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BURNING VIRGINS

by

Heidi Harley




W e got into the spirit of our first trip to Burning Man en route, racking up a sleep deficit before we ever arrived. Art made an all-out effort, pretty much skipping sleeping at all, to get us out the door on Tuesday night, packing a giant pile of stuff into the van, plus 1.5 gallons of drinking/washing water per person per day, plus four bikes, two for us and two for friends. We hit the road at about 7:00 pm, heading for Vegas, where we were going to hook up with Art's friend Joanna, her boyfriend Hank, Jo's sister Sophie and eight-year-old nephew Adom, Sophie's boyfriend Dennis, and an old Reed friend of Art's and Joanna's, Jon, who's a New York architect. We'd estimated a six hour drive to Vegas, but it was more like eight, plus we got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere at about 1 am, which was complicated by the need to unhook the bikes and unpack some stuff to get at the jack and the spare.

With spare in place and repacked we rolled into Vegas at 5:00 am, where we met the rest of our intrepid band in the Paris hotel/casino, with the Eiffel tower out front: very luxurious beds, which we immediately fell into. Art got up at 7:30 (he'd slept a bit in the van) to go shopping for food and building supplies with the others, and at about 1:00 pm Wednesday we hit the road for Black Rock City, the encampment at the Burning Man festival, named for the Black Rock Desert where the festival is held, in a caravan of three cars. Art had bought us a new tire, which was lucky, because on the way our spare failed, so we had to do the whole thing again.

After another 10 hour drive through the absolute nothing of the Nevada desert we rolled into BRC at about 1:30 am. We found Kidville, our theme camp, at the intersection of 6:30 and Lover, met the Kidville co-ordinator who was up sitting around a burn barrel with some other inhabitants, found a campsite, and set up sleeping tents in a dusty windstorm, or a windy duststorm, I couldn't tell which.

Re our address: BRC was set up as a giant partially open circle, with the Man in the center. It was like a clock face that went from 2 to 10, with a gap between 10 and 2. Radial streets named for their location on the clockface ran out from the Man at the center, one street every half-hour. There were 9 streets that run circumferentially from 2 to 10 at steadily increasing radii from the Man at the center; the inside street called the Esplanade was 2 miles long, and it seemed like about half a mile to walk to the Man from there. Wait, let me figure it out using pi and everything like a college graduate: the radius of the inside circle formed by the Esplanade was .38 miles. The cross streets were named for this year's theme, the Seven Ages of Man, from Shakespeare's famous soliloquy on the subject. Hence, the other street names were Infant, Child, Lover, Soldier, Justice, Pantaloon and Oblivion, as well as an add-on, Enlightenment, which came between Soldier and Justice.

Along the Esplanade was where all the really big gathering places were: bars, dance areas, random strange art buildings, etc., and between the Esplanade and the Man was where most of the large art installations were: giant fabric wind sculptures, lots of metal sculptures that belched fire in one way or another, lit-up neon and flourescent things, an enormous green laser drawing patterns on the mountains across the playa, miles away. Arriving at BRC in the middle of the night, we could see it all from way far off; it was Alterno Las Vegas. Sensory overload.

The playa, where they set up the city and the Man, is an enormous ancient lakebed in an ultra-dry area. It has both benefits and drawbacks. I can't imagine another more suitable location for this particular event: the area is huge, dwarfing the city (which had a population of 26,000 at its peak), it's absolutely flat as a pancake and made entirely of hard-packed fine clay, so all those people can find plenty of space to park RVs or set up tents with no rocks in the ground to dig into their backs, and there can be lots and lots of fire with no danger of it igniting anything else, as there's no organic material out there. No nothing. The main downside is that if it's windy, which it was, there are tremendous dust storms, which get super-fine alkali dust into absolutely everything. Having read the warnings on the website, we had dust masks to wear, and we wore them most of the time. There's no water, and no way to dispose of anything. It's an absolute leave-no-trace kind of place, because if you find anything at all out there on the ground, no matter how natural or biodegradable, you know it's been imported.

They call the stuff that gets left on the playa MOOP, for Matter Out Of Place, and there's volunteers who stay for a couple of months afterwards picking up teeny pieces of moop, like feathers from boas, pebbles from tires, sequins, beads, and so on, so that the Bureau of Land Management can inspect the area and give them a permit to have next year's festival.

So, there we are Thursday waking up in the middle of this giant temporary city, and we immediately have to set up some kind of shade structure, because of course there's no protection from the sun. Hank and Joanna are set dressers, and Dennis is a carpenter, so we circled the wagons, set up a tarp over the van for a kitchen area, and then put up a big shade structure with a huge canvas tent from the 40s that Hank had brought, using some 2x4s bought in Vegas. It was sturdy enough that we could hang a hammock in it. For dinner, Joanna heated up some pre-made curry that Art had dug out of our freezer with couscous for dinner. I had a headache from sun and dust, so I was feeling a bit grumpy, but we biked out on the playa in the evening anyway and explored some of the structures out there, especially the Maze, which we got thoroughly lost in for 45 minutes or so. The Maze was made of plywood, and was a maze, and had various rooms in it. The idea was to get to the centre, where you could climb up to the second story and look down from the top to see all the lost people wandering around. It had various sorts of artwork in it, and quotes about the mazelike properties of life, and so on, which if you had photographic memory you could use to orient yourself, but which we just blundered around, going, aha! I've been here before. which way did I go? not a clue.

Art and I had been trying to figure out what to do with our 100+ stuffed animals that we'd bought at thrift stores and brought along to give away. Jon had brought 3 2x3s, some cord, and a plan for another very nifty shade structure, so we decided to set that up as a play space and give-away-toys space. It was a really neat structure, based on Buckminster Fuller's tensegrity' construction principles. The instructions for putting it up are here

http://daredevil_30.tripod.com/tensegrityshade/tensegrityshade.html

and more about tensegrity, which I didn't know anything about, are at these two sites below.

http://www.frontiernet.net/~imaging/tenseg1.html

http://www.shelter-systems.com/tensegrity.html

What's most amazing is that when you take it down, all you have is the three sticks, each with three ropes attached to them. Unlike the pictures on the instruction page, we enclosed our space entirely with great swathes of sheets and other leftover set-dressing material and drop cloths, to make a very large tent. It was extremely cool. I think it would be great to have a house built like this: three equilateral pyramids for corner rooms, then the central space for common areas. Earthquake-proof, too. Anyway, then we put a tarp down, then many old sleeping bags and carpet foam pads, then blankets, then a lot of pillows and finally topped it off with all the stuffed animals. We put up a sign inviting people to come in to "Plushville" (we were camped on the border between Kidville and Hushville, the latter an area of camping where people agree not to use generators or amplified sound, which was a welcome relief from the rest of Black Rock City) and adopt a pet. It was toddler heaven in there, and we attracted several moms and three year olds over the course of the weekend. Our motto was, "If you can love it, you can have it," and we had adoption papers for kids to draw picture on or tell us the name of their new toy or whatever. It was lots of fun, especially seeing how the kids chose their toy. We had pretty much all unusual toys, Art eschewing most standard teddy bears and commercial fluffies for stuffed lobsters, owls, frogs, etc. There was even a stuffed puffin and a stuffed baby harp seal, which I kept for myself as the only Newfie in sight. It took forever, though, all day Friday pretty much; we put the structure up Thursday afternoon and enclosed it on Friday.

During the thrift store visits, I had found three outfits to wear; a teddy-bear-print jumper dress that I wore the first day, a slinky floor-length leopard-print polyester/lycra dress that I wore the second day, and a sequined silver vest and long silver Cinderella skirt with a slip with poufy bottom to pouf it out on the third day. I'd even found a nifty pair of white canvas lace-up boots that were reasonably comfortable to complete the ensemble. (Note: it's hard to bike in a floor-length poufy skirt.) I was the best-dressed adult in Kidville, although I was utterly mundane by Black Rock City standards. There were many many people going around stark naked, or wearing only a hat, or some other decorative item, and lots of people dressed quite crazily, or in some kind of costume. There was a kind of material called 'light rope' that I'd never seen before; a long string of neon rope that flashed on and off, or just stayed on, and was very flexible and interesting to look at in the dark; nearly everyone had some of that. One group of people had constructed enormous wire-frame T. Rex costumes and outlined them with light rope; at night you couldn't see the people at all, just big outlines of dinosaurs stalking the playa. There were lots of art cars around; the only kind of car that was allowed to drive in BRC. There was a giant metal dragon car that (of course) belched flame, a car in the shape of a cockroach, a car in the shape of a cat, cars that looked like flying saucers, a golf cart that looked like an octopus, a bike-car (Flintstones-style) that looked like a giant red shoe There was one bike-car that looked like a giant neon mushroom that Art gave one of our stuffed critters to; the critter was a stuffed toy in the shape of a mushroom amazingly similar to the art car. We spread other stuffed toys around as well: we gave the octopus car a stuffed octopus, we gave a place called the Lustmonkeys a pair of stuffed monkeys that hugged each other, a travelling photography car called the Playa Chicken a giant stuffed chickie, a bar called the Hair of the Dog a stuffed dog with very strange green hair, a group of people dressed as cows a small stuffed cow ("The Sacred Calf!" they exclaimed), a place called the Fornication Station that offered private "love swings" to have sex in a small troll figure that had "I CMN" written on its t-shirt, a place called "Camp Wrong" that had a picket fence and an astroturf lawn with a pink flamingo on it a couple of small stuffed flamingoes, and so on. It's a gift/barter economy, and nearly all these places gave us a drink or something else in return.

The overall effect is fairly loony-tune, but very enjoyable. In Kidville there was a Spanish artist with his beautiful model spanish wife and small girl, who wasn't finding the whole thing quite the artist's paradise that he'd imagined. There are, admittedly, a lot of people who are there just to be strange and uninhibited and have fun and a lot of sex, not to do a big serious art installation. They don't allow dogs in BRC, for a number of reasons, mainly because it isn't good for them, and the Spanish artist said, "It's no wonder they don't let dogs in here, half the people would be fucking them." But for such a zany atmosphere, it was very friendly, forgiving and safe-seeming, with a very mutually tolerant approach to existence. Of course, we had the advantage of being camped in Kidville, which was pretty much a quiet haven of relative normalcy to return to after venturing out into the crazy world. Art had brought his untried argileh (hookah) along, and across the road from Kidville there was a large Moroccan 3-ring circus tent, filled with Persian rugs (there were plenty of rich people at this event), where he took it to smoke and drink coffee with other folks out of the wind. So it was the perfect place to try that out for the first time.

There are many law-enforcement personnel there to see that things don't get out of hand, and there was an incident where the sherrif's office forced a large camp called "JiffyLube", which was basically a gay men's sex club (motto: 'Get In, Get Off, Get Out') to take down their 8-foot neon sign depicting anal sex. Jiffylube organized a protest, and we in Kidville were warned not to let any kids out during the protest march, because if any kids saw some of the stuff going on in the protest march the sherrif's office was going to shut down BRC. We didn't, and all was well. The kids were really mostly happy playing around camp, anyway -- they didn't want to get lost out in BRC any more than their parents wanted them to, so not too many kids saw much of the wild and crazy things out in the world. Our neighbor Shelly had an 8 year old boy named Ryan who instantly made friends with Adom (they formed a pack with some other 8 year olds and mostly hung around our tent area, occasionally having to get yelled at but generally playing pretty well), and a 3 year old girl named Riley, who immediately charmed the socks off everyone by being an extremely cute, fearless and adventurous dust bunny. She spent a lot of time in our camp playing with various adults. She was a bit worrying because she'd just wander off in any direction at the drop of a hat; she was hard to keep track of. But we didn't lose her.

On Friday night, Art and I biked far out in the desert past the Man to some art installations way out there, including one guy who had set up a house-like tent with a bed and soft chairs to sit in, soft classical music, and bunches of fiber-optic fibers for lighting; a nice effect. He had even hauled a piano out to the desert, which we played on for a minute or two. Then we went over to the 10 o'clock side of the Esplanade and walked our way back. The first thing we encountered was a big ring with fire dancers performing in it, which was pretty amazing; people dancing with fire batons, fire swinging on the ends of strings, even one woman who had fire on the end of ten-inch long sticks coming out from the ends of her fingers. Very impressive. Then we visited a place called the 'magic palace', where you were given a pair of spectral-film glasses like in a 3-d movie, and all the day-glo flourescent artwork hanging on the walls looked like it was floating in space. It was mostly dolphins jumping out of the water and aliens landing on a starry night, but still an absolutely amazing effect. Next we stopped at a place that had a large framework with two harnesses hanging off it, a kind of Gladiators-style game where you get hauled up in the air, two volunteers pull on ropes attached to you and try to swing you across to whap at your opponent with a big foam-covered stick. We volunteered to pull ropes and then played ourselves, Art winning by hitting my chest-mounted trigger button. Then we walked back along, through the increasing duststorm, seeing various other interesting and surprising things along the way. One particularly neat metal sculpture was a large (about 8x6x4ish feet) hollow heart shape formed by several strips of metal, with tubes for veins and arteries coming out the top, that was filled with fire; fire pouring out the veins and arteries at the top and fire seeping out through the cracks between strips of metal on the sides. It was not far from another incredible installation: an enormous fabric wind sculpture, dubbed "The Big Flappy Thing" by Joanna (as in, "I'll meet you by the Big Flappy Thing"). Huge strips of heavy fabric were fastened lengthwise to cables that slanted down to the ground. The fabric flapped constantly and ponderously in the wind, making loud, deep cracking noises, like the sails of a ship. If you weren't careful to choose your time and place passing under it, it could give you a nasty spank on the head. At night, it was lonely and eerie to walk by the Big Flappy Thing,

Saturday morning we woke up again very dusty and thirsty, spent a couple of hours beating the dust out of the Plushville bedding and toys, and repairing one of the walls that had torn open. Then we took off for an afternoon's tour of the opposite side of camp, the 2 o'clock side, giving away stuffed animals as we went. We saw a lot of neat things, of course; a giant Scrabble board where we drew some letters and played a round; some people making ice cream in the brutal afternoon heat by pouring liquid nitrogen directly into a cream, sugar and chocolate mixture and stirring (it made terrific ice cream, we had some); a 50-foot zipline from a second story tower that you zipped down to whap into a vertical mattress with a target painted on it, and other mattresses below to drop down into, and many other things I can no longer recall.

At the end of the afternoon we went back to camp and then walked out on the playa again to see the Man burn. All the residents of BRC were out there, in a giant circle around the Man, with about 200 fire dancers in the circle dancing away. All the stops were out. There were many many exotic costumes, including a guy dressed up like a transformer robot with giant feet that lifted him several feet off the ground. After a lot of preliminaries, including fire-belching by a large machine that sent up huge huge blobs of fire, 30 feet high, that created a kind of mushroom cloud of flame and a giant smoke ring, fireworks started shooting off the Man, and the burn was on. It was incredibly spectacular. At one point the wind of the playa created turbulence behind the Man that resulted in 10 or 12 large dust-devils filled with smoke forming and travelling away from the burning Man in sequence. Simply amazing. When the Man collapsed, the crowd rushed the fire, and we all went in and milled around. People were hugging, crying, standing and staring, throwing things into the fire, or (mostly) just wandering. Art and I walked back to camp via the 10-oclock side of the Esplanade again, met up with some of our campmates, and went to bed.

Sunday was mainly dedicated to taking the campsite down; dismantling Plushville, the big tent, the sleeping tents, the kitchen tarp area, and the shower area, and packing it all back in the van. We had a lot less stuff (fewer stuffed animals and water) leaving, so Art made a bed in the back of the van for one of us to sleep on while the other drove. The plan was to leave at about dusk on Sunday, drive all night, and arrive on Monday for me to have time to prepare classes. Sophie and Dennis and Adom were going to caravan along with us, and we rolled out of BRC at dusk on schedule. We were thwarted, though, because the two-way road that leads to the playa from the Reno area had been shut down, due to a bad head-on accident that had happened earlier in the day. (We heard about it on Radio Free Black Rock, one of three radio stations in BRC). Probably the accident had been caused by the streams of people leaving BRC trying to pass one another on the road; we'd seen some dangerous passing on the way in. The road was shut down for 4 hours, and we hadn't got very far, so we used our two-way radios to alert Dennis and Sophie and we all turned around and headed back for the Sunday night burn of the Mausoleum. The Mausoleum was another remarkable structure; a large building rather like an oriental temple, that had been constructed out of plywood cut up as with a jigsaw on a large computer-programmable plywood-cutting machine, which created many many thousands of perforations in curly and intricate shapes in the plywood. The walls of the building were like one of those intricate Oriental statues, with intricate carving inside other intricate carving, and the spaces inside had been filled with the cut-out wood that resulted from the holes cut in the plywood. The whole thing was about the size of a church, and had three altars in it; it was created by a guy who had had a friend killed in an accident on the way to Burning Man the year before. It was supposed to be used by people to mourn lost loved ones: you could write the name of someone on a block of wood which would then be burned with the whole structure on Sunday night. We went back out on the playa after returning to camp and eating at the Kidville final-night potluck, and found a not-very-good spot to watch the burning from. The wind kicked up the worst dust storm yet, and they postponed burning the thing for a couple of hours waiting for it to die down, with everybody out milling around and getting uncomfortable with the dust and the wind. But eventually they did burn it, and it was very beautiful, filling up with fire that came out all the little holes. Then we hit the road, stopping with Dennis and Sophie and taking a quick shower in their hotel room at 4 or so am. I'd slept in the van up til then, so then Art got in the back and conked out, and we drove back to Tucson in shifts, arriving after about sixteen hours at 9:00 Monday night.

It's probably going to take us until next year to get all the dust out of our bikes, clothes, pillows, tents, noses, etc. Nonetheless, we both find ourselves oddly bereft, missing Black Rock City and its freewheeling inhabitants, and regretting the many thousands of things we didn't get to see or do. We'd originally thought of this as a one-shot adventure. If anything's clear about this event, though, it's that it's never the same twice. My bet is that we'll be back. .





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heidi Harley teaches linguistics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. Originally from Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, Canada, she has had plenty of experience with cold and wet as well as hot and dry. Cold and wet is better.




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