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

Black Rock or Combust

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.

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.

This year, the men with badges made three drug arrests. A slight tally, given that many of the people who go to the Burning Man Festival treat it as the Willy Wonka factory of trip toys. Obviously, the cops weren't out to make drug busts. Or to prevent the felonious destruction of U.S. currency.

One band of merry pranksters this year collected and cremated a pile of dead presidents they claimed to be worth more than a grand. Another group distributed 3,000 miniature American flags affixed to disposable lighters labeled "Personal Treason Device."

Not that I accuse Burning Man of being anti-American. To the contrary, I would argue it's fundamentally patriotic. A hard-core celebration of the First Amendment and the freedom of expression it guaran-goddamn-tees.

Because this is America, where if a man has a mind to build a Tesla Coil, mount it atop an RV, cruise around wearing a homemade suit that makes him look like a rag doll made of tin and will, he hopes, protect him from the purple lightning that strikes him repeatedly, until the nearby air is so ionized it buzzes in the teeth of the cheering throngs who follow his roving lightning machine like children around an ice cream truck, well, then, that man has a right, nay, a duty to realize that vision.

Same goes for machine artists who wish to construct armored robots and pit fight them in flame-spewing, metal-rending, spark-showering games of combat, or to build a replica of the geodesic battle arena from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Or to build a catapult and launch volleys of computers and watermelons at a giant cardboard McDonald's. Or to be a fire twirler. Or to weave through a crowd on stilts, juggling a torch, a sword, and a bowling ball, howling, "Oy my God, look out below!"

It's worth noting that Burning Man is probably the most dangerous art festival in the world. The only hard and fast rules are no vending, no commercial advertising (the festival has no corporate sponsors), and no assuming someone else is watching out for your safety.

People like to fire flare guns at Burning Man, and if you find yourself in the red, circular glow of a phosphorous flare overhead, it behooves you to look up and see where it's going to land. If you don't, your head may catch on fire.

Not all the hazards are manmade, and the entrance fee is not the only price you pay to experience Burning Man, as it's held in one of the least hospitable natural environments on the continent (Burning Man is so subversive it leads SUV drivers to actually venture off-road in droves).

There is so little life in the Black Rock Desert that a passing insect is worthy of comment. Hours after arriving this year, my eyes were gritty, my nasal tissue was caked with white dust boogers, and my lips were beginning to crack. Temperatures in early September can hit the high 90s during the day, then drop below freezing after midnight. Rain and wind storms are common. And there's nowhere to buy what you don't have but need. You have to trade for it.

The obvious benefit to a festival with a barter economy is it necessitates interactions with people you don't know. Bartering is the ultimate icebreaker.

I have a theory, which remains to be tested, that one could show up the first day of Burning Man carrying nothing but the tithe for admission and 100 luminescent glow sticks, and survive the festival in high style.

Glow sticks are a basic, hotly traded commodity at Burning Man, like cigarettes in prison. The reason is that unless you're carrying glow sticks, it's hard for anyone to see you at night, in the outer space blackness which must be traveled between art installations and burnings. Groups stay together by memorizing each member of their party's individual glow stick signature -- a red and yellow hanging together from their neck, for example, or a blue stick in each shoe. No glow sticks, no mutual homing beacons.

After one night spent searching for their friends in a strange new world, most ill-equipped Burning Man newbies are willing to trade practically anything for a glow stick.

This year there were more newbies than ever. Burning Man is still mostly a regional event whose core is from San Francisco (after California and Oregon, more people come to Burning Man from Arizona than any other state). Still, I met people this year who had traveled from Tokyo, Melbourne, London and Mexico City for a festival where the only entertainment is each other.

The morning after the Man was ritualistically burned, I climbed a tower to overlook the smoldering ruins. It looked to me as if the desert could hold a million more tents, with room to burn.

More photos of Burning Man '99 are available at www.phoenixnewtimes.com/1999/091699/house.html

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >