As we drove our rented Dodge van toward Highway 80 that Thursday night, I found myself wondering what we were getting into. We had read that Burning Man is about everyone following their bliss as far as it doesn't interfere with someone else's bliss, but we had also heard that Burning Man is the biggest fucking rave in North America. Neither of us has been to a rave, but I figured it would probably be loud.
We spent the night in a Travelodge in Reno (well, from 12:30 - 5:30 am), got breakfast and headed out for Gerlach. Driving into the sunrise on a Friday morning, my primary goal was to get out to the desert and get our awning up before noon so I could get some sleep. As we drove, the land around us emptied out of prefabricated house factories, roads, cars, and buildings. I started remembering how many stars you can see once away from city lights. Cows grazed in fields open to the road - I can't read a cow's face - when she is standing on the shoulder, is she about to cross the road? I've been told she's not smart enough to wait for me to pass. This one did - must have been random chance.
The landscape continued to lose burdensome detail and open into the vastness of the desert. God, it's been years since I've been in land like this. Why was I gone so long? The sky is big enough for all my thoughts and dreams.
Before we see the turnoff from the road, we see a vehicle driving on the playa, apparently just for fun. She kicks up a dust trail that looks miles long. The desert touches the highway and a mobile home with 2 guys painting each other's body are here to welcome us. Once we've presented tickets and sworn to having 13 gallons of water with us, we are instructed to drive 12 miles north and then turn right. Keep our high beams on and be sure not to exceed 40 because there's already been 1 accident this morning. Tire tracks are everywhere, and we drive through miles of seeming nothingness. And yet, the space begins to seep into my soul. This will be an experience long remembered in my life.
We think we see something on the horizon. Do we? Tire tracks are crossing each other. Where were people going? Yes, we pass an occasional oncoming car - we must be on the right course. We continue. Yes, we see the camp! It begins with occasional RVs and tents; they increase in density. Finally, we can see central camp - there are even flags to mark off the Outer Ring Road. This place is organized!
I finally look at the map of the camp the guys at the entrance gave us. Where do we want to camp? Camp Darwin looks good since Phil is wearing his "Let Your Mind Evolve" t-shirt. In the end, we pick a spot at random that turns out to be a great location for us - close to the Lazy Camp and the "Have a Nice Day" Camp. We never found the Darwinists, but we did get close to the drummers. We learned that the Rave Camp is 5 miles away (too close for the quiet mornings). We ended up close to center camp, but not so close to have a lot of foot or vehicular traffic. In fact, the tents and RVs were so dense in our area that there was no vehicular traffic - a large benefit because moving vehicles kick up dust.
We set up camp, and I crash in the shade. Of course, I want to sleep and it's HOT, but I can't stay still. I want to see what's going on. We take 2 excursions in the 107 degree heat - not wise, but fun. I am awed by the theme camps set up and the equipment brought out to the desert. Croquet sets, banners, a crane to setup Helco, RVs that look like pirate ships, PVC geodesic domes, 20 Foot Man, Mudhenge, Lost Vegas - I'm too hot, the sun is bright, I crash, and we think we've lost the car key. Of course, it's right where it belongs the whole time, but the heat and sun have fried my brain. The squirt bottle becomes an indispensible item in the heat.
People come to Burning Man and create visions of their own thinking. There is no standard camp. There is no commercial definition of what a camp should be. There are no copies, everything is original. Burning Man shows individual expression to a degree I have not seen anywhere else. I rejoiced in it. Remember when your mother told you everyone is unique and has something special to offer to the world? That is Burning Man.
I am reminded of movies: Dune, A Boy and His Dog, King of Hearts, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I grow accustomed to the heat. If I wait until 3 or 4 pm, I can walk around without problem. Clothes become an option instead of a requirement. To stand out in this crowd, you need truly outrageous clothes. Men wearing skirts and sarongs are everywhere, nipple and navel rings are commonplace, people nude except for the mud covering them head to toe pass by every few minutes. The best makeup is on the men - I need lessons!
Live bands start performing about 6 pm. It is industrial music and loud, but with a muted quality because there are no echoes. We take in as much as we can and then crash. Thank god for the earplugs because the music continues until dawn.
Morning is my favorite time. The landscape is incredibly clear - no dust has been kicked up yet. Few people are awake - I can hear only the faint bass from the rave camp. The playa is beautiful. It's chilly!
All of the written instructions and the pirate radio station have told us to trust each other, get to know our neighbors, and take responsibility for our trash. They are right. Everyone is on their good behavior - everyone is open and friendly. The lines for the portable toilets are a great place to strike up a conversation, hear the latest rumors, and talk easily with anyone. There is a greater sense of community here than most places I have lived.
Burning Man is large enough that you can create your own experience. The only constant is loud music and great people. Bring earplugs.
This is not the official Burning Man site. That Web site is located at Welcome to Burning Man.