So…back from vacation.
It’s weird, once you get used to writing and reading each day, even a short break can make you feel strangely disconnected. I know others out there blog from their vacations, but I literally was in the middle of nowhere…the desert that is Blackrock City, Nevada.
Yes, I was at the Burning Man Festival, 21st edition. For all those Easterners, this will mean very little, or as one friend IM’ed me:
Friend: YOU HIPPIE POTHEAD
Friend: (OK, secretly cool…)
Which kinda sums up the general reaction of those who have heard of it before. In fact, apparently most of my friends had heard of the festival through the show RENO 911, in which they go undercover and then get pulled over by the police who think they are smuggling drugs. Here is the only clip I could find.
As the clip suggests, it’s a festival of “self reliance and self expression” and yes, crazy costumes (though maybe not Lt. Dangle crazy…) But really, this doesn’t begin to describe it, and all preconceptions go out the window once you are actually there.
I was invited by my older brother, who is living in San Francisco, and went last year for the first time, and insisted that me and my twin bro go. I had seen a few photos from his trip, but it was difficult to tell what exactly this festival was about. I knew it had a “liberal”, or “hippie” as people here tend to call it, vibe and that I should be prepared for this. I’m pretty open minded, and this didn’t scare me off. So a couple of weeks ago I received a list from my brother of supplies for the trip, ranging from funky costumes to camel baks, and flew out to Oakland.
On my stopover in Dallas I was halfpaying attention to a CNN screen in front of me in the waiting area while finally reading The World Is Flat when I heard “Burning Man” mentioned. I looked up and found out that 1) yes, CNN does cover this perhaps not so alternative festival and 2) the Green Man, the wooden man sculpture to be burned on Saturday night, had prematurely been set ablaze by an arsonist. Here was the mug shot:
What? I hadn’t even reached the festival and the Man already burned? And by this dude nonetheless (although I admit that mug shot is classic). However, the anchor reported that a small, modified version of the Man would be built in time for the weekend. But apparently I missed a lunar eclipse as well as the actual Burning already.
(Incidentally, the arsonist was bailed out by his friend and at the festival on Saturday, signed autographs. Rumors persist it was an inside job (I have doubts) and a reaction against the corporate nature the festival has taken on as its popularity has increased (although in the video he released on Sunday he goes off on an Iraq tangent, which probably is more to garner sympathy than anything else). He does seem a bit, uh, not all there.)
My flight to California was led by a very interested pilot, who took us over Four Corners, Lake Powell, Grand Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon, plus a desert I can’t remember the name of. I had been to all these places in my childhood, so it was fascinating to see them from above. I snapped some cool pictures as well, and included them in my photos…
It was after arriving in the wonderful city of Oakland that I experienced many firsts, from renting my first car (being under 25 is expensive!), and visiting my first Wal-Mart (it was inevitable). Wal Mart does, in fact, have everything one would ever need, and to add to the convenience it was right next to the airport, so I could buy the brunt of supplies while waiting for my brother’s flight to land. I stocked up with everything from flashlights to Cup-of-Soup, and, since apparently my last line of defense in the desert is wet wipes, made sure to buy plenty of those. I tried to find the guns a la “Bowling for Columbine” but somewhat disappointingly there weren’t any, only a couple of paintball guns behind a counter. So I headed to checkout with my cart full of goodies, and unloaded a weeks worth of food and camping supplies.
The lady scanning my items, a heavy set black woman, stared at me quizzically,then asked, “You goin’ to that Burnin’ Man thing?”
“Aw, I knew it…someone else just came through here.”
“Oh, really?” I laughed.
“That’s in the desert right? Where is it?”
“Uh, north of Reno, I think.”
“That’s crazy…They have drugs over there?”
“Well…I guess so. I mean, that’s what I hear.” Is this my mother? or a sting operation?
Suddenly interested, pressing: “Like what? They got shrooms? ecstasy?…”
“Uh, well… think of it like the Wal-Mart of drugs. You can probably find anything.” And I left it at that.
So that was my first Wal-Mart experience, although not my last of the day. My older brother called as I left and insisted I go back and get a Wal-Mart bike, so I returned once more, and after a very animated employee brought me and a young couple to the back of the warehouse to check out the bikes, and clearly checking the spoken for girl out, and deciding my brother would not go for the pastel blue and pink girl’s bike, I was told to go the next Wal-Mart..two exits down the highway. Which basically resulted in me getting lost in Alameda for a bit, finally getting a $70 bike at the other Wal-Mart, and then fighting through rush hour to make it to Russian Hill.
We packed up and headed up to Gerlach, Nevada the next morning. Somewhere north of Sacramento, my older brother realized that he left the tickets for Burning Man at home. So…we drove all the way back, got the tickets, got stuck in traffic, and five hours after leaving that morning, were barely 100 miles out of the city. We stopped off to load up for water (2.5 gallons per day is needed to brave the desert) made it to Reno around 9, and had quick meal at Jack-In-The Box (where is an In-N-Out-Burger when you need it? Their logo is a bit scary…)
We pulled off of 80 and headed towards a two lane road, which provides the only access to Gerlach and the festival site. The locals must hate the traffic, even though I imagine it brings in a lot of revenue, as the speed signs went from 65 to 45 to 25 to 45 to 15 all within a couple of hundred yards, which just confused the shit out of me, as tired as I was. Plus they had police hidden shortly after each sign, and even after I just decided to fuck it and go 5 mph they flashed their sirens at me.
Reaching the camps at night for the first time was a bit of a surreal experience, as Burning Man is such a distinct community in itself. We made our way through a maze of people on bikes, wearing costumes and florescent lighting, and found our camp, Mystical Mysfits. We parked our van and set up our tent (another first – this is some sheltered life I’ve led) behind an RV to maximize shade (it gets really bright out early morning). As soon as we had pitched the tent, we headed out for the night, exhausted but eager to see what the playa held for us.
The first thing I noticed was just how lit up the playa is at night. Not only are people generally decking out their bikes with lights, but lasers shot out from camps, and fire roared from corners of the desert I could barely see.
We hopped into an art car, which is essentially cars pimped out to the extreme in the most creative ways possible, usually blasting music from three foot speakers and drinks aplenty inside. This particular car was a converted bus, with a bar in the back. We were checking out the landscape as we drove across the desert flat when I noticed my brother saluting someone. He was wearing some vintage army dress gear with a hat, so I suppose someone thought that was the appropriate salutation. But then I saw that he was beckoned over to the back, and next thing I know this good looking barmistress leans over the bar, wraps him up and makes out out with him for like 10 seconds. Everyone falls for a soldier. “Good costume choice,” I tell him when he rejoins us.
We got off once we reached the Deep End, where a lot of the partying takes place. The rest of the night we just wandered around, watching different performers and mingling. It was a bit overwhelming at first, and I felt as if I was crashing a party I was invited to but didn’t know anyone. But I gradually grew more comfortable, and despite being tired from the day of travelling, insisted on staying out to see the dawn break. As light crept across the sky and began to warm up the desert, I could make out the vast dimensions of the Playa, and realized how many people there were, noting scores of others still going strong. I snapped some pictures and headed off to our tent, hoping I could catch some sleep despite the sunlight that was already intense. Thankfully, exhaustion set in, and with the techno beats still reverberating across the Playa, I was lulled asleep.
Here is a picture taken by a fellow Burner of the layout of the Playa. The art sculptures, as well the Green Man, were in the center of the semi-circle, with Center Camp at the middle of the stretch of camps. So, 48,000 people in the desert, on a salt flat flanked by mountains, only to depart after a week and leave absolutely no trace whatsoever of their presence. Pretty remarkable, no matter how you look at it.
People: I must admit that true Burners are their own breed, but I found there was a suprising diversity of participants. I saw families with children, teenagers, couples, tech gurus from Silicon Valley, artists, and entertainment industry professionals from LA…I even met someone who came all the way from Maine. Heck, Wall Streeters are now attending. My camp was made up of mostly L.A. people, and it does seem that the greatest number of Burners made the trek from L.A. I was expecting the Festival to have a very “East Coast Hippie” feel to it, but in face this was not the case. The large amount of L.A. Burners and artists gave the whole scene an attitude of creativity and having fun, rather than one driven by any social agenda, or the more apathetic, drug-infused scene of Amsterdam). It was also refreshing to meet such a group (although clearly self-selective) of people for the entire week who were clearly free of pretenses, self-confident, and generally very open to those around them. Coming from the East Coast, and from Georgetown especially, this was pretty unique, and definitely added to my experience. But most of all, the people at the Festival will be some of the most interesting, outgoing people you will ever meet. And don’t worry about trying to fit in – the important thing is to remain open minded to new experiences and those surrounding you. Who knows, even that witch doctor from L.A. whose card I have may come in hand.
One New Jersey girl, upon learning I was from Greenwich, mentioned that this was in fact one of the most exclusive communities – even more than cities like my hometown – one could be a member of. She remarked, “Think about it: How many people know about this festival? Are willing to give up a week to come out here? Brave the desert? Ignore what their parents or coworkers may think of them? Get out of their own comfort zone? And to not only be here, but be a participant?” and what she said was very true. It took a pretty unique confluence of factors to be standing next to her at that moment.
Counterculture: As mentioned above, I was initally expecting more of an agenda from those around me, but I think this is ambivalent at best. It is supposed to be anticapitalistic, but really, this is only true in that it takes place in the desert and there are no outside vendors. Also, thousands of people driving across the country in RVs is not good for the environment, nor can using gallons of fuel for the various burnings. This year they tried for a more proactive stance, naming the theme The Green Man, and including in a pavilion various environmental exhibits, and obviously some theme camps stressed environmentally sound practices, but otherwise any statements were relatively muted. As the festival becomes more corporate, it will be interesting to see which direction this will go.
Here is some charts detailing the carbon footprint at Burning Man:
(click to enlarge)
Center Camp: There is only one place where cash can be used, and that is at Center Camp. A large tent with colored banners, it is the prime stop for coffee, juice and water. Couches and tables are set up inside, and during the day people congregate to grab some shade, hang out, or check out what talents have contributed to the Burning Man exprience. Here are some things I noticed wandering through:
Food samples from camps
A “Green Man” themed board game
Art: Most of the main art sculptures are in the center of the playa. Each year, 30 artists are given grants to build various structures, ranging from the Temple to a manmade Treehouse. Most of the daytime is spent wandering the Playa and checking these out. The Temple in particular was the interesting for me. Constructed entirely of elabaorately latticed wood, it is burnt on the last day, Sunday, in a more subdued ceremony. Burners place notes to lost loved one, those ill, or any cause that is burden to them, and the burning of the Temple is a symbolic release from these. Also cool was two truck rigs sculpted together, which you could climb into:
I have to say the best burn was that of the Oil Rig, which took place after the burn of the Green Man. A fog machine set up a screen of mist for 20 minutes, obscuring the entire structure. Then, fireworks began to be go off, and the Oil Rig slowly came into view, as the fog lifted and lit by the fireworks. The fireworks were the best I had ever seen, expertly orchestrated and possessing great variety. Finally, the Rig was set on fire, the leaping flames quickly outling the kerosene laced structure. All of a sudden, a tremendous explosion occurred, resulting in a gigantic fireball whose heat singed my face (I was right up front, of course, clearly not expecting this), and caused me to look away and feel whether my camera survived the heat (thankfully, it did). Here is what it looked like:
Fun stuff: Exploring the camps and the playa can lead to all sorts of amusing discoveries. Sources of entertainment ranged from a mini golf course someone set up right in the middle of the desert, to a roller skating rink, to kareoke, to a basketball court, to a makeshift bowling alley, to movie screens, to band performances, to fire juggling, to break dancing lessons,to an extreme version of dance dance revolution, in which participants’ misktakes were rewarded by a shot of fire in their face (with a flame retardant suit of course!). Not to mention the Thunderdome, which is right out of Mad Max, where Burners can fight each other in the cagelike structure. At night, some of the most reknowned DJs in the world run parties that last until morning.
Nudity: Yes, there is some, especially during the hot desert day. In fact, I would say about 40% of the women were topless at any given moment (or at least it seemed that way). And some men are too, although this is much, much rarer. While this was a bit strange at first, I was surpised at how quickly I adapted and how normal this was. First of all, the extent of nudity is typical of any beach in Europe, and since during the day time the desert is reminescent of a beach, this made it seem a lot more natural. I understand Americans are very uptight about this, but really it isn’t (and shouldn’t) be such a big deal – if any family abroad can deal with it going to a local beach, so should we in the right circumstances. In addition, it’s not like this leads to some mardi gras or grand voyeristic atmosphere – in fact everyone is very cool about it, and the reasons for going topless are more about practicality and self expression than anything else. People may be into themselves in terms of getting what they want out of the Burning Man experience, but they are not the judging kind, and are extremely comfortable in their own skin (literally and figuratively). It felt strange to give something like this a second thought, and by the third day it just became part of the festival environment itself. As one Burner pointed out, “I am surrounded by beautiful half naked women, and all I can think about is getting enough water.” But I suppose there is little to complain about when those in question are fit West Coast girls…
Gifts: Burning Man runs on a bartering economy, or at least that was what I was told prior to arriving. However, it is more about giving fellow Burners unconditional gifts, whether that be alcohol, food, or other necessities. In many ways Burning Man is like a free amusement park: people put years of effort into each festival, and rarely get anything in return, but it is always good to be able to give something back to people you meet to enhance the experience.
Dust storms: “Be prepared for these,” was the stern warning I always heard before heading out. I carried with me a face mask and googles to protect my eyes, but thankfully we missed out on the biggest storm the day before we came. We were stuck in one on Friday, with reports of 65 mph winds coming from nearby Gerlach. We happened to be in an art car at the time, and decided to stay onboard. The art car, a converted bus, had to stop, as visibility was terrible, and we closed all the windows to protect ourselves and breathe easier. However, we found that up top, on the open end of the double decker bus, others were checking out the storm and still dancing to the music blaring from the speakers. Burners would emerge from the brown mist occasionally and prop their bike against the protected side of the bus, and essentially chilled with each other until the storm let up. It was actually much better up top rather than downstairs, as the dust tended to stay low on the ground, and I didn’t even need to use my mask or goggles, despite wearing contacts.
The best reward of the dust storm was the rainbow that appeared afterwards…oh wait, make that a double rainbow, the clearest one I had ever seen:
Drug use: Yes, it is there, but surprisingly discreet. Just walking around, it I saw very little open drug use, although I suspect that it may have surrounded me. I am not counting smoking pot, since invariably I would run into this, but ecstasy, shrooms, or even heavier drugs. I was offered absinthe though. At night you sometimes felt you were four drugs short of joing the rest of the party with certain crowds, but other times it seemed very constrained. I’ll repeat this, but Burning Man really is whatever you want it to be, and if drugs aren’t your thing, not doing them certainly doesn’t subtract from the experience.
Safety: This may be one of the safest festivals you will ever attend. 40,000 people for a week and only 60 citations, 90% of which are misdemeanor citations? Although there was an injury last year when someone got stabbed at the “Comfort and Joy” theme camp (oh, the irony!) and there was a death for the first time this year, as someone tragically hanged himself.
Telling Experience: We forgot to run the car each day, and wore out the battery evey time we retrieved our stuff. This was a rental car, so we were really concerned, and needed help starting it. At once we had a fellow Burner bring an extra 12V battery over, which of course he charged via solar power. However, it wasn’t starting the car, which made us even more anxious, as even the lights weren’t reacting. However, one Burner brought over a battery meter, told us we had a ridiculously low battery level of 3.2 V, and instructed us after bringing a car over to run the other car for five minutes to charge the battery up, then keep our foot on the acceleration for a good half hr. He came back later and the car was as good as new. He apologized he couldn’t be of help earlier since he was high (or on something). We thanked him and made sure he parted with some gifts. So there you have it, Burning Man virgins and your typical seasoned Burner rolled into one.
Parting the Playa: We headed out before the Temple burning, knowing traffic would be high and exhausted a bit with all Burning Man had to offer. There was only one line to leave and get on the two lane highway towards Reno, so it took a good three hours just to make out way out of the Playa. However, my bro and I tested out the desert flat for frisbee, and soon a bunch of people (although less than I expected – where are hippies when I need them?) joined us. When we joined my older brother back in the car, people got out of their cars and passed around leftover food to much on, Tequila shots (drivers excluded, of course) and some Swedish girl even passed out small bottles of Schnapps liquor. As we finally turned on the main road, I stared behind me, sad I was leaving but already feeling that it wouldn’t be too long before I was back.
For those of you who want a mardi gras carnival atmosphere without the frat party lewdness, the best club music on the desert, a Halloween with no costume restraints, art you didn’t think was possible, people from all walks of life, cirque de soleil caliber performances, and the best fireworks/fire shows experts have to offer, this just may be your thing. And maybe I’ll see you there, and ask, “How’s your Burn?”