In the beginning….
On August 26th, 2001 I pulled my car up to the gate of Burning Man ready to start a weeklong adventure in the desert. At least I thought I was ready.
“Is this your first time attending Burning Man?” the girl manning the gate asked me as she scrutinized my ticket.
“Yes,” I answered.
Looking out overtop of her mirrored sunglasses, the rainbow-haired young lady with a walkie-talkie clipped into her one-piece bikini stared down at me sitting alone in my packed-to-the-ceiling Honda Accord and said in a voice that was much more stern than I was expecting, “I’m gonna have to ask you to shut off the engine and step out of the vehicle.”
“Um…okay…” She led me around to the front of my car and told me to put my hands on the hood. I complied. Then she leaned in behind my ear and half-whispered, “Now I’m going to give you a welcome spanking. It’s up to you whether or not to keep your pants on for it.
“But either way, it’s gonna hurt.”
Burning Man had been a long time coming. I had known almost nothing about the non-music festival in the Nevada desert aside from a tiny sidebar article I had read in Rolling Stone magazine sometime in the early 90’s, and I had willfully kept myself in the dark since ordering a ticket almost a full year before, a self-imposed ignorance that had lasted right up to this moment. I wanted to be surprised, and I was.
“Welcome to Burning Man,” she said, handing back my ticket with a smile as I rubbed my very sore buttocks.
By this time I was, oh I don’t know, three weeks or so into a very fun solo trip across the United States of America. I knew I had a lot of driving to do to get from Ottawa to Reno so I looked at the journey as an opportunity to see a bunch of American sites that I had always wanted to see. I had stopped at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum, Graceland, Carlsbad Caverns, Death Valley, Nashville, Las Vegas, Roswell, and oh so many wonderful places. I even caught two Ween shows and a Ringo Starr concert along the way – oh the stories I could tell! – but it was all a bunch of stepping stones on the way to arriving at the most notorious bohemian gathering on the planet: Burning Man.
Burning Man was then and remains now beyond my comprehension. Which is to say: even though I saw it, I’m not sure I really believe it. Burning Man simply cannot be completely believed, pictured, remembered, related, or imagined. For me it was eight solid days packed to the hilt with magic and wonder, astounding dedication and creativity, nudity, fire, sand, and stamina, but these are just the words of mute fingers on deaf eyes. Burning Man must be felt, and I started to feel it moments after I got my ticket punched and my butt slapped. She was really quite thorough.
As mentioned, I am convinced that Burning Man can’t be accurately recalled or related and I sure didn’t write much of it down as it was happening, so I will attempt to pack this ticket story into an eight-part series of retroactive flashes and visions, many of which will fall not on the actual day of admission (admittedly).
Except this one. These things did actually happen on this very first day. As a matter of fact, the first day was supposed to be the next day (as the ticket suggests) but as I was preparing to bunk down for the evening in a grocery store parking lot a hundred miles away I met some other “Burners” who informed me that it would be no problem showing up a day early, and in fact people start arriving up to a week ahead of time. I suspect this is no longer the case but it was certainly enough convincing for me so I drove down the sole road into the festival through increasingly desolate geography and made it through the gates well before nightfall.
Black Rock City is built/organically grows out of Black Rock Desert in the form of a perfectly aligned semicircle of campsites of varying sizes and shapes that together create clearly defined roads which easily and logically link the whole thing up. I rode around for a few minutes and pulled into a random plot of spare earth where I started pitching my tent. I was soon approached by one of a nearby group that was busy setting up a geodesic dome. “Um, excuse me friend,” he started, and went on to explain that he and his group were part of a “camp” that was going to grow to eighty people, each with a specific role in their grand unified purpose of assembling a giant goat whose anus would actually be a trap door that would allow people to crawl inside the animal and tunnel through it’s inner organs – which were each individualized self-realize-able portals into our collective inner soul – and they would eventually crawl out the goat’s mouth on the other side and thus be…I believe he said “renewed”. Or perhaps, “be chewed.”
“So,” he concluded with an apologetic shrug, “Would you be cool with finding another spot to camp?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m cool with that.”
I tore down what little I had set up and set out for another location. Of course I wasn’t quite sure what the dude had been telling me, but as I scoped out a new spot I started to notice that yes, the streets were indeed lined with unified crews in the process of creating clear and odd themes: aka “camps”. I was crewless; a crew of me. I soon spied a handful of Canadian flags strewn amongst a small stand of tents. “Aha,” I thought, slowing down. I called out to my national brethren who took one look at my Canadian plates and politely invited me to camp alongside them. I did. They were from out west and their names were Jenn, Corwin, Ed, Stacey, Andy, Ben, and Jenn’s mom Barb.
Handshakes and hugs all-around, I set up my tiny pup tent, poured us all a drink and just like that I was part of a camp (our theme would come the next day). After settling in I decided to set out for my first walkabout through the artist collective that is Black Rock City.
I had only gone about twenty feet – just past the nearly adjacent Chinese Cowboy Disco-rama Solo Dance Party Viewing Camp when I heard someone yelling for help.
“Help!” he yelled. “Help!!!” So earnest was the cry that I started running towards the voice. I quickly found an older man skulked between a couple of cars. “Help!!!” he yelled again, his eyes squinting and his head tilted towards the sky. “Heeelllppp!!!”
“Hey, are you okay?!?” I asked in a panic. He tilted his head towards me with a smile. ““Would you help me launch a UFO?” is all he said.
“Yes,” was all I could answer. What would you have said? He looked around and, noticing I was alone he told me that we would need one more person. “Help! Help!!!!” he started screaming again. Soon a guy just like me came a-running.
And to my amazement the three of us launched a six-foot wide Chinese lantern that was powered by a 24-pack of birthday candles and nothing more. As we watched the glowing craft drift to impossible heights the guy explained that it was made entirely of paper and balsa wood and that it would completely burn up long before any of it touched the ground. We watched the tiny star drift across the darkened sky until it was just the tiniest dot in the sky. And about five minutes after we launched it we watched the speck simply fall apart in an impossibly distant lilting disintegration of fire. I had never seen anything like it before and I every time I saw another over the next week (which was often) I was continually thankful that I had witnessed it up close on Day One so I knew what it was that I was looking at. Otherwise the mystery would have driven me crazy. I would look up and marvel at how the difference between UFO’s and IFO’s was merely the insight that is borne out of the experience of being in the place at the time.
And there it is: a tiny, infinitesimally small wafer-thin slice of the experiences I experienced on my first day of Burning Man. What a place! What a time! And the thing hadn’t even officially started yet.