A Communist plot, or harmless fun?
Only a few people know of my deep, dark past, when I served as an operative for the CIA. Since I come across as anything but (as a good spy should), and despite the fact that I’m essentially inactive, occasionally my handlers will still evoke their special code words, delivered via special courier (in this case, an otherwise seemingly innocuous catalog from Pottery Barn), asking me to once again assist in protecting this great nation of ours.
Over the years, infiltrating Burning Man has been a difficult process for the CIA. Certainly, some have made it in, but the majority of those were never heard from again. Those who made it in successfully usually found themselves ostracized because of their dress. You simply can’t wear suits, sunglasses, and an earpiece to Burning Man and not be flagged as a Fed.
And so they asked me to finagle my way into the camp. I wasn’t delighted at the prospect, seeing as how I’d given up camping after an unfortunate incident with a roasted marshmallow. I can still see it flying through the air, all flames and smoke like a black & white meteor, headed toward the campfire next to us, where a white biker dude the size of Shaquille O’Neal unwittingly advertised the perfect landing strip with a long stretch of butt crack as he bent forward to tend to his own fire.
We’ll leave the rest of that story for another day, or perhaps better yet, to your imagination. But suffice it to say that I swore off camping once the dust had settled, the bail had been paid, and we’d buried the remains of our campsite, including someone’s little dog and a biker’s pinky finger.
Anyway, I knew of a person who had gone the year before and was going again, my friend and employee (at the time- Burning Man was my retirement party) Joe (name redacted), aka “Joey Broey.” By using some of the mind control techniques gleaned from my training, I asked a couple of innocuous questions, to which Joe unwittingly had no choice but to follow up with a: “Why don’t you come?”
My CIA handlers were ecstatic.
I learned from our small Northwest team leader, Mike aka “Shidog,” what things would be important to bring. He also gave us playa names, I think so the government has a harder time tracking us down. Mine was Steady Yeti. If you’re not sure why, look at the name of this website. Shidog’s must-haves included goggles, lots of ladies’ outer garments, hats, and scarves or anything to cover your mouth against the sandstorms. A good tent. Penicillin. Sleeping bag and a very good mattress. Portable blinking lights. Just kiddin’ about the penicillin.
I secretly flew to DC to find out what the government really wanted to know about Burning Man. I was shocked to discover that what amounts to an entire city, roughly 75,000 people (or the third largest city in Nevada for a week), operates almost entirely without money. I was flabbergasted. Floored. Flummoxed. Can you imagine? The very backbone of American society, discarded like some dead cat on a heaping pile of stinking refuse. Who were these obvious subversives? How did it all work? The government wanted to know. I wanted to know. I was all in. I would find out and we’d stop these Anarchist/Communist/Socialist/Atheist/Boobie-watching scumbags in their tracks.
My long-held assumption: that this shindig was mostly just a bunch of nutjobs taking over the desert so they could dance naked around a burning man just for the hell of it had now been stomped dead and dumped into an overfull porta-potty. Surely the roots of this anarchist scheme lie at the feet of the likes of Putin, or Kim Jong-un, or maybe even George Carlin’s estate. This had all the earmarks of a revolution in the making.
It took me fully ten minutes to empty the cash out of my wallet and close it up again. My hands felt like lead. My forearms felt like they’d been through a significant forearm-only workout because it’s very hard to hold up that much lead. The idea of no cash in my wallet was like having no gas in my car, or no pasta in my spaghetti, or no battery in my vibrator. There was just something wrong about it. I moved as if in molasses. This thing was going to be harder than I thought.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I actually did ask once, but all I got in reply was, “A gallon of milk,” which made me suspicious that someone other than my country was telling me what it wanted.
Before leaving, I also did some research on the internet (making sure, of course, to avoid all of the obviously planted Commie sites), just to test my assumptions. I also talked to various people I know, as well as a few I didn’t, most of whom seemed to move a lot quicker away from me afterward. Every person I talked to (none of whom had ever attended Burning Man) had a different impression of it. My son told me I wasn’t in college and that I’d come back with herpes (my incredibly supportive wife Carolyn knows me far too well to worry about that). Others were concerned about past events where people had gone missing. Most assumed it was just one big frat party or some such. My mother even thought it was some big festival in the desert, attended only by men.
Many males assumed it was a great place to check out the seldom-seen bare-breasted American boobie awash in nothing but sunlight. Trust me, after the first four (two sets of two, although it would probably still hold true if you saw one set of two and two singles), you forget to even notice. I could’ve had an entire conversation with a bare-breasted woman and after she left, wouldn’t have been able to tell you whether she was or not. Okay, I’m lying, I would’ve noticed. But I wouldn’t have cared. Still, as a preference, sure, I mean, you might as well see ‘em if they’re there. But it really doesn’t matter after the first two sets of two, or four total, however they’re displayed.
What no one I talked to beforehand understood was that there was this city created out of thin air, operating for an entire week without money. I didn’t want to upset anyone, so I never volunteered that knowledge. But I found it interesting that that concept was so well concealed from the clueless public. Clearly, I had some work to do.
Once we were packed up and ready to go, we drove for seven or so hours, stopping in the teaming metropolis of Cedarville, which is a couple hours outside of Black Rock, which is the name of the town “Burning Man” becomes, and is so-named because of the expanse of white dust as far as the eye can see. I guess maybe because if you put a black rock anywhere on that expanse, you’ll surely see it. So it’s metaphorical or something. Personally I might’ve named the town White Dust. Or just Dust. Or maybe just Du, because during a whiteout you can’t see the “st.”
Anyway, we had a surprisingly delicious dinner provided by a chef who was clearly out of his element. You simply don’t get that kind of big city cooking in a town of about 500 people, and so I immediately knew he was a foreign agent, probably Communist. I made sure other people ate a bite of the food before I did in case he had made me.
After surviving the night, we ate breakfast and then headed toward the Man. Due to the savvy experience of Shidog, we pretty much drove right in with nary a wasted moment in line. The wait can last for hours upon hours if you get there at the wrong time, so I was grateful to be with such an experienced leader.
Immediately upon our arrival on the playa, I could see that it consisted of two things, and two things only: air and dust, both of which continuously battle for preeminence, each of them gaining the upper hand only to lose it again.
Upon entrance, they make the “virgins” lie down in the dust to make sand angels, and then hit the bell to signify who the hell knows what. Once covered in dust, it coats your entire body, really more as a protective shield than anything, until you get home and take your first real shower.
There are no bugs, no scorpions, spiders, snakes, or even elephants. Nary a fly was ever spotted around the porta-potties, which sit there for hours in the hot sun, baking their fetid contents until they are cooked to juicy and delicious perfection, appealing to the palate of even the most discerning fly. I wondered if any flies hitchhiked within some of vehicles, only to find themselves in the open air, thinking they were free to explore all the delicious tastes and smells that only a group of unwashed hordes of people can provide, and then dropping dead from playa dust grainy enough to fill a fly’s lungs to capacity in a matter of seconds.
On my first night at Burning Man we went next door to what is essentially a continuously operating bar. They have a famous drink called “Pussy Juice,” which I think is so-named because they put everything possible into the drink, including a dead cat. They then cover up all the taste with Kool-aid or some such. I only had one glass of it, and subsequently found myself back at camp, dancing like Fred Astaire. Or at least I thought I was dancing like Fred Astaire. In truth, I was probably dancing more like Elaine on Seinfeld. And then I did a face plant. And then I dragged myself to my tent and slept it off, my feet hanging out of the tent, turning it into some sort of human/tent popsicle. Fortunately, the playa is forgiving and The Dust granted me a reprieve from a hangover.
After spending a week at Burning Man, walking and riding across the playa, dancing and listening to techno music with earth-shattering bass tones, and visiting camps that dispense free whatevers- from booze to pancakes to getting your ass stamped with a black ink tattoo, I was finally able to summarize what Burning Man is all about.
The thing about Burning Man, however, is that it defies being described in simple terms. Indeed, virtually everyone who attends Burning Man comes away with a different perception and description of the event. It is truly whatever you make of it, or want it to be.
Here is the list of definitions I provided my handlers by the end of the event:
- A big hippie lovefest
- A 24/7 dance party with some of the most amazing sound systems you’ll ever hear
- Artistic expression provided only for art’s sake, with virtually no boundaries
- A complete lack of judgmentalism; everyone is accepted and embraced (literally)
- A continuous hugfest. Hugs outnumber shaken hands by 10,548 to 1
- 75,000 people embracing of all that which makes us human
- A social experiment: a community that functions without money
- A social statement: everything is ephemeral
- A challenge to adapt to one of the harshest environments on the planet
- A demonstration of the beauty of giving
- Proof that self-reliance and generosity go hand-in-hand
- Artistry that is likely to define an entire genre for decades to come
Pick one or more of the above, or all of them, or none of them. It will still be Burning Man, and more importantly, your Burning Man.
As for the last bullet point above, someone told me that the fusion of art and music at Burning Man will be considered one of historical significance. I understand that, because I certainly have never seen anything like it. The incredible quality and creativity, much less the miles-wide scope, may truly be a combination to which other events can only hope to aspire. I’m not an art connoisseur, so I’m not sure what you would call all of this, but it certainly feels like the notable genesis of an entire artistic genre unlike anything we have ever seen. It was, through and through, incredibly beautiful and immersive, even if you weren’t stoned or drunk.
And much of the artistry was designed to live one week, and then burn.
As far as the nuts and bolts, living at Burning Man is a bit like extreme camping, depending on the quality of your living quarters. Those in tents without any kind of covering suffer the most. The sun is hot and the grainy wind is incessant. Indeed, the removal of our shade structure when our fellow campmates left on Sunday, before the burning of the Temple, caused our sub-camp to decide to leave as well. Subjecting the tents to the sun, wind, and dust was just more extreme than we preferred to handle after a week.
The decision proved prescient when we learned that the Exodus (which is what they call the mass departure) had been shut down due to an Amber Alert. My understanding is that whoever was missing has been found, and may have been a case of parents being separated from their child. So that’s the good news; the bad news is spending an extra 3, 4, or 8 hours sitting around in the hot sun when you’re ready leave pretty much sucks. But that’s Burning Man. You get a side of torture served with your fun.
Speaking of which, while I kinda understand why Burning Man allows children, it’s really not a good place for a kid of any age. Most of the activities are adult-oriented, and the environment is really harsh. That said, they were few and far between, which is a good thing.
The rest of these observations are presented in no particular order:
While there is no dress code, there is actually a kind of expected manner of dress. Dress any way you want (or in nothing), as long as you don’t look like you just walked out of Nordstroms, REI, or just got done with filming a GQ shoot at the beach. At night, wearing lights is a must; you’ll get run over by something if you’re a “darktard:” someone who isn’t wearing any lights. Wearing anything that could create “MOOP,” (Matter Out of Place), like feathers and such, is extremely discouraged. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual to see a hapless feather-wearing playa rider dragged out to the dark reaches of the desert to be pummeled by MOOP-less enforcers and then made to eat all the stray feathers. Okay, I’m just kidding about that; actually with all the liquor flowing it almost surprised me that I never saw one hint of violence (other than the controlled melee in the ThunderDome).
Burning Man is a peaceful place, and the idea is to leave the playa exactly as it was found: nothing but air and dust.
Burning Man really consists of two cycles: Day Burn and Night Burn. During Day Burn, you walk or pedal your bike through the camps, partaking of whatever freebies various camps happen to be giving out that day, whether it’s gin and tonics, fruit smoothies, waffles, or just music. A lot of people walk around handing out various chachkies; for instance, a kind soul worked up baggies full of essentials for virgins. When she found out I was a virgin, I got the baggie, we exchanged hugs, and the world was wonderful.
You can of course also walk or ride out to the playa during the day to see the art installations. To do so, you risk getting stuck in one of the many whiteouts that happen as soon as the wind picks up a little. The playa is like one big concrete bowl covered in a layer of dust. As soon as the wind blows, the dust permeates the air. If it kicks up enough, you can’t see a foot in front of you. Unless you’re looking down at your feet, then you can; unless you’re a double amputee, of course.
At night, the playa lights up like Las Vegas ate a carnival and then threw up all over the desert immediately afterward. You can spin 360 degrees and see nothing but twinkling lights. The playa is filled with sound stages, both stationary and mobile. The esplanade that fills the gap between the campers and the playa is also filled with sound stages. Much of Night Burn can consist of walking or riding to various sound camps, dancing until you’re tired of that music, and then wandering off to start it all over again (even though the next camp has music that sounds largely the same). There were nights where we started Night Burn at sundown, and then staggered into camp at sunup. In between, our bodies never stopped moving, whether it was riding, walking, dancing, or even climbing up any one of the structures that made it possible.
The sound systems dotting the playa are nothing like I’ve ever seen before. They also sound like nothing I’ve heard before. One of the mobile sound systems, dubbed the Mayan Warrior, has sound so impressive that you can stand near it and converse in a normal voice while it blasts electronic music over your head. You can hear every individual sound as if it were the only sound playing. Multiple lasers shoot across the sky as it plays.
And then, every so often, it would begin moving across the playa, a rhythmic techno-chant beating from its speakers, while dozens if not hundreds of colorfully lit bikes follow behind and around it like a flock of neon ducklings surrounding its mother.
I was pleased and surprised that my 58-year-old body never got sore or particularly tired. I probably averaged a return to camp of maybe 3-4 AM, after sunup once, and just before sunup another time. And then maybe 3-5 hours sleep, a Day Burn, and back out into the night again. And I don’t even drink coffee.
Of course, little did anyone in the camp know that I was actually under deep cover as the oldest guy in camp- they never knew about the trained killing machine that lurked under my aging, potbellied exterior. But I refused to feign misery for their benefit. Sure, maybe I got a little too much attention for hanging with and sometimes outlasting those younger than me. But nobody ever said a spy couldn’t have a little ego.
Speaking of potbellies, most people experience what is called the “Playa Diet.” The truth is, you just don’t feel like eating much. Most days I had the equivalent of one meal in the “default world,” spread out over the course of the entire day. You must drink plenty of water of course, but whatever causes the Playa Diet, it’s actually kinda cool because I surely should eat a lot less than I do in the default world, and am endeavoring to maintain that now that I’ve returned.
Our camp’s contribution to the spirit of giving was an afternoon barbecue of over 150 pounds of tri-tip steaks, delivered only after the recipients confessed their sins. I think it was truly one of the highlights of the camp giveaways… lots of people don’t eat much of anything cooked during the entire week. Everyone had a ball. Except those who took a peek at those playing naked Twister. Some things just can be unseen.
On the last night three of us got stuck out on the playa at about 4:00 AM in the midst of a whiteout. We found an art installation that provided just a flag of fabric to protect us from a surprisingly chill wind. One moment everything was fine, and the next moment the wind was howling, and we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us. After it continued to blow and blow we realized we might be stuck standing there until sunrise, when we hoped the sun would alter the wind patterns.
Sure enough, as the sky lightened, the wind began dying down, and we began to get our bearings. During most of the hour and a half we stood there, my two companions debated on what our exact location was. Being the virgin and all, I was content to let them figure it out; I’d just follow them home, whether the journey was direct or eventual. Ultimately, it was a combination of both I think.
When we went to retrieve our bikes, we couldn’t find mine. Someone must’ve taken it during the storm, whether desperate to get back to camp and without a bike, or in a case of mistaken identity. Bike “transference” happens regularly at Burning Man, but I’d like to think most of the time it’s either a mistake due to excess intoxication, or minor desperation. It’s hard to paint “stealing” in a sort of good-natured light, but in a sense, at Burning Man, it is. It’s a society of sharing without asking for anything in return, and most of the bikes are pieces of crap that probably don’t see much use outside of Burning Man. In any case, we shrugged, and walked home, no worse for the wear.
Three hours after our heads hit our pillows we had to wake up to help take down the covering tarp, which was quite elaborate and impressive. And then we decided to leave early as well. So, fueled on three hours sleep, we hopped into our two vehicles and made our way out of Burning Man. Our wait in line was about two hours, which is a lot better than it can be. And then we had an 8-9 hour drive ahead of us. My friend Ben and I decided we’d rather go for it all night, while Joey Broey and Shidog elected to get a good night’s sleep first and come up the next day.
Despite three hours sleep over a two day span and a long drive, I actually never felt like nodding off. It’s as if the playa dust continued to caress and protect me all the way home. And make no mistake: my entire body was coated with a fine layer of playa dust, so it had plenty of square footage on which to work its magic.
In my report to my CIA handlers, I simply told them this: Burning Man proves one thing: that you must have ice and coffee in order to run any kind of society. And those, coincidentally, are the two things you can buy at Burning Man. So no, it is not a cashless society. And the occasional spotting of a bare-breasted American boobie doesn’t make you want to pledge loyalty to Kim Jong-un. Nor does dancing until sunup mean you’re un-American.
For me, Burning Man represents a word we toss about so often without thinking about it: freedom. For so many, freedom really means: “Freedom to act the way you want as long as I approve of it.” But when you experience true freedom, freedom without judgment, freedom without commercialization, freedom to do or be whoever you want to be (as long as you don’t hurt anyone else), you realize that all the dust and sun and wind and other miseries are truly worth enduring, simply in order to experience what real, true freedom feels like.
Take what you want from Burning Man, but my take was the complete and utter enjoyment of freedom like I’ve never felt before in my life.
I’ve returned my Pottery Barn catalog, and will never open one again.