Chasing hope amid the hedonists
Odonata was her name, the first woman I met at Burning Man. "Odonata ..." I fumbled aloud. "Is that Norwegian?'"
NO-wegian, brother. It was her playa name. Odonata, the Latin word that orders insects such as dragonflies. The woman Odonata was deep in discussion about totemic traits as I walked up. The dragonfly totem, she and her friend agreed, nodding in shared amazement, is all about illusion and transformation.
Playa names. Clan totems. I had no idea Burning Man could be so complicated.
I had come to a searing, shadeless corner of Nevada's Black Rock Desert last Labor Day weekend for simple reasons:
I saw a lot of tits over the years on the Web site, and I always wished I didn't have to work on holidays.
I had heard the story about the first Man being burned as an act of grief after a relationship ended. I was in the grip of one of those, and for whatever confluence of factors, I went pretty much mental for a pretty long time. Quitting my job and spending two weeks in a desert to build an altar and then torch it made sense to me.
And then there was my frank amazement that this simple ceremony that started with a dozen people on a Bay Area beach in 1986 now draws thousands to a hostile environment, where they build a working city, play hard in it, and then make it disappear. This festival of art, technology, music and hard partying has grown so fast it seemed to be spinning out of control and I thought it would be funny to write that runaway growth in the West was hitting even the hedonists in their city of make-believe.
So late last August I aimed my truck through layers of memory and loss - peeling them away as first Washington, and then Oregon, and then Idaho fell behind. I was dumb enough to dodge jackrabbits at 85 miles per hour at 3 in the morning and, after a journey of 1,036 miles, rolled onto the alkaline brightness of the playa to find the bones of Black Rock City. I came early to help build it. And I remember, stopping at the gates, that its growing skeleton was veiled in a swirl of white dust - appropriate for a place that exists largely in the imagination.
That first afternoon, my eyes still rolling at playa names and clan totems, I set up camp for a two-week stay in a place said to be lifeless - no animals, no plants, no insects.
A dragonfly zigzagged past my face. Hammers and sweat transformed this corner of the desert with wood, rebar and PVC pipe. Lasers and black lights and nonstop drumming drew hundreds of people every day - nearly 26,000 by the night of the burn - and each wove threads of imagination into a fabric of community.
Yes, there were lots of tits. But there was so much more: laughter, music, remarkable levels of trust and harmony, amusing and inventive gadgets and costumes. It was more than a party. Black Rock City, a collection of tents and RVs arranged in an arc around the enigmatic wooden Man, was a functioning place, throbbing with life. And of all the hundreds of jobs that needed to be done each day, somehow people turned up and did them. There was no master list.
Les Boni, the assistant field manager for non-renewable resources at the BLM's Winnemucca district office, is the front-line federal official who grants the permit for Burning Man every year. He is still amazed, at times, at what he sees there - "This is not what you perceive as a normal recreational event for us" - but he can see beyond the body paint and naked fire-dancing.
"At first we saw it as an anti-establishment thing, but they have a structure very similar to regular society," Boni said, laughing a bit as he ticked off the civic side of Burning Man: A Department of Public Works (For the record, these dedicated folks like to call themselves Dangerous People Working, but the rest of the playa knows them as Drunk People Welding. Both are accurate.), a Department of Mutant Vehicles, law enforcement, radio stations, on-site daily newspaper, public relations spin masters.
"They pretty well got it all," Boni said.
"There's a lot of well-thought-out social engineering that goes on here," said Burning Man founder Larry Harvey. "We have rules, but they are not bureaucratic rules. We have done everything to make people feel connected - it's our obsession."
I met Harvey on the morning after the night the Man burned. He was bleary, unshaven (God knows what I looked like, having spent the night in red body paint and sandals), and boy, can he talk. During a dust storm so intense it seemed the world had come down to the two of us and the bench we sat on, he talked for three hours even as he slurped down cereal and milk, chain-smoked Camels, made me feel like a salmon trying to battle upstream against the flow of his words.
For him, the event has always been more than a party or an art festival. It's a deliberate experiment in civics and community. It's almost childlike, based on gifts, play, creativity. Of course, there's a Burning Mom side to Burning Man. If you mess up the playa and don't clean it up, Burning Man will lose its permit and the event will die, all because of you, young man. Yes, you.
It's effective. I still pick up trash.
Burning Man has changed as it's grown. Some say it's matured, others that it's sold out. The Man listens to critics and tries to problem-solve. The Man builds bridges to people who don't like him: donating to schools and churches to ease suspicions and fears in the tiny playa towns of Gerlach and Empire.
Along the way it's pissed off the anarchists who came to shoot off live ammo and drive at high speeds in the desert at night. After a fatality, as the event grew, these activities were banned.
Burning Man isn't the same, people wailed.
It's pissed off the early hipsters who, as Harvey says, "didn't want to include fat frat boys, or hicks - unless they were cowboys, because cowboys are cool - or anybody in ball caps." Harvey wants everybody to come. Last year, there was a notable segment of senior citizens in campers. Burning Man isn't the same, people wailed.
"The hipsters didn't believe the event could get bigger and still be cool. I believe anybody can be cool," Harvey said.
Harvey wants everybody to come because the event has the power for transformation. "People go home and maybe they say, "I am no longer content to live the life that is not satisfying to me.' They make all kinds of changes."
You run into powerful questions there. I heard mine one day at sunset. I was part of a crew that lit the city every night. In comical robes and hoods (think background extras in a "Star Trek" rerun), we walked in solemn processionals, carrying yokes of flaming kerosene lanterns across our backs. We kept going beyond the Man one evening, carrying light to the Temple of Tears, a powerful structure of grief and art where people wrote of loss on wooden blocks and piled them in mounds to be burned. A tall young fellow, headed for his first job as a teacher in the Oakland public schools, walked up through the hush and asked me a question so direct that it is a found haiku: What lamps do you light,
He asked me on the playa,
When you are not here?
Lamps of beauty, he wanted to know, lamps of truth? And as we stood there with our shadows slanting crazily off into the desert, it struck me that I might not have an answer.
At dawn on my last day I rode my bike out onto the open desert. A dragonfly flashed past and I chased it as the playa dust whispered to life with the morning wind. I lost it in a whiteout. I have my own illusions that I chase, but sometimes, you hold out your hand and hope the dragonfly will land, however briefly.