Saturday, September 6, 2008

And The Man Burned

It's been a while since I got to these pages...been ensconced in NY life and my new role as MD of the NY studio for JDK. That said, I'm lucky enough to have been able to get away for another full week at Burning Man in Black Rock City, NV.

This year, I went with three virgins (Alan aka Bajan, Michael aka Dusty and Rick aka Mr. Happy as they were known on the Playa). We had done a lot of pre-planning, shipped stuff ahead in the container, traveled out to Reno early to get acclimated and completed the shopping on the Sunday. However, nothing can prepare you for The Man and the desert environment he lives in. No sooner had we hit the entrance turnoff, right on plan at 2pm on Monday, than a massive dust storm hit. The gates were closed and we were left to hang on the dirt road with thousands of fellow burners for 5 hours until dusk brought some relief from nature's trickery. Of course, people were generally good natured, we met some new neighbors and greeters came out to reassure us with maps and programs for the week ahead.

We hit camp at 7pm, too late for a full build yet in time to pitch tents and fire up our first dinner of burgers on the camp grill. We camped in Hushville this year - an area designated to be generator and amplified sound free. I was intent on this approach after last year's site near Opulent Temple left me sleepless and zoned out for most of the week. We pulled into the area, anxious to find a prime piece of land within the camp, and I was immediately greeted by the sight of a "Roman centurion" striding toward me to challenge my Hushvillian credentials. I hopped out of the SUV, ready to make some demands, when he broke into a grin of recognition and gave me a big hug. It was Critter, partner of an artist from Sacramento with whom I had shared my print teacher in Twenty Nine Palms. Life was smiling yet again.

Tuesday morning we built the camp in glorious sunshine and low wind. Kitchen shower and lounge were all designated and staked out with rebar. After lunch, Alan and I got clean at the Human Carcass Wash and we all went for some coffee at Center camp.

That evening we went out for our first real walk on the Playa. It's amazing to see how much is built this early in the week. Most of the art pieces were complete, art cars were zipping about and the Esplanade was full of lively activity from the Roller Rink to the Whiskey Bar. Of course, people were resplendent in their costumes and glowery. I watched my friends' wonderment which is the virgin experience of a first night out at Burning Man. We sent several hours at an art piece called Shiva Vista. Spectacular enough with its ring of flamethrowers and stage of fire dancers, that evening was elevated further as a kickass art car came by attempting to take the musical program hostage. Blissful music and roaring licks of fire ensued until the two efforts found a point of collaboration and everyone danced to the beauty that arose.

Wednesday morning dawned as beautiful as the day before. Rick had organized an art tour for us and we gathered at The Artery. An art car, The Kazbus, picked us up and we sailed forth with a wonderfully dotty docent to preview the art and get the lay of the land. The tour is a great way to orient oneself and mark sites for a return visit.

Later in the afternoon, I introduced my mates to The Deep End. This was one my highlights of last year which only surpassed itself this time round. The Deep End is an amazing dance area that gets going from 1-8pm. The music is wonderful, the crowd friendly and the experience verges on religious. The sad news was that this was the last year of Deep End - one of those famous retirements that I can only hope will prove to be as wrong as the others usually are. The sheer energy and generosity of spirit that Deep End provided is something everyone should experience and participate in.

The evening we cycled out on the Playa to see two projects: Mutopia and Babylon. The first was another amazing organo/techno/flame affair. The second, a ten storey tower, built in days, featuring night time projections of burner mashups. While waiting to have my photo taken for the said visual mashup, I overheard the following conversation: Woman to man on line dressed in fur costume and dreadlocks: "Are you a tiger?" Man: "Yes". Woman: "Have you eaten today?". Man: "Yes". Woman: "Delicious". One can only imagine what might have ensued had he been hungry.

The one challenge this year was the sand. With no real snow runoff and little summer rain, the Playa was not its usual hard, cracked self. A whorl of small dunes were waiting at every turn to trap bicycle wheels and turn a sprint into a portage. Another one of Nature's jokes this year.

Thursday featured the WNBR. Pretty much a full day cycling from camp to camp with hundreds of fellow burners. In the buff. Much sunscreen was used and a lot of banter shared. The day ended at...The Deep End. Then another evening on the Playa.

Friday morning, I volunteered at the Center Camp coffee bar. This was another of my highlight experiences. Meeting hundreds of burners, dolling out advice and abuse (which are both free as a side order) and receiving lovely gifts and even a share of the tips. Giving back at Burning Man is a total buzz. The afternoon was back at Deep End and the night a trip to the Playa.

Each night I managed to get a decent amount of sleep. Hushville helped. As did the new layout which had things spread further apart than in past years. Yes, waking refreshed for a day of fun at Burning Man is possible.

Saturday morning, I woke at 5.15, dug myself out of my sleeping bag and headed out for the dawn photo opp I had promised myself. Taking photos at Burning Man is a challenge both in terms of being sensitive to others' privacy as well as coming up against choosing to be inside or outside the experience. Most of the time, I chose to be in it. This was my one chance to step outside and snap a record. The pics are here. The experience was wonderful - I started at Center camp, took in some of the highlight art pieces and caught sunrise at the Temple. I ended up at Opulent Temple, obeyed the beckon of a lovely fellow burner and ended my jaunt with an hour of early morning dancing.

During breakfast back at our camp, the wind started to pick up. We 'rebar'ed the tents, packed away loose items and then let the massive dust storm just engulf us. What does one do during such a storm? Deep End of course! The afternoon was magical. Thousands of folks dancing in goggles and masks, recognizing that this was the last set ever. Perhaps. I was joined by Randy and Shari, my good friends from Joshua Tree who had come with their art project, The Grotto of Manifest Destiny. Despite Randy's sprained ankle and Shari's dislike of techno music, we found a shared rhythm and had toms of fun. They took off, I found Rick and Alan, and we continued to enjoy this party complete with fresh hot dogs (mustard and ketchup supplied) handed to us by a man in a sausage hat.

That evening was the Burn itself, something I feel is a bit akin to New Years in Times Square. We watched the man explode in a ball of fire from the safety of Randy and Shari's grotto and then I headed back to camp for some sleep. Sunday, we cleaned up what we could after the dust had gotten everywhere. I volunteered at the coffee bar again. That evening we went out for the Temple burn - a contemplative counterpoint to Saturday's bacchanal. We got there early, froze in a sudden cold wind and watched the Temple burn ever so slowly. It was a really rather well made thing. The timespan allowed us to witness each stage of fiery destruction from red to blue flame, charred glow to disintegration. A fitting metaphor.

As we turned to head back to camp, another howling dust storm ensued and the whole group who had gathered walked slowly back across the Playa in a mass of muted confusion. This is the disintegration of community. Later, some rain began to fall and rumors that we would be stuck in the mud for days began to circulate. The curtain was coming down fast.

Monday dawned bright and frigid. We packed up, headed out relatively effortlessly and were ensconced in our hotel by 4pm. A tasty seafood dinner. Early to bed. Two flights. Home. Until next year.