Burning Man 2009 Day 1
– by Shawn Conner
It was the middle of the desert in late afternoon, and I was sipping a home brew at an outdoor bar when up walked Iron Man.
We’re not talking a mirage, or a London Drugs Halloween costume approximation; we’re talking as close a replica as you’re going to get without the expertise of a team of well-paid Hollywood technical wizards. Sure, the dude inside the armour could barely move – when someone wanted a picture with the outfit with his arm extended, the superhero needed help raising the limb. (My favourite line, perhaps of the whole week; a guy who wanted his picture taken with Iron Man sez to guy in suit: “So, you looking forward to the new movie?”)
I never saw Iron Man again, and no one I talked to mentioned having seen him. Then again, there are a lot of bizarro blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments at Burning Man, as anyone who’s been can tell you. And as those who were there in the early days of the 23-year-old arts, music and spanking festival never get tired of telling you.
As organized as a Republican convention
The old-timers have a point, though. It’s a wild place, and back in the early days it must have seemed like the last outpost of freakiness. But any sense of anarchy is missing now (though it’s still dangerous for drugged-up daredevils. More on that later). The thing is as organized as a Republican convention; it’s just that the party members wear tutus, superhero outfits and bodypaint. When we drove in, for instance, we were directed easily and handily to the box office to pick up our tickets, as though we were lining up for a Bruce Springsteen concert.
I have no previous Burning Man to relate this year’s to, however. This was my first time; after a decade of hearing about it and waiting for someone to invite me along to share their RV, water and drugs, I realized I would have to take matters into my own hands, sans RV and drugs. And so I found myself sharing my Ford Escort, packed to the gills with supplies, with a couple of guys I’d met on Craigslist, Eric and Jim.
After leaving Vancouver before sunrise Sunday (Aug. 30) morning, the three of us arrived at the line of cars and RVs snaking into the Black Rock Desert encampment, aka “Black Rock City”, sometime in the middle of the following night. Dawn was a few hours from breaking when we joined the mile-long convoy, many of the vehicles loaded down with bikes. Eric, a cruise ship pianist, had insisted that bikes were a necessary part of our survival equipment, if only to get from party to party. Thanks to Eric, who’d experienced Burning Man once before, in 2005, the feeling of anticipation in the car was high, owing to his insistent “You’ve no idea, you’ve no idea” hyping of the event, usually followed by a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head.
It was early enough that most campsites were just going up when we finally entered the camp itself, which was already hot and dusty at eight or nine a.m. Nevada time. Eric had been in contact with a group organized around “the Blue Buddha bus” and Jim, a stringbean bike enthusiast with his own IT companuy, was looking for his girlfriend’s camp, but neither had a clue where either might be. So we pitched our Wal-Mart tents in a lot next not far from a row of porta-potties.
DNA and 7:30
We found camped at the corner of DNA and 7:30, which requires some explaining. This year’s theme at Burning Man was Evolution (last year’s was American Dream; next year’s, Metropolis), and so the latitudinal “streets” had names like “Adapt”, “Biology”, “Chaos”, etc. Black Rock City itself, the week-long home to Burning Man, was arranged like a half-clock, from 12 to 12. Center camp, a wide Main Street sort of area, was between five and six, I believe. Beyond the tent and crescent-shaped RV city was the rest of the playa, an expanse of bleached white hard-packed dust erupting with art projects, a temple and the Man himself; suspended atop a two-story foundation, he reached (a rough estimate) 70 feet off the ground.
My first morning, I brought out the Polaroid camera as I wandered the dusty streets.
A big part of Burning Man is “gifting”, and my plan was going to take pictures and give people Polaroids. An impulse buy from a costume/clothing movie set prop clearing house visited the afternoon before in search of BM-ready outfits (Eric was determined to find a furry gorilla vest), the blue 600 model camera was my first Polaroid. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had time to look for more film before leaving the city, and my big gifting idea hit a snag after four pictures when the film ran out.
Fortunately though there was a bar, the Duck Pond, set up just around the corner, and already serving at 10 in the morning. What’s more, the drinks were free. Was I in heaven?
Sleep patterns gone awry
My sleep patterns were, inevitably, fucked from driving all night and sleeping almost not at all the night before. But Monday, the first day, was spent getting to know our camp neighbours, Orel, Daria and Assad. Orel and Daria had made the trek from Israel and hooked up with Assad in San Francisco. All had dreadlocks. Assad offered to apply some bodypaint immediately upon meeting me and, this being Burning Man, I said sure. He applied some colourful applique to my left arm while I drank the girls’ cheap wine.
Eric, Daria, Orel and I spent the rest of the day and evening exploring the Esplanade. The Esplanade is sort of like a boardwalk, if the desert was water instead of sand. If you get my drift. Most of the big action occurs here; you can get spanked, jump on a trampoline, catch a ride on one of the increasingly numerous art cars, dance, visit a bar for stilt-walkers or get into spun around in a giant cube-shaped chamber with strobe effects attached to your eyes.
Maybe I had died and gone to heaven… (next: no I hadn’t!)