“This sounded like such a good idea when we were back in Savannah,” my friend Scott Meeker mumbled as we sat on the floor of our tent, snorting saline to sooth the chapped skin inside our noses.
The difficulties of going from Savannah, Georgia, to Black Rock Desert, Nevada, caught us off guard. We could handle the extreme daytime temperatures of the 400-square-mile dried up lakebed, a place where land speed records were challenged, but the aridity crushed our bodies as it sucked away every drop of moisture.
Storms of talcum powder-fine dust blinded us. The alkali dust on the ground caused paper cut-like cracks in our feet (called Playa foot) if we did not soak them often enough in vinegar.
But it was all good. We were at the annual Burning Man Festival. We were among 35,000 people celebrating artistic expression and radical self reliance. It was a fantasy world made real, and I happily dropped down the rabbit hole to get to it.
The festival was held at the end of August in Black Rock City, a community that existed for one week a year and then completely disappeared. It centered around a towering wooden effigy of a man. Imagine him as the center of a clock face.
Streets packed with tents, RVs, shade structures, stages, bike racks, makeshift kitchens, rows of green Porta Johns, and jerryrigged shower stalls (with solar-heated water and evaporation drain pans) formed half circle streets around the man from three to nine. There was a temple at 12.
Each year the street names changed with the annual theme. Our year was “Vault of Heaven” with streets named after celestial bodies. Through mutual friends, Scott and I joined the Big Puffy Yellow Camp located at Venus and Seventh.
Imaginations ran rampant
- Cars modified to look like giant bunny slippers, an Egyptian barge, a pirate ship and a lion fish with neon barbs that glowed under the starry sky.
- The back half of a VW van converted into a whole pig roaster.
- Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro.
- Panels of plywood arranged for rollerskating.
- Arching currents of electricity between a man and his Tesla coil.
- An igloo-shaped jungle gym where Goth warriors fought.
- Camps that gave away saki or clothes for playing dress up. (The only commerce at the festival is the sale of coffee drinks and ice at the Center Camp Café.)
- A marching band that played New Orleans jazz.
- People of every color, including red, green and blue thanks to kiddie pools of vegetable dye. I toyed with the idea of becoming green, but was too worried about not being able to remove the dye before I had to go back to work.
Costumes ranged from Cirque de Soliel performers to winged vampires on stilts to men dressed as naughty French maids. Many men wore Utilikilts (canvas-like fabric versions of a traditional kilt but with handy cargo pockets) paired with combat boots. A man in our camp named Lobster added a distinctive flame-colored fur bolero jacket to his ensemble. Though everyone kept goggles and dust masks within reach due to dust storms, clothing was optional.
“Want to do it?” I asked Scott as we watched naked bike riders of all shapes and sizes go by. “This may be our one and only chance to try it.”
“Yes!” he said, pleased that I was willing to shift from watching to participating.
“My body won’t always look this good.” I had slimmed down while I traveled and the demands of waiting tables kept my body toned. I had one reservation. Before I left home, my boyfriend Gene had playfully written above my public hair line “This belongs to Gene” in green Sharpie pen. Neither of us knew it would smear and within days look like I had a green mold problem.
At our tent, I stripped off my clothes, wiped at the ink with hand sanitizer, dipped my feet in vinegar and put on my straw cowboy hat with a tail of tiny rainbow-colored streamers.
“You want to wear this?” I asked Scott, holding out my other cowboy hat. It was covered in crushed velvet with a white and blue cowhide pattern.
“Let’s ride to the temple and back,” I said, laughing as breezes tickled exposed parts that were normally sheltered. Most of the ride was a vast openness. No one gave us more than a passing glance. It was liberating. It was also dangerous. The sun burned a few of my white parts.
Undaunted, I joined Burning Man’s tweaked version of San Francisco’s Critical Mass (a mass bicycle ride) called Critical Tits. The hundreds of participants were topless women. I rode with a vestige of modesty and protection, a floral scene painted on my chest.
Most nights I went to bed at a reasonable hour, worn out by wandering around the city, but one night I checked out the night life. Since I was staying at the Big Puffy Yellow Camp, I had brought a daffodil-yellow Cinderella type dress to the festival that I had found at a thrift shop in Charlotte.
The dress looked a little too cutesy sweet, so my campmates decided to wrap my waist and chest with silver duct tape until it formed a bustier. A borrowed tiara crowned my red hair. One of my Masai blankets draped over my shoulders. And into the night I went.
I roamed from camp to camp, meeting new people, exploring art, and marveling at outfits. Removing my duct tape bustier became a party game. I never saw a clock or a watch while I was at Burning Man, so I had no clue when I finally decided to go home. By then I had given away the puffy dress (replaced by trench coat), lost the tiara and gained a new appreciation for diversity.
Burning the man and the temple
The Burning Man Festival culminates with two firey events. The first is on a Saturday night. Scott and I joined the thousands of people in the vast flat space around the 40-foot tall wooden effigy of a man surrounded by fire spinners. Without guidance the crowd slowly circled it, making me think of the swirling bait balls of fish in the ocean. Anticipation smoldered. When the man slowly started to raise his arms, people acted like it was the ball drop in New York City. Fireworks within the man shot into the sky along with our cheers. Flames consumed his body.
The Asian-looking Temple designed by David Best burned on Sunday night. It was a spiritual place where all week long visitors sought peace, made peace, shared peace with themselves, with life, with loss, with gratitude. They wrote prayers on the beams, posted photos of lost loved ones, wedged prayer notes into cracks, send a message to the heavens. I tucked a rough draft of my travel book, “If your dream doesn’t scare you, it isn’t big enough,” into a cubbie hole, offering my words to the heavens in return for all the memories.