09/08/04: Burning Man Recap

Whoa, what a rollercoaster of a week it's been. I'm not sure how to summarize my experience, so I'm just gonna jot down thoughts in no particular order because the days and nights ran into each other, and I know I won't get the timeline right.

Anyhoo, we left on Monday the 30th with Jason and Heather, Corinna, Shannon in the RV with me and John. We had planned on driving straight through the night and landing in the desert after midnight, but we had to make a few last minute stops in Reno and we eventually tuckered out and decided to sleep in the Reno WalMart parking lot on Monday night and get a fresh start Tuesday morning. (Did you know that WalMarts let RVs camp in their parking lots as a rule? Who knew?) While at the WalMart, John and I bought cheap bikes ($60 each, pre-assembled, 18-speeds, and red to match the ladybug outfits... how do you go wrong?); we were originally gonna go sans bikes because we heard that there was 6" of dust on the playa, but it had rained apparently since then and matted things down. In retrospect, I am soooo glad we got those bikes. Anyhoo, we arrived in Black Rock City around lunchtime and found a parking spot in the Infinite Oasis Camp. Tsutomu (aka Ranger Enigma) had saved us a spot by his tent on the other end of Infinite Oasis, but the Austin folks had saved us a spot as well, so we opted to camp by the Austinites and help Tsutomu move his tents and gear closer to us. This worked out very well, and I was happy to have the whole gang in one spot.

We caught up with Melanie (John's best friend who was staying in the RV with us) and she moved her stuff in - she had gotten there the day before. It was great to finally meet her-- she is beyond awesome. She's super-funky, beautiful, entirely brilliant, sharp as a tack and hilarious. I loved hearing her and John riffing-- they have this rhythm to their interaction with each other that only best friends have, and I loved seeing that side of John, too. It made me miss Jeremy. Anyway, not that I had any worries, but I was very happy that Mel and I got along well. She's so damn cool.

The first day was also spent getting hydrated-- it's the most important thing you can do out there. As soon as you get low on water, you tend to get bitchy and tired and cloudy, so keeping up with the gatorade/water is critical. The Burning Man mantra is piss clear, and it couldn't be more sage advice.

Since we'd gotten there on Tuesday, there were many people who had already been there for over a day. There were already a zillion people there with their stuff all set up as if they'd been there for weeks. The thing that blows me away is that people rarely attend Burning Man with nothing to contribute... most people show up with some kind theme, even if it's just to cook dinner for any passersby one night, or if it's to offer you water, some chill space, cappuccino, ice cream, henna tattoos or even a masaage. So think of the event as 30,000 people all wanting to show you 30,000 things. There's no way you're gonna see it all. At any given moment there are thousands of things to see and experience (including the weather), and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. I'm very glad that everyone told me not to feel badly that I wouldn't get to see everything, because at every turn I saw 50 things I wanted to dive into.

There is something for everyone there. If you're into fire sculptures that blow up, no problem. If you like vehicles with stuff welded onto them to make them look like other things, we've got tons. If you like gourmet food unlike anything you can get in the real world, just pull up a seat. If you want to do yoga at sunrise, no sweat. Want to have a five strangers give you a sponge bath without feeling like you're being groped? Two blocks over. (Don't worry Mom and Dad. Didn't do it.) If you want to paint yourself orange, you can do that, too, and you can help paint everyone else while you're at it. Want to attend Friday night Shabbat services? No sweat-- JCC camp is over there. If you want to dance until sunrise every day, there are 20 places you can shake your groove thing. The good news is that if you're faced with something that makes you uncomfortable, you have three choices: you can either look at it and try to figure it out for yourself, you can safely talk to a participant and try to understand why it makes you feel that way without feeling judged, or you can just step 20 feet in any other direction and find something that makes your soul soar.

In the desert, there is no commerce of any kind (excluding center camp coffee and ice sales, which is just fine with me, really), and this was probably the hardest hurdle for me to overcome. If you know me at all, you know that I hate owing people anything, I hate debt and obligation. So this concept of living without money and just accepting gifts because someone is kind was very difficult for me. I use the massage analogy: If I want a massage in real life, I can do one of two things. I can call a massage place and pay $70, lay back and enjoy, and leave feeling relaxed and great. Or, I can ask a friend to rub my back and then be miserable the entire time wondering what I will have to do in return to thank said friend for the backrub. To this end, I like money, it makes things impersonal... even personal things like massages. I remember walking around with John and seeing a dome set up where you could get a massage... and I asked him 100 times, "So, if I wanted a massage from them, what would I have to bring them?" and he said, "Nothing. You just get a massage." I couldn't wrap my brain around this. So I kept wondering and asking, "Yeah, but why would they give me a massage? What's in it for them?" And he said, "Just accept it." I couldn't understand it.

Of course, I think about how much joy I get out of giving people things, so natually these folks would want to feel the same sense of goodness. But I don't know-- I'm a mentalcase and have a hard time accepting goodness without some form of reciprocation. I'd love to learn this lesson, but that requires finding a teacher who likes bestowing gifts a lot and smacking my arguments down with "Suck it up, Knapp!" :-)

There is tons of artwork on the playa. Picture a vast nothingness... a flat desert floor with a random piece of art plopped in the middle of it for you to sort of stumble upon and experience in this vacuum. It's really quite something. There were huge things you could climb on, there were domes with planetarium exhibits on crack you could climb into and experience, there was a random front door in the middle of the desert leading nowhere (or somewhere?). There were homemade roller coasters. There was a front porch staffed by people heckling the passersby. There was an observatory staffed by an astronomer. There was a car with someone's exhaustive butterfly collection inside. There were windmills, there were sculptures made out of flourescent tubes which you could manipulate from a central console; it was all just so amazing. The art in and of itself was incredible; but factor in that these people built it and somehow schlepped it all the way to the middle of frikkin' nowhere was unfathomably cool.

My favorite piece of art is hard to describe, but I'll try: Picture 1/4 mile of pyramids lined up in a straight line so you could walk beneath/through them. Each pyramid is about 12 feet tall, maybe. They are all lined up and they lead you towards a center speaker which blasted techno music. Atop each pyramid was a strobe light blinking to the beat. As you walked through this tunnel, the light walways blinked on the beat, which is when we realized that the artist had calibrated the strobe to blink taking the speed of sound into consideration as you walked closer to the speaker 1/4 mile away. When you were on the other side of the desert and could see the line of pyramids from a distance, you could actually see how fast sound traveled by watching the strobes go off in succession. Mind blowing.

I spent time visiting friends, eating silly food bought from the japanese grocery stores around here (pudding filled marshmallows called "Creamy Collon!" for example- haha), engage in witty repartee banter while dressed up as ladybugs, ya know. Nothing too far out of the ordinary, really... except that I was in a desert and had an 1/8" layer of clay caked onto me at all times.

There was a very small showing of the "Girls Gone Wild" types, but they were largely ignored by everyone and if they were at all astute they probably felt out of place or dumb. For the most part, the population was comprised of San Francisco queens, hippies, mega-nerds, chicks with armpit hair, older people in various stages of undress (I learned a new word: shirtcocking: to wear a shirt without pants... this kills me!), people tripping happily and unmenacingly. Everyone there hates Bush.

My fear of drowning in a sea of people trying to out-freak/out-sexy each other was reasonably unfounded. While there were some people desperately trying to prove how wacky/hotttt they were, again, simply moving 20 feet to the left or right of them moved me in front of something more pleasant... and there was infinitely more pleasant than annoying to behold.

There was one day when I was feeling pretty out of sorts, so I just went off on my own and had some Jill-time. Jill-time included biking on the playa in the middle of nowhere with my eyes shut (whoa), stopping to talk to random people, driving out to the the point farthest from any human being and singing at the top of my lungs, praying at the temple and writing letters to my grandparents, family and friends who have passed on and thanking them for the incredible life I have; writing goodbyes to things which will be burned away when the temple was set on fire later that week (Dell's cancer, friend's financial / family woes, friends' ruts, angst, bad relationships, inability to let go, yadda yadda). I cried a wailing cathartic cry which felt so good as I finally got the remnants of ick out of my system. I then listed everything and everyone I'm thankful for which took up about 87973 cords of wood, but felt so good to jot down. I took a solid self-inventory and came up with some ideas on what my next move should be. I then deemed myself the luckiest person alive.

Other highlights included:

  • Hanging out with Jack and Sarah - loooove them!
  • Meeting NJ people in the Disorient dome (?) and eating vegan catered food... mmm, cucumber salad and carrot cake!
  • Staying out all night with John just wandering the playa, stargazing and watching the sunrise
  • Hanging out in the Bio-illuminati dome with Soren and Katherine and the other festive people therein
  • Waiting out two blinding dust storms that rendered everyone immobile
  • The incredible dinner prepared by Mike and Mike, and enjoyed by me, John, Mel, Monica and Mike2: Pork loin rubbed with amazing spices and grilled to perfection, stupendously flavored couscous, and the most incredible salad consisting of fresh watermelon, fresh mint leaves, sliced grape tomatoes and big chunks of hard parmesan cheese topped with coarse salt and pepper (oh my god, heavenly)
  • Biked through a dust devil
  • The guy on the bullhorn outside our trailer trying to lure passersby people to his camp's Sangria Happy Hour. We were trying to nap, but the guy was relentless which sent us into giggling fits. "Sangria Happy Hour! Come on by! Ride your bicycle on our trampoline! Have some guacamole which ran out about 40 minutes ago!"
  • Catching snippets of random conversation outside the portajohns from drunken people. "Holy... look up there. What's that??" "That's the Big Dipper. It's been there a while."
  • One girl didn't lock the portajohn door behind her and some guy walked in on her accidentally. After he shut the door in horror, he said, "Housekeeepeeng!"
  • Hanging out with Marty and Curt in their camp
  • Someone turned a San Francisco Muni (mass transit) flexi-bus into an art car/submarine thing which made those excellent underwater ping sounds. Eeee!
  • Checked out the amazing vespa-powered diver zoetrope someone built in the desert-- unreal.
  • Dancing the entire night away with Mike and Monica - never knew that could be so much fun
  • John coined new term for overflowing portopotties: crowning (luckily we didn't encounter any, but apparently in past years it was a problem)
  • I painted myself orange from head to toe, just because I could. Of course, this make me turn everything I touched orange as well, so I washed it off after a day... thank the lordy for RV showers. :-)
  • Drove around on Mike's art car, which was a chaiselounge on wheels powered by a phatty go-cart motor. Super-cool!
  • Dressed in our rockin' ladybug skirts and got our pictures taken all over the place by happy admirers (we did look entirely too cute, I must admit-- thanks for the skirt, Mel!)
  • Wore my hair in mega-antennae for the majority of the event-- mega-antennae = antennae with pipe cleaners wrapped around them for maximum height and bounciness
  • Thought about cool ways to rig the portojohns for next year-- I want to rig them so every time a door is opened or closed, a tone is played so you get this kind of improvisational but tonal music. Jack and John suggested instead playing sound samples or quotes, too.
  • the EL wire fish attached to the bicycles, and when they rode around at night it looked like a school of fish swimming in the distance... so beautiful
  • Seeing the art car which looked just like a landspeeder. (At night however, it was totally lame.)
  • the chai switcheroo
  • betcha can't stare at me for a full minute
  • spontaneous lightswitch rave outside the trailer
  • breaking out into "The system is down!" a la Strongbad whenever we heard thundering techno beats with Jack and Sarah, and being unable to keep it up because we were laughing so hard
  • "Well, obviously I'm grower, not a shower."
  • "If I experience that ponk with my other two senses (sight and taste), you're [being excommunicated]."
  • Met Ilana, the architect/photographer from Berkeley just before sunrise at center camp and gave her Steve's photo website.

    Anyway, there's so much more to recap but I wanted to get this initial thing posted.

    To answer the obvious question, yes, I would definitely go again.

    Oh, and one more thing: I had a dream that Matt Hearn proposed to me last night in my high school theater, and then we went to a convenience store and ate junkfood. (Sorry, Hearnwife Sarah!)

    In lieu of Fortune Teller Miracle Fish, why not read what I was doing this time last year?