Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Man Burns in 350 Days!

Still trying to process the sensory overload that was Burning Man 2012. Or was it a religious retreat? Radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, and radical inclusion in a culture of unparalleled awesomeness that appears but one week a year, and vanishes without a trace. "Welcome home!"

This was my third time. Here are photos (not all mine) and stories, but how do you explain this? 
the flaming octopus art car. Always a crowd pleaser!
Life is but one big lesson in learning to let go (ultimately, of your life) and BM is an incredible symbol/exercise of/in letting go. Party, admire, learn and love all week - then burn it all down. It's also an impressive lesson in possibility. How better to expand your notion of what is possible than by watching a massive metal octopus race crawl across the desert shooting flames?

My third time I was lucky to involve myself for the first time in a theme camp: the French Quarter. Just like something out of Bourbon Street!
There were several storefront "businesses", including a bakery, gumbo house, and we had joined the Broken Angel Bathhouse. Dylan and I arrived early to help set up the ornate stalls they created, along with the plumbing and infrastructure.

It was a massive undertaking, the organizers bringing thousands of gallons of water (all to be taken out as grey water) and during the week, we worked shifts giving bath salts, and providing showers (pumps) to many very grateful souls. At Burning Man, it's like everyone is there for YOU, and you are there for everyone else. The more you participate in the gifting culture, the more you take away.
the temple, as seen from the Man
dust - what becomes a legend most!
Of course, being my third year you'd think I'd stop winging it and plan better! There's just so much to see that inevitably, you stay up until dawn and the tent (what I refer to as an easy-bake oven) preheats to 450 degrees by 10am, making sleep impossible. The first couple days, you wander the city looking for a shady chill tent to crash out in, but suddenly that radical self-reliance kicks in and you adjust to this no-sleep schedule and getting through desert days is not a chore but a non-stop thrill of discovery.

All you need are goggles, a glass for the generous open bars, and a fabulous retro ray gun! 
Several notables flew into Black Rock City airport - including Mark Zuckerberg. Also, Danger Dan and Jade! Back in Jackson, they mapped out the route:
Dylan and I drove in their water and camping supplies and met them at the airport, where Danger took me up in his cessna for an aerial scenic view of Black Rock City and its layout:
The best daytime dance space is DISTRIKT:
only two of you Zebras are allowed on the Ark!

 Say Fudget to corporate advertising!
The playa comes alive in a whole new dimension at night. 
Beware abrupt decapitations!
This dock Dylan's standing on ended at a half-sunken full-scale shipwreck. On this dock, a fisherman had a fake baggie of cocaine attached to his hook and each time someone saw and tried to grab for it, he'd yank his rod and it would fly away. Then he laughed hysterically.

One of the best things about Burning Man is the ability to risk (or, "safety third!") and we climbed the ropes along the mast and swung around like pirates. They had blue lasers that went out onto the sand, giving the illusion of waves... and inside the captains quarters were navigation instruments, log books, a closet with period costumes, everything - even an old man with a white beard (not part of the instillation), who was doing whip-its out of a whipped cream charger and told me he had a vision we would meet again. I wrote something in the captain's log, "September 1, 1887: shipwrecked, huffing whip-its..."
Seeing familiar art cars is like saying hello to an old friend. If they stop, you're welcome to board. We took this moving island for a ride!

 The Opulent Temple is always a favorite, flaming dance space with incredible DJs.
At night I put on an $8.99 blond clip-on fall and transform into Maybelline. She is an imperious bitch, and this year she had two ray guns and galactic tights. Look out! At Opulent Temple, I ran around asking people if Maybelline could count on their vote for the Miss Playa Pageant and inquiring, "Have you seen my glow-stick? It's yellow and answers to the name Henry".
Maybelline perches 30 feet atop the crowd. If she falls, she kills herself AND 12 people below
City of Night! 
One night, after losing my friends and taking a ride to nowhere drinking at the bar inside a giant bowling pin, I ventured into deep playa - the area way out beyond the man, beyond the temple - and just kept walking to discover what was out there. Secretly, I was hoping to find the Dust City Diner - that 50's diner, an oasis to intrepid deep playa travelers, that appears (much like Burning Man and Brigadoon) out of nowhere at precisely the moment you need a grilled cheese served by a woman in a beehive wig. I walked what felt like miles, asking the few fellow travelers I came across, "Have you seen the turn off to Sacramento?" much to their amazement. 

I kept my eye on something glowing in the far distance, and when I finally reached it - the building featured an old-fashioned marquee that gave showtimes to a film titled, "The Little Virgin Who Skips Down the Yellow Brick Road". A man ushered me inside, giving me a pack of Skittles from his concession stand. Inside was a proper cinema with crazy carpet, cinema seats, and on screen is Judy Garland in Kansas singing Over the Rainbow. Maybelline was so giddy and trigger happy with her ray gun, she didn't even see Dorothy arrive to munchkinland. Outside sat an art car, whose owners generously filled Maybelline's cup and shuttled her with a bunch of fellow freaks around real-life Oz. 
Maybelline, Jade and Dylan
the man burns!
After a week, it feels like you've been camping with the same people since at least 1993, and once (often?) I woke up mid-morning, having crawled out of the easy-bake oven to chase shade provided by a neighbor's tarp. In nothing but hot pants and a dust filled clip on wig, I roll over to see my camp neighbors drinking coffee and chatting quietly over me. Imagine finding some dusty itinerant tranny at your feet in any other campground scenario? Here they said, "We were going to put a pillow under you, but we didn't want to wake you up!"

The beauty of Burning Man, that which can't be explained through word or photo, is the generosity of spirit - the impressive displays of humanity - to be found in a culture whose entire focus is on what we share, rather than what separates. What unites, not what divides. And at its heart is the temple.
This year the "Temple of Juno" was an astonishing structure built by renowned sculptor David Best. It's incredible how much love, creativity, talent, time and money go into everything at Burning Man and despite the cacophony of a party outside, inside the temple is an atmosphere of utter reverence.
People come to reflect, make offerings and scribble on every last inch of the temple with notes of inspiration, fear, hope, forgiveness. It's a place of reconciliation, free of dogma or decree. You can't read more than a few of the scrawlings without tearing up. On one visit, I laid down on the ground of the temple with all these feelings - admiring the intricate, lace-like woodwork of the ceiling. Some stranger started hugging on my leg and I put my arm on his back. He just kept crying, sobbing, shaking on my leg and even though my friends were ready to go, there was no way I was moving.
On the last morning, I returned to our camp around dawn to find uncle Billy preparing breakfast. Billy is the one who suggested we join French Quarter - and fed us (bless you!) the whole week at "Billy's Bistro" - which he transported all the way from Long Island, NY. I sit down and take a huge gulp of water... which turns out to be vinegar. At that point, sleep should have been an imperative but instead, after Billy christens me "vinegar lips", I take my bicycle and peddle off to the temple.

Inside, I soak it all up until I see this guy at one of the entrances. I remember him from a camp earlier in the week where he had assembled a group of us in a circle holding hands. He held an electrical current and cranked it up so it went through all of us - cranking up the electricity until someone couldn't stand it anymore and dropped hands.

I go up to him now and he's almost trance-like, like he hasn't slept either. He says he's been putting off coming to this place, but this is the last morning of the temple's existence... and he had to come here with his two friends. When I see no friends, he pulls out of his backpack two canisters of ashes. "This is Kevin and this is Chris," he says.

I stayed with him as he said goodbye to each of these dead friends, placing them in the exact right spot in the temple, a spot only he knew. Then outside, as the rising sun began to burn the dust, we laid down and I asked him to tell me about Kevin and Chris and they came alive again, if only briefly.

When the temple burns, understanding everything that's been felt and seen inside, the 50,000 people gathered around to watch are solemnly silent, many crying. This time, a stranger held my hand as I went through it.
For more, click the Burning Man label for years past.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Jesse -
Your reservations about describing BM notwithstanding,
the photos and your words were quite evocative, especially those about the focus of the event:"what we share, rather than what separates."
It's too bad it goes up in smoke at the end of the week.
Thanks for an eye-opening post.