Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Burning Man: How Can a Place be Radical Anti-Establishment if I'm There?

(Click on pictures to expand)

Benny rides through Black Rock City

I turned off the car. My heart was pounding. Dust swirled on my windshield. I wanted to sit a minute, take in the fact that we’d arrived safely and were actually at Burning Man.

"There's Milo!" Benny shouted, seeing his friend. He wrenched open the door.

"Benny, your goggles!" I yelled, but he was gone. I pulled up my bandana and donned my own goggles and pulled my protesting legs out of the car. After four hours of driving, they felt attached to the floor. I hobbled toward the camp, trying to smile although nobody could see it through the red bandana.

Milo, his brother Felix, and his parents Michael and Andrea had arrived two days earlier and had created a little home. Camp chairs surrounded a cluttered table, a small stove sat on a metal shelf.  Heavy black tarps shielded us from sun and wind. Milo was in no condition to play; he’d gotten in a fight on the Kidsville trampoline, which didn't seem to follow Burning Man's 10 principles. Now Milo was nursing a bruised head.

The first day: Check out Milo's military gas mask.
I left Benny to sit by his friend and set up the tent, gasping as I pounded the stakes into the cracked playa. As soon as I could, I scrambled in and zipped the door up, just me and a bottle of water sitting in a tent at Burning Man.

"Let's all go on a bike ride!" cried Andrea.

I tried to look enthusiastic, again a wasted effort, since my face was swathed in goggles and cotton cloth. I pulled Benny and my bikes off the car and we rode off.

I was glad to stop at a giant foam pit, covered with a metal cage. The boys scrambled joyfully up the cage and dropped one by one into the pit.

Benny at the foam pit.
While they played I drank more water and admired a large wooden catapult
swaying in the wind.

"They were throwing people with it," said a tall Laurence of Arabia lookalike beside me. "I bet it's a real rush."

"Are you going to do it?" I asked.

"Nah, they closed it. It'd be great, though, right?"

"Oh yeah," I said enthusiastically. "Too bad it's closed." I rolled my eyes. I was starting to like this whole wrap-up-against-the-dust thing. I could make all the faces I wanted.

I wanted to ask about other human-projectile structures, but Michael announced it was time for the crossbow range. So we hopped back on our bikes riding past a rolling Converse shoe. The line at the crossbow range was long, so Andrea and I headed to a party tent for a drink.

Playing Jenga.
"You need IDs," said a man wearing a Princess Leia hairstyle and a white thong.
Neither Andrea nor I had them.  I haven’t needed an ID in four years. I tried to show my age, but no dice. I never thought I’d be shopping my gray roots for a drink at Burning Man. So Andrea and I rode back to camp for our IDs and returned. I had the most amazing drink, a summer flower, with orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime juices mixed with vodka. This was the life, I thought, settling on a dusty couch in the shade to watch the boys play Jenga.

“We should see the playa,” Andrea called, referring to the large open space in front of the Man. “Let’s go!”

I gulped the last of my drink and tucked the paper cup into my backpack (“Leave No Trace!”)

Parasolvent: A mechanical expression of
loss, release, healing and decay.
With parasols.

By the time we reached the playa, the dust was really kicking up. We left the tents and RVs behind and rode among metal and wood structures rising out of the desert, nearly all in movement somehow: turning, spinning, waving, bobbing. A big dinosaur skeleton on wheels rolled by, then an Egyptian tomb steered by jackal-headed gods veered along in the opposite direction.

Resting in the library.
The wind grew worse, dust filled my vision. We rode to the “Library of Babel,” a lovely mosiac-painted and thankfully walled structure filled with handcrafted books. Burners took turns reading sayings and poetry out loud.  In any other circumstance I would have been fascinated and wanted to read the messages and write one myself. But instead I just sat and panted and watched the dust fill the doorways. Visibility was almost zero out there, and the wooden library rattled in the rising wind.

The wind died down just enough to tempt us out of the library, then hit again — even worse. We could barely see each other. I felt like I was choking. We kept having to stop — somebody would have to adjust their bandana, or would scrape themselves on their bike, or put their hat back on, or drop their water bottle or get dust in their eye. Felix cried out and when Andrea put a hand to his face it came back bloody. His nose was bleeding and drops of red fell on the sand. Benny and I were standing close together with his face against my shirt. At that point, I was pretty much done, but Andrea and Michael (these two could talk a fish out of the water) convinced to me to ride on, making one more circuit before we returned to camp.

I was looking forward to a few minutes resting in my tent, but everyone immediately seized on a new plan.

“The camp over there is making steak tacos!” Michael said.

“Can I have steak tacos, Mom?” Benny asked.

“Sure,” I said. “But why don’t you rest first, I’ll wipe you off.”

But nobody wanted to wait. Nobody wanted to rest. Nobody wanted to wipe off. Everybody wanted to dash off to tacos and I just wanted to go to my tent.

“Have a beer!” Michael cried.

“Don’t you want a taco? Should we bring one for you?” Andrea asked.

I repeated no thank you, no beer, no taco, just tent. I released Benny and they mercifully left. Heaven. I gathered some things and crawled into my tent, which was shaking in the wind, but it held. I poured an entire bottle of water over my head and sat there dripping. 

The rest of the evening was a blur. I don’t remember if we went out again that day. I remember putting a whiny and overtired Benny to bed. I wiped him down and put him in jammies and tucked him into his mummy sleeping bag.

Then I lay awake, listening to the revelry outside. What were we doing here? What would tomorrow be like? This was crazy. We didn’t belong out here. Actually nobody belonged out here. Humans didn’t belong out here. Why do these people host this amazing event out in a harsh, pitiless desert? Can’t they see how much nicer it would be in, well, just about anywhere else? But it’s not supposed to be nice. It's supposed to be radical and countercultural. I was trying to think of a way to be radical and countercultural in a pleasant meadow close to a Holiday Inn Express when I fell asleep.

To be continued:
Burning Man: I Can See Clearly Now

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