Burning Man: Summer, 2001

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082601 Welcome to Burning Man

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 certainly 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.

082701 Camping with My Crew

On August 27th, 2001 I woke up at Burning Man for the first time.  It was hot and early; the art/life/wackiness festival takes place in a desert where the sun burns bright and there wasn’t a speck of shade anywhere.  As soon as I opened my eyes I immediately crawled out of my 2-man pup tent already drenched in sweat.  I grabbed a bottle of lukewarm water out of my cooler, poured it down my slaking throat and took a look around.

Next to my camp was a group of tents that had set up a body-painting service which consisted simply of a couple of inflatable kiddie pools and a bunch of spray guns loaded with glittering liquid rainbows.  Across the dusty street an enormous circus-style tent had been erected that would soon be the home to a giant all-gay pickup bar called Jiffy-Lube…they were just in the process of assembling their large, graphic (and somewhat controversial) mechanical sign that moved back-and-forth (or in-and-out if you get my meaning).  Kitty-corner across from them was a stand of RV’s who’s occupants were no doubt still sleeping thanks to the droning hum of their air-con generators, a consistent growl that contributed to the mass arising of my newfound crew of co-tenters. 

When I arrived the day before I had forced myself upon this group of western Canadians that had proudly stuck a small Canadian flag in the ground.  They were a diverse crew of seven from White Rock, British Columbia (“From White Rock to Black Rock”) that were unified by all being rather awesome people.  There as Stacey and Andy…I believe Stacey was a dancer; Ed (who was definitely a dancer – like, practicing the art – and they were both really good): Ben who was an actor (he was in that Lotto 6/49 commercial where a guy who has just won the lottery [Ben] walks into his boss’s office and “meeps” him on the nose), Jenn and Corwin (to date the only “Corwin” I have ever met), and Jenn’s mother Barb.

I was rather surprised to find that someone had come with their partner and their mother, but then everything at Burning Man surprised me.  For example:

Early in the week I had fired up my Coleman stove for some lunch and asked if anyone would like a hot dog.  “Sure,” replied Jenn.  As we were both munching away on our dogs Barb sat down and after a moment she asked Jenn what she was eating.  “A hot dog,” Jenn answered.  

“A real hot dog?!?!?” Barb asked, wide-eyed.

“Mmmm-hmmm,” came the reply, as Jenn chewed ever-so-nonchalantly.  “It’s good.”

Now, I’m not sure if I would have believed this if Barb wasn’t there to confirm it, but this was the first time in Jenn’s memory that she had ever eaten meat, having asked her meat-eating mom if she could become a vegetarian way back when she was just three or four years old.  

I’ll say that again: This was basically the first time in her life that this twenty-something year old had eaten meat of any kind.  And it was a hot dog.  Crazy.  I wonder if she is still a vegetarian all these years later.  Could be that hot dog was her one, single foray into the domain of the carnivore…

Crazy.  Cool; proper; moral; environmental; humane…and kinda crazy.

But what of Burning Man itself? you might be asking.  Well, as I mentioned before it is something of an art/life/wackiness festival that is also rather cool, though not necessarily proper, moral, environmental nor humane…though it’s definitely kinda crazy.  And one of the many things that is rather cool about Burning Man is that it runs almost entirely on a gift economy*.  

A gift economy is exactly what it sounds like…if you want something you pay a gift for it, it’s as simple as that.  It’s not really a profit deal, though you are pretty much guaranteed to go home with a sizeable cache of leftover pins, stuffies, bracelets, stickers, books, feathers, crystals and comic books, along with any number of unimaginable trinkets, whatsits, and thingses.  If you’re thinking barter and trade, well, it’s not that.  Most transactions fall deeply under the “thought that counts” category, as one might offer an old hockey card in exchange for a slice of pizza or maybe a smiley-face button for a half-hour massage.  

For example, one evening I was at Funk Camp and ordered myself a margarita. I had never had a margarita before and the bartender was very proud to blend one up for me, and of course it was delicious.  To pay for the drink I had given her a little trinket from my pocket that someone had given me for psychiatric help**, but the margarita was so good that I ran back to my camp and retrieved a shot glass imprinted with a Canadian flag and gave it to her for my next round.  That dinky little $3 shot glass was such an impressive gift/payment that she front-of-lined me the rest of the night for free margaritas and wouldn’t let anybody else serve me.

There are countless other cool things about Burning Man but watch this space as I’m-a-gonna be stretching them out in somewhat random yet loosely-connected narratives to cover the entire eight days of my BM adventuring.

*The only exceptions to the gift economy were the daily selling of coffee and bags of ice for actual money at Center Cafe, which was run by Burning Man Inc. itself.  I suppose people pay actual money for drugs as well, I really wouldn’t know.  

**I spent the week running a Peanuts-style Psychiatric Help booth in exchange for trinkets and nickels, but that’s a whole bunch of other stories.

082801 Camps101

For this, the third in a series of eight transmissions meant to cover the near-entirety of my 2001 Burning Man Festival experience in random-yet-thematic memory groups, I will focus on why I consistently refer to Burning Man as an art/life/wackiness festival, and the answer to that would primarily be the Camps.

When I first decided to attend Burning Man I made a conscious decision to find out as little about the festival as possible so I would be surprised (I needn’t have bothered…no amount of research would diminish the shock and surprise of anything and everything at and about Burning Man, but there ya go).  I did discover that there would be Camps – though I arrived onsite still somewhat unclear on what that meant – and I knew that every attendee was expected to do something to add to the whole experience.  It turns out these two concepts were one-in-the-same.  Every attendee – either by themselves or much more often as part of a group – creates some sort of interactive thing to share with every other attendee.  So every group would set up their thing and pitch their tents and RV’s around their thing, and that thing along with their tents and RV’s would be their Camp.

A few doors down from us was Asian Princess Camp, which was simply a tiny one-foot high stage with just two chairs set up for viewing.  On the stage was a young nearly naked Japanese girl in platform shoes and a Stetson hat with a toy gun in one hand and a tape-deck in the other, dancing along to old disco cassettes for anyone who decided to sit down and watch for a spell.  There was Beyond Thunderdome Camp, a group of fifty or so people dressed in shockingly good Mad Max costumes who built a real-life battle cage that was usually quite busy – people would crawl all over the huge metal dome as participants inside would strap into flinging bungee swings and beat each other with foam-covered bats.  Or Spock’s Mountain Research Camp, which was simply a geodesic dome filled with people in lab coats giving away free shots of cheap whiskey laced with Tabasco sauce.

You get the idea.

And on August 28th I would have seen any number of these weird, wacky, wonderful Camps and lots of other craziness too.  You couldn’t not seen zany, astounding things anywhere and everywhere you looked.  A journey to Center Camp for a morning coffee and bag of ice would invariably include a diversion of some proportions.  A trip to the porta-potties could end up down a rabbit-hole that takes you into the mouth of a massive three-dimensional mule where you would get lost in it’s innards and finally squeeze yourself out of it’s nether region.  Heck, a genuine jaunt looking for fun and adventure could end you up at any number of Camps that were plying people with generous libations and truly trying to give you something to talk about in a temporary city of 28,000 that leaves you scrambling for words to describe unearthly experiences at every corner.  Trying to describe the incredible things on offer at Burning Man lands somewhere between climbing Mount Everest and shooting fish in a barrel.  Every turn of the head is hyperbolic-sounding keyboard fodder that can only come up short.  One could write for days and days and still leave out so much that is worthy of mention.

I can’t even and I won’t try, but:

Someone had built a simple tower out of scaffolding that went up about eighty feet that just had a flat top for hanging out on.  I actually made it over halfway up before chickening out.  The only cars that are allowed to drive around BM are “mutant” cars, astounding wheeled creations which generally involved a mastery of welding and flames that would shoot out from somewhere.  There is nudity and general freedom-of-body everywhere at Burning Man.  Once while I was eating lunch a couple laid down on the sandy street a dozen feet away from me and had “relations”.  Right there, in the middle of the day with hundreds of people walking around.  Nobody said a thing.  If you’re not naked you’re in costume, and the costumes would put Mardi Gras to shame.  There was a massive and very busy Disgruntled Post Office Camp that lived up to it’s name in hilarious fashion, but I’ll be darned if they wouldn’t actually deliver mail to any camp in Black Rock City.  One Camp was a giant recreation of Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz.  I stopped by one time and watched a swami do positively mesmerizing and rather unbelievable things with a crystal ball.  There was a Martini Bus, a Temple of Scraps, Bayou Camp with stuffed alligators and Hurricanes, and oh, the art installations!  I tell you, if Dr. Seuss built a city…

Not to go on too long, but aside from the Camps there were also the official installations that were created by the Burning Man people which were over-the-top amazing and I believe numbered at seven.  There was a breathtaking Mausoleum that was made of raw scraps of wood…people would stand inside and cry and cry.  There was a massive domed Temple that was so intricate and impressive it was unthinkable to know it would only survive for eight days.  There was the Man himself of course, a stylized statue that stood nearly 150’ tall and was packed full of fireworks in anticipation for Saturday night when he would be burned to the ground in a ceremony that was cathartic, primal, and very, very dangerous.

Oh, did I mention that most everything at Burning Man gets lit on fire at the end of the festival?  That’s sort of why they call it that.

Art.  Life.  Wackiness.

I’ll never forget watching my Psychiatric Help 5¢ booth go up in smoke on one of the burn platforms on the final day.  It was quite beautiful.  Poignant even.

Oh, I forgot to mention: I created Psychiatric Help 5¢ Camp and it was awesome; a qualified hit that has since been much-copied and with good reason.  But really, at this point that’s going to have to be another story.  I assure you there’s not a chance in Reno that I can or will tell all the stories of Burning Man 2001, but I will tell that one.  Just not now.

(I think my favourite of all the camps was Spectator Camp.  Taking the only rule of the festival [No Spectators Allowed] and turning it on it’s head, for Spectator Camp a group of thirty or so people set up a big set of bleachers alongside the road where they would sit in their normal street clothes and plead with everyone that walked by to do something that would entertain them.  I sat down and joined the Spectators a few times and the things that people passing by would do was quite astounding.  It’s truly amazing how talented people are.  I swear, everyone’s got a trick up their sleeve.)

082901 The Songs of the Capricorn

August 29th, 2001 was the fourth day of my one and only journey to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, which was an unbelievable eye/mind/soul-popping event that was laden with unimaginable stimulus input every single moment everywhere always.  I won’t say that attending the eight-day festival changed my life, but it definitely confirmed a lot of things that I had long-wondered.  Arty things, bohemian things, fringe things, wacky things, life things; basically that the world would indeed be a much more interesting, engaging, and entertaining place if everyone just tried to have a great time all the time in a purely unselfish way that attempted to simultaneously supply the same thing for everyone else.

Just as I had always suspected.

When I reflect on Burning Man I can’t help but ponder how I came to be there.  It’s a rather remarkable set of unlikely coincidences* that I think is pretty hard to believe.  Let’s see if I’m right:

Sometime back in the early ’90’s I was flipping through an issue of Rolling Stone magazine when I read a little sidebar feature on some artist gathering in the desert somewhere.  It was just a blurb, maybe seventy-five words long alongside a tiny photo of a costumed man juggling.  “Hmmm,” thought I, flipping the page and promptly forgetting about it.  I didn’t think another thing about it for years.

Fast forward to a random Thursday in late August of the year 2000 (my research has nailed it down to Thursday, August 31st).  For some reason I woke up wondering about that little blurb from years before.  The world had advanced into the internet age by then so over my morning coffee I did a search and discovered that the event was called Burning Man, it was a week-long thing that happened in Nevada in late summer, and as I sat there reading it was ongoing, in the middle of it’s fourteenth annual run.  “Hmmm,” I thought again, this time upgrading my interest by adding: “I should go to that someday.”

Finishing my coffee I walked to the corner and picked up Ottawa’s entertainment weekly, The Ottawa Xpress (that’s how I know it was a Thursday, the Xpress came out on Thursdays and I always picked it up as soon as it came out).  Back at my apartment I read through the rag, ending at Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology column that ran on the back page.  My eyes went straight to Capricorn where I read the following entry: 

“Capricorn, I strongly urge you to go to The Burning Man Festival next year…”  Can you believe that?  Like, can you believe that?!?  I couldn’t.

But honest to Ganesha, it’s true.  I swore then and there that it was all too much and that I would definitely go to Burning Man the following year, and I did.  And here I am telling you about it.  Pretty hard to believe huh?  To make it a little more believable I should point out that I later discovered that Rob Brezsny is a long-time BM attendee and during the Burn itself he uses his column to urge all of his readers to attend the festival.  Had I read any of the other horoscopes that Thursday morn I would have noticed sentences like “Virgo, I strongly urge you to go to Burning Man…” and “Leo, I strongly urge you to go to Burning Man…” but I didn’t read them (how Capricorn of me), and I ended up with one, single early-bird ticket to the 2001 festival (pictured).

And man-o-man, I had a good time.

I guess the only thing I found lacking at Burning Man was music.  It’s not a music festival at all.  Of course lots of Camps play music but it was almost all electronic music and most of it was not at all my cup of tea.  I did find a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band and there was always good music (and good drinks) at Funk Camp, but probably the most musical enjoyment I had was when I hooked up with a roaming bluegrass band for a few days.  We even got booked to play at a Camp one night where we were well-paid (overpaid even) in food, drink, and appreciation (I love avoiding the middleman).  

Center Camp was a wide, airy, arty, beautiful coffeeshop and ice depot that marked the geographical and social centre of the festival.  It was run by the Burning Man people themselves and I believe it was the only place that actually officially booked music.  It was all solo acts with no singer/songwriters allowed – which was perfect for me as both an audience member and a performer – and I was honoured to be pre-booked for a slot.  Back then I think I was pretty much at the top of my guitar game and I practiced really, really hard working up my hour-long set.  It was a whole lot of fun to play; as a matter of fact I remember it as one of the most relaxed, comfortable sets I’ve ever played.  Existing as I was amid the Burning Man world, everything about audience/performer relations was turned inside out and I loved it.  I remember really, really taking my time and if you’ve ever seen me play (or met me) you’ll know that is very uncharacteristic.  I felt like I was performing from inside a lava lamp.  I recently came across my setlist, which amazes me.  ’Twas as follows:

Girl Asks Boy (Bill Frisell)

My Favourite Things (arranged by me)

The two Bach violin partitas that I knew at the time

Satin Doll (I used to know the Joe Pass version note-for-note)

Stairway To Heaven (not that Stairway To Heaven…it’s a solo guitar piece I wrote shortly after I discovered that song titles couldn’t be copy-written)

Deli-Religious (another solo instrumental of mine, this one with words that aren’t ever sung)

Rain Song (Led Zeppelin, played without vocals)

Little Martha (The Allman Brothers)

CC Rider (the Mississippi John Hurt arrangement)

Love Me Tender (instrumental version again arranged by yours truly)

Autumn Leaves chord-melody jam

Little Wing jam (I would just play the intro and then solo over the chords until my time was up)

I distinctly recall two of my Camp-mates in the audience doing interpretive dance along to my set.  They were really, really great and to me they stole the show.  I loved it so much.

But then, I loved most things about Burning Man.

*I have a hard time believing in coincidences, or rather, not believing in them.  To wit: Let’s say you are in a chapeau shop in a back alley somewhere in Uganda and in the very next shop your best friend from grade five is poking around looking for a new pair of shoes.  What are the odds?!?  Two best friends who haven’t seen each other in thirty years simultaneously standing in two adjacent shops in the same dark alley in Uganda?!?!  Now let’s say you both step out of your respective shops and walk away in opposite directions, never noticing that the other was there.  Would it still be a coincidence?  

Is coincidence an unlikely coinciding of things, or is it only considered a coincidence if the coinciding is noticed?  Basically, does a coincidence have to be acknowledged to exist?  Maybe the dime that is in your pocket right now was in my pocket last week.  Coincidence?

083001 Riding with the Road Warriors

By August 30th, 2001 I was five days into an epic week-plus-a-day at the world’s craziest gathering of wackiness, the Burning Man Festival.  The event takes place in Black Rock Desert, an ancient seabed north of Reno, Nevada that is one of the flattest places on the planet.  And contrary to what you may suspect it would not be a good proving ground for Flat-Earthers because when you stand there gazing at the immense flatness you can actually see the curvature of the Earth with the naked eye.  Check it out, from the Nevada government website: 

“The Black Rock Desert is dominated by the playa remnant of ancient Lake Lahontan and is one of the largest, flattest places on earth, over 25 miles long and, at its widest, 15 miles.  The Playa has a silt base as much as 10,000 feet thick and is so barren that surface curvature is evident…the Playa accommodated the successful supersonic land speed attempt by the British SSC Thrust jet car on October 15, 1997, for the official record of 763 MPH or Mach 1.02.”

For eight days you never go uphill or downhill.  Driving on it is awesome (It’s like boating, but smoother), especially when you’re going really fast (okay, not Mach 1.02 or anything) with the Road Warriors (yes, the Road Warriors).  Which brings me to the single story I will relate in this episode, a tale which may or may not have occurred precisely on August 30th, but probably did:

The coming together of Burning Man attendees creates Black Rock City, a crescent-shaped temporary bundle of self-sustaining civilization in the middle of a vast, empty desert.  Several times throughout the week I would find myself near the edge of our bohemian city where I would stare confounded at a light far off in the distant desert.  I had heard rumours that it was this, that, or the other thing as some Burners would occasionally opt to install their creations separate from the rest of the popup city.  Regardless, one evening I decided to venture out onto the playa to discover for myself what the mysterious light in the distance was.

For my journey I was accompanied by one of the seven Canadians I had found to camp with for the duration, a BC-based young professional actor named Ben.  The two of us set out as dusk was settling in and we walked and walked towards the light until it finally grew into a structure which turned out to be – believe it or not – a rather busy nightclub that featured a live jazz trio.  They had a grand piano in there and everything, and all of it out in the middle of nothing.  

Ben and I found a pair of seats at the bar and sat down for a song or two, but unfortunately the gift-economy exchange rate way out there in the playa was not so favourable; turned out the trinkets and baubles we pulled from our pockets weren’t enough to get more than a single round of drinks, so after twenty minutes we left.  As we readied ourselves for the long walk back to our Camp we noticed another light even farther out in the desert.  It was a light so faint that it looked like a star on the horizon.  Now, what could that be?  We had already come this far so we easily decided to turn away from Black Rock City and walk even farther.  This time we walked, walked, walked, walked, and walked!  I mean, it was far, man.  Of course, being on such a large tract of featureless land our sense of distance had been kneecapped and what looked like a mile or so away was probably triple that or more.  My gosh, we walked.

Fortunately the playa in 2001 had been mostly solid, with just an inch or two of white powdery sand coating the ground like icing sugar.  Apparently some years the fine sand is ankle-deep or worse, making walking or cycling a difficult endeavour at best.  This year the walking was good, lest we never would have made it.

Amazingly enough, halfway out we found an eensie-weensie tiny little bit of trash on the ground and Ben leaned over and picked it up.  It was a tiny scrap of foil, and inside that foil was piece of paper with a little strange design.  We were amazed that we had found something so small and profound in the middle of an unthinkably large, empty desert and in the dark no less.  Ben had never seen such a strangle little design before.  We decided to take it as a sign, a sign that helped us to carry on heartily towards our twinkling destination, feeling increasingly no longer hardly nonplussed about the entire endeavour at all.  BM is so full of miracles.

After several hours we finally arrived at the twinkling light of mystery.  It was an art installation, a large and beautiful bonsai tree made out of rough-sawn two-by-eight planks and decorated with a dozen candle-lit Chinese lanterns.  We found about twenty people gathered around the tree with just as many bicycles scattered around.  Clearly we were the only ones crazy enough to have walked out this far, and here we were without any water.  Walking back was going to be a problem.

As we were putting off starting our death march back through the desert we saw even more lights on the playa, but these ones were moving!  After a few minutes of tracking the lights they loomed close enough that we could hear the engines, and shortly the Peaceful Tree of Om was pierced with the arrival of the Road Warriors, a crew of thirty or so members of Beyond Thunderdome Camp who were decked out in astoundingly authentic Road Warrior gear – haircuts, tattoos, and all – riding three gritty, muscular vehicles that looked like they came straight out of the movie.  I mean they looked so real!

As the Road Warriors dismounted and mingled grunting around the tree I grabbed Ben.  “This is our chance to hitch a ride,” I said, and I led him over to the front of a roofless mutated Jeep where we sat ourselves down.  My logic was that the Road Warriors would have to engage us in order to depart, at which time we could plead for a lift.  It was a plan that might have worked had I not accidentally sat us down behind the Jeep instead of in front of it.  Hey, it was dark out.

In short order the rowdy Road Warriors tired of the tranquility of the tree-dwellers and they crowded into their cars and started pulling away.  As the Jeep surprised me by starting to pull away I jumped up flapping my arms, somehow grabbing someone’s attention.  They stopped.  “What?!?” growled a Road Warrior.

“Hey man,” I said with a little wave, all smiles.  “Could you guys maybe give me and my friend a ride back to the edge of town?”

“No!”  Grunt, grunt, grunt…

“But we walked all the way out here, and I’m not sure we could make it back,” I continued, all happy-friendly-like.

“You don’t have bikes?” the guy said gruffly, looking around while his friends were busily getting impatient with the whole exchange.

“Nope,” I answered, smiling with a shrug.

“Still…no!” he spat, turning around and motioning to the driver.

“And we didn’t even bring any water!” I cried after them, blindly throwing my last Hail Mary.

“Aw, really?!?” the guy said, turning his leather, chain, and spike-clad torso back towards us.  By his tone I could tell that his humanity and instinct to help his fellow Burners had beaten down the fictional character he was portraying.  “All right,” he said in a pitying voice that was stricken with clear disappointment at his empathy’s victory.  “Hop on,” he barked, turning back around 

You didn’t have to ask us twice!  A couple of spiky Road Warriors clinging to the back bumper shifted to make room for us and we sprang up and held on tight.  

The seats of the Jeep were packed full and another half-dozen Road Warriors were riding the bumpers and the running boards, and all of them were screaming like manic banshees on speed.  Their enthusiasm and authenticity instantly transported my consciousness into the manic world of The Road Warriors as we sped together through the immaculately flat, barren desert like we were on a high-velocity hydroplane ride.  There were no roads and no need for any with nary a blip or a bump on the ground anywhere.  Our three vehicles raced each other weaving left and right, zig-zagging together across the playa with absolute lateral freedom of movement while the inhabitants of each car roared at each another, swinging chains and raising their fists like teenaged gang-bangers psyching themselves up for a turf war.  The level of the suspension of my disbelief was palpable as I stood on that back bumper and held on for my life.  When we finally arrived back at the edge of Black Rock City Ben and I dismounted and they roared off in a cloud of misty dust.  We stood gaping mutely at each other with our jaws hanging loosely and our souls both shaken and stirred.

My goodness it was just so damn fun, I can’t even begin to adequately describe it!  It was ten minutes of uninhibited wild-eyed glee that still stands as one of my life’s greatest experiences.

As was Burning Man as a whole, rife as it was with unforeseeable moments of glorious unbridled joy such as this one.

083101 Psychiatric Help 5¢

By August 31st, 2001 I had been camped in Black Rock City (née Black Rock Desert) long enough to have developed several daily habits.  It was the fifth day of the Burning Man festival and while I won’t say that I was hitting my stride I was at least settling into a bit of routine amidst the blissful chaos of a 28,000 strong collective of the arty and the absurd.  

My day would begin shortly after the sun rose and started beating down in earnest onto my little two-man pup tent.  Within minutes the temperature inside my little fabric den would double, then triple…no matter how spent my body was I would be forced to get up and out of the tent before the mercury started getting seriously exponential.  After a quick trek to the nearby porta-potties I would cozy up to my cooler which would be full of icy-cold water left over from yesterday’s ice.  After brushing my teeth I would empty the icy cooler-water onto my dirty, dusty feet, a shocking and very effective wakeup maneuver that would rival even the strongest espresso, plus I could experience the brief joy of having a pair clean, shiny feet at the end of my legs.

My gleaning feet would last only moments though, for my next daily chore would be to march down to Center Cafe to buy a couple of morning coffees and my daily bag of ice – the only two products that were for sale anywhere on the festival grounds.  The coffee line was usually pretty reasonable but the ice line was always long.  So long in fact that I would regularly buy two bags and sell one to whoever was last in line (at cost, of course), a standard trick of benevolence that I regularly employ in such situations.

Back to camp I would then go, generally with my head down and blinders on so as to not get distracted by ten thousand impossibly unique fragments of irresistible fun and creativity – which is what Burning Man is.  I don’t know if you recall an old Sesame Street animated segment where a kid rides his bike past a series of crazy, unimaginable bits of strangeness until he’s lost, at which point a weird man with a yoyo tells the kid to simply go back past all the things he has seen in reverse order*, which he does (though even as a young child I could never understand why the animators chose to skip a couple of things on the way back and even placed two of them in the wrong order)?

Anyway, trying to go anywhere at Burning Man was like that: just an innocent guy trying to get from A to B whilst the oddest, most engaging bits of wonder were constantly vying for his attention from all sides.

Anyway, back at my camp I would dump the ice into my cooler, make something to eat and then start my shift at the Psychiatric Help 5¢ booth.

One of the only things I knew about Burning Man before I arrived was that everyone attending was expected to “participate”.  We were not to be passive observers; we were all required to add to the wack.  I don’t know how I settled upon my idea to set up a Peanut’s-style Psychiatric Help booth but I do know where I got the idea from.  I had seen a guy with one set up in the lot at a Grateful Dead concert in Vermont several years earlier and I thought it was hilarious, so I decided to copy it.

So somewhere along my long and epic drive through America I had drawn a little diagram in my notebook and when I was in New Mexico (I believe it was) I stopped into a Home Depot and bought the wood, nails, paint, and brushes.  As I was looking to buy a handsaw I noticed that they would cut your wood to custom lengths right there in the store for free and I took full advantage, scratching my head and consulting my little drawing whilst feeding measurements on-the-fly to the helpful staff member.  

I loaded all the wood into the folded-down backseat of my Honda Accord and that night at my campsite in a state park I painted all the pieces, balancing bright yellow boards up against the picnic table and the barbecue pit…I’m sure it was quite a sight (site).  

When I arrived at Burning Man a few days later I found myself camping with a group of seven Canadians who were mostly first-timers like me and they had not brought anything with which to “participate” so they piggy-backed onto my creation which was great (well, okay, they had brought a trailer full of equipment to hold a street hockey tournament – more “sand hockey” I guess – but once I got my booth set up they didn’t even bother to open their trailer).  I was happily surprised that all my measurements and rough planning had been bang-on; the thing went together easier than Ikea and soon I had a big, beautiful yellow Psychiatric Help 5¢ booth complete with a removable In and Out sign, indicating if the “doctor” (me) was working or not.

When I first sat down at my happy little booth I had no idea there would be a lineup for services, but there usually was.  I expected to provide a little background comic relief, just a funny bit of wallpaper for people to snicker at as they walked by.  Well, it turns out there is an awful lot of strife and drama involved in spending eight days in the desert at an ultra-freedom nudist-centric art/life/wackiness gathering – people were clamouring for an ear to hear about it and I heard it all.  They would just sit down in front of me, hand me a nickel (or more likely some odd trinket, as BM is intended to work solely as a cashless gift-economy) and proceed to pour out the most intimate details of their life to a completely unqualified stranger (me), often bursting into tears.  It was insane.  Several people would start their session by asking if I was indeed a licensed psychiatrist (a question I had never anticipated) and when I would say, “No, I’m just a guy sitting behind some plywood,” they would just shrug and start pouring out their troubles.  About half the people needed help with how to deal with other people in their Camp.  I heard lots of partner-problems and even did some couples counselling.  A gay couple complained that one of them was unwilling to experiment while the other wanted to try everything under the sun (quite literally: outdoors and in the desert).  A guy who made his living writing and performing rants in comedy clubs wondered if he should walk away from his relative success to focus on his real dream of being a horror writer.  A girl complained that she couldn’t orgasm via oral stimulation and did I have any suggestions? while her boyfriend sat there shrugging at me.  One lady told me that she and her husband were recovering junkies that had given up their daughter and the only way they could get her back was to return to Los Angeles but she was sure that if they moved back to LA they would both end up back on heroin.  You know, stuff like that.  It got really, really heavy at times.

That said, a good chunk of people would line up just to sit down and become part of the joke, which was great.  One time a guy named Dave sat down and we started a really funny back-and-forth that had us cracking up everyone waiting in line.  Turned out Dave was an amateur comedian and he returned later in the day to ask if I wanted to join him for a two-hour slot hosting a show on one of the temporary radio stations that broadcast to and from Black Rock City.  “Sure!” I replied.

His nickname was Psycho and mine was (and remains) Velvet, so we called our two-hour show the Psycho Velvet Hour**.  We spun some fun tunes (I remember playing Kevin Breit, nero, and Bob Wiseman) and half-way through I decided to start a radio-telethon which soon had a lineup outside the pop-up studio door around the block, as people raced to join us on air.  The statute of limitations is too long to allow for any more details at this time, but it was epic, hilarious, and the parts I remember were unforgettable. Ask me about it the next time I’m on my deathbed.  No cameras or recorders allowed.  

Which pretty much sums up the whole week.

*It’s on youtube as “Lost boy remembers his was home” and it has good music too.  Bless those early-’70’s Sesame Street vignettes for indoctrinating my soul with such great music and wacky ideas at an impressionable age. 

**[edit to add:] I recently found evidence that the Psycho Velvet Hour actually took place on the following day, Saturday, September 1st from 11am-1pm (get it?).  And not only that, I found the playlist!  Dave and I clearly alternated between song picks.

Voodoo Lady – Ween

Djembe Mix – Makru

O Tannenbaum – Vince Guaraldi

So What – Metallica

Blues For Los Angeles – Bill Frisell

King of the Road – Loaded Boxers

Bhopal – Bob Wiseman

Tidal wave – Dick Dale

Step Right Up – Tom Waits

Holiday in the Sun – Sex Pistols

Nautical Disaster – The Tragically Hip

The Vagina Song – Tom Green

Race With a Devil On the Spanish Highway – Al Di Meola

Pumpkin (Cat’s On Crack) – performed live by yours truly

Uncle F*****/Anyone But Kenny – South Park

? – Drums & Tuba

Women From Sodom – The Mentors

? – nero

Tommy the Cat – Primus

? – performed live by Andy Love (whom I just googled and if it’s the same dude he’s now a famous writer and producer, having written songs for New Kids On The Block, New Politics, AGT, Disney and a slew of others.  Remember folks, you heard him here first.)

Drug Store – Stabbing Westward

Token of My Extreme – Frank Zappa

Pepper – Butthole Surfers

Danke Schoen – Wayne Newton

? – Tabla Beat Science

And there it is.  Also scrawled in the corner of the page is a note in my handwriting that reads: “John Barlow wuz here”.  I’m sure I was told to write it down; back then I was much too naive to know that John Barlow (1947-2018) was Bob Weir’s songwriting partner and that he had co-penned some of my favourite Grateful Dead songs.  But then, I was very busy with that telethon.  Come to think of it, that’s probably why Barlow was in the studio with us in the first place; to donate to our telethon (which raised nothing for anyone, aside from our consciousnesses).

090101 The Burn

September 1st, 2001 was the Saturday just before the end of the Burning Man Festival and while the eight-day art/life/wackiness extravaganza runs all the way to Monday morning Saturday pretty much stands as the main day of the festival.  For it is on Saturday night that they burn The Man.

The Man is a giant humanoid statue that stands as the predominant installation centring the temporary city of Black Rock, Nevada as well as being the namesake (and the starting point)* for the whole shebang.  The highly-stylized and visually stunning Man is erected upon a high platform and altogether he stood (if I recall correctly and when it comes to numbers – not names – I usually do) 142 feet tall.  At the time the rumour was that they were going to make The Man a foot shorter every year to ensure the festival would run a finite (if optimistic) number of years, but I believe that nifty idea has since been reversed.

In addition to being very tall and foreboding, every nook, cranny, crevice, and cavity of The Man was packed with fireworks that were designed to shoot off in any number of random directions once he started to burn.  Oh, it was so dangerous.

But then Burning Man is a rather dangerous place all-around (which is sort of ironic considering it is a land of such child-like wonder).  Aside from the very real danger of gathering nearly 30,000 revellers under a searing sun for a week without any outside comforts or resources (sunstroke and dehydration is basically ubiquitous), nearly everything one encounters seems to be riddled with sharp, pointy, jagged edges.  Mutant vehicles sporting elaborately welded overhanging shards of sheet metal blindly cruised the streets while intricate and complicated installations bound to no level of construction code whatsoever incited attendees to enter, crawl through, jump on, or ride in them, and all of it was held together by little more than the glitter-drenched hopes and wishes of good-natured top-drawer party-animals dressed in unicorn costumes if anything at all, and a few rolls of baling wire.  

Oh, and pretty much everything shoots fire.  Like, there was never a moment that you couldn’t see thirty-foot columns of fire blasting left, right, up and down at pretty much any time of the day or night, but especially at night.  It seemed that size mattered when it came to plumes of brimstone, as mutant vehicles constantly challenged each other to flaming inferno blast-offs, egged on by cheering onlookers who clearly felt that their unicorn costumes were flameproof.

And most dangerous of it all was the actual burning of The Man.  

As darkness fell the entire population of Black Rock City gathered in a tight circle around The Man for the lighting.  Once lit The Man ignited fast, quickly becoming engulfed in flames that scorched our eyes and roasted our skin, as fireworks shot screaming upwards into the sky, outwards over our tents, cars and campers, and down into the crowd itself.  We 28,000 natives protected ourselves with a fierce force field formed of magical vibes and maniacal catharsis as we danced and danced ecstatically around our giant fire-god.  Oh how we danced!  I remember thin, twirling tornadoes ripping outward from The Man one after another as the arid air met the intense heat and still we danced, working ourselves into an absolute froth.  Finally The Man fell with a whoosh of sparks, fireworks, and crunching metal, eliciting a massive unified primal cheer from the sweating, mostly naked crowd.  How hundreds of us weren’t maimed or killed remains beyond my comprehension.  It almost makes me believe in freak-formulated force fields  Regardless, it was a sight to see, I’ll tell you that.

After The Man fell the nightly celebration was kicked off proper and we collectively went on 28,000 co-mingled mind-blasting adventures, several of which I suspect ended up in the First Aid tent.  Not mine though, fortunately.

*Burning Man started when a guy randomly built an 8’ tall man out of wood and burnt it (as well as a wooden dog) on a beach in San Francisco back in 1986 to mark the summer solstice with a few friends.  It’s a shame the dog didn’t survive the expansion.

090201 The Long Road Home

While the bulk of the previous seven daily missives regarding my experiences at the 2001 instalment of the Burning Man Festival were not truly date-specific and instead took a stab at themed memories, given that September 2nd was my final day at the fest I have an easier time remembering what actually happened on that particular day.

Note that I said, “easier” and not “infallibly perfect”.

I would have certainly woken up early with the desert heat inflaming my pup tent and then brushed my teeth and cleaned my dusty feet (in precisely that order) using the ice-cold water (née ice) from my cooler before tromping down to Center Camp for my morning coffees.  But this morning was different.  The Man had been brought down the night before in a spectacular blaze of glory (and randomly jettisoned fireworks) and many of the Camps were in the process of being dismantled and/or burned.  After a week of laughter, introspection and tears from my spot manning my Psychiatric Help 5¢ booth I had no other option but to set it alight, so I dragged the yellow wooden box to the nearest burn platform (raised metal stages designed to save the playa from unnecessary burn marks) and tossed it on top of the embers of some previous art.

It burned really, really well.  I stood staring, recalling dozens of strangers who had sat down at the booth and just completely poured their hearts and souls out to me hoping for hope or seeking salvation.  Amazing what a few pieces of plywood and a coat of paint will do.  Some guy stopped to take a picture of my booth inferno, which is saying something ‘cuz this was the era of film.  I’d love to see that picture but I know I never will.

After burning the booth I cleaned up my own camp before heading to the volunteer depot to offer up my required two hours of volunteer cleanup.  The person asked if I had done the 3D maze and I told him I had so he sent me there to go through it and ensure it was ready for burning.  The 3D maze was exactly that, an officially sanctioned tri-level enclosure that was full of crawlspace rooms and lots of tricks and turns.  Several days before I had given it a whirl and found myself stuck in there for close to an hour backtracking and looking for the escape hatch that led to the roof.  After going through every room several times I sat down and thought hard until the answer jumped to my brain.  Of the 35-40 rooms there was only one that had a simple escape, where one would emerge from the floor and immediately see the hatch to the next room in the wall just ahead.  “Aha!” I thought.  Compared to all the other rooms that one had been much too easy, so I tracked through until I came to the room and sure enough it had a secret hatch leading up to the roof, and I was out.

Going through it on the final day I found very few pieces of trash*, but I did find a lot of people trapped inside, several who told me they had been stuck inside the maze all night.  Burning Man isn’t all just fun and games.

While The Man gets burned on the penultimate day, this was the day that the rest of the officially built Burning Man creations were burnt, things like the maze and the temple.  I’m struggling to remember if I saw the temple burn but I’m pretty sure I did.  It was an amazing structure that I had visited twice, and both times found myself surrounded by people in tears.  The temple had been built of raw wood with countless asymmetrical holes cut into it, and the idea was for people to write the names of lost loved ones on a tiny scrap of wood and place that scrap somewhere inside.  By the end of the week the giant temple was overflowing with messages of grief.  It was beautiful, tragic, powerful, and truly, truly awesome.

Though the festival didn’t officially end until the following morning for some reason I decided to leave on Sunday afternoon.  Thinking about it now it was probably due to a bunch of reasons; I had a lot of ground to cover to make it to a Kevin Breit/Bill Frisell concert at a jazz festival in Guelph, Ontario just five days hence, I wanted to beat the huge line of traffic that was doubtlessly going to fill the one road out of the desert, and probably most importantly I was sorely looking forward to a shower and a real bed and just couldn’t talk myself into putting it off for one more night.  Whatever the reason, with hugs and handshakes to the group of seven Camp companions that had befriended me for the week I started up my Honda and pulled out of there with the air-conditioning set to “stun”.

Two or three hours away I spotted a lonely dive motel that had rooms for $25 and I pulled in.  After about three showers and a few cold drinks I decided to check down the back of the couch in the dingy room hoping to find some change (if that gives you any idea how broke I was).  I don’t remember if I found any money, but I did find a large black-handled folding knife with a blade that was caked in old, dried blood.  Astounding my present self with my level of stupidity, rather than calling the cops and likely solving a murder I thought, “Hey, nice knife,” and tossed it in my luggage, crossing the border into Canada with what was surely evidence of something nefarious five days later after power-driving fourteen hours a day across nearly the entirety of the continental United States of America.

Luckily I crossed the border a few days before 9/11, lest I would have been stuck in the US for several extra days with no money.  And a bloodied knife.  But as luck would have it luck had it, and I made it to the Breit/Frisell show early enough to get the front pew (but that’s another story, of course).

In summation, Burning Man is a festival unlike any other, a collection of creativity and freedom that in my experience is unparalleled anywhere by anything and I’m pleased to the core to have attended.  I suspect part of the reason I’ve not attended again since this life-affirming experience is because I don’t want to taint my enthusiasm for it.  And because it’s so far away.

But when it boils down to it, if Burning Man taught me anything it is this: Believe in coincidence and always trust your astrologist.

*It’s rather amazing how devoid of trash the entire site was.  After going through the maze I took a bag and went around scouring for garbage to pick up.  I hadn’t seen a single cigarette butt on the ground until day six, and in my two hour search on this final day the amount of trash I found could have fit in my pockets.  Not bad for 28,000 hedonistic revellers.  

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