Sept. 06–BLACK ROCK CITY — By Chris Smith, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Burning Man is dead. Its heart and spirit were snuffed years ago.
You hear such things said. Not so much here, at the famously dust-coated, soon-to-vanish camp city 90 miles northeast of Reno.
This is the 30th Burning Man and, with about 70,000 of us here, the largest. There are veterans or observers of the smaller, simpler gatherings who’ll tell you that Burning Man has become terminally huge, capitalistic, police-patrolled, elitist and other than spontaneous.
I wouldn’t argue with that for a second. Burning Man escaped my attention when Larry Harvey and about 200 friends constructed and set afire a simple effigy on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986, and when the burn moved to a great, remote, often-inhospitable desert plain near Pyramid Lake in 1990.
I trust and respect the perspective of anyone who knew or knew of Burning Man in its younger, freer and more innocent days and who laments what it has become.
I’ve been to Black Rock City, which will soon begin in earnest the process of depopulation and disappearance, only four times since 2009. All I know of this phenomenon is what I’ve experienced of its recent, massive, expensive (face value of my ticket, $390) and relatively managed manifestation.
What it was in the past, I don’t know. But I do believe, though I hunker at this moment in my historically filthy car as the wind produces a third straight afternoon of gray-out conditions, that Black Rock City 2015 is the happiest city on Earth.
FOR ONE THING, it’s so thoroughly intentional. To be here, you’ve really got to want to be here.
Getting your hands on quickly sold-out tickets is a hassle, and when you arrive at the gate outside the town of Gerlach, you must have gathered and packed into your car or RV or trailer or rented truck virtually everything you’ll need for the eight-night run, or for as much of it as you intend to take in.
There are just two things you can purchase here.
One is bagged ice. A trip to an Arctica ice tent is a happening in itself; the people working it welcome you as though you’re arriving at a party at their home. Often, someone’s dancing on the counter.
The other thing you can buy here is a beverage such as coffee, tea or lemonade, at a cafe under a great tent at the city center.
Beyond that, the people committed to being here write lists and endeavor to pack every item they will need.
Shopping ahead of time
Part of the extensive pre-Burning Man ritual is shopping for all the water and food you’ll need and packing up the costumes, camping paraphernalia, lights for your bike and person so you don’t get hit at night, martini olives and at least a little something to give away.
As we pedaled the neighborhoods the other day, a robust fellow stepped from a camp holding an iron skillet. “Free range hot dogs!” he bellowed, and we passers-by helped ourselves to plump frankfurters hot from the grill.
I emerged from hiding through a dust glut to find folks in an adjacent camp giving away frozen Otter Pops. Perfect.
As important as it is to try to bring everything you’ll need, this place is all about true neighborliness.
Need a hand with that bike repair? Would anyone have a few spare tortillas? I’d like for you to have these dragon wings.
MOST EVERYBODY is smiling. This is a pinch-yourself place to be:
Black Rock City isn’t utopia. Utopia wouldn’t have three straight afternoons of blowing, blinding dust.
And the camp directly across the street from us blasts music too loud, too late. I won’t mention what a previous user of a particular porta-potty had done.
But most of the people I’ve met, people who trekked to Nevada from across the country and overseas, simply beam from what they’re discovering, doing, seeing and experiencing here.
AT YOUR TYPICAL outdoor festival, concert or fair, organizers prepare that which is to be consumed, and the audience consumes it.
Say what you will about Burning Man, but one of its greatest assets after all these years is that what happens here most is participants — Burners — astounding, serving, entertaining, treating, amusing, challenging and comforting one another.
Artists go to mind-boggling effort to create sculptures and structures, many of them unfathomably dramatic and grand, then invite participants to climb or activate or simply behold them.
All through this camp city, members of themed camps welcome visitors and offer them whatever you can imagine, and far beyond. There are yoga camps, a camp that famously serves grilled cheese sandwiches, a Buddha camp, a martini camp.
Members of various Burning Man camps will happily have you in for waffles, a guided meditation, advice, a ride on a wooden bike course, an adult beverage, a puzzle, a cup of tea, a therapeutic massage, an exercise in forgiveness, a comic-book reading, a bacon tamale (bacon is huge out here), a game of mini-golf, a belly dance lesson, a snow cone, an AA meeting, a night of dancing, a bag of fresh popcorn, a piece of clothing or costumery, a pickle, body art, instruction in hula hooping, a handmade soda, a bit of croquet, a chance to wrestle Greek Olympics style, an opportunity to write a playa poem, a cooling mist, help with repairing a stringed instrument, a zip-line ride, a game of hopscotch, a thick slice of French toast with real maple syrup, the view from a tower, a session on Dharma flow, a samba lesson, cookie decorating, a flash fiction contest, instruction in creating alien antennae, a conversation on solar power and climate change, some french fries, a class on fire spinning, a 1950s party, a sauna, an ultramarathon around the playa, a one-on-one battle in the Thunderdome, a ride on a long swing, a presentation on making money, a dialogue on what Burning Man is, a Stone Soup potluck pancake brunch, an introduction to the planets and stars, and on and on and on.
YOU WOULDN’T GO to Black Rock City because you sense that at 30, Burning Man has become overblown and corrupted? You should honor that.
I feel the same way about Cabo San Lucas. I know people still love it, but I knew it decades ago when it was an idyllic village at the tip of the Californias, and when the golf courses and Costco and rental scooters came, I vowed never to return and I haven’t.
Truly, I get the criticism of what Burning Man has become, but I can’t helping loving it.
Some day it may become too much even for me. But if I say in a year or two it’s time for “vamos a la playa,” you’ll know I’m not going where there’s a Señor Frog’s.
Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and [email protected]. On Twitter @CJSPD.
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