middle of it all the straw remnants and corners of unconsumed contributions burn quietly near the center, surrounded by black piles of carbonized debris from which many cables and metal rods extend, even to the ground at my feet. Things are occasionally being tossed in to renew the flames, in one spot on a banner near me a caricatured woman's face, eyes looking over her shoulder as the top of her head burns, is somehow an arresting sight.
When I finally got back to my tent
I was beginning to feel the effects of dehydration, indeed I had
been neglecting drinking water well after I didn't need to. My
throat began to dryly touch itself along it's insides in the way
they do when you're coming down with a cold. When I rose my canteen
to my lips I discovered the bottom of my nose was chafed and painful
to touch. I sat in my tent, broke the seal of the electrolyte
solution, and used it for my drinking water for the next little
while. It was like drinking some one's tears. I also tore open
a large protein bar and wolfed it down, washing it down with yet
more water. After an interval of sitting amid shifting curtains
of light and blackness listening to the throaty beating madness
outside, I emerged and resumed my wanderings knowing the night
was still young.
A huge banner stretched between a trio of towers was set on fire, and when it went out right away a wheeled flame thrower was swiveled into place and a flood of liquid fire poured along one section over dozens of feet. The tattered pieces flamed and danced high into the night, shedding car sized blazing chunks and countless sparks.
A crazily loud whistle, glowing
hot and spouting high pressure fire, droned from a quarter mile
away. The vehicle feeding it was also the source of 20 foot long
spouts of fire. Here and there masses of fire leaped and billowed
skywards from other machines designed for the purpose. Always
the drumming, always the throbbing of dozens of musical heartbeats
rolling over each other. I came upon a woman kneeling and vomiting
along the now largely deserted circle of lights, when I walked
again by the area a little later she was gone. I saw only one
prone casualty being attended to earlier, and he got up and walked
away while I watched.
loud crackle of Dr. Megavolt's van mounted Tesla coils brought
cheers from the surrounding crowds, his massive transformer laden
vehicle passed me and I again marveled at how one can play with
deadly forces. Later in the distance the erection of Pepe's tower
assumed a limp leaning posture as the tempo of the evening began
to wane. It was time for my own ritual. Over the last several
months I had written intricate labels on pieces of white drafting
tape which were attached to removable hard drives containing the
animation sequences for my recent animated feature. By
the time the project ended I had accumulated hundreds of such
labels and just before leaving I made a roughly rectangular slab
out of them. I stripped it from the book cover in my car then
walked to a nearby bonfire where some of our group were gathered
among others. With a moments reflection of what those labels represented,
my last years work, they were then respectfully tossed them into
the flames and I took off my hat. The mass of intricate words
and numbers so carefully penned in dissolved first at the edges,
then became an unrecognizable center of a small mass of fire.
Someone then started singing the 'Star Spangled Banner', joined
by others until our voices rose to an expressive crescendo at
the words 'land of the free' as if in defiance and triumph. Then
we drifted apart, and I decided to head for a decent bathroom
and then my tent.
Already it was the early morning hours and Jupiter and Saturn were well up, with the Pleides above them forming a kind of triangle in the sky. All the bathrooms I had found nearby were unbelievably fouled. Most of them had slippery urine mud atop harder older mud layers, and many more were piled so high over the seat levels it was apparent that squatting gymnastics long ago gave way to people defecating on large piles of tissue and subsequently dropping them on top of each other on the seat side of the privies. Walking on, I finally found one still sittable, with the toilet paper I had hoarded in previous days a handy item. After walking back to my tent I was gradually beboming sleepy. I simply lay on my back, which felt so good, and listened to the great throbbing living thing around me. Before dawn I dosed off at last, for four good hours.
8. The last hurrah
the last day of Black Rock City, began with dozens of smoldering
ash heaps curdling into the sky and tents filled with sprawling
exhausted revelers. Here and there people were departing but apparently
most were arriving and leaving, as I was, to maximize their stay
time. I walked once again to Disturbia to learn of events in that
quarter, passing the large swing set, the pyramid (or, more properly,
'pyromid', for it was destined to be burned that night), and the
mini art gallery which included a memorable and disturbing work,
of a man on his knees in the forest clutching at his chest, revealing
flames leaping out. Close to Disturbia stood a bus
made up to look like a sailing ship, painted brown like wood and
sporting masts with sails and a fabricated prow reshaping the
Near Center camp there were a series of signs, one of which read 'Space is big' on one side, and on the other 'traveling at one million miles a day (41,665 MPH) it will take you 20 thousand years to reach beyond the solar system.' I took the last pictures of the zany little world around me, and later wandered out to the site of The Man. The neon colossus was now a modest pile of twisted remnants largely buried among smoldering straw ashes. Near the center a modest yellow flame still flickered. It seemed a forlorn sight somehow, here and there others would arrive, quietly survey the scene, and leave with their own thoughts. At my feet were a few shreds of the aluminum structure of The Man, distorted and showing signs of outright melting here and there. A bright purple feather boa scrap had become hung up on a nail attached to one small scrap, fluttering in the breeze. I picked up this piece as a souvenir of the event, as do so many others. Here and there that day I picked stuff up as I came upon it, but there were surprisingly few bottles dropped last night, the halting of ticket sales on the last days paying off in the quality of the final celebrants.
An incident worthy of note occurred as I walked to the forest of flags to photograph the lowering sun shining through the colorful fabrics. A couple were lying prone and embracing, steadily growing more intimate with each other. I wanted the photo, but I wanted to 'give them their space' at first, despite the fact they were in broad daylight on the Playa with no more shelter than a few thin flagpoles around them. I walked away, then I turned around to see if they had left and I could get the picture when I saw others, some with cameras, standing near them.
I really had mixed feelings about the situation, but one could rightfully state that they had no expectation of privacy out in the open next to an edge of the teeming multitude. Steadily more people were gathering to watch, on bikes and on foot. By this time the couple were fully engaged, apparently oblivious to the external world quietly beginning to notice. People were silent, as if they had happened along a family of deer they were afraid of disturbing. A young woman glided by on a bicycle, humorously admonishing the couple 'don't be bashful or anything!'. At least three people were photographing the event, one standing at an invasive closeness with a telephoto lens. By then I felt less like an invader, the couple obviously not caring about being seen doing what they were doing. At last I obtained the photos I wanted of the back lit flags, complete with a small unrecognizably odd four legged thing crouching in one corner of the frame.
The 'pyromid' seemingly floated above the ivory flatness as it was carried from it's initial site on the shoulders of dozens of well spaced volunteers. It was then set down and filled with carefully chosen burning materials and fireworks, clearly the most elaborate fire to come that night. Nearer my camp a large female head was taking shape, having numerous pieces of paper glued to it by a group of women. This was made, as one of them stated in a sweet 'Marin County spiritual' trill, as a Mother Goddess figure. As sunset and twilight, this time cloudy and colorless, proceeded more fires began to appear. Among those who had left were what little of the more superficial elements which were present, of which due to efforts noted earlier were noticeably reduced from previous years. It was to be one more night of joyous raving for many, already solidly established as the second most intense night, Friday being the third.
Sunday was the night the larger citizen burns took place. By the time of the 'pyromid' burn Mike and I were sitting just at the border of the safety zone perimeter. In examining the transient structure, it looked like a Japanese 2 story house version of a pyramid with many subdividing wooden members carrying the lines of all the edges across the faces in many equal sided triangles, with paper stretched along the inner surfaces.
Someone was preparing an 18 inch long model rocket with large fins for ascent. The launch pad was secured to a photographic tripod. At the appointed moment the rocket whizzed skyward, a shrinking orange flame trailing sparks and a modest smoke trail zipping toward the stars up and up, then with a small flash a small chute deployed, carrying a blue glow stick which briefly drifted among the constellations like a ghostly satellite.
Suddenly two men wearing clown costumes ran around the 'pyromid'. The clowns bowed near a wide flame pot and ignited fuses on their elaborate hats, showers of white sparks erupting from their heads! One bows and lights a meter wide incendiary ball, pushing it precisely so it rolled into a wide door on one side to the interior tinderbox. They then ran in opposite directions, pausing at the middle of each 'pyramid' side to bow down and deliver a dose of heat to a series of fuses along the sides, which then proceeded to erupt in colorful displays of their own.
Skyrockets sailed upwards and loudly burst overhead, and shrieking white missiles zigzagged out of the fire, sometimes heading skywards, sometimes skittering along the ground bouncing off people in the front. I pulled my hat brim way down and shielded my face as well as I could just in case. Fortunately they all found other targets than me. Nobody seemed really hurt by such incidents, anyway. The pile inside the 'pyromid' burned fiercely, immersing the entire structure quickly. The wood became a brilliant glowing lattice work passing flames up along its structure, contributing to them along the way.
The fire was very hot to be this
close to, and it was more sustained than the earlier experience
with the fire cannons. The randomizing fire occurring along such
precise groups of overlapping lines was entrancing. Slowly the
structure sagged, then with a groan partially collapsed. For a
time it towered over its makers like a zeppelin fire with girders
extending above the roaring solid flames. People roared their
approval and steadily got up and began walking, even dancing,
in a circle around the fire. Music erupted from the cool regions
outside, the Beatles 'It's all too much', joyously pealed across
the area in what really turned out to be quite appropriate for
the mood, a wonderful finale which couldn't have worked better
if it had been contrived in an impossibly well done movie. We
circled about, being joined by a few nude revelers, people carrying
banners and others hauling objects to throw into the fire. I wouldn't
let the crowd carry me directly downwind into the dense sparks.
Some big wooden support structures
as large as 'tank traps' were dragged and crudely rolled by several
people into the pyre. By now it was clear this was the biggest
burn of the night, comparable to the main event at earlier festivals.
It seemed as though many people hoarded their fireworks until
tonight, and here and there a continuous stream of bright fireworks
would scream skyward and explode, each burst revealing the parallel
distorting smoke trails of previous detonations drifting downwind.
One person I encountered worked as a journalist and I queried her a bit for impressions. I learned she is one of those who used to go to the Playa when it was a few dozen people bringing guns to shoot into the emptiness, even before propane tanks were brought for targets as the 90's progressed.
When talking about producing definitive stories of past events, she seemed repelled by the notion, and offered a thought which was something all reading such accounts should keep in mind: that everyone's experience is unique and subjective and no two accounts can possibly say the same thing, so a definitive account as such is impossible. She seemed to think it had all been said anyway.
Puzzlingly, not only would she would not look at anything I had written about these events if I gave her a URL to look up later, saying "I don't think you're aware of the resources out there!". When I tried to show her my art she stated "I'm not interested in images, only in content", whatever that means. I come away from the extended relaxed gathering which included that conversation grateful for the shared insights and memories but puzzled at how one can be a journalist while being so closed about what's out there. Perhaps she has seen or had been invited to see too much.
9. soul searching and analysis
I then wondered for a time why I even bothered to write down these accounts. They could easily be considered a waste of time in the face of my other still uncompleted projects. Many, many people also have web sites full of their Burning Man experiences, and my experiences are just one of many in the babble.
But, damn it, this is indeed an
interesting story, and I feel qualified to attempt to tell what
I saw and heard of it, perhaps fortified with the inherent artists
conceit that ones impressions are worth sharing.
Someday others far removed in time and space will know, from writings such as this, that there were gatherings of motivated people who devoted enormous efforts to share their enthusiasm for life with strangers for no pay, in fact at times spending small fortunes. Although I was too young for much of the initial renaissance of individuality and new alliances which marked the late 60's, seeing something amazing done by volunteers which promotes new ways of thinking and behaving is something I recognize and revel in. Burning Man bears no direct connection to earlier nonconformist movements, yet it builds on the greater latitude given to peoples lives which largely emerged from them. It is a coming together of the zaniness, humor, irreverence, costumed role playing, and mischief possible in the hands of inspired members of the worlds most technologically advanced society, with a dash of Psychedelia and whimsical neo-paganism thrown in. Two phrases picked up along the way come to mind, 'radical self expression' by various enthusiasts and 'radical inclusion' which springs naturally from group survival in the Playa.
I had to hand it to the Burning
Man people, the event came off really well. Apparently no one
died or was seriously injured, and since the initial days the
number of arrests had dropped to near zero. Only two failings
affected me, one being the eventual condition of the vast majority
of the toilets and the other the lack of enforcement of the ban
on noise and fireworks near where people were sleeping on the
last night. Both were due to overloading the system at the peak
time and nothing can probably be reasonably done about it.
On every occasion where I spoke with a Ranger they were professional but friendly, forthcoming, and willing to go the extra mile to facilitate a good safe time. I never witnessed anything like arrogance or abuse from any of them nor heard of any. Twice my video camera was checked by Rangers for tags, after it was seen I was treated with genuine courtesy. You knew you could trust them while many things couldn't be expressed to the other uniformed agencies patrolling the scene such as a BLM officer who would, according to a first hand account I heard, try to ask leading questions to see if you were someone they should search. The BLM needs to reevaluate their role and try to be more the stewards of the land they should be and less the kind of black shirts they and other agencies became during the event. More than once I heard of people being warned by Rangers about smells before the authorities arrived.
By the time the event ended roughly 60 people, about 1 in 450 Black Rock City inhabitants, were arrested by police or cited by BLM agents. It seems that since the event was moved across the county line this year we were within the realm of Sheriff Ron Skinner, who may be antagonistic toward the event. The 1996 festival was the last one held in Pershing County, when driving related serious accidents marred the otherwise lively event and Skinner had to deal with the carnage. It was speculated that he might not have been fully aware of the subsequent efforts to prevent such casualties at the next three events held in Washoe county, which greatly improved things.
I was told by an informed veteran
of many Burns of a Canadian multi-national company which seeks
free license to despoil the nearby Calico mountains to strip the
modest percentage of gold from its sediments. This
corporation was said to give millions of dollars to hostile environmentalist
factions and religious broadcasters to promote regional negativity
towards the event.
The fact is the Burning Man festival is the best thing to happen to the local economy in many years, and most of the area businesses consider it a blessing. The economic effect extends to Reno itself in camping supply sales and RV rentals, which yearly depletes the local supply as well as across major national routes to the event.
The trends over the years are revealing
themselves. Gone were the big house sized fires which once roared
along the horizon, although presumably conscious effort by burners
to provide extra thermally protective surfaces could address this.
This and the aggressive BLM harassment marked the major changes
seen in this years festival, which for two more years would be
held at the same place. Greater effort seems to have gone into
orchestrating the activities of crowds, and doing it without being
At least the Sheriff generally applied the sword of the law toward victimless 'crimes' in swift shallow jabs with fines rather than deadly thrusts as Nevada's designation of Cannabis possession as a Felony could allow. Police actions actually amounted to little more than past events, the BLM tactics providing the primary escalation in citations.
One culture in our divided country was seen to arbitrarily prey upon another, a story which runs its tragic course over the ages and across the oceans, from pogrums and witch hunts to America's 'War On Drugs' and the persecution of meditation groups in China. There are few things government fear more than when those they wish to control choose to see things very differently.
I spoke with people about having such an event on private land, but under the 'War On Drugs' such land could be seized, even without a trial, if such a crowd were willingly assembled even in someone's remote property. One interesting option I heard was finding a sympathetic Indian nation and holding such an event in a Reservation where federal agents could be excluded. If the feds really hate the event that much they should just ban it rather than harass it's participants.
The United States is becoming a place whose government I fear more than respect.
Burning Man 2000 revealed its tenacity
in the face of repeated lashing by the weather and by the end
of the event Black Rock City thrived and overshadowed initial
trials with its own presence. Police who early in the event squinted
distantly at the odd people outside their air conditioned cars
ended up exchanging waved greetings with smiles and added (or
allowed) painted decorations to some of their cars! Some of them
must have been affected by what they saw, perhaps the most uniform
result of the event is how one is affected and inspired by such
a display of mass creativity.
My doubts about the worthiness of writing about the event and its implications receded steadily under contemplation of what I had experienced over the last week. As an artist I regard it is my duty to try to convey some of it and if you have read this far I have succeeded with at least one other person.
While turning all this over in my mind well into that last night, far past the time I thought I would be asleep the loud throbbing bass from a feverish 'techno' band penetrated my earplugs and my pillows. Meanwhile massive fire fountains roared into the night and people danced and raved as if there were no tomorrow. According to Radio Free Burning Man well within the tent city some distance away a large fire was built and set, causing a scrambling of fire equipment to the scene and loud demands to extinguish the blaze. When those near the bonfire hesitated and some of the crowd became unruly, a fire hose quickly doused the flames and destroyed or seriously disrupted some tents in the area.
Once or twice I almost drifted
off so that I had immediate recalls of changing perceptions of
time, but as so often I found myself concentrating on the process
of falling asleep. A loud nearby explosion brought
an adrenaline afterglow I tried to ignore. Once a sustained roaring
filled the surroundings and upon ripping off my eye shades I saw
the entire tent brightly lit by fire! I fumbled with the zipper
to behold a nearby fire cannon pouring it's column of rolling
inferno surprisingly near, joined by others. I laid back down
shaking at what I thought was happening for a moment and again
tried to mentally filter out the throbbing, wondering why someone
didn't summon a Ranger about the noise. I probably should have
gotten up and looked for one, given up hope for sleep and walked
about the continuing show, or moved to my alternate tent further
out, but by the time I thought of these things in my increasingly
delirious state the constellation Orion was glimmering well above
the horizon, and the hours available for sleep were slipping away.
I saw bright Sirius appear, completing my first sighting that
year of the 'winter triangle' composed of three bright stars.
Somehow I lost track of an hour here, an hour or so there with
intermittent visions of dawn in between, and as the tent heated
up in the clear morning I got up with everything to take down,
a five hour drive ahead of me, and just enough sleep behind me
to say it had been tasted.
As I dressed my fingertips hurt from deep branching cracks emerging from beneath my growing dirty fingernails. My mouth was like a mummy's, with deep radial clefts. I was in a bad mood, senses ragged from fatigue, physically miserable and riddled by nagging insecurities. I swore to those around me I would never camp so close to center again, and that this might even be my last Burning man! Even in a dour state I realized I mustn't spread it around, people must not know you for that. Somehow as the hours progressed I regained my composure and my perspective within the context of the time spent there, and realized the great thing I had been part of. Talking to people helped me get outside myself, and many passing by on their way out exchanged anonymous fond farewells which I soon found infectiously uplifting.
10. Good-byes and hellos
By the time my re-packing and cleaning
up of traces was done it was nearly noon, our self appointed deadline
to leave. Hugs and good-byes were exchanged with those we had
shared this adventure with over the past week. We resolved to
meet next year, one I had expressed my earlier feelings with reminded
me I said I wouldn't go again, I grinned while saying I was reconsidering.
I washed my car with some of my remaining partially used water
containers, since only unopened ones would be accepted by the
cleanup crews. By the time Mike and I started rolling my car looked
conspicuously clean amid the dirty herd of vehicles moving along
the dissolving roads to the line out of the Playa. It was evident
most people waited until today to leave. We waited and crept along
for an hour and a half, but during that time we were entertained
by an informative farewell patter from Radio Free Burning man
and a pair of belly dancing young women. By the time the road
was nearing I knew I wasn't going to fall asleep at the wheel,
apparently when it comes down to it the amount of sleep absolutely
necessary is surprisingly small.
There was, as last year, practically no litter to be seen along the stretch of highway leading to the small towns on the way to Reno. We drove smoothly through Nevada, as in our voyage from the Bay area we used our 'walkabouts' to telegraph our intentions and avoid wide separations. Seeing from my densely packed dusty belongings I was freshly from the Playa, I was waved through the agricultural checkpoint along with many others that day. We drove across Donner Pass to the foothills marking the gradual western slope of the enormous up thrust block of the Sierra Nevadas.
Grass Valley is a still smallish community in a refuge of clear air and green ridges sheltering cold lakes. As we pulled into the driveway Gordon delightedly appeared and announced the presence of another of our long term friends, Andy! I had awakened in a windswept disintegrating tent city, erased my existence there and brought myself back to a reunion of dear old friends who 20 years ago shared each others company in a time and place of enriching circumstances. We stood together talking of things dear to us while the sun slipped behind distant clouds with golden rays extending from between the distant misty puffs. As we talked of old times and fresh dreams the twilight developed, finally revealing a delicate series of pink rays such as I hadn't seen in years.
Mike and I talked of our week long life in Black Rock City, and did what we could to convince the others to 'make the space' to be able to come to the 2001 event. In the distance lightning alternatively silhouetted then lit from within wide rolling thunderheads. Bolts occasionally arced through the narrow gap to the horizon. This storm slowly approached as we chatted, but it would not reach us. It's lavender bursts periodically lit up that part of the sky in solitary and bunched flashes. Somehow the show brought an air of re-enforcement of our friendship, it being so long between our recent reunions. We grew up and experienced some of our coming of age adventures together, and as we looked up just before Andy had to leave the Milky Way gleamed down on us from beyond the bright stars, all still asserting themselves through the thin light of a nearly half moon. The storm far to the west unleashed yet one more multiple burst of light across it's corner of the sky.