Burning Man 2005

Where there was once a lake, there is now a salty desert, or playa.

This place is so lifeless that it's made me question my confidence in life's ability to adapt to harsh conditions.

Where there was once a desert, there is a city for one week each year. Black Rock City. It's home to 35,000 freaks and a handful of normal people.

It's a different kind of city. Every aspect of life is different here: landscape, shelter, sleep schedule, hygeine, community, art, clothing, food, and weather. As a small symbol of the sort of self-reliance that Burning Man expects, there are no trash cans. You pack your own trash out at the end of the festival.

This structure is Center House, where you could buy coffee and ice. Those are the only two commodities for sale, in theory. In practice, drugs are also for sale. The corrupting influence of prohibition deforms the cash-free economy of Burning Man, just as it does Mexican border cities and our own inner cities.

On the playa, Mother Earth does not care for you. Wind blows the fine dust everywhere, and it’s so alkaline that it irritates your skin after prolonged contact. Dust devils stalk across Black Rock City. In the day, it’s hot, and at night it’s cold. There’s no water. Here I am in a pith helmet, shop goggles, and SPF 30. That plus two bottles of water in my backpack and I’m ready to wander. No keys, no cell phone, no watch, no wallet.

On the left is our common shelter (temporarily roofless). On the right is our booth, facing away into the lane.

Our theme camp was Camp Baggage Check. Our tagline was "check your emotional baggage." You could write your baggage into one of our books, and then you could enjoy Burning Man without carrying it around. And if you didn't reclaim it at the end of the show, we'd burn it in the temple, and you'd never get it back. Folks took it as seriously as they wanted. I know we genuinely touched some people. And one guy handed over his wedding ring. On the last night, we dutifully consigned the ring to the flames.

See those huge RVs that we rented? My Burning Man spirit quest was to drive one of these bad boys on the freeway on the way home. Driving big vehicles intimidates me. I even had to maneuver it through a tight parking lot at a rest area where we parked for the night (illegally).

Our roof caught the wind and pulled our frame apart. We took down the roof, fixed the frame, and then only put half a roof up. Half a roof means half the stress on the frame. As the Taoists say, sometimes less is more.

Our theme camp was mediocre, but having a theme camp meant we were camped next to other theme camps. We were next to Club Arachnid, whose rope-play classes were well-attended. You can judge a theme camp's popularity by the number of bikes parked there.

We were across the street from Snuggletown. Tzara played music day and night, bouncing back and forth between transcendental and house. Snuggletown's ecstatic dance session was popular. They also had eye-gazing and just plain snuggling.

Bikes are the preferred mode of travel. Everything's flat, and bikes don't kick up too much dust. Word on the playa was that bike thefts were up this year. Hard not to believe that. We started with fifteen crappy bikes and ended with about ten. Of course, some of them we just plain lost.

We had an art car, an electric cart tricked out as a Star Wars land speeder. Somewhere else in the city was a much bigger land speeder.

I found our land speeder to be disconcertingly corporate. Burning Man is remarkable in its lack of corporate content. I didn't hear corporate music, see corporate logos, or find people dressed as corporation-owned characters. OK, there was one old guy dressed as Gandalf, but he looked like he'd been dressing as Gandalf since 1969. The creativity was startlingly original. Science fiction conventions bear some similarities to Burning Man, but a lot of the costuming and activity at a science fiction con amounts to allying oneself with someone else's creations.

The (other people's) art cars were pretty amazing.

I got to ride in and help pedal a giant mastadon skeleton, with blue lights on the tusks and sound effects.

The really big art cars made navigation at night something of a trick. A big, brightly lit art car makes a great landmark for finding your way across a dark and wide open playa, until the art car moves.

I spent one long evening looking for this art car, La Contessa, with the mistaken belief that my friends were going to be there. Ultimately, I failed to find it. But long before I gave up, I had resolved to care less about actually finding the the art car and more about the journey itself. I saw a lot of cool art and met a lot of fun folks. If I'd found La Contessa, it would have been a disappointment anyway. Folks in my camp would say "It wasn't meant to be." I say we make our own meaning.

There were plenty of structures. Are they art? Are they fun rides? They're both. This is a giant teeter-totter, not for the faint of heart. No seat belts. No net. When you come to Burning Man, you have to sign a waiver that says you won't get your feelings hurt if you're killed.

People would pull on the ropes hanging from these rocks and spin the contraption in a circle. There were lots of installations like this one where you could walk up to it an interact with it somehow.

As would be expected, I didn't see the ninja.

Once the thing's going, you can hang from the rope instead of pull it, and the inertia will swing you around.

The bunny men seem to follow me everywhere.

The Logorinth featured a labyrinth drawn on the ground that led to "divine duality" in the center. I couldn't find my way to "divine duality" even though the path never branched. Everyone else found it without hardly trying. I'm sure there's a lesson in that for all of is.

An intricately carved wooden clocktower, doomed to die a fiery death.

A statue of parent and child. At night, gasoline poured out of the parent's hand and into the hand of the child, where it burned constantly. The message: "Teach the little burners." It made me want to bring my own daughter to Burning Man, like when she's 25.

Some folks wore outlandish costumes.

Some people wore just about nothing. Reliably, the naked men were happy to have their photos taken. The naked women, not. On reflection, I decided that it was a plus that the naked women didn't want their photos taken. It meant that women who weren't total exhibitionists were going naked anyway. It meant, "I trust you to see me naked, but I don't want folks all across the Internet looking at me." It reinforced Burning Man's identity as a place apart.

There was a time when I thought the difference between how willing men and women were to be photographed naked was culturally conditioned. Recent reading tells me that it's cultural conditioning with a heavy dose of fundamental genetic differentiation.

Naturally, there were plenty of people ruining the moment by trying to document it all on film instead of just being in the Now. Will these guys never learn?

Here's the temple that these guys were taking pictures of. It's all made of wood so that it can go up in a glorious conflagration at the end of the festival. Folks wrote memorial messages to or about those who had died, and then it all went up in flames. The flaming tower created dust devils of smoke that spun off one after the other. And once we could get close enough, we tossed in the wedding ring.

Again, there are no corporate religious logos here. It's spiritual without being allied to a particular religion.

When I filled out the "census" survey at Center Camp, I said that I was at Burning Man as part of a spiritual quest. It's true that the partying was a lot of fun, but I don't think I'd have gone if it were just a party. Las Vegas, for example, is a little repugnant to me, even though I bet I'd have fun if I ever went. But Burning Man was more than a party. It was also an opportunity to wonder, ponder, experiment, discuss, learn, celebrate, and hope.



Burning Man 2009 with Camp Baggage Check