The morning comes all too fast, and I awake surrounded by RVs, campers, motor homes and the occasional tent. After walking to the porta-potties to empty the pee bottle, the first item of business is coffee. I’ve got a nifty Italian coffee maker that sits on a propane stove, Cafe Verona Starbucks coffee, and powdered vanilla Coffee Mate. This is one ritual where I do not rough it. Done this way, this coffee is as good as the stuff at home.
But where is the Coffee Mate?
I look in every place it should be, but it’s not. I look again for the familiar blue and white bottle. I start to feel really sad. Just when I decided its OK, that this will be the week I learn to appreciate black coffee, the creamer appears. I had forgotten that I put it in a plain plastic refrigerator dish wrapped in a zip-lock.
I laugh at myself, and I’m happy I found the creamer. But I also feel I learned a lesson. Keep things in perspective and go with the flow. And turn lemons into lemonade whenever possible.
After enjoying a great cup of coffee, I am ready to scout out my home for the week. I leave my stuff all packed up on the wagon and bike out to the walk-in area.
Once in the vicinity, the first people I come across are the Happy Naked Couple. I ask them the pros and cons of being out here. They love it. It’s quiet at night. It’s windier here, without the protection of large motor homes and RVs, but it’s less dusty because the playa is hard packed upwind, as opposed to the all the loose dust in the city due to vehicles having churned up the sand. Then, there’s always the advantage of not needing to wear clothes.
I bike back to my stuff and realize the solution to my heavy wagon dilemma is to simply ask someone for a tow. But the cars are not allowed to be driven around, so I go out in search of one of those arty golf cart-sized things.
The first cart I see is not so arty. A middle aged woman with a friend and two kids are in it. I ask if she’s busy at the moment and she responds, “I have kids. I’m always busy.” Whoops. Not a good start. I hang out at an intersection to wait for another prospect. The next three or four people also decline my request… it seems everyone is going somewhere and can’t spare the time. Where’s this Burning Man spirit of gifting I read so much about?
I bike to Center Camp where there are various installations from the organization. There’s the Info booth and something called Mobility Support. That’s it, I have a mobility challenge. They chuckle when I make my request. They are there to assist those with handicaps, not some privileged schmuck with too much shit on his wagon. However, they suggest I go to the DMV. “The DMV?” I ask.
“The Department of Mutant Vehicles.”
Turns out that every vehicle that wants to roam the playa for joy or entertainment must be licensed by Burning Man’s DMV. They conduct both a daytime and a nighttime inspection, and it’s serious stuff. Later on, when I see dozens of people hanging off these things as they ply their way around city I understand why they need to be inspected for safety. But for now, I take their advice and head to the DMV, where vehicles are lined up waiting to be inspected.
The second mutant vehicle I hit up agrees!
I hang around while he completes his inspection and gets his tags. He has a Sardines vehicles that is a take-off on a Marines truck. Only the cabin is decked out in yellow fur. I throw my bike in the back and we head off to pick up the wagon. Twenty minutes later, we pull up to the Happy Naked Couple on the outskirts of the walk-in camp ground. They’re still naked, and they’re happy to see I made it.
I set up camp easily, driving 12″ steel stakes into the hard playa bed. Up goes the tent and also the shade canopy. I unload the food into the tent and prop up the 10 gallons of water outside. The “carry-on” bag with clothing goes inside the tent. I make sure the rain fly is taut and totally covers the the two doors and windows. I don’t expect a drop of rain, but I do expect it to rain sand at any time.
I dress conservatively this first full day at Burning Man… ripped short shorts and a bright blue Indian top that was probably made for a woman. I climb on my sparkling new Huffy and peddle into the city. I met a woman on the bus who told me she’s with a camp that provides a few hundred square feet of true damp grass and shade. Sounds like a great destination for this 100+ degree day.
But first, I bike through the city and out to the playa to see the Man. From my tent, which is just on the outskirts of the city, to the playa on the other side of the city, lie 12 blocks of encampments. But each block stretches seven miles in a curved pattern that is 270 degrees of a circle. On the open end of the circle lies the expansive playa, where the Man and dozens of other large art objects reside.
As soon as I exit the 12 city blocks into the playa I come across the shipwreck. It is a full-sized ship made of wood. You can climb upon its deck, up on its beams, down under its hold and into the captains quarters.
On the upper deck I take a picture of a young couple that epitomize Burning Man. He is in goggles and a gas mask, with a cup hanging off a laniard. She is naked, save for a thin bikini bottom and a pair of goggles up on her forehead. Their joy is evident on this bright, sunny day.
After a while, I leave the ship and bike out to the Man. This year, he is standing atop a wooden structure that is five stories high. Inside the base resides a wooden sculpture that is four stories high and is made of polished wood. No nails have been used; it is all tongue and groove.
Yet it is strong enough to support the dozens of people who are climbing on it. I marvel at both the creativity and the engineering behind the structure.
Throughout the entire city, the combination of art and technical prowess is something that will continue to impress me all week long.
The wind is starting to pick up, and dust and sand are beginning to fly about. I decide to duck into Center Camp. I walk in briskly to get out of the wind, but quickly stop in my tracks. I feel as though I have just entered the Mos Eisley Cantina, the famous intergalactic bar featured in the first Star Wars movie.
Everywhere I turn is a surreal site to behold. There are a dozen topless girls practicing gymnastics, guys spinning hula hoops, jugglers, face painting, acupressure and massage. There are people drawing, writing, painting, sculpting. There are people meditating, talking, singing and playing instruments. There is a woman on a trapeze. All of this, at the same time. Around the perimeter of all this activity are panels upon panels of art and sculpture.
Along one wall of the huge camp is a long bar selling one of the two things sold on the playa… coffee. I wait in the short line to get an iced coffee for three bucks. Later in the week, I’ll get a mocha for five, and those eight dollars will be the only money I spend all week long.
As I peruse the people and art, I come across a couple of tables surrounded by people filling out a census. I pick one up and in short order am enjoying myself as I answer its questions. Among the most memorable… “What is your current gender?” and “Do you consider yourself married?”
A guy next to me starts a conversation and we joke about some of the questions they are asking. At some point he mentions that the coffee looks good. I say it is, he should go get some. He replies that he doesn’t have any money with him. I quickly offer him the three bucks it takes and joy spreads over his face. I’ve made my first gift.
The heat and dryness permeate the camp, which is open to the sky, and on all sides as well. Soon after I make my gift, a woman comes up to me with a big block of ice in her hands. She offers to have me hold it. I do. She asks me to tell her where she should place her ice cold hands. I am sitting cross-legged on the floor, so I say on my thighs. I close my eyes and all the heat drains from my body.
Refreshed, I head back out into the mid-day sun and bike around the community. I come across a tent with a DJ playing some great tracks and join them for a dance and a rum drink. I end up hanging out there almost an hour, sucking down this terrific rum concoction, dancing and getting into conversations.
Finally, I start to head back to my camp to eat dinner and change into warmer clothes for the evening. Its near white-out conditions. Just as predicted, the winds are high and the playa sand is creating a wall of dust. I don my ski goggles and bandana and peddle slowly… I can only see about 20 feet ahead.
I pull over and look into a shaded area under a large tent where it appears that everyone is naked and getting sprayed down with suds. With no shower in two days and playa dust all over me, I count myself in.
I strip down, hang my clothes on the provided hangers and step over to the welcome area. There, a person who works this camp starts a briefing for myself and three others who just arrived. He explains the process and the important principle of boundaries. I listen, but either he missed something or I did, for when we finish the briefing and I move to the first “station”, it turns out it is me who is doing the washing!
It takes me a moment to figure it out. We begin at the end of the line, where five of us are playing human “squeegee” on a person who has just been washed and sprayed. We use our hands to wipe off the excess water. The person in the middle has 10 hands on them at once as their shower is being dried off. After a few people pass our way and receive our service, our team moves up to the next station. Here, we are rinsing the person in the middle with fresh, cool water in spray bottles. Again, five people servicing one. Next, it’s on to the soaping station, where we lather up the lucky recipient moving through the line.
Finally, after paying my dues through three stations, it’s my turn to go though the middle and receive the Human Carcass Wash. By this point, I’ve been washing others for about ten minutes or more, so the feel of all these hands upon me is no longer a shock. In fact, it feels pretty darn good!
As I dress and attempt to finally get home, I vow to come here again. It’s a perfect way to get the grit of they day off your skin. But I never do return. There are just too many other things to see and experience in this most unlikely of cities.
I get to camp just as the sun is setting and realize I never made it to the sod and shade camp. I can see that I might never make it there. I unzip the outer rain fly that has been battened down tightly against the tent. I then open the door of the tent itself and stare in amazement. Despite all these measures, the inside of the tent is coated in a half inch of sand and dust.
I sigh and sweep it up just a little, but I resign myself to mostly living in the sand, and next year, coming back with a tent made for desert storms.
I boil exactly two and a quarter cups of water and pour it into a foil pouch. After 10 minutes, dinner is served! For my first real night on the playa, it’s Tamale and Beef Stew, and amazingly, it’s downright good. I silently thank my buddy Jeff for the AlpineAire Foods recommendation. With a full belly, I try to take a nap before heading out again. But I can’t sleep. I’m tired from the long, hot day, and the short, restless sleep the night before. I briefly consider calling it a night, but then realize I have to head out, at least for a little bit. Little did I know at that moment, that even though I was really tired, I will not return until almost sunrise. I get dressed for the cooler evening and bike into town. I decide not to take the camera.
Ten minutes later, standing out in the middle of the playa, surrounded by lighted art and huge roving mutant vehicles, I kick myself for not having the camera. The sight is unfuckingbelievable. It’s the scale that blows me away, and the camera could not capture it anyway. As far as I can see, in all directions, lights and music and people are on parade. Imagine Mardi Gras and Rio’s Carnival a thousand times over.
The wind is still with us tonight, and I’m glad my bike is lit up with EL wire so it can be seen. EL wire allows anyone to be an artist. Electroluminescent Wire is flexible plastic lighted wire that is powered by a small AA battery pack. You can wrap it around your clothes or body, or attach it to most anything. EL wire seems to be the art commodity of Burning Man. I’m also wearing an LED headlamp. Both of these are absolute necessities as you bike across the open playa in the dark with thousands of others.
I bike out to the Temple of Juno, about half mile due north from the Man. It is a sight to behold. It must be five stories high and is surrounded by a courtyard. It is made from the left over wood of a toy manufacturer. After the toy parts were punched out of the wood, the remaining negative patterns is what architect David Best used to build the temple.
Years ago, Best built a small temple to honor a lost loved one. People were taken with it and it became a tradition at Burning Man ever since. Inside, people leave mementos, photos and writings commemorating those they’ve lost. It is quiet inside and people spend a lot of time sitting and contemplating. Some cry. On Sunday night, the entire thing will burn to the ground, but for now, it is a soothing recluse from the wind storms and the blasting music on the playa.
I bike another half mile and discover Burn Wall Street. It’s a cluster of four wood buildings, each four stories tall, with neon logos on their front. One building is Bank of UnAmerica. Another is Goldman Sucks. These too, will burn in a few days time. In fact, someone told me they’ll do more than burn. The plan is to have them explode with real dynamite!
I start to head back to the Esplanade, the large street that separates the city from the playa, and home to some of the largest clubs and dance tents. Everywhere is the sound of music. But for the most part, it’s not music I recognize. Rather than commercial tunes, most of the dance music is electronic house music, as it’s called. A steady, danceable rhythm being mixed live by a DJ. I stop in at one or two tents to dance a little and people watch. That’s a pastime you never tire of here at Burning Man!
Finally, I start to bike home, but after just a couple of minutes, I come across the Playa Jazz Cafe. Unbelievable! I surely didn’t expect that. I step in, and sure enough, there is a five-piece ensemble playing John Coltrane. The horn player is in a tutu. People are lounging around on bean bag chairs and pillows. The red wine is flowing. I hang here for an hour and then attempt to head home again.
As I bike the mile to my camp, I marvel again at this city that didn’t exist just a few days ago. It’s quieter now, as I get to its outskirts, and the temperature must now be down in the low 50’s. Amazing. I have no idea of the time, but I saw the moon rise earlier this evening and now it’s close to setting!
I get to within a few blocks of the walk-in area where I’m camped when I come across a small bar out on the street with about six people standing around it. I really shouldn’t do this; it must be so late. I approach slowly, but it looks so inviting. I hop off my bike and walk up to the group. Their specialty is Bloody Mary’s and I love Bloody Mary’s! Well, it is almost dawn, so why not.
An hour later, I drunkenly bike the final few blocks to my tent. When I arrive, I really need to pee, but now I don’t need to use the bottle! I can pee in the open desert. I look up at the moon and see it nearing the mountains in the west. Finally, I get to go to bed.
I wake up with the sun already high in the sky. The shade shelter worked! It protected my tent from the UVs for the first few hours of the day. I take my long pajamas off and try to go back to sleep, but no luck. My mind is already starting to relive yesterday’s experiences and think ahead to the new day. I step out of the tent and decide not to get dressed yet.
The sun is hot, but the air is still cool from the night. It feels refreshing. As I stretch broadly, a young lady shouts “Hi neighbor!”. She is about a hundred feet away and walking toward her tent. We exchange a few words about the beautiful day as she starts to walk toward me. We chat for a few minutes and I am butt naked. But, apparently, it’s no biggie. She gives me a great tip about the sandstorms. Before you leave, cover all your stuff with a sheet. When you come back, you just roll it up and dump the sand outside. Brilliant!
I take the next hour to pamper myself. I create an apple cider vinegar water solution and use a washcloth to wipe myself down. I shave and wash my hair, all from a little plastic 12″ x 8″ basin I brought. Next, lots of body cream and the sunscreen. Top it off with Visine and a blast of nasal saline. Clean again!
In the middle of this routine, a guy sails by me on a bicycle, being pulled along by a parasail in the strong wind. I snap a few pics. I listen to Thievery Corporation on my iPod speakers, put up some coffee and have granola with milk and honey… all freeze-dried, of course. Man, it’s amazing how they make this stuff. I continue to enjoy the coffee, sitting in my $15 chair, naked, gazing out at the mountains as they start to loose the warm color of the morning sun.
It’s 2pm before I head out for the afternoon. Perhaps today I will make it to the sod and shade camp.
As I bike into town I notice that today there are many more people walking around full-on naked. And then I come upon the Brand Ur Ass camp! Well, I have to watch for a while because it’s just too funny! After she “brands” you with an ink impression, you have to bare your ass to the locals hanging out at the camp to get their applause. After watching two customers, I’m corralled. Well, at least my skirt covers it.
Oh yea, did I mention the skirt?
I had red that lots of guys like to wear long skirts of lightweight material. It’s cool, and also protects you from the sun. So I went out to the thrift store and bought me a couple. But after wearing it for 15 minutes around my camp, I was done. It was still too hot. The solution was to cut it using my Leatherman knife. It was a hatchet job, leaving the skirt uneven and frayed, but it looked pretty cool, I thought. And it was just long enough to cover that brand.
I bike in the direction of the sod camp, passing no end of interesting things. But I am on a mission and I don’t stop.
Until I come upon the HoMojito bar.
I hang there for a little while, then ask them if they know where the sod camp is. Two doors down, they say. I leave my bike, and HoMojito in hand, saunter over to the sod and shade camp. Like an igloo, I need to bend down to enter the geodesic dome. It is covered with a black screen-like material, which does a great job of filtering the mid-day sun. And sure enough, there is a small field of moist grass. I lay down and breathe in the cool, humid air. What a delight. HoMojito in hand, the journey to my destination has paid off.
I hang there for a full hour, and then take off to explore the city further. Six o’clock and the approaching sunset comes fast. It’s time to bike back for dinner and a change of clothes. However, on the way, I come across Pink Mammoth, and just have to stop at this scene.
The music is loud, the bar is huge, and there are women dancing all over it. The crowd is made up of more beautiful people than I’ve seen in one place in a long time, and they’re dancing wildly to a disco beat that I’ve never heard before.
One man who is easily 65, is keeping up with a twenty-something. I have another cocktail and dance a little. Within minutes, the sun starts to set behind a desert mountain. As it starts to disappear, most people stop dancing, turn to the sun and applaud. Like me, they are not taking our beautiful environment for granted. I marvel at this amazing scene, both beautiful and exciting at the same time. I turn once more and see a nearly full moon rising over another set of mountains. Unbelievable!
I finally get back to camp about an hour after sunset. I have two full servings of Chicken Ratatouille. As I sit in my chair, eating this rather fine entree, the parasail-man-on-a-bike walks over to say hi. I tell him I’ve got some decent pix of his ride that I can give him, and he tells me to join him and his friends for breakfast the next morning. He says they grill up quite a bit of sausage, potatoes and eggs every morning for any neighbors that would like to join them.
I change into some warm clothes and head out. By now, I’ve got my system down. I gather up my fanny pack and strap the point-and-shoot camera to it, along with my water bottle and head lantern, then throw the whole thing into the bike basket.
I bike through the city and out onto the open Playa. It’s cooled down to about 80 degrees by now, but with no humidity, it feels more like 65. Again, the moon is bright and the sky is clear.
I then come upon my first burn; a large art sculpture. I’m not sure what it looked like before, but now it’s ablaze. There must be a couple of thousand people ringing it. I get off my bike and take note of where I left it.
The burn is pretty cool and I watch it and talk to people for about half an hour. I then go to find my bike, but it’s not there. I walk back and forth for 30 minutes because I refuse to believe it’s been stolen. As the search drags on, my emotions vacillate between anger and sadness. How could this happen in a place that’s supposed to be so communal? On the other hand, I read that it does happen and that you should always lock your bike. I am probably two miles from my camp, and I dread the walk home, plus the incredible inconvenience of not having the bike for all the following days.
Then, just when I resign myself to life on the playa without a bike, it appears. And it looks like it’s in the exact spot I left it. But I know I walked back and forth past this spot half a dozen times. I can’t explain it, but I am so relieved to have it, and vow to lock my pimped-up desert bike from now on.
Newly energized, I bike out to the Man once more. Last time I didn’t have a camera and now I do. I also go back to the Temple and to Burn Wall Street to take night-time pictures. All these things will be embers and dust in just a few days time.
It’s getting late, but there’s one more thing I need to do. I’ve heard about monstrous raves at Burning Man. Not one, but two. They are positioned on the outermost corners, one at 2:00 and one at 10:00. By regulation, their speakers must face out to the open, uninhabited playa. Once I get there, I understand why.
As I approach, I see what must be two thousand bicycles laying every which way on the ground. I look for a landmark that won’t move and lock my bike up next to it. I burn its location in my mind! I then approach the rave.
It is huge. The music is louder than anything I’ve heard in decades and the massive speaker assembly easily spans a hundred feet. The floor is filled with wall-to-wall people throbbing to the beat, and it’s surrounded on three sides by multi-level platforms that are also filled with dancers. The entire event is encircled by 50-foot towers that rare belching flame. It is a scene straight out of Mad Max. I climb a steel ladder that’s been strapped to one of the platforms and ascend 20 feet above the crowd. I start dancing, taking in the crowd around me and the intense music. The structure is writhing in sync with the thumping crowd.
After a while, the volume and the drinks take their toll. I am also thinking about my bike ride home. It’s close to 45 degrees by now, and I’m probably three to four miles from camp at this point. I carefully descend the ladder, unlock my bike and start the journey home. It is a clear, calm night and the nearly full moon is high in the sky. I get into the rhythm of biking on the open playa, past the Man and on toward the city streets. Just before I reach the city, I come upon a crowd standing around a little stand that has smoke rising from it. I’ve certainly seen a lot of smoke recently, but this is different. It smells great!
There, on the open playa, is the Art Dog Truck! They’ve got two big grills out in the sand and they’re grilling beef and veggie hot dogs! They even have mustard and a huge container of sour kraut. I am in heaven!
It’s just so hard to get home sometimes.
Twenty minutes later, I set out again for camp. I manage to get home without any more distractions. The inside of the tent is clean and dust-free. I get into my long PJ’s and pass out within a minute of laying down.