Aliens of Northern Nevada

Special thanks to Ray Ray Burns, for contributing this guest piece ruminating on his first Burn at Disorient this year.

New York  September 20, 2012

It has been more than two weeks since I returned from Burning Man. All in – the experience was pretty incredible.  Wild, exhausting, and a lot of fun… interspersed with a great deal I couldn’t relate to or just didn’t get.

When you are a first timer at my age, you don’t necessarily celebrate Burning Man; you survive it.

I guess the central question is why on earth did I go? Why did I travel all that way to willingly subject myself to such a bizarre event? The short answer is that I was asked. When my friend, Roger, telephoned me in May, the invitation came as a complete surprise. His two children were begging him but he told them there wasn’t a chance in hell he would do it unless he found another idiot his age to accompany him. I was the idiot. With all the courage I could muster, I responded with a firm “uh…maybe” and only partially because I thought there was an excellent chance I would be taking Taylor to college when the festival was occurring. I mentally stored the invitation away for three months secretly hoping Roger would forget or find someone else to go. But then I began to receive the “We are all soooo psyched you’re coming!!!” emails.

I hedged shamelessly. Could I go for just two days? I suck at dancing. Isn’t it too hot in the desert? I don’t really have to take the drugs, do I? Do I have to camp in a tent? Isn’t this festival really for people half my age?  No; that’s not completely true; no; absolutely not; no and no.

Somehow the reassurances didn’t make me feel better. My reliable excuse wasn’t viable anymore because Taylor had decided to take a gap year; I had conveniently backed myself into a corner. Roger was a good salesman who recognized an easy mark and I capitulated. Now resigned to my decision, I worked hard to convince myself it was a good one – and, to my shock, I ultimately succeeded. When I announced (bragged?) to friends I was going, about half of them had never even heard of it. Those who had rolled their eyes and shook their heads slowly thinking “the poor bastard has absolutely no idea what he’s in for”. Jonna was alternatively amused and, frankly, a little worried that I was way out of my depth. Nevertheless, she was incredibly supportive and tolerated my idiosyncrasies with grace and humor.

And so it was that at 8am, Wednesday morning, August 25th, 2012 – after a 30 minute fuel-up at the local liquor store – Roger, his son and I departed The Biggest Little City in America for points north. We traveled several hours, past the town of Gerlach, to (I’m not kidding) the middle of fucking nowhere Nevada. We had 5 large bags, 3 backpacks, 10 full shopping bags from the Reno Walmart, one tent, 3 chairs, 3 bicycles, 17 gallons of water, 10 gallons of freshly squeezed frozen lime juice that had been shipped from Dallas the day before in two huge coolers …and 9 cases of alcohol.  That would be cases. We were ultimately directed to the Greeting Area and ceremoniously met by three completely naked human beings – two 35 year-old men and a 65 year old, 5 foot, 160 pound woman with bright pink hair extensions. As lovely a person as she may have been, there was absolutely no reason on earth she shouldn’t have covered herself in several layers of clothing. After hugging every one several times, we were instructed to roll around in the dust, ring a large bell, proclaim our adopted playa name (mine was Man Disarray – or simply Ray) followed by “…And I am no longer a Virgin!”  Very strange, certainly funny and you definitely realized we were not in Kansas anymore.

If you hadn’t it noticed it already, by this point you were acutely aware of a desert that, if you weren’t careful, could absolutely kill you. Four thousand feet in elevation with 100 degree temperatures during the day and 40s at night – it was debilitating and dangerous. Run out of water and something to protect you from windstorms (35+ mph) and you were likely in real trouble.  Not sand but fine alkaline dust – semi-toxic talcum powder. I don’t know how much I inhaled but it was a lot. Definitely made me re-evaluate my decision to quit smoking. The playa (or “beach” to us non Spanish speakers) was the complete antithesis of any environment I was used to. I doubt there had been any sustained life on that particular riverbed for thousands of years. The only living things I saw beside campers were two lost dragonflies. Even dogs were forbidden (although young children, for some inexplicable reason, were allowed).

After our hugs, we were issued the official 164-page booklet listing “repeating and one-time events” during the festival. I was unprepared for its humor. A few titles (with their written descriptions) chosen at random:


  • Why the Nose Wednesday?  – A day dedicated to wearing a clown nose, just because its fun. Free noses available all week!
  • Shakti-Shiva Dance – The divine Feminine is returning and she loves to dance. What it is to become conscious light manifest with two bodies intertwined and dissolving
  • Hunter S. Thompson Look-alike Cocktail Hour – Stop by Bat Country for our trademarked mean mescaline margaritas and discuss journalism with your fellow peers
  • Strictly Drag – What does drag mean to you and what is gender appropriate? Fashion Show at 9pm with prizes in categories from Best Dressed to…Strangely Attractive
  • My partner has an Art Car support group – Does your partner have an art car (explained a couple of pages below)? Are you sick of hearing about it? We are too. Join us for a support group and share your woes.
  • Third Annual Hall & Oates One Shoe Only Party – Music savages and noodle dip. Funky and eclectic music. One shoe only to enter
  • Seals of Approval – Dress as a seal, bring cocktails and take over the Pier. If you don’t have a seal outfit, go clubbing that afternoon for ART ART ART!
  • How too drive a Vulva – Learn how to please a woman sexually, from those who know it best: Lesbians! You will learn basics and a few ninja tricks  

For those who have never been and as haphazard as the festival might appear on paper, it is highly organized. I read recently that Burning Man, as a 501(c)(3) organization, had a permanent staff of two hundred and an annual budget of over $23 million. On the playa, a maze of tents and RVs located in mini-communities extended as far as the eye could see. Avenues and streets (the latter designed as hours and quarter hours – such as 9:45 or 3:15) had been set up weeks earlier by advance teams to allow campers to triangulate to their various destinations – approximately 400 separate intersections. The distance separating residential points farthest from each other was over three miles. Black Rock City was one the largest temporary metropolises in the country. On May 25th, zero people. On August 25th, over 55,000.

Scattered around the camps were hundreds of ocean shipping containers crammed full of material. I know because I reloaded a few. These containers were mostly stored on a parcel of land 20 miles away that was owned by the festival. Every year as the event approached, the containers were shipped back to the playa and then repositioned where boundaries for separate campsites had been established. They housed entire kitchens, vehicles, bio-diesel powered electrical grid equipment, sound systems, furniture, camp superstructures, building materials and any assorted personal items too bulky to schlep home every year.

Scores of temporary bars, medical tents, bike repair shops, massage tables, food kiosks, “advice” booths etc. had also been set up. An important thing to note was once on the playa, the only items available for purchase were ice and coffee. Everything else was free or, as it was referred to, “gifted”. There was no commercialization anywhere. Likewise, no cell or Internet service. Unusual and, frankly, refreshing.

We arrived at our camp, Disorient (or D12ORIENT), to find it well populated and in a very prominent location. Like most camps, it was designed to be relatively self-sufficient. Food offerings were minimal: two meals a day (breakfast and dinner). Nothing exceptional and if you arrived three minutes late, you could miss out entirely. Luckily, neighbors of ours had two charcoal grills and brought (honest to God) 400 pounds of frozen meat with them – about a third of which we ate on the last night. If you were lucky enough to attend a barbeque (usually starting around 1am) you got your fill of protein.

Water, water, water. I consumed, on average, about ¾ of a gallon each day – half the recommended amount.  If I was thirsty, I drank. Even when I wasn’t, I drank anyway. The most indispensible piece of equipment I carried was my water bottle. Everywhere I went, strangers offered water. If someone failed to “hydrate” adequately, they could easily get sick.

As fascinating as the playa was on our first day, once the sun went down it became an entirely different world. It was difficult not to be impressed by the dozens of immense (and extraordinarily sophisticated) LED light shows, fractured lasers shooting 20 miles into the sky, thousands of bikes or walkers, glow wires ablaze, maneuvering from one camp to the next. The scene was reminiscent of the film “Blade Runner” (minus the rain and skyscrapers). I have never seen so many free flowing multi-colored lights moving so seamlessly in so many random patterns.

There were also hundreds of vehicles known as “Art Cars” which were regular chassis vehicles reconstructed into a most unusual collection of objects. A magic carpet, a three story light show on wheels, three different multi-masted schooners, an enormous fire breathing octopus, a rolling 70 foot cruise ship, 40 foot long spiders, rocket cars, four bunny floats, a dragon that spit flames – you get the idea. All of these vehicles had three things in common: They carried 6 to 60 people in seating areas around and sometimes above the driver; all had elaborate lighting designs and each had its own kick-ass independent sound system.

Think of Burning Man as a six-day party, a chance to temporarily cast aside all the crap you’ve carried with you for the last year. It was, ultimately, a release. Once this fact was made clear to me, the daytime activities became mostly peripheral (though the festival tried hard not to make it seem that way). Everyone recovered during the day and let loose at night – usually until after dawn. There were dozens of independent dance camps. Any one of the sound systems would have been enough to fill the entire valley. It turned out, however, that after about 300 yards you couldn’t hear (or feel) anything other than the one closest to you.

Our first night, Roger intelligently turned in at 1am. Probably feeling guilty, his son, Peyton, invited me join a couple of his buddies to bike to a few other camps. As much to prove my stamina to myself as to him, I agreed. We biked hard for about five minutes, left our steeds, danced for about 20 minutes then moved on to a different section of the playa. We did this four times. Eventually, I ran out of gas, begged off, got on my bike, pointed myself in the general direction of home and started to peddle. And peddle. And peddle. After about 15 minutes I still couldn’t even see our camp. “I just can’t be in this bad shape,” I said out loud. More peddling. I was getting progressively more winded and still nothing looked remotely familiar. “You can NOT stop, you pussy!” I yelled. Still more peddling. Finally, in the distance – and about the size of a raisin – I spotted the 30-foot iconic inflatable cylinder of our camp. Ten minutes later, gasping like an old dog, I made it.

The next morning, I discovered I had ridden the entire way back on not one, but two flat tires.  It is entirely possible (though I would never admit it under oath) that the single joint hit I took during my ride out with the boys had a tiny bit to do with my inability to recognize the pathetic state of my ride.

The other evenings, I was not nearly as ambitious – or foolish. After a few hours I would usually return to the sanctity of our local Speak Easy – a 30×30 foot tent furnished with lamps, sofas, chairs and tables, black light posters, a small bandstand for musicians, a sound system and a lovely bar (with stools) laden with most every variety of alcohol imaginable. It was unlike anything else on the playa and when strangers entered for the first time, they couldn’t believe their eyes.  I loved spending time there. Sleeping 20 feet next door was another matter altogether. I was grateful for my earplugs and a decent supply of Ambien.

During the daylight hours, most revelers slept in. But some intrepid souls ventured out. Yes, I did see a few naked bodies – virtually all of who were male – plus quite a few shirtless women (and men for that matter). This being a “do what you feel” festival, there were also a few very silly events, one of which was titled the “Critical Tits Bike Ride”. Raucous but not at all raunchy, it celebrated 5,000 topless women riding in an orchestrated caravan – as compelling an example as I have ever seen to never automatically equate nudity with sexuality.

Speaking of sexuality, there were lots of reminders that hedonism was alive and well – although nothing appeared to be grossly overt. In addition to the titillating events in the guide book, there were locations with names such as Whiskey and Whores, Sin City, Barbie Death Camp, Sex-a-gon, Camp Peace of Ass, Spank the Monkey Love Lounge, Sensual Pleasures, Coffee Tea or Me, and Party Naked Tiki Lounge salted liberally throughout the playa.

There were also a great many other diversions that had nothing to do with sex. An installation called “Thunderdome” built about 200 yards from our camp more or less resembled the eponymous combat area of the Tina Turner, Mel Gibson movie. It was the only place at Burning Man I witnessed anything resembling aggressive behavior. Spectators stood around the bottom or scampered atop the open metal superstructure while two combatants wailed at each other with padded marshal arts staffs. One day, I biked by to see a hapless 6’4” guy dressed as a female nurse being pummeled by a short, pink bunny rabbit.

I had some wonderful conversations at Burning Man, mostly with individuals half my age who were polite and curious enough to ask me questions about issues they thought I actually knew something about. From “Do you think there is enough leverage within the Fed Board’s minority wing that would cause changes in monetary policy sufficient to create political upheaval?” to “Do you have any idea where I could get some tacos?”  I think these lovely people always gave me the benefit of the doubt because it was clear I was from a very different demographic profile than the rest of them. All kidding aside, we had some provocative, thoughtful, challenging exchanges. And the warmth of the entire camp was palatable. A few people deserve special mention.

Peytonius, age 30, was my hero. By nature extraordinarily inclusive and soulful, he had an instantaneously recognizable laugh that was impossible to ignore. He was the kind of person up for anything; his enthusiasm contagious. Bike ride? Sure! Walk a mile to Center Camp? Yeah, lets do it! Eat a handful of this dust over here? Why the heck not?  On our nights out biking, he would honk his horn to make sure I knew where he was. I could always see him, of course, but he honked anyway – just to be let me know I wasn’t alone. Every once in a while he would see me sagging and insist on giving me one of his patented “playa hugs” where, embracing me, he would crush any remaining wind out of my lungs while deeply twisting his knuckles up and down my spine. I can’t say it was the best feeling I ever had in my life – but it certainly got the blood flowing. More importantly, it gave him pride that he was “bringing me back”. And he was right.

Dr. Deb was an icon of the playa. Fifty seven years old and gorgeous (she volunteered it herself before you had time to), she was, I was told, a practicing psychiatrist who knew everyone there. She proudly wore pink and orange hair extensions all year long and annually drove her 50 foot RV with its 25 foot trailer attachment round trip from Los Angeles along with her brain surgeon husband and 19 year old son. Dr. Deb also happened to be on her ninth burn. I met her as she was making one of her regular camp rounds. She had a commanding personality, a wonderful hoarse and hearty laugh and was blissfully at ease with herself. Having coffee later that same morning, I found myself spontaneously talking about some issues Jonna was struggling to sort through. I have no idea why I opened up to her other than she just “allowed” me to. A singularly compassionate and unusually insightful human being.

Bacchus was another fascinating personality and on his sixteenth burn. As the official “mayor” of the camp, he never made it clear whether this was a self-appointed position or one he received by acclimation. No matter – he was excellent at the job. Hilarious, kind, super-smart and generous, he never forgot a name and most days wore a grey leather kilt with such élan that he almost looked like a Scot (he wasn’t). A successful attorney on the West Coast, had he confided in one of his pre-arrival emails that this would be his last burn. Somehow after seeing him hold court, I doubted it. When I suggested that he assume the title of “Mayor in Perpetuity” he loved the term and, I believe, has now humbly adopted it. I cannot think of anyone better suited. With any luck, I will have the pleasure of his company again.

Tequilero, my old, dear friend and the father of the aforementioned Peytonius, is the reason I got into this mess in the first place. An accomplished, professional diplomat, he is one of the kindest and most insightful people I know – who by the time he was 50 had explored ten times as many places on this planet as I will in my lifetime. He is an instinctive host – so much so that when it became clear we had overestimated the attendance of our inaugural margarita party by about a factor of five, for the rest of our stay any living sole who strayed within 50 feet of our RV was collared into having a libation. There were a few moments the first several nights when Tequilero was struck by a combination of fatigue and “over-serving”. But he always elegantly made his way home (aided by his two adoring children). The following day, he was good to go again. Love that guy.

Fay is the eldest of Tequilero’s children. She is a lovely, generous soul who is still seeking the happiest path to her life. I’ve known her since she was three years old. Two things she had in abundance on the playa were friends who loved and cared for her… and clothes. I never imagined there could be so many sartorial options for so short a period. At least two or three times daily, we would be offered an array of outfits and requested to choose the most appropriate. It was hilarious. I worried about Fay a little – that she needed to take care of herself, get more sleep, etc. Those who knew her far better than I told me I was nuts, that I shouldn’t be such a “dad”. Point taken.

Some of the others I got to know included:

  • One of the US’s preeminent light artists – with permanent installations in such institutions as the National Gallery in Washington
  • A very articulate and beautiful young photographer from Uruguay
  • Two Frenchmen who live in Austin, TX and run hospitality companies there.
  • A young American who used to be one of Microsoft’s top lab guys and now runs an online company in Bangalore, India connecting local workers and employers
  • A record producer from Los Angeles who’s last recording was of a Ska icon
  • A woman who runs an international consulting/communications company in New York
  • A San Francisco lawyer who represents, among others, the estate of Gerry Garcia.
  • Two Brazilian women who develop hotels and residential properties on the Bahia coast
  • A young woman from our camp who was royally pissed when her “boyfriend” didn’t come home for two straight days
  • Two of the top people at the South by Southwest Festival
  • An extremely successful real estate executive from Texas
  • Four wild and crazy British women on vacation with no plans to return home
  • Three of the five founders of Burning Man
  • A real life “goddess” (or so she convinced us all)
  • A New Zealand sheep farming couple who grow a little Sauvignon Blanc on the side
  • A French artist, living in NY, with at least one PhD that I know of.
  • An artist/physicist from German who for a while had wives (and families) on two separate continents- simultaneously

And my universe was extremely limited. While I routinely ventured out with others (or on my own) I rarely made time to casually talk to people I didn’t know. There were just too many camps, too many sites to visit and way too many people to say hello to let alone have a conversation with. The variety of people was noteworthy. There were thousands of New Age, yoga practicing, tattoo-covered ravers plus the modest collection of aging hippies you would expect to find at such an event. Maybe not so surprisingly, more than 95% of those present were white.

It was also clear there were many in attendance who had earned a considerable amount of money. It was impossible to ignore the hundreds of huge RVs that rented for $25,000 and up per week or the dozens of small airplanes that ferried people in and out of the playa from Reno at a round trip fare of $700 apiece. I was told – though I did not see it – that Google had established a camp on the outer perimeter with 40 huge RVs and had laid down an acre of astro-turf to control the dust.

Regretfully, I never made sufficient time to explore most of the 200 plus art projects. To be candid, I would grade much of what I saw about a B. Some, however, were fascinating and all took many months to plan, execute, deconstruct and move to the desert. The most impressive was a full-scale replica of a beached pirate ship, partially buried into the playa as if shipwrecked, complete with skeleton, maps, miscellany and sounds of waves lapping over the transom. Additionally, there was a 12-foot tall wooden, three-dimensional sculpture, laden with ornaments, spray painted solid gold and consisting of only three letters: E G O.  It burned rather spectacularly (the ship survived). There was also an installation of a mythical Wall Street comprised of five six story wooden buildings. It wasn’t particularly interesting or well designed but the scale was impressive. As you might imagine, it too was torched to great fanfare.

The central event at the end of the week, the burning of The Man, was incredible as spectacle. Photos and videos don’t do the experience justice. The Man resided about half a mile into the desert – a 30-foot tall wooden stick figure layered with white neon perched atop a four story circular pavilion approximately 120 feet in diameter. On the night of the burn, He was surrounded by all the art cars and what appeared to be 90% of festival inhabitants. Five or six hundred fire dancers swooped around the structure in a choreographed trance – while the sound systems of the art cars blasted at maximum decibel level. Multi-colored searchlights framed the structure and his neon core. Just before the burn, The Man’s arms, originally by his side, were somehow miraculously raised over his head. The fire started slowly but in the dry heat quickly grew in intensity. A brilliant and impressible array of fireworks then covered the moonlit sky. Finally, just as the fire started to consume The Man, some form of firebomb was ignited beneath him – as if five twenty-gallon drums of gasoline had been ignited simultaneously. BOOM!  As you might expect, the crowd went berserk.

The following night (the last formal evening of the festival) The Temple was set ablaze. The experience was totally different. Half a mile further into the desert, this year’s temple was a heavily latticed series of MDF structures that loosely resembled a Buddhist shrine. When the wind blew, the playa dust swirled around and through it in a mesmerizing and surreal way. Every year, a Temple has been built to serve as a contemplative space for people to leave notes or hang photographs of family, friends (even animals) who had died in the past twelve months. Others leave messages to people they love, those they want to forgive, reach out to spiritually, etc. When The Man burned it was a cacophonous pagan celebration; when The Temple burned, there was absolute silence. Many wept uncontrollably.

The promise of The Burning Man Festival has a lot to do with embracing disparate moments like this. Clarity was supposedly achieved when an individual was no longer able to resist – too hot, too tired, too thirsty, too wasted. The experience was all about self-expression, creativity, community, individual (and collective) reliance and freeing oneself – albeit briefly – from the metaphorical baggage you had carried with you all year.

Would I ever go again? If I did, here would be a top ten list of things I would most want:

  1. More Socks. The smart people brought two or three changes a day; the dust was that nasty.
  2. Boots. I brought a good pair of hiking sneakers (that became so unsalvageable I left them in the RV). My treads were fine for a while, but the higher the boot, the less dust sneaks into them; mid calf is ideal.
  3. Nasal saline solution. It is SO dry there (with dust compounding the irritation) I got several nosebleeds that took 20+ minutes to stop. Regular nasal blasts would have ameliorated the situation at least a little.
  4. A couple of cases of Diet Coke. The beverage choices in camp were water, alcohol…and more alcohol. I would have killed for something fizzy and sweet – and anything that wouldn’t eventually have given me a headache.
  5. Costumes. Since this is a celebratory place I felt embarrassingly underdressed (and boring) most of the time – especially at night. The coolest things I saw were prototype white plastic horns embedded with multi-colored LEDs that not only synched with each other, but also linked wirelessly to whatever lightshow a DJ was spinning to.
  6. A bigger RV.  We had a 24 footer, which was great. A 30+ footer would have been significantly better – with those cute little slide out units.
  7. A portable icemaker. We “borrowed” one of those babies on our second day and placed in the center of our RV. It was easy to operate and an absolute lifesaver.
  8. Mixers as Gifts. While I never make it a practice to contaminate my alcohol with ginger ale, seltzer, soda etc., I know many people do. Our Speak Easy completely ran out the first night and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same situation occurred everywhere else. Had I walked into any of the bars and presented a few bottles of mixers as a gift, I would have been hoisted onto shoulders. Or gratefully attacked by a crazed Amazon sex goddess.
  9. Food. If you rented an RV, you got a fridge, freezer, tiny burners and a microwave as part of the deal. In the event you intentionally or unintentionally missed a meal (which I frequently did), it would have been a glorious thing to boil some pasta, munch on a carrot stick or, for that matter, toss a slab of meat on an outdoor hibachi.

10. My Very Own Art Car to tool around in (and offer a ride to whomever I liked). What a gas that would be! Biking was fun enough but could get ugly in the middle of a white out. Plus, you didn’t have the tunes.

Given the above, one might assume I was already making plans for next year. Realistically, my odds of returning are pretty low. That may change as the excitement builds again but the truth is that Jonna wouldn’t like it, neither would Christina. Taylor might, but his upcoming college schedule will probably be a complication. As much as I grew to love my fabulous adopted playa family, I wouldn’t want to do the trip again without at least one of my real ones. So if 2012 was it, that’s ok.

To be clear, if anyone reading this is contemplating a journey, I would advise them to do it.

There are people from all over the globe – really smart, (mostly) normal people – who believe Burning Man is one of the most important annual events of their lives. Not only cathartic and soul searching, opportunities abound to create profound, lasting connections with others. Oh…and it can be simply, spectacularly fun.

As much as I enjoyed the experience, I came away believing this was a festival designed for people a lot different (and decidedly younger) than I. I am by nature more of an observer than a participant anyway; more the anthropologist than a bushman munching a sliver of bark to raise his ancestors from the flames. Furthermore, I’m not nearly as gregarious as folks think. Its not that I dislike new groups of people – I just don’t feel comfortable throwing myself into the middle of them. I much prefer to operate from the security of the sidelines.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out whether I actually learned anything about myself in the desert. This was an experience touted to be revelatory, designed to unlock new meaning and purpose. For good or for bad, I wasn’t conscious of being introspective at all. It was a great escape… but there were no eureka moments. The people were remarkable and I found the playa to be dazzling – but certainly no more memorable than the Grand Canyon or, for that matter, reading “East of Eden”. It is true, however, that I have been thinking about the experience more than I expected.

I am left with two observations. The first is that I really do have a hard time letting go; that over the years I’ve constructed enough internal barriers to prevent me from sufficiently lowering my guard, limiting my ability to relax and reflect. So my ex-wife was right all along then…damn. The corollary revelation is that maybe I’ve finally reached the point in my life where I am comfortable in my own skin. I know what I like, what I’m good at and the things I struggle with. I don’t get as caught up anymore with intimations that there is someone else inside me dying to get out. No matter how alluring the opportunity, I have no interest in pretending to be someone I’m not.

In my consulting work, I’ll continue to be the guy who asks the difficult questions everyone else has tried to finesse. I’ll always try to convince (and show) clients that there is indeed a solution to every problem. On a personal level, I’ll never stop trying to become a better human being. Perhaps my desire to do my best was strengthened earlier this month but I don’t think my approach or fundamentals have changed. Then again, I don’t think they needed to be.

To its considerable credit, there was room within Burning Man for all types of people – including me. There were innumerable opportunities to dive in, connect, explore and even act ridiculously. When you’d had enough (which for me didn’t take very long) there was always the safety of a graceful exit – because the people you were with didn’t really care how deeply or peripherally you committed yourself. The thing that mattered most was that you were there. Whatever mode you chose, it was fine with them. No pressure, no judgments, no recriminations. Just support, love and, of course, were you sure you had enough to drink?

Salon Proclaims: “Burning Man on its last legs”

Has Burning Man jumped the shark? Attendance was down on last year, despite a 20% increase in population size and the organizers’ claims that it was a sold out event. Major sound camp Opulent Temple are  not coming back next year – or, maybe, ever. Meanwhile rumor has it the BMOrg plan on implementing the disastrous ticket lottery system again next year, or even worse, “curating the audience” – an extension of the “world’s biggest guest list” approach they tried this year.

In the context of all this, it seems like the knives are coming out for Burning Man. Recently San Francisco magazine proclaimed “RIP Burning Man“. Now online opinion  site has taken up the BM bashing stick:

So what is Burning Man like? It’s not special. It’s simply what happens when gearhead artists, new agers, and frat types get together to build resilience tech in the desert together. Badly. It is easy enough to describe in principle, but harder in practice.

The experience of going to Burning Man is summed in either the ease or the difficulty of figuring out how to talk about whatever the hell it was that happened to you there. It would be easiest to talk about if you died on the playa. Your Burner epitaph would tell the entire story: “Fell off an art car, broke spine.” That narrative would be the easiest to read. Second easiest would be by those who claim a spiritual transformation. “I injected DMT into all my chakra points, and discovered an art car that vibrated at the same basic frequency as the entire Enochian Key.” Gotcha. But for those of us unlucky enough to make it back to society without a punctured kidney or a journey via sky chariots have a harder time in finding the archetype that explains that week. You have been staring into the sun for over a week, and now you look down and try to explain to the purple splotches exactly why. Asceticism topped off by a cold cooler of PBR, and a entire rented box truck full of Schedule 40 metal pipe. There is little revelatory or concluding text to be found here.

The best way I can think to describe the experience is that people who went to Burning Man changed color. You can see them, crawling back over the nation’s roadways on Labor Day weekend. It is not the vehicles that they drive or the things strapped on the roof, but the univocal shade of muted grey. There are no real generalities that can be made about a group of 50,000 people that are not tautologies. To say that Burning Man is for the rich, or for the privileged, or for those with free time, is all about as meaningful as to say that 50,000 automobile owners can afford gasoline. But the one meaningful thing that we could really say about Burners is that they all come back grey. When we get into the shower, finally back at home, the water all runs the same opaque color into the drain.

via Burning Man on its last legs –

The author, Adam Rothstein, claims to love Burning Man, but he is not backwards in being forward when it comes to his (well-written) criticism:

This sort of DIY zen is by no means natural to the playa, and while we might have our own drama more or less rigged well, we’re pretty lucky in that regard. You hear stories on the playa, of grudges, of politicking by the Org and by artists and groups of artists, of threats made and carried out. The Burn Wall Street art piece, for example, had some pretty wild stories attached to it. I can’t verify any of this, and so it is only rumor. But disputes about the construction quality and schedule allegedly caused the leader of the project (who as far as I can tell, had nothing to do with Occupy) to be fired from the task by the Org. This was the culmination of a longer dispute involving the previous year’s temple crew, a project that apparently violated design parameters. Burn Wall Street still ended up built and burnt, but after hearing some wacky tales about the designer’s love of guns and his habit of blowing up piles of propane tanks with rifle fire, there was speculation that the burn might not go off without a hitch. And yet, it did. You can never really tell about rumors. Drama on the playa, at Occupy, or at any intense build project is by definition just as real as it sounds. And yet, most drama, like the Burn Wall Street city, is really just an empty shell. So you never know.

Burn Wall Street ended up covered in graffiti of all kinds before it burned, and I couldn’t help but wonder about that paint-soaked empty shell. It was only a few months ago that I watched police officers punch and club the heads of my friends in the streets of major US cities. Trauma feels different than drama. The banks built on the playa were hollow, and so was the gesture, and so was the anarchist graffiti on the outside. Burning Man is often called a Temporary Autonomous Zone, but the bureaucracy behind the building of a monument to an anarchist movement is altogether so far from anarchism that it mostly makes me confused. It’s not that I can’t take criticisms, parodies, or copycats, it’s that it just seemed so obvious. A “Bank of Un-America,” spraypainted with the phrase “Let’s Burn the Real One.” Like learning history through a shoebox diorama

Why is Burning Man over? Because he heard so from some hippies on the Playa…

Every year there are rumors that this will be the last year. The reasons I heard this year that sounded reasonable included: conflicts with the BLM over the costs of those coming early to set up (the BLM wants $10 per person per day); the fact that the Org has burned through every porta-pottie company in existence as they each in turn decide that dealing with the plumbing problems from trash in the pots is simply not worth the contract; and that the influx of newbies not picking up their trash will finally reach a tipping point, and that will end the BLM’s approval of the event.

I think we’re still a long way from the death of Burning Man. But, the event faces some real challenges, as the new non-profit “volunteer” BMorg takes over from the old “founder” BMorg. Will the hippies win the day, squeeze all the rich people out, and leave us with an event with very limited art cars, art projects, or DJs? Will the kids take over, forcing out the nudity and drugs? Will the ravers take over with ever-louder sound systems? Will bureaucracy ineptocracy take over, and overwhelm the thing with rules? Or, will the experienced crowd of veteran Burners choose to go to other events like Lightning in a Bottle, Free Form Festival, or Tomorrowland – instead of joining the Jersey Shore mooping wannabe newbies in this increasingly-mainstream event?

We eagerly await the presence of some leadership, to take Burning Man and the Burner community through this time of transition and lead us into a glowing, golden, Burning future.

First World Record Set at Burning Man

This year, art project the 1 Mile Clock was officially recognized in the Guinness Book of Records, as the World’s Largest Timepiece. This is the first official Guinness record related to Burning Man – although there was a previous unconfirmed fire breathing record in 2006.

photo by Angie Palmer/JSt3p

We Did it! In 2011 we created the “Worlds Largest Timepiece” at the Burning Man festival. As of October 4th 2012, it has been OFFICIALLY listed into the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Worlds Largest Timepiece”!!!!!

Five scientists, developers and 48 artists from around the world created a 1.25 mile diameter working clock for the Burning Man festival Aug 29, 2011 in Nevada USA. Using high powered lasers aimed at twelve 22′ tall artistic “hour towers” around the Burning Man (round) festival, The lasers kept accurate time 45′ over the heads of 53,000 festival goers in attendance. At over 5500′ in diameter, our “1MileClock” project will SMASH the [previous] Guinness record by over 3000′!
According to the Sacramento Bee, the record was actually achieved last year, but was delayed so that Guinness could create a new category separating the project from Saudi Arabia’s giant clocks:

Bowers said the delay was related to a decision by Guinness to create a new category of world’s largest working time piece, differentiating it from the four-faced Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower in Saudi Arabia with its 130-foot-diameter faces.

The project involved a core team of 20, but more than 100 people were involved in building the hour markers, which were burned during the festival.

Congratulations to everyone involved. It seems this is a record-breaking year for Burning Man, with Disorient Artist Leo Villareal also setting a world record for the biggest ever commission for an electronic artist, as well as the largest ever sculpture in the history of humanity (yes it is larger than Mt Rushmore and the Sphinx), with his $8 million Bay Lights project.
Guinness is not the only source of Burning Man records. Recordsetter has a number of Burning Man-related accomplishments, including:
  • most live chickens brought to Burning Man
  • most condoms sucked through the nose at once
And this spectacular demonstration by “Mr T” of Most One Handed Cartwheels While Holding an Open Beer – an astounding 13. The beer does not appear to be a Guinness…