Saturday is spent biking around town, taking in the camps, workshops, people and art. At one point, a few of us end up going to the edge of the city at 2:00 (that’s the location, not the time) because, well, Khady wants to go to this place.
Good drinks and music, but its most interesting feature is a large poster plastered with pictures of ladies proudly displaying their breasts.
Another feature of the camp is a contraption that would have been used in the past as a guillotine. Only here at Burning Man, it’s meant to be a spanking station. Judging by Agnes’s enthusiasm, I assume Nish deserved it.
The camp is on the very edge of the city. It’s very cool to peer out into the deep playa, and of course, take pictures of us against the infinity backdrop.
Khady looks particularly chill today, so I ask her to strike a pose. She throws up her arms and proclaims the joy of being here in the desert, a huge smile on her face, knee-hi boots covered in playa dust.
Then, right around this time, SpinMeister happens along. I met Spin at a regional burn last spring, but rarely see him around DC. Bumping into him like this is truly amazing because he’s not camping with us, and there are 68,000 people here this week. At Burning Man, they call things like this synchronicity.
Eventually, we head back to camp for dinner and to change into warmer clothes for the burning of The Man.
By now, our little group has found its groove. We start out together, but as the night progresses, the group slowly dissolves as some want to go one kind of music event or scene, and others prefer another.
But just beginning the evening together is a challenge. It’s not like you can announce a particular time to leave. Most of us aren’t wearing watches and we certainly don’t have our smartphones on us. So it becomes a game of watch, wait and chill. Are we all here? No. Wait and chill. Go to the porta potty down the street. Some others arrive at the front of camp. Are we all here? No, some are at the potty. How ’bout now. No, she decided to change her dress. He forgot something in his tent. This goes on for at least 30 minutes.
And then, we’re off. We don’t bike to the Man. The experienced among us know that it’s really easy to lose your bike, out there among the many thousands. For one thing, there is no permanent frame of reference. If you park it near this art car or that, you’ll find the vehicle is no longer there when you go to look for your bike. And of course, the Man burns, so he doesn’t help much either.
We stride through the city streets,which get increasingly more crowded as we near the Esplanade. And then, we break through onto the open playa. Now, we have to contend with the thousands who decided to ride their bikes. Of course, there are no lanes. It’s an absolute web of moving human interaction.
Caveat, a frequent poster to the official Burning Man blog, describes it this way. “Burning Man is about a kind of epic confusion that is good for the soul.”
As we near the Man, we encounter a ring of mutant vehicles that surround it. They form a solid barrier, which must be at least a full mile in circumference. In fact, there are more registered art cars and mutant vehicles this year than ever before. It’s an amazing sight. So much ingenuity. So much creativity. World-class art.
As we approach the ring of vehicles, we hold hands and slow down. We want to find a spot inside the ring of vehicles, but finding a spot large enough for about 15 of us is challenging. We split into two smaller groups and sit down to claim our spots.
The burning of the Man is an amazing spectacle. Not just for the burn itself, but also for the enormous crowd, fire spinners, drummers and art cars. The Fire Conclave has created another ring that surrounds the man, inside the ring of mutant vehicles. These are experienced performers who have been selected for this event. There must be 300-500 of them. And next to each set of fire spinners are groups of drummers, each pounding out their own rhythm.
It’s an awesome scene, watching fire being spun just a feet in front of me. I am engulfed in a cacophony of sound; the beating of the drums in front of me, the electronic tump, thump of unsynchronized music pounding from dozens of art cars behind me, the laughing of my friends that surround me.
And then, without notice, a barrage of fireworks ignite around the spaceship. At first, they don’t shoot into the air. Instead, they engulf the huge ship in shower of sparks; the Man, outlined in green neon, towering above. The crowd cheers.
Soon the entire space ship and Man are on fire. We are hundreds of feet away, but the heat is incredible. A few minutes ago, it was probably 50 degrees. Now, it feels like 110.
When the Man falls into the roaring flames, hundreds of people start a spirited run around the burning monument.
It takes about 90 minutes for the massive structure to be reduced to a large mound of burning lumber. The next day, I would pass by it and a small pile of embers would still be burning, surrounded by a volunteer team which babysat it all night long, sweeping the debris into tighter and tighter circles. Eventually, there would be No Trace.
The weather has been beautiful the entire evening. Temperate and calm. Now, just as we all gather our things and start to leave, things change. As if on cue, the wind picks up ferociously. In a few moments, we are in a blinding dust storm. We don goggles and dust masks, but even still, at one point we all hunker down on our knees in a small circle to wait it out. Somehow, it seems no coincidence that the wind storm waited until the largest burn of the week had died down to a pile of small flames.
After a time, the winds become manageable again and we continue our journey. But the dust storm is still preventing us from seeing any of the lights of the city, so there is really is no way to know for sure if we’re heading toward town, or away from it and deeper into the desert.
But there is a clue. Sound.
As the winds die down, the sound of hundreds of mutant vehicles and dance tents can be heard. It is aural soup. The high frequencies don’t penetrate this far out, but the low end does. The result is a complex bass rhythm that has no rhythm. It never repeats, because its components constantly shift as art cars move about and the wind morphs the frequencies that make it to our ears.
Somehow, it is the perfect compliment to the dark weirdness of the deep playa.
But Aaron seems to know which way to go. And who’s to doubt someone with a glowing jellyfish stuck on a pole high overhead. We follow Aaron for a good while, and then someone – I think it’s me – asks if we’re close.
“Close to what,” he asks.
“Close to Pink Heart, the camp we’re heading to.”
“I have no idea.”
It turns out Aaron is heading off to meet up with other Jellyfish friends! No, that is not what we signed up for.
We all laugh hysterically, realizing the absurdity of following this jellyfish through the dark playa. We say goodbye to Aaron and reset our bearings.
Perhaps an hour later we’ve found our way to Pink Heart. It’s a camp on the Esplanade and it’s filled with really comfortable couches that face the playa. You can sit there and watch the parade of humanity go by on the Esplanade. And even though there is no glass in front of you, you feel no wind. Of course, its walls and all the furniture are pink. We all dive into a couch or sprawl out on the floor surrounding it, and appreciate the break. It’s been quite a trek.
On one wall is inscribed in large type, “Live more, fear less. Float more, steer less.” It seems amazingly appropriate at the moment. In fact, amazingly appropriate for the entire week. No, for our entire life.
I think it was during this time into the early morning on the night after the Man burned, that I got know Kara’s incredible story. That inscription on the wall really resonated with her. And me too, having gotten divorced just last year, and now living my own Life 2.0.
After an hour or two (hard to say, really), we’re feeling like a change of scene. I tell the group about the Playa Jazz Cafe, a place I discovered at last year’s Burning Man, but hadn’t yet been to this year. Most don’t feel like taking the walk to find it, so Kara and I set out to find it on our own.
Still feeling disoriented, for a while I think we might not succeed. And I think Kara must be thinking that too. It’s probably 3am and the streets are getting a bit deserted. We turn this way and that. “It’s got to be close,” I say. Kara laughs. We probably walk about 30 minutes before we turn off the Esplanade onto Rod’s Road, the only curved street in town (named for Black Rock City designer, Rod Garrett). And then, like a mirage turned real, it appears as we round a corner, the neon sign clearly proclaiming this oasis in the desert.
Just as we see the sign, we also start to hear the faint sound of honest-to-goodness live jazz. It grows louder as we approach. I can’t remember the tune, but it was a romantic, traditional piece featuring saxophone. After a night of EDM, this was truly music to my ears.
We walk inside, and the scene is just as I left it a full year ago. A couple is slow dancing, and even though it’s 3am, the dome is filled wall-to-wall with people lounging around on bean bag chairs, low couches and rugs. Some speak in hushed tones, but most listen intently to a quintet grooving as though they were in Greenwich Village.
I search carefully for a spot we might settle into. It takes a little while, but then someone gets up to leave and a space is revealed. We take off our coats, goggles and dust masks, lay down on the carpet and lean up against a few oversized pillows.
Just as we settle in, the last notes of that beautiful tune are sung and the song is over. A moment later, the band starts playing the loudest, most discordant jazz I have ever heard! I look over to Kara, who is not really a jazz aficionado, and see her quizzical look.
All I can say to her is, “Jazz can be many things.”
Kara breaks bad with her one of her defining exuberant laughs. I laugh too at the absurdity of the statement. It takes another couple of tunes before they play the kind of jazz I usually listen to. In the meantime, in true Burner style, I learn to appreciate discordant jazz.
The sun is rising by the time we decide to leave the jazz behind and begin the walk to our camp. We arrive to find others sitting around, talking about the night. I do my breakfast thing once more, finding kitchen leftovers and throwing them into a frying pan. Again, we head up to the second level with others to watch another beautiful sunrise over the eastern mountains.
A couple of hours later, it is mid-morning and I plan to lay down in the shade to get some sleep. But just then, Matt, one of the camp organizers walks over and says there is a urgent all-camp meeting in a few minutes.
News has come that a big rain storm is headed our way that might hit Monday afternoon, just as many of us would be trying to leave.
The problem with rain in this kind of desert is that it turns the fine silt that coats the playa into mud that is so thick it is impossible to drive. There are predictions for up to four hours of heavy rain. Burning Man would close down the road leading off the playa, and we could be delayed a full day or two. For those of us with flights leaving Reno on Monday or Tuesday, this could be especially tough. It could mean additional days in Reno waiting on standby for an open seat.
Funny how the default world can so quickly rear its head.
My bus back to Reno is scheduled for Monday at 4pm. I decide to try to catch the noon bus instead and beat the rain. That means doing a lot of prep during the day today. The entire camp, and the city in general, has shifted into deconstruction mode. We start to dismantle as much as possible, keeping intact those things necessary to survive here another night or two. Everyone knows the work will mostly cease when the sun sets, because tonight the Temple burns.
We work through the day, have a modest dinner made mostly of left-overs from the previous week, and gather to walk to the Temple of Whollyness.
Tonight, the group departing camp for the burn is even larger than the night before. It’s a long walk, almost double the distance as last night’s walk to the Man, but it’s enjoyable and the time passes quickly.
We walk up to the edge of the crowd and sit down. The tone is noticeably quieter than the Man burn the night before. People are speaking in low voices and although art cars are nearby, for the first time all week, their music is silent. Even the engines are off.
After a time, I notice a small flame emanating from the structure. Conversations cease. Within fifteen minutes the entire Temple is engulfed in flames. No fireworks or explosions precipitated the burn. And now, with such a massive structure aflame and the quiet crowd, you can clearly hear the crackling sound of a wood fire. But it’s not the sound of campfire. This sound is so loud it feels like you’re yards from a huge forest fire.
And then, I notice the sound of sniffles and some gentle crying. I am reminded of my loss going up in flames. I breathe in deeply, close my eyes and mediate in the moment. I am at peace with what has come before, what is now, and what is yet to come.
Kara cries. Her loss is far more recent than mine. And she tells me later that the Temple burn was gratifying and cleansing. She had not expected this at Burning Man, and she is grateful for it.
Finally, all that remains of the Temple is its black stone alter. We get up off the desert floor and begin a slow walk back to the city. Talk turns to what kind of scene we’re each in the mood for. I mention the Playa Jazz Cafe, and tonight, Mark, Gabe and Abby join Kara and me.
We walk towards Center Camp, which is a good frame of reference for the jazz club, and begin searching for it. We’re all pretty tired about now and looking forward to chilling in this space. But try as I might, I can’t find it. For some reason, the streets are darker than the night before and this doesn’t help things. We walk around in circles for a while and I finally come to the conclusion that the Playa Jazz Cafe is simply gone.
I don’t know if it was the impending storm that caused them to pack up early, or whether they normally close up on Sunday, but it sure is a disappointment. The four of us walk over to Center Camp and sit down on the carpeted floor. We see Kathy and Shawn on line for coffee and ask them to grab some for us too. We chat quietly and hang out there for a while. I’m really tired. It’s the end of an amazing week an I hardly got any sleep the night before. But it’s the last night and I don’t want it end.
Monday morning comes very quickly, especially since my goal is to be at the Burning Man Express bus stop at noon. I pack up the last of my things and say goodbye to my friends. Most of them signed up for the camp before buying air tickets and knew the breakdown schedule. But I had bought my air long before being invited to join the camp, so my flight was a day earlier than theirs. I feel bad about leaving early, especially with the impending storm, but I promise them I’ll be with the plan next year.
The bus stop is about a quarter mile away and I’ve got a bit of stuff. It’s a fraction of the load I had to cart last year, because most of it is being trucked back in the shipping container DCnW provides. However, it would still be nice to have some way to cart my stuff to the bus stop. Without even asking, Kathy volunteers to walk Lesley (who also has an early flight) and me out to the bus stop along with a little wagon for our stuff. Thank you, Kathy!
Lesley and I are able to get the noon bus on standby without a problem, and before we know it, we’re off the playa and driving down a paved road. Two hours later I’m checking into a Reno airport hotel. Minutes later I’m in my room where I fall asleep and don’t wake up for 12 hours.
It’s now Tuesday morning. I walk over to the airport terminal and see that there is a Burning Man photo and memorabilia exhibit at the airport.
I wander through the exhibit with other Burners, then finally board my flight to Washington. We take off and fly out over the desert. I look out the window and my thoughts are a cascade of memories. In my mind’s eye, I am once again on the playa, reliving an amazing week of art and dance and conversation and emotions and friends. I lean back, close my eyes, and a broad smile crosses my face.
The Man burns in 362 days.