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Feel the Burn

Vignettes from My First Burning Man Experience, 1997

By Robert McNally

ironwolf@dangerousgames.com
All text and images copyright © 1997

Twelve hours from Los Angeles. I don't do that kind of driving for just anything.

The sun has already set, and its glow continues to fade behind the mountains. My wife Rebecca and I have almost finished our two-day trek to into the middle of the Nevada wasteland. Here, for almost ten years, a metropolis has reformed itself from the ashes of the past, flourished and brought forth the creative energies of thousands of individuals, and then disappeared once again in a celebration of life-- a celebration of fire.

As we round another bend in the interminable desert highway, the twinkle of city lights off in the distance catches our eyes. At first glance the lights look like that of any small town you might encounter in the desert at night. But it is not just any small town: a tiny upright spike of violet light amidst the lesser lights announces its uniqueness: the Man, Black Rock City's symbol. Its sentinel. Its idol.

Man

After checking in at the front gate, we drive slowly toward the center of the city. The darkness disorients us, and we end up driving in large circles, past strangely shaped and decorated structures lit by campfires, portable lanterns, tiki torches and Christmas lights run from portable generators. Dark clouds of dust waft past us. The only reassuring landmark, visible from any angle, is the Man. We're looking for the Blue Light District, an area of the city where my friend Dennis is supposed to be camped, but no-one seems to know exactly where the Blue Light District is. Finally someone assures us that we are in the Blue Light District. We find an open spot overgrown with tall, drying grass and start to pitch our modest camp among the other tents and RVs. As we move about, we notice that the city lights around us have a virtuous distinction from their civilized counterparts: the brilliant desert starscape remains undimmed.


The next morning I go walking through the city, while Rebecca stays in camp to study and keep up with her busy class schedule.

Close to two miles long, the city is shaped like an angular crescent moon, encircling its cynosure where the Man stands over forty feet high. Behind the city, the arid mountains rise. In front of it, the vast flatness of the playa stretches the limits of vision. The clumps of drying grass and the spongy feeling of the ground in some areas confirm that a few weeks ago most of this plain was covered in water.

The starkness of the environment contrasts sharply with the people. Each citizen of Black Rock City comes here to express their own ideas of what Burning Man means; many come to express their deepest fantasies. To name a few of the colors in the palette of the Burning Man artist: costume, nakedness, play, performance, dance, decoration, sculpture, structures, music, spoken word, technology, and of course, fire. Black Rock City's Golden Rule is: Don't interfere with anyone's immediate experience. Its First Commandment is posted in banner over the Center Camp coffee house: No Spectators. Everyone is an artist. This experience is what you make it.

Center Camp

Many of the camps in Black Rock City are themselves forms of radical self-expression, and bear names such as Alien Chess, The House of Doors, The Enchanted Fauxest, and Space Cowgirl Camp. Commercialism is virtually non-existent at Burning Man, and some camps pointedly parody our commercial society. I stop at Crazy Dante's Used Soul Emporium and watch people filling out soul valuation forms and doing various kinds of penance (such as submitting to a water pistol fusillade) in order to qualify for a "soul upgrade." I browse over badges bearing the names (and presumably the souls) of Crazy Dante's mostly celebrity "stock." Elsewhere, at the Sticky Fingers "store," patrons are invited to keep any trinkets they manage to escape with undetected, while shoplifters who are caught are summarily body-painted with the scarlet letter "S".

Man

Dusk is falling, and I am walking across the playa. I'm making for the drum circle in the middle of the emptiness and carrying the 42-inch didjeridu (Australian aboriginal wind instrument) I constructed from PVC pipe. As as I walk I pass by the Ammonite, an art installation resembling a gigantic spiral shell of an ancient sea creature half-embedded in the playa. It's already dark, but people are still walking around and into it, so I decide to angle over and check it out. I walk into the spacious mouth of the shell-shape, noting its construction of smoothly bent steel pipe ribs covered with shaped canvas. As I continue to walk, the roof becomes lower and lower, and the walls press nearer and nearer. I begin to stoop over as I walk. The dim glow of the city lights melts softly through the canvas walls. Shortly I am forced to drop to my hands and knees. A women comes around the bend heading back towards the entrance, saying she can't go any futher. I seriously consider joining her, not knowing how long this narrowing path will go on, and realizing that I am dragging my didjeridu over the dirt. I finally tell myself that this is an adventure, and my instrument is only plastic after all, and press on. The walls narrow further, and I must wriggle worm-like. I begin to wonder if I could back out if I wanted to. Finally, I emerge through the last rib, curved with a diameter of only two feet, and into the center of the sculpture. Several others are there, also congratulating themselves for making the journey, and gazing at the whorls which surround us. I scarcely have time to ponder how I will get out of the center again before I realize that the ground we are standing on is the start of a second spiral outwards from the center, a path about two feet wide. We walk out between the coils of the Ammonite, emerging right next to the entrance, which so dominates the front of the piece that the exit is quite hidden. Beautiful.


I arrive at the Spirit Drum Fire Circle, an isolated circular space in the middle of the playa, surrounded by a wooden rail and lit by torches on the perimiter and a blazing fire in its center. Wood, sand, and sometimes bone have been lovingly placed around the site in various lines and forms suggesting mystical significance. To enter the circle one must walk through the gate and then follow an inner rail to its far side. One could easily hop or duck the fence, but it just wouldn't seem right. The ritual of walking around the circle before entering brings one into the community. It's a way of saying, "I'm one of you."

I love hearing the drums. And the didjeridu, with its deep drones and rhythmic pulses and grunts seems like it would complement them well, but in this case I find that the large number of drums overwhelms the sound of my instrument. Perhaps I am also playing a little timidly because I am new both to the didjeridu as well as drum circles. I consider that next year it would be fun to see if I can find or organize a circle of mostly didjeridu players. Now that would make a fine sound.


The sun shines brightly on the playa. People retreat to their tents and shade structures to wait out the day's heat, but some still work. "This camp is the Church of the Orbital Orgy. We worship everything round and spherical," explains the smiling fellow standing next to the fifteen-foot-high geodesic sphere he and his companion are building beside the city's frontage road, the Esplanade. "And this is our Sphere of Influence," he continues, gesturing towards the buckyball. "If you let us strap you into the Sphere, and roll you around the playa in it while you watch our indoctrination film through video goggles, you too can become a fully-ordained priest or priestess in our church."

I stand there for quite some time, watching them work and listening to the speech repeated to the many curious passers-by. It seems to satisfy most everyone, and most everyone wants a ride when the sphere is ready. They'll be back, they say. I decide to stick around, though, and continue to watch, asking occasional questions. Their project is clearly a labor of love: the sphere is constructed of PVC struts connected by steel hubs. They explain they had to invent a special device which lets them weld the pieces of the hubs at the proper angles. The struts are carefully painted with a many-layered, faux stone finish. Suspended in the center of the sphere from numerous steel cables attached to the hubs is a four-point racing harness for the rider, while inside the sphere are mounted quad stereo loudspeakers, numerous white strobe lamps and blue and red spinning lamps, all powered from a sealed 12-volt battery mounted under the chair. Strapped to the back of the chair is a case containing the various electronics and audio/video equipment needed to bring the Sphere to life. They are just getting the seat positioned; fastening, trimming and tightening the cables one by one. They started working on the sphere four months prior to Burning Man and trucked its pieces out from their home state of Massachusetts themselves, having test-assembled the sphere only twice. The past two days have been spent assembling the sphere once again. This is the first time it's had the chair installed.

The first fellow looks at me. "My name is Max, this is Mike; would you like to help us out a little here?" he asks. "Sure!" I say enthusiastically, and introduce myself. For the rest of the day and most of the next I help Max and Mike complete their project, even answering onlookers' questions and reciting their spiel. Although I realize that I could be spending this time walking around the festival merely taking in the multitude of sights others are making here, I know that by focusing some energy on this singular project and helping it come to completion, the whole experience becomes something greater. More importantly, this is the way friends are made: No Spectators.

That evening as I head back to camp, I smile as I pass someone proudly wearing the pre-owned soul of Bill Gates.

Sphere of Influence

As darkness falls, I stop to watch as a man pours gasoline down a long tube, the mouth of which points into the sky at a forty-five degree angle. He walks back thirty or forty feet from the tube and bends over a small box on the ground. Suddenly, a burst of compressed gas forcefully ejects the load of fuel into the sky in a long jet, and a torch at the tube's muzzle simultaneously ignites it. The result is a huge gout of flame which lights up the sky and radiates a momentary yet intense heat. As the fire roils away into a cloud of dense black smoke, an audible cheer of astonishment and delight goes up from the city behind us.

Flamethrower

Just after sundown, I help Mike and Max get the battery in position under the seat and slowly roll the sphere out into the dark of the playa. Max flips the switch. The strobes and spinners sparkle all around us, and the sphere begins to pulse and pound with a continuous techno mix. Unfortunately, the video goggles had a technical problem and so got left out of the program, but everything else is ready. A crowd begins to form, attracted by the sound and lights. "Welcome to the Church of the Orbital Orgy!" announces Max through a megaphone. "We are now accepting initiates! The Church of the Orbital Orgy is your antidote to all those square religions." For the next several hours I assist as Max and Mike give sphere rides, slowly turning the passenger sideways, then upside down as dozens of people surround the sphere and carefully roll it from facet to facet.

"Look what I got," says Rebecca when I return to camp that night. She holds up a round, red, pin-on button with a giraffe-head design on it. "Where'd you get that?" I ask. "Some guy came by handing them out," she says. "He said he stole the whole basket of them from Sticky Fingers."


For days now, prominently between the Man and center camp, a mysterious structure of stacked hay bales has sat. The official Burning Man map says "Temporal Decomposition" should be at that spot, but to me, it just looked like a bunch of hay with a big refrigeration unit stuck in the side. That seemed odd. Now, as I walk past the spot once again, I see I missed the unveiling: now, a ten-foot wide sphere of solid ice rests on a small base, like a cloudy crystal ball. Piercing the sphere at an angle is a long metal pole. At first I wonder if the pole is meant to represent a straw stuck into some kind of colossal frozen dessert. Then I see stones arranged on the ground in a pattern of lines radiating outwards from the sphere. A sundial. People are gathered around the sphere, touching it, feeling its cold, wet, hardness. As I come closer, I realize that the sphere itself contains other objects in frozen suspension: at an appropriately glacial pace, digital and mechanical clocks of every description are melting their way out. Water drips off the sculpture continuously, forming a muddy moat on the ground.

At first I decide that the frozen dessert idea was just my imagination. Then I notice that the artists have handed out ice shavers, cups, and cherry syrup.

Temporal Decomposition

As I cross the courtyard of Center Camp, I see ten or fifteen people huddled over something outside the coffee house. I move in for a closer look, and see that each one is holding a short strip of flexible plastic mirror. A pile of extra mirrors lays nearby, so I grab one and join in. Together, we each catch a sliver of the suns rays and focus them on the ground where a Barbie doll is getting the suntan of her life. "I've always wanted to take her down a notch for giving me such an inferiority complex over the years," comments one women with a smile as she carefully adjusts the angle of her mirror. Slowly, Barbie's plastic skin begins to bubble and blacken.

Laying Man

Rebecca and I arrive early to get a good view of the Burn. The only seating provided consists of bales of hay arranged in a wide ring around the Man. These are already completely occupied, but we brought folding chairs, so we feel pretty smug. Clearly most of the other people here hadn't thought that far ahead.

As dusk falls many more people arrive. The volunteer Black Rock Rangers roam about inside the circle, asking the crowd to stay behind the bales.

An announcement is made that, as in the past, small children are invited to come forward and enter the circle (bringing their parents), so they can pull the rope which raises the Man's arms high over his head. A few minutes later the arms ascend skyward, and the crowd roars its approval.

At this point, our smugness dissipates as we realize that "crowd" and "control" are concepts that simply don't go together at Burning Man. A trickle of people begin climbing over those seated on the bales and enter the circle to take better positions seated in the dirt, or simply to stand and get a better view at the expense of our own. The dam finally bursts, and a few minutes later the folding chairs seem like a liability as we stand, craning our necks to get a good view of the Man. As a result, our view of most of the procession of costume and dance from center camp to the Man is almost totally obscured. Except, of course, for the fire-breathing Poseidon which enters the circle atop a float resembling a huge fish, and which leaves the circle bearing directly down on our position. We and the rest of the crowd slowly move aside to make way for the sea god's exit.

A few moments later, a burning man ascends the dais, waving his arms. No, I mean a real man, burning. His body on fire. Well, a stunt man, dressed in flame-retardant clothing and covered in burning fuel, but it looks highly impressive, and the crowd is suitably awed.

And finally, a glaring cherry glow springs from the Man's hands and feet. Long tongues of flame crawl up his legs and slither down his arms. His neon aura flickers and goes out, but he no longer requires it: now the fireworks sewn throughout his body begin to ignite, creating a violently sparkling halo around and above him. Then, as the fireworks die back, he is simply burning.

The crowd's intensity steadily increases waiting for the Fall. Within minutes they are rewarded: the Man stumbles, caves backwards, and collapses into his own funeral pyre. The celebration of his passing will continue around the flames throughout the night.

The Man Burns

I escort Rebecca back to camp so she can study, and then go walking. First I revisit the site of the Burn, watch the other celebrants, and think my own thoughts about what it all means. Then, I walk alone across the middle of the black playa, its surface dotted with fires and rimmed by the faery lights of Black Rock City. The distant sounds of techno-carnival probe me from all sides. I feel disembodied, floating through a warm, enveloping darkness.

Then, I spot a singular point in the distance, burning white, outshining all the others. Unconsciously, I begin to run, drawn toward that point, musing that I know now what a moth feels when it discovers a candle's flame.

Fires

A man and woman stand near a pit they have dug in the playa. From below its rim an unnaturally white-hot fire burns fiercely, shooting stark, elongated shadows across the flatness. "Stay back from the pit!" the couple announces through megaphones they carry. "We are burning Porche engine blocks-- solid magnesium. The light is brighter than the sun. Take a quick glance and then look away, or you may get flash burn, which can blind you permanently. Stay back from the pit!" I stand about thirty feet away, glancing at the fire, then the sky, then the other onlookers, and then back at the fire. Someone gets close enough to dump a jug of water into the pit-- not that mere water has any chance of putting it out, but for effect: huge swarms of brilliant sparks leap skyward. "See that light? Don't look at it," say the megaphones. I slowly walk around the pit, continuing my sidelong glances at the hypnotic flame. A few minutes later I'm startled out of my reverie when the light is suddenly blocked by a megaphone. "YOU'VE BEEN STARING TOO LONG. GO AWAY," it states into my face at full volume. I find that I don't agree, but decide to move back a little anyway.

A few minutes later, I once again set out across the playa to see what else is burning. In the distance, I see the now-familiar Spirit Drum Fire Circle going up in flames, and feel a momentary stab of surprise. Then upon a moment's reflection, it all makes sense again.


I approach a small crowd of people clustered around an object near the edge of the playa. The object turns out to be a fearsome-looking, twenty-foot long, two-seated, pedal-powered flamethrower. Mounted in its center is a skeletal engine block, its pistons exposed and spouting small jets of flame. A bull's skull tops the armature which holds the front of the barrel. Torches are mounted on each side of the machine's tractor-style seats, upon which sit the artist and a lady guest. The business end of the barrel is ringed with three large circular sawblades. This last detail becomes all the more emphatic when suddenly the whole barrel begins to rotate, causing the sawblades to whirl menacingly. The spinning is accompanied by a loud grinding-whining noise, and the pistons pump furiously. As the muzzle spins, the whole body of the machine tilts upwards, angling skyward to where, over 100 feet away, a large tethered balloon floats.

I realize someone familiar is standing nearby. "Max!" I call, sticking out my hand. "Robert!" shouts Max taking my hand and pumping it, grinning. "Isn't this great?!"

"MOVE BACK! GET AWAY!" shouts someone close to the machine. The crowd parts respectfully, and a moment later, a huge jet of flame spews from the muzzle and streaks through the sky, missing its target by a matter of feet. Another few seconds of whirling the barrel adjusts it slightly higher, and the second jet finds its mark.

Now that the awesome power of the device has been demonstrated, real enemies must be sought and subdued. "FORWAAARD!" cries a large man standing next to me, looking and sounding for all the world like some ancient slave driver. Several people including Max and myself take hold of the machine and begin to push it across the playa. Much of the crowd follows.

As we push, a consensus forms that the main stage should be the first target, and we angle in that direction. Still pushing, I turn my head and call upwards to the artist, "Hey! What's this thing called?" and expecting an answer like Hell Hound or The Dominator. With a smile he turns and calls back to me, "It's the Vegematic!"

When we arrive at the main stage the techno rave dance is in full swing. We push through the crowd, which doesn't know quite what to make of the doomsday device suddenly in its midst. We aim the barrel directly at the DJ's booth, and the sawblades whirl to show we're serious. We send a messenger to the DJ with an ultimatum: Play Pink Floyd Or Else. After several minutes of searching, however, no Floyd is found, and the Or Else option begins to seem like it would have unfortunate repercussions. So, tail between our legs, we turn and leave the ravers to themselves.

The debate then turns to what we can really burn. "How about the duck!" someone calls, referring to the six-foot-hight sculpture resembling a wooden decoy near the site where the Man once stood. "Yes, the duck!" others answer. As the device begins rolling again the chant goes up: "Fuck the duck! Fuck the duck!"

As we arrive at the duck's location, we see that its creator has already begun torching it: its rear end burns merrily. Without hesitation, the Vegematic unleashes its own brand of flaming death, and the duck is instantly turned into thousands of julienne fries. The effect is very satisfying. As an afterthought, the artist aboard the flamethrower rises and shouts to the duck's creator, "Hey, was that okay?" Gleefully, the other sculptor shouts back, "Yes! Fine! It was great!"

Now, the crowd seems ambitious for tougher quarry. "Burn the ice ball!" they shout. But the artist says that the machine needs to be refueled, and so the next stop is Pedal Camp.

Surrounded by the bits of machinery and surreal, mutant bicycles the owners of Pedal Camp have created, I watch as more diesel fuel is sought for the Vegematic's tanks. The air hangs heavy with the odor of burning art. I feel tired, and as I must spend a long day driving tomorrow, I decide I won't stay up much longer tonight. As the fueling procedure continues, I spot another familiar face: Vangelis, a colleague in the computer games industry. This is also his first Burning Man, so we spend some time comparing our impressions. "You know what's ironic about all this?" breathes Vangelis as we watch the torch-lit, post-apocalyptic scene around us. "All this restores my faith in humanity."


The next morning we begin to break camp. But I can't leave without taking care of a couple last items of business.

Dennis is out on the playa with the civil war era cannon he brought, using up the last of his charges. Throughout the festival I have occasionally heard the cannon's report in the distance, but have never gotten around to seeing it work closeup. From a large bag of plush toys provided by Dennis I select a cute little tiger, and carefully stuff him tightly into the cannon's muzzle.

I light the fuse and step back. "FIRE IN THE HOLE!" shouts Dennis at the top of his lungs. Moments pass. Then, the explosion pounds my chest, and the stuffed animal rockets hundreds of feet into the distance. This one is made of pretty stern stuff compared to many of the other toys: rather than being blown completely into fluffy oblivion, Tiggy makes it out with only a blasted rump and a bad case of third-degree burn on his back. I decide to take him home as a souvenir, and we carefully clean the remaining bits of stuffing from the playa floor.

I walk over to Pedal Camp to get a last look at the Vegematic, but am told it never made it back from its confrontation with the ice ball last night. Sure enough, I find the two sculptures locked in mutual embrace: from all appearances, the flamethrower pooped out after only managing to melt a divot about one foot deep into the sphere, while Temporal Decomposition's spreading pool of mud has mired and immobilized the flamethrower's narrow wheels, despite attempts to free them.

Fire and Ice

As we drive towards Black Rock city's main gate, I notice that while many have acted on the Burning Man ideal that we should leave the desert playa just as we found it, unfortunately many also have not: trash is piled everywhere. Some camps have simply been abandoned. For over two months afterward, news reaches me of the continuing cleanup effort by a small group of persistent volunteers who return week after week to hold up Burning Man's end of the bargain. Together with the event's dedicated organizers, these are the people who have taken Burning Man's First Commandment most deeply to heart: No Spectators.

Camp

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Most of the action on my site is now in my blog and my tumblelog. I invite you to visit!