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An Elder On The Playa

Why, a reader might ask, would a perfectly sensible woman old enough for Social Security allow herself to leave the peace and quiet of Comptche for a trip into the inhospitable middle of no place in Nevada for the Burning Man Festival? Simple answer? Curiosity. As a retired librarian I’ve always enjoyed watching the human parade and what better place to do that than in the most amazing party on earth.

For years my sister and daughter tried to get me to go to Burning Man with them and I’d rejected the invitation. First, I’m not particularly artistic or musical and second, I’m on crutches and the Black Rock City is three miles wide. That means a lot of walking. But then someone turned me on to the Black Rock City Department of Mobility, a camp for the disabled sited right in the center of everything. After e-mail correspondence with the camp coordinator I thought “What the heck...” and threw my name into the ticketing lottery and promptly got a ticket (at over $400) in the first drawing.

Along with survival planning for the event I became familiar with the 10 Principles that govern this event. I won’t bore you with listing them all but let’s just say that for anyone who was a hippie in the 1960’s there is a lot we’d relate to...radical self reliance, civic responsibility, communal effort, self expression, participation and leave no trace land use. For those unfamiliar with the Burning Man Festival there are 50,000 campers and the organization sells two things, coffee and ice. Everything else you bring in with you and pack your trash out with you. Your ticket price pays in part for the infrastructure you live in as part of the third largest city in Nevada for a week. Campers bring water, shelter, food, costumes and come ready to party.

I tired without luck to gather statistics about what it took to keep 50,000 people safe and happy on a dry lakebed. With 26 years of practice and a gazillion volunteers it’s an evolving work in progress. The Black Rock City Department of Public Works literally builds a maze of roads with city block long campgrounds, gets a thousand porta-potties in place and the people to service them, builds shaded gathering places, places 242 art instillations on the playa, gets power to where it is needed, develops emergency services and a volunteer fire department, offers 24/7 radio broadcasting and lines up volunteers to answer questions. It’s an impressive undertaking. I’m also in awe of the Black Rock Rangers. These non-confrontational mediating entities were between every cop and every suspect the cops questioned keeping everything calm and mellow. Rangers knew what the rules were and explained them if you were dazed and confused.

My hometown Comptche has a couple hundred people scattered through miles of forest. Black Rock City had 50,000 people in five square miles. Everything you could find in an urban city that size you could find on the playa with one surprising exception. Remember that coffee and ice? That’s the only thing that requires cash. You’ve entered a gifting economy. People don’t barter but they give or share. In many ways it was like a giant 1960’s hippie commune. Everyone worked together and shared what they had. You could share food, skills, shelter, artwork, hugs or laughs, but money never entered the picture. I had made stone bead necklaces I swapped for everything from sno-cones to Margaritas.

I’m of the wrong generation to have ever been in a rave, but I’ve been to love-in’s. Yes, alcohol and recreational drug ingestion reached heroic proportions there, but so did the level of hugs, smiles and laughter. My guess was 75% of the revelers were in there 20’s and 30’s, but we elder burners were considered cool. My daughter laughed at the number of times someone said “You brought your MOTHER to Burning mother would never do that...” (Please note daughter and I did not camp together, but near each other).The Mobility Camp I was in was half full of elders with disabilities and half full of younger disabled people and their attendants. We all got along great.

I can honestly say that I have never been hugged more in one week in my life by total strangers. I have also never seen more naked people in one place. My one disclaimer to any elder considering a first time visit to Burning Man is that you’ve go to be comfortable around naked bodies 24/7. Not just partially clothed, buck naked, though shoes were commonly worn as alkali dust dries out your foot skin. After the first day you get used to it and nudity makes the passing human parade more interesting. My daughter talked me into participating in the Critical Tits Bike Parade, a 17 year old tradition at Burning Man. Imagine thousands of women covering miles through Black Rock City letting it all hang out. There were entire camps dedicated to decorating the female form in paint and pasties for the parade. With creative use of large flower stickers, clear packing tape and sparkly string I made myself minimal coverage for my aging form to provide some modesty. Needless to say there were thousands of men, and cameras, along the parade route cheering the mothers, daughters, sisters, and grannies as they passed. I got sunburned.

Did I mention the sun? We were blessed only to be in the 90 degree temperature range daytimes but the playa had only six inches of moisture this past winter and dust storms were a daily occurrence. Alkali playa dust actually formed mini dunes in the wind and got into everything and inhibited mobility equipment moving through the playa to see the art. I don’t think words can express the impossible art you see. Photographs could. Honestly, never had I seen such creativity of every form in one place. The 160 page “Who-What-Where” guide told you about events daily and the accompanying art map showed the way to more than 240 art installations you could visit. Word of mouth directed you to really impressive ones, and many of these burned.

The statue of the Man, the Temple of Remembrance, and core art instillations go up in flames. Some burn with cheers and some burn with tears. I’m only a first time burner so I can’t comment on this fascination with burning down exquisite art, but that’s what happens at Burning Man. A wooden temple with southeast Asian art influences honors the memory of souls lost, both human and pet. Remembrances in word, photo and art are left to go up in smoke. Lost to us this year was Ryane Snow, an extraordinary teacher to my daughter and I, and we left a drawing of a Chantrelle mushroom and abalone shell as offerings in his memory. I sat in a circle of probably 20,000 people on a Sunday night in absolute silence and reverence as the temple burned. At my age I’m not given much to use the word awesome, but it was. It’s hard to watch something as beautiful as the temple disappear into smoke and ash but burning it is supposed to help people move beyond grief over loss. It was a uniquely moving experience I will never forget.

Our camp took disabled people on art tours pulling a trailer with seating for 12 and wheelchairs behind a golf car. We’d drive all over the playa to art instillations you’d never reach pushing a wheelchair or walking on crutches. We hauled people from all over the world on our tours and reporters visited our camp for interviews about our services. We passed out crutches to people who hurt themselves having fun and took the walking wounded to the fully staffed medical center for help. For me though, I just enjoyed watching the human parade. Take bicycles...decorated to look fuzzy and furry...or look like fish, or swans, or ponies, or flower gardens. There was a “Pimp Your Bike” camp to decorate your bike. The festival theme was Fertility 2.0 and there was a bike covered to look like a sperm and it was constantly chasing a bike that looked like an egg all over the road in front of our camp .A man passed with his bike pulling a big stuffed bear in a red wagon, followed by 10 littler stuffed bears in 10 tiny red wagons stretched out behind him. Burning Man specializes in art cars and mutant vehicles to diverse to describe here, but Mendocino’s Larry Fuentes and his fantastical art cars would fit right in.

Like any kind of big city every kind of human activity was offered. Every sport had a camp and an event. There was a library, newspaper, post office, beauty shop, barber, a Farmer’s Market, dance classes, comedy clubs, AA meetings, church, solar recharging stations, movie houses, yoga sessions and someone doing singing telegrams, without money ever changing hands. There was even a ACLU office if you got a ticket. (And yes, the cops were ever present). Every kind of food and drink was available someplace and there were social events galore. I went to a Librarian’s Cocktail Party, to which I brought an excellent single malt Scotch, and met 20 younger librarians, half of whom were men. There were never ending educational events. I enjoyed a lecture on Black Rock Playa geology and one night my daughter’s camp was debating an evening presentation on United Field Theory or the Visionary Art of Alex Gray. They wanted to learn something new for an hour or so, then party all night long.

It’s noisy in Black Rock City. There are large scale sound camps at the far edges of everything with speakers the size of VW busses. One type of bass music is called dubstep that pounds in the background day and night. I slept in a tent with no sound protection but exhaustion and single malt scotch helped me sleep.

Before the Temple burned I went out with a few thousand of my new best friends, most of who had been up all night, to watch the sun rise over the playa. With John Lennon’s “Imagine” playing over a mobile sound system we listened in silence to lyrics we loved as the sun rose over mountains to the east, then everyone cheered. Here’s another lurid note of interest for readers. I never saw a sex act on the playa. Admittedly I only walked and drove through about a quarter of Black Rock City, and I’m sure it was going on all around me, but not in public where I was. Like any metropolis there were neighborhoods for everything.

Also, I got flogged (politely) by a man in pirate garb. What? An elder librarian being flogged? The youngster had a whip with a leather lash in the tip and he flailed at my arm gently with a piratical “Arrgh” as he wandered by. I can now add being flogged to my life list of things done along with drinking from a ShotSki. Envision a cross country ski painted with neon pink glow in the dark zebra stripes with shot glasses glued to it and my bottle of scotch close by .I again was the hit of my daughter’s camp pounding one back with the youngsters.

The end of the party is called Exodus and I joined it Monday afternoon headed for Reno. Before leaving the playa you could turn off at Collexodus and unload extra food, water, booze and non-perishable food for the volunteers who will clean up the playa for another month. I was thrilled and startled when I saw a green tree again. Mown grass the next morning outside my motel smelled intoxicating.

Before I went to Burning Man I joked this was a one time only “bucket” list thing I was doing. After all, who wants to spend precious vacation time frying your brain out past the edges of the known world. But Burning Man pulls you in. What will next year’s art instillations look like? Will I meet old friends? What wonders await me? So, yes, I’d go again. Maybe not for eight days but I’d go again. And to anyone out there of any age considering the idea, I found Burning Man life affirming. If you can deal with nudity and you like art and the human race it can be an unforgettable experience. No matter what your physical condition there’s help available, given with a hug and a smile. It reaffirmed my faith in my fellow man and I had one hell of a good time.

One Comment

  1. Dickey Weinkle September 14, 2012

    Ms. Katy, You have written beautifully about your experience.

    Please come to the Alternative Energy Zone next burn M-F, 11:03 AM for our fabulous educational tour. This year we were @6:45 between D and F.

    I had the pleasure of celebrating my Burn Mitzvah this year.

    Hugs, Cousin Dickey
    aez diplomat

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