The Virgin Burn
Black Rock City, Nevada
I’m crying not so much because I’m sad or happy, but rather because I’m quite overwhelmed. As I’m invited outside of my Ford Escape rental SUV, which has charioted me from Santa Barbara, up through Reno to bring me here, I wonder if the friendly, bandana-wearing woman in the dust-covered black taffeta skirt can tell. When she hands me a gong to ring the Virgin Bell, I, the Virgin, give myself a weepy welcome – home to a place I’ve never been before.
We’re 150 miles north of Gerlach, Nevada, past the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation, in the Black Rock Desert, temporary home of the annually constructed – and then destroyed – Black Rock City, which will be our playground for the next several days. With no commerce and no plumbing, no telephones and no Internet connections, 40,000 people live in absolute normalcy for days on end.
True, the rampant nudity, drinking, drugging and dancing are ever present and unavoidable, it also feels commonplace after a while – as do dust storms, porta potties, glow sticks, and the unobstructed five-mile view on this alkaline heavy dry lake bed known as the playa.
To those who can’t wrap their brains around the concept, the Burning Man Festival sounds like a hippie freak show love fest. But the debauchery is not of the Woodstock sort. Participants range from curious cubicle dwellers to artsy-fartsy types, looking for the orgy of the world, if only they were in control.
Maybe it is partly a freaky love fest with fringe members of society running around in leopard print skivvies and Mad Max boots. But for the most part, Burning Man is filled with like-minded doctors, researchers, writers, pilots, and engineers – lots of engineers – who are thrilled with the opportunity to be a part of this giant experiment in unfettered self expression, with the novelty of running around in leopard-print skivvies.
Church of Wow
At night, there’s the Soul System Orchestra playing beautiful, eerie music. Nearby is the Paddy Mirage Irish Pub. And then there’s the Church of Wow Rave. By day, Rob Brezny preaches Free Will Astrology. After dark, giant green lasers and booming techno music shoot out over heads and far off into the starry night sky, I’m guessing, somewhere near to where the Mothership is landing.
It was at the Church of Wow that I saw the one and only drunk person I would encounter at the festival. People are generally in control of themselves and considerate of their surroundings. Take, for example, the Critical Tits Parade – a several thousand woman bicycle procession that starts at the Man and cruises down the Esplanade – all in exaltation of the glory of the boob. Spectators are invited to cheer for, respect and love the large, small, pasties-covered, body-painted and exposed breasts, whose owners proudly pedal by. Awkward gawking is strongly discouraged. And rightfully so. This is a celebration, not a free show.
On the other hand, there is the ever present loud music when you are trying to squeeze in some sleep, even at four in the morning. Then there are the inconsiderate neighbors who pump up the volume of the ooh-ing and aah-ing and the porn they play 24/7 on their large flat screen televisions. Yes, flat screen televisions. In the middle of the desert, where there’s no running water and your money’s no good, there are speaker systems, pancake breakfast tents, cars disguised as two-masted pirate ships and flat screen televisions.
The playa is also a platform for fantastic art – giant, tiny, beautiful and silly art. And not expensive art. There’s no commerce at Burning Man (except for the coffee and ice cubes at Center Camp), making the concept of the gift a huge one. The art is a gift to you, the viewer, the participant in this liberated, cosmic gallery. Every free shower, hula hoop, necklace, or flag-twirling lesson that you receive – or give – is a gift, free of charge, which definitely heightens the appreciation factor.
The Man burns
Almost all of the art is burned, as is the Man, that wooden behemoth – electrified with blue neon light by night – at the center of the sort of organized chaos, a beacon of orientation in the dark desert night. The reason we’re here. Or at least he’s the namesake of this surreal/normal pagan festival that’s nothing like Lollapalooza or King Richard’s Faire. When the Man burns, he burns to the ground. It’s hard to find our way to our tented home without his largesse and blueness.
The day after the burn, it feels like a hangover, somber and slow. We ride our bikes around the playa to absorb art not yet seen. Past the temple of gravity, beyond the chandelier, and farther out than the house of cards, we spy an unassuming metal bowl sitting low on the playa. Next to the bowl is a gong with instructions.
Ring once for all who have suffered on the Black Rock Desert. Once for the community of Burning Man. And once for yourself.
In my case, this was for my soon-to-be non virgin self. It rang deeply resonant.