Burning Man 2003

Toxic Introduction

Normally, after interesting trips I write up a web page for my friends describing it. I may do so for this trip, perhaps even beginning with this as a basis, but the current document contains too much inflammatory, and perhaps lawsuit-worthy material to go on a web page. But for that reason, for the lucky readers of this document, it'll perhaps be more interesting than the usual travelogue.

I decided to leave this as-is, but to change a couple of names.

The dust on the dry lake bed, called the playa, where Burning Man is held is toxic: it's highly alkaline and so fine that it gets into any openings eventually. But it's not as toxic as some of the human interactions we observed at Burning Man in 2003.

Burning Man is supposed to take place in a model city, called "Black Rock City" for a week in late August/early September each year where 30,000 people join in a week of celebration, cooperation and art. There was a lot of celebration and a lot of art this year.

It did, however, have a surprising new feature stolen from the recent television phenomenon "Survivor". In at least two instances that I know about, somebody was "voted off the island".

Preparation: King's Camp

Most people at Burning Man stay in "camps" ranging from a few to a few dozen people who share various things on the playa. Last year we stayed in a "theme camp" which, in addition to providing survival, also sponsored events. Our camp last year provided the "Desert Nose" and the "Roller Disco", but we did not hook up with those people in time this year, so used the internet to find another suitable camp of people with whom to share our Burning Man experience.

On the San Francisco bay area version of the internet list called "Craig's List", we learned that a long-time burner named "King" was organizing a camp primarily for first-time attendees, but he indicated that more experienced burners were also welcome.

It sounded pretty good: King has a huge amount of experience, and best of all, he owns a trucking company, so would be able to haul vast amounts of gear out to the Nevada desert.

During the four or five weekends between then and the event, he organized work parties at his house or out at his truck yard to get our stuff ready. Somebody was building an art car, called the "Mistery Truck" which would drive around on the playa spraying mists of water to cool passersby. King's wife, Lady, was enhancing the art on their golf-cart/art car (different from the Mistery Truck) with a much more sophisticated set of electroluminescent wire, and there were plenty of other things to do, so Ellyn and I attended about three of them and they were fun -- we met a bunch of the other folks who would be in our camp, and put weird and wonderful things together. Ellyn and I did almost all our work on the golf cart art car, so we got to know Lady much better than King.

King and Lady are as different as night and day: King is a huge trucker, weighing perhaps 300 pounds, looking somewhat like Santa Claus, and 55 years old. Lady is 40, thin, and extremely well-educated: PhD in biochemistry with a post-doc at Caltech. They apparently met at Burning Man a number of years ago.

The plan was that King would drive up a big-rig with two 24-foot containers full of stuff, including the two art cars, thousands of gallons of water for the mistery truck and for our personal use, everybody's gear and bicycles, tarps for shade, tables for cooking, et cetera, et cetera. There was even stuff that seemed, even to me, to be total overkill: a refrigerator and a microwave oven, for example.

King and Lady also own an RV which they would use to drive up about eight campers. The rest of us (there were about 25 in total) would get there under our own power. Although the event officially opens on Monday, King was going to arrive early, leaving Friday evening, driving all night, and arriving very early on Saturday morning so that most of the stuff would be set up when the rest of us arrived. Ellyn received a phone call from Lady on Friday saying that they were about ready to go and that she was waiting for them to return from a Costco run. Then she said, "Oops -- they're back!" and she hung up.

Ellyn and I were planning to leave relatively early on Monday morning, so it was a relief to know that everything was under control. Or so we thought ...

Preparation: Voice of Fire

While we searched Craig's List for campmates, we stumbled across another very interesting message: a fellow in the south bay was looking for help to construct his Burning Man art project which he called "Voice of Fire". It was to be a sort of burning bush that Moses wannabes could talk to, and it would respond to them through its flames. Since the workshop was just a little ways down the peninsula, I stopped by to take a look, and wound up spending dozens and dozens of hours helping him and others to construct it.

It was an immensely complicated project which was to have 13 branches with a propane flame coming out of each, and when a flame was "speaking", a fine dust of sodium chloride would blow in with the propane which was then ionized, making the flame conductive. We then had electrodes mounted in the flame and a 2000-4000 volt signal was modulated with the "speech", causing the flame to talk.

So there was high-voltage electronics, computers, propane, plumbing, arc-welding, and plenty of other things to do. I probably spent 15 days at the workshop for about 4 hours at a time, doing whatever was necessary, and I learned a tremendous amount. Unfortunately, we were beaten by the playa -- eventually everything got working except for the modulation of the high-voltage circuit, but that was everything, in a sense. On the other hand, if almost anything else had failed horribly, the thing would not have worked. But it was sort of depressing to put in so much work and not have the machine function. Since it's big and belches fire, there's certainly an opportunity to use it in future Burning Man events.

I really liked working with the people on this project. Tim Black, the main designer, was called "The Wizard" for his ability to get things to work. He had built in the past a number of other huge and complicated projects for Burning Man, and it was a total pleasure to learn from him. There was another fellow, Connor, who put in a huge amount of time, and he was great fun to talk to as well. He was there every day. From time to time, others would come in to help, and all of them were interesting.

The King Un-Camp

So Ellyn and I got up early on Monday morning, loaded the last stuff into the van, and left for Nevada. It took about 7 hours to get there and when we arrived at the agreed-upon site, King and company were nowhere to be seen. Since he was hauling two huge (24 foot long) white storage bins with images of "The Man" painted on them we figured it couldn't be too hard to find him and started to drive in ever-enlarging circles on the road system looking for him.

Well, we finally found the bins about 4 blocks from where they were supposed to be --- right near the perimeter of the road system and far from center camp. What was also a bit disturbing is that the bins were not arranged as planned in a nice parallel configuration with a tarp strung between them as a shade structure. In fact, there was no sign of any campsite at all and no sign of other campers, although we did see King and Lady, but Lady was in tears.

(Ellyn has a theory, by the way, for why the new camp was located at this particular spot, so far from center camp. King is pretty heavy, and we never saw him walking very far -- he used a golf cart when he needed to go more than 100 feet, so turning the cart into an "art car" was a requirement, not just a nicety (only art cars, certified by the DMV (that's "Department of Mutant Vehicles) are allowed to drive on the playa other than the initial drive to the campsite and the eventual departure). Anyway, we were camped a long way from the toilets; they were about 5 blocks away and we essentially always used bicycles to get there, but we were camped at the boundary very near where the "DPW" -- that's "Department of Public Works" had their camp, and King was friends with some of them so he could use their toilets although nobody else could. The DPW are the people who arrive a month early to set up Black Rock City, and stay for weeks afterwards for the cleanup and are one tough crew who make everything work.)

Then we saw the rest of the people, grouped together 50 feet away, engaged in earnest discussion. We joined them, and found that they were in the process of imitating the folks on the TV show Survivor, deciding whether to "vote King out of the camp". Many of them were in tears as well.

Of course it's impossible to know exactly what happened; talking to people reminded us of the Kurosawa movie "Rashomon", where each participant in a crime describes what he or she saw, and all the stories are different, but at the same time all somewhat the same. Anyway, here's what we pieced together (modified, of course, to suit our own prejudices):

Part of the problem may be related to the fact that King and Lady were sicker than shit the week before we needed to leave, but continued to work, so they were no doubt completely sleep-deprived, weak and exhausted when the real work began. But that's probably not the entire explanation. King had said that this year he wanted a completely new camp since "none of the campmembers from last year wanted to join him this year". In retrospect, this should have been a giant red flag. But red flags are always much more visible with hindsight, and he did have a plausible explanation, and besides, everybody got along great in all of the preparation work parties and the dinners afterwards.

It was evident to me, at least, that King was a bit of a control freak and loves to exercise his power due to an incident that did occur during the work parties, which were usually scheduled to run from noon or 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm on the weekends before the main event. About 5 or 6 of us were at their house, working on the shark (this was the electroluminescent art on the Golf cart art car), when Lady called King and asked when the rest of the group at the yard would be done and ready to head off for dinner. "Six o'clock", was the answer. Since it was 5:30, we started winding things up and were ready to go at 6:00, but there was no sign of King. Or at 6:30. Or at 6:45. So Lady called again, and was told they'd be at the house in a half hour. Of course they weren't. Ellyn and I had had a long day, were really hungry, and exhausted, so finally at about 7:45 we just left for the restaurant, after King assured us that he'd be there "right away". We waited for a few minutes, but finally just started eating (the two of us at a table for 25, but at least it was buffet-style). We were done and almost ready to head home when King and crew arrived at about 8:30. I decided at that point that I'd never depend on his time estimates again.

At this point I didn't know for sure if it was King who was the cause of the problem or just a sort of game of "macho chicken", where the first one who quit working was considered a wimp. Maybe it was a bit of both.

Another retrospective red flag was the fact that during the weeks that preceded the event, we did most of our communication via an internet "group" where messages could be sent easily to all the other folks in the camp. A few times King would send a message asking for opinions about various things: tent layout, whether to eat out or at a home barbecue, et cetera. Then there would usually be a few notes where people ventured their opinions. If the opinions didn't agree with King's there would then be a note from him saying we were going to do it his way anyway. The decisions seemed so minor that we didn't really care, but Ellyn, at least, found it annoying that she did type up responses that turned out to be totally pointless. The best one was a discussion of whether we should eat together each evening as a group. The responses from about 10 people were literally 100% against. All agreed that it would be nice, and that if a group of people wanted to eat together, that would be great, but organization of something like that on the playa would be very difficult. With literally 100% opposition to the idea, King then announced that we would have common meals. Ellyn and I thought, "Like hell we will!", and planned a totally self-contained meal plan that could be flexibly extended to multiple meals from time to time if it worked out.

The rest of the campers who were traveling with Lady and King had planned to leave on Friday night, but a series of events kept pushing back the departure time. As I understand it, the first problem was that the golf cart, a total requirement for King, suddenly did not work, so everybody waited around for hours while King "debugged" it. It turned out, I think, that one on the cables to the batteries had not been properly connected.

Then one of the huge water tanks had burst from age, so in addition to replacing that, they decided to replace the other, since it was of the same vintage. King somehow managed to acquire two more huge tanks within a few hours, but it turned out that they'd been used to store Coke syrup, so they needed to be soaked in a bleach solution for a few hours and then drained, and even after that, there was still a hint of the Coca-Cola taste to the water. But worse, the fittings on the new containers didn't fit any of the available pumps, et cetera, so hours were spent by King in hardware stores to obtain exactly what was needed.

Some of the folks spent the night at King and Lady's; others went home, but as things dragged on and on on Saturday, all of them spent hours in the camper, waiting, and having nothing to do. Since the water tanks were at the rear of the bin, nothing could be packed in that bin until the tanks were ready and full.

Finally, late on Saturday, or perhaps it was early on Sunday they took off, but in a surprising hurry. King had promised one guy -- Chris -- that he could ride with him in the big rig, but King just jumped into the cab and took off, leaving Chris and all the others to ride in the camper.

Those in the camper were under strict instructions to stay behind King in the big rig, even though it would be climbing Donner Pass at an agonizingly slow speed, carrying, as it was, around 20,000 pounds of water in addition to the normal load.

There was a minor flare-up in Sacramento where they were to pick up another of our campers, and somehow, around there or just a bit beyond, the big rig got behind the camper and out of sight. Luckily, they had both CB radios and cell phones, but the folks in the camper were unable to make contact with King. The camper driver, Lady, was probably partly to blame for the separation, but as soon as it occurred, she did try to make contact, both with the CB radio and with the cell phones.

The CB radios are only good for perhaps 5 miles, even in good conditions, and even less in the mountains, but the cell phones worked fine all the way from San Francisco to Reno. King, however, made the somewhat bizarre claim that he had been "ordered to turn off his cell phone". King and some of the riders in the RV had the same model of cell phone, so the RV folks knew that the cell phone worked. King, in addition to having turned off his phone, "as ordered" did not have voice mail, so was impossible to contact.

Lady and crew tried waiting at various truck stops King was known to frequent, repeatedly trying to call, called the Highway Patrol, King's trucker equivalent of AAA, and so on, to no avail. Finally, not having any idea where King was, whether he was broken down or even ahead of them, they decided to spend the night (by now it was Sunday evening) in a motel in Sparks -- a little town a bit east of Reno.

By this time, of course, there was a lot of tension in Lady's RV. The folks had arrived on Friday afternoon ready for perhaps a 12 hour drive, and here it was Sunday night with no guarantee that they'd ever get to Burning Man with their stuff. Nobody had even toothbrushes or a change of underwear since all that stuff was with King. They made a trip to Target or something at 3:00 in the morning to get a change of "granny underpants", toothbrushes, et cetera. Lady paid for everything, including dinner and the night in the motel.

Early on Monday morning they finally called Burning Man and asked if someone there could see if there was any news of King. After a 15 minute wait they learned that yes, King was at Burning Man. With a great deal of relief, they piled into the camper and headed for Black Rock City.

King apparently had had a breakdown in his truck going up Donner pass, and without Lady behind him, had been forced to suffer the worst embarrassment possible: he'd had to ask another trucker for help, which, I understand, is even worse than being male and having to ask for directions.

When they arrived at Burning Man, King was fit to be tied. He blamed everything on Lady, telling her (and the rest of us as well) that the reason she had gotten in front of him is that "damn feminists can't follow a man". He also almost came to blows with one of the others in the group, which is a frightening thought, since King does weigh around 300 pounds, and was facing Anthony, a skinny vegan. Lady and somebody else were apparently trying to hold him back by holding his clothes, but I'm proud to say that Anthony held his ground. Many of the women in the group were totally terrified by this outburst and said that they were too frightened to be around him, and that there was no way in Hell that they'd stay in the same camp with him.

He then said he was just going to turn around and take all the stuff (including the belongings of the camp members) back to the bay area. Then he decided that he'd let them take their stuff, but just abandon them and they'd have to figure out how not only to get home, but to obtain water, stoves, shade structures, and all of the other stuff that we'd been promised we'd get being a member of the camp.

Finally he said he'd leave all the stuff and just go home, returning at the end of the event to pick it up. Since he was going back, Ellyn and I started setting up camp with the others.

We were just getting the main shade structure up and King returned saying he'd decided to stay, but in another camp, and he was going to take what he needed. He took about half the stuff for him and Lady, leaving the other half for the other 25 or so campers. He took all the stoves, the barbecue, and half the supports for the shade structures to cover the tents, so some of the tents were just exposed to the sun, including ours. Left up in the air was the question of how all the campers who had ridden up in the camper were supposed to return. King indicated that they'd all have to find their own way home. And most of them were happy with that -- they didn't want to have anything to do with him ever again, although it did prove very tricky to find alternative transportation home, as most visitors to Burning Man basically decide how much gear to bring by stuffing equipment in their vehicle until they are afraid that there will be a catastrophic overloading failure if they add more. At least that's what Ellyn and I did, and I think it's pretty much the normal method.

When King dragged off one of the bins, he apparently did it in a rage, since the path of the bin bashed heavily into my bicycle smashing one of the reflectors and ripped off the kick-stand. At least the bike was useable afterwards; Julia's bike had a crushed wheel that King claimed occurred in transit to Black Rock City, but who knows?

Ellyn and I were left in a sort of uncomfortable position since we were, if necessary, totally self-contained, having a small camp stove, shelter, and sufficient food and water to get through with no help at all. We had a bit extra, of course, but obviously not enough to take care of 20 other people.

Another thing that bugged me a lot was that in the weeks before we left, I had put considerable effort into the golf-cart art car. I spent hours wiring the new display that was to appear on top of it, and even designed, built, and debugged a special circuit that could be used to drive the new display. In addition to that, I made two extra trips from Los Altos Hills to Hayward (perhaps an hour each way) on non-weekends to make sure that everything worked. When we arrived at the playa, one of the metal supports had snapped and it was clear to me that to punish Lady, King decided not to fix it, since it was, after all, Lady's art. I'd guess that the repair took all of 20 minutes, but the art part of the art car sat idle from Monday through Saturday, and was not mounted and displayed until Saturday night. I got the pleasure of seeing my dozens of hours of work blink for 5 minutes, total.

Finally, one of the people in our camp was an insulin-dependent diabetic, and was planning to keep his insulin in King's refrigerator. With the split, the insulin needed to be kept in a cooler, but maybe that was a better plan after all, since a generator failure could easily knock out the refrigerator, and all you need to do to keep the cooler working is to not run out of ice.

One great opportunity that I think was passed up was a great new camp name. Since, after the banishment, "King's Camp" didn't seem to be a great fit, and "The Camp Formerly Known as King's" didn't get many votes either, I thought, due to the fact that the disaster started on Donner Pass, that "The Donner Party" would be perfect. But nobody seemed to like that, either. For that reason, the camp basically turned out to be nameless.

As time went on, relations did thaw slightly, and some of the camp members who arrived later did camp with King, since they knew nothing of the 3-day nightmare experienced by the others. It appeared to me that although King finally said that folks could ride home in the camper, he was setting things up for another giant blow-up on departure day. That, however, seems not to have occurred.

I know that I would have blown up, though. King told everyone to have all their stuff packed by 1 pm on Sunday, at which point all of it would be packed in the bin, and then they would wait, without shade or most of their stuff, until about midnight, when they'd leave. In addition, King had no intention of carrying the water back to California, so was simply going to dump a thousand gallons or so on the playa in front of the bin so that the loading would all occur through a sea of sticky, deep mud. What made this even weirder was that on Sunday with this large problem of too much water, King was trying to obtain an additional 200 gallons (without the hint of Coke taste).

Ellyn and I didn't want to stick around for the fireworks -- well, maybe a little bit, with the same sort of fascination you'd have as you watched a giant train wreck -- but we woke up early on Sunday morning (5:30 am), and were packed and out of there by about 7:20.

The whole mess is still not over, however. King claimed that last year there was a terrible problem in getting the stuff cleaned up after the return. Everyone had promised to show up for a clean-up day, but almost nobody had come. For that reason, this year King had asked for a "cleaning deposit" of $150 per person that would be refunded if you showed up for a cleaning day which will occur in about a week and a half. We'll see what happens. King has the money, so is in complete control, but there are also a bunch of fairly pissed campers who will spend half the time, if they attend, cleaning the half of the gear that King took for his own use.

Desert Nose

After things had settled down a bit and we'd gotten things into a sort of working order, Ellyn and I ventured out to find our friends from the previous year who maintained the Desert Nose.

We found them, busily putting up a geodesic dome, and cheerfully greeted Howard, the creator of this most wonderful of Burning Man creations. The Desert Nose is a geodesic dome modified to look like Buckminster Fuller's nose. Visitors enter through a nostril and are then sprayed with a fine mist of water. They can then stay on comfortable sofas and receive "over-spray" from others and remain very cool for as long as they want.

But Howard was VERY upset. It turned out that a relatively new member of their group (Joker) had turned out to be a control freak. He had volunteered to run a "kitchen" for the group, so all the money for food had been pooled and he had all the food and all the cooking implements. But he started to lord it over the others, telling them when and what they could eat, with special rewards if they did the things he wanted. All the others were exhausted and hungry from setting up the huge Desert Nose in the desert, and things quickly came to a boiling point.

Joker was completely intractable, and everything was "either my way or the highway". In fact, the problems had begun weeks earlier when Joker had broken up with his girlfriend, and various members of Howard's camp had spent hours and hours with him, both trying to cheer him up, and making certain that his (vastly complicated) kitchen would be in operating condition by the time Burning Man arrived.

Relations became more and more strained, with Howard even trying to obtain the help of a volunteer counselor to settle the disputes. But finally, the rest of the group "voted Joker out of the camp". Pretty amazing! It was weird to walk by the "Joker's Kitchen" tent -- it was huge, fully stocked, and with tables and chairs for perhaps 20 people in a sort of dining room. And always completely empty. We never saw Joker himself.

Ellyn and I had met Joker the previous year. He had shown up at Howard's camp and volunteered to be the cook. He had a simpler kitchen, and was, on the whole, nice to be around which is why Howard let him come this year.

I would never have done so, based on the short interaction I'd had with him that previous year. We needed to put a tarp over a truck to hide the advertising painted on the side, and a few of us, including Joker, worked together on it. Joker had the same amount of experience doing it as the rest of us; namely, zero, but he demanded that we do everything exactly his way. Since he had no particular control over us, his demands weren't usually met, but it was very unpleasant dealing with him anyway.

Howard had not been so lucky. Having missed the "cover the truck" exercise the year before, he did not have the information that we did, and this year Joker did control all the food. Since the food did belong to the group, it was relatively easy to get it, but all the cooking gear did belong to Joker. Luckily, Howard is a sort of geodesic dome nut, and actually had a "spare dome" which they set up as their own kitchen. They were able to borrow enough stuff to get it running, but it was certainly not what they had hoped for.

What's sad is that it happened to Howard. Howard is one of those "nicest guy in the world" people. He's completely mellow, very intelligent, and extremely concerned for the well-being and happiness of his companions. He usually wore a sarong and had his hair dyed blue. I saw him once out of the Burning Man context, and his hair was also blue, so I guess that's its natural color.

In the TV show "Survivor", it always seems like the first couple of people who are voted out are the bossy ones who try to take control of the situation. People will put up with bosses only if they have to; if there's an option, the bosses are always out of there, and our trip to Burning Man provides two more data points that support this conjecture.

We did spend a lot of time at Howard's Desert Nose. It's a perfect place to be in the middle of the day when the outside temperature and conditions are horrible. In addition to getting cooled by the mist when you enter and the fact that when you are seated in the comfy chairs in the back of the dome, you are subjected to over-spray of other visitors, the fact that there's so much evaporating water inside lowers the ambient temperature by 10 or 20 degrees.

And then there's the Gorilla ...

Somebody has to administer the spray, and that person was almost always the Gorilla. "Gorilla" is the "playa name" of a guy in Howard's camp, and he sort of looks like one, but his presence made sitting in the nose a much better experience. Although he was "the Gorilla", he was dressed in a skin-tight leopard suit.

He has an amazing patter as he orders people around in a gruff voice: "Stand on the carpet and prepare to be deliriously happy." "You pee on the carpet and I'll come and pee on your tent." "Go forth and chill." "Welcome to the un-hot." "Whatever you expose, I'll spray." "Now there's an original costume." (to each naked guy) "I'll cool you off faster than your last sexual encounter." "Crowd control!" (as he walked around the dome and sprayed everybody sitting in the couches) "This will make your nipples harder than a 13 year old girl's." "Do you want to levitate?" (and if the reply was yes, the Gorilla would have her turn around, close her eyes, and she'd get a jet of water (not a mist) up her skirt. It was usually, but not always, a woman; if a man wore a skirt, he, too, might be offered a chance at levitation).

And on and on he would go ...

Franziska, one of the women in Howard's camp, had come with her son, John, who was 10 years old. In some of the rare occasions when the Gorilla was not manning the mister, Franziska's kid got the job, and that was also quite entertaining, because, by listening carefully, he had become a junior Gorilla, repeating, verbatim, large portions of the Gorilla's patter.

Evolution of Black Rock City

We arrived on Monday, the first day that Burning Man was officially open, and we stayed until Sunday, the last day that it was open. A week in the desert is a long time, but it was quite interesting to observe the changes as the week went on.

The tickets are for the entire event -- there is no discount if you wish to attend for only a short time -- but some people cannot or do not want to spend a whole week there. Since the giant culmination of the event is the huge fire in which The Man is burned on Saturday night, if there were no restrictions, probably there would be a huge influx of "tourists" on Saturday who intended to stay only for that night.

To require at least a little commitment from the attendees, the gates close on midnight, Thursday, so to see the man burn, you've got to commit to at least three nights (or two, if you're willing to leave right after the fire, but that would be nuts).

But even with a three-night minimum commitment, there is still a noticeable change in the demeanor of the city as the week goes on. Things are more laid-back at the beginning, it's obviously less crowded, and since less of the artwork is working, there's a bit less to do. As the week goes on, there are more events, more action, and more people. That's obvious.

But what's not so obvious is that over the course of the week, it gets to be less pleasant to live in the city. The first people to arrive are usually very careful about littering, are more polite to others, and more interested in the community than the folks who come just for the excitement and craziness of the burn. Sure, there was a little litter, but almost none, at the beginning, but when the population had perhaps tripled after Thursday at midnight, there was far more than three times the litter. Not that it was ever very bad; it's just that the proportion went up significantly as the population increased.

A similar thing can be said for the art cars. If your car is not an art car, you're officially allowed to drive it to your campsite, park it, and then leave it there until you leave. If you want to be able to drive inside Black Rock City, your car must be an officially certified (by the Department of Mutant Vehicles) to be an art car. As there are more and more people and cars, but the same number of "rangers", enforcing it becomes more and more difficult, and in addition, you'd expect that anyone who put a large effort into an art car would want to enjoy it for as long as possible, and hence would probably be one of the early arrivals.

As the week goes on, there are more and more "art cars" that can hardly have passed the DMV's tests. We saw some cars that failed early in the week, in spite of the fact that a fair amount of work had been done. At the end, you'd see as art cars bare motorcycles, bare ATVs, or just jeeps, perhaps with a single strand of electroluminescent wire to decorate them.

But there are the same number of roads at the end and the beginning, and more vehicles makes them less pleasant. If anything, with the additional people on bikes or walking, ideally, it should be harder and harder to qualify your vehicle as an art car. The Gorilla was often his most impolite when he saw one of these minimal cars. He'd yell, "Hey, great job! You've decorated your art car to look exactly like a golf cart."

In addition to the additional litter and the over-abundance of so-called art cars, there were also more obnoxious people. The worst behavior we saw was toward the end of the week when Ellyn and I were riding our bikes home with a load of ice in the baskets. The bikes are crappy enough as it is, but when you put a big load into a front basket, it's like trying to ride a tandem that's loaded backwards with an extremely uncooperative partner.

As we rode toward camp, we could see that somebody on the side was steering a medium-sized (perhaps a foot long) radio-controlled car on the main road. As we got near, the car was steered almost under Ellyn's wheels. The first thought was that the guy should have had the decency to steer the car off the road and wait for the cyclists to pass, but then it became clear that the guy was far more obnoxious than that. Since Ellyn avoided the collision, the guy turned the car around and intentionally drove it under Ellyn's wheels. She skidded to a stop with the car under her crank. I would have just kept riding, over the RC car, and perhaps with a little jump as I went over it to make sure that my rear wheel did as much damage as possible. It was clear that these guys were just trying to annoy cyclists.


Riding on a bicycle out on the playa was an interesting experience. I actually ride a lot, and it was clear that a huge proportion of burners ride their bikes once a year. In addition to hearing the complaints about sore butts, you could just look at how they rode. I'd guess that 19 out of 20 riders had the instep or the heel of their foot on the pedals, instead of the toe.

That's fine -- it just leads to inefficient riding, and on the dead-flat playa, you can be pretty inefficient without running into any real problems, but what terrified me was the average level of bike-handling skills. It was probably worse for me, especially for the first couple of days, since I'm used to riding with folks who behave in a predictable way. After it became clear that nothing about an unknown rider was predictable, I changed my style, and everything was OK. But I tried to stay as far as possible from other riders on the road.

In addition, in spite of the fact that it is emphasized over and over in the literature that you're sent before the event, many of the walkers and riders did not have any lights on them at night. Since this year the event coincided with an almost new moon, that meant that even if you rode at the 5 mph speed limit, you'd often have to slam on the brakes in a pretty big hurry.

One of the challenges of Burning Man is to ride around on the crappiest possible bike, and I had a pretty good entry. It was old when Ellyn was in college, and now it's rusty, scratched, and more and more things don't work. I never intentionally try to shift gears, although it does so itself from time to time with a sort of "automatic transmission from Hell". Also, King had snapped the kick-stand, and it was equipped with a rear clamping mechanism to hold books or something, but that was broken and floated over the rear wheel.

Before I left, I checked to make sure that the tires were merely frightening and not terrifying, figuring that if I just got a small hole, I could fix it with the tools I took. The tires were in bad shape, perhaps 10 years old and all the rubber was cracked, but at least there was tread all the way around. I did have a patch kit.

There's not much crime at Burning Man, but occasionally bicycles are stolen, or, what's just as bad, "borrowed". With 30,000 people, a borrowed bike is the same as a stolen one -- you'll never get it back. But if your bike is really crappy, then wherever you set it down, the bike next to it is more likely to be the borrowed bike. We did also have locks that we always used. They were the cheapest combination locks, and we always locked them by turning one dial one position. One of the people in our camp, Ganesh, did lose his bike (stolen or borrowed) and it was a giant pain for him. Bicycles are essential for playa transportation.

But I did have a new basket on my bike to carry the camera or ice or whatever else. I of course mounted it just before I left and didn't really feel the need to test it; after all, what could possibly go wrong with a basket?

Well, I'll tell you what can go wrong. If it's not solidly mounted, and your handlebars are the racing type rather than the upright type, the bottom of the basket can droop down and touch the front wheel. I didn't really notice the inefficiency since I just figured it was rusty bearings or something and I was riding on the flats anyway. But I took the basket off one day (it's detachable) for night riding, and noticed, to my horror, that it had rubbed all the rubber off the center of the tire, all the way around, and the only thing left was the thin, ten-year-old cloth backing. I rode on that for the rest of Burning Man, absolutely certain that a catastrophic failure would occur at any instant. But the tires survived, and one of the first things I did when I got home is replaced them for next year. There's no way in hell I could have repaired a tire that split in half all the way around.

This exceptionally good luck has to be countered with some appropriate bad luck and it was. This morning, back at home, on my first ride on my good bike, with brand-new expensive racing tires, I got a flat within a mile of the start. So I fixed that one, too, today.

Actually, when I say that there's almost no theft at Burning Man, that's not quite true. There is almost no theft except on the night of the burn. During the rest of the week, a would-be thief can never be certain that there won't be someone "home". Most camps consist of a group of tents, and even if the people in the camps have met for the first time at Burning Man, they generally keep an eye out for anything strange happening to the tents of equipment of their campmates. We felt quite comfortable in this, being part of a camp with about 20 people.

But on the night of the burn, everybody is away from camp. It is very rare to find someone who is not out on the playa, all kinds of junk is left out, and theft is easy and relatively common. Using the "bicycle strategy", Ellyn and I packed up and locked our valuable items so that they were a bit better protected than the stuff in the chaos that our camp had become, figuring that any thief who stopped by would find the other stuff easier to steal than ours. In fact nothing was lost at our camp.

The Gift Economy

Ideally, Burning Man is supposed to run on a "gift economy". In fact, the only things that are officially for sale are essentially ice and coffee. You're supposed to bring what you need.

But obviously things are forgotten or broken or there are emergencies, so from time to time everybody needs something else. A perfect gift economy is sort of like communism, "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs." I saw plenty of gifting occurring: shared meals, gifts of batteries, costume materials, gasoline, water, et cetera, et cetera. In most cases, the gifts were true gifts: given without strings attached, and with no expectation of repayment.

On the ride in from the paved road to Black Rock City is a series of closely-spaced signs, some sort of like the old Burma Shave signs, and others with self-contained messages, probably partly to make sure that the incoming cars drive slowly to avoid raising too much dust. One of the signs was a quotation by somebody whose name I forget, but which nailed the idea of a gift economy. Paraphrased, it said something like, "The best sort of person is one who gives a gift and forgets it immediately, but remembers forever when he receives a gift."

I think that the blow-ups that occurred in our camp and at the Desert Nose can be partially traced to an imperfect understanding of the gift economy. Both King and Joker gave (or at least wanted to give) huge gifts: King, his experience and tons and tons of equipment, and Joker, a huge, well-stocked kitchen and the cooking that would make it work.

But both expected something in return: at the least, constant thanks and at the most, specific things that must be done to "remain in favor".

Day to Day

Every morning the sun would come up at about 7:00 and by 9:00 it was pretty much too hot to stay in the tent. Ellyn and I would get up and fairly early on make a bicycle run to center camp where you could purchase coffee drinks and ice.

Then we'd drain the water from the cooler into a sun shower which we placed on top of our van to warm up, and placed our bags of ice in the cooler.

Since the heat didn't get intolerable until later, we'd then usually go out on a tour with our cameras to look at the art and would return at about noon, at which point we'd eat something and just hang out under the common shade structure talking to other folks in the camp.

At about 2 or 3 we'd head over to the Desert Nose for the great "un-hot" experience and would usually hang out in the nose with our friends in that camp for a couple of hours. Then it was back to our camp for dinner and what usually amounted to construction parties as people tried to create or repair their costumes. At lot of the costumes that seemed like a good idea at home simply didn't work in the desert due to the high winds or heavy dust, so all sorts of creative reinforcement was done with everything from crazy glue to duct tape to plumber's tape.

After dinner people would wander off in groups for the evening, some of them not arriving back until four in the morning. Things did quiet some in Black Rock City at 4 or 5 am, but there was always some music playing and always something going on.

In addition to the art, every day there were organized (well, usually pretty disorganized) events. A little booklet handed out on entry to Burning Man listed many of them, for example:

And on, and on, and on, for hundreds of events ...

The City is laid out on a perfectly flat playa, and for that reason it's incredibly well planned and easy to navigate. The Man is at the center, and everything is laid out relative to him. If you think of the man as being at the center of a clock, there are radial streets pointing directly at him at every half-hour from 2 to 10 o'clock. These streets run from 2100 feet away to 3900 feet away and are connected by circular streets each 200 feet (at 2100 feet, 2300 feet, et cetera). Thus the whole city is in the form of an abbreviated annulus with regularly-spaced streets. At 6 o'clock in the part of the annulus nearest the man, a circular area is cut out from the regular grid for center camp. Much smaller similar structures appear at 3 o'clock and at 9 o'clock.

Art is everywhere in the city, but the major pieces and the major theme camps are concentrated at center camp, at the two smaller areas at 3 and 9 o'clock, and along the Esplanade -- the circular street nearest The Man at 2100 feet.

Every year the street names are related to the theme. Last year, for example, the radial streets were compass points and the circular streets had the names of parts of ships, in order, from the Bowsprit to the Rudder. Thus, if you knew how a ship was constructed, you could navigate easily since if you were at Bowsprit and needed to go to Mizzenmast, you knew to head away from the man. Since The Man is perfectly aligned with every radial street, this was incredibly easy to do. Well, incredibly easy if you knew the order of construction of a ship. I'm pretty fuzzy, and I suspect others are too, and, as in Lewis Carroll's "Hunting of the Snark", from time to time, "The bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes."

In 2003, the theme was "Beyond Belief", and the street names were totally inspired. All the radial streets had adjectives for names and the circular streets were nouns. The names of the circular streets (except for the Esplanade) were alphabetized, so they were easy to navigate, and the radial streets, while not in any recognizable order, did have the associated clock time associated with them, so you could tell somebody, "I'm camped at 5:30 and Theory". Or, since the circular blocks were generally much longer than the radial blocks, you could give more accurate directions: "I'm at 5:20 and Theory", even though the streets only ran at the half hours. And all the latrines were at the same radial distance from the man on almost all the radial streets, so no matter where you were in the city you could easily find a nearby set of latrines.

The names of the radial streets were: Sacred, Profane, Real, Imagined, Revered, Ridiculous, Literal, Sublime, Paradox, Certain, Dubious, Inspired, Received, Serious, Absurd, Revealed and Rational.

The concentric streets were: The Esplanade, Authority, Creed, Dogma, Evidence, Faith, Gospel, Reality, Theory and Vision.

Many pairs made interesting addresses. We, for example, were camped somewhere between Certain Reality and Dubious Theory. Try combining one from column A and one from column B and see what you can come up with!


This year, as always, there was a huge amount of art. The official theme was "Beyond Belief", so a lot of the art was based on belief systems this year, obviously, the Catholic Church came out the bit loser at Burning Man.

One of my favorite exhibits was a sort of confessional out in the desert where you sat at a schoolchild's desk and wrote your confession on the wall or desk or something. There were a bunch of confessions, some of which were probably heart-felt, but some of which were hilarious. I, of course, only remember the hilarious ones. Written on the desk, it said, "I'm fucked up because I had to sit in one of these for so many years." Another said, "I shopped at Walmart on the way to Burning Man."

Another exhibit I liked was the "Barbie Death Camp". At first, it was just a bunch of Barbie dolls being killed in various ways: by crucifixion, by hanging, strangling, in car crashes, et cetera. But as Ellyn said when she was talking to the artist, "The more carefully you look, the worse it gets." Groups of Barbies were being herded first to a washing machine by soldiers (both a GI Joe and a Nazi storm trooper) and next to a microwave oven. If you read carefully, you find that the "Barbie Death Camp & Wine Bistro" is brought to you by "The Mattel Co. & Auschwitz Inc. 'Purveyors of Fine Lampshades and Soap Products Since 1939'" "Arbeit Macht Plastique Frei."

There aren't many kids at Burning Man; it is (perhaps intentionally) scheduled to conflict with the first days of school, but there are a few. We asked the Barbie artist if any little girls were bent out of shape seeing all this horrible stuff done to their beloved Barbies. He said no -- most of them were totally into it.

There was, far out in the desert, a huge model of a chandelier that had apparently fallen from the sky, and smashed to the ground. Parts were broken, some of the lights sort of worked, and next to it was the anchor, also snapped from the "ceiling". The artwork was perhaps 25 or 30 feet high.

There was an "Orgasmic Pinball" game in center camp. Instead of the usual bells when points were scored, the machine moaned like a woman having an orgasm. The more points, the more moans. To start it, you didn't just press the usual button on the side of the machine to deliver a ball; you stuck your finger deep into a hole looking for the "G spot", and the machine gave out a big moan when the ball was released.

The theme the year before had been "The Floating World", and there was surely a lot of recycled art from that. We, in fact, took our Octavepus back to the playa this year to get a bit more use out of it. There were lots of pirate ships, sharks, et cetera.

One of the most impressive exhibits was a huge structure that consisted of a large ring of very heavy steel tubing from which five huge supports arched up from the vertices of a pentagon to meet at the top. Suspended from the top by a heavy chain was a massive burn container where a large fire could the built at night. That would have been impressive by itself, but hanging from each of the five supports by two heavy chains were chunks of granite that must have weighed five or six tons each.

They were low enough that adventurous folks could climb on them and high enough to make that moderately difficult. There were people standing on all of them, and in every case, the folks on top of the rocks were trying to make them swing, and they could be made to swing by a foot or two in each direction. I did notice, however, that although almost everyone enjoyed standing on top of them, almost nobody would walk underneath any of them.

I'll bet that this exhibit caused quite a few injuries among the viewers. Corinne, a woman in our camp, was trying to clamber up and somehow got her arm and chest whacked by the swinging granite. Although it wasn't moving very far or very fast, it did have rough and sharp edges, and almost nothing would stop the motion. I'll bet this sort of thing happened regularly, and there was also the possibility of slipping when you tried to clamber up. The lowest point of each tilted, hanging slab was perhaps five feet in the air.

The exhibit with the best bang for the buck was a model of the earth that was perhaps 8 feet in diameter and made of fiberglass. It was mounted with a lever so that we humans, like Archimedes, could move the earth with a properly-positioned fulcrum. You could crawl inside the ball, and rotate the lever around, rotating the earth with it. Apparently the plan was that you should have been able to crawl around inside the earth which was supported by bearings on its platform, but apparently the engineering wasn't good enough and the bearings would get stuck occasionally so the artist disabled that feature. It's a good thing, too, since if you crawled in, rotated the entry hole to be over your head, and then got it stuck, you'd roast in the oven it would become pretty quickly in the middle of the day.

Returning from the year before was the "Swimmers" sculpture which was my favorite last year. It's a series of busts of a swimmer in different positions around a sort of child's merry-go-round and a strobe that flashes as each bust rotates to the proper position. As the wheel turns, the swimmer appears to swim toward you forever. It's pretty eerie.

There's also the Temple of Honor, a huge structure made this year of wood, cardboard and paper that's taller even than the man. It's to honor friends or family who have died. After it's completed (and it was not done when we arrived) people write inscriptions on the walls or paste mementos of lost friends there, et cetera. The Man burns on Saturday night and the Temple is burned the next day. We missed the burning of the Temple, but it is a much more solemn and somber event than the wild chaos of the burning of The Man.

Ellyn left small mementos for her mother (who had died during our trip to Burning Man the previous year) and for an uncle and the father of some close friends.

Burn The Man!

Finally, the central art piece is The Man. He's 40 feet high and made of wood outlined with neon bulbs that glow in blue at night. He was mounted on a huge pyramid made of a lot of wood and he stood at the exact center of everything until Saturday night.

There's a line of lights about 300 feet from him which we all needed to be behind for safety, and that enclosed area was used as a sort of stage for some performances to warm us up before the actual burn.

There were fire dancers and people with giant flame-throwers. All the entertainment had to do with fire. After the dances were over, The Man, whose arms had been at his sides all week, raised his arms over his head. Then a red neon heart in his chest began to beat, and it was echoed by dozens of drums. Then came the first screw-up: one of the arms broke loose and and fell back to his side. Apparently the same thing had occurred the previous year, so this year there was a backup, and the arm was re-hoisted. But the backup support also broke, and this time the arm fell to the side with such violence that it blew out all the neon lights on the whole man's side -- arm and leg. So we were going to burn a hemiplegic.

There was a pretty funny performance going on. As people got more and more excited, the chant rose, "Burn the Man! Burn the Man!", but there was a protest group with signs like "Save the Man", "The Man is innocent." "Darn Right -- Don't Ignite." and the like.

Then fireworks started coming out of all parts of the pyramid. At first, just a few, then more and more. With so much fire coming out, it seemed a miracle that the completely wooden pyramid was still not burning. But as more and more fireworks poured out, suddenly we realized that the lower pyramid was on fire. The fire spread pretty rapidly, stoked, no doubt, but gallons and gallons of gasoline stored inside. It turned into one of the largest and hottest fires I've ever seen, and the wind roaring in toward the center formed huge tornado-like currents that swept dust and ash and fire high into the sky. "Inferno" is the best word to describe it. In just a couple of minutes, I'd guess, the man was on fire, and just as he fell, completely engulfed in flames, someone nearby shouted, "Save the Man! The Man is innocent!"