Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Introduction to Black Rock City

As the line crept towards the entrance gate, the little light shifted from post-dusk red to moon-white. I heard a bell ring occasionally, wondering what it could be. When the ticket-taker asked and found that it was our first time, he told us to pull over, "Virgins! - We've got some talking to do." Seemingly overflowing with joy, he went through all the camp regulations and warnings I had read on the website (burningman.com), then invited us out of the car for the initiation ceremony. As all virgins, we each had to bang a hanging gong with a metal pipe and shout, which we did, receiving welcome hugs in return and best wishes for our stay. "These people remind me of Christians" was my cynical reaction. For the long crawl to Black Rock City, I turned up the music (XM channel Fungus-53, the best punk station ever). Out came Suicidal Tendencies' "We're The Original Hippie-Killers," perfect for my rebellious mood. But that was followed by Social Distortion's "Reach For The Sky," whose chorus "Make it last, 'cause tomorrow may never come" restored perspective to my mind and renewed my determination to have a great time here, no matter what kind of "hippies" I encountered.

The camp we had joined, Starlight Express (centered around the wedding party), was at 7:30 & G (radial avenues out from the center were labeled like clock hours, circular ring avenues were alphabetical), so by following the little unlit signs at intersections we were miraculously able to locate the camp. Gosia's friends Alex and Ajna from Sausalito had an RV, where Gosia also stayed, while I found an empty spot nearby and pitched my pup tent by the light of the moon. At 'G', we were 7 avenues out from the center Playa and the inner Esplanade, so the lights and sounds were somewhat distant, and the full moon cast an awesome light on the vast playa floor.

After a long day, I fueled up on Red Bull for the body and mushrooms for the mind, and set off on foot to see what this Burning Man was all about. I soon found myself in a totally alternate reality. I felt like the only person at a Halloween party without a costume. Walking along the avenues was like being in the midst of a parade (think Mermaid Parade), with every person and bicycle decorated with lights and/or costumes, and hundreds of motorized vehicles of all sizes converted into fantasy machines. Most theme camps along the way blasted music of all kinds, and the lights grew more dazzling as I approached the center ring (Esplanade). One camp set back from the "street" had a metal frame structure about 20' high x 40' wide supporting canvases illuminated green, with a couple of video screens playing nature videos, as disco music blasted from huge speakers. I stopped and danced for a while, and three little vehicles joined me. Think of a little toy tractor, large wheels in rear, smaller in front, and a lever to do instant "wheelies" (one had two additional small "training wheels" at the back to prevent back flips). Cover this with a cupcake with a hole in the top for a human head to protrude. So these 3 little motorized cupcakes with giggling drivers came scooting onto the dance floor (an area of sand), doing quick wheelies, racing around in tight circles, then sped off again after a while down the avenue. This is just one small example of the kind of thing that kept on happening throughout, a constant bombardment of creativity unleashed in far-out fantasy vehicles ranging from scooters to golf carts to cars and buses.

Once I got to the Esplanade, the extent of the circular city came into view. An indescribably vast array of lights and sounds around the ring, like a World's Fair with a Las Vegas flavor. And out in the central playa, hundreds of bicycles racing around, their lights making them appear like fireflies, in between many larger mutant vehicles, trucks and buses, brightly lit and blasting music. Out on the playa, there was a ring of about 16 tubes about 15' tall facing the sky, occasionally shooting towers of flame, emitting a big "thwoomp" sound with each burst. I climbed a ramp to a platform in the center of the ring, and the computer-controlled device set them off in rapid succession one at a time around the circle, producing a dazzling ring of fire and rotating "thwoomp" ingition sounds.

I wandered for a few hours, continuously dazzled by the weird vehicles and people, and heard some shouting "to The Man for the lunar eclipse"! I remembered that the full moon was going to enter the earth's shadow around 2AM, and had no interest in watching that from the dazzling playa with a bunch of shouting Burners, so I headed back to my camp for some darkness. By chance, I had pitched the tent with the door facing the moon, so I lay down on my sleeping bag with the flap open, and watched the moon disappear and turn red far from the central insanity. In a span of only a few hours, I had gotten a glimpse of the scope and scale of Burning Man, and understood why "Virgins" are labeled as such, as there's no way for anyone who hasn't been there to grasp what it's all about. But it was wonderful to be able to turn it all off, and go to sleep with a lunar eclipse shining down on me in the middle of this desert.

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