Burn the Man!

Playing with fire at the 1997 Burning Man festival

A quarter mile northeast from the Church of the Orbital Orgy, a family--mom, dad, big brother, sis--sat on a couch, watching television. "They're toast," I thought. And they were. The couch suddenly lurched forward, jerked to a stop for a second, then hyperaccelerated and smashed into the TV, which was rigged to explode, and did. The suburbanites--crash-test dummies, actually--began to burn. The crowd roared like Roman gladiator fans. Behind me, someone lighted the fuse on a brick of 10,000 firecrackers. As they erupted, a massive geodesic sphere rolled by, carrying a naked woman. She was painted gold and strapped to a chair suspended in the craft's center. Inside the sphere, mounted speakers blared techno music and a strobe light flashed like ice-blue automatic-weapons fire.

That's five minutes of what I remember from the 1997 Burning Man, the most dangerous underground art festival in the world. And one of the best parties. An annual gathering of freaks in the desert, about 12,000 this year, who come to make art, get naked, help build a temporary city, and then burn large parts of it down. The festival--equal parts Mardi gras, The Road Warrior and techno-pagan fire rite--climaxes on Sunday night, every Labor Day weekend, when organizers torch a towering wood effigy of a human, packed with explosives. "Burn the Man!" is the event's rallying cry.

By now, the story of Burning Man's origin is part of global pop-culture mythos: In 1986, San Francisco resident Larry Harvey built a large wooden man in the aftermath of a shattered love affair, took it to Baker Beach one Labor Day weekend with friends, and set it on fire. Last year, several news stories on the festival said the man was an effigy of the guy Harvey's lover left him for, but Harvey recently said no, it was an act devoid of any specific meaning. Either way, it was a rush, and it drew an audience. Harvey and his friends kept building men, and burning them every Labor Day weekend, word spread, and the crowds got larger.

In 1990, at the City of San Francisco's insistence, the party moved elsewhere--to the no man's land of a dry, prehistoric lake bed, deep in the Nevada desert, about 127 miles northwest of Reno. Until this year, Burning Man was held on federal Bureau of Land Management property in the center of the wasteland, 14 miles from the nearest road. It drew big numbers from various shades of Bay Area counterculture--ravers, Wiccans, machine artists, computer programmers, experimental musicians and other alternative-lifestyle enthusiasts. The festival doubled in size four years in a row, and hit 10,000 last year when it also suffered its first fatality. A drunken motorcyclist, riding at night, with no headlights, was killed when he ran into the side of a parked van. Also, two campers were seriously injured when a car ran over their tent on the outskirts of the festival; and a local sheriff arrested a man for selling drugs when he casually displayed his pot and psychedelic wares on a blanket like they were incense sticks and tiny Buddha statues.

This year, Burning Man was held on the same dry lake bed, but the site was private ranch land only half a mile from the highway. Washoe County officials imposed 121 restrictions on the festival's use permit. They also forced organizers to take out an $11 million insurance policy and pay $321,000 for police and fire protection. Tickets to Burning Man were $40 last year. This year, the price increased to $50 in advance, $75 at the festival. Unlike the past, when gate crashers could easily drive around the pay point to reach the festival site, the Burning Man '97 site was protected on all sides by mud bogs, dense brush and natural moats. The site itself--christened Hualapai ("Wall-a-pie") Playa, after the vanished Native American tribe--was an oval of flat, white, hardpan alkali about three miles in diameter.

Moving closer to pavement may have been necessary for the festival's survival, but it was clearly a sacrifice. In past years, the Mad Max road rally from the highway to the festival site was part of Burning Man's postapocalyptic charm. For miles and miles, you raced across the cracked earth, cyclones of dust trailing behind you, until finally, on the distant horizon, you could see a tiny matchstick man that slowly grew in size, multicolored dome tents sprinkled at his feet like a thousand marbles. This year, you could see the Man from the traffic jam on Nevada state Highway 54.

He was illuminated with neon rods that changed color from violet to green and stood atop a platform of hay bales. The Man was shorter this year, four stories instead of six--and no longer the festival's center point. Festivalgoers used to camp in a chaotic spiral outward from the Man. This year, camping was restricted to a designated semicircle with an internal grid and clearly defined main roads. "Last year it was circles," said a friend. "This year it's squares, like a trailer park."

I rolled in to the festival around 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 29, the third night, and meandered until I spotted a Kentucky Fried Chicken exit sign, its arrow pointed heavenward. I recognized it from my first Burning Man last year, when I camped with the household and entourage of The Moon, a co-op house in San Luis Obispo, California. I was in luck. The Moonies are cool, and camping near a tall beacon--like, say, a fluorescent sign pilfered from Colonel Sanders--is key to finding one's tent at 4:30 a.m. after a full night of the Burning Man experience. This year, the Moon crew arrived in a Merry Prankster school bus dubbed "Beelzebus." As I reintroduced myself, I learned I had missed The Moon's performance-art experiment that afternoon.

"Basically, we took a bunch of televisions, microwave ovens and alarm clocks and soldered them into a statue," said Moon affiliate Ian Winn, 27. "Then we just took it out on the Playa, set it down, and leaned a couple baseballs bats against it."

All that remained of the sculpture when I arrived was a scorched heap of indistinguishable wreckage. Ian said it took an eight-wheeled army troop carrier to finish off the last microwave.

Ian was wearing a purple corduroy jumpsuit. The pants had glow-in-the-dark polka dots, and the shirt was adorned with several plastic, glow-in-the-dark toy octopuses. His fluffy Viking's hat with horns, and multiple red, blue and chartreuse glow sticks completed his black-light nightmare. Ian had arrived the day before, and invited me on a tour. I thought at least he would be easy to spot in the dark.

Piss Clear, the superior of two daily newspapers produced on site at the festival this year, included a glossary called "Playa Lingo" in its August 28 edition. Defined terms included:

Disco Napping--The restless, vaguely psychedelic way one sleeps during the day after being up all night on hallucinogens.

Spacewalking--Walking way out into the desert at night, away from camp, with no flashlight.

"Strafing run"--Trying to witness, no matter how briefly, as many art installations, performances and events in one day or night as possible.

My first night this year was pure strafing run. Highlights: a giant trampoline, assorted weirdness at the headquarters of the Bavarian Illuminati Motorcycle Cabal, and the "Boogie Forest," a camp with a sound system pumping house and trance music, vertical, glowing sculptures, and (to Ian's great delight) tall, black-light tubes.

There was also a 20-foot-tall bone arch built on site by San Francisco artist Michael Christian using cattle remains gathered from local ranches.

The House of Doors, an open-air labyrinth made of several hundred vintage doors from San Francisco, contained a pirate radio station, several highly interpretative art installations involving dolls and pop-culture flotsam, and a circular performance theater. It was open-mike time when we arrived. Ian got on stage and told a story about trying to take opium resin as a suppository in Thailand.

When he was done, we walked outside and found ourselves amid a pack of seven cops--state police, county sheriffs and a plainclothes officer, armed and apparently on patrol.

But for what? The exact mission of the police at Burning Man this year was a popular topic of debate and concern. The cops were frequently heckled. Some of it was good-natured, like the German army oompah band that segued to the Dragnet theme whenever it crossed paths with Johnny Law. Some of it was angry. When a black police copter cut an elaborate paper kite to ribbons, resentment ran high.

Last week, the Washoe County Sheriff's Department's Lieutenant Larry McGee told me 15 to 20 police officers were on the festival site, 24 hours a day. However, he reported only two "Burning Man-related" arrests this year, both on Sunday night. One guy was busted for a DUI about eight miles from the festival, and another was taken into custody after he waved a pistol at several people. There were no deaths, but 71 injuries required emergency treatment.

"The biggest problems were heat stroke and dehydration," said McGee. After that? "Homemade incendiary devices gone awry, followed by burns on the soles of the feet, mostly from firewalking."

There were no illegal-substance busts, which clearly means the police weren't out to make any. Like last year, pot, LSD, Ecstasy and especially psilocybin mushrooms were discreetly sold and consumed in copious quantities. African hashish was also abundant, thanks to the many Europeans who discovered Burning Man this year. A fourth term in Piss Clear's "Playa Lingo" section reads "Chemist: Those roving, early morning drug dealers who stop by for a visit." Getting stoned and/or tripping was hardly the focus of the event for most people, however. The drugs were merely an accouterment, like hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party.

Before crashing Friday night, I clambered up the scaffolding to an observation platform near the Moon camp. The long line of headlights on the highway resembled the last scene in Field of Dreams.

I got up the next morning, walked to Barter Town and traded two mangoes for an alien glow pop. Ian traded 11 jokes for a skirt.

Here's one:
Q: How many Deadheads does it take to change a light bulb? A: They don't. They just wait until it burns out and then follow it around the country.

A barter economy is a fundamental tenet of Burning Man's temporary community. Ian traded a roll of sushi he'd packed in a cooler for two pancake breakfasts and coffee. Fueled up, we took off on a theme camp strafing run--Art Car camp, Alien Abduction Camp, and the Fern Grotto, a miniature rain forest replete with misters, a fountain, small pool, and thick, hanging foliage. A sanctuary from the broiling midday heat.

Burning Man is the only art festival I know of with a program that includes a desert survival guide. Daytime highs on the Hualapai Playa bust 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Late at night, temperatures plummet to the mid-40s. The smart play, when the sun's full, is to go on a walkabout until you feel woozy, maybe play a couple leisurely games of Alice in Wonderland croquet at Lawn Games Campe, then find a place in the shade to suckle a water bottle and laze around like a lizard until it cools down.

Burning Man is mind-bending enough during the day, but the festival truly thrives at night. Late Saturday afternoon, as the heat relented and a pink sunset flowered in the dusk, a howl went up and spread through the festival until thousands of voices were raised in a primal, wordless release. Then it's on.

A good time-management strategy for Burning Man at night is to walk at random. When you see fire, go that way. I did, and came to a machine that looked like the metal frame and wheels of a charred covered wagon, but with a 20-foot industrial drill for a snout. The machine rolled slowly along on its giant, spoked wheels for a while, then stopped. The drill powered up with a whine and began spinning madly, the machine's handlers screamed, "Get back, get back," then the snout breathed fire like a dragon.

Nearby, two men torched a giant face of rope with spinning fireworks for eyes. A leaf blower spit flaming sawdust through its gaping mouth. Naked forms ran by, swinging huge maces of burning steel wool they periodically smashed on the desert floor. Someone ignited a brick of magnesium with a blowtorch. The eerie, white flame seared my eyes.

Blinking painfully, I started walking toward South Camp, a quarter mile away. A man wearing a suit of flashing red LED lights cartwheeled past me. At South Camp, I stopped to watch a game of Alien Chess, played on a large-scale (20-foot-square), black-and-green board with blue and red, two-foot-high metal alien pieces, all of which glowed in the dark. After checkmate, I strolled down the main road, lingering at the Temple of Atonement to watch the live S&M action.

Desperate for a place to chill, I beelined to Bianca's Smut Shack, a communal tent with a simple formula--beds, chairs, couches and porn. Bianca's had a kitchen, and bare-chested waiters bore trays of complimentary grilled-cheese-sandwich squares, jalapeno poppers and cigarettes. Some carried jugs of sangria, and spray bottles of margaritas they spritzed into willing mouths. Heaven. I kicked it on a couch, leafing through a Spanish catfight mag, until I noticed an exodus was under way. Something about an opera.

It was put on by the Daughters of Ishtar, and purportedly reenacted a 3,000-year-old ritual honoring Ishtar, Sumerian goddess of love and war. The "opera" was mostly wailing and fire-dancing--routine for Burning Man--but did have two nice touches: a horned Pan character who gave away fruit from a horn-of-plenty and a diva who gushed wine from the nipple of her metal breastplate. The piece culminated with the immolation of the main set--a phallic temple that, to the disappointment of many, never fully collapsed. At the Burning Man festival, burning something without burning it down is viewed with the same disdain some hold for tantric sex and decaffeinated coffee. I soon got bored, scanned the horizon for the KFC beacon, and, shivering from cold, set course for Colonel Sanders.

Radio Free Burning Man broke the news of Princess Di's fatal car accident in the morning, which quickly turned into a massive game of telephone. By afternoon, rumor had Ronald Reagan and Dolly Parton dead as well. I laid low in Bianca's most of the day, venturing out to chat up a film crew shooting footage for an indie flick called Road Daze. Evidently, the script has the two main characters top off an epic road trip with four days at Burning Man. A water truck drove along the main road in South Camp, wetting down the dust. Several nudists followed behind, dancing in the spray. At dusk, I cruised around the desert for a while in a human-scale, free-rolling hamster wheel I found parked near the Moon camp, then got ready for The Burn.

People gathered around the Man at dark, forming a circle with a 50-yard safety radius. A wild procession from Center Camp arrived shortly after 8--the mobile living room, robots, the oompah band, several drum troupes, standard-bearers wearing goat masks, fairies, dominatrixes, a rocket that belched blue flame, fire swallowers, and thousands of freaks carrying torches like peasants storming Dracula's castle.

Slowly, the Man's arms rose from its sides and locked in a victory position. The crowd went rabid. A man in a Mylar suit walked to the hay platform, set himself on fire and ran up the steps. He gyrated like a self-immolated puppet for a few seconds and lighted a fuse on one of the Man's legs before he ran down the other side, and rolled around on the ground to put himself out.

First, fire blasted from the Man's feet and hands, then slowly crept up his legs, torso and finally his arms, setting off thousands of sparklers and firecrackers along the way. Two minutes after the fuse was lighted, his head exploded. Colored balls of fire rocketed upward. The Man wobbled drunkenly for a few seconds, then crashed to the ground. Catharsis.

Some people ran up and tossed handfuls of money into the flames. Others set fire to every hay bale and wooden structure in the vicinity. Stilt-walkers in evil clown costumes ran wobbly through the chaos. Two men in bunny suits watched impassively as the rocket thing spewed blue flame. A camera crew from MSNBC was chased from the area by a mob chanting "Burn the Media!" The festival was now a frenzy.

I walked into the desert to calm down and get a panorama view. Hualapai Playa looked like a village sacked by Mongol hordes. Dark silhouettes danced around dozens of fires in the distance. On the Burning Man main stage, the San Francisco galactic funk band Beyond Race rocked a manic crowd. The covered-wagon thing rolled up on a huge, wooden duck and promptly flambeed the fucker. I dropped by a tent full of strobe lights, mirrors and foam bats, then made one last pass at Bianca's Smut Shack, where a five-way sex show was well under way. Big deal. By then, my senses were cauterized. I was beyond shock. I was burned out. It was over.

Monday morning, word around camp was that Burning Man organizers had taken in enough money to cover their costs with the county, but were still 50 grand in the hole. I resolved to write them a check once I got home, then followed the Moonies in Beelzebus as we plowed through the deep sand on an emergency access road that had been opened to relieve traffic pressure on the main exit.

Once I hit the highway, I kept my radio tuned to Radio Free Burning Man until it faded out 10 miles down the road. I set my tuner to scan and watched the digital numbers scroll until they locked on a talk-radio station out of Reno. Former U.S. Congressman Bob Dornan was guest-hosting the Oliver North show, ranting about a ". . . liberal conspiracy afoot to create a subversive, almost pagan devotion to life in the fast lane."

I laughed.

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