Friday, September 17, 2010

Adventures at Burning Man - Burn Night

The dust storm blew all night, with only a small break in the morning, long enough to use the toilet and boil water for coffee. Then the wind blew hard, throwing sheets of dust against our camp's shade structure. It reminded me of sheets of rain in a storm, gathering like a wall and moving fast across the city, with an occasional break between gusts, just a hint of blue sky before the sky turned beige.

You have two choices: you can hide in your tent out of the dust storm, or you can grab your goggles and face mask and deal with it. I chose the latter.

dust storm on the playa
Barbara and I met for coffee at 11:00, then hopped on our bicycles to ride out to the Temple. We stuck close to each other and stopped whenever the dust clouds got too thick to see more than 10 feet ahead. When there was a break, we rode on, stopping again when the view was obscured. At last we made it to the Temple where Barbara left items from two more of our friends, adding them to the cluster I'd left earlier. We walked around the Temple paying our respects. The grief in the Temple had grown since first I came and I fought tears, not wanting a runny nose inside my face mask. There were thousands of photographs, some of children. Several old wedding dresses flapped like antique lace flags. A fountain gurgled happily in defiance of the parched air, a memorial for three mountain climbers lost in a snow storm. An Asian man with a Buddhist meditation bell walked around the temple, rang his bell, bowed, chanted, and then moved on, blessing all the people at the temple, living and dead. We bowed to him and he blessed us, then smiled warmly, as if the sadness of the Temple couldn't reach him.

Barbara had to work that afternoon, so she rode back to Center Camp while I decided to ride East to the Dancing Woman. Keeping my eyes on tall, steel flowers in the distance, I rode until they were obscured by the dust. I waited, hunching my shoulders from the sting of the blasted dust, while minuscule flashes of light appeared in my vision. Was it caused by the particles in the air reflecting sunlight, or created by my own eyes? Once the dust cleared enough to reveal my landmark, I rode on, hopping from landmark to landmark until I reached the Dancing Woman. She was just as beautiful in the daylight, her metal mesh skin glowing white in the sun. From there, I rode due East until I reached the city at 2:00 and Esplanade.

I rode through the city, directly into the wind, the streets slowly clogged with thick dust making cycling that much harder. Worn out after only a few blocks, I got off my bike and walked. It was a good two miles to home, if not more, and I had to conserve my energy. Plus, I liked walking; I could explore more on foot. But after a half mile I was so tired I began searching for a place to rest. I turned a corner onto a street that provided a bit more shelter from the wind where I passed a woman holding a spray bottle.

"Would you like a lavender spritz?" she asked.

"Yes, please." I pulled off my goggles and mask and she sprayed me all over. Then she said, "If you have time, come in for a lavender treatment."

I looked at the tent and realized I'd found the elusive Lavender Camp. This camp is famous for their lavender treatments, which involves lying on an air mattress in the shade with a lavender eye mask while someone sprays cool lavender water above you and another person massages your head with a vibrating scalp massager. Absolute heaven, especially after riding several miles in a hot dust storm. It was just what I needed to get home. Feeling energized, I hopped back on my bike and rode home.

By Saturday, everyone is tired. Add a 24 hour dust storm and the anticipation of "the Burn" and there's bound to be drama. I could feel the intensity of the emotions in the city. There was even a minor blow up in our own camp. The Boonville camp had a major blow up. My father, Barbara and I joined them to ride out to the Man to watch him burn, but we were late because of the drama in their camp. Just as Barbara and I were thinking we should walk, the Boonies poured into the car and we drove off to join the massive party on the playa.

my dad

If there are 50,000 people in Black Rock City, then there are at least 40,000 on the playa when The Man burns, gathered in a huge ring around The Man and held back to a safe distance by the Black Rock City security team. When we arrived, Barbara and I jumped off the art car and dove into the crowd, but first I hugged my dad. He decided to stay with the Boonies. "Have a happy burn, and stay together," he said. Barbara and I pushed as far forward as we could to get a glimpse of the 1000 fire dances who perform before the man burned. When the dancers stopped and moved away, the anticipation grew as 40,000 eyes stared at the man for the first hint of flame. Suddenly, fireworks exploded around the man, shooting into the sky and exploding into green and gold shimmering stars. The fireworks grew in intensity, until at last the first flames appeared on the man. People were screaming, laughing, cheering, dancing, drumming, making out, talking loudly. The wind grew stronger, as if it were being sucked into the flames, making the man burn hotter, brighter. Dust slammed into us, so thick that there were times even the flaming man was slightly obscured. And then, with a twist of the four story frame, the man collapsed and fell into a pile of wood and coal.

Every art car in the city seemed to be on the playa right then. Barbara and I wandered amongst them, following the pretty lights, and soaking in the chaos of The Burn. Tens of thousands of peoples were dancing and drinking and celebrating, despite the dust storm that seemed even stronger. Suddenly, the noise and press of humans became suffocating. Feeling like a trapped animal ten seconds from chewing her own pay off, I yelled for Barbara, "I'm freaking out." She took my arm and guided us away from the chaos, back to the city. Center Camp was quiet and cool since most of the city was out on the playa. We opened the bottle of champagne our friend Marnie had given us and shared a toast. Slowly my claustrophobia vanished, replaced by a calm eagerness to see more. A woman appeared, set up her paints, and began working on the painting near where we sat. She was so intense, her work so beautiful, Barbara and I were mesmerized watching her.

Thirty minutes later, we walked back to the playa. The crowds had disbursed and the dust storm had suddenly stopped. The sky was black and filled with stars again, the night warm and the gentle breeze kind. We walked to the pile of embers that was all that remained of the once gargantuan man, the heat still intense. People were gathered around, many nude, and Barbara said they would stay there until the very last coal was out. Barbara and I walked several miles that night, back and forth across the playa, from 1:00 to 10:00, resting once in the Temple to raise a toast to our friends and drink more champagne. At night, the Temple is lit from within by amber lights, creating a feeling of warmth and peace. Back in the city, we stopped at a huge disco and danced to techno while watching fire dancers. There was a large container of flaming water set beneath a giant flaming ball where people had gathered to manipulate the flame. A man handed me his lighter and asked it I wanted to try. I lit the lighter and ran it across the top of the water, which created a long line of flame, burning my thumb a little in the process. But it was beautiful to watch this dance between fire and water.

dressed up for The Burn, on a very dusty night

I think Barbara and I walked 5 miles that night. I didn't want it to end, there was so much to see and do that night, but my body was tired and I had to get up early to drive home the next morning. Barbara said she might stay up till dawn simply because she hadn't done that yet, plus she wasn't leaving until Monday. We walked back to my camp so she could get her bicycle and then hugged goodbye. I watched her ride off into the darkness and wondered what further adventures she would find on Burn Night.


Sarcastic Bastard said...

Great reportage. Thank you. It sounds like it was extraordinary. One of these days. . . .

Kantiki Jayamana Whateva said...

I like to think of dust storms by day as "free sunscreen". It's the first time in six years I've seen the man burn in the middle of a storm. Easily one of the most beautiful burns.

Finally, when the dust cleared an hour later, it was like it took the tension of the city with it and the spirit of celebration took hold. One of the best nights on the playa... at least for me.

Did you make it as far as the Temple burn?

Confessions of a Closet Hoarder but you can call me Judy said...

I felt your claustrophobia, but it sounds like you really enjoyed yourself. :)

I love the picture of your dad. He seems to have a gentleness about him.