This Little Spine of Mine (and other tales from The Final Dustination)
I came to California with the hounds of impermanence on my trail, their snorting snouts and wagging tails sweeping up any tracks I left behind. I had spent months passionately laboring on an epic triptych in a small mountain town in North Carolina only to see it destroyed by the very people who had commissioned me to paint it. There had been a miscommunication regarding the agreed-upon sum, which was menial to begin with, and though I did my best to communicate myself and offer a compromise, they were relentlessly unaccommodating and, long-story-short, my mural was covered up. To me it had represented a portal, a unique window that offered outlooks into another world, but to them it was just paint that had been rearranged on a surface — an elaborate primer for a white wall, easily made undone. I was heartbroken, and though it felt like I was writing my life’s story in disappearing ink, I pushed on through feelings of futility. I used the unfortunate event as a traumatic catalyst, and sought refuge on the west coast, where I sensed that hearts and minds would be big enough to understand, respect, and accommodate my vision.
San Francisco became my home base. For the first year I crashed on people’s couches, sporadically skipping town to sleep on riverbeds, forest floors, or in the desert under a sea of stars. My adventures outnumbered my responsibilities. Aside from making a modest living slinging art prints and busking on Haight Street, I occasionally picked up gigs as a mover — packing, moving, and unpacking other people’s belongings, while mine were stored away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, buried in the homes of rooted friends like treasured time capsules. It’s fitting that, in these days of transience, I ushered others — strangers — through their transitions.
Our moving crew was like the A-team, spilling from a black van that can only be described as a Chevy Molester (“being tied up in traffic has never felt so good”). In that cast of characters I would be Murdock, the wacky one, and Frankie, who had taught me to circular breathe on the didgeridoo, was a giddy Guamese version of B.A. Baracas. Shanti, an Indiaphilic fire-performer, would classify as Face, not because he was pretty but because he had a stoic face, and because that tall oafish hair-metal shredder who found the gigs on Craigslist, drove the van, and hoisted all us hired hands onboard, already accounted for our version of Hannibal.
One day our crew got a gig moving a five-hundred pound laser. A salon laser, for hair removal. You know: for women with mustaches. The thing was a behemoth and it needed to descend a long narrow flight of stairs. It was basically a big refrigerator-shaped contraption with a handle bar on the back, like on a shopping cart, and I, the skinniest guy on the A-team, was placed at the top holding one side of the handle while Shanti held the other side, and all together we strode into the — hut, boom! hut, boom! — sweating and dramatizing our energetic exertions, as we moved this heavy mass down those stairs, step by step.
Hrg! Boom! Hrg! Boom!
I was oddly at an angle, and every step brought down five-hundred pounds, for a brief instant each time, on my twisted spine, while Hannibal urged us to “be careful with this baby”.
“It’s not an infant,” I relayed. “It’s oversized and unnecessary; it used to be the bearded lady would just join the circus.”
It so happened that entrance to a sort of circus was exactly what this venture would afford me. San Francisco itself, in my experience, was a kind of decentralized circus, and its eccentric source of inspiration seemed to draw on a vortex that lay somewhere in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where the hedonistic circus of Burning Man occurs annually. Burning Man is a Temporary Autonomous Zone that people like Shanti, a zealous initiate clutched in the festival’s cultish claws, would not shut up about. Shanti was his “playa name”, an avataristic moniker given to him at the event and held dearer than the name bestowed on him at birth. Judging by his cryptic allusions Burning Man seemed like another one of those things, a you-had-to-be-there experience that I was told could not be put into words. Not unlike a psychedelic experience, it had to be experienced to be fully understood. I took this as an attitude of laziness — an unwillingness to painfully apply one’s conscious contemplation to the cherished phenomenon in order to critically examine its philosophical significance or lack thereof.
But my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know what the hype was all about. And I figured, what better way to understand the plight of my fallen triptych than to attend an event that celebrates at once both the impermanence and immortality of creation — the erection of a temporary city in the desert, a culture that becomes internalized at the end of the week — to be preserved and revisited only in memory. That’s the way things were meant to be: what we build outside of ourselves should serve as a mirror whose reflections will eventually have to be re-internalized.
Year after year, like the steady and habitual migratory pattern of snowbirds, the majority of San Francisco’s population prepares for a counter-intuitive exodus from their city to visit their “lakeside vacation homes” in Black Rock City. For the first time in human history people voluntarily packed up and shipped out, leaving the comfort of their cozy homes in favor of a nomadic lifestyle, moving towards those harsh climates that once upon a time drove civilizations out of their established habitats. Once all the perishables had been juiced, and the plants had been watered, these dust-birds readily ventured towards the Final Dustination.
Now I had a hundred-and-fifty-some dollars in my pocket, a twisted spine for a backbone and a dream in my heart, beating in cadence with my trot down the streets of San Francisco. I reasoned that civilization’s greatest fallacy was that we neglected to burn it down at the end of the experiment because we were caught admiring our creation in vain. It appeared someone else had shared these sentiments, and had acted on them. It was Tuesday, late August 2007, and Burning Man was propelling into its second day without me, when I caught wind from someone riding public transport that the giant sacrificial effigy known as The Man, around which the experience revolves, had already burnt down by grace of a pyromaniac named Paul Addis, who had set it on fire during a rare lunar eclipse. Addis’ diabolically smiling mugshot, face painted like a luchador mask, would later be appropriated as a cultural icon on the playa, posted on every pole, promising that he’d be there signing autographs on Saturday at the re-burning of The Man, after his bail had been posted.
Suddenly — whoomp! — I found myself on the playa at night, crowds rearranging around me, drifting to and fro, a cosmic ebb and flow, and — whoomp! — with no time passed, I was back on the streets of San Francisco.
Well, I reasoned irrationally, it seems impossible, but I guess I’m already halfway there, so I’ll just go and buy supplies. And in an attempt to outwit the impossible that’s exactly what I did, I bought supplies to let the impossible know that I was intent on going, in spite of its adversity.
That’s when my phone rang and my friend Kat purred on the other line to let me know she had a ticket, but couldn’t go and wanted nothing more than to have someone go in her place. Someone who really wanted to go. Someone like me. So I lay my plight before her. I had only a hundred dollars to spend on the ticket, which was worth almost three times that much, but I could offer her an original painting of my 1st Burning Man experience upon my return. She accepted my offer without hesitation, I found a rideshare on the internet, and by midnight the following day I had arrived in the Black Rock Desert, in Black Rock City.
Driving into the make-shift city in the dark felt like entering another world — a neon, LED-lit mirage on the moon. Ubiquitous explosions of electronic music bombed and boomed into soundscapes reminiscent of slot machines cashing out and video games ascending levels, an archaic arcade of human potential. Flames flared up like oil-rigs combusting in the distance, momentarily illuminating their surroundings. A densely crowded freak-fashion sideshow flooded our field of vision, spilling across the intersection like a stumbling stampede. Among the chaos of costumed foot traffic, inelegantly lit up by our headlights, a four-stilted, topless clown passed in front of our slowly advancing vehicle and peered in through the windscreen with a visionless gaze. It felt like we were on safari in some deranged vaudevillian version of Jurassic Park, directed by David Lynch.
My ride arrived at his predestined camp, and I stepped out into the warm desert air. I had only brought a sleeping bag, no tent, no clue where I was going to sleep or keep my stuff. But quite conveniently I met a kindly gay couple upon arrival who embodied the event’s generous spirit, and allowed me to store my minimal belongings and my water supply in their campsite. Now that I had covered the basics I was excited to explore. I had arrived! I wandered away from the campsite, into the vast expanse of the dry lakebed that stretched out in front of me, specked by a horizon-line of colored blinking lights in motion, lighting up the ocean floor, inhabited by a human rave-charade parading in bioluminescent mimicry of deep-sea life.
This vast open space around which the city is semi-circularly built is what they call The Playa.
My twisted spine kept me from dancing or running around, so I spent my time in the desert exploring at a snail’s pace. It was all a bit over the top for my taste, and though it intrigued me, I was initially not particularly impressed by what seemed more like a high-tech arts & crafts trailer park decked out in multi-colored Christmas lights than the imagination’s capitol that it was hyped up to be.
Surely, if I had been on mind-altering substances, like so many other participants, it would have all no doubt been instantly amazing. A mind on drugs can effortlessly transform the desert’s litter-box into a glitter-box, and imbue the cheap plastic surfaces of things with the polished pearlescent sheen of infinity. Then again, would any of the external stimuli even be necessary, if the drugs were of a good enough caliber? Would sensory deprivation not provide a more desirable and less distracting circumstance in which to encounter the bejeweled nature of one’s amplified mind? A matter of personal preference, perhaps.
Over time and in spite of my unaltered state — by merit of simply tuning into the various facets that made up this overwhelming conglomeration of anything-goes — Black Rock City did begin to resemble some other world existing parallel to the one we ordinarily inhabit (what burners call “The Default World”). An alternative culture that was at once profound and profane, as high-tech as it was tacky.
Ultimately, Burning Man is the immaculately conceived brainchild of the sacred and the profane, sixty-nining each other like yin-yangs in blacklight. It’s the sixties on steroids. It’s the over-the-top American Dream in action, farting flames in its sleep — bigger-and-better and larger-than-life, showing off like yeeeee-haw! It’s a laxative for centuries of this country’s backed up repression, and in effect it’s a bit of a shit show. In some sense it is literally America self-confidently shirt-cocking with a cocktail in its hand at sunrise, smacking mother earth on the ass. In fact, my favorite analogy is likening it to the exposed scrotum — to some, it is a gross sack of ew! balls! that is better kept covered, but others might say, “no, think about it, those are the origins from which we all came! A magic satchel of creative possibility!”
The question is not, what is it? But, what do you make of it?
It’s a mega-meaningful mediocrity. A commoditized and modified inferno in disguise. A parody of paradise. A celebration of bad taste and good vibes. A place to focus on distraction. A place for confrontational escapism. A place where you may just run into yourself, after all.
It’s also a pyromaniacal bicycle convention in the desert.
I rode around on the readily available communal bikes, known as yellow bikes, even though they’re green. I think this fruitful, colorful confusion emphasizes that they’re ripe for the picking if they’re laying on the ground. Anyone can use them, and then just dump them when they reach their destination. At times I’d spot and approach one, only to find it locked up — communal property locked for someone’s self serving purposes! A clear violation of the lore! So, in the years to come, I designed Karma Police citations, to attach to the lock, indirectly confronting the culprits, while also offering them an opportunity to redeem themselves, either by cleaning up M.O.O.P. (Matter Out Of Place) or delivering ice (one of the few commodities for sale in this gift economy) to a random camp of strangers.
Whether or not it was effective, these kinds of creative contributions seem to be what the festival is all about. It reminds me of The Nightmare Before Christmas and those dedicated denizens of Halloween town — all those people who come up with ideas for next year’s event, some of them working diligently the whole year round to realize their vision, making costumes and art installations, while others allow their ideas to manifester, rotting away on the shelf of the self’s unrealized potential.
Every year I would hear another brilliant pitch for another great idea that would never become actualized, and because I could identify with the predicament of the ideally inspired but ambitiously challenged, I invented a solution.
My plan was to create an installation called The Virtual Playa, a physical, dim-lit space that you could enter. Inside, surround-sound speakers played back recordings I’d collected, of people explaining their ideas for future installations. Multiple ideas played back simultaneously from different speakers, so you were forced to tune into specific signals amidst the medley. The result was that you’d experience the visionary effect of these inventions and innovations as though they’d actually been realized, blooming in the mind as a virtual playa, awash with a refreshing sea of ideas. Should you be interested in what you heard, you were encouraged to pluck the idea like a lightbulb from the air and take it upon yourself to realize it on the actual playa in the future. Ironically, the first example of an unrealized idea on the virtual playa was The Virtual Playa itself.
Ahead of me, the slightest, meaningful gust of wind carried dust flurries across the desert plane like phantom manta rays hovering over the surface of the cracked earth, leading the way as I traversed the craterless moonscape on foot. The playa is a blank canvas exhibition space, a desolate plane that represents consciousness — the open mind specked with enormous artifacts, thought-forms-as-things. It is an especially intimate scene once the curtain of night is lifted, allowing you to peak up her skirt, catch a glimpse of her private parts.
Two little cupcake cars zip by, playfully racing each other. Giant trees made of bone stand unswaying in the breeze. An unassuming oil derrick, 99-feet-tall, towers over it all. Surrounding it, eight giant human figures, sculptures made of connected metal rings, red and rusty, strike dramatic gestural poses — supplicating, praying, praising, and pleading. It all suddenly makes sense when one fateful night, in a final performance, the derrick erupts, spewing a 1000 foot pillar of fire that lights up the surrounding sculptures, imbuing their responsive stances with an emotionally impacting cause. Identical bicyclists wearing goggles and dust masks, lackadaisically ZigZag and CrissCross one another’s path as if out of a Dali painting.
You can pick any three items that catch your eye, name them, and have all the necessary nouns and verbs to construct a lyrical verse that’s fit to suit a Beatles’ song. Imagine that — wandering through a Beatles’ songscape!
In the distance, a man in a dusty three-piece business suit walks by. He wears shades and carries an attaché, checks his watch and accelerates his pace, as if he’s late for work, trying to catch a train. All things seem anachronistic and out of context, adrift in a blank void.
A Victorian couple enjoys a Pickwickian picnic. They face the dawning of a new day, serenely seated on a blanket that might as well be a flying carpet sailing through the void. The scene belongs on the cover of a steam-punk romance novel. The hallucinatory sea stretched out before them is implied by an enormous art-car decorated like a life-sized pirate ship that sails the horizon line, its foghorn bellowing in the distance. The noise pollution of bass abuse and the atom-smashing clash of a dozen competing beats, an un-echoing rise and fall bouncing off the surrounding mountains, is background noise by now.
Giant rusty metallic keywords are on display. A different one each year. Words like BELIEVE, LOVE, INSANITY, or EGO. Words you can climb.
The cracked earth ties together all these random, seemingly disparate vignettes, ideas-made-object, relative to each other in space and mind. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure, make-your-own-connections, draw-your-own-conclusions, who-do-you-think-you-are, who-do-you-want-to-be kind of world.
By now, a few days deep, everybody’s hair, including my own, had become a gray and spongy mass, caked with dust. My curls were like coiled tarantula legs. I liked the way it looked when I caught my reflection in a convex mirror.
Crowds of raving burners dressed in costume conglomerates (tutus, leather, pleather, feathers, and neon faux fur) hooted and hollered, cheering on the rising sun as the running yoke poked its head up over the horizon-line like a smily face.
The sunrise was always one of those rare moments of concretized happiness for me, a personal and collective triumph — that we had made it through another night on planet earth. And that we were on a planet — albeit one whose natural silence was awash with bass and whose surface was littered with human artifice — was for once indisputably apparent. A genuine smile stretched tightly across my face like a twisted horizon. Some moments later, as Helios drifted like a balloon, higher into its sky, I realized that the same arched smile now ached from exerted efforts at sustaining itself, and I understood that the feeling that had originally flexed it had fled in flux. The moment of happiness had passed, yet I was clinging to it with a smile that was superimposed like a still frame over a moving image. So I let it slip from my face and gave way to the inevitable, impending waves of exhaustion and an empty feeling of having once felt full-filled — though I was still content, knowing that moment to be forever perfect, preserved and suspended in space and time on the coordinates of its actuation, to be revisited in eternal recurrence.
Just remember, I reminded myself, Time is Space’s digestive system: this too shall pass.
Death has a peculiar and dry sense of humor in the desert. Word got around that a man had hung himself in the Joy & Comfort camp. All day people had just passed by, thinking it was an art installation.
We had all seen the ominous dust devils come funneling towards us in the distance. By the time they reached us, we watched windswept tents and canopies, still staked down, undulate like jellyfish dancing in the dust storm. My face shielded by goggles and a bandana, I ventured into the white-out. Though the conditions were harsh, the ambiance was supremely serene. The occasional breeze would sweep the dust curtain aside, momentarily revealing a prayer circle knelt down in the clearing, surrounded by a void of white. Elsewhere, through phased fades and dusty dissolves, I witnessed a bearded man in woman’s clothes, wearing an apron, ironically vacuuming the dust floor of the dried lakebed. The vacuum was actually powered by a generator.
“You missed a spot,” remarked a unicyclist in passing.
I love deserts. I love their liveliness, and how deceptively undeserted they actually are. But because we had brought the city with us, and because nothing ordinarily lives out there — no plants or animals — what we experience at Burning Man is essentially just a human trip, set on a dusty stage. In that sense the Black Rock desert peculiarly resembles Las Vegas, with its modes of sensory exaltation and sleep deprivation.
Las Vegas is a diabolical mirage that shimmers before you in the desert, and grows more lavish, extravagant, and beautiful as it drains you and feeds on your life force. Las Vegas is a psychedelic realization that contains the world’s wonders within its bounds. It contains replicas of the pyramids, the sphinx, and the Eiffel Tower. It contains New York, New York and New Orleans. The whole world, in one location. Las Vegas keeps celebrities like Elvis, Sinatra, and Siegfried & Roy as pet performers — contractually captive commodities, on display and on demand like the conquered King Kong. All the while the masses flock towards this mirage, feeding money to the slot machines, paying their American Dream tax, and Las Vegas, always able to profitably pay its electrical bills in time, grows ever more beautiful. You can catch sight of tourists there, standing slack-jawed before the poly-symphonically orchestrated acrobatics of a water fountain outside The Bellagio, wondering how it is all possible, while unwittingly financing it with their kids’ college savings.
Burning Man on the other hand, though also a mirage, depends only on one’s actual life force — the investment of one’s creative participation — for its beautification, rather than compulsively and greedily feeding on some metaphor-mediated currency that we are societally prone to imbue with the same singular significance as life itself.
There is also something undeniably supernatural about Burning Man, some occult intention lurking behind the festival’s flashy facade. Recalling that Las Vegas has a laser that shoots a signal straight into space, perhaps hoping to bait extraterrestrials to stop by for the weekend and spend their star-bucks, I began to think that perhaps Burning Man may secretly harbor a comparable agenda.
When viewed from an aerial perspective in daytime, the radial dial of this encampment city of tents and canopies, campers and RV’s, trailers and trucks, and cars with bike-rack mohawks, looks like a semi-circular crop circle — like a record encrypted with the living information of human activity. The grooves of its surface are the gridded street blocks, named after the hours on the clock — 12, 12:15, 12:30, 12:45, etc, running perpendicular to alphabetic street names corresponding to the year’s central theme. (So in a way, time actually has spatial properties here, which creates confusion when you tell someone to meet you at 2:30).
Some have said this is Earth’s first Galactic City. (Obviously these folks haven’t taken into account the civilizations of the Maya, Aztecs, Egyptians, etc.) At night, its colored blinking lights, a mass expenditure of energy by human and electrical generators, can be seen from space. I imagine it would look like the shimmering, multi-colored embers of a dying campfire.
Was all this, I wondered — this smorgasbord of earthly interests and affairs — humanity’s attempt to try and impress “The Others”? Was this our sophomoronic way of making a clumsy offering to the Great Anybody-Out-There? To hit Them with our best shot? Was this us hoping to hook a blind date with fate, sending a flirtatious message into space saying “hello out there, I don’t know who you are or what you’re into but… look at us! This is what we’ve got going on! This is our loudest music! Our biggest artworks! Our flashiest fireworks! Our chaotic communion! The range of our expression, laid bare before you! For you! This is the best we can currently do! We’ve brought out the big guns! We hope you like it! Please respond if you think we’re ready!”
Or perhaps this was a dying animal’s cry for help, a plea to prove that we are worthy of salvation, hoping that someone out there would send a merciful wind down to earth that would dust off the neglected mess we’d made of our planetary ecology, and reignite our pile of diminishing embers into a fire…
At dusk a white-robed precession of druidic lantern lighters ritualistically made their way, carrying their torches along the main avenue that cuts through the playa from Center Camp towards the central spectacle of The Man. Each of them bore a metaphorical cross, shouldering a balancing beam, weighted on either side with lit lanterns to be hung from the street posts that line the boulevard. Glowing a fluorescent neon green, the larger-than-life Man, iconically poised with his hands thrown up in the air in a gesture that simultaneously signifies victory or defeat, looked like a crazed cult leader saluting a roaring ocean of applause.
All of this had begun with lonely Larry Harvey burning a small effigy on Baker Beach, a few decades earlier, and had evolved into this raving empire of radical self-expression and liberated play — imbued with it’s own history, mythology, and morphic field. A city outside space and time that exists only in the minds of its temporary inhabitants. A city that knows no natives, where everyone is a tourist, a traveler, an adventurer. An impermanent portal of potential that is not to be under-mined — but celebrated, explored and exploited fully for all it’s worth before its inevitable and timely collapse.
After many days of wandering about with psychic baggage dragging behind in my mind, allowing my spine to rest, the time arrived for the re-born Burning Man to burn again, and I decided on some fungal sacrament at sunset.
At the onset of my trip, feeling all the weird vibes of this diverse circus — picking up on the frequencies of sex tourists and perverts on the prowl — I decided this was a time to tune into a sacred vibration — a time for the didgeridoo and communion with the earth. Frankie had told me that you could ask the didgeridoo for whatever you want while you were playing it, and the Universe would respond. So I sat on the floor of that dry lakebed and cast myself a circle in sound, calling for protection and shelter, and almost instantly veils of ether dropped around me, diaphanous and curtain-like, energetic veils of fuchsia energies draped from heaven to earth, swaying like a heat-wave mirage. They were nearly-embodied, dreamtime guardians and — whoomp!
Once in a while my tubular traversal was interrupted, my trance of intention ever so subtly offset by a presence appearing in my periphery. I glanced out of the corner of my eye, as I continued to drone earth-tone dream-drone frequencies, the didgeridoo a part of me now — my trunk. I caught sight of a person gesturing for my approval to take a photo, their lens protruding from their face, a technological extension for a snout. I gave an approving noble nod. This happened a few different times, and each time the voyeurs would honor the unspoken boundary of the dreamtime dome that the sounds had cast with characters of future-present-past, held in the prison of my attentive captivation. A few sacred intuitive rituals later I was back on the move, exploring the by now twilight dreamtime of Burning Man on earth, the full voyeuristic moon honoring the boundary set by gravity’s tenacity.
Neon fleets of mutant vehicles, LED-armored art cars, flocked like clockwork toward the center of the psyclone, swirling in the vortex, gathering around the newly-erected man who would burn for the second time. As if by aerial view I sensed their currents flowing simultaneously clockwise and counter-clockwise like a tightening spiral — a crazed, obsessive in-sect ceremony of frenzied moth-minds drawn around the flames-to-be.
I took inventory of the spectacle, the entire city gathering around what I imagined would be little more than an extravagant fireworks display, another over-the-top show-off. I viewed the festival as a resourceful wasteland of plastic bling and blinking lights. A large part of its population was plastered, all dressed up in LEDs, enlightened on the outside. All these dust masks, respirators, and scarfs transformed people into steam-punk beduins, pseudo-nomadic mad men, and techno-sheikhs — cross-cultural caricatures. All these fake animal pelts, muppet furs, and shaman staffs wrapped in EL-wire. While it all seemed like a neo-tribal farce, it also felt like there was a deadly serious intention at the core of this shamanic chicanery. But if this was a dress rehearsal for the apocalypse, it promised to be a very silly and staged apocalypse. Like a poorly scripted, poorly performed school play, a hi-fi sci-fi B-movie, or a truth-or-dare, now-or-never, all-or-nothing, unsustainable end-of-the-world party. A mix between New Year’s eve and a 4th of July independence day celebration with controlled pyrotechnical demolition at its central focus. Burning Man, just another American holiday.
But as I reexamined the radically self-expressive voyagers around me — their elaborate costumes, equal parts Mad Max, Tron, Waterworld, Mardi Gras, Tank Girl, carnival, Margaritaville and spring break, with a dash of the Dark Crystal — I saw a post-apocalyptic ardor, the promise of a brave new world that is already always in existence now, glimpsed on the horizons of nuclear setting suns and in the prospect of a super-sized straw-man to be set aflame. With mixed feelings, I began to rethink the whole scene.
Again, the sense of a subliminal seriousness drifted to the satirical surface. A slight unease came over my bemushroomed mind when I began sizing up the giant effigy, sensing the potential magic of this ritual sacrifice, and the amplifying charge of collective anticipation as we drew closer to the moment we had all been waiting for.
I wondered, Who is The Man? What are we offering up to the flames? Who is this technocratic, tribal alien that we worship, celebrate, and sacrifice?
Right before his fuse was ignited, I made up my mind, deciding that the over-confidently poised Man represented all the burdensome psychic luggage of the default world that I had still, reluctantly, been carrying with me, weighing heavy on the heart. Looking around at the solemn and glowing faces, dusty-haired and wide-eyed, gazing into the anticipatory light of the growing flames that ate their way up The Man’s (pants-on-fire) legs, I recognized that everyone had been carrying similar loads, of sorrow to be sacrificed — each dealing with it in their own contemplative, escapist, or confrontational ways. This was to serve as our brief moment of reprieve.
Right then the pyrotechnic fuses that stretched along the meridians of The Man’s body sparked along their circuitry like chakras igniting, and controlled detonations erupted along with enthused cheers roaring through the crowd. Fireworks exploded like synaptic blasts and spidered into the sky, leaving vestigial, smoky outlines of their shapes to linger, suspended, adrift in the air. At that fated moment, when The Man completely burst aflame, my own spine ignited like a short fuse burning up to the cartoon bomb that is my brain, exploding me with a pyromaniac passion, mind-blown.
Burn! I roared, breathing fire, with fire in my eyes, volting, manic and possessed by a supernatural power. The infectious rhythms of a nearby drum conclave entered my bloodstream, setting the cadence for the flicker of my inner flame. A primal voodoo prevailed. These Dogon rhythms pulsed like Sirius’ star-light through my veins and I began to dance — astral ancestral currents thrilling though me, moving me manically. I felt connected to the earth and the stars. This style of dance that overtook me felt like something I’d experienced in a particular dream.
(I dreamembered, it had taken place in a luggage store. The owner, an Asian woman, had approached me affectionately, reminding me that we had met in a past life. Her forehead unlocked in the patterns of the Shri Yantra, a geometry of interlocking triangles, a meditation on a timeless state. On the other side of that mandala I witnessed a perpetually twilit desert stage, where Africans danced dressed in red robes, pounding their feet on the red earth, kicking up dust at the on-sight of the full moon that rose larger than life on their horizon — and their dance was now my dance!)
My soles pounded the earth, densely packing it down, reverberations moving up my bones — bone to earth. My feet felt like hooves, and like a satyr I took magical flight — into the crowd, paving impossible pathways between the densely peopled population. My fingers were fiddling on their own accord as if they were making complex mathematical calculations that relayed the probability of my passage to my brain, or perhaps they were manipulating the motions of the dense crowd through invisible extensions. The crowd parted perfectly, not for me necessarily, but it certainly parted at exactly the right times, co-incidentally, because I was with Time aligned.
The crowd parted, not so much like a sea, but like the spaces between words in sentences of collective paragraphs that made up our human story, parting perfectly to make way for my passing meaning and the punctuation of my rhythmic step and stride. There was one particular moment — I was flying, my ill-behaved and hoofed feet no longer touching ground — when I could see through the soul-lit orbs of everyone’s eyes, beyond the flesh’s disguise, peering into our common unity. In this moment it felt like I was looking at myself through their eyes. And in that moment, as I was about to hit a wall of people, my eyes met those of a cute old gnomish lady with a round head like a potato, perfectly stepping into the frame, into my approaching path, obstructing it like a guardian, face like a wagging finger. Her eyes and mine met in humorous recognition, and all sense of time dilated like our pupils, as if we had forever to spare before our immanent and inevitable impact, smiling as if we’d always known each other — in those moments and all moments preceding and receding, and in the moments we were seeding and exceeding still. Having relished that instance long enough to absorb it — just as I was about to collide with her, full-force — the moving composition slowed and muted, like gears falling into place, and with a single “tink” as if by cosmic wink, the endearing little lady stepped aside just in time to grant passage to my unstoppable self.
Flying! Flying! Behooved!
Check yourself! Check yourself, don’t wreck yourself! Just a moment ago you couldn’t even dance because of your spine, now look at you! Your feet! Check your feet, you maniac — you madman! They must be cracked and dry as the earth below them!
I calmed myself. My feet touched down, back upon the ground. I looked back. The Man had completely burned down, and the crowds were dispersing, beginning the voyage back from their state of communal union, returning to form disparate clicks, devoid of a central focus. Those moments were truly and inexplicably disorienting, as the entirety of Black Rock City, all the buildings and landmarks, had rearranged and crowded around the fire like a puppet show where buildings are people too — all things had become animate. I checked my feet and they were fine. Dry and caked with fine alkaline dust, but fine. But what about my spine?
I checked. Spine seemed fine.
“This little Spine of Mine has been realigned with time,” I sang, to the gospel melody of This Little Light of Mine, like a burn-again Christian. I smiled. The scattering masses seemed to be migrating to the moon, whose full form loomed ahead on the horizon, large enough and seeming close enough for us to leap onto its surface.
And in that moment, so lucid, so clear, as the crowds rearranged around me, drifting to and fro, a cosmic ebb and flow — the sway of energetic tides on the rearranging night playa — it struck me as eternally familiar:
This was the moment that had flashed before my eyes in the San Francisco street! Unbelievable, but it somehow made sense. I had twisted my spine in an effort to earn the money for a ticket to Burning Man, just so I could come here, engage in this ritual, and realign my spine!
Understanding this, it seemed crucial that I send the notion backwards in time to myself in the street, gifting myself pre-sense, to insure my current presence, and to begin listening for clues as to where my future self was trying to direct me next.
Now it’s back to mediocrity
’cause we faced our own insanity
and amidst the raving lunacy
became heroes of our own mythology ∞
In the years that followed I carved out my own slice of playa pie, and found that my favorite place to spend time was The Temple. It took me a couple of years to figure this out, but The Temple is the human element of the festival, stripped of all its festooning neon, electronic, costumed distractions and charades. The Temple is the heart of the playa. To some it’s just another thing that burns during their party, a place they plan to visit at some point, but if you visit regularly, you’ll get the picture — you’ll feel the growing pulse of that place.
The Temple, like the structure that displays The Man, is different every year. But every year, without fail, it is a breathtaking work of alien architecture that rivals some of the world’s greatest constructions. It is usually composed of lightweight, delicate-seeming pieces of plywood, laser-cut and arranged into elaborately complex patterns that could make a Persian rug question its own intricacy. Festival goers gather in the temple to commune, to mourn, to grieve, and to comfort one another. It’s a tremendously beautiful thing to witness this quiet air of communal vulnerability. Nowhere else in the world have I experienced a place where strangers come to commiserate and console one another like that. People write on the walls, and hang pictures of their dearly departed loved ones. By the end of the week the entire place is covered.
The need to leave pictures of your loved ones on the temple walls is entirely understandable, but sometimes people feel it necessary to leave oversized blow-ups, as though the ego of the deceased, rebelling against the virtual anonymity of death, wishes to prevail and be remembered above all others.
Wandering through the Temple, reading the epitaphs and looking at the photographed faces of those no longer among us, you start to feel something very strong — something inconsolable, something filled with so much love, the resounding swells of laughter from the hereafter — overall, a sense of impermanence permeates you with the urge to seize the moment, to revel in immediacy; it fills you with gratitude for the gifts that life offers you and the lives that cross your path.
I would visit the temple often, spending a lot of time in there each day, feeling the vibe and sensing where people were blocked in their grieving process, offering them relief through the gift of vibrational alchemy, rumbling those blocks into crumbling rocks. I’d use my didge like a straw to drink from the crying well. Sometimes I’d blow bubbles in it.
The Temple burns the night after The Man. The energy on this night is distinctly different. There are no explosives or fireworks. It is a modest, humble, straight-forward, ritual burn. Whereas the burning of The Man is a celebration, releasing what no longer serves us, that which we wish to give up of our own volition — The Temple burn signifies what we’ve lost, what was forcefully, and often beyond our comprehension, taken from us. You hate to see it go, but you love to watch it burn. During The Temple burn silence prevails, besides the occasional sniffle or sob, and you can tangibly feel emotions evaporating into the air. A beauty and a sadness. Its flames purify; they dry our tears, and the way the wind chooses to aid, slow, or accelerate the incineration of this edifice of our collective grief, is a spiritual ordeal.
One year, moments before The Temple burned I was among many to see a UFO drift across the sky before coming to a halt — a mysterious pulsing crimson orb that dropped flaring miniatures of itself, and hovered near The Temple for close to an hour.
One night King Coon and Sloth Queen and I ventured into the night on some 2CB, a synthetic form of mescaline, to explore the interactive playground of the playa. I usually only ate a little bit of mushrooms once during the course of the festival — that had become my modest habit — but this time I branched out from my annual routine and tried something new. King Coon had foretold that it is reputed to make one feel in possession of “super powers”, which I, in the height of our trip, corrected as “super powers and super powerful delusions.”
The drug offered me lucidity; under its influence the order of things was clearly illustrated through pulse. I felt attuned to the mythic essences of people and things — King Coon, for example, who I named that because he was like a sovereign, streetwise raccoon who lorded over back alleys, protecting and providing for creatures smaller and scruffier than him. This apprehension applied to myself as well, embodying that dark theatrical mythos of the bardo bard that altered states tend to bring out in me.
Sweeping the desert floor, a single gust of wind and dust whipped around, and as it moved through me it momentarily buckled my stride into a crippled stagger. I perceived it carrying a load of spiritual refuse — broken spirits and man’s monsters — past us, towards The Temple. That year The Temple was a pyramid, and in that moment it was amorphous, as if it could not contain its form, poised gelatinous with the rippling range of human emotions held within.
We, all three, saw it this way, and gazed in awe at its undulating form.
“See here, friends, before us, the ominous triangle, unable to hold shape, beckoning us to explore its interior.”
We entered into The Temple, its ambiance meditative and sleepy, the air charged with dream-logic. 2CB had a primal quality to it, an intrepid animalism. I wished to follow my nose. I circled around the grounds, sampling the vibrations in the ether. Here and there, a waft of sage cleared the air. In the darker wings, dense clouds of inconsolable grief hovered, like burnt, charred toast.
I found myself following a desire to commune with fire, to smoke — to smoke tobacco. But I don’t smoke tobacco. Catching myself, I found it a curious craving. I realized then that something must have latched onto me when I had passed through the desolate wings — some complicated, unresolved energy trapped between here and the beyond, feeling its way towards resolution through the soul-recycling system of my body, craving an offering of tobacco to relieve its bodiless distress. The moment I realized this, it detached and the craving departed.
I saw my regal friends nearby, on the other side of the temple, and they were joined by a dark-haired figure in black, who I only saw from behind. They appeared to be consoling this person in their mutual embrace. I wondered who it was, so I approached them. But upon reaching them I realized there was no third person! In fact, I had completely misjudged the situation. King Coon and Sloth Queen were marveling over a long string of colorful origami flowers that hung from the roof of the pyramid.
I felt like I had seen a ghost, though I didn’t feel disturbed; had I witnessed a lost soul transmuting its grief by feeding on my friends’ replenishing joy and wonder? After that, it felt like our work in The Temple was done for the night. On the way out, walking backwards I was amazed by Sloth Queen, ridiculously smiling at an inside joke that radiated outwards towards me, like she was aware that her hair looked like it was being blown dramatically by the controlled breeze of a giant cinematic fan, even though the air was entirely wind-still.
The miracles didn’t end there that night. The greatest miracle of all was probably the fact that King Coon was able to roll a spliff — probably one of the best spliffs I’ve ever smoked — in his open hand in the middle of a dust-storm. In fact, I’m convinced he used the torque of the wind to facilitate the twist.
Just then a lavish vardo, a fully decked-out authentic gypsy caravan, pulled up and we settled in, lounging languidly in its velvet cushioned seats, as I improvised a verse of a song, inspired by the giant zoetrope installation outside. (A zoetrope is the sculptural equivalent of a flip-book — a cinematic succession of slightly progressing, though otherwise identical sculptures spinning round on a carousel, set into recurring, animated motion under a rapidly flashing strobe-light.) The scene depicted a monkey swinging from branch to branch, being force-fed an apple by a serpent that coiled down the branch along the monkey’s extended arm and disappeared down its throat.
We came down from the trees
and we moved under the sea
sea-monkey see, monkey do
with the serpent on its arm
and the apple with its charm
sea-monkey see, monkey do
Oh, let’s go within,
Let’s contemplate our origins
Or let’s go without
who knows what we could find up in the clouds
At Center Camp, in broad daylight, a wild eyed simpleton approached me, candidly offering me a T-shirt with a heart and the word “love” poorly screen-printed on it. She explained with the endearing enthusiasm of an unsure child that she had traveled from Australia to talk about love, “I knew ivva since I was a little girl that I wud trivvel the wirld to talk abowed lavv.” I was waiting for her to start talking about love now, but I guess that was all she had to say. The transmission just ended there and she gazed at me with a seamless continuation of that same blank enthusiasm, her eyebrows raised like whaddaya think of that? Isn’t that something?
Holding the proverbial receiver in anticipation of a voice, I realized that there was no one on the other end of the line. It went straight to voidsmail.
The festival’s main themes are often contrived, far fetched, or difficult to apply. This year’s Circus of Mirrors could as easily have been themed Drought, and 2012’s Cargo Cult (?) would have been better named after that year’s most relevant event — Occupy. There was even an installation there that year called “Burn Wall Street” (though more commonly referred to as “Occuplaya”) an off-the-wall Wall Street parody with life-sized replicas of bank buildings — Bank of UnAmerica, Meryl Lynched, Goldman Sucks, Chaos Manhattan — all of which burned at the end of the week. It became a first class, microcosmic farce of the real world when a group of “squatters” decided to “occupy” the buildings by pitching their tents and sleeping inside, only to be booted out by the rangers.
A friend and I were walking towards the installation, laughing all the way to the banks, intent on cashing in our blank reality checks, and hoping they wouldn’t bounce for being void. My friend is a designer of interactive experiences that reimagine urban environments to be more like playgrounds, imbued with childlike wonder, so he was having a field day exploring the festival grounds. He asked me if there was anything I was hoping to attract during my remaining time in Black Rock City. Recalling the previous year’s UFO-sighting at The Temple burn, and my insight into Burning Man’s secret intention, I only half-seriously answered, “well, alien contact would be nice.”
My friend then asked me for advice, as he was about to embark on his first magic mushroom trip, so I told him some of my stories, and shared some useful techniques for lubricating lucidity. We parted ways by the twenty-foot-tall EGO sculpture made of wood and 10.000 golden replicas of trophies and creepy dolls.
I later learned that he spent a good deal of his night ponderously pacing along the trash fence — the festival’s outer limits — scratching his head and rubbing his chin, wondering why we impose boundaries on ourselves, and wishing to overstep them. And he would have gotten away with it too had it not been for a ranger on the other side, shadowing him all the while in an SUV.
The fires of my own curiosity had been stoked by recounting my past experiences, so I decided to go on a little trip of my own that night.
A mind full of mushrooms and a mile beyond the temple, in what is known as the Deep Playa, beyond human reach, it hit me like a bag of bricks in the gut. The pressure, both intestinal and psychological, to take a dump overtook me.
What to do? Drop my pants and squat right there on god’s pale dusty earth? A mental image of myself carrying my m.o.o.p.load in a ziploc bag, along with possible conversations that would ensue upon encountering fellow earthlings ‘long the way. Discouraging prospects.
So I puckered up my sphincter and sucked it up, soldiering onwards, steadily, towards the distant mirage of blinking LED lights that resembled some kind of phosphorescent underwater arcade. Dissolving my identity in the rhythm of my stride and the flow of fleeting earth below-foot I found peace in my singular purpose. I was little more than a vessel then, a courier, a sort of Johnny Mnemonic transporting an excremental shitload to its safe haven. I would let nothing get in my way. Below my feet the cracked earth underwent a stereoscopic bifurcation, which is a fancy way of implying a visual split: one side was now shimmering with a pink glow, the other side imbued with blue. Faces appeared in the crack-outlined islands of dirt. Ancient, ancestral faces. Dead serious, terrifying and beautiful. They appeared to be speaking to me.
“No time,” I said, unable to make out what they were saying (perhaps, “poop on us”?).
The colors and the faces faded again, restored to dust and dry earth; my stride uncompromised.
Ahead now, I came upon an incidental man-made crop circle, composed of tire-tracks. Deep monster-truck tire-grooves, the aftermath of sharp turns and infinity loops. As soon as I stepped into their field I felt its vortical gravity, as it drew down energy from the stars to swirl, galactically, through the chalice of my interior. I was beamed with transmissions from distant star races. Again, my concentration was limited to my intestinal load, so I couldn’t decipher their message, but I doubt they were asking me to shit up into the stars (another picture flashed in my mind, of me — face hugging the dust, ass up — a human shit fountain shuttling poop-rockets into outer space).
Again: “sorry, bad timing, rrrrrrreally need to take a shit.”
Ancestors on hold. Aliens on hold. Yours truly pacing, cramping and trudging towards those port-o-potties up ahead. Gut-wrenching tunnel vision, my eyes swirling like galaxies, flushing like toilets.
Of course when I finally made it to my destination I ended up spending another twenty minutes waiting in a line of dusty dead-eyed ravers from planet Wookie-Tron, dressed almost entirely in fluorescent faux furs laced with L-wire. Swiftly realized that I wasn’t the only one on some substance or another, with a strong urge to purge and disembowel my discomforts. This became especially evident whenever the line protracted and someone disappeared into the plastic bathroom stall, and — a minute or two in — the next person in line knocked on the door, or — in case it wasn’t locked — pried it open to — “whoo — sorry” — as if they hadn’t just witnessed the last person entering before them! Every time, without fail. “Whoo — sorry.” Sometimes twice in one go. “Whoo — still in there, huh? Sorry, again.”
The flatulent bass swells of surrounding dubstep music wobbled in sympathetic mockery of my distressed bowels. The prospect of someone bursting into my stall worried me. One, because interruption at such a critical junction in my trip would be catastrophic, and two, what if there was a real risk of people disappearing into the Bermuda rectangle of the port-o-potty? What if, in fact, this port-o-potty may actually be a PORTAL potty — the kind that will spit you out on some distant outpost of the playa — far from your port of entry — right back at the time-warped beginning of your journey with a mind full of mushrooms, a mile beyond the temple, in the deep playa beyond human reach, where it hits you like a bag of bricks in the gut and you realize all-at-once that you are abysmally full of shit.
You’re not supposed to pee on the playa by the way. It’s highly frowned upon under the “leave no trace” and “introduce no foreign elements into the ecosystem” policy, but you know, when you’re a mile away from a port-o-potty and you really have to go, sometimes you don’t have a choice. I know I’m not alone on this, because looking down at the ground from the roof of a moving art bus, I noticed the systematic successions of urinary inkblots, like I was on a sightseeing tour, which is why I came up with the idea to make an art-map for finding remarkable pee-stains on the playa. You know, like, there’s one that looks like a bat, and there’s one that looks like a hat, etc. Bat, hat, cat, you get it. Well, the idea proved to be just more kindling for the fire of the unrealized Virtual Playa installation. But what I did do, when I found myself too far out to turn back one day was to make my own incidental tresspisses the most artful pee-stains imaginable. Like this one — the meta-pee-stain, depicting a little guy peeing an artful pee-stain.
Hey, at least I was creative about it…
On the last night of the festival a Native American man almost got hit by an oversized shopping cart — a giant art car shaped like a shopping cart — filled to the brim with boisterous party folks on a joyride. This conceptual near-collision between a member of the earth’s first people and a symbol for the consumer culture that’s basically ruining the planet, struck me as so ironic that it had to have been staged. But when the Indian turned to me, burst into tears and cried on my shoulder the moment’s authenticity was no longer questionable.
“I’ve been cleaning up trash all day!” He wept, gesturing to the giant garbage bag he was toting. “I live at the reservation near here. This is our land and these fucking people don’t understand! They don’t care about the earth! I love her! It’s getting worse every year. I’ve picked up more trash in the last six days, than I have in the last six years at this goddamn place, altogether!”
Once everything that’s meant to burn has burnt, and the portal of possible exploration has collapsed, some burners like to unwind at Sierraville hot springs where thoughts and feelings get a chance to die down into nature’s expanse, instead of immediately bouncing off civilization’s dense boundaries. Alternatively, a lot of burners like to stop by Reno on the way back to “The Default World”, renting out entire floors of discounted hotel rooms, and continuing their party habits by the pool. It’s kind of the worst of Burning Man that lives on in Reno, which is itself kind of the worst little city — it’s like Vegas, but without the psychedelic lavishness that makes its exploits somewhat forgivable. Who knows where Reno spends its winnings? Reno is a prime example of what happens when you don’t burn the city down at the end of the week.
I call this afterbirth of Burning Man’s re-naissance “Weekend at Bernie Man’s”, because it’s a sad display of burn-outs pretending the spirit is still alive, raging against the dying of the LED — desperately wanting to postpone their reintegration into their default lives for as long as possible, unwilling to admit the party is over.
I guess you could say that the casino is slightly reminiscent of The Temple, but only in the sense that, at any given moment, you can find someone there mourning their losses.
If Reno’s sideshow of burners stampeding through town, trailing a dust cloud in their passing, was all you’d ever see of Burning Man — the tip of the shirt-cocking iceberg — then I wouldn’t blame you if you were a playa-hater. But you know, you can’t really grasp what it was like for them unless you were there. You know, it’s hard to explain. I dunno, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
San Francisco, August 2015
The Ungoogleable Michaelangelo is a psychonautic explorer, internal journalist, visual artist, musician, filmmaker and actor from The Netherlands, currently residing in Los Angeles. Utilizing wit, wordplay, and a 6th sense of humor, his work mindfully investigates where the limits of language meet the fringes of reality. If you share his esoteric appreciation for all things surreal, sublime, and absurd, you may consider going spelunking in his heartfelt brain-cave at www.voidandimagination.com.