My dear friend Tom initiated me into the wonderful world of Burning Man when he bought me my first ticket as a birthday present. I would ask, “What’s it like?” To which he’d reply, “I know this is frustrating, because I hated it when other people would say this to me before my first time, but it’s impossible to describe. You’ll just have to see for yourself.” Frustrated as I may have been by such a cryptic reply, he was right. Burning Man in 2000 was still virgin, compared to today. While it’s true that even at that point in time people griped about how big it had gotten and how “It’s just not the same anymore” (which one comes to realize will always be the sentiment, no matter what the year), those days were golden because it was before they allowed cell phone reception out there and before the ticket situation became so complicated. Back then you could make a last minute decision to attend, run down to a head shop on Haight Street to buy a paper ticket, get in the car and off you would go. Total freedom from start to finish.
The drive itself was half the adventure. We passed through Reno, a bizarro universe in its own right, where we stocked up on supplies. We then progressed onward past the mountains and the tumbleweeds, to the last town of Gerlach, aka the last trace of civilization before the playa. As we wound our way around the final stretch between the highway and the entrance, we were met with a series of whimsical signs that lined the road. Together, they spelled out messages to those arriving, messages that took on an Alice in Wonderland feel.
We finally arrived at the Burning Man gate, which was the true initiation into the playa. The gate greeters had mischief in their eyes but also showed a lot of kindness, especially for newbies. The description of the greeter position on the Burning Man website states, “Their mission is to orient and educate arriving citizens while spreading wit, whimsy and infectious enthusiasm to carloads of people.” I’d say mission accomplished. The greeters would make us do silly things, such as making “snow” angels on the dusty ground. Then you would ring a bell and receive great big, warm hugs as the greeters would say to us, “Welcome home”.
My first impression was that the playa resembled the set of Mad Max meets Star Wars. It was just so exotic, with its cracked clay ground that extended for miles and was encircled by distant mountain ranges. Sunsets over the playa are like nothing else you’ve ever seen, you become gobsmacked by the beauty. Rows and rows of campsites form a semi-circle around the middle of the playa, and again it recalls Star Wars and Tatooine meets Bedouin campsites meets Sahara adventure. And then there’s the art: all of these grand art installations – temples, 20 to 100 foot tall sculptures, street fronts, ferris wheels, giant games of Mousetrap, you name it – that litter the landscape and emerge from the desert floor.
Another signature trait of Burning Man is the infamous dust storms, caused by winds whipping up the chalky dust from the desert floor and creating a blizzard effect. This is why you see pictures of people wearing safety goggles and kerchiefs over their mouths. The dust storms are a testament to Nature’s triumph over us, as they’re able to annihilate a whole camp within minutes. On the plus side, the dust is better than any hair product on earth, giving you Medusa-like waves and extensions.
We had arrived on a Wednesday, which was still pretty early admission back then. The great thing about arriving early was that you could feel the energy growing as the population grew with each passing day. More and more art installations would pop up around us. Sometimes we’d be walking around at night and would see these large cranes and lights, it was like a watching a strange under-the-sea secret kingdom come to life. We were camping with Dustfish, which Lord and Opal presided over.
Lots of the core of the Dustfish camp had settled in by the time we arrived and were out with the megaphone, performing Booty Checkpoint 11. It was pure performance art, the way in which they would bellow I to the megaphone and entice people to moon them by shouting out things like, “Crack us a smile and show us your ass!” Lord Ikon, donning a leopard thong, led the others as they came running to greet us and offer us booze. We were home.
The first time at the Burn always stays with you. Everything is unknown and a completely new experience. I remember feeling freer than I’d ever felt up to that point, living beyond the constraints of linear time and sense of place. No clocks, no phones, no internet, no idea what hour or even day it is until it gets close to the night of the Burn. People are very open-hearted and kind and generous, and the magic of the place does seem to bring out the best in everyone. They will feed you, share their candy, make you a cocktail, offer up a lift in an art car. People are also playful – you can play a part in a spontaneous play, get your hair did, play a rousing game of “Run With Scissors”, spin the naughty wheel and obey its commands, or join a bunny march or a unicorn stampede.
There is also real magic at work on that land. My manifesting powers were at an all time high. For instance, I literally was strolling about the playa in the early hours and thought about how nice it’d be to have a mimosa and some chocolate covered strawberries, when voila! Someone zipped by me in their little art car and offered me a mimosa and chocolate covered strawberries. I kid you not.
I also found that there is absolutely no escaping yourself while out there. So if you’ve been dodging your issues and refusing to look at yourself, brace yourself because your face is about to get shoved into a mirror of magnified truth: you see manifestations of your current pain, joy, obstacles, bliss, fears, hopes, and dreams emerge and come to a head, forcing you to address them. This is likely why so many couples break up after a trip out there. At any rate, my path of knowing and of self-exploration kicked itself into high gear beginning with that first visit, then continued over the course of the next six visits.
And then there are the adventures. I’ve already shared in another entry my favorite one, in which I glimpsed God, underwent a spiritual transformation and married myself out there. But a close second happened the morning after that one took place. I gradually made it back to my camp, arriving near daybreak. I ran into my friend Blondie, who was sitting in front of our camp in a sad and dejected state. She had been going through a trying time, so I did the only thing I knew to do, which was stay awake and take her out on an adventure.
We decided to trek over to the Opulent Temple so that Blondie could dance her blues away. We hitched a ride on an art car with a bunch of fellow revelers, which was also captained by a bit of a control freak whom we later dubbed the Playa Nazi. Of course, the guy initially seemed a lot nicer than he was. He even loaned me a beautiful fur hat to keep me warm. We all piled onto the art car, excited to have a ride over there during the cold, early morning. That is, until we were noticeably straying off course, continuing onward to the far perimeter of the playa, aka the hinterland.
“Hey,” I asked him, “where are we going? Opulent Temple is in the opposite direction.”
“We’re going to watch the sunrise,” said the Nazi. This would normally have been a lovely gesture, except that in this case it was really cold out, the sun wouldn’t officially be rising for at least another hour, and we were all itching to dance. He stopped the car by the orange plastic fence at the perimeter of the festival. We pleaded for him to take us back, but the Nazi did not budge. The young girls in the group started to groan and looked exhausted. Their boyfriends took matters into their own hands, and one by one the lads disembarked, hoisting their ladies onto their backs in order to give piggy back rides back across the playa. It was like watching the passengers jump off the Titanic for lack of any alternative.
Finally it was just myself, Blondie and the Nazi. I tried to reason with him one more time, asking if he couldn’t just quickly deposit us at the camp and still make it back by himself in order to watch the sunset, seeing as it was so important to him. He refused and was not very nice about it. Suddenly a Ranger came by and asked what we were doing. I burst out with, “We were trying to go to Opulent Temple but this Nazi has kidnapped us and is forcing us to watch his sunrise and have a Disney experience!” I begged the Ranger for a ride for us but, rules being rules, he declined. (Although he did enjoy a good chuckle over our plight.)
At that point, I looked at Blondie and shrieked, “Run for it!!” And we literally jumped ship, breaking out into a sprint across the desert in our costumed finery. Blondie shouted, to me, “What an asshole but at least you got to keep the hat!” Then, right on cue, he was right behind us, reaching out and plucking the hat off of my head. We kept running and then a tiny, sporty-looking art car approached us. I flagged it down and briefed the lovely couple inside about our plight, which aroused some pity because they offered us the coveted lift to the Opulent Temple. And Blondie and I got our dance on just as the sun began to rise, right on time and happier than clams. That’s just how the magic happens out there.