Freaks in the Desert

Strange days and fiery nights at the 1996 Burning Man Festival

I woke up and winced into the sun. Strange sounds were all around me.
Vroom, vroom. "Kill Barney!" "Kill Barney!" "Kill Barney!" Whump! "Yeaaaaaaah!"

I sat up, took a long pull from a water bottle and, crouching on all fours, stuck my head through the tent flap to see what the hell was going on out there.

A Winnebago wove erratically at low speed through a slalom course of nearby buses, tents, vans and Ryder trucks. Behind it, a white sand desert stretched out forever. On the camper's roof rode seven or eight people dressed like pirates, brandishing squirt guns and plastic scimitars. A skull-and-crossbones flag flapped from the RV's radio antenna, and a black cable tied around its rear bumper dragged a large Barney doll by the left leg. The grinning purple dinosaur had seen better days.

A Cadillac covered in spray-on foam that had been molded and painted silver to make it look like a shark circled the stuffed animal once, twice, then attacked, scooping up Barney in its jaws and running over him with both right-side tires.

Whump! Whump!
The pirates howled with glee as the Caddy peeled off to recalibrate.
I lay back down in my tent. The temperature felt well over 100 degrees. I'd been asleep for a few hours and was sheened in sweat. As I toweled off, a naked couple driving a land sailer--basically an engineless dune buggy with a wind-surfing sail--glided past my line of sight. A long string of firecrackers went off in the distance. It was Saturday. I'd purposely left my watch in Tempe, but I guessed the time to be about three in the afternoon.

Twenty-four hours ago, I'd packed a 4x4 with camping gear, nonperishable food, beer, safety flares, 40 gallons of water and directions to Gerlach, Nevada, population 350. Located 100 miles north of Reno on the southern perimeter of a vast wasteland known as the Black Rock Desert, Gerlach is more or less the last town in the middle of nowhere.

But Gerlach is also the closest year-round settlement to the Burning Man Festival--an annual underground gathering of neopagans, machine artists, ravers, UFO cultists, crystal clutchers, desert rats, pyro-fetishists, hippies, nudists, Web geeks and myriad shades of edge-culture enthusiasts that takes place during the Labor Day weekend in the middle of a 400-square-mile dry lake bed deep in the Black Rock Desert.

The festival started 11 years ago in San Francisco, where Larry Harvey asked a carpenter buddy to help him build an eight-foot-tall effigy of the man his girlfriend had recently left him for. When it was done, Harvey invited a dozen friends to party at Ocean Beach, and torched the fucker. He did it again the next year, with more friends and a bigger man. By the third year, people started to bring men of their own, along with lots of fireworks, televisions and old computers to blow up.

After the cops shut down the 1990 party before the Man could burn, Harvey founded the Burning Man Project (a San Francisco collective that still runs the festival). He also moved the party to its current, fully permitted location in the Black Rock Desert, which is controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Attendance at the festival has roughly doubled every year since 1992. Last year, 4,000 people showed up. This year, according to local police and the project, almost 8,000 came--this with no commercial advertising, only word of mouth and the Internet.

It took me almost 17 hours to drive from Tempe to Gerlach and ten minutes to get from Gerlach to Black Rock Station, the Burning Man Festival's entrance outpost. I pulled off the road and up to a shack, where a woman dressed like a Gypsy gave me directions in exchange for a $40 "donation" to the Burning Man Project.

"Zero out your odometer," she said. "Drive eight miles straight, then turn right and drive about two miles, then just head for the Man."

Using the peak of a distant mountain to hold a course, I started out across the cracked earth. The surface was well-suited to high-speed travel--flat, dry and hard, with nothing to hit for miles in any direction. Pushing 80, I trailed a whirling plume of dust. Visibility to the front and sides was excellent. I could see RVs, school buses, rental vans and trucks on my right and left up to a mile away, and several dust clouds from other vehicles far ahead. The scene looked straight out of The Road Warrior.

The sand clouds in front of me started to shift right when my odometer read 9.2, and I followed them at 9.8. A minute later, I saw the Man for the first time--a match-stick figure standing against the horizon. Multicolored tents sprouted like mushrooms at his feet as I got closer.

The Road Warrior aesthetic only slightly diminished once I rolled into Black Rock City, the largest settlement in Pershing County, Nevada, for three days a year. People raced around on bicycles, skateboards, land sailers, roller blades, scooters and motorcycles. An ultralight copter buzzed the camp, as a large remote-controlled plane turned loops in the sky. I even saw a hand-painted sign for "Bartertown."

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