Master and Servant
At 10 o'clock on the morning on August 27, 2007 I finally put all my plans in motion and drove Northwest out of Phoenix, Arizona toward the great unknown. I headed toward the Burning Man festival in northern Nevada. Something that I have been trying to do for years, but have never gotten around to it. Things always pop up, or money is tight, or life is just to busy. Despite large amounts of research and speaking with others that had been to Burning Man in the past, I really didn't know what to expect. I knew it would be a long journey and for that I am grateful. If there is one thing that life has taught me, it is good to get away. We see the world with new eyes when we have a different perspective. I need a change of perspective. It has been a long time since I had one.
As with most vacations of this sort (a long drive to a destination), the start of this one is frustrating. Each time I leave the city I find that it has gotten bigger and it takes longer and longer to finally reach its edge and escape. This time is no different. Traffic light after traffic light and endless construction zones made my escape slow and nerve wracking.
By the time I hit the open road about 100 miles from Phoenix I started to relax. I have my iPod with 10 days worth of music on it. I have a cassette recorder that I use to keep a narrative journal of what happens along the way. What follows are the recollections of my trip into the unknown.
I think that the American psyche could not exist without the West. The broad, sweeping expanse of land that is open and unpopulated. Deep down in our minds we have to know it is out there somewhere. A place where everything is new, untamed, uninhabited. I place where you can run away and get lost. Although most of us would never take the risk, we like to know that there is the possibility. This is the route that I am taking on my journey. It is the highway that runs from Las Vegas to Reno, Nevada. Here the landscapes are painted with a broad brush, with horizons that sweep toward the infinite. The West where my mind becomes and ocean, vast and deep and I drift along a ribbon of asphalt with little worry or care. How many times have I traveled this road before? The last I can recall was my trip to the Redwood forest almost a decade ago. When I finally managed to reach the hidden tall trees grove.
This road is endless. I suppose it could lead to any number of possibilities. In essence, it is the most important of things. It is what makes the journey possible. It is endless and it is long. It is journeys such as this that remind me that life is grandiose, it has sweeping vistas and is full of unforeseen things. It isn't predictable. There is no set path, we simply have to seek out a destination and go toward it. During my life, whenever I have felt stressed, over-burdened or depressed, I have sought out a nearby mountain and climbed it. By the time I reach the summit I can look down and all of the problems that chased me up that hill seemed insignificant. That is what this journey is, that is what this road is. The entire trek is a mountain top and as I travel I look out on the vastness of this earth and the infinite possibilities of the universe and see just how small everything really is. Life is to be taken in its entirety and we are not meant to dwell on the little things that burden us.
As I travel through Mina, Nevada ,which is about 150 miles south of Reno, I have noticed the first signs of the 'Burners'. Various vehicles, almost all with bicycles on them, crammed full of camping gear headed in the same direction that I am. While passing through Mina, there was a sign in front of the gas station stating "Welcome Burners". I expect to see more tell-tale signs the closer I get to Black Rock City.
It is 6 o'clock in the evening on August 28th and I have joined the long procession of cars headed toward Burning Man. I am about 40 miles south of Gerlach, Nevada and I will not arrive at Black Rock City (the actual name of the temporary city where Burning Man occurs) for about another hour. But even in this desolate portion of Nevada where the scenery is stark and beautiful, there is a long line of cars inching along the road at 60mph, all headed toward the same destination.
It is 7:30pm and I have reached Burning Man (sort of). The long line of cars is snaking toward the entrance at a pace of between 2 and 14 miles per hour. I expect to be here for at least another hour and this really isn't unexpected with this many people in this remote a location. So I am not in a hurry. The sun has set behind the mountains and dusk has fallen. There is an eerie look to this place. Remote, flat, barren, and there is a cloud of dust that almost looks like a fog over the distant dry lake bed. No doubt kicked up by thousands of bicycles and cars as they roam across the Playa.
It is interesting social behavior that every time this line of cars stops, people eventually get out of their vehicles and try and look down the road to figure out why they aren't moving. They are all anxious and impatient. It is a beautiful sight to behold, so many people from so many places gathering in the middle of nowhere. Primordial in a way. Like flocking geese or a herd of buffalo. While waiting in line to enter Black Rock City, the fading sunlight has created a purplish haze on the horizon and a full moon has risen over the mountains to the east. A gorgeous spectacle, like a large white marble in a purple ocean.
I have no idea what time it is but I have arrived. I set up my tent, which is a homey little place because I plan on being here for at least 5 days. I have my water, I have my box of wine, I have my snacks, got my lantern set up, got my bed, a cute little folding papa-san chair, so I am pretty cozy. I arrived at about 8:30pm and picked an arbitrary spot on the perimeter of Black Rock City to setup my camp . The first thing I did after setting everything up was to take a walk. I strolled to the center of the Playa where the Burning Man is erected and from there I just wandered around for a while to try and get the lay of the land and figure out exactly what this place was like. Suffice to say, it is not really describable. I think the best way to describe it is to imagine a really big state fair on LSD. I keep reminding myself that this is the first day of the event and the whole city is probably a third full. There are already so many art installations, so many people and so many things going on that it is a bit of sensory overload.
I am in the process of making myself some macaroni and cheese and then I will knock off early. The noise and the bustle of the camp will continue well into the morning hours since people will continue to file into Black Rock City all through the night. I will start out fresh tomorrow and begin exploring the Burning Man experience in-depth. I am already certain that there is no way that I will be able to see everything.
It is 9 o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, and I think this is the 30th of September. I am making a pot of percolated coffee in my tent. It is partly cloudy and about 80 degrees outside. I spent most of last night, between 8pm and 1am in the morning, riding my bike around the far reaches of the Playa. I checked out the art and the people and I was pretty overwhelmed by the whole thing. There are definitely two distinct times at Burning Man. During the day it can get rather hot and windy and there is a lot of socializing and folks walking around, lining up to get ice, drinking, relaxing. But when the sun goes down, everything changes. It is cooler, the sky is a huge canopy of stars and everything lights up. There is an abundance of propane fire, neon glow sticks, blinking LEDs and glow wire. Everything becomes outlined in light. It is as though everyone and everything is their own personal Las Vegas. All across the Playa there is never-ending techno music that adds a surreal backdrop of sound to this world. On the Playa, you can ride or walk forever and see nothing but ghostly figures outlined in neon colors roaming between the art installations which vary from simple and beautiful to the outrageous and divine. When I returned at 1am it was getting a bit cool and I was getting pretty tired but there was no let down in the activity on the Playa until dawn.
I think it is safe to say that there are no Republicans here. This is a liberal community that takes that definition to the extreme. I often times refer to the tunnel vision that most of us have living in the compressed society of the city. Society trains us to do the things we are told to do and told to want. We go to work on time, commute long distances, watch a certain television show, own a certain car, dress a certain way, go to certain trendy spots like nightclubs and restaurants. We are on auto-pilot most of the time. Burning Man is the opposite of that. This is where people set their own coarse and don't believe or do what other people say. This is not a negative place. No one says Burning Man sucks, or I don't want to be here. Everybody here is curious, uninhibited and they have made great sacrifices and taken great strides to come here. And they are still coming. The long line of never ending cars is still snaking into Black Rock City, day and night with their headlights stretching toward the horizon. Here, people act upon their world in a positive way. Respecting other's beliefs and / or abilities to do what ever they please.
The population of Black Rock City appears to be an interesting cross section of every type of person. While most of the people can be considered 'hippies' many of them are middle aged and I have seen 'burners' who appear to be in their 50s, 60s and 70s. There are infirm people in wheelchairs or using canes. I have seen a lot of cross dressing trans-gendered people. Young men dressed in feather boas, platform shoes, sequins and pink tops. I assume they are gay, but who cares? It appears that the standard for most women at Burning Man is to dress like a 'Space Hooker'. Many look like prostitutes from the year 2500. They wear platform boots, furry ankle warmers, garters, very small hot-pants, and they are often times topless with outrageous head gear and lots of neon.
Surprisingly, the only people that are totally nude are some of the men who I see walking around with nothing on but a pair of sneakers. But the overriding issue, is that no one really cares and no one really notices. You just do what you want to do here as long as you are not personally offending someone else, and by that I mean punching them in the face or stealing their car. Any life style is acceptable. I don't think George Bush would understand this place.
As I sit here in my tent during the mid-morning sun, it dawns on me that I have to slow down. I am faced with the challenge of just sitting here in my tent, because I know full well that to go and run around on the Playa in the 11am sun will simply get me tired and sweaty and I will end up coming back here and crashing for a while. There are other things I want to do this afternoon that I am waiting for. Hopefully some wind will come up so that I can fly some kites. But in the mean time, I have learned that I just have to sit here and enjoy the fact that I don't have any phones to answer, no office to go to, no screaming television to watch, no helicopters overhead, there is nothing but time. I am re-learning to be at peace with myself which is extremely hard to do anymore, especially living in the polluted and crowded city. So I am just sitting here, reading a book, watching people go by, sipping water. These are my only cares, I have no other worries right now. That other life I have back in the real world seems incredibly far away.
It is Wednesday afternoon and the time is about 2:45pm. I have just returned from about 2 or 3 hours on the far Playa. I was flying some kites and it was a bit tricky, since the wind here is somewhat variable, both in direction and intensity. I spent about a third of my time waiting for the wind to come up to a level where it would keep the kite in the air. I finally managed to fly the kites for about an hour and a half. I had the small quad-line para-foil up and flying which was the easiest one to launch. I could land it, take a drink of water and then launch it again. I also had the small delta wing kite that I have had forever up and flying for a while. I finally had to call it a day, because I was running out of backpack water and the sun was really starting to beat down on me. While traversing the 2 miles back to my tent I realized that the Playa is not a static display. Things are constantly changing. As I was riding back I continually came upon new artwork that hadn't been there the day before. People are continuing to arrive and continuing to set up installations or modifying the current ones. I assume the goal is to have them all installed by Friday which is the official start of the Burning Man weekend, everything is on display Saturday and then they burn the man on Saturday night. But every time I am out on the Playa, I see something new and have to remind myself to return and try and take a picture. Also, the fact that anything that you see installed on the Playa during the daytime will most likely look totally different at night. Almost everything that is put up here lights up at night to make it look more interesting. As for now, I am going to take a break and cool down a bit in the tent and then head over to Center Camp and buy some more ice.
I am amazed that this cassette recorder is still working. I don't recall the last entry I made but this is Saturday. The past two days have been intermittent beautiful weather with the occasional blinding white-out dust storm, three of them to be exact. Last night I slept inside the van because the inside of my tent is basically a large sandbox. I am waiting for the Burning of the Man. Once the Man burns, I am out of here. In certain ways I can't wait to leave and in some ways I will miss this place more than I can imagine. For the last 12 hours, I have spent most of the time sitting in front of my tent just thinking, life, death, parents, wife, work, the future, just thinking. Surprisingly, something I almost never do in Phoenix, I just don't have the time.
I strongly recommend that the Burning Man experience be on every one's to-do list in life. It is something you have to experience and I will be perplexed on how to explain this to people once it is all over. I can rattle off some names; Christy, Mark, Charlie, Breezy, Ed, Neal, Bev, these were all my neighbors. People that by random chance happened to camp next to me. I met them all, I talked to them all. We shared stories together, they gave me food, I gave them wine and ice, they game me homemade apple juice. And we talked, through blinding sandstorms, insufferable heat and starry nights because we all wanted to be here. We all wanted to take the chance. We all wanted to see if we could make it. Some of them have already left, I will leave before some of the others. We will all go back to the regular world. That plain place, the beige world.
Here you can suffer, but nobody really seems to care. There are hardships, but that is true of life in general. At first I hated the dust, I couldn't stand it. Now it is just another part of life. I am coated with it. The other day I was on the Playa flying the quad-line para-foil kite. A dust storm came up from behind and hit me in the back like a fist. I crashed the kit, crouched down, put on my face mask and goggles (requirements in Black Rock City) and waited. I waited for 45 minutes in the middle of a desert for the dust storm to dissipate. I couldn't see more than 10 feet in any direction. It was like praying in the church of the howling wind. It was a hardship, but it was also a new adventure. I knew it would subside, I would recover the kit and come back to Mark and Christy and Neal and all the rest, have a glass of wine, wash myself off with a wet handkerchief and the next day would come with new hardships and adventures.
This is the life that our forefathers knew, this is the life that they talk about in old movies and books. Before the organized rigidity of the city took hold. This is a taste of the covered wagons and riding across the plains, the 45 day trek from Colorado City to San Francisco. They are hardships, but there are rewards at the end.
After all this comes the long journey back home. A journey that will be marked with McDonald's, and Denny's and clean hotel rooms and hot showers with clean towels. Part of me longs for that more than you can imagine, part of me dreads it. Do you want to know what Burning Man is? Burning Man is just life. It is going to the extreme. It is going to the edge and finding out that the edge can be very interesting and different place. But unfortunately, we can't live on the edge forever, we have to return to normalcy. God, I am starting to hate that word.
To view the complete collection of photographs taken at Burning Man that I have posted on Flickr click here.
To visit the Burning Man Website, click on the Blog Title or click here.