There's no other way to describe fifteen thousand people trekking for hundreds or even thousands of miles to spend a week or a weekend in a vast, empty desert -- their survival depending almost totally on what they pack in with them and what they can barter for in a dusty makeshift, very temporary town called Black Rock City.
Long before the caravan of participants arrive with their artwork, music, and neon, Burning Man Limited has been planning the city along with Black Rock City's Department of Public Works who actually lay out the city streets and build the light spires and street signs and arrange for the portapotties and water trucks that are the foundation upon which The Man burns. The Department of Public Works are a roudy, rugged bunch of desert rats -- hardworking, but known to occassionally break discipline for a bit of well-deserved wilding in the desert. By the time the participants to the Burning Man event arrive, the Black Rock City Department of Public Works have already been living in Black Rock City for a month.
Then the Black Rock Rangers come, lead by Big Bear and Danger Ranger. The Rangers are "The rebar of Burning man" as one participant very aptly coined it. The Black Rock Rangers -- volunteers who live in Black Rock City. They "Ride Chaos" and are "Protectors of the Future". I was a Black Rock City Ranger this year and understand on a very personal level what "riding chaos" and "protecting the future" means.
In the Black Rock desert of Nevada, somewhere north of Reno, near a tiny town called Gerlach, miracles happen. One Ranger described it as being "...like that episode on Star Trek where they go for shore leave and their errant thoughts are read by sophisticated technology and made real right before their eyes." At Burning Man, people's wildest dreams are made manifest and it's the Black Rock Rangers who help people hold on to enough reality that they avoid injury or death when confronted with someone's wildest nightmare come to life.
The Black Rock Rangers are assisted by and are an arm of the local Sherriff's Department and the Bureau of Land Management who actually control the land that Black Rock City springs from.
The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for protecting the fragile desert environment. They have nighmares that thousands of people will leave tons of rubbish and leave permanent burn scars on the desert floor. They are responsible for preserving the very delicate hot springs that surround the out edge of the Black Rock desert. They are also concerned about preserving historical sites nearby where settlers traveled through on their way West over 100 years ago.
The Sherriffs Department is concerned about the kinds of behavior that typically occurs at large public events where drinking and drugs are involved -- assaults, thefts, destruction of property, shootings, major injuries, as well as drug dealing and the open use of drugs in general. The Black Rock Rangers are primarily concerned with keeping the participants safe -- that no one is hurt without their permission, and to ensure that their direct experience of the event is not hindered by others. The Black Rock Rangers write the Burning Man Survival Guide which is an excellent guide for desert survival. The Black Rock Rangers patrol Black Rock City for unsafe conditions such as uncontrolled or uncontrollable fires, people creating hazardous or disruptive conditions for others, and to provide a helpful, sane, sober presence in an environment where there is very little around that is either helpful, sober, or sane.
Some members of
each organization cross-train with the others so that each
organization can see the event from perspective of the other
organizations. This has fostered a high degree of cooperation
between organizations that had been at odds in previous years.
This year's Burning Man event was held back at the Black Rock Desert. Last year it was at the Hualapai playa, the desert basin futher north of Black Rock. This was my second Burning Man. Last year was my first. The first year, I came up on the Green Tortoise which was a great trip. They supplied everything except tents and sleeping bags. Water, food, shade, and transportation were all taken care of. It was great for a first-timer, but I felt like a tourist rather than a full participant. I made a decision when I got back home that I would be a full participant in the next Burning Man. I signed up for Ranger training this year.
Ranger Orientation Meeting
Even though I was on duty most of the time, I did get to enjoy many of the sights and sounds of Burning Man 1998. I even had a chance to spend an hour or two doing my "Fishing in a dry hole" performance art piece. Being a Black Rock City Ranger though meant being up all night directing traffic into the city, taking tickets at the gate during a dust/rain/lightning storm. I meant helping many people get settled into the city, find people and information, making people aware of dangers like the use of explosives within a burning structure, or the undesireability of shooting bottle rockets at structures within the residential areas.
While there were a few people who resented having to obey rules in a place notorious for having almost no rules at all, most people understood what was at stake for our community -- that Black Rock City was indeed a city, and under very close scrutiny by people who would like nothing more than to never see another Burning Man event. That things went so well this year may have changed some hearts and minds. It may have even earned us a five-year permit so that we won't have the annual hassle of last-minute approval for a while.
My favorite things at this year's Burning Man were (in no particular order):
The Neon Horse
The Shark Car
The One Tree
Pepper's Mobile Living Room
The Wizard of Ass
That Taj Mahal-looking structure made of translucent plastic
The beautiful residents of Black Rock City
And everything else.