August 29th, 2006

Red googles matching eyes

Burning Man 4: Burning Man!

One final luxurious shower (each, obviously), and we were off. As we approached the site, the roads became narrower, more primitive, and more choked with hippies. It was like time-travel. Certainly the meal that we stopped for seemed to hale from a time before the concept of customer service, and possibly before that of cookery. At least it made us positively relish the prospect of a week of meals prepared in a tiny RV from disturbingly cheap ingredients.

The last outpost of civilisation was normally just a gas station and shop. For this week, however, that was merely the core of an eclectic temporary market, selling last-minute essentials such as bikes and fairy wings. We stopped for a look and seriously considered buying bikes, but thrift prevailed and we pushed on.

No matter how damn alternative it aspires to be, any popular festival will involve queuing to get in. The novelty of a queue consisting of an endless line of vehicles on a dirt track in the blazing desert sun wore off fairly fast. However, at least the organisers had anticipated this. The posts which served to define the otherwise arbitrary limits of the track were each decorated with a quotation, from luminaries ranging from Shelley to Buckminster Fuller to Gibson. This was a nice touch. Clearly some anonymous people had gone to a lot of time and effort simply to provide momentary amusement to random passers-by. This set the tone of the festival rather well.

We collected our tickets, only slightly unerved by the small-print informing us that we had accepted a risk of death or serious injury, and stopped to admire a marvelous car that had been covered, literally, with glued-on toys, knick-knacks and tchotches, like a mobile version of cleanskies' shelves. Before long we ran a short gauntlet of friendly stewards offering sensible advice about drinking water and hand-washing, and we were at the entrance. Our tickets were checked, but there was one last barrier to overcome. As first-timers we were obliged to disembark by a pretty woman in a bikini, boots and shades. Each of us in turn had to hit a gong, bellow "My name is [name] and I am a virgin", and hug the pretty woman. Luckily, I had the perfect background for performing such tasks. While I was growing up, my Dad had thoroughly inoculated me against all but the most dire mortification, and living with tinyjo provides constant hugging practice. I thus carried out the ritual gamely, and though my shout was criticised for poor projection, my hug drew an admiring "Ooh, you're good". An auspicious start.

We drove inside, and tooled around aimlessly until we realised that we had no idea what makes a 'good' site at Burning Man, so just parked somewhere with space. bluedevi had inexplicably chosen to bring a tent rather than share a cramped RV with three men, so we helped watched her put that up. It became clear that banging rebar tent pegs into hard-baked ground would be a lot easier with a tool of some kind and, looking around, with this in mind, it was obvious that our nearest neighbours were our go-to guys. After all, nothing says "Yes, we have tools" more emphatically than two oldish guys rigging a shower system onto the side of their RV whilst clad only in sandals and toolbelts.

Bravely entering into the spirit of things, bluedevi wandered over to the naked dudes and asked to borrow a mallet with a creditably casual air. As is so often the case, things did not pan out as pornography might lead one to expect. Instead she returned with the mallet and had her tent up in short order. The sun was falling, our shit was as together as it was going to get; it was clearly time to sally forth. First, of course, we had to dress up. Actually, mr_snips had opted for his usual eminently practical jeans, t-shirt and sturdy shoes; by way of contrast, Dad had bought some gold lamé and leather but some assembly was required before he could actually wear it. I upgraded my usual look from indie-kid to road-warrior with the power of accessorising: namely a pair of goggles, a leather and duct-tape trenchcoat, blue rubber kneepads (one on the shoulder, one on the opposite knee) and a plastic baseball bat wrapped with 'CAUTION' tape. bluedevi opted for a flowing skirt and goggles with trailing ribbons attached, for an effect that we later classified as 'post-apocalyptic Liz Bennet'. With a fistful of Dollar Tree glowsticks each, we set out in search of excitement, adventure, and really wild things.

For want of a better plan, we decided to head out to the eponymous Man. The pace was slow as in every direction there was something demanding the attention, and we ricocheted gawping, reading and smiling our way down the thoroughfare toward the centre. It soon became clear that necessity is not the only mother of invention. Many people had put enormous amounts of time, effort and ingenuity into projects with no purpose but to entertain, or inspire, or baffle. Art, then, I suppose, but atypical even by eclectic modern standards. We saw a car that had been accessorised and completely upholstered to look like a cat, like some unholy motorised Bagpuss. We saw a vast see-saw / roundabout which traced out a ten foot high standing wave with bouncing, spinning people. We saw an astonishing diversity of bikes: with three or four wheels, with two or more pilots, with chariots, with amplifiers, with duet recitals of T.S. Eliot, with plumes of flame from propane tanks; shiny, furry, luminescent and noisy bikes.

Eventually we left the inner circle of the festival and entered the enclosed central clearing in whose heart stood the Man, glowing cold blue on his plinth. We were drawn through the darkness, and through sudden surreal shoals of bikes, mutant vehicles, and other pedestrians. I felt like a deep sea diver, seeing creatures whose existance was hitherto unsuspected by man. As one would hope, we learned much from our pilgrimage into the interior. For example, judging distance is difficult in the desert twilight. As we advanced, we were forced to continually reassess our sense of the Man's scale. This induced an odd effect in which he remained the same apparent distance from us, but grew ever larger and brighter. It was a positive relief to get close enough to see people in front of the plinth, and thus fix his size before he filled the entire sky. By that time, it was clear that he bestrode a two-storey wooden complex, partly enclosed and filled, we found, with surprises: soundscapes, distorting mirrors, and a room that could freeze your shadow. In the centre was a dial with its pointer tracing the festival's mood-swings between Hope and Fear (this being the official theme of the week). Connected (at least ostensibly) were two buttons allowing the observer to register a vote in one direction or the other. Apparently the Man would raise his arms if the predominant mood was Hopeful, but at present Fear was slightly ahead and they remained slumped by his side.

From the spiritual (and literal) centre of festival, we decided to head to the logistical centre: Central Café. This is the one place on site where one can spend money (albeit only on ice or coffee), so we were able to indulge in conveniently combined shots of capitalism and caffeine. We sipped these as we explored the area, enjoying the sight of giant metal mesh sculptures of people posed by the entrance, and of a pretty lady striking Pilates postures in the centre. Having recovered our equilibria somewhat, we wandered back towards the RV.

Things were properly dark by this point, and we found to our surprise that we were in an environment in which glowsticks were no mere frivolity. When wandering down an unlit thoroughfare shared with cyclists, drivers and other pedestrians, it is essential to be as visible as possible. This is even more important if, for example, you keep stopping to stare in oblivious awe at the astonishingly multitudinous stars, the cyclist's night-vision is compromised by the sporadic gouts of flame emitting from the propane tank mounted on the back of her vehicle, the driver's sight is obscured by a mask and two people lounging on his bonnet, and some of your fellow pedestrians are so high they don't know which way is up.

Some of my other costuming elements that I had thought of as mere affectation also proved unexpectedly practical. My goggles were not just a Mad Max-esque accessory when the dust storms reduced visibility to a couple of metres; and even my knee and shoulder pads came in handy for holding torches, glowsticks and cups. This serendipitous convergence of frivolity and practicality set the tone for the festival rather nicely.

We successfully navigated the polar co-ordinate system back to our RV and discovered that we'd parked unnervingly close to the 'Department of Spontaneous Combustion', who looked to be responsible for at least some of the flame-belching hell-cycles which we had encountered earlier. At least the sporadic explosions made a convenient landmark. By common consensus, it was time for an early night. After all, if dreams are your brain's attempts to process the day's new experiences, we all had a lot of dreaming to do...