Odyssey – Burning Man II

September 4th, 2008

Dark comes quickly out here. In the time it takes to drive from the greeters to the outskirts of Black Rock City, our home for the next week, ambient sunlight dwindles, replaced by fire and glow sticks. We see from the map that the city is laid out in a near-circle with a rounded horseshoe-like shape. The streets that radiate out from the center are named after hours and half-hours. The long streets that go around the camp in concentric circles are supposed to be named after letters of the alphabet, arranged in ascending/descending order but are instead, confusingly, named after cars. We’re looking for friends who’ve arrived ahead of us and will be hanging out at 3:00 and Esplanade. We didn’t realize that the camp would cover nearly five square miles, and include close to 50,000 people.

We drive around the outer-most road for what feels like days until we spot a street sign for 3:00. It’s desolate at first, but the animation increases as we progress towards the center. People are out for the night dressed up as animals, vegetables and minerals; electronic music vibrates our car, flames shoot into the night sky and restaurants and nightclubs – architecture assembled from only those elements that could be packed in, and will be packed back out later – line the streets. By the time we realize there’s no hope of finding anyone in the dark, we’ve been swarmed by a group of over two dozen zombies who stagger down the road, fully costumed and made-up, attacking all non-zombified people in their way. For a moment I think I’ve lost Sam; he’s only been at Burning Man for 30 minutes and already he’s found his people.

Fortunately, we are soon discovered by a ranger who is sympathetic to our plight (“discovered” may be too generous a term, as we are parked at this point, baffled and amazed, in the middle of a major intersection). He drives ahead of us through the crowds, leading us to an empty campsite where we can stow our car while finding our friends on foot. We take off on a mission which leads into then away from the camp at 3:00 and Esplanade, then off to Center Camp in search of an information booth where campers can leave messages for friends. There are no cell phones out here, and no internet; communication is reduced to the essentials – speaking directly to one’s interlocutors, screaming their names into the wind, or leaving notes in places they are likely to frequent. Meanwhile, our friends have our place to sleep for the night, and we have all the food for the coming week. It feels a bit desperate – like we’ve intentionally abandoned our car in favor of walking aimlessly around a five-square-mile circus in the dark, hoping that every hay bale, every trapeze that emerges from the shadows might reveal people we know. But then I discover a note at the information booth – possibly the best note ever:

“R&S! We’re on Impala between 300 and 2:30 Streets, on left if coming from 3:00. White and grey El Monte RV. Impala is “I” street. Burning Man symbol in tape on back window. Not many other RVs nearby. Just past a red SUV and flaming torches. We’ll be there R&S don’t worry and plenty of space for the car. No matter how late just drive slowly and come to us.”

I aspire to write notes that are so resoundingly informative and comforting.

Following instructions, we find our way to the RV and into our friends’ hugs. The biggest shock of the night – bigger than the scope and scale of Burning Man, bigger than being attacked by wild zombies – comes when I look down and realize that my black flip flops have gone totally, completely white. Along with my legs from the knees down. Playa dust is invincible.

Entry Filed under: Odyssey