burningman '98 and '96

[Most of what follows is true.]

I visited burningman and took some pictures. Here are the 1998 pix:

Lego Camp

When I started building the mold for the giant Legos I hadn't thought of bringing them to burningman, but it was the obvious thing to do. Then I thought of checking www.burningman.com to see if anyone else was bringing Legos. Guess what, there was a Lego Camp. I dropped a line to Kevin and he welcomed me aboard.

We ended up getting 300 pounds of regular-size Legos from the Lego company, plus another 200 pounds from Weird Richard, who works at a Lego-themed school in Idaho. We had a bamboo shade structure and tables to build on. I think every kid in Black Rock City hung out with us, and of course a lot of adults visited too.

One BLM official remarked that he liked Lego Camp because "it's the only camp that's not sex or drugs related." I think he exaggerated a little - there was also Antarctica, the Shari Lewis shrine, etc. Plus he overlooked all the violence-related camps like the Mafia and U-Hurl. Still, it's not every camp that gets the BLM seal of approval.

We were in a little enclave called the NeighBARhood - we were actually supposed to be a Lego Viking bar, but the Viking part got lost somewhere. Across the street was Spock Mountain Research Labs, dispensing Vulcan Moonshine and HyperWhiskey. On the other sides we had the Celestial Sluts Saloon, the Cloud 9 pilot's bar, and Senor Spanky's Tijuana Tequila Nightmare. These were all barter bars - very little US$ exchanges hands at b.m.

Senor Spanky was great. I did the routine from Desperado where Steve Buscemi comes into Cheech's bar and tells the story about the mariachi with guns in his guitar case, and Spanky played right along. Except I changed the story so it was about a Santa Claus with guns in his bag of presents. And sure enough, five minutes later about thirty drunken Santa Clauses rolled into Spanky's, thirsty after a hard night's work of beating up clowns. Of course while the Santas were out cruising for clowns, the SCUG were looking for Santas. That's the Society for Cutting Up Gnomes.

Other Things I Saw

Two trebuchets. No Doggie Diner heads.

The weirdest thing I saw was a shipwreck. Some folks brought a giant sail-car, 50 feet long, 60 foot mast, wheels on two outriggers and a steerable wheel in the back. It was doing ok in maybe 5-10 knot winds, but then a clear-air windstorm came up, probably 40 knot winds. The land yacht was heading downwind, straight for the Fire Lingam. They might have been trying to turn into the wind but it wasn't very maneauverable. In the last second the folks on the land yacht were abandonding ship, and that actually caused the only injury - one of the jumpers got run over and his ankle was crushed. Here's his report. The Fire Lingam turned out to be amazingly strong - it was playa mud stuccoed onto wire mesh, and it absorbed all the energy with only a minor dent. The land yacht was totaled and had to be cut apart with a torch.

The IGC dome was pretty interesting. Thursday night I was wandering around the city and in the Irrational Geographic Society village I ran across a crew building this really big dome, about 50' in diameter. It was an unusual design too, not geodesic struts or PVC pipes but rectilinear beams. I watched for a while and they invited me to join in. Turned out I had a talent for the work, and soon I was clambering up and down this half-finished dome leaning and pushing to get the pieces to fit. It was like a huge 3D puzzle plus a climbing gym. We put up about half the dome that night, and the next night I came back and we did the rest. As we worked I got the story of the dome from the other folks - it was military surplus from Fort Ord, where it had been a projection screen for a really big flight simulator. There were reflective panels to mount on the inside once the framework was done. It was one of a kind, totally custom built, probably cost a couple hundred thousand originally, and they got it for $2000. Then someone mentioned the name of this group: Cloud Factory. That sounded familiar. And then ex WELL user <goolie>, a friend of mine, walked up. Oh right, this was the rave crew he was into. It was great fun building the thing. However I came back later when they had their sound and light systems installed and found that I didn't like the music they were playing at all. :-)

The Nebulous Entity

This is hard to describe. On a mundane level, it's a mobile sound system and sculpture. When I first saw it, it was just making weird noises. I wasn't particularly impressed. But that night I visited the tent of the Nebulons, keepers of the Entity. They examined me and probed me, and inducted me into the Entity's network. I didn't feel any different, at first.

Some hours later, around 2am, I was walking my bike through the city on account of a brief rainstorm having made the ground too soft to ride. I heard a faint but familiar sound off in the distance. If I had been biking I might not have heard it. It was a song from my childhood, a song about electricity. It was from a set of six "Science Songs" records I had played incessantly as an eight-year-old budding science geek. If you're a fan of They Might Be Giants you might recall a little ditty they sing about how "the sun is a mass of incandescent gas". That's originally from these same records. I dropped my bike and ran, trying to locate the source of the song. It was the Entity.

For the next few hours I stood entranced as the Entity played my favorite childhood records for me. It was glowing and pulsating and throbbing. I sang along, knowing every song by heart. "Friction, what is friction, friction, is the rub-a-dub-dub, rub-a-dub of objects that are moving", "There is no disputin' with Sir Isaac Newton", "Energy in motion is kinetic, energy that's waiting is potential", "Beep beep, beep beep, here comes a satellite", "And that's how a jet plane flies." At some point I began to wonder whether the other people around the Entity were hearing the same thing as I was. Maybe it was playing the science songs just for me, and playing something else for everyone else, something designed to attract only them. The Nebulons had told me that the Entity's purpose on Earth was to extract information from its initiates; maybe it was extracting the science songs from me!

Eventually the songs ended and the Entity went back to the random bloops and bleeps it was making when I first saw it. I wandered off to bed, puzzled but happy.

The Burning

The night of the actual burning did not turn out at all the way I expected. At 5pm I prepared by eating an early dinner along with some chem someone gave me a couple years ago that had been sitting in my freezer since then. I had no idea whether it was still any good but what the hell. What I expected was to bike around the city watching folks get ready, catch the Mermen playing at center stage, head out to the Man to watch the fireworks, bike around for a while watching the revelry, and then head for bed. Notice all the watching - what I expected was to be a spectator. But that's not what happened.

As I got on my bike to head out I heard someone call my name. I didn't recognize her at first - it was this woman named Claire who I had met exactly once, the previous week at a Lego Camp pre-party in SF. I thought at the time that she was Kevin's girlfriend. She had told me that she would not be going to burningman due to work, but here she was. She asked if I had seen Kevin, and I said not since that morning. We biked off together, randomly heading out towards the Man, talking about why she had shown up after all. Gradually the story came out - she and Kevin had met at burningman '96, had fallen in love immediately, and had gotten married right there at Spiral Oasis. Back in the world things had gone ok for a while, but then turned sour. They were currently separated but still talking.

At the Man pyrotechnicians were installing ordnance. Claire pointed out a rainbow in the western sky. I corrected her: it was not a rainbow but rather a sundog, an omen of good hunting. Then she mentioned that she'd like to visit Spiral Oasis. She wasn't sure what or who she'd find there but she wanted to see. That's when I understood how the evening would go - she was on a quest for closure, to reclaim her own relationship with Spiral Oasis and Burning Man. I was to be her spirit guide.

We headed back towards the city to look for Spiral Oasis. Partway back Claire spotted a spiral drawn in chalk on the playa; nearby was an arrow and some symbols. Could this be directions to Spiral Oasis? Neither of us could decipher it. We followed the arrow looking for more, but didn't find any and eventually just consulted the city map - there it was at Baltic & South 12th. (That was along the line from the arrow, by the way.) So we got to the Oasis. People were scurrying around doing final prep, dressing, makeup, glowsticks. Then they noticed Claire and stopped everything, running up for big hugs. We stuck around for five minutes, catching up, but clearly everyone was busy so we moved on. That's when the accumulated emotions hit Claire and she cried on my shoulder for a while.

We had ditched the bikes by then, and slowly walked around the city talking about ex's and stuff. The air was amazingly clear of dust. The sunset light turned the eastern mountains into buttermilk. The moon and an amazingly bright Jupiter rose, within a couple of degrees of each other. We wandered out to the Man again. People were starting to gather so we picked a spot and sat down. Green laser beams from the far north of the city gave the red&blue neon Man a pulsating halo. Nearby a group of drummers pounded away, while a buffalo god danced around them. Fire dancers cavorted around the Man. The four huge wooden spheres guarding him were kindled and their flames slowly grew. One by one the spheres collapsed into bonfires. Suddenly there was a man on fire on the platform underneath the Man. He ran around for a bit and then lit the Man.

In previous years the fireworks had gone off over a couple of minutes, spread out for dramatic effect as is typical for fireworks shows. Not so this year, instead everything went off at once. Maybe twenty thousand firecrackers all went off within the first second. A huge chunk of magnesium in the Man's head lit everything with pure white eye-searing light. Rockets and sparks everywhere. Everyone was on their feet screaming. Even the firemen were jumping for joy. The dancing, drums, and rockets continued as the Man burned. One arm fell, then the other. He danced, and then came down. The crowd surged forward forming a hellish conga line at the edge of the flames, circulating widdershins as people threw in more things to burn. Claire and I held onto each other so we wouldn't get separated. I saw the Nebulous Entity on the opposite side of the Man from us. We let the crowd carry us around and then broke off into the island of relative calm surrounding the Entity.

Claire had not seen it before so I performed a sort of field induction on her. Apparently it worked since she started responding to the instructions of the Nebulons. We helped push the Entity around the remains of the Man, sucking in more inductees from the crowd. When we had sufficient numbers the Nebulons directed us away across the playa. It was impossible to tell where we were, everything we could see was fire and running people, but we felt safe with the Entity. It was playing the same music it had originally sucked me in with, the Energy & Motion songs from my childhood; at least that's what I heard. I sang along and danced as I pushed.

After maybe an hour of random-walking around the desert, I noticed that the Entity had brought us to the Plastic Taj. Since this was near my camp and I was thirsty, I motioned Claire to split off. We thanked the Entity, checked out the Cathedral for a minute, then got a beer.

Other people were starting to filter back into camp now. At Cyberbus we hooked up with two of Claire's friends and wandered north into ravetown. We ended up following the green lasers to a monster rave, where we danced until I pulled a muscle in my leg. Claire helped me limp back to camp - she was my guide now. Partway there we ran into Kevin driving the Lego Jeep, and we sat on the hood while he drove us the rest of the way back to my tent.

We talked some more, and laughed to realize that we hadn't been out of each others sight since we met up eight hours before. She decided to head for bed. With my leg out of commission that sounded like a good idea to me too, so we said our goodbyes. But then I decided to see if I could ride my bike, since that uses some different muscles from walking. And indeed I could ride just fine. I was so happy about this that I caught up with Claire, hugged her again, and then biked all the way south to the Very Large Array, a sound sculpture, where I sat for another couple of hours watching the moon/Jupiter conjunction and the distant thunderclouds, and thinking about whether I had helped Claire find her closure.

And here are photos from 1996:

I also wrote my report on burningman '96 in haiku: (The userids are all well.com people.)

Go to burningman?
I dunno, it sounds too strange.
Yeah, I guess I'll go.

Highway 447
80 miles to Gerlach
Cop feeding frenzy.

Dust plumes in the dark
across the endless playa.
Are those lights ahead?

Wandering through Hell,
I pitch my camp with <raemo>
and his gang of queens.

Dawn's clear light reveals
what was featureless playa
now instant city.

Built a pair of bombs
Smoke and Heat - but remember:

<telenaut> took pix
of me cradling the bombs
like the Log Lady.

At Bartertown swapped
pix for wooden durian.
Jerod will like this.

Way too hot; let's go
slip-sliding into the mud.
Owie - cracked a rib.

Smoke and Heat went off
accenting the sunset.  Now,
gather round the Man.

Obnoxious angel
trying to do crowd control

<jenex> and crew come
bearing six-foot toast to burn.
It's Toasterrific.

So the flames begin;
he trembles, shakes, dances, and
down comes burning man.

Biking through the night
Strange sights - a life-sized Mousetrap?
Ten-foot rabid rat?

Everything is burned.
Not tired yet; feels like a
Wild Turkey night.

At Bianca's shack,
<judge>'s white slip distracts me.
Crash and burn and laugh.

Morning comes again,
full of ashes, trash, and dust.
Time to pull up stakes.

What's this in my nose?
A humongous black booger.
One last souvenir.
Yahoo's burningman page.
PlayaChicken.com, always lots of great burningman pix.
Another burningman '96 page.
Some nice pix of burningman '95.
Jef's page / Photos / burningman '98 and '96