Firestarters

Why Do They Burn Him, Anyway?

Burning Man 1995

By D. Brian Burghart

BURNING MAN.

Tales of the celebration have been told by those unknowing, or at least uninitiated—in places around town since its first appearance in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach in 1990. Most of the reports seemed to be lies and exaggeration—a tent city with 6,000 inhabitants, pagan rituals featuring the immolation of a giant wooden man, drugs and alcohol bursting forth from springs in the desert, naked people everywhere—all, but with the exception of a few, poorly detailed and written stories in the local press, told secondhand.

A peculiar aspect of the stories suggested an almost exclusionary kind of tone to the party. An “Only the hip need apply” or a “We don't know you, we don't want you” undercurrent. It felt like someone was having a barbecue in your backyard that you weren't invited to; indeed, they'd be surprised if you showed up.

As I was to discover, the event's exclusiveness turns out to be more a matter of secrecy than art snobbery or migrating xenophobia. At any rate, I was resolved to find out not only the truth of this and other myths, but to find out the whys—why would anyone drive hours to a party, why would anyone invest the time and money to build a wooden man only to burn it, why would people call it a cultural event, why doesn't anyone around here know about it—to find out, as my high school principal, Sister Mary Hilaria, used to demand, “What is the meaning of this?”

Saturday night, 9:30 p.m., heading north past Pyramid Lake: The night seems full of portents. The sky to the north is filled with lightning, a thunderstorm the likes of which hits northern Nevada only every five years or so. I caution my driver to keep it to the speed limit, because I suspect that the area is well-patrolled, but she keeps the speedometer at around 75 mph because she is more comfortable going fast.

My veins are coursing with Mini Thins, legal speed that can be purchased over the counter at any AM-PM. They are supposed to be for asthma relief, but everyone who takes them that I know uses them like NoDoz. The 25 mgs. of Ephedrine HCL and the 100 mgs. of Guaifenesin do seem to open the bronchial passages, so the Marlboros that I am chain-smoking pound my lungs like a kick to the chest.

I'm on my annual version of a health binge—eating healthier, popping vitamins, not driving, exercising, no beer, smoking less—my own ritual cleansing designed to prolong my hedonistic years. But for a party such as this, I feel obligated to skirt the issue. Thus the tiny white tabs and the herbal Ecstasy we picked up at Suzie's porno shop.

The storm never really breaks over us, although I gather it was fairly ferocious over the playa where Burning Man had begun two days earlier. When we arrive at the entrance, the playa was still damp enough to throw mud off the tires and make venturing off the hard-packed path risky. We pay our $40-a-head admission fee to a volunteer at the gate. Abernathy is his name, high as rent, and he abashedly excuses the project's policy not to issue press passes.

“Look on the bright side,” he shrugs. “We didn't give any to CNN either.”

At his direction, we head across the playa, looking for a purplish light that is our “beacon.” A couple miles of blackness, tire tracks, headlights and taillights act as our only compass until the light peeps over the natural curvature of the ancient lakebed.

A couple more miles and a tent city blooms in the desert. Garish neon lights, strobes, campfires, tents of every size and description, RVs and people. People in costumes from the bestial to the primitive to ultra hightech power rangers. People in various states of undress—many stark naked—milling around as though lost.

We drive to the beacon, which turns out to be the guest of honor, Burning Man himself. We park nearby, and before getting out of the Jeep, I drop five of the Ecstacy tablets, the recommended dosage.

Nada. During the next three hours, I will eat 15 more of the damned things. Still nothing. The shit's bunk; you can get a better buzz idling at a stoplight next to a Canadian tour bus.

We meander up to the colossus, a skeletal and naive representation of a person, made of wood and emblazoned with blue, magenta and yellow neon, about 40 feet tall. He doesn't seem deserving of all this fuss.

We elect to follow the streams of people, who lead us toward the hub of the camp's activity. Tribal drums throb from somewhere within the first knot of people we encounter, a large group gathered around a bonfire. The people on the perimeter look clean-cut in their designer-labeled clothes, hangdog as if expecting Mom to catch them in an unspeakable act; the deeper into the fray, the longer the hair and the greater the number of tattoos and bodily piercings, until at the core, we find the drummers and dancers, some costumed, some masked, some adorned only with tribal tattoos. Through it all, people snapping pictures and taking videos, looking wild eyed and agog, like rubes at a state fair.

The action around the fire never changes, only the drums' rhythms, which grow and shrink, finding new syncopations as if by accident. We grow bored and head into the “downtown” area, in search of more sensory candy.

Downtown is filled with display areas, from a pyramid-shaped tent to themed camps (like the Tiki tent, which is Hawaiian themed, and serves as the camp's barter-only cocktail lounge—a child attempts to trade three cups of ice for three cups of orange juice, but the bar is closed just now), to an observation tower, to places with unlikely names like Amok and McSatan's, and two Christian crosses designated for “celebrity crucifixions.”

We watch a troupe of performance artists dance and juggle for a short time. I am not much a fan of this type of art, preferring something more enduring. It seems the only thing a performance artist produces is tickets for sale.

We head back to the truck to set up the tent, but stop to chat with some people who are lighting fireworks, until an M-1000 (a large firecracker or a small bomb) blows some shrapnel into the forearm of one of the pyrotechnicians, which puts a momentary damper on the little party. I get a Dr. Pepper, and we roam away from the nucleus of the camp to satellite displays of neon tubing out near the edge. The first display, made up of straight lines and arcs, is a representation of crop circles. A man walks into the static glow and inquires if we have been drinking. Assured that we have not, he asks us to step over to the camp and settle an argument.

“Do those people seem to be bouncing up and down?” he asks. “Look at the ones who aren't walking around.”

My friend agrees, mentioning that some of them—the group is from Pleasanton, Calif., and at least two of them are neon signmakers—appear to be levitating, not touching the ground at all. Actually, she has been drinking: she's had a bit of Cuervo. Everyone seems nailed down tight, far as I can see, though no one present seems to have an inkling of the “why” of Burning Man, or even why such a question should be asked.

A truckload of partyers shows up and offers us a ride to the Rave Zone. The rave is about two miles away from the main camp. We decline the ride but head in that direction.

While the distance seemed far, it's an easy walk. The cracked alkaline clay crushes softly beneath our feet, cushioning every step. Stars are thick in the heart of the high desert, and the night's blackness robs the senses of perspective and direction. Some noises seem muted or nonexistent at short distances—a motorcycle could pass silently 50 yards away—but others seem to carry far beyond the natural boundaries of sound. The booming techno-rhythms of the rave—still a mile away—punch black holes through the night's curtain as we stop and lie on our hacks, admiring the density of the Milky Way, Orion, the Big Dipper and other galactic flotsam.

We are drawn on by strobe lights from the closer of two rave pits. The people are older than I've come to associate with ravers, with an average age of maybe 30, but similar to those we've seen out here so far, a combination of clean-cut and uncut, tribal and techno, more modern primitives.

We dance.

And later drag our asses back across the flat to bed.

I lie on my back: a light rain begins tapping on the tent, temporarily silencing the rave and echoing the thrumming of my heart in my ears, the residual buzz of the Mini Thins. I find myself puzzled, no closer to the answer of “why” Burning Man. I wonder if anyone else is awake pondering the same question in their tent, which, like ours, has been placed by choice as far away from the others as possible.

It is the isolation of the camp that creates community. People here seem no closer than any crowd in any nightclub in the country.

IS0LATED TOGETHER

Sunday morning, 7 a.m.: Three hours of sleep and I feel refreshed. The sky is already blue, but with isolated cumulus promising a hot day and the possibility of afternoon showers. I smoke a cigarette and look at the horizon, which seems somehow closer in daylight. My friend is asleep, and I stretch my rust-filled shoulders. I smell of armpit.

“Hey, are you driving somewhere?” an elfin woman with fuchsia hair, a can of Miller High Life in one hand and a half-collapsed balloon in the other, calls to me. I say I'm walking to the rave camp. She wants to tag along. Her name is Anna Lisa. She's 28, from Sydney, Australia. She's got a large black bag carried in the crook of her elbow, is wearing a mohair sweater, a skirt with black lace tights, and talks glowingly of the Burning Man.

“I've got to piss,” she says abruptly. “Now, don't turn around.”

It's a singular vanity at this party.

She catches up, and I ask her the nagging question: Why Burning Man? She doesn't have an answer, and I think it makes her uncomfortable, because she tells me she's got to do her morning toilet and will talk to me later. She sits on the ground and begins rummaging through the bag.

I walk on toward the music.

There are a few die-herds hanging on at the rave. Two girls make out on the scaffolding that forms the larger of the two dance pits. People dance with themselves. Occasionally someone dervishes off into the distance, looking incongruous against the mountainous horizon.

I trudge back to the tent to see if my partner is up, stopping to tell Anna Lisa, who is applying eye shadow, to stop by later. People are starting to stir, and everyone who comes within comfortable earshot says hi, or wishes me a good morning.

She's still sleeping, so I go to the Man. He's made of a cream-colored wood, the thicker areas filled with what appears to be combustibles: nearby is a clay sculpture of whorls, beyond that, two towers of hay bales. I climb to the top of one. It's not terribly high, but slightly unsteady. Even from this height—maybe 20 feet—I can't begin to see the perimeter of the camp. I get down and wander down the main drag, past a wooden sculpture of a woman, who doubles as the camp's shower. The spigot is in her crotch, she appears to he peeing on the showeree. Since you have to supply your own water, there aren't a lot of showers taken.

Downtown, the performances have yet to begin.. There is a woman calling for volunteers for the espresso machine, and a line begins to form as they start pumping joe. It's already too hot for coffee.

Back to camp, she's up and gone, so I sit on the Jeep, chatting with anyone who happens to be walking by to the Port-a-Potty situated across the “road” from us. Few linger, the urgency of nature's morning call sending them on their way.

She returns and we have breakfast before wandering toward some theme cars she'd noticed—a silver shark on wheels, a van with a Volkswagen cap (one side beetle, as in insect, the other side beetle, as in car), a bunny motorcycle, a car with thousands of trinkets welded on every square inch, a car with a dorsal fin, and an RV that seemed dedicated to Barbra Streisand.

Daytime activities in the camp, on the whole, are more secular than those at night. As we wander through the throng, a man on a rakish go cart, whose name tag proclaims him “Wile E. Coyote Super Genius,” fires up the pulse jet engine that propels the car upward of 70 mph. People shoot model rockets into the sky, play frisbee, ride bicycles (some tandem, some naked) and motorcycles, cook on camp stoves, sand surf behind cars, chuck boomerangs, thump drums, strum guitars, and shoot the breeze. A man with a megaphone spouts inanities like, “Will the person who lost the Porsche 911 please retrieve it here?” and “Go home, it's all right, he will burn without you.”

When the sun reaches its zenith, we crawl into the shade under the Jeep and take a nap. Soon, the thunderstorm hits.

We are forced into the tent by the rain. It leaks at the seams as the elemental power of the storm brings on tempestuous lovemaking backlit by flashes of lightning and drowned out by thunder.

Dice-sized hail begins to fall.

When the rain stops, we leave the tent, energized by the storm. The entire camp is playing in the mud, adults and children coated with a white veneer of clay, looking all the more like a primitive people—but not savage. I've seen no acts of violence, even though pretty much everyone I talk to is high on something.

The drums begin downtown, and we slide in that direction. A large group is gathered around the drums. As we get closer, it becomes apparently most of them are naked, playing in a puddle. From every direction, down every path, people seem to be gravitating to the pit. As the crowd grows, so does the action in the pit, people rubbing mud on one another, hair above and below clotted with clay. Some stand, some writhe on the ground in a sexless orgy. The orgyists grow brave, posing for the ubiquitous cameras, making human pyramids, lifting one another aloft. The proximity makes for easy examination of the people: cock rings, nipple piercing, pierced penises, noses and eyebrows; tribal tattoos on every part of the body, unshaven females, shaved men.

As the sun begins to bake the water from the puddle, the participants begin to chant, “More water,” and others bring it in buckets and plastic bottles, splashing it over the cluster, sometimes pausing to wash the muck from someone's eyes. Eventually, both water and people are exhausted, and the mudbath breaks up.

We go back to our home.

We are sitting in the meager shade next to the Jeep when I hail a passing couple, asking if they'd stop to chat.

“Oh,” he says, “a physiological function.”

Dweeb.

Their names are Jim and Joanne, and they're from Berkeley, Calif. She's an art dealer.

I ask her the question.

“Most of the people here are artists,” she says. “I just love it. I sell it, I collect it, I'm a patron.”

“And what is your association with the arts?” he inquires.

I stretch it a little and say I'm a writer.

I ask him the question.

“It's better than sitting at a machine pulling handles,” he says, detailing their stay in Reno the day before. “It brings community together.”

I point out that it isn't much of a community—there is more space between the various camps than most people have in between their homes.

It is evident he doesn't think much of Reno, so it's with a perverse pleasure that I answer his question when he asks where I'm from.

Jim knows Pepe Ozan, the artist who did the androgynous penis sculpture, so l ask him what happens to the money generated by a party with 6,000 people at 40 bucks a pop, near a quarter of a million dollars.

“Fees and promotions, rental of the toilets, that sort of thing,” he says.

“They promote it heavily in the Bay Area,” says Joanne. “Everybody knows about it and plans on coming here for the entire year. Most of these people are performers and exhibitionists,” she says looking down at my friend's bare breasts. “They spend most of their money on fund raisers.”

The conversation moves into small talk, and Jim mentions that they got in without paying by saying they were bringing supplies to Pepe.

“I didn't lie,” he said. “We brought them some beer.”

IT'S A GAS

Sunday evening, 6:30 pm: We have dinner with our camp neighbors, sharing what we have. They are from Salt Lake City, musicians, and have made a kind of Mexican mulligan stew over a Coleman camp stove.

“We came down for the party,” says Eli, who has green and orange hair and multiple piercings. “It was kind of a whim.”

The other members of his party are Lincoln and Earth, who up till now I'd only seen sleeping on top of their van.

They are, like everyone I've met so far, friendly and willing to talk. They'd heard of the Burning Man through a friend in the Bay Area. Eli is intelligent, and we compare notes on the growth of Reno and SLC.

Although the main event has yet to begin, people around us are tearing down campsites in anticipation of a quick getaway.

We walk back downtown; the place is as crowded as I've seen it. My friend wants to barter some bananas for some tequila at the Tiki tent. On the way, we come across a building where people are lined up in front, those leaving carrying balloons. It's nitrous oxide, laughing gas, the stuff the dentist gives you. I haven't done any in 15 years and, since I'm in the mood for some kicks, we go back to the camp to get some money, $4 a balloon.

Back in line, I overhear a man complaining that he is out of cigarettes, so I suggest a trade, a pack for two beers. He jumps at the idea, and my friend runs back to the Jeep for a pack. I'm standing with two punching bags full of goofy gas when she returns and makes the trade.

The drums begin beating in the dusk, and the gas boosts the reverb; my perception of the whole scene, the drums, the po-going celebrants, shifts to surreal. People make noise with whatever instrument comes to hand, pounding plastic bottles clapping, shrieking and whistling, doing whatever they can to add to the general cacophony. A half-hour of dancing and sucking gas has brought me and the crowd to a screaming frenzy.

A group carrying standards and flags brings the mob to the foot of the behemoth, marching widdershins (that's witch-speak for counterclockwise) around him three or four times, while the horde chants, “Burn him, burn him, burn him.” Lamps are lit, the drums die down, and the final ceremonies are performed.

Dancers and torch carriers preen as a jet car drives fast around the interior circle of the mob, throwing dust high, making the neon-lit statue glow as though through fog.

But the ceremonies go on too long, the impetus is lost, and when the Man raises his arms, which have been resting at his sides, I feel a peculiar sense of sympathy for him because of this animation, as though he were truly a willing, living sacrifice.

When the torch bearers finally light his legs, it all seems anticlimactic. The flames have a tough time catching hold, but slowly creep up his legs, lighting fireworks, blowing out the neon tubing that has remained glowing amidst the growing conflagration, the wind pushing the majority of the flames to his right side. People begin pulling on the guide wires that have supported the Man, and he topples backwards to the ground.

And burns.

We go back to the goofy gas man's tent. He has returned but says it'll take him a minute to get his shit together. We go back to the crowd that is standing in a large circle around the vulvic phallus statue.

“Are you ready to fuck some shit up?” cries the disembodied voice over the loudspeaker. “Do you like punk rock?”

The music begins and dancers—one has a myriad of piercings, at least 30 of them on his back and chest—torch the sculpture, circling it to their own internal rhythms. The flames are intense; the sculpture is obviously made of something other than the clay it resembles.

We go back and refill my balloons, business as usual at the tavern called Amok. Back to the ceremony, where we run into another person from Reno we know. We go back to his campsite for some beer and fried chicken before going to a campfire that is burning brighter than seems possible for an ordinary fire. It is a fire built of magnesium and titanium, burning white, white enough that the only way to look at it is through welder's goggles.

We leave, blinded by the light, and lose our direction in the darkness, wandering until we can retrace our steps to our friend's campsite and make our way home from there.

MORNING AFTER

Monday morning, 8 a.m.: Everything around the site where Burning Man once stood is destroyed. The Man is already gone, and there are piles of ashes where the hay bale tower and vulvic phallus once stood. There are people ranging in wide circles with garbage bags, picking up refuse. There are conspicuous gaps where campers have already left. We pack the Jeep and head off, spending 45 minutes going exactly the wrong way.

There are patrol cars all over the road; one cop makes “slow down” motions at us. It is one of the few times when a Nevada license plate is actually a boon in our home state.

We stop at Pyramid Lake for a quick skinny dip under the watchful eyes of some people who showed up after we had parked and stayed to gawk.

We are both stunned, senses overloaded by the events of the last 36 hours. Burning Man was simply the best party I have ever attended, lots of cool people having a good time, no violence.

I've found some answers to the questions that I brought to the festivity. The reason Burning Man isn't promoted in Reno is that the planners don't care if Renoites show up. We are beside the point. They don't want the party to get so big that they have to move it again (as they once had to, from a California beach to the expanse of the desert).

I think it is the interpretation of the event that brings on the confusion of “why” have a Burning Man. There is no collective experience, no spiritual orgasm, no single all-encompassing reason for Burning Man at all. It may be a collaborative performance arts festival; they do collect for tickets. If folks want to attach a higher motive to their actions and forswear profit-taking, it's all the same to me. In the end, people can attach whatever kind of bullshit rationale to it they choose to. In my opinion, it's a bunch of hedonists doing what we do best.

The answer to the “why” of Burning Man is obvious.

Why not?