Nevada's Burning Man Festival:
Raunchy Rainbow Picture Show
By David Rich
[Editor's Note: We are unable to publish photos taken by our writer at Burning Man due to restrictions placed on all media by the organizers.]
Burning Man. What’s that all about? I hadn’t a clue before I went, intrigued by the half-baked descriptions of assorted quirky friends.
I’m a speck less clueless now, but tell you what: the extravaganza of Burning Man is too variegated, sprawling, and parti-colored to touch with a single story; it’d require a War and Peace-length book to do justice to Burning Man’s raunchy rainbow picture show.
Take a dry lake bed in the remote Black Rock Desert of northwestern Nevada, gather hundreds of mutant vehicles, thousands of RVs, semis, rental trucks, and tents, and 45,000 crazies lined up like the Oklahoma land rush, starting gun at Sunday midnight lasting a week until Labor Day.
This is the recipe for killer dust storms, amazing artistic inspiration, lightly-clothed to nude inhabitants, and imbibing animals variously described by the camp newspaper as the world’s biggest party, most fun week on the planet, bunch of rich mama’s boys, and hedonistic substance-fueled [sex] freaks in the desert. This it is, and much, much more.
I spent the week asking everyone why they’d come. Guy from Switzerland flits in every year for the inspiration, apparently to see how truly creative art and raunch can be.
A Guggenheim Plain
And they are. From two eighteen-wheelers in half-moon curves atop each other, reaching for the sky, to giant thirty-foot figures whipped out of suspension-bridge cable worshipping a fifty-foot observation platform. People spend days building creations, putting up theme camps, and turning the desert into a Guggenheim plain stretching to the horizon.
The only way to get around easily is by bicycle because all motorized vehicles, except mutant contraptions previously licensed through the Burning Man bureaucracy, are banned.
Mutant vehicles begin with creations built on trucks from an Aladdin’s Palace, a cat-in-the-hat float, a flying carpet, western saloon, block-long buses disguised as torpedoes or an anteater, and a Moonshine Luv Shack to non-truck extravaganzas like a bomb with a saddle atop, steam tractors, giant three-story high tricycles in a rainbow of colors, motorized cupcakes, and the fancifully unidentifiable.
The village is laid out in thirteen concentric three-quarter circles criss-crossed by fifteen bisecting avenues covering about seven square miles. The open center, or playa, is graced by the man of wood to be burnt in its exact middle, surrounded by hundreds of original sculptures.
Nothing can be bought or sold except ice and, at Center Camp, a tiny menu of nonalcoholic drinks. All else is individually trucked in and after the week is over, at the end, the remainder trucked back out.
Everyone trades with everyone for most anything, and everything is free. Still, bring lots of water so you will always Piss Clear, coincidentally the name of the camp newspaper.
Theme camps, the fanciful sub-villages, range from pole dancing venues, radio stations, and pubis trimming salons to free electroshock therapy, absinthe, AA, bondage, croquet, cheap hugs, hokey pokey, kites, and hundreds more.
The social core was Center Camp, its heart filled with couples and group-gropes practicing contact yoga, acrobatics, and hula hoops, surrounded by a permanent concert area, body painting with specialties in sundry parts, and far-out exhibits. Unfortunately, this abstract blather is apt to tell anyone little, compared to the reality.
Up Close and Sweaty
My typical morning began with a pancake breakfast and coffee, standing in line for the free stuff while kibitzing with a dozen others dressed in colorful and creative costumes. Indeed, Burning Man is costumes, which are the thing. Those not in splashed-out costumes are often dismissed as mere tourists, particularly those wandering around with cameras around their necks, such as myself.
After radical breakfast discussions I’d head for the steam bath at the corner of Arctic (the streets are alphabetical from A for Arctic to L for Landfill) and 8:00 o’clock (the avenues range in half hours from 2:00 o’clock to 10:00 o’clock), doffing duds for a nude steam with a dozen others ridding their bods of accumulated dust, getting to know the various sexes up close and sweaty.
Then I’d drop by the Japanese Tea Ceremony, for three days running finding someone had forgotten to set it up, leaving a mere other fifty choices an hour that ranged from Agents and Assassins or Advance Rope Bondage to a Zombie Crawl or Zymurgist Flocculation. Indeed, the Burning Man program listing what, where, and when runs 85 pages with a single sentence description of each programmed event.
But no one wears a watch so things proceed on Playa time, which is often no set time at all. So instead of a tea ceremony I grabbed a bloody Mary and headed for the incredible dance orgy at The Deep End, a faux western village amped to reverberate entire blocks on end, off and on hosted by porn star Erica Candy Cane. Burning Man makes Mardi Gras and Rio at Carnival look uptight and stuffy.
Escaping Orangutan Man
Then it’d be time to meander over to Center Camp to check out the concerts. I’d catch the lecture on quantum physics, immediately followed by leopard man on the didgeridoo. Orangutan man, as I called him, seemingly lived at Center Camp, pursuing single-minded nude yoga; age about 65 covered with orange hair except the white stuff on his head, usually drawn and quartered for the ultimate yuck effect.
Escaping orangutan man I’d wander around aimlessly, the most rewarding activity, chatting here and there with amiable strangers, becoming fast friends for an entire week, cadging lunch and cocktails, exploring the unimaginable. Of course you too must act as host from your own camp so bring a voluminous supply of something quirky, such as tequila, bicycle tubes, or kinky duds.
Nudes on Bikes and Motorized Furniture
Afternoons were great for inspecting grand sculptures up close, attending fantastical weddings with bride, groom, and guests on stilts, and watching parades ranging from nudes on bikes to motorized furniture.
Day frenzy segued into evening when the party began full blast because this was Burning Man, requiring fire, light and luminescence, all things lit up.
Flamethrowers were popular, along with electrified fluorescent wire in psychedelic colors. Mutant vehicles reveled in the nighttime, reborn into the flashiest apparitions, packed with revelers, shooting off flames, turning the playa into a light show more fabulous than the pale imitations of Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, and the Roman Forum. Bring lots of propane, laser wire, and sparkly things.
Bring a Gas Mask
The first requirement for a successful Burning Man experience is copious water, second, depending on age and proclivities, condoms, and lastly, either a gas mask or the equivalent: face filter and goggles. Incredible dust storms towering to the heavens descend on the playa without warning, dropping visibility to inches, inhaled oxygen to mud, and instantly bloodshot eyes a roadmap to perdition.
The climax is worth the dust storms: Burning Man explodes with magnesium, filling the desert with a plume of light a mile high, punctuated by jets of flame from every which direction. A guy on the northwest corner of Estuary and 8:00 o’clock slaved four months to build a six-foot high wooden ball finished like parquet, loaded with shavings and blocks of magnesium, rolling it into the conflagration, bringing Burning Man to an end with a bang akin the rapture sought by religious sorts.
Try Burning Man for your own rapture, which will be completely unlike mine, an entirely different raunchy rainbow picture show.
When You Go As Surely Now You Must:
Tickets in 2007 cost $280 each, probably up to $300 for 2008. Much of this goes to BLM and law enforcement to make sure all drugs, except for alcohol flowing like a waterfall, are privately imbibed. One new friend got popped with a $500 ticket for a single puff on a joint, poor lady.
The Black Rock Desert is 100 miles north of Reno, across dividing hills from Pyramid Lake. No towns of any size are within easy driving distance.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Nevada
See listings for budget hotels in Las Vegas and budget hotels in Reno.
You can leave Burning Man and return for a fee of $20. Shuttles go daily into Gerlach/Empire (Gypsum mining), which hosts maybe 500 people. Google Gerlach, Burning Man or visit the official website, BurningMan.com.
David Rich has been an international traveler, writer, and photographer for the last 13 years, living in 135 countries to date. He is a full-time international traveler, an occupation he finds far preferable to his former professions of law professor and trial lawyer, from which he says he’s now "mostly recovered."
Read more about Burning Man.