You are only a virgin once

Emotional Baggage art installation at Center Camp 2006

Each year at Burning Man is different. Not only is the event ever changing, but we bring many things with us to the playa – enthusiasm, excitement and readiness, as well our personal issues.

Some years seem better than others, and after looking objectively at Burning Man 2010, I know just how much one’s head space affects that perception. 2010 had far more to offer than I felt at the time.

One year that is almost certain to be wonderful and totally full of amazement is your first year in Black Rock City. How can it not be? It will be like nothing you have ever done before.

This is the story of my virgin year at Burning Man. One thing that I really see now in this account, written immediately after my first burn, was just how large a role my default life had in the story.  When you make that first drive, you are still you without Burning Man.  After – well everyone is different.

Whether this was the ‘best’ year in an objective sense, I don’t know, but subjectively, without a doubt, it was.


First Temple dedication and memorial. These messsges burn with the temple on Sunday night.

Friday, September 08, 2006, 8 AM

You are only a Virgin once, or so your momma told you. But you find, as you stumble through life, that there can be more events in your life that deserve such recognition, events other than your first sexual (mis)adventure.

Your first Burning Man is accorded such a status. And with it comes an awareness that this might be something special in your life. And so it was for me. It was on the drive to the Black Rock Desert, about 35 miles before Gerlach, that the realization struck me with force and the tears started. I was headed Home.

Home to the Burning Man countercultural arts festival, home to Bat Rock Camp in Black Rock City. BRC in BRC, it makes resonant sense. I was meeting up with friends from the Mohave desert. The landmark for that ‘home’ was the Bat Rock, and so it would be again.

I grew up – ages 2 to 18 – in San Francisco, an easy ten minute walk to the very spot on Bakers Beach where the event was birthed. The shortest route went by Ansel Adams’ house, through Buckshot Annie’s, over Lobos Creek, across the Lincoln Highway and then down to the ocean. Sometimes we got shot at, but it was much faster than going around three city blocks to avoid the risk. San Francisco in the 50’s.

At 18, I moved on from the city, via The Haight and People’s Park, to UC Davis, then to Tahoe, then to Reno where I have been ever since. Following my family back in time to Nevada. My paternal relatives first came west to settle in Ely Nevada, then three generations born in San Francisco.

When the counterculture art scene of SF spread itself out to encompass the Black Rock, I immediately felt a strong tie, and a powerful need to experience BRC. But Life gets in the way – other things take priority and you wonder whether you will ever walk through those dusty portals.

This year, thanks to the impetus of friends who were considering an overnight in Reno en route, the persistent seed finally germinated and grew. I purchased my ticket the Thursday before and began studying the Survival Guide. The next several days were a whirlwind of preparations, and even doubts. But if you don’t jump on the train, it will pass on by without you and I couldn’t deal with the unrequited longing another year.

And so I drove out of Reno, borrowed bike bungied to the top of my SUV, at 6 am on Wednesday morning. The drive was easy, cool, pleasant. At Wadsworth I found myself sandwiched between a tow truck and an empty school bus on its way to the start of its run. The Nevada Highway Patrol was still dining on doughnuts somewhere. And so the parade to Gerlach started.

The tow truck driver knew every trick for passing traffic and I was a quick study. When the dotted lines said “Go” you trust them and go.  Before long I was looking at open road and feeling completely free and happy. The images and words that had filled my head during the preparation stages now could move around freeform as I approached this mythical destination.

There was a place in my past where I had had a Virgin Season. I made trip after trip there that first winter, as though my sanity and my self depended on it, and each time I topped the pass to drop down for the last hour and a half of the 8 hour drive, a tremendous feeling of coming home enveloped me. That place is gone now. Though a GPS would tell me otherwise, my heart knows and the topping of the pass on my rare trips now to what was has become poignant rather than glorious.

But I was on my way Home now, on my way Home again and headed for the camp in BRC established by the remnants of that Other Place. Looking for the Bat Rock and for the friends who also feel its significance.

All the photos, all the reading I had done for the past six days milled about in my head, and I knew that BRC, that the Burning Man, was another iteration of my special place. Temporary in its physical incarnation, but eternal in the soul. And the tears started, 35 miles from Gerlach.  Life won’t be the same afterward.

In the early Wednesday morning parade into BRC, traffic is light. There is no wait to find a slot at the Gate Nazis. I hand over my ticket, and open up car doors and am passed through quickly. On to the Greeters. I am a Virgin so there is a whole process. I am deliriously joyful.

I am turned over to a scantily clad vamp, Welcomed Home with hugs and smiles, and I feel it to the core. I am handed a brass striker and I give a tuneful thwack to the gong. Then I am told to take my first playa dustbath. Wait, I was ready to strip the excess clothes anyway and clothing starts coming off. Ah yeah she says with a smile, get naked! I stop short of that as it is still quite cold but it’s clear I’ve got the idea. I drop and roll. And roll, and roll. I am home. I am offered the gong again, and I hold it against my body like a lover. I am Home.

I drive the outer ring to my street and turn toward the heart of the City, to the intersection I know to watch for. I see nothing familiar and everywhere there are places and people worth looking at further, so I park and go walkabout to find our camp. A short way from my car, I NEED my camera. I trot back and get it and head out again.

A pink clad waitress with sinewy, hairy legs and a stacked up teased ‘do’ primps in the window of the 50s Diner. The sign reads “Sorry, We’re Open. Barely covered bottoms ride by on bicycles, people everywhere in every sort of garb, camps being set up amid the already dusty earlier arriving vehicles.

Eventually I stumble across an old friend giving a massage in a neighboring camp. She directs me to Bat Rock Camp. I had passed right by it.

I find a suitable spot, for now, and start to rearrange my mess. The last stage of packing was a throw it in party. It usually is. And I’ve brought too much of some things, though I have also done quite well bringing enough of what I truly will need.

The first playa dust storm arrives. The start of a new education.

A couple of hours later, most of my pals have gone off to town. Some have returned. I am on my own schedule. Thinking about a nap. And then the afternoon club next door starts their technorock loudspeakers. I am overwhelmed, not my music. Yet.

I change plans, nap not possible, put on my mp3 player to listen to what I like and head out on foot with the camera. This will be my only trip on foot. I am not yet converted to the wisdom of the bicycle and stick with what I know. It is a good way to start as my pace is completely my own and the camera moves fluidly out from my side to track my progress and the lively sequence of visions – theme camps, decorated bikes and mutant vehicles, decorated bodies.

I have no idea yet how the City is laid out so foot is best as it allows more attention to landmarks, routes, street names, all of that. I reach the Esplanade and the activity redoubles as does the confusion in my mental map. For the next several hours I do the following:

1. take photos
2. study the map
3. hide from dust storms
4. find my way out to The Man
5. find my way to Center Camp
6. find my way back to the Bat Rock

The noise back at Bat Rock is really loud – I find another spot which places some other vehicles between me and the dance club and move my camp, and here I shall stay.

But the strangest thing happens, regarding the technorock which I started out not caring for. By the next morning, it is getting inside me. It was put to me this way: You fall asleep to it, you wake up to it, and when it stops, you miss it. Astonishingly I find this to be true.
The techno beat is the Pulse of the City. When it stops momentarily over the next few days, I miss it. When it stops altogether after the last Burn Night, I am desolate. Days later I still awaken hearing it, moving to it. It has moved inside.

After dinner, several of us bike out to the playa – my conversion to the bicycle has begun and I will be zipping around on it all the rest of my time here, even using it for quick runs to the PortaPotties. This from the inveterate walker, another big switch.

The next several days are a blur. I am following my camera most of the time, chasing dust devils and light. Though wonderful photos can be made at night, I am not willing to sacrifice the day for the night. Night photos take experimentation, a tripod, checking on the laptop whether you’ve got the results right. I love the dawn – the last of the darkness devolving into day. I will use my energy for photographing what I know I can capture, and leave the experimentation for another time.

And so each night I leave my friends early and set the travel alarm for 4:30 am. My head spins with all the thoughts and experiences and I am usually asleep by 1 am.

Later I will feel I have missed most of the spectacular nighttime light shows. Though I actually did see quite a bit of them, it was without the camera and so it was passive rather than actively experienced. My camera is an extension of my arm and my brain and my brain only partially functions without it. Another strange discovery.

The first night I am awakened over and over by terrible leg cramps. I know that I was not drinking enough and know also that I must turn this around immediately. The hydration pack I’d picked up in my frantic preparatory shopping is filled and strapped on and I will barely leave camp without it from the second morning on. At every opportunity, I
drink, til I am practically feeling sick. The cheap one I’d bought leaks into my main pack, cooling my back as I ride. I am a convert and will buy a better one when I return to the Default World.

The first morning I cannot drag myself out of bed in the dark, but the next three mornings I set out before the sun, without coffee, and move through the last of the raves and ravers, some dancing at the still rocking clubs, others resting and warming themselves by the nighttime burn barrels. Other early risers appear with hot beverages for the exhausted.

Out onto the playa to meet the dawn. Art cars three stories high are still lit and rocking. Each night the dance venues are different – the art cars relocate and the crowd with them. One morning I reach the Belgian Waffle just before the dawn signals the extinguishing of the blue and green lighting and the transition to day. Another morning I am at Conexus Cathedral while it is still a rainbow in the night sky. The last dawn I am at the Serpent Mother awaiting a major flame blowout. We  wait outside the safe perimeter, I am up on the platform in front of theDJ with a great view. The big blowout never comes, though I don’t know the reason. That’s ok, next year I will be a night creature and experience what I’ve missed.

After visiting the last of the rave scene each morning, I continue out to the perimeter fence, stopping at art installations which intrigue me, and greet the sun across the limitless playa. BLM rangers leave plumes of dust as they chase down ghosts. Maybe there are gate crashers out there. Maybe they are just having some of their own fun.

And the day moves in, the population shifts, the night partiers sleeping in piles on the playa start their migration to shelter, the day people stumble out of their beds and out into the world. I bike from spot to spot, wherever my eye leads me. Eventually each morning I arrive at the Temple of Hope. I write my first message, to be offered to the heavens
in the burn on Sunday night. There are incredibly poignant messages everywhere – farewells to beloved friends, ex-burners, fathers, brothers; messages from the heart of all sorts. And the mood at the Temple is always quiet, pensive, slightly sad.

I move on toward Center Camp, exploring some of the neighborhoods at the same time – Kidsville before the kids are up, the collection of the lamplighters lamps, and Center Camp awakening. After three early hours, I return to Bat Rock for coffee.

The days are spent on the playa searching out the art installations and in Center Camp watching and photographing the endless display of color and form and movement, riding out sometimes with friends who are also photo maniacs or just on my own. I cannot stay away – I want to see it all. But one cannot.

Before I know it, it is Saturday night and The Man is burning, all these 39,000 people in a ring around The Man, encircled outermost by the flotilla of lit up art cars and next by the smaller mutant vehicles. The flame dancers had occupied the inner ring for their show, and now the show reaches up to the sky.

And then it is Sunday night and the Temple of Hope is in flames. The crowd is silent. There is no music, much thought; it is an entirely different kind of feeling. Then one more big burn – the Belgian Waffle – Uchronia – No Time. It takes a long time to catch but when it does, it burns white hot. I know that those closest will be trying to move away and am glad not to be trapped there.

One last night of music, one last night of technobeat vibrating your bones, filling your body til you can’t just walk anymore but dance everywhere you go.

All day Sunday, our camp acted as if everything was normal, but as dark approached, we all leapt into our individual flurries of activity – packing up our camps so we could pull out early, before the most dense of the Exodus. The alarm is set again for 4:30 am but there will be no amazing morning journey out into the playa this time. Water boiled and in a thermos – driving without coffee – uh uh.

Sunday night. that is where I just want time _ to  _ stop

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