Archive for September, 2008

Burning Man – A Mirage in the Desert, or Was This Real?

Welcome home!

Black Rock City: If you’ve been there you know…

What happens in BRC - stays on the blog.

If you’ve heard of Burning man before, maybe you’re curious. If you’ve never heard of it, tread carefully on this blog post, it may induce nightmares, or you may find yourself in the desert next year questioning what you believe.

Warning: For those of you who are put off by all out freedom of expression, public nudity, or sexual innuendo, you may want to spend your time on the Internet taking in something a little more pious, like a Sarah Palin or Osama bin Laden speech, since some of this post is probably rated R.

The Man - waiting to burn.

The Man - at the center of it all.

Burning man has been happening for the past 20 years or so. It started as an impulsive act of self expression on a Beach in San Francisco and has grown to a city of 50,000 (called Black Rock City) that springs to life for a week every summer in the Nevada desert – or playa as it is called. And then it quietly disappears for the rest of the year, leaving no trace. Pack it in, pack it out.

Black Rock City (2007) from space (courtesy of Google Earth).

Just a week before Burning Man started, my girlfriend Gretchen and I decided to go and become residents of Black Rock City. We had both heard about it for years and were curious. Where else can you go to see bizarre, beautiful, elaborate, and often flame breathing art in the middle of the desert, stroll a “city” of 50,000 in your birthday suit, ride a boat car across the desert, contemplate the meaning of it all at a temple that will burn at week’s end. Where else can you have a ride on a 30 foot tall teeter totter, enjoy a drink or a dance in a sand storm, and a get full body power wash in lieu of a proper shower? Exactly, so off to Nevada we went.

A few thousand topless cyclists in the desert dust.

It’s an experiment in “radical self expression, radical inclusion, and radical self reliance” among other things. What does that mean? Well it’s hard to know unless you go. We felt right at home.

The morning walk to center camp. Who's that amazon in the blue panties?

People from all walks of life and of all ages can be found at Burning Man. The one thing they will have in common is that they’ll accept you as you are, which creates an incredible atmosphere of freedom…

That's quite a handful!

That's quite a handful!

To wear very strange costumes, and eye-ware…

Those are called IGAAKS -

Those are called IGAAKS - not suitable for the office.

…and clothes not suitable for the office.

Aren't we cute in our matching purple skirts?

And of course, nothing at all, which I did on many occasions.

Just out for a stroll

Just out for a stroll on the playa.

As you can see, couples come in all varieties on the playa, and are free to express their affection. Which of course is a perfect manifestation of “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as well as the theme for this year – The American Dream.

An American dream.

Maybe you’ve heard of the organization Critical Mass, where bicycle riders take over the streets en masse to make a point about transportation. Well at Burning Man a few thousand woman participated in the annual Critical Tits ride to make a point about their right to go topless. And why not? If boys can go topless, why not girls as well? Besides it’s hot!

I want to ride my bycycle...

I want to ride my bicycle...

Burning Man is first and foremost the people who make it happen.

But of course with the people come all kinds all kinds of strange and unlikely art installations to be found on the playa, spread out over a vast distance. Some whimsical…

The Flaming Lotus Girls

Some critical.

No time for TV at Burning Man

No time for TV at Burning Man

And many suitable for climbing!

That's not a Hummer - it's a Bummer!

That's not a Hummer but rather a Bummer!

Never a dull moment.

And nothing is too big for the open desert. The logistics of getting all of this here, two hours north of Reno along a small two lane road that becomes dirt after the last town, becomes an incredible undertaking.

Some installations are made out of metal.

And some are made of wood, like this multi-level temple that is built every year, used as a sacred space for contemplation and such and then set on fire on Sunday night.

The temple Basura Sagrada is just ashes now.

Black Rock City is spread out over 7 square miles, so many people ride bikes from place to place. Another alternative to walking is getting a ride on one of the many “art cars” or mutant vehicles. Black Rock City even has a DMV – Department of Mutant Vehicles. No other motorized vehicles are allowed to drive around.

No room on this mutant.

These cars come in all shapes and sizes, from artfully redecorated golf carts to elaborately modified trucks with multi levels. Day and night they slowly move (5 MPH) across the open playa or down the city streets, usually playing music and full of riders.

Is that a phone driving by a two story milk carton?

You just never know what you will find wandering around here. When visiting the temple we happened upon a wedding taking place at sunset. The temple is pretty far out from the city center. You can see the man in the distance, he is at the center of the whole circle that outlines the city.

Wedding with Tetras blocks in the background.

And at dusk the Lamplighters come out to hang gas lamps along the major avenues of the city. As night falls, the fire rises, and things only get more active…and strange.

The Lamplighters bring light up 12:00.

The heat dissipates and people start moving…

Jumping for joy at sunset.

And always the Mutant vehicles lumbering on the playa, sometimes blowing fire.

The fire breathing snail car in our neighborhood.

And the night doesn’t end…

Playing with fire!

Until well into the next day. So sleep wasn’t always so easy.

Who is that with the well placed camera bag?

We found the desert environment not nearly as bad as the warnings implied. Sure it was hot by day in the sun, but so pleasantly dry. We just had to drink plenty of water. And the sand/dust storms that rolled through most of Saturday provided a little more drama, as if that was needed.

Gretchen braving the elements!

But the whiteouts were fun, much better than those sub-zero whiteouts of snow in Buffalo. And we got to use our goggles and masks we brought just for this kind of thing. Radical self reliance in action!

Portrait in stereo in a fellow burner's goggles.

Of course riding a bike in the whiteout may not be such a bright idea.

Burning man heaven.

We were worried that with the intense dust storms that went on into Saturday evening that the burn would be canceled. We had to leave the next morning and it would be a shame to miss the culmination of all this.

The gladiator/dance dome, quiet before dark.

But fortunately the dust cleared, tens of thousands gathered around the man, and the burn commenced a couple hours behind schedule. His arms were lifted, and the pyrotechnics began!

Hugs explosions engulfed the whole structure in a ball of flames, and it slowly burned until the man fell and it all collapsed into a large bonfire.

It's sad to see him burn.

At that point, the crowd was allowed to approach the large fire, encircling it counter-clockwise, firemen at the ready.

Some people had things they just had to burn.

A Bushfire.

Some found it a spiritual experience.


We just basked in the glow of the intense heat and bizarre revelry, virgins no more.

Gretchen with her headlamp on.

The man burns in 357 days…