Burning Man - "the skya to the playa"
Burning Man - "the skya to the playa"
Keying the mike, I announce “Black Rock Unicom, Red and White Stationaire is 10 miles South, descending out of 6,200 inbound with “First Kiss.” That’s right, I didn’t say alpha, charlie or zulu. Like everything else at Burning Man, Black Rock City Airport has it’s own language, set of rules specific to the environment and even its own identifier, 88NV. For one week each year, the little strip of Nevada desert we call a runway is actually recognized by the FAA as a “sanctioned” airport. My response from Unicom was familiar and comforting, “Welcome Home Skychick.”
“Welcome Home” is a common phrase used at Burning Man because returning burners know they are going to peg the fun meter seeing, doing, exploring, and enjoying an atmosphere of indescribable creativity, sheer abandon and acceptance. It has been said that attempting to explain the Burning Man festival to those who have not attended is like trying to describe color to a person who’s blind. It’s true. Burning Man must be experienced to be understood.
You will hear people say that it is like Disneyland, Woodstock, a concert or a giant art gallery. It is all and none of that. Imagine a five square mile theme park where we, the attendees, come from all over the globe to design, fabricate, construct, finance and transport 90% of the park’s attractions. Following a predetermined theme, which changes each year, we individually, or collectively in groups, create a piece of art, structure or experience with the sole purpose of entertaining, educating, enlightening or simply engaging other attendees who wish to participate in our attraction. Our park includes amazing sculptures ranging from one inch to 120 feet tall. Some sculptures are for simple viewing while others engage you directly. Hundreds of classes are available on every imaginable topic, from basket weaving to exploring new lovemaking positions… and everything in between. We create mutant vehicles called “art cars” that may look like roving cup cakes, sea creatures, spaceships, covered wagons, a wart hog…most are simply indescribable. No form of commerce other than bartering is allowed and we bring gifts to share with other attendees which is a simple way of thanking them for their presence and participation. The lifespan of our park is only one week each year culminating on Labor Day. And at the end of the week, we take everything we brought, leaving no trace of our presence. That is Burning Man.
As the Burning Man website explains, the event is dedicated to community, art, radical self-expression and self-reliance. Each attendee must bring in everything they need including food, water and shelter. There are no hotels, so camping is the only option. I bring a bike, sleep in my plane on a twin-size air mattress and place gear in my adjacent tent. Many prefer the comfort of an RV. With temperatures ranging from the night time 40’s to daytime 100’s, it is a very hostile environment, so proper clothing and preparation is essential. The organizers provide grants which are given to artisans to create some of the core pieces of art. They also supply a “Survival Guide,” porta-potties, medical personnel, and a DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) who selects which vehicles are interesting enough to be allowed to drive on the playa. Other vehicles must remain parked for the entire event. Since caffeine is essential for playing into the wee hours of the morning, they also provide a central gathering spot to purchase coffee, tea and ice. These are the ONLY products available for sale as commerce is strictly forbidden. It’s such a pleasure to attend an event where there are no T-shirts or logoed cups being sold on every corner. Nevada law enforcement is present and will enforce laws (including the use of drugs) if they are blatantly ignored.
2011 was my 15th year at Burning Man. If you’ve never attended, I can guarantee that your expectations and preconceived ideas will be blown out of the water. My first year, I can remember my brain literally hurting from sensory overload within hours of my arrival. Every time I would think, “Nothing can beat that”, something even more amazing would catch my attention making sure that I didn’t attempt to make sense of any of it. Like most people, I eventually realized the futility of trying to turn my experience into something that was logical and familiar. At that moment of revelation, I took a deep breath and began to truly experience what Burning Man had to offer. What I found was an audio-visual cerebral banquet with every delicacy that the most creative minds on the planet could conjure up. And like any banquet, it was up to me to decide when, where, and how I would partake. No one will force you to eat the anchovies. However, they may present them in a way that is so fascinating that for the first time, you’ll consider trying them. Like many newbies, you may shock yourself to discover that you actually like them along with many other new experiences that veteran burners will make safe for you to explore. Then you may find yourself wondering, “Why didn’t I try that before?” The exponential growth of Burning Man is not just from media exposure; it stems from word of mouth. People attend, invite their friends, who invite their friends…etc. For many, it is an annual “not to be missed” ritual.
Burning Man is nirvana for creative types. This year there were 300 pieces of amazing art, countless art cars and theme camps. Part of the fun at Burning Man is hopping onto various art cars (some 100+ feet long), all the while dancing and socializing, or simply relaxing and enjoying a mellow ride. When not biking, I cruised around in MotoArt’s “Mile High Bed” which was fabricated using two DC-9 rear stabilizers and a C-130 inner flap. We motorized the bed, added light and music and bingo, it became a roving party! In two hours of cruising, we fished off of a pier, skated at the roller rink, lawn bowled, ate at the self-serve peanut butter and jelly stand, watched a burlesque show in the French quarter, were served tea by a Buddhist monk at his teahouse, helped pull a six-story thirty-ton Trojan horse across the playa, watched a giant killer whale fly through the sky and cried at “The Temple of Transition.” The temple is the emotional center of Burning Man where burners can mourn the passing of loved ones, seal unions or marriages and express themselves through the writings, art and photographs that they place on the walls. Few leave the temple without tears. The written articulation of deep emotional messages would move even a heart of stone. On Sunday, the temple is burned hopefully taking with it the anguish associated with the writings.
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