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American dreaming 

Find yourself and lose your mind at Burning Man

Huddled in the back of a dusty van stripped of its seats, the windows pulled tight against the dirt and cold, we congratulated ourselves heartily for having kept our minds and maintained possession of our backpack throughout the night, all the way till whatever time in the morning it was. Somewhere not far away, an art car ambled by, vomiting exhaust, beats, and the howls of onboard partiers.

click to enlarge KYLIE MENDONCA
  • KYLIE MENDONCA

The sun was still at least an hour below the horizon, and we made it home with little incident. We were filthy, dry and scabby, with dreadlocks forming, and our lips cracking, but the mere custody of our orange backpack with our water bottles, our ChapStick, and camera inside was evidence that we had made it intact.

“The day we lose this backpack,” I told my compatriot, “Is the day we lose our marbles.”

Instantly we realized the folly of attaching so much importance to the bag. The bag was gone.

We had spent most of the hours between sundown to sun-up chasing lights into the middle of the desert and looking for dangerous objects to climb on. We searched for snacks, got trapped in the worst port-a-potty in the history of the world, and met folks as lost as ourselves. The bag was lost, and our marbles were surely gone for good.

Wide-eyed in the van’s yellow overhead light we sat, the full magnitude of our situation coming into focus. We saw clothes spilling out of boxes, the floor littered with baby wipes, and a thin white film covering it all. This was only Tuesday and we still had five more days in the desert.

The only way to survive Burning Man is to lose your mind, promptly. Quickly dispatch with any old notions of reality, humanity, comfort, or time. For an entire week, a lifetime of social training becomes absolutely obsolete, and hopefully some aspects will remain that way. Such distractions as work, cell phones, computers, clocks, television, advertisements, or conspicuous consumption to pacify your boredom have no place in the economy of Burning Man. Actually, it’s a gift economy, which means you prosper by being nice to people.

f you’re wondering by now, ‘what is Burning Man?’ I’ll try to explain, but much of the ‘what’ is subjective. Concretely, I can say that for the last 23 years, people have met in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, a dusty basin that sits about two-and-a-half hours north of Reno. An entire city is built to accommodate 50,000 people for one week. A nonprofit group provides basic infrastructure and toilets for the cost of a ticket. The rest is basically volunteer-run and human-powered. People crate large-scale art pieces, and adopt random personas for a year’s worth of party crammed into one week. There are also yoga, dance, pageantry, and workshops on everything from erotic knot tying to transcendental mediation. The sheer creative force may be unmatched anywhere else.

The theme this year was American Dream. From that seed grew the establishment of mock real estate offices and guided “foreclosure tours” around the campsite. Some revelers donned red, white, and blue nipple pasties; still others wasted huge amounts of fossil fuels in the name of recreation, art, and general kick-assery.

I

click to enlarge KYLIE MENDONCA
  • KYLIE MENDONCA
Taking cues from Simon and Garfunkel, I’ve looked for America before. I guess my American dream is something like graduating from college without crushing debt and avoiding the shackles of a stucco mini-mansion with a living room, den, family, and game room. I might want to marry someone with similar morals, ambitions, and even sex characteristics, if that’s okay with voters. If I can achieve all that, maybe I can avoid working 60-hour weeks for the next 40 years and still get affordable health care. For my roommate and camping buddy, the expression of the American dream took the form of a big, red Afro—not clownish, more like a hot ’70s disco mama.

At its core, some people would say Burning Man is the American dream; it’s the pursuit of happiness, by any means necessary, without your neighbors looking in on you to make sure your actions are up to snuff morally. Just don’t hurt anyone but yourself and you’re good.

Because it’s so hard to actually define, the folks at Burning Man have come up with a random phrase generator for lazy journalists. Try these randomly generated explanations: Burning man is a post-hipster, nihilistic meltdown; Burning Man is a crypto-bohemian, dada orgy; Burning Man is a neo-pagan, drug-induced revolution. I’m sure it’s all of these, but what follows is a version of my own retro-specto, narcissistic hippie hoedown.

 

A true account of some things that probably happened

Monday: Officially, there are two things that can be purchased at Burning Man: Ice and coffee, and thank God for the latter. I’m hopelessly addicted, and the woman I camped with, a self-proclaimed “professional student” and obvious glamazon, Skylar, is, too. Minutes after arriving at Black Rock City we erected a crude sort of chicken-wire shanty near the van, and rode a pair of cheap, knock-off little girl’s bikes along pitted trails in search of the black gold.

The energy at camp was still building and the dust clouds steadily thickening when we set off toward Center Camp the first morning—the 15-minute ride past naked dudes and freakcycles wreaked havoc on our backsides and opened our minds to the benefits of walking, but also exposed us for the first time to some of the wonders of Burning Man: the Teeter-Totter of Death (no one died) the Thunderdome, (also death-free) and, holiest of holy Burning Man Meccas, the 24-hour roller disco. Glory be.

Sipping coffee, I started picking out Sky’s afro and planning for the week to come when the first of three major dust storms began. It was a seven-hour white-out and it destroyed any hope of comfort in the next seven days. With no concept of a white-out storm, we headed straight to deep playa, a no-mans land where most of the giant art installations are sited. This was, admittedly, a stupid move on our part.

We became hopelessly lost within minutes. Naturally, we continued without heed for the art cars, which surely could not see us if we could not see ourselves. We probably would have kept going if someone hadn’t shouted, “Watch out for the trench!” A group of artists were working to assemble some piece of art, and had excavated a ditch wide enough to crash into, near their fractured art piece. I never figured out what they were building. They turned us around 180 degrees and we rode a straight line back to civilization. Still, the dust outlasted our cheery dispositions. I read Frank Zappa’s autobiography to pass the time and dreamt about elaborate meals.

click to enlarge KYLIE MENDONCA
  • KYLIE MENDONCA

  Tuesday: There were sober people at Burning Man. Lots of them. Sorry mom, not me. Sobriety took on a whole new meaning out there. Getting sober usually involved walking back to camp and noticing the new bruises, which appeared daily, while consuming whichever beverage was being poured in my general direction. After a few mimosas, I’d really start to feel like myself again.

I put on a borrowed gold unitard, Skylar wore a pink get-up and looked somewhat like a giant, female version of Richard Simmons. We speed-walked Esplanade, the main street, which circles around the man. Before long, we found ; the magic box. Picture this: a silver cube hanging from some sort of scaffolding. Someone climbs in, and the guy running the box throws in lights and some toys, closes the lid and then gives the box a couple of good kicks. After a minute or so, the person stumbles out with a Cheshire grin planted across their face and staggers off. We climbed in for a little abuse and then stumbled out, grinning stupidly.

Hours later, we found a ride with Big D, whom I suspect was a “furry,” but he was a nice enough fellow. He captained an art car adorned with a lizard face and yellow butterfly wings. We climbed a ladder and boarded the beast’s back, settling into swivel chairs while the chilled, dust-free breeze grazed our body suits. Skylar’s face was electric, and her red fro, covered in flour-fine playa dust, by now looked more like the powdered wigs of America’s founders than like Richard Simmons’ mop. D’s art car meandered and circled, moving thoughtlessly to the dainty waltz that floated from Black Rock City’s radio tower.

Wednesday: A guy dressed like Jesus limped by, encumbered by a cross and pulling a shopping cart brimming with cans. My head was pounding. The daytime heat was unbearable, and the dust was sticking to the sweat around my legs, creating a sort of desert knee sock, and the only people I met were lecherous old perverts. The coffee turned my stomach, and some girl next to me was having a dramatic meltdown because, I gathered, someone was sleeping with someone else, and she was left out of the triangle. For anyone going just to gawk at the titties, and the weird places that people will pierce their bodies: It’s not worth it. The desert is too harsh an environment to endure merely to perv out.

Burning Man is not some happy-go-lucky, free-for-all where everyone walks around hugging each other all the time. Most people out there are friendly and shockingly generous. But the notion of free expression is taken literally. One kid found his place in the community blasting some caty-wompus gurgling sort of organ music from a portable amp, and screaming “How do I stop being so fucking abrasive?” into a microphone. I could really relate to him. And while extreme creativity was the norm, some people were completely predictable. Old-school ravers made a good presence, as did the monochromatic raver-chicks contingent, a group that unanimously wore fluorescent dreadlock weaves, booty shorts, matching fuzzy legwarmers, and tiny, tiny tops. Actually, there were men wearing the same thing.

There were circus folk, who were not at all like the toothless carnies at the county fair. Acrobats, stilt-walkers, clowns, trapeze artists—they were hot.

Now consider the shirt cockers—I didn’t come up with this name, but I’ve witnessed the phenomena at Pirate’s Cove, too. These were the older guys, with beer bellies, who walked around with shirts on top, and nothing on their lower half, so their junk just falls out the bottom of the shirt. It’s disturbing. I heard that they all get together for shirt-cocker parties, where they just stand around and scare young girls.

 

Thursday? Friday? Saturday?

Sometimes the days blurred together. I had no real idea of time, and when I did, it was only to find an event, which had likely been cancelled or misprinted in the booklet that they handed out at the gate. Most days, I’d just give up early, pick a direction, and start walking. By Thursday, most of the street signs were gone, and by Saturday night many of the major landmark camps had packed up, too, so this really became the most effective approach.

Saturday night is considered the apex of the festival, when the man burns and the entire event turns drunker, louder, faster, stupider. It’s a lot like New Year’s Eve. Everyone is all dressed up and expecting the greatest night of their lives, and of course it doesn’t happen.

Somehow, when I came home to SLO, everyone already knew about the dust storms; the second of three major white-outs happened Saturday, which was so severe that people worried the man might not burn. The wind picked up early that day, a liberating breeze that grew into an all-out desert mutiny, displacing heaps of dust so fine it penetrated eyelashes and built mounds on the fronts of our teeth. I was lost in deep playa again, with no shelter but a tiny house, modeled after Dorothy’s Kansas habitat. I crawled through the tiny door, turning my hips sideways to squeeze in, and stayed there for several hours, just reading the graffiti on the wall until I fell asleep.

I woke up to the architects staring at me through a crack in the roof, yelling from behind make-shift dust masks “Wake up! We’re gonna burn this fucker down!”

I stumbled out, struggling to slip on shoes, and watched as they piled scrap wood and bits of paper for a bonfire. The smallest of three men approached with a goofy smile on his round face, his dusty Mohawk flapping in the storm. “Have a shot,” he said, pulling one from a shoulder belt, loaded with varying hued bullet-shaped vessels. Cheap rum, and then a second filled with vodka. The house burned later in the night, after the man was just a pile of warped rebar and ash.

They drove me back to camp, stopping at a theremin, an early electronic instrument (‡ la the Beach Boys’ hit song “Good Vibrations”), which howled relentlessly in the wind.

Later Sky and I found our friend, who possessed a stash of homemade strawberry wine, and nearly forgot the storm.

When the sun goes down at Blackrock City, the whole camp cheers, and then comes alive. On Saturday, the camp cheered, and then seemed to drain while the middle of the playa burned electric and the weekenders, with their clean hair and white shirts, got ready to rage. Everyone dressed in their best, except for the naked people. Art cars circled up like a ravenous wagon party, their deranged passengers hanging from the sides and dancing feverishly to fend off thinking, and the cold.

Like a bug to the zapper, I headed straight for the man, into the thick of revelry. I thought I was supposed to dance and rejoice while the man goes up in flames, but all I could think about was that scene from The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses—the part when Heston gets heat stroke and talks to some burning bush. It tells him not to worship idols, but when Moses returns to camp he finds everyone doing just that; worshipping this effigy, and getting ready to burn the fucker down. The rest of camp was dancing and carrying on, like they found a new religion, and all I could think was, ‘Isn’t this exactly what I’ve always been told not to do?’

Well, that about did it for me. I walked a straight(ish) line to the far side of the camp, and away from the revelers, as if avoiding a lightning bolt was that easy. I guessed God has good aim.

It turns out no one was lightening-struck that night, but I think some kid did O.D. There is really nothing funny about an ambulance at Burning Man (except that you can’t tell it apart from an art car, blaring bad electronic music).

The following day we packed and said our goodbyes. One of our campmates apparently had a religious experience, which inspired him to burn a pile of hallucinogenic drugs. When the dust picked up that night, it came with a hard rain, and basically put a cap on the week. I couldn’t sleep, dreaming about my first shower in more than a week and an all-you-can-eat buffet at a Reno casino.

One of our crew decided to ride his modified (not in an efficient way) BMX bike home from Nevada. Was he sober when he decided? I’m not sure, but he wasn’t at camp when we packed up to leave, so I hope he’s doing well out there.


 Kylie Mendonca can usually be found in the New Times’ cave staring into the blank void of the Internet. Contact her at kmendonca@newtimesslo.com

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