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Tribal Fires: Tales from Burning Man

Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2005

"Sure, I'll take a coupla' beers," the topless gatekeeper replied while she searched our vehicle to ensure we didn't have any "stowaways" hidden inside avoiding the gate price.

"I've got four virgins here!" shouted the greeter who insisted we all ring the bell while yelling, "I'm not a virgin anymore!" Then he hugged each one of us and welcomed us home.

Just inside the camp, a naked guy with skin tanned from a lifetime of nude sunbathing leaned against his car while a couple of stilt walkers lurched off toward the Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro. A few minutes later, we rolled in with the theme camp Burning Cloud from Sacramento, Calif., a bunch of retired firefighters wearing little more than furry loincloths.

Madness. Mayhem. We were at Burning Man.

What the heck is Burning Man?

We were there with our friends, Scott and Ellen Carrlee, and more than 35,000 other brave and crazy souls, collectively referred to as "burners." Once a year, for the week culminating in Labor Day, this place - Black Rock City - exists as the third largest city in Nevada. It then disappears without a trace.

Born on a whim, Burning Man evolved from small beginnings on a San Francisco beach. Now the city's well laid out, clock-face grid is crossed by six parallel streets - Amnesia, Bipolar, Catharsis, Delirium, Ego, Fetish, Gestalt and Hysteria - starting inside the circle at the Esplanade and radiating out in alphabetical order in keeping with this year's theme, Psyche. This level of organization is as critical to keeping your bearings as for community safety. Our home is at 8:45 and Fetish.

Out on "the playa," the alkaline bed of prehistoric Lake Lahonta, we entered the world of Burning Man, where radical self-expression is the norm but the norm doesn't really exist. Think Mad Max and some far flung demilitarized outpost mixed in generously with new-agey spiritualism, a handful of raging sound camps and a giant wooden man made for burning and, well ... maybe you get an inkling. Just a few things are certain here: There's plenty of dust; nothing's for sale except coffee and ice; and The Man will burn.

The Man burns

As night fell, the stars popped out, and the population of Black Rock City converged on the playa at the base of the Man. Rising from the desert floor on a giant platform, the Man loomed. Lit from head to foot, he was a neon sacrifice, his wooden frame stuffed with thousands of fireworks and fuel soaked rags. Scantily clad fire dancers gyrated wildly to the sound of drums at the Man's base, tossing flaming batons into the sky and breathing fire in a garish spectacle.

An explosion of fireworks and neon ignited the Man, and a giant inferno shot sparks and embers up into the night. In no time, the Man was consumed and toppled over. Around the periphery, every art car and wildly decorated party barge cruised the playa blasting music, serving cocktails and swerving to avoid narrow misses. Sound camps ramped up and the playa got ready for an all-night party.

Sunrise found die-hard revelers on the downward side of full-swing along with the prone forms of those too wasted or too exhausted to make it back to home base. It would be a busy day at the medical tent.

Dawn to dusk in a sound camp

It may have been sunrise, but the deep grooves from The Deep End resonated on. This sound camp boasted 75,000 amps - a sound system that could be heard from Thunderdome to Vamp Camp. That plus 200 cases of Red Bull, 800 bags of ice and 80 cases of liquor meant this camp was packed to the figurative rafters every hour of the day and night.

And that was just in our neighborhood. Located at the outer limits of camp space, there were at least a half dozen sound camps, totally self-financed, totally free to enter and totally loud. You don't come to Burning Man to sleep.

Theme camps at Burning Man

Missed your last AA meeting? Looking for a luau? Mardi Gras? High-colonic? Soccer? Horny goat bacchanal? Absinth production happy hour? It's all happenin' on the playa.

Anyone with a cool or kooky idea can be assigned some coveted playa real estate and trick out the equivalent of a city block so you and your fellow burners can wallow in the theme. Burning Man hosts at least 250 theme camps. One of them is bound to be right up your alley.

Like bunny rabbits and huggin' it out? Come to Snuggletown! Snuggletown! is devoted to nurturing connection, communication, exploration, passions and playfulness with healthy, caring, communal opportunities for affection and bliss.

Blech?

How about the Death Guild Thunderdome? A glorious arena of foam-covered carnage, wherein the smallest of grudge matches are settled by a combination of bungees, elevation and foam weapons in front of teeming hordes who crave spectacle. Battle to the grinding strains of industrial music while your opponent rips your hair out and bloodies your nose.

Not that either?

How about Wild Kingdom Cocktails: Fun Fur & Fuzzy Navels? Wear your best fuzzy animal costume, or just wear something fuzzy. Hosted by Camp Scratch & Sniff at 8:30 and Ego.

Art on the playa

The playa provides an ideal, if brutal, canvas for large-scale sculpture. Pyrokinetics brought their "Fire Pendulums" to Burning Man. The project suspended a jet engine from a crane shooting fire in four directions. Both scary and irresistible, people gravitated to it like moths to a flame.

"Miracle Grow" featured a giant exotic metal flower built on a crane skeleton. The flower was bent downward so ardent admirers could view it more closely. Then it squirted them in the face.

The San Francisco-based project, "The Dicky Box," allowed residents of Black Rock City to interact with "Dicky" Davies through a small slot in Dicky's 10-foot-by-10-foot Plexiglas "home," where he remained throughout the week of Burning Man.

The largest project was "Temples of Dreams" by Mark Grieve and the Temple Crew. Burners came to the temples to meditate, create a memory of a loved one, write a message on wood as an offering for the temple, grieve, pray or just observe. On Sunday night, the temples burned along with all of the offerings. There was a much more somber mood, although the fire burned hot and beautiful. Then, eerily, a blinding sand storm kicked up while Burning Man ended.

Afterburn

Seeing large-scale art was a prime motivation for going to Burning Man. But it is not now the prevailing memory. While it remains a tough conundrum to describe in a few well-turned phrases, Burning Man is at its heart a convergence of the human primal spirit. There's a distillation down to basics at Burning Man, and, in an increasingly complicated world, that is compelling. Around the tribal fires on the playa, humans were the only living things for miles, and the human spirit is more vibrantly alive there than anywhere. We'll be back. Burn on.

• Kathryn Daughhetee lives and works in Juneau. All photographs are by the author's husband, Mark Daughhetee.



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