It Thunderizes Your Soul (windupbird’s adventures at burning man part 1)
Take one to the mountain
Take one to the sea
Take one to the belly of the beast
and then you’ll take one with me
Shut it, shut it on
Freezing in the fires
when I utter howl your name
once you return from the belly of the beast
you’re never quite the same
Shut it, shut it on
fire on the mountain
and it rages inside of your soul
the fire inside the belly of the beast
well it thunderizes your soul
Shut it, shut it on
So there we were in the dust on Monday night, three virgins to this crazy thing called Burning Man, sleep-deprived after a twelve hour drive, yelling at each other about where the goddamn rebar stakes should go for our tarp shelter that would serve as our home base. “The perfect is not the enemy of the good, dammit. Let’s get this thing up and go to bed!” My experienced Burner friend was getting bossy and short with us, and we didn’t want to doubt her. Her boyfriend, who was a rough and tumble Oregon mechanic with no BM experience but plenty of camping and fixit skills, was down to just grunting in disapproval, squatting in the dust with a mallet that wasn’t up to the task. We were all on our last nerve, sharing it like passed around a cigarette. Getting there was a bitch. My credit card was deactivated (temporarily it turned out) because of extra camping gear I purchased at the last minute that triggered some angry credit god. The Volvo gave us a scare outside a restaurant when it refused to start (the security system was to blame, lock the doors, unlock them again, car started right up) We were tired. Passing the driving duties back and forth so we could catnap was barely making it. But we did. How did I get here?
The last straw came last year, when a good friend of mine went for the first time (the 2009 burn), not really a camping or a roughing-it type, the sort of person who was very creative, very into costumes, but perhaps a little insular and suspicious of the hype. When I saw her after she went, she just grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me hard and grinned. “It’s anything goes out there man. You can’t even fucking believe it. You have to go.” I was used to hearing my desert-rat stoner artist friends talking about it, but they were a different breed, they reveled in putting themselves in physically demanding situations. I was a spongy nerd, I sat in front of a computer making little men for game companies, what the hell would I do out there? Turns out, quite a bit.
The first taste of Burning Man came when we were still in line to get in, my red Volvo 850R wagon inching along the playa outside of Black Rock City in tandem with hundreds of other burner vehicles. Lots of Subarus and Volvos, lots of vans. All with bikes lashed to them. I had never seen a Volkswagen Golf carrying five bicycles before. Lots of RVs, everything from 1970’s toyotas with little 16 ft. camper beds, to VW Westfalia vanagons, to ratty 70s winnebagos spraypainted with swirls and fairies, to neon green converted box trucks, to gigantic luxury coach class A monsters the size of greyhound buses. Arm out the window, cranking Hawkwind’s Chronicles of the Black Sword, making jokes with my fellow virgin who accompanied me, who’s known me since childhood. Then the wind picks up. Then the dust
Up go the windows, and white goes the windshield. Visibility is now near zero. The first dust storm of the trip! We sat in the car, watching it mutely, turning to each other with the universal Holy Shit look on our faces. My companion gets adventurous, puts on her ski goggles (3 bucks at value village!) and hops outside the car. Weird smelling stuff, that alkaline dust. She walks up and down the cars, passing other burners who have certainly seen this before. One guy is swigging from a tall boy of pabst, another is decked out like a go go dancer on expedition, shiny gold boots, goggles, scarf around the face. Cool shit. The first post-apocalyptic official vehicle I saw zoomed by the line, some sort of 80’s malaise-era Dodge with the roof ripped off, roll-bars, dashboard with exposed wires, painted gold, no bumper, ram prow, piloted by road warriors. Badass.
The dust subsided and we parked to hop in the Will Call Line. And then something happened which I am told is an unusual thing. It rained! The playa got cold, and everything turned to sticky mud, clay that grabbed your shoes. Cars can’t drive in it so well, so we had to sit until it dried a bit. After it did so, we slowly drove down the long road that leads into the city, signs every few feet for you to read about the nature of cities, of community, of metropolis. The sun was going down. We were virgins, so the greeter had us ring a giant bell and scream “I am no longer a virgin!” at the top of our lungs. Then we rolled into the city proper, into darkness. Much to our dismay, because it would make setting up camp a holy pain in the ass.
Monday came and went, we put up the tents and waited until morning to set up the shelter, a tarp and PVC pipe thing that looked like a moon base. Tents went under it, see, because without the shelter, the 110 degree sun would go through your tent fabric like the eye of sauron. After that it became a bit of a blur. I know how the story began, and how it ended, everything in the middle is a little jumbled up. Riding around on a bike I had just bought, wobbling around the playa (the lakebed that actual temporary city sits on) and cursing that I had scarcely ridden a bike since I was a teenager. The thing squeaked, the tires didn’t hold air. But fuck this place was amazing. Once I got some sleep and woke up in a good mood, all cylinders were firing. Sleep helps.
Tuesday saw us cooking ourselves some breakfast (so that’s how a propane stove works, hell yeah bacon and pancakes, in that order of importance) and venturing out in the obnoxious heat. Tents everywhere, RVs everywhere, strange and smiling people everywhere. Walk closer to the center of Black Rock City, where the man is (the event is burning man, the temporary town itself is called Black Rock City. Confused yet?) Everyone on bikes. And if they weren’t on bikes, they were on pedal trikes. And if they weren’t on pedal trikes, they were on motorized scooters, festooned with wings, with pink fur, with stripes, with flags, with fake ivy, with rabbit heads, with dragon heads, with funny placards. My bike had nothing but a easter basked I bought for a dollar ziptied to the handlebars, but it worked for getting me around.
I had sort of an alice/french-maid/amish pilgrim bonnet thing going on with my outfit as I shakily pedalled around the city. All through the week, burners dug on my costumes, and told me they couldn’t believe I was a virgin based on what I was wearing. Nerds who go to conventions often have a fondness for costumes, I explained. They nodded sagely. Stopped at a bar camp called BRCU. They had me spin a wheel, which landed on “booty shake” I obliged the bartender with the universally agreed upon dance and was rewarded with a gin and tonic. We chatted for a few minutes about how the winds were so bad last week when they were setting up, it ripped apart one of their carports and knocked out one of the campmates trying to hold the poles down. But it was so calm now! He laughed. “Everything can change, man.” As I left, a very well built woman who was part of the camp elbowed me. “Nice apron, I got a toilet that needs cleaning!” “I’m off duty!” I proclaimed. She laughed. A giant pink cat on wheels the size of a Mack Truck rolled by, its head swivelling, water firing out from under its tail. “She’s marked you, man!” the guy piloting the creature called out. I think I could get to like this place.
Days are great at Burning Man, though everything moves slow. The heat just slows you down, and the theme is generally relaxing, conversation, offering drinks and ice and mists from a pressure sprayer to grateful passers by.
Nights are a bit different.
When night falls on Burning Man, it’s like God plugged the video arcade in. It turns into a pinball machine, and the ball’s 20 feet high and rolling towards you. The dance camps get going. Music carries across the playa, a hundred beats echoing across the dust. Art cars are lit up like christmas trees, like characters from video games, thundering music and roving down side streets. Everything glows. The people glow. The bikes glow. The camps glow. There’s this wire called Electro Luminescent Wire, and most everyone has some on their person at night. it’s like flexible neon. The less-creative just wind it around themselves or their bikes so they can be seen. People without any light on them on the playa at night are called “darkwads”. it’s frowned upon, because of safety. If everyone’s a light source, those that aren’t are invisible, and in danger of being clipped by a bike or an art car. I knew all this, because of my obsessed veteran Burner friend who prepared me over drinks at karaoke. I had purchased a ton of it to make costumes with, I was going to try and do this right! Between me and my campmates, we had glowing horns, glowing PVC maid dresses, tails, wings, palm leaves, rice paddy hats festooned with spirals, we were pretty decked out. And that’s not counting the three insanely elaborate neon bird costumes we came armed with. It was all so very William Gibson. I was right there in the matrix, living some sort of cyberpunk hallucination.
More to come!
Shriekback: Everything’s On Fire
You all get up and make the tea, everything’s on fire
You kiss your lover tenderly, everything’s on fire
Horny little devils, happy little souls
Might as well put your faith in rock and roll
The bed you sleep on’s made of coal, everything’s on fire
Yo anorak boys in archive land, everything’s on fire
Get all the backup that you can, everything’s on fire
Optical and hard disk smouldering away
Nothing gonna keep the fire at bay
Protect your data while ye may, everything’s on fire
Pretty little things out on the scene, everything’s on fire
Burn up fast as gasoline, everything’s on fire
Supermodel cheekbones, equity and cash
Milliseconds later piles of ash
Don’t take no time to bang from flash, everything’s on fire
Everything around you gonna fry, everything’s on fire
You can’t extinguish although you try, everything’s on fire
Hit them with a hose pipe, throw ‘em in the sea
Stick ‘em where the deluge gonna be
Still burning up as far as I can see, everything’s on fire
Everything’s on fire
Everything’s on fire
Everything’s on fire
Everything’s on fire