America's Last

Burning Man Notes 1999

Black Rock City. The desert a couple of miles outside of Gerlach, NV, which is 100 or so miles from Reno. Sitting under a dome constructed from a salvaged parachute, PVC pipes and rebar at Burning Man 1999, the last such event of the cultural (if not literal) century.

We just came back from a walk around the other end of the site, the "noisy end." This is also known as Nightclub Row and the Blue Light District. Within a few yards of each other are camps exhibiting Mad Max style deathmobiles (Death Guild), a faux Arab sheikdom, nude & costumed men and women on swings, plus Antarctica, a refrigerated semitrailer with living room furniture and a DJ inside.

We got in last night. We is Matthew Hawn, Suzanne Stefananc, Farai Chideya, Caius and Lessley. Tom Caddell will arrive tomorrow. We pulled into Black Rock City around 8 last night, well after dark, after a 10 hour trip. On the way up we picked up last minute supplies at a K Mart in a Reno suburb. The suburban desert development reminded me of parts of Houston - flat and depressed. Preplanned and prefab in a way that's both sinister and banal. It felt more like David Lynch than Norman Rockwell.

After that, we drove straight through to Gerlach, down a long and winding two-lane desert road that cut through an Indian reservation and little farming towns. Power lines criss-crossed the dry, empty land. Smooth rock slopes down to a small river that's clearly been cutting through these hills for thousands of years. This whole area was once underwater. You can see the strata levels in the hills around us. We're driving through the desert on the floor of some vast inland sea.

Teenage rhyme:
"Beer & wine, mighty fine
Beer & whiskey, mighty risky"
What's the poem for Ecstasy and mushrooms?

Friday morning. Wasted again. It's been hard to write. So much activity. So much input. Sights. Random madness.

Last night:
Dust storms.
Mixed X and mushrooms (for the first time? Or was that the night before? They mix well. I've never tried them together before. I could grow used to this combo. Uncentered delight with vague hallucinogenic jitters at the edges of the world).

Walked straight across the playa in the middle of the night. Lights in the far distance. Lights of bikes coming toward you from the deep dark. Cold. Distance is distorted by the dark, drugs, dust and creeping exhaustion. Collapsed at Bianca's Smut Shack. Full of happy, stoned people dancing & making out. Bundled against the cold & dust, we can't guess their genders. They're just piles of clothes groping each other. Girls & boys with glowing hair bring trays of Altoids and grilled goat cheese sandwiches. "Bianca loves you," they say with each serving.

Stopped to piss behind a truck on the way back to camp. The truck was on the edge of the city. Behind it was empty desert. Dark hills in the distance. When I looked up, the half-moon was hovering above Orion. Wildly beautiful.

Saturday morning. In line for the bathroom: a couple of pastel-decked gay boys embracing, heavyset and tattooed hippie chicks, a topless cowgirl in black boots and silver hotpants, a body builder in a sarong, an older, gray-haired naked hippie guy and a couple discussing how to build a potato cannon that could shoot a half-mile.

Saw part of the Seemen's show last night, but left before the end because the crowd was just too big and dumb (of course, our group's perception of the event might have been colored by the fact that it was the only night we weren't tripping). The population of Black Rock City has doubled in the last 24 hours to over 20,000. Many of the newbies seemed to bring the air of MTV Spring Break with them. Drunken frat boys. Gawkers. Locals cruise the camps on foot and in their pickups hoping to spot a glimpse of naked chicks, preferably in mid-clench.

Last night a guy (stoned?) jumped from a 30 foot tower in the Church of Mez camp (note: find out more about them; I had a minor character named in Kamikaze L'Amour). Apparently, he told his girlfriend and others he was going to jump, but no one took him seriously. This begs the question of whether it was drugs or a dumbass suicide attempt. Probably both. 30 feet isn't a good height for suicide. I recall the Journal of Trauma Medicine said that 50-60 feet was bare minimum for guaranteed death. An ambulance took him to a hospital in Reno. We've had no reports as to his status. If the Black Rock paper had the info, would they print it? According to Lessley, who's working for the paper, they've already squashed a story on the rogue bomb that went off on the playa. Don't give the Powers That Be another reason to deny BM a permit next year.

Gorgeous, mock-cheerleaders at the Seemen show. Beautiful, dangerous and alluring women at the Death Guild Terrordome (a geodesic dome built to resemble the dome from the last Mad Max movie). The DG girls & boys danced with fire, drove Mad Max-style art cars and tore up the playa on big bikes. I felt at home watching them, but estranged with the knowledge that I'd never be them. They live the life 24/7. It's not me. I wish it were, but it isn't.

More images:
A lovely little rave girl with white angel wings and gold shorts decorated with a delicate Indian chain dances by herself unselfconsciously outside the chai house at center camp.

The neon horse running across the playa at night. The troupe of animals expands to include a school of swimming and leaping fish. A flock of neon birds (done in the simple bow-shaped lines, the way a child draws birds in the far distance). A hopping kangaroo. Later, the roo is joined by a little joey. As they hop, they make sproinging sounds.

A giant Zardoz head in the blue Light district is a dance club. This has to be some twisted sign that I belong at BM. Zardoz is the worst movie I have ever loved. That someone has built a monument to it has to be significant.

A mediocre sideshow performed by aspiring carnies.

Bone Tree:
Created and presided over by long-haired acid crazy artist, Father Time. The Tree is 20 feet tall, constructed entirely from animal bones - deer, cow, etc. The bones aren't just slapped together into a vague tree shape. They curve along the trunk and form crooked, sinuous branches in a complex and organic fashion. You can easily believe that mad Father Time had grown the thing in some gene-spliced boneyard near an abandoned Soviet nuclear reactor.

Homemade vehicles built on golf carts, go-karts and small electric vehicles. They resemble flying saucers, a snail, a roach, a tiny Winnebago. Larger vehicles include a roving bar on wheels, a living room set (later, taken over by the abusive postal workers) and a redneck in a Barka Lounger. He even has a little TV which plays wrestling continuously. If you get too close he tells you to fuck off. He doesn't need your arty crap.

Mr. Electro:
A man with a huge Tesla coil on top of a panel truck. The man is dressed in a metal suit topped with a birdcage. The suit acts as a Faraday Cage, conducting the electricity around him, but never letting it touch him. He looks sort of like Dr. Evil in his clear plastic suit in Austin Powers. 10 foot long purple arcs of static electricity snake from the coil's mushroom head and jolts his suit. He speaks into a PA system: "I am Mr. Electro. Follow me..." like some whacked electric prophet. I think of the Electric Christ from The Ruling Class.

At times the playa resembles a vast film set. Light from the half moon flattens the nearby hills into a scrub-covered matte painting. The sky is perfectly clear. Familiar constellations: Orion, the Big & Little Dippers, the Seven Sisters, with Venus hovering brightly to the side. Below, half-finished sculptures become an elaborate obstacle course in the desert night. You wander to the empty No Man's Land in the center of Black Rock City, taking a shortcut to Bianca's Smut Shack or Disturbia or Death Guild. You're hammered on X or mushrooms. The wind kicks up at night, bringing curtains of dust rippling across the flat, cracked playa (the complex web of cracks resembling the neural pathways on the surface of a desiccated brain). And suddenly there is a pile of fresh-cut lumber. Or aluminium pinwheels a foot across. Or a drum of diesel fuel. Blinded on drugs, tunnel-visioned in your dust goggles, you quick step around these vague obstructions, the half-complete thoughts of the brain you're trodding on. Happily zoned on X, you bump shoulders and hips with your companions in the dark. Undrugged, these random collisions would be annoying. Drugged, they're an amusing reminder of the solidity you can't escape through chemicals, no matter how liquid you feel. You fall in and out of love quickly, randomly, in classic polymorphously perverse fashion. One night, I fixated on fur and touched every coat, hat and glove that would permit it. Another night, it was metal. I watched Lessley fall in love with the bristles of paint brushes in a texture tunnel laid out on the playa just for those of us who were tripping. She rolled her face in the brushes, like a young dog rolling in grass. I fell in love with her for that moment, then in the roving, amorous X fog, I was soon fixated on the fire dancers in the Terrordome. Then, the half-nude nun on the swing set near the deserted sideshow.

At night, the sky twitched with lasers, fireworks, flares (allegedly illegal, but plentiful, just the same), stars and meteor showers.

Bikes. Walking. Lots of walking. Confused dogs, lost in the rushing crowds. Happy children. Scared children. They're not used to seeing adults behave like this. They're overwhelmed by the anarchy that delights us. Farai tries to comfort a lone boy in a stroller, but there's a kind of animal fear in the boy's eyes that no stranger's touch is going to ease. Where are his parents?

Trading cigarettes for vodka at Tatooine and the Tiki Bar. Tom trades some buds. Lessley gives me her black feather boa. I know it's an absurd object for me to own, much less wear, but my current obsession with textures has the better of me.

A girl covered in pom poms. Her dress, hat, stocking and boots are covered in little white cotton tumors. She invites me and others passing strangers to touch her poms and amuse ourselves. "The future will be all about poms," she tells us. A costume and a philosophy. This is what I came here for.

Ran into Molly. She's wearing a black wig all the time and is steadily stoned. She's using her costume and this altered state to turn the whole event into some weird, personal art piece - part smut and part otherworldly.

A woman has built a flaming waterfall on the desert. A large metal tub with recirculated water. A layer of flaming naphtha floats on top of the cascading water. The flames swirl and eddy on the surface and slip down the sides with the water's flow. You can cup your hand in the water, scoop it up and come away with a handful of fire. The naphtha burns off before your fingers singe.

I try to wear the desert clothes I bought, but I'm more comfortable in my black jeans, boots and heavy black vest. The white shirts, khakis and army pants I packed are tried and discarded. Next year, I'll bring more leather.

Caius and I take a rope bondage class from Burning Man University (which is right across from where the guy took the header off the tower; new age types are doing some kind of prayer/cleansing ritual on the site). I'm as hopeless as ever in the class. I can get about half the slipknot we're supposed to be learning. I'll practice more at home. I also think I'll stick to chains and handcuffs. I can work keys. When the teacher asks for a volunteer to demo knots on, I raise my hand. It only seems right. When I think of all the people I've bound and tormented over the years, it's only right that I should do this small penance. Of course, when she had me bound, she proceeded to steal my dice, pinch and torment me. It wasn't that bad, really. And I felt better for going into that vulnerable bottom space, if only for a moment. But it didn't help me tie the damned ropes any better.

By the night of the burn, half the crowd looks like a cross between Mad Max and Rocky Horror. I'm in a dusty cowboy hat, leather jacket, dust goggles, fucked up engineer boots, ragged black jeans, with a neckerchief (that doubles as a dust filter) hanging from a belt loop and the feather boa.

The night of the burn, I can't take my eyes off one of the fire dancers. At a distance, she looks just like my friend Alice, herself a performer. The woman on the playa is a little smaller, but they move with a similar grace, and I think Alice might like her act. She rakes small sprigs of flame (attached to wires on the ends of her fingers) over her torso, cutting hot, yellow lines in the air.

There's a big male dancer with a body that's a cross between a dancer and a bodybuilder. He's spinning twin burning globes on the ends of chains. He's remarkable. Michelangelo's David is supposed to be the West's male physical ideal, but this guy has David on the run. He's strong and masculine, but his movements are fluid and graceful and powerful.

The night of the burn, the fire dancers are working overtime. The Man simply won't burn. And his arms won't raise. Later, we learn that everything went wrong. The people with flamethrowers on the playa lost all radio communication. The big sculptures and marchers who were supposed to form a procession around the man never got to move. Finally someone pushed a button and just torched the Man. It was still spectacular. Fire, fireworks, thunder and crackling firecrackers and M80s. One of the guys operating a flamethrower around the man is nearly engulfed in flames when the man ignites. He and his small crew have to haul the flamethrower back before they're swallowed up by the flames. Later, we learn the guy operating this flamethrower was Tom's friend, Eric. He looked genuinely shaken, both by the close call and by the lost moment - all the choreography they'd worked out for the burn was lost when the mikes went down.

After the initial burn, the Man is reduced to piles of smoldering ruins. The mounds that were the man, the neon tubes and mountains of haystacks glow like burning peat. It looks like something from Dore's illustrations for the Inferno, only cheerier. People are huddled around the wreckage, attracted to it by that reptile brain urge that always draws us to fire (especially BIG fires). People are bundled against the cold. Yet, naked people dance around the flames. Some are clearly hippie pros, used to public nudity. They dance to spontaneous drum circles (which finally make sense tonight; the playa is part Terrordome, part Bacchanal and all pagan). Some of the naked people are new at this. Stoned and goofy. A tall, naked man embraces his much shorter girlfriend. The man has an erection, the first one I've seen here. No one cares. The fire is more interesting, but the stoned couple are delighted with the scene and each other. You don't often see massive destruction so happily embraced. Art is burning all over the playa. This is the Bonfire of the Vanities the way it should have gone down. Happily. Voluntarily. Burn it all. Make more art tomorrow. The phoenix spitting fire over to the west is key.

Across the playa, the glow of the Blue Light District looks like the light of burning cities in a Bosch painting. The Garden Of Earthly Delights would be a good theme camp. If you did the whole triptych with real people. Some would be your crew and others would be the passersby you invited in to torment or frolic.

Fluorescent milk light in the center of the dark playa.

Sounds all week, especially at night: Drum circles, distant techno beats, laughter, muttering, dogs, small explosions, footfalls, wind.

Terrible live music everywhere. The one art form not well represented at BM. Why is that?

Pissing, constantly pissing. Drink lots of water. Portable toilets are emptied everyday, but always seem full. Pissing on the playa. Pissing behind trucks. By the end of the week, anyone will piss pretty much anywhere. All the social conventions break down here. I would never do this in the city. Here, it's just common sense.

It's hard coming back to the world. Bewildering. Everything and everyone annoys me. Everything is trying, dull and banal. I'm easily angered by people and other drivers. Their stupidity and obliviousness. It passes quickly. I don't want to be back.

Richard Kadrey is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He writes regularly for Wired magazine, and is well known for his Covert Culture Sourcebook.