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Go Fun Burn Man

What happens when the artistically inclined build a temporary city in the desert? You get 14 radio stations, two newspapers, and not enough water.

Michelle Gienow

By Joab Jackson | Posted 9/23/1998

Wednesday, Sept. 2: "So basically, they're fucked."

The DJ's publicly broadcast profanity is the first act of civil disobedience we experience at Burning Man 1998. In fact, it is the first sign that we have arrived at all. It's 6 p.m. and we're five miles out of Black Rock City, the name given the community set up by and for this ad hoc assemblage of artists, thrill seekers, and various unclassifiable Pagan types.

The "fucked," the DJ explains, are a couple who had bicycled the 130 miles to the Burning Man festival from Reno, Nev., carrying with them only basic on-the-road supplies. They made it OK, but the car that was to follow with their food, water, and sun block for the festival broke down. They need anything and everything, the DJ says.

The Black Rock desert is no place to hang without water--the Burning Man Web site urges festivalgoers to bring one or two gallons per person per day. And the festival site is no vacation park with a water source and a store. The thousands who come (the anticipated '98 crowd is 15,000) are expected to bring everything they need, including entertainment. At Burning Man, according to the Black Rock Gazette, the festival's daily news sheet, "survival is an option."

We pay our entry fee ($100 apiece for myself, City Paper contributing photographer Michelle Gienow, her husband Dave Israel, and CP cartoonist Tim Krieder) and enter the Black Rock realm. We are part of the evil media, the people Burning Man's organizers are always complaining about. The press, the Burning people contend, misses the point of the festival, coverage of which usually consists of reporters and photographers parachuting in, grabbing a few freak shots, and taking off. "A lot of what passes for journalistic objectivity," festival cofounder Larry Harvey says in the Burning Man press kit, "is actually professional alienation."

Perhaps. Then again, maybe there isn't a point to miss. Maybe the TV glare just lays bare the pretensions of grown adults escaping adulthood for a few days. But how could we tell? Harvey urges reporters to arrive early, "to immerse themselves in the story." This was precisely our plan.

Black Rock City is laid out in a semicircle, complete with streets and street signs. In the middle is a space that is largely unoccupied, save for the Burning Man himself--a 50-foot wooden effigy atop a U-shaped support, which will be ritualistically set ablaze at festival's end. The whole setup is wedged in a valley, with mountains reaching up on both sides.

The greeter at the gate tells us the neighborhood to the right is fairly quiet; the one to the left is a bit closer to the action. We go left, staking out a spot on Third Street and Atlantic Avenue. The cracked earth is arid and flat, with nary a plant anywhere. We're on a former lake bed, called "the Playa." And there is dust, a gritty dust that seeps into everything.

We pull in next to a camp which is behind a Ryder truck. Its occupants, Dave and Randy, welcome us to the neighborhood. We jokingly ask about the school system. "Well, we're not crazy about the local education system," Dave says. "But you will get schooled here!"

We set up our camp until it is too dark to continue, and then begin to explore. By day Black Rock City looks like some sort of refugee village, all windblown tents and scattered possessions, but at night the blemishes are hidden. There are 423 registered camps this year and scads of unregistered ones, each with a different theme. In a 1996 Wired magazine article that, for reasons I've never quite understood, is widely disliked in the Burning Man community, writer Bruce Sterling described the festival as the Internet made physical. I haven't really gotten what he meant until we walk around at night. Each of these camps is like a Web page, each with a different underlying concept or way of luring you in. (Also like the Internet, getting from one place to another proves to be a difficult, time-consuming task--we are always sidelined by one diversion or another.)

We start on the main road down the north side of Black Rock and encounter the Taj Mahal--one of the more elaborate exhibits, a towering temple of glass, illuminated so it can be seen from the entire Playa. A few feet down we walk through the Human Wash, an assemblage that resembles a car wash but is person-sized. We brush through swatches of fur, rubber balls, and paint brushes. It is quite the sensual experience--so much so that the guy watching over it won't answer any questions, but simply pushes people through and, I suppose, lets the contraption do the talking. "Is it better if I take off my shirt?" Push. "Do we go in sideways?" Push. "What's the name of this?" Push. We also stop by the Mir space-station camp and get free samples of vodka and Tang.

Literally every few yards we encounter something new. We see a guy in a red sequined dress and a woman with breasts painted as headlights. Neither seems out of place. Someone walks by pulling a wagon fitted with a homemade boombox blaring a loop of someone singing part of the song "Moving Around" over and over again. "I'm trying to put people in a trance," he says. We stop by a pavilion set up like a bar where, the barkeep tells us, everything is bartered. And he does mean everything--alcohol, drugs, sex.

"It's like if society were run by artists," Dave Israel observes. "Everything would be great for a week or so, then we'd all die from lack of food and water."

Maybe. But looking over the rugged construction of the Taj Mahal and some of the other camps, it's clear these aren't effete New York artists out here, but the more rugged San Francisco stock. These are artists who sculpt their visions with blow torches.

Thursday, Sept. 3: It's hot. The morning chill around here burns off by 9 a.m. You're left with 90-degree mornings and 100-plus afternoons. Playa heat is not like humid, in-your-face Baltimore heat. It's dry heat, which makes it seem more bearable but is perhaps more insidious because it zaps your energy. The Burning Man Web site's "Survival Guide" advises drinking at least a gallon of water a day.

That afternoon Michelle and I venture over to the Black Rock Gazette. If we're to immerse ourselves in Burning Man, to actually participate, we figure, we'll contribute the best way we know how--through journalism. Well, that's not entirely true--I just want e-mail access, and Michelle needs to recharge her camera batteries--and we figure both can be had over at the Gazette trailer, which has electricity. Publisher Stewart Mangrum, desperate for copy and sensing fresh blood, hands us assignments due that afternoon.

My job is to report on the tiki-torch controversy. Earlier in the week the Black Rock Rangers--Burning Man's cadre of security and medical volunteers--banned the use of tiki torches, which are popular on the Playa, after one camp caught fire from a tiki flame and burned down. There was a fair amount of resistance; a Tiki Liberation Front had formed and sent a proclamation to the Gazette. I am to tour the camp to get the freak-on-the-street response.

It's funny, I muse to Mangrum when I return to the trailer to file my story. Here I am, in a place where I can do virtually anything I want, reinvent myself in any way I wish, and what do I do? The same thing I do at home--write stories. So much for letting my alter ego run free.

I return home from the Gazette about 8 p.m. , utterly exhausted. Walking around in the afternoon heat just drained me, and by nightfall I am nearly comatose. I already feel a little burned out on Burning Man. Black Rock City is somewhat like a Busch Gardens--style theme park: The first day is wonderful, but the longer you stay, the more everything sours.

Cruising around that night, we pass the carnival tent, where two jugglers toss around brown balls they claim are feces, inspiring clever audience responses: "Oh shit!" "That's some good shit!" And so on. A few doors down, a photographer is shooting someone with a bowling ball on her head. We tour Bianca's Smut Shack, which is notorious from its Web site; in the flesh, it strikes me as a typical nightclub, albeit one offering toasted-cheese sandwiches, Altoids, and live soft-core sex scenes (two men straddling a woman and licking her neck in front of about 30 onlookers). I'm beginning to suspect that Burning Man's chief product is bad performance art.

I manage to avoid having my brain sucked into submission by the gigantic, cylindrical, pulsating light machine, although others are apparently not so lucky. Housed under a canopy at the city's south end, the machine resembles something out of Tron and attracts a carpet of young hippies, who stare zombie-like into its strobing center. I sit down to rest and wait for Michelle, Dave, and Tim to get bored with this spectacle.

Observing the circle of blank-faced attendees, Tim recalls a comment Stanley Kubrick made about psychedelic drugs. The trouble with hallucinogenics, Kubrick more or less said, is that people taking them can't distinguish an interesting idea from one that just seems interesting.

Friday, Sept. 4: During the wee hours, a huge RV hauling a trailer filled with sound equipment parks in our front yard. Just what we need: an all-night rave next-door.

This is not the first threat of noise. Yesterday afternoon another neighbor, camping in a black Chevy van, decided to share his budding electric-guitar skills with the whole block, via a portable amp. The mantra of Burning Man is you don't interfere with anyone else's "experience," but I was sorely tempted to interfere with his.

In the afternoon, Tim and I decide to test the barter system. No commercial booths are allowed at Burning Man (with the exception of ice sales and the festival's own coffee bar). Michelle gives us a list of sundries to fetch: a lemon, glue, some other stuff.

Whatever his talents as a cartoonist, Tim is a mite rusty as a pitchman. Not that I'm much help. Riding around on bikes, we stop at a camp dedicated to great Finks in history ("Like Barton?" Tim asks. No, like Richard Nixon and Linda Tripp), a couple of S&M camps, and the Piñata Fuckers Camp, the Web site for which brazenly promises piñata-human interaction but which actually offers piñata-to-piñata couplings. Tim's approach is to offer chapbooks of his comic strip The Pain--When Will It End? for free. That is his entire approach. Understandably most people as yet unfamiliar with his comedic talents are reluctant to part with any valuables in return. While we are tanked on the psychic joy of spreading laughter across the Playa, we don't reap much--a few stickers, an application of suntan lotion on our backs, a beer or two at a place that is giving beer away anyway.

At night we go foraging again. At one spot in Black Rock's "neighBarhood" district, Tim asks for a beer and is asked in return, "What do you have to barter?" They are short on the usuals: cigarettes, water, ice (water value-added). Tim self-effacingly replies that he has some humorous drawings in his satchel. The bartender is studying a Pain book with a sort of frownish expression when I jump in. I work at an office where I tend to overhear a lot of sales talk and, for better or worse, I've become familiar with "the hard sell."

"These aren't merely any drawings," I pipe up. "My friend here is modest. They are quite good. In fact, they are printed in a newspaper back east, and most certainly will provide you with many hours of fun."

"Well worth the price of beer," Tim adds.

Caught up in the enthusiasm of our pitch--or just wanting us to shut up--the barkeeps not only give us each a beer but provide refills. Two lessons here: Even in a communal culture, it is the capitalistic tools that garner the frothy cool ones. And in more than one society, it's the content providers who get the short end of the bartering stick--we got what we wanted, but it took a lot of work.

During the evening, we have a chili dinner at Spock Mountain Research Labs--a member of which I've been trading e-mails with for years but had never met face-to-face--and realize it's not the exhibits that make Burning Man, but the interaction, often spontaneous, of the attendees.

Spock Mountain mixes two themes--research lab and hillbilly shack. I never quite get the concept, even after listening to an audiotape tour; the members keep saying it has something to do with "beverage science and leisure technology." They all wear white lab coats emblazoned with an image of Mr. Spock's head over the three-ring biochemical-hazard symbol.

Dave has his guitar, figuring to provide entertainment as a sort of repayment for the food. After the whiskey is passed around, David Cassel (my e-mail pal) pulls out his Casio keyboard, and he and Dave start playing oldies: "Honky Tonk Women," "The Weight." Soon all 10 people or so on the Spock Mountain porch are singing so loudly, boisterously, and drunkenly that people stop to view the spectacle.

When Dave slides into a lively instrumental, a guy no one in our company knows jumps on the porch and yells, "That sounds like jigging music!" and commences to jig right there on the spot. A cadre of cross-dressers shows up and executes a line dance. Just as it looks like things are slowing down, along comes a funk wagon--a couple of guys pulling a gigantic mock ghetto blaster with speakers, two turntables, even a little disco ball. One of them mans the tables, spinning a glorious rap/funk mix. Turns out it's our neighbors, the ones with the RV--Dino Giacomazzi and Charles Raggio (he's the DJ). They spent more than a week working 16 hours a day on this device, which they call the "Party Igniter." Their plan is to roam the festival providing party music to anyone in their path. All of us--hillbillies, cross-dressers, Spock Mountaineers--shake our booties in front of the camp.

Not to get too cosmic, but it is a moment of almost unbelievable serendipity. Dave, who is getting good at coming up with ways to describe Burning Man, thinks of another: It's all the best parties you've ever been to, all 10 feet away from each other.

Saturday, Sept. 5: On an afternoon photographic mission, Michelle is issued a citation by the fashion police for wearing Tevas. I, with my T-shirt bearing the name of an international banking firm and my sideways i'll push my ford before i drive a chevy cap, am beyond the law. Anything goes here, but you must be stylish in your madness.

We stop at Body Boutique, where people can be sprayed with different colors (made from food coloring). It is run by Guido Venturini, who works as an architect the rest of the year. "It's an experiment for a new world," Venturini tells me in a thick Italian accent.

"I always was one color and I only wanted to be another," a blue-soaked Darby Crouch offers.

The sky starts to darken. A dust storm is approaching, but I really must stop by the ominous Nebulous Entity, which has been haunting everyone for an entire week. How to describe this thing? It has five wheels and a sort of twisted, knotty, trunklike base from which a tangle of white metal branches stretches 40 feet skyward. Some branches bud Ken-doll legs, or Pez dispensers. Fiber-optic lines run through the whole thing. Most of the week it has been regurgitating, quite loudly, dissonant noises or obscure pop ditties. I run into the guy who rigged the sound component, a wiry and somewhat haggard-looking young sound scientist named Aaron Wolf Baum. Inside of the mobile creation is a computer with 500 samples of commercials, jingles, TV theme songs, and other aural pop-culture flotsam. As if that isn't enough, there is a microphone people can yell into; the voices are recorded by the computer and added to the random pattern of samples and mixes.

"This is an experiment on an enormous scale," Baum says of Burning Man. "It allows artists to work on very large pieces, and make them very conceptual." The Nebulous Entity is Baum's statement on how we can get caught up in and obsessed by technology. The next day I would understand what he meant.

At 3 p.m. the dark, bilious clouds are approaching at a frighteningly fast clip, so I make my way back to camp. Our setup consists of two tents and a common "shade area," a tarp stretched from Tim's Cherokee over to an open-air tent. It works well enough until the dust storm. Dave directs us each to stand by a pole and make sure our temporary structures don't take off. As the wind and dust roar around us, the pavilion of a neighboring camp blows over and begins journeying westward.

Not everyone is concerned about the storm. At the camp in front of us, as the winds whip around her and her group's tent, a naked woman (I later find out her name is Evelyn) stands and dons a black bustier and striped knee-high stockings. As this scene unfolds, another woman approaches and asks if we know an Alan. She explains that he is her soul mate, as gleaned from a camp that is doing personals. Apparently he lives on our block. We pass around the Alan info sheet the woman obtained from the personals tent, but no bells ring.

Meanwhile the winds subside just enough for the one-chord space-rock band the next block over, which we met earlier in the festival, to start jamming. There is an endless whooping and cheering by people from all over. A mobile living room rides through, with people lounging on its zebra-striped chairs listening to Dick Dale tunes. If the apocalypse ever does strike, we humans will have a great soundtrack for it.

Sunday, Sept. 6: This afternoon I am dead. I sit beneath our tarp to cool off, too tired to move but too hot to sleep. I am sure I've suffered some kind of heat stroke but am too beat down to make it to the medical center. Finally I decide to strike out and seek water of some sort.

I amble down to the Free Mass Shower, a mud pit with a shower head. There is no showering going on, and the guy who seems to be in charge is having a discussion with three bike-riding officials from Washoe County's District Health Department. The shower guy is wearing one of those silly hard hats with two can holders and a straw. But this isn't just some funny-hat-wearing frat boy talking to R. Jeanne Rucker, the official in charge of the Washoe County posse, but a lawyer who appears to know his way around dealing with government officials.

"So you want me to shut this site down. Is that correct?" Beer-Can Mike (as Rucker calls him) asks.

"Yes."

"A lot of people will be disappointed. They are enjoying this."

The trouble, Rucker explains to me, is that the shower uses unpotable water, which could have all sorts of bacteria and thus could cause all sorts of disease, including dysentery. Festivalgoers would likely assume the water is safe, and there are no signs or warnings to the contrary. If people are aware the water isn't drinkable, there wouldn't be a problem.

"So let me get this straight," Mike says. "I let the water drain in the mud and people play in the mud, then that would be OK, but I can't have it hit people first before it hits the ground."

"That's correct."

Water has been a major issue here. The One Tree--a treelike metal sculpture that spews water and is widely used for showers--was closed earlier in the week because it recycled its supply of water, unbeknownst to the people who showered under it. One reliable source is the water truck that comes around once a day, usually in the morning. It drives up one street and down another, wetting the roads to keep the dust down. It didn't take long for people to realize that by following along behind the truck, they can get a good shower. It's even got warm water, having just come from the nearby hot springs.

Depending on which block you catch the thing in, you can find very good company indeed. But after a few days at Burning Man, nudity becomes virtually unnoticeable. I thought being in the presence of more nakedness than I'd ever seen would be odd. How would I talk to some bare-naked sweet young thing? After a few days the answer was obvious: the same way I would speak with her were she wearing clothes. Thus the sight of a bevy of unclothed, laughing, hot-spring-soaked beauties running alongside me to get doused by a water truck is one of those things I didn't really notice and probably won't remember fondly for the rest of my life.

I return to camp at about 4 p.m. The neighbor who lives alone in a pup tent and was painted red when we first saw him is home. This is rare--each morning he bolts from his tent and is not seen again. One day he came back to shave off all of his hair, but that was one of the few times we saw him.

I amble over to chat. His name is Ted Dewberry and he is encrusted in mud. He took a Greyhound bus in from his home in Minneapolis to Reno, from which he planned to bike to Gerlach, the town just outside of the festival site. Near the end of his bike trip he became exhausted and ended up hitchhiking the rest of the way. Still, he arrived nine days before the start of the festival proper. "I was here before anyone," he boasts.

A professional photographer, Dewberry learned of Burning Man from the Internet. What struck him were the images from the festival: "I never seen anything like that before. I just came knowing it would be something completely different." He rubs mud off of a bandage on the top of his head.

"How does your head feel, Ted?" someone from the next camp asks.

"Better than sex," he replies.

"I've been able to do things I've never done before," Dewberry continues. "That in itself is worth it. You don't have to worry about your reputation--what other people here are thinking.

"I just worry what it will be like when I return," he muses, "whether I'll be able to maintain this momentum in the real world."

As night falls--the final night--we feel it's come none too soon. Michelle says she can't take another day, and I can't either. My thighs are chapped, my feet are covered in blisters, and I am dehydrated and in dire need of sleep and a shower.

And, I realize, I have failed utterly in my task. There is so much I didn't have time to explore: the Temple of Atonement's Slave Auction, the Radio-Control Demolition Derby, the parade of topless lesbian bicyclists. And there is so much I did experience but don't have the space here to explain: the body boutique; the collection of oil barrels, car doors, ladders, poles, crowbars, air-vent shafts left out for anyone to drum upon. There are a thousand stories in Black Rock City and even Larry Harvey doesn't know them all. The crowd runs the gamut from teenage boys here for the endless parade of tits and drugs to serious artists redefining their worlds. And the only thing that would really bring them together would be the burning of the Man.

On Sunday night Deadheads, Pagans, Goths, Elvis imitators, the cross-dressed, and the undressed all stream down the lantern-lit aisle rambling across the desert toward the Man. Ted is there, painted white, and so is Evelyn, wearing black. Drummers drum. Two gypsies dance lustily atop a golden calf. "Burn the freak, burn the freak," one person yells. "Burn the motherfucker down," shouts another.

The Man is outfitted in purple and red neon. When the mass of people congeals, someone comes out with a torch, and runs it tantalizingly along the soon-to-be Burning Man's legs. A second person comes out and is set on fire in some sort of ritual dance.

Suddenly the Man is burning. I hear later that the flaming guy lit the Burning Man too early, accidentally brushing against the effigy's leg and igniting it; the organizers had little choice but to let him burn then and there, cutting short the ritual buildup. No matter. People are ready for fire.

As the man burns, a tremendous volley of fireworks is loosed from his figure. The desert night is illuminated with a fierce brightness.

It takes only a few more minutes for the figure to collapse into a big, burning pile of rubble. A circle forms around the remains. The Black Rock Rangers keep pushing the crowd away from the fire, but individuals break free and dance up to the flames. Everyone is packed together, flesh and sweat mingling. One woman with a man bowed before her is shouting, "I need some room, please give me some room." She takes an eye dropper and carefully squeezes a drop of something into the man's eye. "Anyone else want to be dosed?" she shouts.

A few feet away, an ambulance is ready to haul off the first of a handful of people who've overdosed. (Over the course of the week, the Washoe County Sheriff's Department reports more than 10 drug overdoses, several of which require air evacuation). A guy with a video camera stands behind two emergency medical technicians trying to revive the patients, capturing it all on tape.

Pushed by volunteers, the Nebulous Entity trucks up to the Man, turns around, and, Pied Piper--like, heads back out into the desert, taking with it a stream of followers as it spews out fragments of noise and children's songs: "I am a truck/ a great big truck!" It is truly frightening.

But the fire's primal quality keeps most people nearby. One man dances so close that his latex pants start melting. Ignoring the Rangers' attempts to stop her, Evelyn circles the fire in her bare feet, sometimes walking on hot embers.

What did all of this mean? I have no idea. I walked around the fire asking the people staring into the flames why it was so damn important to burn the Man.

"I really don't know."

"People like to destroy things."

"It's all about what burns inside you. Like the man's arm fell off, but he kept up, he kept dancing even though he was burning up inside. It's all about dealing with what burns you up."

"It's a Wiccan ceremony. The burning of the man was an offering to the gods for a successful harvest. That's what we're doing, looking for a successful harvest in this changing of seasons."

There's also a lot of talk about throwing things into the fire--burning your fear, as it were. I toss in the T-shirt I'd been wearing all day, the one with the logo of the international banking firm, the credit-card division of which I owed a considerable amount of money (and which advanced much of the cash I used for this trip). I did not feel cleansed, however. I felt cold. Not only was I still in debt, I didn't even have a shirt to wear.

Monday, Sept.7: 6 a.m. I'm leaving the Playa early to catch a flight home. The festival volunteers have their work cut out for them cleaning up the mess left behind in what would turn out to be knee-deep mush created by several days of rain. This morning, though, the sun is appearing and the week-long tribal din has finally subsided. I turn on Radio Free Burning Man. Even the DJ sounds tired and solitary, his commentary punctuated by stretches of dead air.

Burning Man '98: The best party of my entire life, yes, but anything more? What did five days of cooperation and creativity really trump over a lifetime of consumption and passivity? How, exactly, will the harvest be? I certainly will take some creativity back with me, along with the Playa dust caked on all of my belongings. But, like the dust, the influence will probably wash off fairly quickly.

But maybe, even after five days of immersion, I'm just the one who doesn't get it. That's the trouble with these kinds of gatherings: It's always hard to distinguish real significance from what only appears significant. Maybe that feelingis the point. In the final analysis, you get out of Burning Man only what you put into it. Which, of course, means everything, and nothing.

"Hope you had a good burn," the DJ says, careful not to articulate what that means, but nonetheless sounding very significant indeed.

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