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Freaks in the Desert

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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."

Too wiped out to assimilate, I went to the media trailer in search of a schedule. The guy there said there are no schedules at Burning Man, "per se," then told me to put my left hand on a picture of Richard Nixon and read an oath: "I will not merely observe, I will participate."

Duly sworn, I drove around the festival, trying to select a campsite. There were several organized theme camps--White Trash Camp, Tiki Camp, Winter Wonderland, NY Playground Camp and Celebrity Crucifixion Camp. I settled on a spot about half a mile southeast of the Man and pitched tent in the shadow of a massive green army tent. Its center pole was capped with a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign, which belonged to the residents of a psychedelic co-op house in San Luis Obispo, California, called The Moon.

The Moonies welcomed me to camp and assured me I was now within the aura of protection. I saw their camp's perimeter was defended by a wooden catapult and a CO2 water cannon. Two topless women with pierced nipples rode by on a motorized couch. A surfer guy sat between them.

I was not in Arizona anymore.

"Devil's Delight"
"That'll teach you to fuck with the government."
The envoy from the Disgruntled Postal Worker Camp fired two shots from a supersoaker into my tent, dousing me and Ian, a self-described "mushroom philosopher" camped next to me. It was about an hour after the Barney incident. Ian had been describing his theory that ideas act like viruses in the way they spread through the collective conscience, when a group of men and women dressed like postal workers came by, handing out copies of the Black Rock Gazette, one of the festival's two daily papers. (Piss Clear billed itself as Black Rock's alternative paper.)

A black Lab mix had bounded toward the mail carriers, who shouted a mock warning: "Dog! Dog!" Then Ian had yelled something like, "I hope he bites you in the ass, you lackeys," and the closest postal worker turned her gun on us.

At least she gave us a newspaper.
An item under Rumor Control read, "The two gentlemen walking around camp in blue POLICE jumpsuits are NOT pranksters . . . they are Nevada state narcotics officers. The correct way to greet them is NOT 'Hey, dudes, wanna bong hit?'"

Saturday's lead story, "Super-Stoked VW Bus Gets Down and Dirty in the MUD," detailed how five guys in a '75 VW bus got turned around out in the desert on Friday night, mistook the lights of a distant sulfur-mining complex for the Burning Man Festival and got stuck in a muddy wash 14 miles off course. They left their van at 8:30 p.m. and stumbled into Black Rock City six hours later.

The Black Rock Rangers, a volunteer desert rescue team led by the quasi-superhero figure Danger Ranger, went out with the group the next morning and winched their van free. ("Danger Ranger" became famous after several dramatic rescues during the 1995 Burning Man Festival. Legend has it he would go wheeling out into the desert, be gone for a while, then come wheeling back in with some dehydrated, bad-tripping urbanite. After he delivered him or her to the medical tent and peeled off his night-vision goggles, the grizzled "man with no name" would utter his motto: "Danger Ranger always brings 'em back.")

The high on Friday had been 107 degrees Fahrenheit.
As I was reading the paper, a young woman wearing an orange Lycra shirt with a chartreuse daisy iron-on decal on its front walked up and knelt down in front of my tent door. She was carrying a red umbrella dotted with white flowers and looked like Mary Poppins gone Merry Prankster. "Excuse me," she said, "I was wondering if you needed any doses for this evening?" I politely declined, and she went to the next camp.

Narcs or no narcs, scoring LSD or mushrooms at the Burning Man Festival was like buying hot dogs or popcorn at a baseball game--you just sat around and waited for the vendors to come by. Ecstacy and pot-butter Rice Krispies treats were specialty items, like snow cones and ice cream drumsticks.

Night came and the temperature started to drop. By midnight it would be in the low 50s. Airburst fireworks and parachute flairs punctuated the sky every few minutes. Blue-neon tubes inside the Man fired up, and I headed for their glow like a moth.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse