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Burn One Down

By Michael A. Stusser
7.28.04

The guy across from our tent worked slowly and methodically for four straight days on his creation. As revelers partied all around him in nearby camps, he hammered and measured and sanded and varnished a gorgeous bamboo Tiki Hut, the center of which was a large, gleaming teak bar.

In his van - $1,000 of fine rum, fresh pineapples, umbrella cocktail stirrers - all the fixins for a blow-out luau party. On the last night of the festival, he put the final touches on the bar, lit the Tiki torches, and set an "Aloha" sign in the sand. He then proceeded to serve daiquiris and pina coladas to hundreds of New Age ravers, stopping only when the rum ran dry in the early hours. Pouring the last shot into a glass, he tossed that baby back, then burnt the whole thing to the ground. This is Burning Man.

The most amazing thing about Burning Man is the culture it has spawned - part Mad Max, part mad Marx, part munificent madness. No money is allowed to change hands at Burning Man, as all encounters are based on a "gift economy." There are no corporate sponsors hanging their banners, no Starbucks that litter the landscape. People come with what they need (water, some chow, sunny dispositions, and shelter from the elements) and something to contribute to the larger group as well: Like a roving carnival game of "Let's Make a Deal," everyone's a player as well as host, and a joke, smile or song will surely get you what you need from generous festival-goers.

There's a crucial distinction between bartering - a no-no - and the gift giving that takes place. "Dude, I'll trade ya a Mai Tai for a henna tat" is commerce, pure and simple. The point is to offer to all who roam the space - without the need for a reply. Trade (for services rendered) has no place on the playa. What goes around surely comes around here, and the "it's all good" state of mind never took on truer meaning.

Though I'd read quite a bit on BM and had friends participate, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. (The pictures just confused me - was it a St. Patrick's Day Parade, the Apocalypse, or a Mudwrestling Event?) I understood there'd be roving discos and nude hippies on bikes and sex in tents - but the ART is what took me by surprise.

Burning Man founders talk about creating a venue for radical self-expression - outlets where individuals can fashion bizarre and practical visions that can be shared (like gifts) with others: Amazing towering sculptures made of books - that can be borrowed. Self-reflective video installations. A human car-wash with bubble-bath scrubbers. A faux pond with solar lilies and sparkling fireflies. The most beautiful temple you've ever seen made of the spare parts from a wooden puzzle factory. A yellow ducky the size of Godzilla. Given the chance, human beings are wildly imaginative, looking for positivity and a way to express themselves.

Burning Man is a carnival for adults. Large groups often share responsibilities in a camp - cooking, cleaning and housing. But at Burning Man, camps have evolved to do even more, to become "Theme Camps" shared with participants, sometimes going to elaborate measure and expense to pull off their interactivity: Beauty Bars, Drama in the Desert, Roller Discos, Body Paints and Pasties. Members typically work shifts - handing out costumes, conducting glitter workshops, guiding meditations, DJ-ing, giving massages or blending fruit smoothies - and when they're done, it's time to enjoy and explore without a care in the desert.

I'll admit it - I was as excited as a four year old at the circus. (But I was 35, full of margies, and a circus veteran.) Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and my years at Berkeley paled in comparison to the goings-on, making my head spin before I was even around the first turn. I grabbed the bike I'd bought in San Francisco for $15 and headed down Dogma Avenue.

My first stop was about fifty feet from my campsite. "Advice Taken or Given," read the sign, and a young man in a robe waited to be joined. I stepped off the bike and sat next to him. "Hello. I'm Superprecious. Giving or taking?" I accepted some surprisingly good advice about my relationship with my brother, shared a lemondade and a hug, and hit the road to my next adventure. Along the way I had a splendid glass of tea from the roving Chai Rickshaw, received a temporary tattoo, hit the Kissing Booth (and volunteered on the other side for a spell), took in some amazing sculpture in the sand, ate from the Mobile Taco stand, got a Savings account at Karmic Savings and Loan (I have good credit), and ditched the bike for a giant couch lounge Art Car called Lotus.

Art Cars (approved with permits from the Department of Mutant Vehicles) are huge, often fire-belching means of transportation that cart folks around the desert at a snail's pace. Gorgeous and horrifying (some are made from skulls and chainsaws, others out of flowers and hemp), they're basically Booze Cruises created to see the sights and meet folks. Careful getting on and off ...

A group called the Animal Control Gang runs around in bright red jumpsuits, corraling stray "animals" - people dressed in animal costumes of any kind - and put them in a huge holding pen where they are alternately fed doggie biscuits (yummy scones) or beaten. One huge white rabbit ran in circles as a persistent Control officer chased him (her?) with a carrot dangling from a stick. Walking past the dozens of sad-faced furry beasts whimpering behind bars or trying to make a run for it was, for lack of a better word, zaniness.

Another favorite encounter came after a long bike ride out to the middle of nowhere, when I saw what looked like golfers far in the distance. I rode farther to find, lo and behold, the Move Your Turf Zone: a nine-hole course where caddies give players a small piece of green sod to hit off, then take with them to their ball - as the entire terrain is a sand trap. Something country clubs in Vegas and Palm Springs should clearly consider…

For those who desire structure, there's a schedule of events filled with fascinating performances, but the Festival is too random and unwieldy for that. Best thing is to strap a water bottle to your hula skirt and head out in any direction. Let the festival come to you. Be ready to give and receive. And make sure to take the Man back with you: Our civilization - or lack thereof - needs you.

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