Just north of the mining town of Gerlach, Nev., we turn right (as instructed) at the white dot painted on Highway 34 and drive through a break in the sagebrush to enter the playa, the 400 square miles of ancient lake bed that makes up the Black Rock Desert.
Navigation is simple: Head for signs of life. First up is the ticket-taker sitting in his pickup truck. It's $40 at the “door,” but we — me; my wife, Carla; and our friends Mike and Patrick — have economized by buying our tickets ahead of time for $35 each. In the distance — maybe two, maybe 10 miles across the mirage-lined hardpan — is our final destination this blistering Friday afternoon: a cluster of tents crouching beneath an enormous sky that makes up Black Rock, the anarchic community created for the paganistic ritual of the Burning Man.
Perhaps because it is the 10th Burning Man, or maybe because word of the annual Labor Day weekend celebration is finally spreading, this year's bacchanal flambe in the high desert north of Reno is a nonpareil orgy of fire and destruction, attracting 4,000 souls, the biggest crowd to date.
It's been a long summer, and all of us are ready for a chance to slough off our scaly, civilized, urban skins and wallow naked in the unblinking Nevada sun. Especially Patrick, who watched a three-year relationship wither in a late spring frost.
After a Mad Max scramble over the unforgiving soil, we pitch our tents northwest of the Man, then set out to explore Black Rock, which, despite this year's record crowd, doesn't seemed cramped. The camp sprawls for a mile across the playa. With so much space to spare, the occupants of Black Rock seem to have found the ideal degree of separation: about 15 yards. Each campsite is encircled by its own little swath of wasteland, wide enough for a dozen naked guys on mountain bikes to pedal comfortably abreast.
Burning Man was founded back in 1986, when San Franciscan Larry Harvey, a landscape architect by trade, toted a 7-foot wooden man down onto Baker Beach and torched it. The canonical history says Harvey burned his first Man to break out of a two-year funk he found himself in after a heavy relationship shattered, a story Harvey derides now as “too reductionist.”
“It wasn't about the intentions,” he explains, “but the immediate response.”
“People came running,” Harvey laughs. A woman held the Man's hand as he burned; a half-naked hippy sang songs. Harvey repeated the act the next year, and the next. The crowds grew larger.
In 1990, with the Man grown to 40 feet and the crowd a thousand strong, the cops shut down the burn, leaving Harvey with the task of explaining to the throng that the party had been doused (one of the disappointed revelers tried to strangle him).
The next year, Harvey, with the help of the artful anarchists of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, loaded up the Burning Man and moved the party-cum-ritual to the badlands of Nevada.
The semiotics of the Burning Man, whatever they may be, are thrown into stark relief by the surreal, Euclidian space it inhabits. Black Rock Desert is the largest, flattest expanse of nothing in North America — the kind of place were they dig up mastodon bones and set land-speed records.
The honeycombed tent city orbits a central ring of the more ornate theme camps: Tiki Camp, where, for a modest donation (a cigarette will do), they mix tropical drinks; McSatan's, the fast-food franchise from hell, “Over 5 Billion Souls,” the sign says; Art Car Camp, featuring autos from across the country, all bedecked with thrift-store trinkets; and the New York City Playground, built by the Brooklyn-based Crux Productions.
Crux's camp is meant to be a slice of the Big Apple. Participants are invited to fight their way past a cop, a prostitute, and a panhandler; clamber aboard a subway train (a bungee swing suspended between twin scaffolds); and sail uptown.
In the center of the plaza sits a 15-watt pirate radio transmitter — the voice of Black Rock: Radio Free Burning Man. Designed and built by Gordon Burke in Sunnyvale, the entire prefab station was trucked into Black Rock on Wednesday. Radio Free Burning Man broadcasts music and announcements all weekend, signing off only for the occasional thunderstorm (“So we don't all die in here,” one announcer explained).
And dying is always a possibility in the Black Rock Desert. There are no amenities here; in fact, this place is startling for what it lacks. Food, water, shelter — you bring them with you. To Harvey, this sort of blanched-bones survival makes for an interesting lesson in community, what he calls “culture on the hoof.”
“The function of that space,” Harvey says of the formidable environs, “leaves people in charge of their own survival. At the same time, the Black Rock Desert makes everyone a participant.”
Friday night, Mike and I walk to the edge of Black Rock and join in a game of fireball, a sort of high-octane desert rugby. It's not long before the sight of a flaming ball being tossed around in the blackness draws a gallery of whooping spectators. We play four hair-singeing quarters by the light of the ball. Understandably, the shirts beat the skins.
After breakfast on Saturday, we wander Black Rock, taking pictures and talking to the celebrants. In the center plaza we drink Bitches Brew, offered by a woman named Andrea. When asked what effect the spicy lemon-and-ginger concoction has, she laughs, “You better have a condom.”
A woman in a short, diaphanous negligee, her body painted white so that she looks like a Greek statue come to life, moves through the crowd, graciously feeding people grapes. On top of an old ambulance, two seminude women pose gracefully for a knot of admiring photographers.
That some have come to Burning Man to watch and some to participate is evident. But the line between the two is often blurred. When a caravan of nomadic dancers clangs into the center of camp to the jangle of finger cymbals and tambourines, the milling spectators join in their ululation. [page]
On the western edge of Black Rock, I find Reverend Al huddled beneath a tarp in the Los Angeles Cacophony Society encampment. He's organized L.A. Cacophony's offering this year: Toyland, a collection of Radio Flyers, baby dolls, and wooden duckies all painted with gunpowder-laced paint and filthy with fireworks. It will go off Saturday night in a blaze of preschool perdition.
Reverend Al's been to every Burning Man since it moved to Black Rock in '91; I ask him how this year's Man compares.
“It's bigger, badder, hotter,” he laughs dryly, “and eviler in a lot of ways. The theme camps are bigger. Everyone seems to be competing with what they did last year.”
The theme camp was invented a couple of years ago by S.F. Cacophonist Peter Doty, who showed up as a hard-drinking Saint Nick, host of Christmas Camp. Last year there were a handful of theme camps; this year there are 30, which illustrates the exponential growth of the Burning Man. Every year, attendance doubles. Last year, 1,500 people showed up.
“Sometimes it felt like a mob,” Harvey admits.
So this year's goal is to prove that the Burning Man could remain a participatory experience for everyone.
“We consciously included a lot of circles,” explains Harvey, who has leased the land for the weekend from the federal government. “The camp is laid out like a compass.” Harvey sees the circle motif as both functional and symbolic. “A circle is unity.”
All the symbolism doesn't stop the parade of thunderstorms that sweeps the playa on Sunday afternoon. Patrick and I don't even bother with the formality of shelter. We let the cool rain wash us, the closest we come to a shower all weekend. Lightning strikes the desert floor a couple of miles off. The temperature dips, and we find the rain hardening to hail. Love-scarred Patrick lets loose a war whoop to wake the dead, running his hands again and again through his close-cropped hair, as if he were washing away more than just desert grit.
When the clouds part, Black Rock is in a shambles. But no one cares. There's an air of victory about the camp. A cheer rises from the mud, defiant, giddy, drunk. Naked revelers crawl from tents and, yes, splash in the puddles. Clothes are wrung out and hung from tent poles. There is nothing to do but wait for it all to dry, which takes about a half-hour in the seemingly reinvigorated sun.
A double rainbow forms over the camp, and Mike dons the pope suit he has brought for just such a beatific moment. As Sunday afternoon reddens toward evening, we are visited in our camp by Don, the decrepit anarchist. Lured like a Trotskyite moth to the red pro-labor T-shirt I'm wearing, it's not long before this obese, aging, self-proclaimed radical with bad knees is lying in front of our tent, eating our food, and bragging about the motel room he's booked back in Gerlach. Mike wants to gut him, but I remind him of the moral obligations he's under as pontiff. We decide to lie instead.
Improvising a story about having to meet some actual humans, we shake Don and make for the Burning Man.
Already people are gathering in the skeletal shadow of the offering. From the center of camp, the Mermen weave their long, dreamy surf yarns that float on the still dusk air like the almost palpable anticipation.
Darkness seeps across the sky as the crowd gathers in a circle around the Man. Beneath the erect, combustible effigy, which is animated with blue and red neon nerves, nude fire dancers spit plumes of flame into the night. Fireworks splay among the stars; eerie red flares announce the approach of sacrifice.
What does this four-story wood-and-neon man mean? Is he the sacrificial lamb? The Wicker Man? The life given to ensure life's return?
While many explain the ritual of the Burning Man as “pagan,” Harvey prefers the word “primal.” One of his theories, and he has several, is that fire was the first social focus of human culture — our hominid forebears huddled for safety and companionship around a flame — and because of this, it still burns as a potent metaphor at the base of every human brain.
“At the tip of the flame,” Harvey postulates, “creation and destruction are indistinguishable. Burning Man is most alive at the moment of his destruction.”
After what seems an interminable wait, the Man raises his arms to the wild cheers of the assembled. Two torchbearers approach and light the fuses running down his legs. The fire climbs quickly up the leeward side, running along the wooden struts of his torso and arms. As the flames reach his hands, Roman candles sputter from his fingertips, sending rockets hissing over the crowd. Soon his shoulders are engulfed; next his wooden head, swollen with fireworks, explodes in a crackling blossom of sparks and fire.
A tug on the supporting cables and the Man splashes onto the parched earth with a resounding crack, breaking instantly into a thousand burning embers. The crowd surges forward, tightening its circle around the fire, devotees hurling wooden effigies into the flames and dancing like dervishes around the pyre.
A short distance from the burning corpse of the Man is the Fire Lingam, a 30-foot mud phallus created by sculptor Pepe Ozan. The Fire Lingam, its feminine folds and clefts giving it a plantlike, hermaphroditic appearance, has become a recurring feature at Burning Man. It is lighted next, and naked dancers circle its base. Because of its clay and mesh construction, the Lingam burns for some time, glowing like magma. [page]
Another desert attraction awaits the crowd just 30 yards away, a bandstand from which comes the diabolical declaration: “I want to get you hard!” It's San Francisco's Sharkbait, and the band reiterates its declaration repeatedly against the pounding industrial rhythm. A nearby 10-foot-tall wood-and-canvas pyramid is ignited next. In the numinous light of the fire robed figures move, menacing the crowd with pikes from which swing garish pigs' heads. Someone tips over the burning pyramid, sending a stanchion of flame high into the black sky. The drumming lurches into a pounding frenzy, spiraling upward in tandem with the winding gyre of sparks and smoke.
Somewhere behind us, a spectator's comment hovers in the desert night: “It's considerably darker than last year.”
Out of the crowd jumps a man dressed only in a short flowing robe fashioned from strips of mylar. He runs around the Lingam, his robe, reddened by the reflected fire, flagging behind him. He completes one circuit of the fiery phallus, and, at just that moment, the structure collapses on itself — the top half of the Lingam doubling over like a flaccid penis. The flames die down, and mylar man disappears.
The fire and the revelers exhaust themselves, as does the night. Next morning, Labor Day, we pack up our camp, carefully restoring the patch of barren waste it had occupied, and join the Road Warrior exodus across the playa.
Mike switches on the radio just in time to hear Radio Free Burning Man sign off. “That's all for now. See you next year.”
Was this Burning Man more evil and destructive than the last? Well, yes; and because of that, Harvey says, “it was much more connected, much warmer. If people were sitting around singing 'Kumbaya,' I'd be distrustful.