Travels in the American Southwest

CmdrMark does Burning Man 2000

Spent a week out on a flat alkali playa. This trip report will depart from the usual format.

Q: What is Burning Man?
A: It's an annual event held in Black Rock City (BRC) during the week preceding Labor Day.

Q: Where is BRC?
A: Like the mythical Scottish Brigadoon (Lerner & Loewes 1954 musical), BRC is a city which exists only a few weeks a year. It is located in the middle of an alkali playa, some 120 miles north of Reno. During the week before Labor Day, it becomes the fifth largest city in Nevada.

Q: Sounds like it's in the middle of nowhere. What's a playa?
A: A playa is a dry lake bed. In this case, it's the lake bed of ancient Lake Lahontan. The playa is so flat that the curvature of the earth can be readily seen. The playa is smooth, much like driving on a newly paved road.

Q: Why would someone go there?
A: The list of reasons is endless. As advertised, it is a place of radical self-reliance and self-expression.

Q: And that means?
A: Self-reliance - The only services provided are porta-potties. The only items sold are ice and coffee. If you want/need something, you had better have brought it with you, be willing to barter with your better prepared neighbors or do without.

Self-expression - Anything goes as long as you are not hurting someone else. (Hurting yourself is acceptable but imho, foolish.) Want to dress up like a ballerina? Go ahead! Want to peddle your bicycle stark naked down the city streets? Just make sure you've slathered on lots of sunblock! Want to smoke illegal substances in the middle of the city? Well, that will get you busted! (As happened to some dozen folks who don't understand that even in the middle of nowhere, state and federal laws are enforced!) Numerous federal, state and county agencies as well as law enforcement prowl the streets in their vehicles.

Q: I heard that everyone goes naked at Burning Man. True?
A: No, not everyone (nor even close to everyone, me included!). After a couple of days, you don't even notice that someone is naked. (And what do you say to a naked lady? Simply a friendly "Good Afternoon" along with a tip of the hat will elicit a friendly smile in return.)

Q: What do you eat?
A: What you bring with you! For example, I stopped in Fallon and picked up dry ice and boxes of popsicles. Boy, did they taste good as the thermometer edged towards triple digits! Sharing is encouraged and my neighbors agreed that there's nothing like the simple pleasure of a popsicle on a sweltering hot day. I also carried beef and chicken (which I had cooked in Berlin) in my cooler as well as fresh veggies. I had pop-tarts, pb&j, cookies and munchies, gallons of fruit juices, over 30 gallons of water plus a couple of cases of beer. (Remember, if you don't have it, you're surely going to want it!)

Q: So what do you do at Burning Man?
A: Me? I hosted CmdrMark's 60's Flashback on BearLair radio, 89.5 FM (one of the many temporary radio stations serving BRC) at the "Crack of Dawn". The hits from 1959 to 1970. People would stop by the "studio" to make requests and offer your humble radio personality a cooling beverage. At other times, I'd be eating or sleeping or riding my bike through the streets admiring art installations which others created. Like what? A twenty foot Chinese pagoda, a giant head weeping tears of fire, gigantic 100 foot long multi-colored windsocks, Thunderdome (just like as was seen in the Mad Max sequel including mutant vehicles which could only be found in the movies or in BRC), and dozens of bars serving every drink imaginable. (Just like the ghosttowns in Nevada, BRC has more places to have a drink...)

Q: Doesn't a group that big generate a lot of trash?
A: It surely does, but Burning Man subscribes to a "leave no trace" philosophy, in fact the permit issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) requires that the site of BRC be indistinguishable from other parts of the playa after the event. People cart out their own trash and believe in a "Don't let it hit the ground" mindset. I saw a biker-type dude, 300 pounds of solid beef complete with full beard and tattoos chasing across the playa after an empty plastic shopping bag which the ever-present wind had torn from his grasp. (He finally caught it!)

Q: So what's the downside to Burning Man?
A: Dust. Ultrafine particles of wind-blown dust which seems to get into everything! I suspect that the car and RV rental companies are not pleased with the liberties that attendees take by driving rental vehicles in such a hostile environment. I cleaned the inside of my rental van three times and there were still traces of playa dust. Another downside is the hostile environment. Daytime temperatures approach 100 degrees with the mercury falling into the low 40's at night. Winds of 40+ mph accompanied by gusts up to 70 mph causing dreaded "white outs" during which you can't see your feet for the blowing dust. Rain, which turns the playa into a mud which clumps onto everything that tries to move. I needed a screwdriver and hammer to dislodge the three inches of mud stuck to the soles of my boots. It's also very easy to become dehydrated in the desert, the consequences range from unpleasant to death. In fact, the Burning Man ticket states quite clearly in bold capital letters, "YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH BY ATTENDING." What can I add to that except, "C-O-O-L"!

Q: So what is the Burning Man?
A: It's a forty foot tall wooden figure standing atop bales of hay located in the exact center of the city. It's packed with fireworks and set aflame the Saturday before Labor Day.

Q: Where can I find out more about this?
A: But this event isn't for everyone! It's no Disneyland. You will see things which may offend you. Some performance artists and artwork would raise eyebrows in New York, be banned in Boston and probably get the artist tarred & feathered in a number of mid-western communities! Further, you are totally responsible for yourself and the members of your party. If you're injured, it's either a long ride or an expensive medivac helicopter flight to medical facilities in Reno. Burning Man truly epitomizes the phrase "Radical self-reliance and self-expression". As for me; I had a blast!


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