How NOT to Go to Burning Man
First, instead of in a coach full of partiers, find yourself heading to the desert with your sister – to whom you have always been the soul of propriety – and just one other traveler whom you don’t know well and who is also a psychotherapist.
It’s fine if you want to carry with you everything you can possibly need for a week – you have to – but remember to bring along an incompletely conceived art-project doomed to failure. Make only a nod to the theme of that year’s event – Theater of the Body – and load up the vehicle with boxes and boxes of surgical gloves and a single tank of helium for your installation, Hands Across the Desert. Or was it Lending a Hand? Or was it Let’s Shake Hands? For some reason I can’t get it straight.
Equip yourself with miles of silver ribbon that you have not tested as a closure for the gloves. Assure yourself that there will be no problem inflating thousands of gloves from the helium tank through the glove-sleeves and that there will be even less problem tying off the sleeves with slippery pieces of metallic ribbon. The idea is that you will string these floating hands that you will have sprayed with reflecting paint from your vehicle to all the neighboring vehicles. Forget to bring the reflecting paint.
Then get in the clean, well cared-for motor home that you have invested way too much after-market money in and drive her directly into the heat of the desert without having waxed her against sun and sand. Watch the temperature gauge climb and pray that you don’t get vapor lock miles from the nearest phone or road. Smile wanly to your passengers and fuss unnecessarily about small things like whether someone’s useless cellphone is plugged into the right electrical socket.
As you get closer to the site, notice that every one of the other vehicles is older, dirtier, or more covered with artwork than yours. Compare your 35-foot coach carrying three people to the 14-foot vehicles carrying 5, bulging with makeshift bags and tents. Feel like a spoiled idiot. Smile somewhat more genuinely as you approach the gate and see that you are not being greeted with derision.
When the bearded, skirted man working security asks whether he can climb on the roof to check for stowaways, consider your options: If you say no, you will forever humiliate your passengers and will be turned away at the door. If you say yes, a dent may be formed in the delicate skin of your motor home. Opt for the second alternative … and the resulting dent.
Then join the exuberant cheering and chanting at the entrance with the forced hilarity of the Republican Whip at a Log Cabin (Gay) Republican fundraiser. Drive through columns of attendees greeting participants from previous Burnings Man and soaking up all the available camping space. Then insinuate yourselves into a spot and notice your free-love neighbors eye you with suspicion and disappointment.
Watch your sister and her friend change into their Burning Man clothes. Realize that you haven’t owned anything like Burning Man clothes in your entire life, let alone know how to compose a fetching ensemble. Tell them you don’t really feel like going for a walk and take a nap instead.
By nightfall, your sister has returned with Reports From Afar and you are getting your second wind. As the sun sets marking the commencement of the evening’s extravagant goings-on, hum weakly as the camp ululates to greet the night. Ransack your closet for something to pass as Burning Man Clothes and remember with relief that you, too, have brought some blinking, luminous gadgets.
One of the marvels of Burning Man is the transformation of the night. It is truly magical. From all over the round camp emerge dancing figures etched and sculpted in light-wires, colored lights that can be bent and shaped to any desired form. With her foresight (and past experience) your sister has brought some blinking witches hats and glow-tubes that can be worn around the neck and arms. Layer them on, hoping no one notices your conventional attire.
Follow the crowds to the true center of camp, a huge, circular area reserved for art installations. There are 30-foot castles made of sculpted, folded paper; rounded futuristic plastic chambers of light and sound; a 20-foot luminescent skull on wheels; and dozens of visual jokes motorized and not. The desert literally pulses with sound; you can feel it in your tissues, as though a shared heart were bursting through your skin.
For a couple of hours you wander around and grab a ride on the occasional dragon only to stall for long periods of time while mechanics work on the machinery. When you tire of this, it’s off to bed.
The next day or two pass similarly, with much lounging done around the motor home during the day. (Remember I said RVers like to stay close to the mother ship?) The sun is hot and most people sleep in after the night’s revelries. Get up early because you keep forgetting to attend the night’s revelries and entertain yourself by reading the New Yorker under the striped awnings and by trying to inflate the surgical gloves, to no avail. You have achieved only long strands of flaccid hands, dangling obscenely among local tent posts. It has become obvious quickly that you have bombed on the art part, all that’s left is to try to mingle adequately with the crowds.
But there is another development. It’s the dust. The motor home looks powdered, then generally lighter in color, then drifted, as the dust from the desert accumulates in every possible crevice. Your hair, unteased, takes on a consistency usually accomplished once a year at Halloween and only with hours of hairspray. Things taste gritty. Even the liberal use of water – a hoarded resource – only creates a paste.
You can’t be sure exactly how all the days pass. Your photographs will be strangely timeless; only one thing, your hair, an expanding fright wig, marks the passage. Finally, on Saturday prepare to go. Wave goodbye to your neighbors, still as puzzled about you as when you arrived, and head back to civilization.
The most comfortable campground you can find nearby will be in Truckee, California. Boy, is it nice by comparison. It is entirely forested by evergreen trees that create a high canopy dwarfing the homes-on-wheels below. A couple of days will not be enough to clean the coach, it will take a full week to get the dust out. As you wax her, silently, repeatedly, apologize, “Never again.” Promise. Don’t go to Burning Man in a vehicle you care anything about. But give something like Burning Man a try. If Burning Man doesn’t suit you, other experiments will.