Where was I? I wasn’t lost. I just wasn’t found.
I knew I was on the dusty playa in a lonely desert corner of Nevada. I knew the moon was full and about to rise. I knew that Labor Day was coming soon, and with it, the burning of the Man – one great incendiary tribute to the chaos and joy of human creativity and the culmination of this weeklong debauchery.
I knew I was at the Burning Man festival. But where was I? Someone over at the Camp Heebeegeebee medicine wheel said the mantra for the week was WOW. So I was just wandering around with my chin on my chest, muttering WOW, trying to get my bearings in the middle of a nasty dust storm at twilight. I could hardly see.
From my left, coming my way, was a creature I’d never seen before. He walked on stilts, so he was about 10 feet tall. But the stilts at the bottom were curved out and down like the talons of an owl, so it looked like he was walking around on the tiptoes of big claws. He was wearing a tuxedo jacket with no shirt and he had a top hat, but instead of pants he wore bright red crotchless satin lingerie and fishnet stockings. He swooped over to me, bending over in my face. He said nothing but he let me gawk at his masterful makeup.
He had a cat’s eyes but they were red and glowing (how’d he do that?), and the EL wire lights vibrated red spirals up and down his long legs, and around and through his sexy lingerie up to his neck. Then he was gone, into the gathering gloom. With the dust in the wind and the lingering dusk, I could barely see across the road.Did I really see that? WOW.
Techno music raving everywhere. A big drum jam booming from Center Camp. Lots of people wandering around, despite the storm, many of them naked, or nearly so, most of them wearing EL wire designs on their bodies or their bikes that zipped and zapped in all colors, shouting like Vegas neon or some galactic circus. WOW.I saw some amazing lighting designs: Blue butterflies with intricate wings fluttering and blinking off and on. Blue Buddha eyes winking, suspended above the crowd like a billboard. Alien spaceships, a pirate ship, a train with a lonesome whistle, a big yellow duck waddling by, quacking out: “Rabbit season … duck season … rabbit season … duck season.” Down the Esplanade, past the Chairway to Heaven, the Hookahdome, Disorient Dome, the vampire lounge, Space Cowboys, Space Virgins (wonder what they do in there?), the Costco Soulmate Store, the Talk-to-God phone booth, the Automatic Spanking Machine, and the Orgasmatron – which appeared to really work. WOW.
And looming over all that, there was the Man, outlined in blue neon, appearing now and then from a dust cloud, presiding over the chaos like an idol, an icon, a cosmic billboard. The Man, ready to burn. And beyond that the beautifully intricate and serene temple, also ready to burn in a few days.Do I stay up all night, again, dancing with the moon and that kickass trance jam band from Boulder, Kannal? Or do I get to bed early so I can get up the next day and go to the West African drumming class, or the Taoist yoga, or the lecture on Tantra, or the eye-gazing session, or a discussion on psychonavigating heaven and hell, or the Israeli folk dancing? WOW.
Burning Man is whatever you may want it to be. Depending on where you stand in the culture wars, it’s a devilish and decadent denigration of God’s creation, or it’s a reaffirmation of the creative spirit of the universe. It might be a place to learn something new about yourself or your potential. It may be a chance to rely on, or even love, your neighbor. Or it may be just another party, a chance to gawk at beautiful people. I heard it described as a combination of Halloween, Mardi Gras, a Rainbow Gathering and a Grateful Dead show.
But, ideally, Burning Man is more than all that. Because of the heat and the dust, it taxes the body and the will. Because of the sensory overload it taxes the mind, kicking it into a different, timeless realm. Because of its invitation to participate, not just spectate, it becomes a truly radical opportunity to express yourself. Because of the absence of money (except to buy coffee or ice), it fosters community. It’s remarkable what human beings can create when “civilized” restraints are removed, or at least discouraged. WOW.How is it that in the age of Bush, terrorists and outsourcing, such a gathering could occur? It is said the permit fee that Burning Man organizers pay to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is the second biggest revenue stream for the BLM after congressional appropriation. It is also obvious that the festivities are a major economic shot in the arm for the economy of rural northwestern Nevada. The leave-no-trace ethic, along with the legions of post-event cleanup volunteers, ensures compliance with the strict terms of the permit and allows the event to continue.
And how is it that peace is maintained among 35,000 revelers who have little care or concern for the more straitlaced mores of our time? The armada of Black Rock Rangers – the volunteer peacekeepers supplied by the Burning Man organization – helps, as does the very obvious presence of the local county sheriff’s deputies and the ubiquitous BLM rangers.But I think a more crucial explanation for the general peaceful feeling is the attitude of the crowd itself. There really is a love-your-brother-and-sister feeling prevalent at Burning Man. There is a general sense that we’re all in this together – not only in battling the elements, but also in simply having fun and celebrating those things that make us uniquely, wonderfully human.
WOW! Luke Nestler, former Zen paperboy for The Aspen Times and currently the music director at KDNK public radio in Carbondale, may find himself at Burning Man 2005. For more info, go to http://www.burningman.com.