Burning Man was one of the strangest, most incredible events of my life. It started with an email message from Leah, a GLBPOC listserve friend of mine. She asked if I'd like to go to Burning Man with her. I'd heard about Burning Man and immediately fired back a "Yes!" answer.
She was going to the event via the Green Tortoise bus line. It's a low-cost way to travel, and their
"trips" include meals and accomodations since their buses are outfitted for sleeping.
I went to the Green Tortoise website and began making the arrangements for my trip to Burning Man.
I printed out their disclaimer and signed it. Then I mailed it back with my deposit. In a few days I received a packet containing tickets and general information about travelling on the Green Tortoise. In one sense, each person is expected to take care of their own needs. On the other hand, everyone is expected to share in the work and help make the trip a good one for everyone in the group. Another packet came about a week before the trip with Burning Man-specific information. I started packing my gear.
Actually there were two buses. One bus was for the paying customers and our gear. The second bus brought along a crew of Green Tortoise employees, food, water, ice, and supplies for three days of desert living. Our bus, Sam, was a city transit bus converted into a sleeper. The back half of the bus was covered with cushions on a raised platform. Our large backpacks, tents, and other gear were stowed underneath. The front of the bus had seats and tables for playing cards and eating, etc. The seats and tables also folded into bunks. Shelves on each side of the bus doubled as bunks as well.
Sam was a very cool bus.
"THE ONLY TRIP OF ITS KIND"
Is a bed
Is a table
Is a place
Like a room
With a bed
And a table
And the bus
Is a promise
Of a place
Of fire come
To dream and
We got settled in and after a brief talk about keeping track of each other, we were underway. Our first stop would be Vacaville so that the staff could do some last-minute shopping. We bought snacks and the Green Tortoise staff stocked up on food and supplies. I filled my water bottle and used the restroom. Some of us sat around in the parking lot talking quietly about our lives and our anticipation of what was to come.
A gentle night breeze
Tinged with ocean.
Sitting in the parking lot.
A oneness of French bread
Laughter at the Safeway
And so began one of the most incredible trips of my life. I found myself wondering why I was doing this. What was I looking for?
I came to find
My missing pieces
Lost to conformity
Lost to responsibility
Lost to myself
Lost to my dreams.
"If there aren't feet between you, something's wrong."
And thus we bed down for the night.
The Burning Man survival guide recommened that each person drink 2 gallons of water per day while out in the desert. It's almost impossible for a person to drink that much water, but they suggest you try anyway to be sure to stay well-hydrated. During the night, I hugged my Coleman 1 - liter water bottle close. It was to be my travelling partner for the next three days. I would find that I felt naked without it -- even when I was already otherwise naked.
Is my pillow
Is my friend
Is my survival
From now until
I was sleeping between Leah and a fellow named Matthew. It was quite pleasant to be nestled between two such attractive people. My sleep was interrupted by the driver announcing that we were at a rest-stop and anyone who needed to could take a bathroom break. I took advantage of the rest break and used the last indoor plumbing I would see for a few days. We climbed back aboard the bus and after what seemed like a very brief sleep, I awoke to bright sun and heat. The morning sun tinged the surrounding mountians in red. Low sage brush dotted the sandy flatlands. The bus rumbled on, taking us into the heart of the Nevada desert.
We rode along for some time and eventually came upon a small town. We stopped and some of the people on the bus got off to buy snacks and cold drinks. After this short stop, we continued on.
We came upon a large dusty flatland. Jeeps and trucks sped ahead in front of us. The gray dust billowed into the bus from the windows and filtered in through the closed doors. Some of us covered our faces with handkerchiefs and bandanas. The rest of us coughed or stoicly tolerated the thick gray cloud that filled the bus. It was our first taste of home.
We were in a desert lake bed, but it wasn't the Hualapai Flat. Our driver pondered maps and looked to heaven for signs while the other bus did donuts around us on the dusty plane.
Our driver got his bearings and we headed back and onward to Black Rock City.
The sand blows
Car tracks in
Ringed by mountains
Death is here to flirt.
Wear your summer shirt.
Be careful -- might get hurt.
(Bus in the
After a fairly short drive, we arrived at the entrance to Black Rock City. There wasn't much there -- a couple of cars and a wooden sign. The sign had Burning Man symbols drawn on it. It's such a simple symbol -- just 6 lines -- yet it expresses everything. When I can afford another tattoo...
We sat waiting. I don't know why. It seemed like a long time, like standing in line at the bank. Eventually we were given clearance, permission, safe passage, asylum, or whatever you have to have to get in. And then we saw THE IMMENSITY. There were thousands of vehicles, tents, campers, teepees, lean-tos, and people milling around, brushing their teeth, pulling on or pulling off clothes, and otherwise preping themselves under the scorching mid-morning sun. Black Rock City was clearly temporary -- a tent city built of dreams.
We got to our campsite and unloaded our gear from the bus. I pitched the tent I would be sharing (sortof) with Leah. The staff brought out long tables and served up fresh fruit and sandwiches for breakfast.
After breakfast I packed compass and camera, strapped on my water-bottle and hiked off towards the playa.
I am a man without
Searching for his kin
I look into
My bright reflection
Others look into
That is me
I walked down a dusty road lined with encampments and vehicles on either side. I came to the "Drag Queen Man Trap" and we teased a fellow who took their bait -- a cold beer on a string. I turned down another road and headed east out to the dusty plane of the Hualapai Flat -- the playa.
There were strange things out there in the desert. People rolled by on bizarre bicycles, walked by wearing bright paint and nothing else, or wearing eerie contraptions. There was art in the desert -- mud sculptures with protruding genitals, huge dominos, a long line of bright cloth that stretched suspended across the playa without adjective.
There was a huge balloon woman with multiple faces. A castle stood alone in the middle of the playa... a forlorn vision of misplaced mythology.
I strolled slowly across the dusty plane. I noticed that, while the ground was hard, dry and cracked on the surface, it was thick mud an inch or so underneath. As I walked south across the playa, I let my own crusty layers fall away and surrendered my preconceptions to the desert sky. A helicopter buzzed overhead. I heard a distant bang and faint cheers. A group of men were pointing something towards the sky. I walked in their direction.
They were dressed like French Foreign Legionaires. They'd been firing a potato gun at the helicopter. I stayed with them for a few minutes while they reloaded and misfired a few times and finally got their sections of PVC pipe to launch a potato a good distance across the flat.
I continued south and came to The Man standing tall against the blue sky on a platform of hay bales. I stood beneath The Man -- his left shoulder draped with an American Flag. People milled around under him on the platform -- worshipping?
The afternoon sun beat down and I felt tired and hot. I calculated a trajectory back to camp and headed northwest back to the busses. Once I got back, I found some of my travelling companions sitting on 5-gallon containers of water and conversing quietly. Someone asked me what I had seen out there. Some of our group walked about naked. I conversed briefly with a woman who was wearing only her sandals. In another world, she might be fearful of a strange Black man. Here, we were all members of the same landing party, exploring a strange, new world.
A growing sense
Damned nice group
I went to my tent and slept for most of the afternoon.
I awoke in the early evening. Preparations were being made for dinner. I helped cooked hundreds of slices of garlic bread and after eating a very good meal, gathered my compass and water bottle and headed out to explore the strange lights out in the desert night. I was walking down one of the dirt roads by the camps. I was trying to pass a small group of people who were walking together down the road. We came upon a group of guys burning their artwork. They were up by the road and the camps where burnings were not permitted, but they all seemed drunk or stoned. The right panel of the narrow structure was already in flames.
One of the men had something that looked like a small bazooka -- it seemed homemade. He was ready to fire it again. Another in their group shouted for him to wait -- that people were coming. I got past the group of people and stood on one side of the structure watching. The small group of people stopped on the other side chatting and laughing.
I heard someone say, "OK, fire!" and a ball of flaming gell shot out from the homemade napalm cannon. The ball of fire sped past the structure and skidded across the road leaving a trail of flame in its wake. The ball of fire rolled under someone's 4X4 and continued burning.
The man who fired the cannon was shouting, "Oh shit! Oh shit!", and one of his companions ran to the truck and put out the fire with a fire extinguisher he was carrying.
After laughing myself into a state of hysterics, I headed out to the flat. I was draw by the sight of a large glowing ball and the crowd of people who rolled it across the playa.
It was a geodesic ball with lights flashing and glowing in blue and red. There was a man seated in a
chair suspended inside the ball. His instructions were blaring from speakers inside the ball with him.
"OK, now push... wait... push... again... stop... OK, push...
and so he was transported through the desert night, across the dusty playa -- a man inside a ball.
There was a huge spiral shell. I headed for the entrance and walked along the passage. It narrowed and shortened, and soon I was crawling on my knees in the dust and for the first time noticed many tiny rocks as they dug into my kneecaps.
The passage had narrowed to the point where I was wedged in. The rising dust choked me, and I was completely disoriented by travelling in a spiral and having no points of reference but the white walls of the shell around me and the rising dust below. I became claustrophobic. I couldn't continue forward and so I backed out on my knees until I could finally stand up. I walked back to the entrance and caught my breath. I found myself thinking, "Burn it."
I walked towards The Man and his neon body flashing blue and green against the night sky. I wandered past a tent of loud drumming, another of dance music. There was a circus. I didn't stay for the show -- too much to see. I came upon the House of Doors and entered. A band was playing. I stopped to listen. Cool music. I explored the House of Doors and found a radio station, some art exhibits, and a small shrine.
A man in a ball
Rolled by a crowd
Circling round and round and smaller
And finally crawling
I could go no futher
A circus of the strange
A house of doors
Dancing, music, drums.
I had been wandering for several hours and found myself on a road, but none of the camps were familiar. I could see The Man, but no other familiar landmarks to triangulate with. My feet were sore. My legs were tired. I was lost.
I checked my compass. I was walking southeast -- away from the playa and towards the southern outskirts of Black Rock City. I estimated that I was 1.5km from camp. I was already very tired but still had a bit of a walk ahead of me.
I turned until the glowing dial of the compass indicated that I was heading in a northwest direction. I trudged on slowing, conserving my energy. Even though my boots were normally very comfortable, my feet were hot and I could feel a blister starting.
I found myself stumbling around in the dark, trying to find a main road, but mostly zig-zagging between camps and low brush. The narrow beam of my flashlight helped some, but I still stubbed my toe on a metal bar that protruded a few inches from the ground. I stepped into a narrow ditch that twisted my ankle, but fortunately, not enough to be a serious injury.
After what seemed like hours, I came upon a road that was heading in my direction. I followed it for some time with the sounds of techno music fading behind me. I began to see familiar camps, but I still didn't see anything that could guide me back to my camp. I walked on. My legs were weak and wobbling. My feet burned with each step. I was fatigued and walked in a daze along the dusty track.
I stopped and looked around. It was a warm, clear night. The stars formed a dome of lights over the desert. If there had been a moon that evening, it had set. To the northeast I could see a neon sign glowing against the night sky. It was the neon "W" of the Woodpussy Camp. I was considerably south of camp and too far west. I still had a long way to go. I trudged on, but now felt like I knew where I was going. I adjusted my course until Woodpussy and the The Man formed two points of a triangle to the southeast. The third point would be the flashing lights of the Video Van just a few yards to the left of Green Tortoise Camp.
I stumbled into camp. A small group of people were sitting on a blanket near the front of "Sam". A woman was carefully mixing marijuana with tobacco and rolling it into a cigarette. Her friend was explaining this European method of joint rolling to the rest of the group gathered there on the blanket. Someone came down from the tents with two bottles of wine and asked for a corkscrew. I loaned him my Swiss Army knife and he poured me a glass of zinfandel. I sat on the steps in the open front door of the bus watching the woman roll the joint. She seemed to be taking forever. After I finished the glass of wine I went to my tent to tend my sore feet.
I didn't have any blisters, but the seam of the tube sock rubbing against the toe of my left foot had made it red and tender. I cut a piece of moleskin from my first-aid kit and placed it on the sore spot. I switched off the flashlight and was almost instantly asleep.
I awoke to the sound of laughter. I put on my "YaHoo" slippers and walk into camp. People were still gathered around the blanket. The woman was still rolling a joint. I asked if she was still rolling the same joint. The group howled with laughter. Someone handed me a pipe, but I declined and poured myself another glass of wine instead. A group of us sat around telling our stories of the day into the wee hours.
The sound of drums and chanting rose all around us. I said my goodbyes for the night and went back to my tent. As I passed the blanket, the woman was still sitting there -- still rolling the Eternal Joint.
It was the heat that woke me. The tent was like an oven. My skin had stuck to the inner surface of the sleeping bag and my hair was damp with sweat. I came out and joined the members of our camp having cereal and fresh fruit for breakfast. I volunteered to help clean the dishes from last night's dinner and was assigned the task of cleaning a pile of cast-iron skillets (no soap).
The water truck came by and people were tearing off clothes and running behind the truck to shower off the dust and grime. Larry (one of our drivers) and I watched with amusement at the sight of people chasing the truck down the road, their naked bodies glistening in the morning sun.
After breakfast, I put on my Anchor Blues and headed out to the playa.
In the middle
A dry lake
In the desert
Late morning sun
Bakes the surface
Crusty on top
A helicopter circles
The lakebed is
Empty bottles - some
The band stand
There was a party
Arch of Bones at the Ranger Camp
A fairly dangerous car
It's a Temporal thing
Hualapai Nuclear Power Plant
I'm sitting on
On a bale of
The only water
Is in my canteen
A naked couple
After wandering until late afternoon, I headed back to camp. Larry and Matthew had brought out their drums. I borrowed a guitar and improvised some music. Larry let me borrow his drum and Matthew and I got a serious beat going (which inspired some sexual activity in a nearby tent).
After a while, another drummer joined us. We sounded pretty good. The other guy invited Matthew and I to join his band at their camp. We went just an hour or so before sunset and sat up on their bandstand. One guy played bass, the other played sax, and four of us kept the beat hot. It was jazz in the afternoon and I was now a fully participating member of Black Rock City. The helicopter came over like a curious dragonfly to check us out.
The sax player stopped and brought out some ice cold beers. We jumped into some Coltrane. Cold beer and cool jazz overlooking the vast emptiness of the Hualapai Flat. It was as surreal as a Herzog movie, yet I'd never felt so normal, human, and whole.
Doin' the drums
A band to
We played so
And two more
A sax and bass
Just after sunset, under a painted sky, Matthew and I headed back to camp for dinner. After dinner, Matthew took his drum and went to find the guys we'd been jamming with to form a drum circle for The Burn. I wandered off in the opposite direction, towards the playa where flames were already rising from a half-dozen small fires.
There were fires burning in fire-pits on the playa. Some people had set their structures ablaze. The dark stillness of the desert flat was punctuated with bangs and bright flashes. The sound of drumming was like the rythm of a great engine constantly churning beneath the earth.
The closer I got to The Man, the more numerous the fires. I finally got to a roped-off area behind The Man. To my left a huge machine shot a column of flame thirty to fifty feet into the air. It flamed for a few seconds, lighting up the desert around me as bright as morning. I joined a circle of people to my right who were watching fire-eaters spitting flames an amazing distance. Some were clearly more experienced than others. One of the more expert swallowed a bottle of flammable liquid and, holding a torch to his mouth, belched a stream of fire from one end of the circle almost to the other. One of the beginners was learning to swallow a flaming torch and was a bit too tentative with the torch and burnt his lips.
I walked around looking for a good spot to view The Burning of The Man. I found a spot facing The Man. I was next to a news cameraman and his soundman on one side and three topless women on the other. The women wriggled their way to the front and dissapeared into the crowd. I moved a few steps forward and found myself with a perfect view of the The Man.
Tonight we burn the
VCR with the
The ritual of
Begins on the Playa.
Exhibits carefully wraught
Drums -- steady as a
Drone across the Playa.
The procession begins.
Horns and dancers
Stiltwalkers twirling fire-sticks.
His arms rise slowly
Hypnotic chants turn to
Flames climb the platform
The Man Burns
TV cameraman to his soundman, "Unbelievable, isn't it?"
And thus The Man was burned in a ritual old as fire, modern as neon lights -- joyful as childhood, serious as death.
I meandered back to camp dodging bottle-rockets and the thick crowd of people. Someone had a bicycle rigged with rows of flashing lights that gave the illusion of wings -- a wondrous bird gliding across the desert. I met a couple of aliens dressed in colorful fibers of light. I asked them to take me back with them. All around me, people were setting fires. I was ten feet from a hay bale, and by the time I reached it, it was aflame. I found my way back to the open playa. The air was thick with smoke and the smell of sulfur. I looked back and the horizon was red with fire. It was apocalypse -- the end of world as we'd known it and the beginning of something new.
My sleep was full of strange dreams -- wonderful and fearful visitations, weird music, and the constant rythms of hundreds of drums. I woke up drowsy and weak. I stumbled out of my tent and joined the rest of the group for breakfast.
We were putting away the breakfast dishes when the water truck lumbered up the road. As usual, people began stripping and running after the truck. Larry and I looked at each other and were about to share our mutual humor at the sight when we both had the same thought. We were both hot, sweaty, and sticky with alkalai dust. In the time it took to blink we were both out of our clothes and chasing behind the truck.
The cool water was a blessing -- a revival of body and spirit. I slipped in the mud and fell to one knee. Someone took me by the shoulder and helped me up and we continued running, laughing, splashing until we were out of breath, panting and dripping wet in the muddy road.
I walked back to camp with the biggest grin on my face I can remember in a long time. I didn't rush to dress, but lingered in camp awhile with the others, discussing our plans for the day. I'm normally a very self-conscious person, but no one was judging my looks. We weren't acting, and so we didn't have to look any particular part. I felt perfectly comfortable -- no... I felt perfect just as I was.
Cheerios and milk.
Packing up camp.
Doing the water dance
The water truck
Naked and slipping
In the mud.
I let the warm breeze dry me. I pulled on the clothes I'd left on the ground and began to help break camp. We packed up the busses and I made a last visit to my favorite bush. I'd been watering it regulary the last couple of days. I gazed out across the road and the mountains to the west. I felt strong, vital, alert. I pissed clear.
I turned for a last look at the playa. Most of the landmarks were gone -- burnt, torn down or hauled away. The desert was returning to its natural emptiness. We piled into the bus and headed off for our next destination -- Pyramid Lake.
Packed and waiting.
Sounds from the roof
Lashing down bicycles
All the places
Getting to know
The universe sees
The rocking of the bus lulled me to sleep.
On my feet.
A spray bottle.
We arrived at Pyramid Lake. It was a huge inland sea surrounded by hills covered with desert scrub. Seagulls flew overhead. Sandpipers plunged their beaks deep into the sand. We walked down to the sandy beach and stripped. The water was icy cold -- like the waters off California's northern coast in winter. It was like being home. We swam and waded and splashed about.
Turk waded to the shore and found a rocky outcropping. He skipped stones across the gentle waves. I waded out and joined him. Turk was tall and slender. He wore a long gray beard and long gray hair tied back in a pony tail. Turk could not speak, but he was so expressive that his communications were rarely misunderstood. He skipped a rock and shot me a big grin. I skipped one and grinned back. Turk threw his head back and my laughter was for both of us.
In the desert
Is a salt-water
Cold as the
Seabirds in the
We got out of the water, dressed and sat up on the beach awhile. Matt brought out drums and I was coaxed into playing. I play well, but my first instrument was a drum given me by my father when I was six or seven years of age -- I've had a bit of practice. I wasn't really into playing though. I wanted to view the magnificent scenery and the absorb the strangeness of this desert ocean.
We boarded the bus and headed towards Reno where we'd be having our last meal together. I lay back on the cushions and watched the desert turn to small towns, then larger and finally buildings rose up all around.
We landed at Circus Circus. The plan was to have a buffet dinner there. Walking through the casino lobby, there were people gazing into flashing machines, putting in coin after coin. Row upon row of flashing lights and blackjack tables -- the sounds of wheels turning and coins jingling -- the occasional shouts of the winners having the times of their lives.
We land in Reno
They throw up.
It's the weirdest thing I've seen
The cost of the
And loaded up
The huge plate
Turk called for
We all clashed plastic.
We took our time getting ready to head back. The drivers wanted to get us back to San Francisco in the early morning during commute hours. We lingered in the parking lot talking, or lay on the bus sleeping. Some hit the casinos. Sasha and another of our group went off to find a hot tub. Eventually, the time came to leave and we climbed aboard the busses.
The bus is
After driving all night we arrived in San Francisco in the early morning hours. The streets were bustling with early-risers making their ways to work. We unpacked Sam and gathered our gear. Turk called on us to contribute to tip the drivers. We said our goodbyes and some of us exchanged phone numbers. I strapped on my gear and hiked to the Bart station and made my way home.
Having been to
Sadness at the
Friend (Godspeed, Tomia)
Won another award
Strange that I don't
Need to carry water
I've never really adjusted to being back. My daily life is again about earning and buying and selling. It's about who I impress, whos approval I need, and what I own. It's again about status and race and titles and the fear of loss that underlies it all. It's about supporting a civilization propped up on prozac, lithium, and heart bypass surgery to mend our shattered spirits and broken hearts. We've created a social environment far more hostile to human life and more damaging to the human spirit than the empty, sunbaked desert of Black Rock City. We call it the "real world", but it's all based on fantasy -- the fantasy that wealth will make us happy, that status will make us secure, that walls will keep us safe. Yet somewhere deep inside we know it's all a lie, and we cover the lie with drink, with drugs, with hatred or sex or work or power or anything that will distract us from the empty horror of this "real world" we've created.
I'm a citizen of Black Rock City, and I can't wait to get back home.
I've been back
For a week
For a place
Like a long
There's nothing like the smell of a new tattoo.
I've signed up as a Ranger for this year's Burning Man. I went to a fundraiser last night at the Paradise in S.F. -- the usual unusual crowd.
It brought back all those wonderfulstrangebeautifulnightmarish memories of those days and nights on
the playa last year.
It's really all about the dust. That awful stuff that gets into everything and leaves a lingering taste in your mouth and lurks in the corners of your gear for months after as a reminder of where you've been.
And it's the first thing you miss when you get back to the sterile world of modern life with its very inferior dust that huddles in clumps under beds.
Its really all about the dust that mingles in your hair and stings your eyes during those windy-dust-stormy-days and it blows into your food and you eat it and it becomes part of you.
And you run behind the water truck to wash it off, but it never leaves you. It settles over your soul -- fine as talcum, smooth as silk, dry as death, plain as life.
Last updated 5-25-98
Copyright (c) 1997,1998 by Bill Clearlake All rights reserved.