Another gust of wind across the “playa” obscured our vision, and for a moment we sat in a complete whiteout – alone in the muffled silence. I glanced at my companions. Friend Alan Matthew wore his glowing goggles, pink bunny-fur vest, pink bunny-fur slippers and white cowboy hat with fuzzy rabbit ears. Liliana wedged between us in a coquettish gold harem outfit with knee-high lace-up sandals and cat-eye sunglasses. I sported a Mad Max mix of platform boots, spiky goggles, ripped jeans, and shirtless in a black leather vest. Our transportation was even more odd: we were all snuggled into the soft furry embrace of the cockpit of a giant motorized furry pink bunny with tall bendable ears, and a carefully constructed 5 foot fuzzy carrot dangling just in front and out of reach of the bunny’s buck teeth.
In front of us, the pounding beat of heavy metal music was felt, then heard, and out of the haze emerged another “Art Car” like the bunny – except completely different. This one was carrying dozens of “burners” in various states of undress, chrome and black brassieres matching the stainless steel balustrade and railings. The party rode 20 feet above 8 massive black tractor tires crawling through the sand. In the distance, a DaVinci airship revealed itself floating like a mirage above the dust. To our right, a naked couple, standing 50 feet apart, stood in some sort of frozen face-off, staring at each other, motionless where they had been all along.
Then, it got weird…
As we turned toward the giant wooden temple in the middle of the wasteland, hundreds of marchers suddenly appeared. They were chanting. It seemed serious. We drove closer. The words emerged and hung above the dust dripping with irony. “Down with people! Up with bunnies! Down with people! Up with bunnies!” We had stumbled onto the “Billion Bunny March,” an organized pilgrimage to the temple by 300 or more burners all wearing bunny ears and other rabbit artifacts. The mutual discovery of their giant pink celestial sibling was met with effusive happiness – the smiling crowd swirled around the car, petting it, hugging it – but not with surprise. No one seemed mystified that a massive motorized fuzzified version of their crusade’s central figure had just materialized as if beckoned out of the dust, but nonetheless we were warmly welcomed into their expedition. The carrot, for whatever reason, received the most love, longingly and lovingly embraced with emotion by fellow travelers.
All of this happened in our very first hour exploring the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.
This is Burning Man.
Which is saying everything, and nothing. So, what is Burning Man? It is near-impossible to describe this annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. For each individual I suppose the experience is wildly different. For some it is moments of deep and intense self-reflection and deep conversations with like-minded strangers. For others it is experimentation with substances and / or strangers, leading to its infamy. For many it is a set of selfless acts of giving – there is no money on the playa so all the activities, food, drink and entertainment are free. But there is a strong sense of non-contiguous reciprocity – if someone gives you something, feeds you, or helps you with something, you must karmically do the same for someone else. All around the temporary city are places you can go to “fix” something – be it the zipper-fix-it hut for those plagued by stuck zippers on their tents or jackets, or the complex dedicated to helping those experimenting with hallucinogens to recover. On my second day, the soles started peeling from my 20 year old platform boots and within minutes fellow Dome-Sweet-Dome camp member Mark had helped me re-secure them with spray glue. Help is always to be found on the playa, but “radical self reliance” is still the motto, and the rule of the day.
I had come to Burning Man in pursuit of the same stories I've been working on the last decade - how can I expand perceptual time or "chronoception" through designing time stopping "event horizon" moments of beauty, uniqueness, physical intensity, emotional intensity, and "flow". Burning Man did not disappoint - in the 72 hours there I felt like I lived 3 months.
The basic logistics: 70,000 people coalesce on six square miles of desert in Nevada once a year and build, operate, and then tear down a massive city in less than 10 days leaving virtually no trace. Here’s another way to think of it. In any given city, at any given time, a vast majority of the population is busy with the daily tasks, is too old, too young or too busy working to be out and be social, and even on a Friday night, probably less than 2% of the population is out partying or socializing. Here on the playa, it is probably more like 90%, so the “feel” of the Burning Man celebrations, the extent of the activities, is on a scale rarely seen in such a tiny geography – like a city of 3 million where everyone heads to the same neighborhood at the same time, all in costume, all sporting neon in the dark.
It got darker and we were leaving “Dome Sweet Dome” (our camp) after a fantastically crafted dinner by camp chef Kevin and we were back in the bunny car with Alan heading out to the esplanade – the open area where all the hundreds of art installations are set up at the center of the “city.” Tens of thousands were out on bikes lit up with neon “EL-wire” and hundreds of Art Cars were roaming the flat surface, music blaring, followers following, blasts of propane torches like fireflies in the distance. To the left, a tent with a roiling furnace of burning dragon flames like lava in the ceiling with dozens of prostrated bodies absorbing the heat in the cool of the evening. A few hundred yards away, a similar installation, but with soothing music and a wavy ceiling of thousands of LED’s creating a psychedelic color wheel in the sky. Every 30 seconds we stumbled into something new and unimaginable.
It was after dusk and the bunny car was lit up now, blue LED’s causing the pink fur to glow purple, carrot bobbing left and right as we dodged bikes wandering the playa. Ahead, flames were vomiting loudly from another active art installation – 3 giant stainless steel insects resembling a mix of preying mantises and butterflies stuttering, popping and exploding to a beat. 50 feet away in a tower the “DJ’s” were controlling the flow and timing of the sparks and explosions to the rhythm as people danced. Beyond it a giant octopus belching flames into the night sky. It was an endless parade of imagery, sound, color and wonder.
We navigated through the moonscape deeper into the remote desert and the beats were getting louder. A giant Art Car called the Mayan Warrior with perhaps the loudest sound system on the playa was enrolling a massive following in its wake, lasers and lights pulling back the stars and goading the followers into ecstatic movements as it rolled into the blackness of the deep playa. Eventually it stopped and the party began in earnest, the music and lights building to a new crescendo, the bass so powerful it could be felt through our bones and skin. Naturally Alan knew the Art Car owners and so we found ourselves, with the help of Ami, climbing atop of this colossus. Shortly thereafter, perched above the thousands dancing below, watching the laser light show, directly beside the DJ. Alan offered him his water, which was gratefully accepted. Below us the party raged and writhed, inhibitions displaced by desert, costumes and substances. The vibe was self-regulating and despite the crowds, there were smiles all around. We speculated on the use of recreational substances to power the dancing, but mostly just absorbed the energy.
We left the Mayan Warriar party with a wistful (and oft repeated) feeling: so much to see, so little time. Driving in the bunny car was pure joy – everyone who saw it smiled and waved. Alan was famous in his own way and we stopped to talk with his friends and acquaintances all along the way. Pushing to the far black backside of the esplanade we stumbled into the “Sonic Runway” Art installation. With absolutely no chemical influence other than some red wine, we “tripped” down the kaleidoscopic arc welded circles into a black netherworld and back. It was invigorating. For some reason almost everyone skipped like children and we followed suit.
Eventually at 2:30 am we stumbled back into Dome Sweet Dome for some thick grilled cheese sandwiches thanks to chef Kevin, surrounded by strangers attracted to the smell and possibility of (yet another) free meal, and then collapsed into our dusty tent. The party, we heard, went until well after sunrise, but we slept through it and only with the hot rays of the sun at 9am did we finally rise just as the last thumping beats from the playa faded.
The dust. The dust was everywhere. In everything. It smelled exactly like the chalk dust from “cleaning erasers” from the pre-white-board grade school chalkboards. It wasn’t “dirty” like mud or sand. But it clung to, decorated, puffed and swaggered into every element of our existence. It created a patina on all the surfaces and faces around us and after a while we grew comfortable – even proud of it.
Camps ranged in size from a few people holding down space for a tent or RV to massive installations of hundreds who earn names for their block or district. We were a small-to-medium size outfit. Dome Sweet Dome was known for their engineering feats (full pressure working hot shower, geodesic dome kitchen with excellent food, propane powered blast torches out front) as well as not one, not two, but three art cars and several additional art vehicles. Dome Sweet Dome had the furry pink bunny, the “Hoover” Moover (in the shape of a giant Hoover vacuum) and the Tiki Bar (a small, 8 seat motorized bamboo bar with an attached stripper pole). Accouterments included 3 small one-seater art vehicles – two motorized cupcakes, and a ladybug.
Fast forward. It is the evening of our second night. We didn’t sleep much. All day riding bikes on the playa visiting various artworks including the Temple, full of thousands of memories and memorials to burn on the final day of the week (photo credit Alan Matthew)
After dinner, we headed back out – this time on the Tiki Bar. All 8 seats were accounted for, but we sequestered a pair of spots on the tiny glowing dance floor / stripper pole. We wandered the playa and the Tiki Bar was instantly recognized for what it was – a place for free libations for the masses wandering the playa. We socialized, we looked at art. Then, we got tired. We didn’t want to miss out, but we needed a nap…
Fortunately, we had a giant faux fur coat found at Goodwill the day prior along with us, and Liliana and I used it as a blanket and wrapped ourselves in it on the tiny dance floor. The Tiki bar trundled along and we noted the various art installations and stops – including the Mayan Warrior for more than an hour, but we mostly slept, wrapped in layers of polyester fibers in the dust. I imagine we made an odd site – completely asleep on a glowing, moving dance floor, but then again, what wasn’t odd?
As with the, Olympics people often ask, “what was your most memorable moment?” For me, for unexplained reasons it is simply this moment: when the caravan of the Art Cars left our camp after dark on day 2. We wended through the dusty lanes of the camps, the Tiki Bar in front of us with its 8 patrons on bar stools hanging above the swirling dust below, the Pink Bunny appearing and disappearing to our left and right, the giant Hoover car blasting beats behind us, while sucking up the dust from the road, and then, most importantly, the ladybug.
Captained by Bruce from the camp, the one person LadyBug Art car swirled around us, buzzing to and fro, lit up in neon from below and above, and in a macro of a micro, somehow embodying the movements of a ladybug. Everytime we saw this tiny micro art car appear and circle and disappear we would laugh and smile. Somehow, the absurdity of that tiny glowing vehicle became emblematic of what Burning Man experience was all about for us. To just “be” something new. Someone new. In the process of adopting a new look, language, lifestyle, movement, and pattern to potentially discover more about the what, why, and who we are. Or… maybe it was just “meaningless, harmless, indulgent fun” as my friend Tom Stat put it.
Burn Day dawned and the dust storms ruled the playa. I found, for whatever reason, that the lack of visibility and limited depth of field made everything even more intriguing. We traveled to a place called Distrikt and got a taste of the debauchery that has made Burning Man famous. Crowds of younger burners in various states of undress and intoxication dancing to an electronic beat. The frozen vodka drinks were crisp and cold in the desert heat and we stayed and swayed for a while people watching, enjoying the music.
We did some “burning mouth” deliveries of superhot chilies to various camps and installations including the teapot caravan, and then it was time for the burn itself and we were back in the bunny car and to the playa to witness an amazing sight – 50,000 people in concentric circles around the “man” – the innermost ring filled with hundreds of fire-dancers juggling, swinging and blowing fire. The next ring filled with the throngs of bikes and burners on foot watching the dancers or about facing to the 3rd ring – the giant circle of art cars pouring music into the basin of humanity. The party raged for an hour and Liliana and I climbed the “Copter” art car to watch from above. Dusk fell, then blackness and then the moment came – the man was set on fire as everyone cheered. He burned slowly and steadily and as the fire grew a series of swirling red tornadoes were thrown off the sides, spinning through the dust in a demonic dance through the crowds.
Eventually the structure collapsed and the party surged anew. We were already wistful with nostalgia not wanting it to be over, planning grand schemes for the next year, ideas of art cars, yurts, bubble tents and art installations filling our heads as we returned to camp. The next day we returned to the smoking ashes of the man and were amused by individuals roasting marshmallows, or in one case an entire goat, over the still-glowing embers. I tasted goat brain, and then climbed the still hot mechanical wheels of the burning man structure for one last look at the playa.
We packed and were able to secure a ride out of the desert with Dean and his family in an RV where upon we sat for 12 hours waiting to exit. We arrived to our hotel at 4am and checked in for the two hours we would have before heading to the airport. As we were receiving the room keys, I suddenly became self aware. Here I was, standing in the lobby of lovely resort hotel, towering above the receptionist in my 6 inch platform boots, dusty goggles around my neck, a patina of dust over my whole body and shirtless in an open leather vest. I looked at Liliana – similarly attired and we started to laugh – in 3 days we’d managed to lose sight of societal conventions of dress – what other rules were we breaking?
A couple days later back home and my apartment was filled with a layer of dust on every surface from the unpacking process. Even the stemware inside the cabinets had dust in them. Everything washable was washed twice in the machine, and everything else was vacuumed. I had a moment of bemusement when Liliana appeared laughing at me, and I suddenly became aware that I was standing naked in the living room, windows wide open for all to see, vacuuming a giant faux fur coat on the floor, electronic music pumping in the background. I looked up and said, “I miss the bunny car.”
“Me too,” she said, smiled, and turned up the music.