We pass a beat up Airstream Trailer: “Burning Man Trauma Center” and drive up to the main entrance, where a dusty volunteer clutching a bottle of Miller High Life directs us to do something complicated, like spin some Rockfords around in front of one trailer, get out of our cars hopping on one foot and head to another trailer, then eat a bug. A bunch of Washoe County’s finest sit outside their Mobile Destruction Unit, eating doughnuts and keenly monitoring all transactions at the BM “ticket booth”. (I understand that shortly after the Festival opened, and once they realized that a Lot Of People would be showing up, county officials decided to seize all assets at the gate in hopes of immediately recouping the $300,000 in “protection” money they extorted from the organizers. Is that really legal? I guess so, in Washoe County at least. This is the county where Johnny Cash shot a man just to watch him die, remember.)
From this point, we’re directed to drive at precisely five miles per hour down a long and bumpy road (the road is lined at intervals with folksy hand-painted signs that say things like, “Whoa there, Dust Boy, 5 MPH!”). The road, as previously mentioned, is long, and by the time we finally get into Black Rock City proper, the sun is creeping over the horizon and casting big fire glows all over the neighboring Granite Range. Oohs and ahhs from the back seat as TCS whips out his new digital toy.
We drive around the whole camp and pick out a nice spot at the edge of the playa. It’s a really nice spot. Man, I wonder why no one else is camping here, because this is a really nice spot. So, all duh being equal and our brains now cracked open like eggs on a desert lake bed, we park (Ed pulls in his truck 30 feet or so from Evan’s Mighty 4Runner of Doom so we can block off Our Own Personal Space) and start to set up our stuff.
An hour or so later we have completed our personal contribution to the social life of the Playa, and so we celebrate by drinking early morning Heinekens, grabbing a jug of water each, and heading out across town to check out the scene. The argument “What will we encounter first, Art or Nudity?” is settled almost instantly, however, as the camp next door features a bald woman (“Look, Persis Khambatta from that bad Star Trek movie!”) doing yoga exercises while completely naked and not at all shy about it. Maybe that counts as both; I simply don’t know.
It’s only about 8 AM or so as we reach The Man, but Black Rock City is already buzzing with activity. It’s probably the heat, which is already well into the 90s — I remember all the helpful survival tips handed out at the gate (“Drink before you get thirsty... gulp, don’t sip) and start guzzling from my stylish Calistoga bottle. Evan, who is quite handy with knots, had made a clever shoulder harness for his water bottle; I tried to imitate the Mighty Pigdog Silverback and made a very clumsy one, which slipped off my shoulder several times before I decided that there simply is no elegant way to carry survival goods in the desert and stopped worrying about it.
The camp is busy, but serene. Far from the media-borne expectations I had arrived with of a big mud pit with Deadheads playing flutes, there’s a definite sense of order and purpose around here. Art installations are arranged out on the playa, while people camp further up on the “shore” or the “beach” — that’s what it feels like to me, anyway. Everything is oriented, in one way or another, around The Man, who sits rather forlornly by himself in a circle, on top of and surrounded by hay bales and other certain flammables. We check out some of the large scale art, like the Future Primitive and the big Balloon Tent with beds which we could never quite figure out what it was for (photos at right).
Another cool thing we found was the giant Cochlea, sort of a snail-shaped “birthing tract” deal. It started out with a real big entrance (fig. 1, below), then continued on, spiralling around and around, shrinking as it went, but doing this so gradually that everyone who snaked through it claimed they started to freak out and hyperventilate because the walls were seemingly crushing them in, until ultimately you crawled out the other end squirming on your belly, praying to whatever God you believe in to please let there be a second opening. I refused to enter the maze (beginning a disgustingly non-participatory trend for the weekend which I hope to atone for in part next year, by administering whittlin’ lessons at Jed Sanders Hillbilly Camp), because I knew I would get stuck because of my ogrelike size and become panicky and stand up and shake down the whole tentlike structure, and then whoever created it (a German guy, I think, and you know about their tempers) would find me and grab me by the neck and toss me up to meet Jesus.