Burning Man: Mission Aborted

30 August 2011, from Writings

At 7am, Noah & Tiare & I arrive on the playa, the conclusion of an epic all-day/all-night drive filled with stories swapped of circuses and protopunk and the theory of cattle guards. Dead-tired, crazy with the tedium of the start-stop incoming traffic to Burning Man, we are already breathing dust at six in the morning as we watch the sunrise from the insanely long line of vehicles creeping into the city.

I feel like I should be excited to be here, even jubilant with the week’s possibilities, but instead I am tired and grumpy, and a bit uneasy.

Thinking this is just a reaction to the 18 hours of driving from Portland, I get quickly to bed, and obtain a fairly relaxing four hours of sleep. Once awake and caffeinated, I take an exploratory ride out along Esplanade, the inner ring road that separates the camps – the residential quarters, if you like – from the central plaza which contains the Man to be burned, the Temple, and a large number of assorted art installations. Quickly I discover the need for my dust mask and goggles: even in the mild breeze, the bicycles and art cars kick up more grit than the average Eastern European city.

Monday at Burning Man is, apparently, the day of setting up. In theory, all these theme camps should be set up by midnight on Sunday; in practice, many camps are still configuring themselves (and were even by Tuesday morning). The air is filled with the sounds of power drills and saws, and ample opportunities to help out: I volunteer to hold down the end of a large mobile made of PVC tubing. The artists, a man and a woman who are clearly not seeing eye-to-eye, are trying to erect this mass of plastic piping in the wind amidst arguments and better ideas. I provide some feeble help, then excuse myself to explore further.

As I meander along the streets, I think of how I explore cities when I travel: there, too, I meander, sometimes with a plan, sometimes simply a haphazard wandering down streets that look inviting. Like a permanent city, Black Rock City has rows of residential housing (generally RVs and tents), spotted with occasional public spaces. Because Burning Man is ostensibly non-commercial, there can be no sales, whether of products, services, drinks, or food. Instead, there is a gift economy, and the trade of that economy is, fundamentally, experiences. A fair number of those experiences involve alcohol: like other cities with a strong pedestrian culture, this city has several bars per city block. Indeed, alcohol seems to be not only the common currency of this city, but its lingua franca.

Beyond the shared experience of sitting at a bar, possibly naked, with one’s fellow Black Rock citizens, the other major business in Black Rock City is music. Music is everywhere. Mostly prerecorded (although some theme camps specialize in live music), its sound waves thrum out of huge speaker systems across the playa, powered by rumbling diesel generators. Unlike traditional cities, where the clubs are isolated by their enclosing walls, the sounds here easily escape their mostly conceptual boundaries, and merge and pair with the similarly-large sound system down the street. Hendrix’s long-gone spirit collides with a medley of 1970s disco, is strewn with the escalating measures of a dubstep piece, is drowned out by a passing art car playing a weird hiphop-bluegrass mix. It is a constant hubbub, not unmusical, but super-musical. I believe there is a fear of silence here.

But all is not so chaotic. Tired of the din and the constant circling of the bicyclists in the center, I ride out to the edge of the city. (The city is a series of concentric circles, the innermost being Esplanade, and each following circle being alphabetically named, starting with ‘A’. The streets that act as spokes of the city are numeric, according to a clock’s hands. I live at 7:00 & Esplanade – pretty much in the middle of it all.) Things are calm at 6:00 and Hajj. There are no overt theme camps here, no massive sound systems. RVs and tents are scattered, a decent and polite spacing between them. A local resident I talk to says that out here, people ask their neighbors whether they plan to be loud, and site themselves according. Here at the perimeter, all the canopies and chairs face inward, as if bowing towards a dusty, laser-lit Mecca.

My initial worry in attending Burning Man was the heat, of which I have little tolerance in the best of situations. This, surprisingly, has turned out to be the least of my concerns: my all-white costume of Indian kurta (a long tunic) and pajama pants, plus a very wide brimmed hat, shelter me well from the blistering sun, and become something commented on by various folks I met. I am now a big fan of the kurta in hot weather, so don’t be surprised if I show up your city dressed in one.

The dust is another thing entirely. This is no ordinary dust, some occasional thing that appears in the discovery of a long-unmoved piece of furniture. No, this is serious stuff: we’re on the bed of a long-expired lake. The ground here is the bed of the forgotten sea, interminable layers of detritus and prehistoric fish shit. With the arriving of thousands of vehicles and tens of thousands of bicycles and human feet, the lakebed disintegrates into a fine alkaline powder that alights on everyone and everything. It even seems to escape the bounds of gravity: the dust has somehow gathered in the uppermost corners of window frames on my housetruck.

I was warned about the dust, and so my shoulder bag holds a decent dust mask, as well as goggles. Even with a short ride or walk, I find the dust mask essential, and often the goggles. And so here I am with my costume: completely covered with kurta and pajamas, a huge straw hat atop my head, which is itself wrapped by the uncomfortable straps of the yellow-tinted goggles and the blue dust mask. I am an anonymous, masked man here on the playa, not by choice but by environment.

Even with the mask and goggles, the dust enters my nose, my mouth, my lungs, and in short order I’m wheezing, breathing shallow, and wishing I’d brought more than a few huffs on my inhaler. The lack of air makes me grumpy, doubting, contrary. This is only the first day. How am I to survive this for a week?

It’s hot, the peak of the late August desert sun, and I decide to go back to bed, to avoid the late-afternoon sun and make up the lost hours of the long drive here. Dustfish, the camp where I’m living, has a huge set of speakers playing classic rock throughout the afternoon. I drift in and out of sleep, comfortable in my housetruck bed, but regularly woken by a shift in the music or a passing art car or someone smoking a cigarette outside my window.

The sun is nearing the horizon when I awake. I don’t feel any better. I’ve realized that my life for the next week, if I am to survive it, will mean a short time awake in the morning, a long rest, and some semblance of nightlife – about which I’m not feeling very positive.

Noah is back in the compound, and I discuss things with him. He’s also having some troubles adapting to the environment, both physically and socially. Yet he’s in it for the long haul, being the circus ringmaster, and can’t easily consider abandoning ship.

But I’m feeling differently. I am feeling a major sense of disconnection, of being ‘done’ with the event, of wanting to leave the City. It’s confusing, disappointing, frustrating, even scary. It seems a waste: so much time and energy and money put into preparation for what I thought would be an interesting and inspirational experience. But I think back to other moments in my life, other moments where I found myself on the wrong path, and it feels the same: I must move on. I must act.

I give myself the evening to consider, and to explore. After a quick dinner, I again don my dust mask & goggles, and cycle out to the central plaza. It’s just past sunset, and the surrounding mountains are just barely visible, black against the purple evening sky. Thousands of burners, all atop bicycles, are riding the playa. Some are strongly lit with electroluminescent glow, some with simple LEDs. Art cars dart against the darkness: a lighted outline of a chair glides along the desert floor, while a desert ship glides by. An illuminated waterfall cascades its light from the sky to the dust. The massive Trojan horse sits motionless, its joints lit by red neon, waiting for Friday night’s push across the playa to the Battle of the Marching Bands, followed by a certainly intense performance by Wanderlust Circus, whose ringmaster hooked a ride with me.

I reach the Man, neon-lit and high atop his platform, who will be burned on Saturday night, and think: how small he looks, yet how large the crowds will be as he is engulfed in flames. I continue to the Temple, the colossal structure erected to hold the memories of those who have passed on or could not be here, and which will be burned to the ground on Sunday night. I inscribe a small note on the wall to/for my friend Patti, recently departed from this world, who has been my guide and muse on this and other journeys. I climb the arched steps to the second story, and look down across the playa and across to the city. There is so much light – lasers scan across the sky, neon outlines far-away stages, and tiny bicycle lights flit like fireflies across the landscape.

I look out at all this, this bizarre illuminated no-man’s land, this temporary city of fifty thousand people and a million possibilities, and feel completely and utterly overwhelmed. It is all so amazing, but there is so damn much of it. I wished for a piece of candy, but instead received the entire candy shop.

When things are named, they lose their power. And when all things are magic, they lose their charm. I see that here on the playa: theme camps, art cars, fire, lasers, neon and electroluminescent lights, kinetic installations. For me, those things are special, rare, hard to find; here, they are everywhere, which means they are comparable, judgeable, even ignorable.

With so much incredible creative energy vibrating across the desert, I tune out and can’t even appreciate the small parts. I think back to other experiences where I’ve discovered interesting places or projects, and it’s always been just a few special things in a world of normal things: an art gallery in an abandoned subway tunnel in Berlin; the small wave of a young girl at the far end of the street in Kyoto; the bemused smile of a train conductor on the ascent into Transylvania. These small, short experiences, set against a larger and longer backdrop of the everyday, are, to me, the true magic. I think I like it better that way. The enormity here at Black Rock City reminds me of an enormous film festival, and the feeling of complete psychological crush of all the possibilities: in fact, I opened the page of the Burning Man events guide and had to throw it down in utter frustration.

Perhaps we need a boundary between the mundane and the magical. When the ritual becomes regular, when the secret is constantly spoken, sacred space becomes the common ground. Heaven rises, again, to be just barely reachable, only on the most special of days.

I ride back to my housetruck, dejected, depressed, coughing, short of breath. My campmates are still preparing for going out tonight, to experience the seductions of the many experiences of Black Rock City. It is the last thing I can imagine doing. Instead, I lean my bike, now dusty and creaky and nearly ruined, against the housetruck, and go inside. I put earplugs in against the music growing ever more loud in the darkening night, and go to sleep.

The next morning, I feel no different. Or rather, I feel even more sure of the fact of my leaving.

And so I find myself, just a day after I arrive, aborting the burn, abandoning the circus with whom I was so excited to camp.

I have a slow morning of coffee and reading, then get the housetruck shipshape. I drive out along the 7:00 road, slowly snaking through guy wires and tent stakes, and the masses of bicyclists out circling the center this Tuesday morning. It’s hot now, and the dust has come up. Everyone wears sunglasses or bandanas, and a mask or bandana covers their face. Some people give a thumbs-up to the housetruck in passing; others, when I’m stopped at a city intersection waiting for the traffic to calm, ask a brief question. One guy on a bicycle hitches a ride for a while, holding on to the back of my housetruck while he scoots along the desert floor.

The dust continues to build, swirled up with the wind, and soon I’m in a total whiteout, impossible to see more than twenty feet ahead of me. BRC volunteers magically appear along the way and guide me through the exit lanes, now nearly invisible in the murky brown-gray cloud of airborne prehistoric fish shit.

Near the junction with Highway 447, I glance through my rear view mirror back at what I know was Burning Man, but see only the sea smoke of an imaginary city.