Photographs by Laura Mattingly
Not your parents' church: The Conexus Cathedral serves as both dance club and setting for at least 20 marriage ceremonies during the week.
A Burning Man Travelogue
By Laura Mattingly
First of two parts
It's the middle of the night and the surrounding cars have loosened large waves of dirt and dust from the desert floor. The fine particles of ground carried in the air rise like thick pollen or smoke, as if the entire desert is smoldering to death and being planted at the same time, and the stuff blows in my open driver's side window turning my eyes and lungs to chalk.
A man in a huge Russian-style fur cap with ear flaps and a long heavy coat approaches my car.
He greets me paternally and tells me where media can get information of where to camp.
"Black Rock City is an amazing place, and you will love it here. But bring water with you at all times. You won't meet any deadlines if you're passed out on the desert from dehydration."
Away from the greeting tents there's no light but the illumination from my headlights. Cars and tents huddle in jumbled rows, and I have trouble discerning any order to their placement. Locking up the car I try to locate some land marker, but in the darkness none of the camps look to be any more than shadowy heaps.
I sweep my small flashlight around.
"Shit. I'm never going to make it back to my car."
I make out a small sign a few yards away that says "No Parking," swivel around and head through the jungle of camps to what I believe might be the center of the city.
Center Camp is in the shape of a well-lit circle and I feel like I've stumbled into a cafe packed with the most hip, aloof, fashionable counterculture crowd located on another planet. Fur is big here. Fake fur and long coats and neon-colored wigs and tall boots, and various unique designs of pace paint. I'm aware that I have never appeared so out of place for anything in my entire life, dressed in the same tan pants, button-down shirt and down vest that I left the office in earlier that day.
Media Mecca, the camp that I have been told to find, consists of a cluster of abandoned couches, no one to help in sight. I begin to understand the immensity of the city's size; I have no idea where to camp or which direction to walk in. I briefly encounter two equally out of place tourist businessmen from Taiwan.
"Do you know about Taiwan? Another man I met here didn't know about Taiwan," one says.
"Yes, I know that Taiwan is a country. Though I've never been there," I say. "Do you know where I could camp?"
"I think you can camp anywhere there's room."
Just outside Center Camp a series of three huge sculptures of human forms stands marking the edge of "civilization" and the beginning of the circle of open desert. The skin of the huge forms appears to consist of metal chains and rings welded together. The tallest form is a standing woman, facing the open playa, arms and hands outstretched into the sky, seeming to pay homage to some gorgeous and magical gift waiting ahead of her in the darkness. She stands perhaps 50 feet tall, metal-dreaded hair hanging behind her. The figure to her left is a man, bent close to the ground on his hands and knees with a flaming liquid dripping out of his mouth into the dirt.
A young man is standing still, looking at the male form. He stays there for a long time, staring, and when he looks up he asks me a question about my camera and the picture I'm taking. He wears a wool coat and hat, and his face is painted with intricate designs integrating animal prints. His eyes are bloodshot and his eyelashes, face and thin beard wear a heavy layer of desert dust, like an additional powdery skin, as though he has stood in this very spot for weeks, breaking his meditation just to speak with me.
He says he's from Maine, but I'm unable to determine whether he's traveled all this way only for Burning Man.
"Do you think that's lighter fluid coming out of his mouth?" I ask as we continue to gaze at the struggling figure.
"Or maybe it's pain," he said solemnly.
Just then two gruff pot-bellied men dressed like bikers walk by the kneeling male structure.
"Look," they speak to each other loudly. "He's puking his guts out from having to take it up the butt!" They laughed and continued walking.
It don't mean a thing if it ain't got God's swing: Inspired by Sufi poet Hafiz, Burning Dan and Jax built a swing for God, made out of a queen-size brass canopy bed.
I wander out into the dark playa, as black as outer space. Each illuminated art-structure, and art-car, and bicycle lit with neon glow-sticks, appears completely independent of its surroundings, some stationary, resembling stars or planets, and others moving, with the steadiness of a satellite or the erratic swerve of a UFO.
Air circulates free of impediments, and I think I should have worn more clothing. I also notice I forgot my water back at the car, and the dry air has already given my body the sensation of being a parched sponge.
But I spot what I can only assume to be "The Man," a tiny blue neon stick figure in the distance, and decide to wander out a little further.
I notice as I walk without a glow-stick that I'm completely invisible to the bicyclists and art cars that pass me. Though there are people all around, I walk in a state of total anonymity, and even the figures who are well-clad in lights appear faceless, the soft, unearthly glow of the glow-sticks not actually extending much further than the stick.
One of the first art-structures I come to resembles a large concrete square, known as the "Sugar Cube." Two stories high, the cube has two walled sides and two open sides, with fire-escape-style ladders so people can climb up and down. Graffiti covers the structure and it's as though a neglected inner-city building reclaimed by the people of the streets has been lifted by natural or unnatural forces, by a twister or a large crane, and deposited in a random spot on the desert hundreds or thousands of miles from its origin. Its simplicity and the shapes spray-painted on the building make it far more familiar to me than the rest of the eerie floating lights around me, so I climb up the ladders to the second-story roof and pause to look around from this new higher vantage point.
"Excuse me," I receive a light tap on the shoulder. "Uh, do you need a hug?" I turn around to see two short, slight figures wearing large dramatic black coats smiling at me arm in arm.
They giggled. "Yes, we saw you standing there alone and we just thought you might need a hug."
"Well, sure I guess so," I say and participate in my first of many group hugs on the playa.
"Welcome home," they say.
"You look a little lost, are you lost?"
"Well, I just got here about 15 or 20 minutes ago."
"Well, welcome home! Really? You just got here, and now you're here in the middle of everything? Amazing! Who are you here with? Where are your friends?"
"Well, I came here alone. I'm a writer for a newspaper and I'm here to write a story about Burning Man."
"Oh, my gosh, a reporter, what luck! How amazing that we would just happen to run into you. My name is Burning Dan and this is Jax, and I've been to Burning Man every year since it began. Where were you headed?"
"Uh, I wasn't sure but I think I planned on going to see The Man."
"That's where we were headed, but then we got sidetracked, I guess so that we could meet you," he said.
Burning Dan's eyes twinkled underneath a large black hat one would expect to find on the head of a magician. And he spoke a-mile-a-minute as Jax, a beautiful dread-headed lady, nodded and smiled, her eyes wide as moons.
"It's amazing, and every burn is just as good as the first, nothing changes, there are many burns, but really there is just one burn, and here we are. It's just as magical now as it ever was, we just saw this mad man running around on a giant insect, an art-car, a praying mantis I think it was, just wheeling around going clack clack clack clack. This is magic right now."
"And why is Burning Man so important, and why do so many people come every year?" he asks, so excited it's as though he's interviewing himself.
"This can change the world," he says. "It'll change exponentially. Everybody that comes here just shines."
"How? What do you mean?"
"This can change the world because whatever is in your imagination, here, you can make it. We made a giant swing. It's at 7:20 and Brave St. You should come visit. It's made out of a brass queen-sized bed with a canopy on it. It was inspired by a Hafiz poem. Do you know Hafiz? A Sufi poet. You should come sleep with us tonight, the swing is very inviting and warm, not high-tech at all."
"You see?" he says. "Everyone has a gift to give. And here they can give it. Like you, you have your writing, what a beautiful gift to give."
"Are you lost? Can I be your tour guide?" he asks. "We'll go on a tour of the playa."
They notice I'm not wearing anything that glows, and Jax quickly produces a neon green patch to wear on a string around my neck.
"Now we won't get lost," she says, and points to her and Dan's matching red neon hearts.
We climb down from the cube and commence walking across the desert at a manic speed.
"So, how will this change the world? Hafiz said it. We just need to use the right ingredients," says Dan. Jax's face lights up and she begins an exaggerated playa-crawl, picking up her knees high one at a time on her tip-toes, sinking low to the ground on the way down, like Kerouac describes Neal Cassady and W.C. Fields, and she recites the Hafiz poem from memory.
"You carry all the ingredients to turn your life into a nightmare--don't mix them! You have all the genius to build a swing in your backyard for God. That sounds like a hell of a lot more fun. ... You carry all the ingredients to turn your existence into a joy. Mix them, mix them!"
As we walk forward, The Man increases in size, gaining an almost ominous quality. Dan continues speaking at high speeds about his experiences at Burning Man over the years, how he had lived with Larry Harvey, the creator of the first stick-man effigy, for 18 years in the Bay Area, and how Dan had himself managed the building of The Man from 1990 until 2000 when his child was born.
"Let me know if I'm going too fast," he says.
Dan and Jax continue to link arms, and Dan links arms with me too. But as he continues talking I struggle to write down all the things he says and have to reclaim my arm to hold my pad of paper in the wind.
"The theme of Burning Man this year is 'Hope and Fear of the Future.' The Man's arms are moving slowly up and down all the time, to represent alternating hope and fear, but they move so slowly, it's hard to tell which way they are going. Everyone sees something different in it," says Dan. "Well, we're almost there, so I'm going to shut up now. I'll let you experience this for yourself."
Only a few yards away from the structure, Dan turns suddenly to face me directly.
"What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of something here? Are you afraid of the desert? Are you afraid to be alone?"
"Well I think I brought enough food and water so I think I'll be OK," I say, but he seems irritated, as if I'm missing the point or am focusing on the wrong things.
Jax stops to talk with two people near the base of The Man. The strangers stand close together, for warmth or to help balance each other. The man is wearing a thick fur jacket with no shirt underneath, and his eyes are very bloodshot.
"My real name is Lightning, but my playa name is Tigger," says the stranger explaining how he found his name. "I tried to give myself a playa name but I heard it has to come to you."
Burning Dan introduces himself and Jax, and introduces me as well. "And she just got here for the first time about, what, 20 minutes ago now? She's a virgin."
"And what is your name?" he stumbled forward slightly. "The Virgin Lupe?"
"Virgin Lupe!" Dan laughs. "Well, I guess you have your playa name now, Laura."
Tigger seems slightly distraught. "That can't be her name. She won't be a virgin next year."
"Yes, it can," says Dan. "Look at her face. She'll be a virgin for a long while still."
We walk into the structure below The Man, pausing to sample goggles that shoot bright flashing lights in our eyes, and a box with a camera that, if you stand in front of it, takes an image of your silhouette every couple seconds, and spits the dark dancing images out of the top.
Jax pauses and smiles a boyish smile under a dark-brimmed hat with a large brown feather sticking out of the band. She looks at my face for a long time. "You're beautiful," she says.
I can't tell if I'm just suffering fatigue--I must have been awake for almost 24 hours straight by this point--or if the thirst is getting to my head, or perhaps just the overstimulation, but I begin to feel strange, on edge and uncomfortable. Everywhere we walk, everything we do, even as we dance and clap our hands to a band playing classic '40s-style love songs on the top of the platform, The Man always hovers over us, large, metal, mechanical, exuding a cool unforgiving blue light.
Dan points out a window at the foot of The Man through which we can view the mechanical workings that allow The Man's movement, a mess of metal guts tangled together and illuminated by a purple spotlight.
The band playing on the platform begins the song "Que Sera Sera," and I sing along with two men I've just met, one Peter Tjeerdsma, the architect and designer for one of the most prominent art-structures on the playa, the Conexus Cathedral, and the other, Nick, a young man who had assisted in digging holes and burying cables for the Cathedral that day.
"Whatever will be will be," the men pause unable to think of the next line, and I pick it up. "The future's not ours to see."
A woman beside us plays a small clay instrument dangling around her neck, which she identifies as an ocarina, and Dan lends Peter a blinking toy consisting of two plastic balls attached to strings, called Astro-Jacks. The tall, distinguished-featured gray-haired architect is fascinated as he develops a particular rhythm bouncing the dangling objects. The younger man, Nick, has long dark hair and calm eyes.
"What do you write down?" Nick asks, watching me intently as I scribble the dialogue of the sprouting conversations around me.
"I write down what people say," I reply, suddenly self-conscious.
"Do you ever write what you think?" Nick asks.
"I usually do that later."
Nick doesn't let down his gaze, and we're quiet for a second.
"Maybe you should have committed to saying something right then."
"Will you go to bed with God?" I hear Dan asking the ocarina player, Wendy, to visit his large swing.
It's Wendy's first time at Burning Man and Dan relates. "Oh, I've only been to one too," says Dan. "I've been to every one, but they're all the same, and this one's the best one."
"We've all only been to one, and we're all one, we're all God, so there's only one of us here," says Peter swinging the Astro-Jacks.
Peter says it's his fifth year at Burning Man. "The first year I came I just rode on my bicycle with my camera and a guitar, and I'd just stop at the most interesting installments and play," says Peter.
I ask why he continues to come back. He points his hand to the Cathedral in the distance. "Where else would I get to build that?"
Our now extended group decides to go visit Peter's Cathedral, and on the way down the platform, Jax's brow looks troubled.
"How are you doing?" I ask her.
"I don't know how, I just know I'm doing."
We begin making our way to the Cathedral across the cold open desert. We form a line, and link arms around each other's waists for warmth. Peter stands in the middle of the line and directs us in a circuitous path toward our destination. The huge structure is not a closed building, but rather a graceful outline. Two rows of long slender pillars slope gracefully into arches, illuminated by spotlights with slowly alternating colors. Peter points out the continually changing angles and shapes as we move in a circle around the structure. Every step we take allows us to see the Cathedral differently.
Standing under the huge arches feels like standing in the rib cage of an oversized prehistoric whale skeleton, the bones having been uncovered by the wind from earth that used to lie under a deep ocean.
Peter continues speaking about the Cathedral from inside, saying how the pillars are made from paper tubing, and how inspiration and collaboration for the project involved the Rhythm Society of San Francisco. It's now cold enough outside for my fingers to have lost dexterity; I fumble with the pad. Wendy, Dan and Jax are holding onto one another for warmth and swaying in the middle of the Cathedral laughing. "We're like a sea creature," says Wendy. I try to focus on what Peter's saying but the words get lost the moment they fall out of his mouth, some bump into each other, and some simply vanish, falling straight through my mind's cupped fingers.
"So what did you say about the Rhythm Society?" I ask, digging a tape recorder out of my bag.
Peter seems immediately distracted as soon as I find the record button, and he rambles on a bit about the enormous rose window painted on a skin of vinyl and mosquito netting that hangs from the Cathedral's top, front side.
Wendy finally becomes impatient that she's losing the attention of the group, as our conversations have become fragmented, and she calls out to me, "Stop being a reporter for a minute. Put that tape recorder away, all of you come here," she instructs.
Peter and I, Nick, and Wendy's friend Aaron, a wandering musician in a self-described postapocalyptic, industrial, blue-man group, all congregate around the "sea creature" and I get caught in the middle of a 14-armed group hug. I tell myself to stop being such a square, claustrophobic jerk, and to relax and enjoy the situation. It's very warm in the middle of everyone. Someone puts a hand kindly on my head.
Then we start humming. No particular melody, just sustained notes. We harmonize some, and I notice some people's eyes are closed so I do the same. The humming continues for a while without any distinct form until one of the chords we strike resembles something from the song "In the Jungle," which inspires Wendy to break out into the melody, and the rest of us intuitively divvy out chords of "a-whim-a-way."
Eventually we laugh too hard to hold it together, and Burning Dan suggests we all go to his camp, promising the warms of his Hafiz swing-bed, and a hot tub made out of a salvaged boat. Very tired, and knowing that I should at least attempt to locate my car again, my water and my food, I hesitate to accept the offer. But I'm too cold to make a rational decision, the momentum of the night sweeps me up in the crook of its arm, and I follow these new friends as they skip (yes, that thing you do in elementary school) across the desert.
Wendy pauses to inspect a huge, infected spider-bite she'd obtained since her arrival in the desert. Brisk walking causes her discomfort, but she finds that if she walks backward the pain is not so bad, so we all walk backward the long cold way to Dan's camp, and on arrival five people pile into the queen-size brass swing-bed under a heap of blankets and sleeping bags. The poles of the swing frame are at least 20 feet high, and thick ropes anchor the contraption to the ground. Dan stands behind us in his magician's top hat, pushes the enormous swing with all its weight, and we all look up at the stars.
Yot Tub: A converted junk speedboat (no, it no longer floats) warms up seven Burners during a cold desert evening.
Dan explains that their "Yot Tub" is wheeled to the desert every year and filled with water on arrival. Dan converted it from a 1960 Dorset speedboat, it holds 200 gallons of water, and can accommodate eight people.
The seven of us strip down to our glow-sticks and climb into the small vessel of blessed hot water. There's no chlorine in the water and I immediately realize that the bodies I'm in the tub with have been roughing it in the desert for far longer than I. The water becomes a pungent body-soup, thick with playa dust and other organic grime. But there's no going back, and it's very hot. Conversation becomes slow and easy in the heat. Dan and Jax hold each other familiarly while Wendy Aaron and Nick share the other side of the boat. The Yot Tub's contents become a tangled human pretzel.
"You can't tell whose knee is whose," someone comments, and though I'm scrunched up in a corner, Peter finds my foot and massages it.
Wendy seems to know a song for every moment and every subject, even recalling an old Applejacks cereal jingle.
As the sky slowly turns from black to blue Jax gets tired and hot, and just as Dan and Jax are about to leave for bed, a sign lights up at the camp across the dirt road. The neon letters say "Black Rock Diner" and Dan informs us that this camp gives out free grilled cheese sandwiches during its open hours.
A man with an enormous black top hat and long tuxedo tails with glowing neon trim appears outside the tent in the early dawn.
"Hello! Excuse me, but could you deliver some sandwiches to our Yot-Tub?" asks Dan. I'd been told about the "gift economy" at Burning Man prohibiting all exchange of money (even the practice of bartering), but actually witnessing the interaction is startling and seems almost mystical. Anything exchanged within the city must be a gift.
A few minutes later the man with the top hat and a striking-looking woman with long black hair bring a tray of grilled cheese sandwiches to the side of our Tub.
The couple stays a minute to chat, admiring our inverted boat, and the man tells us that he and his wife have gotten married just the day before inside Peter's cathedral.
Jax turns to me with sleepy eyes. "See, it's serendipity. We're all supposed to be here."
She goes around to each person, kisses each one on the mouth, and gets out to go to bed.
Shortly after, a passer-by pauses to give Wendy a large fuzzy duck-hat that she puts on immediately.
The sun takes the sky like a huge rude flashlight, and a sudden urgent need to go to the bathroom forces the remaining tub dwellers out of the water.
Peter's long bare leg hangs out of the God-swing, he, Dan and Jax having nestled in a heap. Nick covers Peter's naked rear to protect it from the strengthening sun.
I part from Wendy, Aaron and Nick, who are on their way to a guided breathing seminar.
The daylight reveals a far different desert than I had seen the night before. Everything is visible, leaving nothing to the imagination. The art-structures stick up oddly from the flat desert floor like awkward metal weeds.
Heat and thirst creep up on me, and though I'm aware of the general direction my car is in, I feel certain I'll never be able to locate it on my own.
I've had enough excitement for the time, and so I search for someone "normal looking" to ask directions. I spot an older woman, in her 60s maybe, dressed in plain clothes, futzing around outside her camp.
"Excuse me, do you know where the Greeter Tents are?" I ask, knowing my vehicle is near there.
"Well, I'm not sure, and I don't want to give you the wrong directions, so let me get someone." She turns her head and calls loudly, "Mike!"
A white-haired man of similar age that I assume to be her partner approaches us, in his boxer shorts a deep tan and a large grin.
"Hey, there, young lady. Would you like a dirty hug?"
I pause, and laugh politely assuming that by "dirty" he means "I haven't showered in a while." But instead he throws his arms around me and begins humping my leg.
"I told ya it'd be a dirty one!" he says, laughing heartily at his own joke.
He points me in the direction of the Greeters, and I thank them.
What the F***? Sometimes, alone on the playa at night, things can begin to look a bit strange.
Hot. I wake up in my tent fully clothed and unable to think. I have no idea what time it is, and the boundary between sleep and wakefulness is uneven and crude. The wind has picked up significantly, it grabs at the edges of the tent, and I hear voices of people all around discussing whether my tent will fall and whether they should help me. I reach for my water bottle to drink, but water spills hot in my mouth and tastes vaguely of plastic.
Before my venture here, many people I spoke to had mentioned a "process of acclimation" people go through after arriving on the playa. Now I know what they mean.
Once in the desert after some hours, your body is not yours anymore. It's the desert's, and all the people, mobile and stationary, become strange desert animals. Some float over the flat white desert horizon naked on bicycles with sequined purple cowboy hats, equally real and equally a figment of the desert's imagination. Others slump over each other in piles of blankets that collect in a similar fashion to dust in the corner of a room.
If a person stands too long next to a statue or piece of art, breathing slowly, he becomes covered in a layer of dust, and he himself becomes a statue.
I wonder if I will die in the tent of overheating if I fall back to sleep. I wonder if I have seen enough, and should just pack up and get back on the road immediately.
I stand up, and climb out of the tent. I see nobody around and the voices turn back into wind. I find some watermelon in the cooler. I wash myself by putting water in a large metal pot I've brought, using soap and a clean sock as a washcloth.
I slather sunscreen on my face, put a full bottle of water in my bag, and walk back out to center camp to see what else I might find.
I walk slowly and stop at a bar that offers free drinks. The bartender hands me "Playa Juice," and I don't question what's in it.
Almost immediately after wandering onto the main street of the city, the Esplanade, a beautiful shirtless woman approaches me with bright eyes, and says hello. We talk for a few minutes and she tells me she's headed back to her camp to sit down for a bit and have a drink, and that I'm more than welcome to join her.
"Yes, actually, that sounds good," I say.
Continued Next Week
Send a letter to the editor about this story.