Some impressions of Burningman '98

Is Burningman a Temporary Autonomous Zone?
Small Playa
Weiners, Lawnchairs, and Platform Shoes
The Loaves and the Watermelons
Best and Worst of the Playa
Sex & Drugs on the Playa
Suspension of Disbelief


Charlotte, Cthulia, and I flew out from Logan before sunrise on Wednesday the second. We rented a van in Reno, and spent the day stocking up on supplies.

We arrived in Gerlach shortly after dusk, and spent the next couple miles speculating about whether the vast, multicolored city on the horizon could truly be our destination.

It was. We left the paved road for a broad dirt path marked with "SLOW THE FUCK DOWN" signs, headed for the still-distant array of strobes and neon, in a caravan of diverse vehicles that included bugs, busses, RVs, and something big with a four-foot paper-mache eye protruding from its rear. The greeters who gave us our directions at the gate were startlingly friendly, each concluding with a "Welcome to Black Rock City!" The van inched along the night-shrouded dusty avenues, our headlights illuminating gaily-painded and bizzarrely-clad pedestrians every few feet, as we strained to read the small road signs at each intersection. When we neared our destination, S. 7th & Esplanade, Charlotte & I hopped out of the van to try to find our camp, while Cthulia stayed at the wheel. (a map of the city can be found here).

I reached down, and touched the hard, reticulated surfece of the playa. "We're here," I whispered, and set off at an exuberant sprint to find our camp. We wandered along what we thought was the proper portion of the Esplanade, passed constantly by lowrider bicycles, stilt bicycles, motorized couches, and clusters of glowstick-laden pedestrians. The night was full of movement, but a hush seemed to hang over the region

I turned to the nearest camp to try asking for directions (sensitive new-age guy that I am). I approached the first person I saw, who was turned slightly away from me fiddling with a tiki torch. "Excuse me," I began. He exhaled, and a gout of flame arced a good yard from his mouth. Then he turned to face me.

"I... Um... I'm looking for my camp, it's called Camp Catharsis. It's all people from boston. You know a group nearby with that name?"

"Haven't heard of that," he answered politely. "Good luck finding them, though." And resumed his practice.

Some interval later, Charlotte found a small wooden sign reading "Camp Catharsis" and we began our move in.


In a strict sense, no. The 14,000 person event is licensed, regulated and patrolled by the authorities. It is covered in Wired and on the nightly news. Tickets for the festival are bought and sold. Khaki-vested cameramen scramble among the writhing nude denizens of the mud pits, angling for the best shot.

In a deeper sense, yes, if you want it to be. Sure, any event can be a TAZ if you make it one, but the walls are far, far thinner in Black Rock City. Thousands of people need the catalyst of that wild and chaotic desert environment to transform themselves to be more in tune with their own desires.

On the BBS, some people will say that they're frustrated with the increased numbers of recent years (the event has grown by about 50% every year since it moved out to the desert), and that they are tempted to form a smaller, more elite gathering, more in tune with the "real" spirit of Burningman. I want to ask them, "What makes you so sure that this hasn't already happened?"


On Thursday afternoon, I was wandering around the south of the City. The heat was fairly oppressive, but nothing worse than I'd experienced in DC summers growing up. Charlotte was sleeping off some queasiness caused by the heat, and Cthulia was in the north visiting her friends at the Fleshlab. Like Oedipa Maas pursued by the sign of the Trystero, I seemed guided to observe a series of random meetings of friends. 'That's one Burningman experience I can be sure I won't have,' I thought, feeling a little alienated. I resolved to go meet up with one net aquaintance I happened to know the address for.

I found him easily at the Artist's Republic of Fremont. He had just been napping, and I was feeling sulky and we failed to really get a conversation going. Then someone tapped my shoulder. It was Andy, a friend from Boston.


In Cambridge in May, Larry Harvey (the event's founder, in town for an academic conference) had told the Boston Burners that each year he prayed for at least one episode of bad weather to bring the city together, and remind it of the extrodinary environment in which the festival is held.

His wishes were granted this year with two signifigant duststorms, the second substantially longer, more violent, and more rainy than the first. A view from the Esplanade during these events would show two thirds of the city battening down their camps, attempting to hold together their violently shaking shade structures with their hands, while the remaining third strolled the avenues, oblivious to the howling winds and swirling dust


The second rainstorm was on Saturday. Afterward, as the sky cleared, evening found Charlotte, Cthulia, and myself gathering up our lawnchairs, plastic wineglasses, spaceblankets, and Cheez-its in preparation for the famous annual Opera at midnight. The stage for this year's extravaganza, The Temple of Rudra, loomed a couple of hundred feet in towards the Man, four distinctly phallic spires flanking an imposing platform.

The event, according to what we had read and heard, is always packed, so we resolved to arrive early, get primo seats, and nosh & schmooze until the Thing Itself. Getting there turned out to be considerably more arduous than we had expected. The storm had soaked the first inch or so of playa dust to thick, clinging silt, and penetrated no further. Each step one took through this muck seemed to attach another tottery, uneven, and heavy layer to the undersides of one's shoes. We made our painful way, though, to the moonlit Temple, and arrived not long after 10 pm. It was virtually deserted, but one man standing on the platform told us that the storm had held off the envent, which would occur at 2, if at all.

After a moment's consultation, we decided to move on, and return in a couple hours for the Opera. Charlotte and Julia remembered that this was also to be the night of the Flaming Weenie, when a group intended to set fire to an enourmous effigy of a penis, and serve refreshments.
Both were, of course, eager to witness this, and we set off, with lawn chairs, with wineglasses, with Cheez-its, for the north city.

After numerous minor adventures, for which the world is not yet ready, we found the Flaming Weenie camp, and learned that the storm had also put the kibosh on the kielbasa. On duty, however, remained one lone and valiant soldier of the Good Fight, roasting hotdogs on a barbeque grill, and indefatigably trying to scare up some interest among rather sodden and dispirited passers-by. I think his name was Dave, and he was amazing, generous, and almost certainly on serious drugs.

Our party accepted his dogs, and settled down in the light and relative dryness of his theme camp to rest and talk. We hung out there for a good hour and a half, mostly dissecting Julia's sex life. During that period, I don't think two full minutes passed without Dave's hearty cry from his station: "Getcher weiners! Weiners here! Grab our buns, grab our weiners, and slap some condiments on 'em! C'mon! Right here! Weiners for everybody!

The opera did in fact begin at 3, by which time Charlotte and Julia were snoring gently in their chairs. I woke them for the beginning, but they fell back to sleep almost immediately. Nor can I blame them. The performance was static, overlong, and almost completely opaque. Considerably more interesting was the audience. Memorable sights included the dozens of laser pointers making a swarm of jittering red points on the spires of the Temple; the amazingly belligerent woman who a Ranger handled with impressive calm; and the guy dressed as a bee, who dashed in and out of the official action a couple of times.

As we stumbled back to Catharsis, the Temple had been on fire for a good hour, and two of the spires had collapsed. We were about to do likewise.


Late Sunday morning, we realized that we didn't have much use for the entire watermelon we'd brought and never cut into, so we cut it up and headed out to the Esplanade; Charlotte, Cthulia, Andy and me giving out wedges of fruit to passers-by. In the desert's heat, the fruit was a popular item, and before we had walked a block, we were running low on melon. Someone ran out from another camp and brought us one to distribute. We ended giving out three watermelons en route to the Smutshack


One guy we gave melon to thanked us effusively. "You guys doing this is great. Y'know, this morning, I was at the Cafe [Temps Perdu, the only place at Burningman allowed to have cash transactions], and this woman there was complaining and complaining about her hot chocolate, how it wasn't hot enough, and didn't have enough chocolate, and shit, and it really got me down about, like, the whole spirit of the thing being lost. But you guys, just coming and doing this, it was just what I needed to see." We were a little stunned, and very amused. The woman he had overhead that morning was Charlotte.


Black Rock Desert is a fairly infelicitous place for an orgy. Most drugs dehydrate you pretty quickly (and hallucinogens are pretty redundant at Burningman). Privacy is not abundant for amatory matters (though a few people don't let that stop them, and make full use of the couches at the Smutshack. The number of videocamera voyeurs, however, means if you try this, you'd better be ready for Internet immortality). The heat is draining, and personal hygene is kind of at an ebb, with the dust and lack of running water. Personally, I stuck to alcohol and monogamy, which suited me just fine, thanx.


I thought our theme camp was pretty lame. compared to some of the amazing stuff out there (with about 400 camps, you've got to expect some sort of a range, though). We had a bulletin board covered with joss paper for people to write things they wanted out of their lives on, which we intended to burn at dusk on Sunday (the man goes up after dark). It was actually very popular, and we got a fascinating array of entries. On Sunday evening at 7, we piled the board, our cardboard boxes, and a few other burnables out on the playa a safe distance from the themecamps, and the 15-or-so of us assembled for the burning. Dave was a little worried about whether the pile would burn readily enough, so he scored some gasoline somewhere to add to the mix. I had my head somewhere under the plywood, adjusting the obligatory crumpled newsprint, when Dave lit a match, and I was engulfed in a fireball down to my waist.

I hustled backwards with some alacrity, and checked myself over for still-flaming parts. When an initial check came up negative, I noticed something small, hard, and rounded in my mouth, and thought, Oh my God, I've had a tooth knocked out, and I'm in shock. I spit it out and found it to be a kernel of popcorn, whoch someone had put in the pile to make sound during the burn, and which had been blown into my mouth by the explosion.

I was entirely fine, but Dave was extremely apologetic. Charlotte was not amused.


It so happens that our fire was the first of many to be set that night. Within sixty seconds of that initial fireball, with our bonfire blazing gaily, a woman in some sort of leather-and-steel bikini, in an elaborate headdress, was kneeling in front of our fire making what I assume were intended to be mystical-yet-sexy gestures while three photographers clicked away madly.


As the rather dazed Catharsans gathered for a group photo, supplicants ran out from a half-dozen other camps with more food for our blaze, and within ten minutes, our little fire had doubled in size, as items from boxes to banners to a puppet theatre came crashing onto it. By midnight, three hours after the Man himself had gone out in a blaze of fireworks, our fire, though joined by dozens of siblings, still blazed away.


Very little at Burningman transpires without some element of (at least attempted) humor. One of the great central jokes of the event is the very notion of a city that lasts a week. We take canvas, haybales, phoneline spools, and an espresso machine, and call it a cafe. We take a croquet set, a set of bowling pins, and a membership card, and call it a country club. We take a passport and call it a nation. An imaginative effort is not just called for, but demanded to enjoy this jovial parody of civilization itself.


The weekend population boom is large and famous, and includes a higher proportion of ... call them "straights," call them "tourists," call them "spectators." One is reluctant to define a line because the line is so blurry. Certainly I ventured out occaisonally with street clothes and a camera. Cameras are the great temptation of the Playa. How can you resist the impulse to make some kind of record of such an extrodinary visual feast? And yet that delicate atmosphere in which so many people are willing to express themselves so wildly is at least partially a product of the sense that that city is a world apart, safe from outside-world consequences.

And anyone with any qualities of introspection will soon see the ridiculousness of any sort of Extravagance Dress-Code, in which the rules of normal society are utterly reversed and those in insufficiently shocking garb are shunned and ridiculed.

For those interested in more exploration of this issue, I once again recommend the bulletin board for some insightful discussions.


All sense of reservations or sourness that we had aquired over the day over the changing atmosphere of the event were swept away during the grand procession up to the Man, with muisc, the most elaborate costumes, an an atmosphere of mad and joyous carnival such as I have never before experienced. The burning of the Man himself is a moment of shockingly intense emotion. I found myself on the verge of both laughter and tears as we danced around the drum circle watching the man burn.


In Reno, afterwards, we talked of "Burndar," the none-too-mysterious ability to detect other Black Rock City citizens; by their filthy, mud-caked cars, if nothing else. In restaurants and strip-malls, our dustsiblings would greet us with wide grins and exchanged anecdotes and mementoes. In the airport, we mad friends with Momma Lilith, green-haired talk.bizzarre denizen, and BRC falafel goddess. On the plane, we got out our notebooks and started brainstorming theme camps for '99.

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