Travels in the American Southwest

This Thing Called Burning Man

See also:
Photos from Burning Man 2002


What's this Burning Man event that draws tens of thousands of people to spend a week on an ancient lake bed in a remote corner of Nevada? This may provide some answers - Q & A's Regarding Burning Man

We left SR447, entering the Black Rock Desert playa at 12 mile entrance. We had been in a caravan ever since we hit SR447. Here at the gate of the Burning Man celebration, our progress drew to a halt as we joined our place in line. Excitement in the air was palpable. After months of planning and preparation, we had arrived. The line moved slowly as the ticket-takers, dressed in a rainbow of colors and states of dress and undress, counted occupants and then carefully viewed the tickets offered. All seemed well until a large ticket-taker requested permission to board our RV. I knew they'd be on the sharp lookout for scoundrels trying to beat the high ticket prices and sneak in. Prying eyes looked in our shower, bathroom and closet. No place seemed safe from inspection. Under-RV storage areas had to opened to ensure that no one was hiding behind the carpet and wood stored there. We even had our queen-sized mattress lifted and the space beneath it checked. "Lots of storage space here," said the checker. Heck we didn't even know there was storage space under the bed! Passed inspection receiving a "go ahead" along with a smile as the ticket-takers and checkers swarmed over the next vehicle in line. I silently wondered how many people tried to sneak in and what penalty would assessed if they were caught. I've recently heard that hundreds tried sneaking in this year. One guy rolled up in a carpet, firmly attached to the roof of a vehicle was even caught by the checkers. And when they were caught? Why they had to buy a ticket at the higher gate price ($250). And they had to pay an "Art Tax", an additional charge of $200. And if they didn't have the funds needed for the purchase and associated penalty? They were turned around and escorted back to SR447 for the long drive back to civilization.

Our next stop was the Greeters where we received maps and information and then we were off to stake our claim on a piece of Black Rock City for the next four nights and days. The city is laid out in concentric circles with spokes radiating from the center. We headed to where I'd camped last year and found suitable spot at 3600' with frontage on the 150 degree spoke. Was pleased to see that neighbors from last year had returned and we had a great time catching up with one another. That I was no longer solo, having MSO with me this year, was noticed and commented favorably on.

This year's Burning Man wasn't plagued by the extreme heat as it has been in past years, but our offers of crushed ice cones doused with one of four flavorings and electrified with some pure grain alcohol (if desired) were a hit. There was always a crowd around our campsite when the open for business sign was displayed.

Fantastic artwork is the hallmark of Burning Man with fire playing a major role. At night, the playa comes alive with fire-belching autos and metal flowers spouting flame. Bars are ubiquitous at Black Rock City, covering every conceivable theme. A South Seas themed bar offered tropical concoctions while others were content to offer more simple libations and, of course, beer.

One art installation was entitled "Temple of Joy". This large 30' x 30' two-story plywood structure, soaring 100 feet into the sky was constructed by California artist David Best. It evoked a sense of far east architecture. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Best last year when he constructed the Mausoleum ("Temple of Tears") for the 2001 Burning Man. His artwork provokes a catharsis for those in need. This year, the Temple of Joy was erected as a place where one could reflect upon gifts given and received over the years. With the philosophy that you can't experience joy until you've experienced forgiveness, Mr. Best would give a small talk. "Reflect on the gifts you've been given and the gifts you've turned aside. Think of the person who offered you a gift," Best would intone. "Reflect on the joy that others, both living and dead, have brought you." Visitors stood within the Temple, tears coursing down their cheeks while others sat slumped against the walls, dumbed by the emotional experience. Participants were invited to inscribe messages on the Temple of Joy's walls, the vast majority choosing to thank someone in their past for a small kindness offered or a good deed received. Other messages asked forgiveness for wrongs done to another. Some messages could only be described as soul-baring. This art installation can best be summed up in the phrase "Deep Personal Reflection".

Dozens of radio stations provide both information regarding current events occurring on the playa as well as music running from Gregorian Chant to Techno to Pop. Something for everyone. Prefer the written word? You'll have a wide assortment from which to choose. There are many dailys including the Black Rock Gazette, the Burning Man organization's official publication and the irreverent Piss Clear (so named because in desert environment, massive fluid intake is required to prevent dehydration. The way to determine if you've drinking enough? Your urine will be clear and abundant.)

One of the most interesting theme camps this year was "Send Your Message to the Stars". Your one minute message is beamed via radio telescope to whatever named star in the universe you choose. Some folks spoke their names to the stars. Others sang while some simply screamed incomprehensibly. My message employed a bell and a single word. I struck the bell three times, then once, then four times, followed by once and then five times. The word; "Greetings". The bell rang out pi, the universally recognized ratio between a circle's diameter and circumference. Will my message ever be received? Who knows, but it's headed out to the fringes of the galaxy at the speed of light and will reach its destination in a few million years.

On Friday morning, we struck camp and loaded our bikes on the RV. The Man burns on Saturday night but neither MSO nor I have a love for crowds. Particularly when the crowd is overcome by drunken, loutish behavior which usually begins on Friday night. Rather than put up with the weekend nonsense, we instead headed south bound for Virginia City.

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