In Their Natural Habitat
One Santa Barbaran’s First Burning Man
By Steve Romanowsky [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
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.
That’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
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
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
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
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.
The 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.
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
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.
One 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
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.