Black Rock or Combust

Afterthoughts on the 1999 Burning Man Festival, from a four-year veteran

The nubile creature who welcomed me to the 1999 Burning Man Festival was costumed as a space cowgirl: pink boots, leggings, miniskirt, gun belt and glitter. She said the winds had been so high at night they summoned sandstorms from vast wastelands beyond the festival's perimeter.

"There's been white-outs, but other than that, it's really huge and fun this year," said the cowgirl. She waved me through her greeter's outpost and into a brave, new hallucinatory world.

As I breached the festival's membrane, I saw pedaling toward me a horde of maybe 50 half-naked women on bicycles. Breasts painted, voices joined in a chorus of undulating rebel yells, they peeled to either side of my Jeep, surrounding me for a moment before riding into the past on my rearview mirror.

Fuel's paradise: Festival attendees pose with the Not Yet Burning Man.
David Holthouse
Fuel's paradise: Festival attendees pose with the Not Yet Burning Man.

It was good to be back.

This year marked my fourth annual Labor Day weekend pilgrimage to a vast, dry, prehistoric lake bed in the Black Rock Desert of northeastern Nevada. It's where the Burning Man Festival has been held every year since 1991.

The guiding concept of Burning Man is to create a temporary, experimental community -- called Black Rock City -- around the principles of survival camping, extreme creativity, a barter economy, and the simple, primal pleasure of setting stuff on fire and/or blowing it up.

Each year, the event climaxes with the torching of a massive match-stick man that's packed with explosives and hunks of magnesium.

The first year I attended, in 1996, Black Rock City had 8,000 inhabitants. The next year, the census grew to 10,000. In 1998, there were 15,000. This year, 23,000 came, saw and burned.

The population figures were updated each morning at a Media Information Booth (located in Center Camp, near the Barter Exchange House of Pancakes). The booth also offered a Burning Man Phrase Generator, capable of stringing together at the push of a button 160,000 different combinations of descriptors completing the sentence Burning Man is...

My first five results, in order:

. . . a pre-communal ecstatic nightmare.

. . . a trans-bohemian narcissistic rampage.

. . . a meta-druidic postmodern burn-o-rama.

. . . a pyro-tribal mind-altering phantasmagoria.

. . . an exo-erotic apocalyptic mindmeld.

As the subtle sarcasm of the Phrase Generator implied, word of the Burning Man festival has permeated pop culture through mass media accounts unavoidably incomplete and too often misconceived.

The problem with much of the coverage of Burning Man thus far has been its source: reporters and TV news crews who fly into Reno on the last day of the festival, drive two hours to Black Rock City, scramble for interviews all afternoon, stay long enough only to get footage of the Man burning, then drive back to Reno and spend the night in a hotel.

Burning Man is too complex for that, and far too weird. Such drive-by coverage has led to depictions of the festival as an exercise in anarchy. It's not. It's more an exercise in functional surrealism.

Burning Man is the Salvador Dali to mainstream culture's Norman Rockwell, but this doesn't mean it lacks all order.

For example: Every year, Black Rock City has an organized street system. This year the lines on the grid were named after planets and points on the meridian, so you might find yourself uttering phrases such as, "I'll meet you between Saturn and Jupiter on 3 o'clock," and making perfect sense.

Black Rock City has its own Department of Public Works, whose members build the roads, pick the five-mile trash fence surrounding the festival, and maintain the torches which serve as street lamps on the main thoroughfares at night.

The city has its own security force in the Black Rock Rangers (who also handle search-and-rescue operations). There are community showers, radio stations, newspapers, saloons, restaurants, music clubs, dance spots and play houses.

The $65-$135 entrance fee (depending on date of purchase) serves as a sort of municipal tax, assessed to support the festival's infrastructure (this was the first year the festival made money, most of which organizers say will go to pay off pre-existing debt).

Black Rock City's road system even allows a reasonably reliable postal system. Your letter may be delivered by a "disgruntled postal worker" armed with a full-auto Super Soaker, but most of the time it will get there.

One amenity Black Rock City doesn't share with like-size burgs is a jail, or a serious deviant behavior problem. Unless you count pyromaniacal tendencies, which occasionaly cross the line into criminal behavior, even in the middle of the desert.

To explain: On September 2, two days before the Man was burned, persons unknown detonated an explosive device in the desert, about half a mile from the festival's perimeter, that was powerful enough to create a serious white sand mushroom cloud and put a three-foot by two-foot crater in the cracked earth.

The next morning, law enforcement officials, who would not reveal the bomb's components, posted a $3,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. By midday, a jester was seen in Center Camp, offering one dollar to anyone who claimed to possess such information yet promised to keep it to themselves.

The Burning Man Festival is held on federal, public land, for which organizers (the San Francisco-based Burning Man Project) must pay a fee and obtain a permit with use conditions, including the presence of local -- meaning rural Nevada -- law enforcement. Which is less of a disruption of the Burning Man vibe as you might think, since the cops, most of them young deputies, are so vastly outnumbered. They become part of the costume party. Guys in cop suits who smile when the naked women wave.

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