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In Their Natural Habitat


Originally published 10:43 a.m., September 20, 2006
Updated 10:18 a.m., December 2, 2006

One Santa Barbaran’s First Burning Man

By Steve Romanowsky bm1.jpg [Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.]

“You just need to piss? I have some jugs right around the corner there.”

Food: a hot meal or cold out of a can. Sleep: day, night, or none. Water: always the water. Sex: dusty or sun-showered. Where to piss and shit. In the desert, these fundamental things apply.

You tell people you’re going to your first Burning Man, and you get a lot of different replies. Replies that say more about the person speaking than about the event itself.

There are the blank stares, of course. If that’s you, it’s easy enough to find a primer at burningman.com.

There’s the incredulous “You’re going to Burning Man?” that says you can know a person and not know them. These people confirm that you’ve been telling yourself the truth when you think the face in the mirror sure looks squarer than it used to.

There’s the hushed “There’s a lot of…nudity, isn’t there?” that lets you know this isn’t the right person to ask about the proper SPF for your wedding tackle. How the squareness you and others see isn’t such a bad trade-off for the means and vacation that enable the long, strange trip.

There’s the “I’ve always wanted to go. I love to dress up” that tells you the person needs to go, and maybe you can make it happen for them the next time around. That’s one universal truth about Burning Man: once you’ve been, you want to go again.

And there’s the “I’m glad you’re coming, cause you need to go” that reminds you there’s a flip side to everything, that however you’re thinking about someone, someone else is thinking the same about you. How out in the desert there are friends and strangers with whom you can be fundamentally yourself.

bm3.jpgThat’s another truth about the Burn: it’s not a party, it’s not a spirit quest, it’s not a weekend get-away. It’s nothing more or less than the sum of the people there, almost 40,000 strong. It’s their city, Black Rock City, all of its structures, by-ways, and sheltered cul-de-sacs alive with the presence of their builders.

It’s easy enough to rattle off anecdotes about dance parties in the triple digit afternoon sun, or stumbled-upon happenings where only the sunrise tells you the time, or the relatively quiet mornings when the most difficult decision you’ll face is with which hand to wave at the people biking by. But these kinds of stories can’t capture the time and place, because yet another truth about Burning Man, as my camp-mates, the Lazy Ass Fuckers, printed on stickers passed out as gifts this year: “If you have never been there, no explanation is possible. If you have been there, no explanation is necessary.” If you see some of the people involved in the stories, though, they are explanation enough.

The expanse of alkaline sand under Black Rock City is known as the playa, and many of the Burners end up with playa names, which can only be bestowed by other Burners. If you’re Furball, you’re Furball, no matter how much you’d rather be Fireball. I spent a lot of time with the Coolette, but playa names don’t come by association, so instead of a more happening name, I ended up with the sobriquet Mister Alright. The funny thing about playa names is how well they fit; their variety is as great as the range of breasts, penises, and asses that quickly become more normal than any suited-up corporate meeting could ever be. Fancy, Icepack, Brownie, Snotto, Fat Sam, Dr. Pyro, Sandwichman, Booger, Sputnik, Ash, Friday, Jarboy…. Even nascent Burners can have playa names: take the pregnant woman near our camp, whose unborn child is already Livingstone because he’ll have to hack his way through some serious bush before his given name can be written on his birth certificate.bm2.jpg

The Coolette (pictured here by Susie Q.) is one of the many current or erstwhile Santa Barbarans scattered throughout the playa. Big Bear is another. You may have seen them passing you downtown, or buying groceries in front of you at the store. They may even have sat at a desk next to yours. What you wouldn’t realize is what you’re really seeing is a bear in a cage at the zoo. At Burning Man, the wild things are in their natural habitat.

What you also won’t realize is that the wildness is not the aforementioned crash-course in human anatomy, nor the periodic mushroom clouds of fire, nor the ubiquitous spankings by strangers: It is the filling of your water bottle, beer mug, or plate by people you’ve just met, who within a few minutes will have shown you more love than the person at that desk next to yours may show you in all the time you work together. Because that, in its purest essence, is what Burning Man is about: love.

Beyond that, if you are really present, if you are not the weekender agog at the Prince Alberts, the panoply of fire-dancers, or the deliriously haphazard mutant vehicles, but are instead the guy spinning upside-down on the swing carousel, or the obese naked woman barely fitting into a port-a-potty, or the little girl in Kidsville gleeful for glitter on her cheeks, the Burn is ultimately about one kind of love: love of yourself.

Every first-time Burner comes with their preconceptions and their reasons for being there: to party, to find themselves, to kick back, to see the spectacle, to spin music. Most who come back do so because it feels like home; if I go back, that will be my reason.

The reasons for my first time, beyond the standard ones, were chilling with the Coolette and saying good-bye to my father. Black Rock Lake sees action other than Burning Man: at times it hosts attempts at the land speed record and serves as a launching platform for amateur rocket enthusiasts, both of which were right up my dad’s alley. One of his last adventures was a spur-of-the-moment solo trip to see the empty playa. The tragedy of my father’s life, as it is with too many people, was that only in such rare times was he able to forget and love himself. Like father, like son, as the saying goes, so what better place than Burning Man for me to learn more of what he couldn’t teach me—that self-love—and to see the bright spots in his legacy more clearly.

Bright spots would be an apt avenue with which to approach my Burn. At my insistence, my traveling companions slept while I soloed the midnight-to-midday drive from Santa Barbara to Gerlach, Nevada. Bright-spot headlights on the two-lane blacktop up the back spine of California. Bright spots of my own memory as I stopped for gas, halfway between departure and destination, in the hometown of the woman I almost married. Nothing but a bright spot as we arrived in Black Rock City in the middle of a dust-cloud white-out. As it cleared and we inched toward our campsite full of people we’d never met, I couldn’t help but think how appropriate the theme of this year’s Burning Man was for me, for the Coolette, and for, I’m sure, countless other denizens of BRC: Hope and Fear, the Future.

One of the last Christmas presents I gave my father was a good dual-use flashlight. In my bike’s basket, the fluorescent light in its handle became the bright spot that guided me through the web of the playa at night. At times, as the circular miles of hard-packed road roll under your wheels, especially when you venture across the open, dark heart of the city, where the Man stands, and the insistent bass of all the glowing camps fades into background thunder, you feel as if you’ve sprung into flight.

bm4.jpgThe steady, cold glow of my father’s flashlight seemed to pull me effortlessly along in that flight, rather than begrudging it, as my father himself too often did. As many parents too often do, because their own hopes have been sabotaged by their fears. But as I’m guessing many of the Burner parents camped in Kidsville with their families will do, my father did something the linear bright spot of his flashlight couldn’t: illuminated the chaos pressing hard all around the beaten path.

You find yourself lost in meditations like these often throughout your time at Burning Man, especially when you look up and allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the clichéd riot of stars and the obviously pregnant moon lurking behind a cheesy cloud-wrack. Then, suddenly, the city rushes up around you again, encompassing you: you’re spinning past some of the most beautiful men and women you’ll ever see, surrounding themselves with whirling fire. You’re suddenly warmed on one side by a jet engine gouting flame hundreds of feet into the air. You’re leaving your bike behind, turning off your own lights, and wading into a shrouded geodesic dance dome full of your fellow Burners completely in the moment, as if the future is indeed now.

bm5.jpg The brightest spot of all at the Burn is, of course, the Burn itself. There’s little explanation needed for the symbology of turning the old man to ashes. There also may be no moment at Burning Man for which my camp’s adage of “you only know if you were there” holds more true than for the Man burning. The deep circumference of Burners ringing the Man. The inner circle of fire-dancers, whips and wheels of flame, crackling green dragons weaving through.

I’m there, near the front, next to the Coolette, warmed first by the scarf she gave me, then by the increasing heat from the pressed mass of people. The first volley of fireworks leaps up. A cheer as flames appear around the enormous platform on which the Man stands. He’s soon enveloped, but it takes him a long time to fall.

I hear a veteran Burner near me remark that she’s never seen a Man take this long to fall. I can’t help but think again of my father, who took his cancer and stood it like a man, even when he had to be split from stem to stern in a fruitless attempt to save him—stood it with as many complaints as the wooden Man is making about the inferno raging around him. My dad took a long time to fall, too, though the fall was inevitable. The Man finally falls, to an even larger cheer.

But he hasn’t fallen—he has just sunk to his knees. A penitent Man? Sparks torrent into the high desert wind; pairs of giant smoke-devils whirl in tandem beneath them, one set after another. The Man completes his collapse, but his platform burns hotter and hotter. The flames are indescribable. The circle of watchers breaks, half rushing in to be closer to the conflagration, half scattering off to the parties that will last until dawn.

I can’t help but hope that somewhere among us, Big Bear found the she-bear he was hoping to cuddle and watch it all with. After all, he gave me my playa name, and after the catharsis of watching the Man burn, Mister Alright is just about the most apt moniker I could have.

Dawn after the Burn is the last one for much of the camp, though many will stay to watch the final night’s burning of the Temple and the Belgian Waffle, which is rumored will out-do the Man itself. Dawn also brings a ritual of the city: the daily cleaning of the port-a-potties. Their condition after a day and night’s worth of hard use is not something you’d want described; suffice it to say they are about as far removed from the beauty of the rising desert sun as anything could be.

bm6.jpgOne of the best things about Burning Man is the spectrum of people represented, from the old guard still living the revolution to the yuppies in for the last two days to the college-aged kids nearly vibrating with the life force swirling through the playa, all the way down to the toddlers burbling happily while their parents rest out the sweltering afternoons, and everything in between. Someone from almost every part of the spectrum is there, waiting their turn, as the cleaning crew arrives.

As their trucks pull up to the first john and the hoses spool out, this little cross-section of Burning Man erupts into a sustained cheer. It’s not one of relief, either; you know this one is meant. The crew is truly appreciated; for that extended moment, they are genuine heroes. It’s a final act of love, and maybe one that will serve as well as any to explain to any virgin Burners out there what it’s like to be in Black Rock City.

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