My First Burning Man 2002 - A Virgin on the Playa
by Alt - email@example.com
Some of my friends asked me to write about my first experience at Burning Man. So I have. Anyone who has heard of Burning Man knows the stories. Many are different. Here's mine:
OK, I have to admit... I too had preconceptions. I read much of the web site and talked to people who had attended. One of my friends was scheduled to meet me there and show me around. But I already had some idea what it was like. Or so I thought.
I'd also read the media reports which present Burning Man as sex, drugs, rock and roll. And they're right. It is. But it's so much more. At least it was for me.
Driving across the desert from Reno I decided I needed some limits. I would forgo sex and drugs. I knew if I "hooked up" with some cutie, I'd just spend most of my time in the sleeping bag. And if I tried some drug, I would get a distorted view. Drugs have never been a big thing for me so it was easy to "just say no". But sex is always a temptation. My plan was to tease myself (and others) by approaching but abstaining from both.
OK, yes, I DID have a few drinks and as you discover, just a bit of sexual interaction. But I passed the bong along and most of the time just had grapefruit juice. So what you're about to read is fairly objective. Well, as objective as I can make such subjective reality.
As it turned out, abstaining was not a big problem. Just the environment kept me so buzzed, I rarely had time to focus on one event or one person for long. I was so drawn to the next thing, I simply kept moving.
It was recommended that I take a bike, but I like walking so much I decided not to bother. This whole venue was only a mile and a half across and less than five miles all the way around. I could handle that. Again, so I thought.
I took a pedometer to keep track of the miles. What I didn't realize is how you get drawn in one direction and then another. I would head for some art event a mile away and end up covering twice that distance as I zig-zagged in my exploration. At times I would totally forget my objective. And that was WITHOUT drugs. So you can imagine the typical stoned experience.
In four days I traveled 97 miles or almost a marathon every day. The adrenalin from that alone was enough to keep anyone distracted from the more obvious pleasures. But it also adds to the burnout factor - take a bike.
Also before I get started, I want to review the premise of Burning Man. And yes, there ARE some rules. But not many.
If you read the Burning Man site, you'll realize it's a festival of radical self expression and desert survival. It's all about the limits of art and staying alive. There are a few other tenets.
Much of the art is burned near the end of the week. I take this to show the ephemeral nature of experience and to keep the artist from getting too serious about their creations (the Temple of Joy proved me wrong on that point).
Burning is what Burning Man is all about. One year a guy drove around with a flame thrower and set fire to one piece of art after another. This happened well before the end of the week so now there's a rule against such burning. You can only set fire to what you own. Such is the nature of controlled chaos. That's how rules come into existence - need.
One rule is "Leave No Trace". The idea is to leave the playa (LARGE dry lake bed) in EXACTLY the condition it was in before the party. If you've ever been to any other large event, you'll be amazed how well this works at Burning Man. It really IS an eco-friendly event. Campers lay out black plastic to evaporate excess gray water rather than stain the playa. Another guy broke a string of beads and was trying to recover EVERY bead in the playa dust. Impressive devotion. Impressive people.
Another rule is "No commercial transactions or corporate logos". The idea is to not distort the artistic experience with commercialism. The only exceptions are the "Arctic Ice Hut" and coffee at the large central cafe' where the proceeds go to charity. Everything else you need, you bring with you. But don't worry. If you forgot something and make it known, someone will probably provide.
This lack of vendors has created a "gift economy" which actually works quite well. It also has the side effect of quickly breaking down social isolation and dramatically increasing human interaction. This is the secret of Burning Man. It fosters engagement and produces a unique feel.
This "feel" starts at the front gate as they take your ticket and say "Welcome Home". I explained it was my first time, but the guy just smiled. Soon enough I'd learn why.
As I walked the streets of the city people would call out and welcomed me into their camp. The first thing they would ask is if I needed anything. This happened over and over all week long. It was like THEY wanted to be the first to fill my needs. It really does produce a great vibe.
There were very few boundaries around any of the camps. Only in one camp did I see signs on some tents that said "private". This single exception made the unwritten rule so obvious. Where else would you even think to put a private sign on a tent?
If people were in the tent and it was open, you were welcome. If they had what you needed, you probably got it. Thousands of people become your extended family all at once. Everyone was looking for ways to give you things. It really is like coming home.
Another side effect of the giving is the lack of theft. It was rare to find anything missing from a camp even though people are wandering about constantly and little security is maintained. The exception is bikes. I had some reports that people just ride the closest one, so be careful which one you take.
This gift economy is the basis of much of the "performance art" at Burning Man. In the smaller camps - feet washing, hair washing, body washing, feeding you, offering drink of all kinds, spraying you with water to cool you off - were all forms of giving. It's a VERY giving affair. And it DOES work. At least for one week out of the year on a remote dry lake bed.
Next rule - sound is limited to less than 300 watts. Well, except in the big sound camps out at the ends of the city. THAT music can be heard for miles. I had someone near my camp with 24 hour music at a reasonable level. I never had to turn on the radio all week. It was nice.
Also you can't drive your car around during the week (except for a few hundred art cars). A few years ago someone was run over in their tent in the dark. Plus unneeded driving kicks up the playa dust. One way to become unpopular is to drive more than five miles per hour at ANY time ANY where in ANY vehicle.
There are a few other rules which respond directly to various problems, but mostly Burning Man is very much a place that doesn't rely on rules. In general, if you can think of it, you can do it.
Of course you can't murder anyone. Nevada and Federal laws still apply, but most enforcement is by the "Rangers" who are Burning Man volunteers. Rangers arbitrate limits of "artistic expression". Mostly they talk to the parties involved. If it gets out of hand, they call in the real cops but that's rare. Black Rock City has less crime than any other city of similar sized in the U.S. - not bad for a week of partying.
There were very few real cops, unlike in prior years. Well, at least not in uniform. Rumor has it plain clothes narcs are in the crowd to stop drug "transactions" but I saw NO restriction on obvious drug USE. "Selling" drugs is commercial and against the spirit of Burning Man anyway. Using is not.
In general, the old mantra of "Do anything you like as long as you don't hurt anyone" was very much in effect.
I read the Burning Man web survey before going out and learned several things. Most "Burners" are between 20 and 50 years old with few teenagers or retired people. Kids are rare but get LOTS of attention as you might imagine. The few I saw seemed to be having a great time.
Almost two thirds of Burners are male but this is skewed by a large gay contingent from San Francisco (yes, there were lots of openly gay females too).
From watching the crowd, I would say most people came as couples or at least most females had a guy friend along. And finally there was a large group of singles guys, many of them young and in college. These are called "frats" and they tend to hang out at Thunder Dome or the rave camps. Trying to classify such a diverse group might at first seem impossible but once I started asking some questions, patterns emerged.
Burning Man is NOT a cross section of America. As a matter of fact, I saw it as very narrowly defined for its size. It's not just because of the 20 to 50 years old, largely male, higher than average income. It's something else.
I discovered a MUCH higher level of intelligence than typical, plus a LOT of lateral thinking. I also found a VERY empathetic set of social values and everyone seemed to have an utterly open mind. That's NOT typical of most of America no matter what the web site says.
I kept being reminded of Jefferson and Voltaire's age of enlightenment. These people THINK instead of follow. They give instead of take. There's lots of slack even if they don't agree with your "thing", whatever that might be.
Are these the kind of people that would lead us in this next millennium? They are definitely NOT the same group you find at the 7-11 or your local mall. It's a VERY positive and supportive group. I felt safer here than any other city I've ever been in.
Is THIS why the gift economy works? Or is it because most of these Burners are so well off? That DOES make it easier to give. I'll let you decide when you come and experience it for yourself.
Other patterns also emerged. Most of these people were very attractive - much more than average. And it's not just the younger ones. It was all ages, and was true for both men and women.
I don't want to seem snarky, but there was an obvious bias to exercise. I guess that's the kind of people who feel good about getting naked in public.
I also noticed a grouping in behavior. After talking to literally hundreds of people, I broke the groups down as Artists, Hippies, Ravers and Road Warriors.
There were also a few of what Burners call Yahoos. These are people who come out to watch but don't get involved or contribute. No costume on Saturday night is a sure sign. But Yahoos don't matter. They're a minor factor. They get ignored or they get involved. You can't be weird at Burning Man, but you CAN be a Yahoo. Well, if you work at it.
The Artists are by far the biggest and most dedicated group at Burning Man. They spend a lot of money on their art which is the greatest contribution to the overall experience.
Some are very serious, but most are in the spirit of the event and burn their work at the end of the week. Art takes many forms, and Burning Man brings out the most aberrant.
Artist are also the least likely to party or use drugs. Most are working on their art much of the time. Most of the art cars require constant attention just to keep them functional.
Many of these artists are actually engineers so their art takes on more of a technical expression. There are lots of geeks in this group. Larry Harvey's original interest was large scale lawn art which sets the tone for the event. Artists are the real founders of the event. Art is definitely the "soul" of Burning Man.
The Hippies tend to be older and more into performance art or "alternative" human activity. They do much of the giving and nurturing in the gift economy. They are all about social or eco-interaction. You can tell them from a distance because they always had the biggest smiles.
Since I'm on the subject of smiles, they were everywhere. You just can't help it. It starts when you get to the gate and continues even after you leave. These smiles are caused by the things you see and how people treat you. Everyone smiled a lot, but the Hippies were the hard core smilers. Hippies are the "spirit" of Burning Man.
The Ravers just want to party. If you get close, they will hug you and try to "relate" until its time to party again. It has something to do with the Ecstasy I think. But dance is what Ravers REALLY like to do - literally 24 hours a day all week long or whatever part they can stay awake for.
Many had strapped on water bottles with drinking tubes to stay hydrated. This was by far the best dressed group but still lots of nudity and paint. The music was loud and never stopped. There were hundreds and sometimes thousands dancing at any given club at any one time. Most of the rave clubs were out at the end music zones.
This is also where most of the drugs were used, especially Ecstasy, LSD and mushrooms. I saw more dilated pupils in one place than I've ever seen in my entire life. And don't forget, they danced. And danced. And danced.
When their blood finally ran out of sugar to fuel movement, they would fall asleep where ever was handy. You'd find them everywhere. They'd sleep where they fell - in the art, in the public areas or in the dust. Most DID avoid the street to keep from getting run over by the art cars.
Many simply walk out onto the playa with a coat or a blanket. They did try to sleep near the art because of the bicycles crossing the playa in the dark.
In a couple of hours they would wake up, eat, drink and dance some more. The Ravers are the "escape" of Burning Man.
The last group are the Road Warriors or "frats". They were smaller in number but had a large profile because of their engaging nature which is itself, a special kind of art. They also drank a lot of alcohol.
Road Warriors tended to be into the "radical" part of self-expression. They will do anything they can think of that's politically IN-correct. Much of Burning Man is like that - meant to shock but not necessarily offend. Well, not too much. Even this offence often produces smiles as we laugh at ourselves and the lines we draw.
I put the pyros in this group since they raise a lot of hell and tend to come through the back camps with their groups of mobile flame throwers and music cars.
Many were college students looking to interact in a more challenging way. They tended to engage you directly but were never really mean. The Road Warriors are the "drama" of Burning Man.
OK. Those are the rules. Those are the players. Here's what happened. Some of the notes were taken real time and I drop into present tense. I haven't changed it. Sorry if that's confusing.
It took about two hours to drive from Reno, the closest big city to Burning Man. I got there about 9:00 PM. The first thing I saw from several miles away was a blue tower in a sea of lights. This thing was HUGE! A mile and a half across is bigger than you think it will be.
Next I'm sitting here in line waiting to get in. There was no wind but a light dust in the air from all the cars. It's an almost white dust like talc (I see MUCH more of it later on!).
While I'm waiting here, I set the radio to scan on FM. There are only a couple of stations, but with lots of VERY strange programming. From listening to the lyrics, much of the music seems to be written for the event. There are no limits on the words they use OR the sounds in the music. Some chick is queefing out tunes and talking about different types of cunts in a parody of Vagina Monologues.
Much of it's so weird I have nothing to associate it with and so can't even remember. This was to be common all through the event. Stuff so weird you can't remember what it was. Or maybe that was just from sensory overload. I'm not sure.
It took me about 20 minutes in a slow moving line to get to the gate but it will be MUCH worse on Thursday and Friday I'm told.
I've already noticed a different mood, or is it just expectation? There seems to be's a very mellow attitude here. Even the guys directing traffic are smiling. At first it makes you want to look around to see what they are smiling about but soon you get it. They KNOW what you are ABOUT to discover.
I pulled slowly into an open place fairly close to the center of things. No, I didn't unpack or set up camp. I wanted to SEE what was going on. But I had no costume on, and no paint. It only took a few hundred yards of walking to realize I was out of place. I looked like a Yahoo.
In only a quarter of a mile I saw more strange forms of dress than at all the Halloween parties I've ever attended in my entire life. From a mostly naked fire dancer with beautiful breasts to a guy in drag pulling a Barbie doll along on a string. And like I said, stuff I can't even remember.
Out of respect, I opened my shirt and wore it on one shoulder as I loosened the strap on my head lamp. I pulled the lamp down over my body to act as a belt holding the shirt in place so the light was coming out of my navel. Then I pushed it lower. This left the light at about my crotch so I set it to fast blink. What would this mean? I didn't care. For me it was simply working with what I had. I was too enchanted to go back to the car find something more involved.
As I neared the center of the city, the lights got much brighter. You could see without a light on the main street. It was an amazing sight - lights and structures wrapped away in arcs in both directions for about two miles. This is a HUGE place.
Dead ahead in the center was a big blue neon tower which I could clearly now see was the man that was to burn. He was 40 or fifty feet tall standing on a three story lighthouse. He had lasers beaming out in four directions. He could be seen from almost everywhere. I'd already seen so many strange things, my head was buzzing. I needed a break. I head in the direction of the man to introduce myself. Compared to the city, it was wide open and mostly empty out on the playa.
This blue giant was only a half a mile away, but it took a while to get there. Along the way were isolated pieces of art, much of it with movement, lights and sound. One stopped me in my tracks. It too was amazing to ignore.
Worth the Price of Admission
Someone had created a merry-go-round with many copies of a bust of someone "swimming" out of the surface. It was spinning quite fast.
The impressive part was that it was lit with strobe lights synchronized to the speed of the platform so that the "swimmer" turned into a collection of moving sculptures, each with its own spot on the rim. You couldn't see the wheel move unless you looked closely. All you could see were these people swimming out from the desert in perfect form.
I walked around it trying to get past the illusion but there was not enough normal light. This thing worked REALLY well in the dark. On one side was a bicycle pedal. This was interactive art. I cranked it. The wheel went faster. The swimmers swam faster, but stayed perfectly in sync. A guy behind me said, "this alone is worth the price of admission".
All of a sudden I was startled by a HUGE ball of flame. A sea dragon which must have been 150 feet long and 30 feet high had stopped behind me and was snorting fire.
I marveled at it's size as I walked along trying to get an idea how big it really was. It quietly rolled away. By this time the swimmers were somewhere in the distance. I would try to find them again over the next few evenings but I never succeeded. Something always distracted me. That's how it went the whole time. Except for Burning the Man and the Temple of Joy, the experience was chaos. Finding something was mostly luck.
I would head for events and end up somewhere else. It was hard to stay focused. It's a singularly indeterminant kind of experience, totally unpredictable and constantly changing. This chaos makes each person's experience unique and unrepeatable.
Hundreds of pieces of art are mobile and constantly being driven around. You only see them by luck. Even "fixed" events change from hour to hour and day to day. Some presentations are one time affairs, others come and go or happen on no fixed schedule.
I tried to experience these electronic lily pads which were supposed to track you by sound. Several people told me about them and I DID manage to find them twice, but not when they were working.
Once was in a dust storm which seem to suppress their response. Another try was in early morning and I think their photocell batteries had already died and were waiting for a sunrise to recharge. Oh well. No one can see it all, and even if you could, it would be different an hour later. Finally, I dropped all plans and mostly did "walk abouts" aborigine style. Other than that, I let it find me. But back to my first walk.
I finally made it to the Man and climbed up. There were a few hundred people sitting around. Some were playing music. One was quoting poetry. He was quite good but I didn't recognize the poem.
This reminded me of the poems I had brought along in my Palm phone. I had planned to quote different parts of the Rubaiyat depending on random cues from different people. No, I can't quote the entire 101 verses, but the Palm phone allowed me to look them up quickly. Once I get a cue I'm usually good for a couple of verses.
So I headed off to the west end of the city for no particular reason. It was totally dark for a half mile and very peaceful on the playa. It was a relief to be alone and relax after so much distraction. The blackness was soothing.
I took out the Palm and began to read the Rubaiyat out loud for practice. It was fun. I was reading to the desert and the stars. It was a break from sensory over-load.
All of a sudden people started clapping and yelling. I turned my light on. There were six people sitting in a circle in total darkness. I said thank you and continued my path and my reading as they dropped into the distance behind me. The theme this year was "Floating World", and this place really WAS like the ocean. It was like these six people were bobbing in a boat. Next I did some of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". This seemed especially appropriate.
As I got close to the west end, the music got louder. This was one of the unlimited sound areas and it was VERY loud and VERY techno. This end of Black Rock City was dominated by a large rave club but other clubs were around too.
One was set up like the red light district in Amsterdam. Not much clothing here, and a lot of kissing going on. I stopped in another smaller club and was offered a drink. I'm a light-weight and was soon feeling very mellow.
I wandered into this tunnel of optical and aural illusions - lots of noise and light. I was trying to figure out where this sound was coming from when I discovere it was from a noise maker right next to my ear. It was held by a young woman who was watching me search for it's source. I'd been had.
She laughed at me as I noticed her, then handed me the device and moved on. This was my first gift and I thanked her as she was leaving. I took it out into the night air to figure out how it worked. It was a small version of the African "pebbles in a hollow stick" musical device. Soon I got the hang of it and moved on to a big fire and party.
As I approached I noticed a large lady with huge breasts mostly exposed. Her gown was cut just above the nipples and she had an 8-ball held between her tits.
"Nice trick", I said, "and you're always ready for a game". She laughed and thanked me very formally. Another guy was standing there and said, "But I wonder what they feel like?".
To that she offered, "I can be bribed", so I handed her my noise maker. It's all I had but she smiled so I kissed her. She kissed back and soon I was kissing my way down her neck. The social barriers were so relaxed. This seemed like a natural exchange.
Just then I realize the other guy was sucking on her right breast and she was holding the eight ball in her other hand. I smiled at her, gave her a final kiss and drifted away. My gift had moved on and so had I. It was a maneuver I would get good at over the next few days. My idea was to tease but not get involved. Besides, she wasn't my type but DID appear to be his.
Next I saw a group of about ten people on bicycles all in a circle around this one guy who was handing something out from a zip-lock. He was addressing each person in turn.
I walked up to one of them, a blond girl, and asked what they were doing. She said they were making mushroom tea in their mouths. "Ahh, psilocybin", I said.
"Yes", she responded quickly. The guy offered me some mushrooms. I declined. "It's OK", she said, "He's not one of us". "The Burning Man force is not strong in this one", I thought. She was Raver, not a Hippie.
From here I continued to head back to the center of the city and to my car. By then it was one o'clock and I'd been out nearly four hours. It seemed like less. But I was tired so I just got in the driver seat of my car and slept without unloading anything.
Temple of Joy
I awoke to fire works in the distance. I checked the clock. It was three in the morning but it seemed like I was missing the party. I drank some water and headed out again.
This time I went to the right and found more chaos of music, lights and people. Only the people had slowed down a bit. One place had a whole bunch of hammocks between polls. They were all full of sleeping bodies.
Another had a large merry-go-round with a pole in the center. People were laying with their heads near the center and their feet near the edge. A guy was running in a circle getting it up to speed. I hopped on, laid down and took a ride. It was fun. This I would come back to later. I met and talked to lots of people here. I liked this place. It as SO simple. I was a kid again.
Next I headed out into the playa once more. It was just getting light and I could see different pieces of art in the distance. This time I headed for this large building twice as far out as the Man. This was the Temple of Joy. As I approached it appeared to be made of some sort of fine wood.
I later learned it was formed from of the jig-saw cut-outs left over from manufacturing plywood dinosaurs. These cutouts were stapled to two-by-four triangles which were then stacked on a structural frame, but that doesn't describe it at all.
It was about 60 feet tall and looked like it was made of fragile lace. It was beautiful in the pre-dawn light. As I got closer I saw a few people inside and also outside writing on the walls. Some were openly crying. Others were just quiet and staring.
I stopped to read some of the writing. Many had said good-bye to loved ones. Others wrote their hopes and dreams. Inside were pictures of loved ones, mementos and final notes. There were big bins of wooden blocks you could write on and toss back in the bin.
Many of you who read this know I'm finishing up a a very successful marriage - just not successful enough. No, I won't get into all the emotional baggage here. I did that two years ago, but a very good friend suggested I take some special memento to Burning Man and set fire to it.
When my wife and I married, we had match boxes engraved with our name and the date. We had lots left over from the wedding and we stored them away. A few years ago, I found my wife using them to light the BBQ. That was the first hint I had that my marriage would end.
As I stood there, I realized this temple was built EXACTLY for the purpose my friend had suggested. She had foreseen the need, and this artist had built it for me. I would bring the box of matches here. This was the perfect place to see them burn. Wedding matches now divorce matches. It fit.
I continued across the open playa. By the time I reached the west arm of the city, I was feeling very peaceful but also very alone. I just happened to come out in front of the "Lost Penguin". It was an open shade structure.
There were several people sitting just inside on couches watching the sun come up. They welcomed me in. I asked a young woman who Lost the Penguin?
Her name was Lucy and she said the camp was built to capture lost souls from the playa and give them comfort and chocolate. The Burning Man spirit was strong in this one. I could tell by her smile. Lucy had been a lost soul from Toronto last year. She had wandered in here. This year she helped out.
The chocolate was made in a factory in the bay area staffed by autistic people. The chocolate was good. So were the people. I visited Lucy and the others several times in the next few days because of this wonderful welcome. She never guessed why. I was just another Lost Penguin. I like serendipity. It needs no reason.
Again, I was tired. So was everyone else. Sleeping bodies were everywhere. I returned to my car and unloaded enough stuff so I could lay down. I slept several hours this time.
I awoke to the sound of laughter. I looked out the window of the car and saw a beautiful young woman totally naked and rubbing soap on her body. She was talking to someone and laughing.
She was under a make-shift shower just across the street. A water bag was suspended from three poles above her. She was standing on a wooden pallet. Water was dripping from her nipples. Her pubic hair was dark.
She was so natural and relaxed. This shower was to become a source of excellent distraction. Others would shower here. I'd picked the perfect camp for being a voyeur.
OK. I might as well talk about public nudity at Burning Man. Other than shower time, it was rare to see people TOTALLY nude. But LOTS were "almost" nude. Some wore paint. Some wore sun glasses. One had only a garter - not even the stockings.
Another look I really enjoyed was the scarf tied around the waist. It didn't really cover much, but I thought it was a cute gesture. Many were like this. Others were just topless or had a g-string. Still others wore nets of different types of material. And it changed during the day.
Ten o'clock in the morning was the best time for nudity. Just as everyone woke up, the sun was getting hot. The warmer it got, the less they wore.
I remember laughing as I walked to the bathrooms one morning. On that short walk, I'd seen more naked women than I'd seen in my entire life.
Many would just throw a shirt over their shoulders to go to the porta-potties. Others didn't bother. And three that morning were out jogging together. There were LOTS of naked joggers in the mornings, male and female.
No, it's not a nudist colony. Most of the time only a few percent are naked and even then, more male than female. But it was just common enough to catch you unaware. I notice one naked woman sitting in camp nursing a baby. It was such a natural and beautiful sight. There were many other great examples of casual nudity.
This was the morning I first saw the water truck. It would come along a couple of times a day spraying the road with water to keep the dust down.
The truck would honk his horn as it went along. People would run from their camp throwing their cloths off to catch the truck for a free shower. As the truck went by, 20 or 30 people would be splashing in it's spray, some just catching up, some retiring, totally soaked. I too took some of my showers this way. I learn by example.
As the temperature fell at night, the clothes went back on. It was rare to see naked people late at night, but it did occur. Now back to camp.
I laid down some tarps, drove over them and wrapped them around my car. Then I formed a tent with two poles inside. The sun would be hot soon. I needed shade. Plus the afternoon would bring southwest winds - a little or a lot. I wanted to keep as much dust out of my car as possible.
In an hour my camp was in good shape and I had lunch. I kept a cold camp and mostly ate sandwiches with guacamole and chips. I also had lots of fruit and veggies in the cooler. My camp was simple but efficient. I had moved in. I took another nap but never did catch up on my sleep. On the average I slept only 5 hours a day while on the playa.
Next was a meeting of the Polyamorous Group. Polyamory means many loves, but honestly. Being freshly separated, it was one of my interests. The meeting started on time. There were about 25 people and a very lively discussion.
Some of these people had been living the lifestyle for years, others just trying it out. I won't go into the details, but it was interesting enough that I came back a couple of times to learn more.
About then I got a call on my walky talky. It was given to me by a friend so we could link up when he got in. After quick directions, I headed for his camp. He and his girlfriend were going to help me with my costume.
As I said, the theme of this year's Burning Man was "Floating World" so the week before I came out I made a 40 inch diameter jellyfish out of PVC pipe and covered with a white translucent fabric. The PVC formed a dome which I attached to a plastic helmet. To this I attached my blinking light which caused the fabric to light up nicely. Finally I then cut "fringe" out of mylar and hung it from the rim of the dome.
Next I cut a hole in another piece of white fabric to put my head through forming a simple robe. This is where my friend came in. He had this blue "light wire" which I wanted to taped inside the robe.
The over-all effect turned out better than I thought, especially at night. Darkness hides a lot of rough edges.
Other people thought so too, even before I added the light wire. Right after I left my camp I was in total darkness except for my flashing light.
I heard someone say, WOW!. I turned. It was a guy laying on a couch. He said, "You're going make a lot of people happy tonight". I thanked him and took it as a good omen.
Every few hundred feet or so someone would stop me to take my picture. I started trading my poses for hugs as I danced around making the mylar move. Remember, you CAN'T be strange at Burning Man. I must have hugged 20 people just getting over to hook up the light wire. It was fun being a jellyfish.
We got the wiring done and I stayed for dinner. Then we all headed out to party. My friend had a clear female plastic torso with light wire in circles around the tits and different colors at the "V". He strapped this to his back and in the dark was VERY confusing Because other women were doing the same thing with light wire on their actual bodies. In the dark, he looked like a woman walking backwards. Remember, you CAN'T be strange at Burning Man. His girlfriend was a jellyfish like me, but a simpler one. We were set.
Early evening is when the party starts. It gets hard-core at midnight. Everyone is dressed up and there is lots of dancing, drink and general craziness.
In time we got separated which is VERY common and to be expected. Even with a special pattern of light wire it's difficult to keep track. And without it, hopeless. With me being inside this jellyfish, it was hard to see out. I lost track quickly.
Once alone, I began to entertain. I would watch the crowd to find someone who was fascinated by my costume then begin to circle them (yes, I DID favor the single females). This would often start them laughing and allow me to pop the rim over their head and surprise them.
This brought them "inside" and we could start this little dance as I informed them they had been "captured". Some would laugh and run away. Others didn't. Soon I ended up dancing with one and talking to her for a long time. Then we started kissing.
She was from Denmark and was having trouble understanding me but our movements were communicating perfectly. She had on a fur coat and thin skirt. I had only a thin piece of fabric. It became an erotic dance. Soon she realize how erotic.
She started laughing and saying "Oh, no... Oh, no". I gave her a final kiss, leaned back my jellyfish and let her out. As I blinked into the night I looked back to see her smile in the flashes of light. The guy on the couch had been right. I had made someone happy. No regrets.
I had other gimmicks too. I carried a backpack with lots of different stuff. One thing I had was a zip-lock full of soft gummy-worms.
Sometimes as I danced around a target, I would take their hand and pull it into my bag of gummy worms. At first some would squeal as they touched them, then recognize the feel pulling out a "tentacle" to eat. That was my cue to dance away and leave them smiling. It was one way I "gave".
Other times I would pull into a camp, take off my jellyfish and relax. I got to talk to a lot of people that way. No introductions were needed. Everyone was SO open. It was a fun time.
This second night I lasted till two o'clock then went back to my camp and slept till sunrise.
I almost always wake up at sunrise and did this Friday morning too. I put on my desert gear and headed out for some serious art viewing on the playa. I took the camera because I hadn't been getting many pictures yet. This time I would focus on an objective - take pictures.
Ooops... Already distracted. I really wanted to climb up in the Kaleidoshpere. It was this set of three huge spheres one within another and rotating at different rates. It created a strange moving frame of reference.
At other events, the machinery of something like this would be roped off. Not here. A narrow tunnel led to a ladder which I climbed. At the top I found myself in the inter-most sphere. There were six other people here sleeping, talking or just waking up.
One blond girl's eyes got REAL wide once she woke up. Her world was moving in circles. Or at least I'm sure it felt that way to her. It was only another illusion, but it startle her. She must have climbed up in the dark and fell asleep without seeing the effect. It probably still seemed like a dream. Just more illusion.
Next I went to the far end of the playa past the Temple of Joy. On the way I saw lots of interesting "stuff". In one big area were thousands of pairs of shoes circled by American flags. It took a minute to realize there was a pair of shoes for each life lost in New York almost one year ago on 9-11.
Another work was of fish swimming up out of the playa. They looked so real, almost like they were in water. The playa makes a great canvas.
Farther out was a HUGE yellow rubber duck. It must have been thirty feet tall and could be seen from the Temple of Joy. Much of the art work on the playa "disappeared" as you walked away because of the distance. The duck didn't. It was a BIG duck.
Finally near the fence I found a bunch of people about to start some mud bath event. Everyone got totally naked and started rubbing mud on each other which was provided by the "officials".
There was also a hundred foot long "slip-n-slide" I suspected would become part of the process. But I had told my friend I'd be there for lunch so I headed back. I didn't get to see what happened. Again, you can't do everything. So you do what you can. I DID get some pictures of them covering each other with mud.
After lunch I went back to the Poly place and met a mostly new group of sexual/emotional artists. The word "compersion" was defined and contrasted. One very attractive oriental lady was next to me. As she talked, I realized she was ready to have an affair but was trying to do it in some honest fashion - polyamory.
The wind came up. A storm was blowing in. Almost everyone left, but this lady and I kept talking. The discussion became quite involved. The winds increased. The air became white with playa dust. Her coal black hair began to turn gray.
Someone handed out face masks. I pulled out my goggles. She put on her glasses and mask. We kept talking. Soon we were alone. Again, I was due back at my friend's camp but I got her email address before I left. I wonder if she'll answer (BTW, she did and we've become email friends).
By the time I got to my friend's place, it was total white out. I took a picture of a bike in front of me because I could barely see it.
From his camp, we just watched the storm move across the playa. There wasn't much else to do. Soon the dust died down and I took off my goggles. Much of the "white out" was simply dust on the lenses. Even nature was providing illusion. Strange what we believe we think we are experiencing.
Next the lightning started. Then the rain. It was just enough to settle the dust but not enough for mud. In an hour the storm broke and a rainbow came out. Another sign of a perfect week? It really WAS good weather. 85 degrees in the day, 50 at night.
I borrowed my fiend's bike and did a ride-about. It had a different feel. I liked walking better but the bike was good for going to a particular place.
After getting some pictures, I brought the bike back then went to get into my jellyfish. This night I had a different story and a new trick to try.
I duct-taped a tube of KY jelly to my helmet inside the jellyfish. This way I could "palm" a squirt of KY then shake hands with a target. It made them squeal as I handed them a paper towel and asked what they would expect from a jellyfish? The point was surprise. It worked.
I came to Thunder Dome several times while at Burning Man but never got to see a "fight". Either it was too crowded to get close or no fight was going on. This place was a lot like the movie of the same name and of course VERY popular with the Road Warriors.
Finally I decided to take off the jellyfish and at least climb up the dome. It was about 40 feet high and 80 feet wide. When I got near the top, I met a couple and started talking. It was nothing major, but seemed so funny to be having a conversation in such a strange place in such strange clothes. I climbed down and continued on.
Getting my Tentacle Eaten
At one point these two gay guys came up to my jellyfish doing the oooow... ahhhhh... thing and one of them said, "You are beautiful!"
I thanked him as the other one said, "Can I feel" as he played with the mylar. I pulled his hand into my backpack. This surprised him.
I said, "I'll even let you eat it". He found a gummy worm, pulled it out and started laughing. I may not be gay, but I DO know how to tease. Again, I left them wanting more.
This night I stopped at several parties. I had a few drinks and maybe a contact high from this one crowded tent. I was feeling good and watched a number of couples around me getting seriously sexual. Later walking back, I watched a girl giving her boyfriend a blow-job but I only watched for a couple of seconds. I didn't want to break their mood.
That was the only REAL public sex I witnessed but I did hear a bit more in tents at different times. To be honest, I think most people were so tired, a lot of sex didn't happen. But who knows?
Apparently, a few years ago people started sitting up tents and others would bring in ice, soda and alcohol. The guy who owned the tent would mix the drinks. These came to be called barter bars because you were supposed to bring something in trade.
Since it violates the spirit of the gift economy, the bartering aspect is no longer cool and is less common. Usually they just pass out free drinks.
There was one exception. I walked into this one bar which turned out to be a BDSM place. The guy would give me a drink but only after I pulled down my pants so he could spank me. I had my costume on and didn't want to tangle the light wire so I declined and moved on. But others were taking it on the ass for a drink.
To bed by three. Up at dawn. No dreaming but I felt refreshed. It was like that each night, play hard, sleep hard, no dreaming. I think I tended to get woken up before I got into the light dreaming state. And when awake, I wanted to see something. ANYthing! EVERYthing!
This morning I took the back streets and found lots of minor art. Even many of the camp names were entertaining. One was "Victims of Masturbation". There was also, "Camp FUCK" with an eight foot tall sign. Others I liked were "Bureau of Artistic Licensing" and "Blow-jobs for the Needy".
Smacking Her Ass
One camp I walked by had a girl screaming in orgasm. Or was it pain? I stepped in to check it out. Several others were watching too.
Two women and a man were doing all kinds of things to this female subject who was lying on a table face down. The women were rubbing her all over and the guy was smacking her ass with a paddle. It seemed pretty real. Not like those faky movies. She wasn't shy about expressing herself either. The moans were authentic. Did I say there wasn't much public sex? Well, this WAS in a tent - sort of private but definitely sexual.
Answers and Paint
At another site you could write a question and the next day there would be an answer. Some were serious. Some were funny. It was interesting to see what people wanted to know about their lives. I spent a lot of time there reading.
There was also lots of places that did full body painting, tit painting, genital painting, sun screen application and bush trimming.
Always near by were places you could get your feet washed, your hair washed or a full "carcass" wash. Yes, painted naked people would step up and people would rub all the paint off. Lots of skin to skin contact from strangers. But like I said, this place felt like home. It was cool.
There were also free massages almost everywhere you looked. And foot rubs. And head rubs. And finger rubs. And pelvic rubs. Lots of rubs.
Probably the strangest thing I saw that Saturday morning was a guy with a three inch nail all the way through his penis just behind the head. He seemed proud of it. I wonder if it ever got him laid? It certainly got him some attention.
Anyway, you get the idea. These were the little camps. I've only mentioned the more aberrant ones. There were also hundreds of more normal ones like Chocolate Gypsies, Bicycle Repair and Roller Disco plus lots of trampolines. One guy was cutting Pepsi cans into strips then weaving them into fabric.
After the walk about, I headed to the Poly camp again to see if the oriental lady would be back - no luck, but it was interesting so I stayed a while.
The afternoon was getting hot. I went back for a nap. Tonight would be the big night. Normally everyone was scattered through the city at different gatherings. At sunset it would become like "Dawn of the Dead". Everyone would turned toward the Man and walked like zombies. That's when I would realized how many people there were.
Burn the Man - Save the Man
I awoke as the sun was setting. After a quick dinner I got the jellyfish on and joined the march to the Man.
They had set up a perimeter of about a third of a mile out. I found a place up wind and took off my jellyfish so others could see over my head. We were about 20 deep and a mile around. I was just behind those seated. I had a good view.
From the Temple side of the circle came a parade of fire breathing machines and art cars. Lots of Road Warrior stuff. It took them a half hour to get all the way around.
Next came the fire dancers. And not just a few. There were easily a thousand of them. You could barely see the ones on the other side but they too kept moving.
It's important to note, this is not a well rehearsed parade like you would see at Disneyland. Some were very good at it. Especially the fire eaters. Others weren't. I saw one drop and roll as he caught his shirt on fire.
I also heard one fire eater had encountered a change in wind and caught a face full of fuel earlier in the day. They flew him to Reno with burns on his face, but in fair condition.
Anyway, what these guys lacked in practice, they made up for with enthusiasm. It was a great show.
Finally, the field was cleared and the big blue man raised his arms - the sign he was about to burn. Then one arm's lights went out. Like I say, shit happens. But the crowd cheered just the same, "Burn the Man" or "Save the Man". Or both.
The fireworks started. Lots of them all at once. Then flames at the base. It took a few minutes for the blaze to climb the structure. Soon ALL the man's lights went out.
Then something strange started happening. The breeze was just right. A funnel of smoke and flame formed at the downwind edge of the fire. It was taller than the man himself and began to move away independently toward the crowd. It was like a large dust devil or very small tornado. People screamed and cheered. It was fun to watch.
Then the man fell and sparks reached for the sky. Just then they let the fence down and much of the crowd ran forward to the flame.
I stayed holding my jellyfish. It was too crazy in there with this costume. There was another lady standing beside me. We started talking. Everyone does. You got to know a lot of people this way. She was here because she had just turned 40 and her baby clock was ticking frantically.
She was looking for Mr. Right so she could get pregnant and make babies before it was too late. She figured this was a good place to find someone open-minded and understanding. She was SO straight forward. She asked me for a ride back to Reno monday morning. We made arrangements but she never showed up. Oh well. That's how it works. I'm sure she found a ride. I'm not Mr.
Right anyway. Been there. Done that.
I once again headed for the music to the west. And this is a good time to talk about the music. There was all kinds... live, recorded, techno, metal, country and rock. Everything EXCEPT rap. Interesting... Too negative? Demographics? Who knows.
Anyway I started my dance of the jellyfish again looking for people to entertain. I had a new approach. I told them the mylar tentacles had a special neuro-toxin. It lowers inhibition. I would swoop around barely touching them with the mylar strips.
The first women I explained this to said, "But I have no inhibitions", as she came inside the jellyfish and started rubbing her body against me. I laughed. She'd caught me off balance. My bluff had been called. I gave her a gummy tentacle to eat and danced away.
The next one went better. She was an older lady and kept saying I was beautiful. She might have been on E. I'm not sure. Anyway, I captured her and we began to dance. Her guy looked on. She was good with her movement and getting VERY sexy as she rubbed against my leg. We started talking. She was down from Alaska with her husband. She said she loved to flirt and "play". He liked to watch. I wasn't sure exactly what she meant by "play". How far would she go I wondered?
When things started getting too hot, I pulled away and said hi to her husband. She asked how I liked her costume? I looked at her as my light flashed on and off. She was in leather chaps with strings behind and a naked ass. She looked good. My light turned off.
Just then her husband turned her back around and said, "look at this". As my light turned on, he held her legs apart to reveal a purple frosted bush with just a hint of labia showing. This was definintely an invitation. My light turned off.
My hand moved in the dark, then quickly moved again. The light came on. Her eyes were open wide and she had a big smile on her face. Then she began laughing. The husband looked confused. I drifted away. Had I gone too far? Probably.
Anywhere else I might be accused of sexual assault (or is that battery?). Here, it was just another form of interactive art, producing a smile. And I suspect, a memory.
Speaking of E, I walked into another bar and an attractive young girl came up to me as I was taking off my jellyfish. She hugged me and introduced me to everyone. Someone fixed me a drink. She kept literally hanging on me and talking about everything. She didn't seem to want to let go. We got into a long discussion.
She was of course totally toasted on E and was waiting to mellow out to a nice "roll". I played with her perceptions challenging her with different words and logic just to explore her emotional frame of reference.
It's interesting to watch people try to think when all they can do is feel. After a while her boyfriend came back and they went to the playa to "do" the art. I'm still not sure what that meant. With my limited vision we got separated, so it was back to the street for me. An hour later in front of one of the biggest clubs I was doing the jellyfish thing again. There was a "mermaid" with a guy next to her.
She called out, "Oh jellyfish. We're both sea creatures". And she was too. A beautiful sea creature - totally naked except for blue paint from the waist down. I think she was completely shaved but it was too dark to tell for sure.
I did my dance and "captured" her. Then she started her own dance and I focused on the small of her back just above her ass as I held her tight. It felt really good. She began to moan. It was getting even better. I felt her nipples through the fabric I was wearing. I felt the light wire between us as she pushed against me. I looked at her guy. He seemed OK with this.
But in a second she pulled back saying, "I need to breathe". I did too. I took her hand and pulled it into my pack. She pulled out a gummy worm and smiled. I danced away just in time.
She was WAY too tempting and I wanted to leave her wanting more. "DAMN!", I thought. It's amazing what you can do with a silly costume and the right attitude. Well, at least at Burning Man.
A hundred yards into the darkness I changed my mind and turned around. I headed back for more. But I only went a few steps. No, it was just too complicated. Better this way. I continued on with a nice memory and a smile.
I slept well that night in spite of the noise. I slept hard - no dreams. I was tired I think. I woke up with the sun and headed out on the playa for some more photos of the Temple of Joy. I saw other things along the way. You just can't help it. The trick is to reach your destination without getting too distracted.
One was this guy in camp working on his mobile art. It was a minibike with mermaid laying face-up along it's length so that he sat across her thighs. Her arms were the handle bars, the top of her head was the headlight. This put her breasts at about the gas tank which is where his attention was focused. He was rubbing her breasts. It looked kind of kinky and I ask him what he was
doing. "The left one popped last night and I had to patch her up", he said. I reached out and felt her tit. It felt pretty real. I ask what was in it.
"Water", he answered. "It feels pretty good", I said. Just then another guy walked by and heard us. He started laughing and said, "You guys are SICK!". I laughed myself thinking how it must look. See how easy it is to get distracted?
Here's another one. On the way I saw this guy on top of a boat which was on top of a car. He was about 20 feet in the air painting a huge picture of the Man burning from last night. It was nearly complete. Had he been there all night?
I stopped and took a picture and then realize I was creating art (photo) of a guy creating art (painting) of more art (Burning) of a piece of art (Man) on top of another piece of art (boat) bolted to yet a final piece of art (car). I stopped and explained this to him. He laughed and said you can't escape it out here. But I did. I got my focus back and pushed on.
Temple of Joy, Take 2
Again into the playa. I got some good early light pictures of the Temple as I approached. When I entered, I noticed this young blond guy crying his eyes out. He was literally sobbing. His shoulders were shaking. He couldn't have been more than nineteen years old. He was very distressed to say the least. I wanted to hug him, and I don't hug many guys. Well, except at Burning Man.
Anyway, I wondered at his pain and how this structure brought it out. I looked around. There were so many others. And it was so early in the morning, normally the quietest time on the playa.
I realized thousands had made a pilgrimage here to write their pain, joy and hopes in the last few days. Strange how one man's creation could bring such focus to so much emotion. This was indeed art.
It effected people with its beauty and it's proposition. I reached in my pocket, found the matches. I threw them high into the structure. I heard the small box bounce to a stop on some piece of wood.
I thought about my wedding. I thought about my wife. Then I thought no more about either. I moved on to find more art.
As I went back to my camp, people everywhere were packing up to leave. About a third would be gone before the day was over. Their party was about celibrating fire and art. That ended as the Man's ashes cooled. Burning the Temple of Joy was more about sorrow and hope.
As I walked through the camps I realize it was more of the Road Warriors and Ravers leaving. More of the Artists and Hippies were staying. Work related? Distance? Devotion?
At camp I decided to do something different for this final day. I had a big sheet of Mylar left over and made some plastic handles out of packaging at hand. I created this big Mylar sail that I could fly in the wind by holding my arms out. It was like when I was a kid playing with the sheets when my grandmother was hanging out laundry.
By working with the wind direction just right I could also create a lot of shade. That became my gift. It was a hot morning - no clouds. I began shading people as I walked down the street.
Soon I met this black Jamaican guy from New York. He took one handle, I the other and started doing escort service. We met lots of people, got cold drinks, hugs and kisses. It was fun.
But the party was ending. People were leaving. My Jamaican friend said good-bye and moved off. My arms were tired. I went back to camp and slept.
Attack of the Road Warriors
I was awakened by someone with a bull-horn shouting, "We want vagina. We want penis", over and over.
I walked outside. Three Road Warrior cars had pulled up to the next camp over. Five guys and two girls were standing on top of their car in leather and spikes yelling the chant. Finally a guy in the camp stepped out of a rental truck and dropped his pants. They cheered and clapped.
The Road Warriors next switched to only the "We want vagina" chant. Behind the guy a girl with long dark hair walked out, pulled up her skirt and bent over at the waist. They got vagina. More cheers! Next they drove a little ways down the street and started chanting again.
This was the kind of random stuff that went on all the time, and I have to admit, the Road Warriors DO create an entertaining show. I fell back asleep with a smile on my face. Burning Man is the only place you wake up TO dream, then fall asleep to NOT dream.
Burning the Temple
At sunset I got up and had dinner. It was time to burn the Temple. I didn't wear my jellyfish. I didn't take the sun-sail. It was getting dark. I wore my desert clothes with my blinking light for safety.
There was a smaller perimeter around the Temple than there was around the Man. We were fewer. We were closer. Again I was careful to stay upwind. As I waited, I talked to everyone. I'm nosey. Each had a story. Each had a reason for being there.
A few feet away was a guy in a long white robe reading from the bible. Now, I'm sure a lot of people did NOT want to hear what he was reading, but they let him read - a testament to the tolerance of Burning Man. He had a captive audience - for a while.
Soon another guy came along the inside of the line shaking hands with people. It was David Best, the artist who designed and lead the building of the Temple. He was thanking people for bringing their pain, hopes and dreams to his temple. I said, "We should be thanking you".
"No", he responded with a smile, "This is MY turn". He moved on. I was impressed. The Burning Man force was strong in this one too. He was about to perform mass psychotherapy with his art.
The crowd was smaller than the night before but still many thousands of people. There was yelling and cheering just like the night before. Then it all changed.
You could barely hear it at first, but they had started playing some Buddhist music. Everyone got quiet. It was amazing. The crowd became perfectly silent in only seconds. It never works this well when they sing the national anthem at ball games. Here was the biggest group of non-conformist I have ever seen, perfectly conforming to a social cue. I was amazed.
It was so quiet you could hear the wind which had died down. And then you could hear the flame. The fire had started inside the Temple. The music changed. Someone began singing "Amazing Grace" over the PA system. Still there was quiet. People just watched in silenced.
With all its wooden lace, this structure had more air than the man. It burned faster and hotter. The flames also went higher than the night before even though it was a shorter structure. It was indeed a beautiful fire.
Then the fire/smoke funnels started again just like the night before. Not just one this time, but many. They would form in the flame and move slowly down wind becoming smoke. There were two or three moving around at any given time. Some made it all the way to the line of people. It was if giant ghosts were dancing on the playa saying good-by.
As the music stopped, someone release a bunch of doves which then flew circles around the fire. The structure collapsed into itself. Only then did the crowd cheer and move forward like the night before.
Again, I stayed put. It was a nice sharp line in time. My matches were gone. So was my marriage. It worked for me. This was the most beautiful experience of the entire week. THIS was worth the price of admission.
As I stood there watching it burn, a guy next to me said, "When we get back, people are going to ask us to explain what it was like out here. There's just no way to do it". He's right. Words do it no justice. But these are the best I can fine.
I walked back along the main street. I stopped at the Lost Penguin and talked for a while. I could hear the Rave camps in the distance still throbbing, but most other places had already closed down.
It was a more quiet night. I went to bed early - well, just after midnight. The fireworks and rockets continued in the distance but I slept well. I then packed up and left just before sunrise.
Burning Man isn't a party for everyone. If you hate dirty, dusty camping, it's not for you. If you hate lots of noise and music, it's not for you. If you don't like people being REAL friendly REAL fast, it's not for you.
On the other hand, if you like to watch the range of creative human expression, this is an amazing place to be. If you get involved, it's even better.
Here's a good test. If you liked the movie "Harold and Maude", you'll like Burning Man. Especially the part where Harold gives Maude his special coin and she quickly throws it into the San Francisco bay.
Harold looks at her in astonishment and ask why she did that. Her answer was simple and direct, "because I'll always know where it is".
That's how it was with the Temple of Joy. You take your grief, pain and joy, put it in a beautiful place then watch it burn. You'll always know where it is.
Later in the film when Maude's dying, Harold says, "You can't die. I love you".
She answers, "Go and love some more".
That's how it is at Burning Man. You go find some new friends.
One last warning. Your experience will differ from mine. Your mileage WILL vary. But don't let that bother you. Take it as it comes. Try to have no expectations, no requirements and you'll be rewarded.
Yes, I will go back next year. It's a little sad for me. I'll be a virgin no more. But I still expect the unexpected.
Will YOU be there?
... seeking simple answers to complex problems, and in the process, disrupting the status quo in technology, art and behavior.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
My First Burning Man 2002 - A Virgin on the Playa