Out There | Essay | Chicago Reader

Out There 

There's one rule in Burning Man's desert utopia: everybody has to play.

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Since I started working at home a few months ago, the down side of that particular American dream has hit me pretty hard: there is no such thing as time off. There are phones and computers just about anywhere I try to vacation, and that means telecommuting, baby. But last year my friends Douglas and Lisa, freelance writers living in New York, found just the place to really get their ya-yas out: Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis built annually on a dried-up prehistoric lake in the Black Rock Desert of northwestern Nevada, hundreds of miles away from E-mail access, in the shadow of a 40-foot stick man on fire.

Who goes to Burning Man? A wider demographic than you might think--there were impressive contingents of both folks over 50 and parents with young children. But it's overwhelmingly white, to be sure, and no doubt affluent by one definition or another: it's not a cheap trip to make, and the time commitment can be daunting. As for what they're looking for out there in the desert--well, I can only speak for myself, and I can't even say I was sure. No sense-enhanced sex or sense-enhancing drugs came my way, and while I wouldn't have fought either one too hard if they had, what I was looking for was fuzzier: a recharge to my wow battery; the opportunity to be delighted by human creativity, resourcefulness, and generosity; the sense of belonging to a species with a boundless capacity for amusing itself. To this end, I agreed to spend a week in the desert with Douglas, Lisa, and eight of their friends whom I'd never met in person before.

We planned our trip by E-mail of course, and in our early correspondence we'd all been sort of excited about the nickel slots at the Atlantis Casino Resort in Reno, which served as our gate in and out of alternate reality. But actually standing in the midst of the blinking, whirring sensory overload of the slots room, most of us lost what token interest we had--with what we were about to get ourselves into, who needed gambling with money? When we met the next morning for a bland hotel breakfast, Douglas's hair had gone green, green, green, and so had the bathtub in his room. He noted that we should probably leave pretty soon.

We shuffled people and gear into three rental vans. We also divided up the final shopping. Our list included more sunscreen, more water, socks, a mess kit, shade netting for our large collective shade tent, cooking gas, goggles, and a folding table, which we obtained more or less without a hitch at OfficeMax, the army surplus, and a hunting supply store. We drove about 30 miles out of town on I-80, then turned onto state route 447, a narrow two-lane road we'd follow for most of the rest of the 100 or so remaining miles. We stopped in Nixon, which is on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, so I could mail postcards, and after that Chicago was truly in the rearview mirror.

The two-lane snakes on and stretches out. Treeless, jagged mountains rise up all around us. We pass two bicyclists of a hippieish bent, with saddlebags bulging. We also pass a few people who are walking. Eventually we reach Empire, a tiny desert outpost of leaning wooden buildings. We stop at a roadside grocery for snacks, beer, medicine, and ice cream pops. What little parking lot it has is jammed with loaded beater cars, vans, Volkswagen minibuses, painted school buses, RVs, and pickup trucks. One van has "GOING HOME TO BLACK ROCK CITY" scrawled in soap on a window. Strolling through the shop are skaters, ravers, living tattoo galleries, and aging hippies.

Next is Gerlach, another tiny town, whose single road is lined with more dusty buildings placed at odd angles and entrepreneurs hawking decidedly unofficial Burning Man T-shirts. A truck parked outside one of the many bars bears a 20-foot tree made of animal skulls and bones. Past Gerlach, traffic slows to a crawl. Up ahead are yet more vehicles--more vans, more trucks, more campers, and the occasional gear-laden motorcycle, all funneling toward the same place. The rolling sage hillocks disappear abruptly, and what looks like a giant white lake expands between the mountains. What appear to be its far edges are already ringed by makeshift wooden structures, and soon a sign welcomes us to Black Rock City. We leave the road and are now driving across the playa, a gleaming expanse of hard-packed cracked clay encrusted with salty sand. Because of the amount of dust this produces, the speed limit is set at five miles per hour.

I go to the will-call booth to claim my ticket, which I reserved too late for too much money, and while I'm waiting in line the sun penetrates my skin in a way I've never experienced before. The guy at the booth welcomes me to Burning Man with a grin and hands me my stub, which says, in type as large as the name of the event, "YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH BY ATTENDING."

This sort of thing is necessitated by the sheer numbers involved. Begun in 1986 by Larry Harvey and Jerry James, who built an eight-foot Man and burned him on a San Francisco beach, Burning Man has swelled exponentially. In 1990, after the burning drew a crowd of 800, the loose organization devoted to the now annual festival decided to move it far enough away from civilization that it would require genuine effort to attend, and in 1991 the population of Black Rock City was only about 100. But by 1993 the first theme camp and art car had appeared, and Black Rock's basic layout, a semicircle around the Man, had taken shape. By 1994 an organizing committee was in place, and by 1998 attendance was up to 15,000. The Bureau of Land Management, which controls the Black Rock Desert, got progressively more nervous, and last year dramatically increased the land usage fees; an increase in ticket prices followed. This year they ranged from $95 in February to a prohibitive $250 the week of the festival. About 28,000 people have come anyway.

We drive through the gate, past countless campsites in progress, on newly signed streets--this year's theme is "The Body," and main thoroughfares, arranged in a curve around the Man, are named for parts. The cross streets, which radiate out from the center, are named for the designations of a clock. We creep past Feet Street, Anal Avenue, Sex Drive, and Brain Boulevard on the way to our designated site, at 8:15 Head Way.

When our van pulls up, Douglas is already making friends with the neighbors, the residents of ScumbyLand, a sort of basement-dope-den theme camp. By the time July's van pulls up, an hour and a half later, the sun has become brutal, but I put my faith in Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunblock Lotion and go out to watch the city build itself. I watch people going by, already naked, already on unicycles, already wearing fairy wings and two-foot platform shoes and liquid latex and body glitter. It turns out that Head Way is the inner ring of Black Rock City, the last street before the sculpture promenade--which includes a giant wood-and-fabric anus for assholes to be reborn through, giant metal faces that will weep tears of burning gasoline, and a 30-foot-tall clay phallus that will be set on fire and pushed up against a neon yoni of similar proportions--and the Man himself. We're essentially located on Broadway, Peachtree, the Sunset Strip, and the Magnificent Mile. It's lousy real estate for relaxation and sleep, but an excellent location for missing nothing.

Near dusk, a procession of men and women in white robes painted with flames walk by in silent formation, bearing on their shoulders poles hung with metal camp lanterns. One or two of them use a long hooked pole to take lanterns from the poles and hang them from the wooden lightposts along the main street. "The Lamplighters," Lisa says. It's a tradition. At this point I finally decide to let myself be as gee-whiz and wide-eyed as I want. I'm sure the old-timers can pinpoint lots of things that have changed for the worse in the 15-year history of Burning Man, but I have to be true to the experience I'm having right now--and the truth of that experience is wow.

The wow wavers a bit when one of our party, Shannon, falls ill--possibly dehydration, possibly appendicitis. Staying up all night with her, flagging drunk strangers on bicycles to carry urgent messages to the medical tent, walking her to the Porta Potti, and finally finding a piss bucket when she proves too weak for the short trek, it dawns on me that all 28,000 of us are treading none too lightly on the line between fairyland and harsh desert reality. Shannon goes to the hospital, and then she goes home. And yet still the Funk Truck goes by with its live band and feather-clad dancers; still the parade of near naked women wearing sparkly butterfly wings and completely naked men on bicycles meanders on through the blazing hot afternoons; still we coat ourselves faithfully in Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunblock Lotion (and pardon the product placement, but you must understand how miraculous it is that a Melanoma Irish like me wasn't fried to a crisp) and hike and bike faithfully to the open-air camp coffee shop, which is like the cantina scene from Star Wars 24 hours a day. And still we operate the Love Registry.

One of the key tenets of Burning Man culture is "no spectators." To just show up in your boring street clothes with your boring tent and expect to be entertained is severely frowned upon. To get good placement for your camp, and to really get to know your neighbors, and to have something to keep you busy when the gawking wears off, it's best to run a theme camp. Last year Douglas and Lisa stumbled on a psychological gold mine in the Love Registry. The way it works is beautifully simple. If you're looking to meet someone for a festival fling, you give us one adjective to describe yourself (which everyone will see) and your Black Rock City address (which everyone will not), and we assign you a number and take a Polaroid of you. Your photo is tacked to a bulletin board with hundreds of others, and then you look at the board and tell us who you might like to meet, choosing as many photos as you like. If two people happen to pick each other--if the visual and linguistic attraction is mutual--we hook you up. The match rate is not high, but then it's not in "real life" either. We spent our afternoons hassling passersby to come in and register, and sometimes a couple from a nearby camp would set up a table across the street, wielding cattle prods and loudly advertising "free electroshocks!" Our first day of running the Love Registry was punctuated by howls and yelps from lucky takers.

Several days in, after running a "business" and scrambling for things to trade with others or simply to give to them (it was my idea to take the vibrators intended as prizes for lucky registrants and run about administering massages to folks who worked hard and had stiff necks), life in Black Rock City starts to seem downright quotidian. That's the advantage of the duration of the festival, which plays on the greatest talent of our species: adaptability. The hassle generated by lack of creature comforts is more than compensated for by the rush of stimuli that distracts me from the hard dirt under my sleeping bag and the constant drone of techno pounding from a block away. I manage to get so honestly exhausted just by padding around in the sun all day and lurking among the sculptures all night that I suffer no trace of the insomnia that plagues me in Chicago.

What's a snootful of sand when you can walk a quarter mile and place bets on the Friday night dragon fights? Two separate camps have produced mechanical dragons, one small and maneuverable, the other as long as a short city block, in four wheeled sections, with a bandstand in the tail. Since both have people inside, they can't actually spar, but they can certainly menace each other, posing and snarling and breathing fire. (Once the huge one gets clear of the crowd, it can move terrifyingly fast.) Douglas and Lisa and I cut out to hang at the Foreplay Lounge, which features a miniature-golf course with balls painted like spermatozoa, to be putted through a giant papier-mache vagina, past a Today sponge, and into curved fallopian tubes toward an egg. After a long, clumsy assault that would get us code blued at the fertility clinic, we fake orgasms in exchange for drinks.

Toward the end of day three, Douglas, Aaron, Lauren, and I are waiting around outside the hair-washing booth, dutifully holding our jugs of water. Douglas and I nip into the Porta Pottis, and when we emerge, a howling wind is whipping the dust into a stinging fog and nearly knocks us off our feet while debris ripped from nearby camps swirls in the air around us. We fight our way the five or so blocks back to our camp, and find our camp mates wrapped around the six posts of our shade tent, which looks very much like it wants to go running away across the playa. Our next-door neighbors are having similar problems with their more aerodynamic domed structure, and sometimes we pitch in to help them too. We take short breaks from being sandblasted in one of the vans. Goggled and dust-masked, we are nonetheless blind and choking, our hair matted so heavily that we won't be able to clean it thoroughly until we're back in Reno, abusing yet another hotel bathroom. When I try to hold down the middle post by myself, I feel the stakes lifting out of the ground and my feet lifting into the air; the second time it happens I call Douglas over and we become a two-person post. Then, remarkably, a man appears out of the thick air to feed us from a cup of fat, salty high-quality black olives.

The weather is not on our side for the rest of the week--the last thing I expect to feel on my ass as I lay on the playa buck naked with a handful of my new best friends for a Spencer Tunick photo shoot is hail. The nights are damp and windy and frigid. The most practical garment in my wardrobe turns out to be a black vinyl minidress and a hooded black velvet cloak my mom made for me--which is also downright fashionable in a Tatooine sort of way.

But we don't bitch about the weather nearly as much as we bitch about the "spectators." For the first time this year, the Burning Man star chamber decided to increase ticket prices spectacularly for those who bought them at the gate, and to stop selling them completely after Thursday. When the weekenders start showing up, I start to understand why: For this sort of project to really work, the participants must fully commit to being participants. When those who haven't weathered the weather or held the piss bucket show up for a few easy days of gawking, class resentment sets in quickly. Black Rock City has its tensions without them--tension between the old-timers and the newbies, tension between those with the money to throw up a massive sound and light system and those who have to rely on creativity and ideas, tension between those who rent RVs and those who sleep on the ground, and so on--but nothing unites like a common enemy, and that would be the guy in the suspiciously clean clothes prowling around videotaping tits like he's never seen a pair before.

Burning Man prides itself on being a social experiment, and in many ways it is a fascinating one. But make no mistake, Black Rock City's success as a temporary autonomous zone has a lot to do with the "temporary" part. Utopias are only sustainable for longer than a week when everyone agrees on what's utopian. Like the icon that gives Burning Man its name, Black Rock City is meant to burn brightly and quickly.

So is it possible to come to an experience looking for both an escape from mundane life and a model for how to make life less mundane? I think so. The magic of Burning Man isn't so much in the spectacles--though they're pretty spectacular--as it is in the ordinary hard work involved in achieving such an extraordinary end. An ordinary (albeit delicious) tuna steak is far less ordinary when it was trucked into the desert by some weathered Oregon hippie fishermen who take sincere delight in sitting by a fire pit all day cooking it in exchange for company and sheer gratitude. It's not the symbolic catharsis of a 40-foot humanoid in flames--it's the real firsthand energy of the crowd around it. I can't remember the last time I was moved to hug a complete stranger. It happened at the burning of the Man, and I wish it happened more often--but not so often that I would come to take it for granted.

The joy of Burning Man is the disappearance of the dividing line between the entertainers and the entertained. (Not to mention the entertained and the cleanup crew. The pervasive awareness of low-impact camping principles had people constantly running across the playa chasing after feathers torn loose from boas and picking stray beanbag baubles out of cracks in the dirt, spearing them with safety pins one by one.) There are high points, for sure, but there is no single jolt of transformation. It comes gradually as you acclimate to the naturalness and rightness of nudity, dust, giant art, and random encounters. The real jolt is in how comfortable the ordinariness of the extraordinary can be--returning to Chicago was a greater culture shock than arriving in Black Rock City.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Garret Gaston.

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