It’s a remarkable, world-renowned event, and some of you will be going, so:
Burning Man started in 1986 with twenty people on a beach in San Francisco, when a man asked friends to help him assuage the pain of a breakup by burning an effigy. A good time was had by all, and they reconvened there until the city refused them a permit, when they found the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.
By 1994, 2,000 people were gathering to celebrate… what exactly, I’m not sure, but it was great fun. I think they were celebrating… just being, and by then art had become the medium of exchange. I first went there in 1995, where I heard grumblings—from the 2,000 people who’d gone in ’94—that the event had gotten too large. But I heard the same thing again the next year from the 4,000 people who’d been there last year, when the attendance had grown to 8,000. This year they’ve capped attendance at 80,000, so grumble away, those who were there last year…
I’d heard about it, and I was going. My pal Roz was doing sound for The Mermen, purveyors of psychedelic surf music. Surf Music? Check. Psychedelic? Check. So what was not to like about The Mermen? And playing at Burning Man? From what I knew about it, they were a perfect band for the gig. So I made preparations for the event according to its main rule: bring in what you want and take out what you bring in. I was ready. We had to be there at least an hour before the gates opened to the public.
I had a nightclub in San Francisco at the time, and we closed at three AM Sunday morning, so Roz showed up, helped us stow our gear, I locked up and at 3:15 we were on our way. I slept while Roz drove to Reno, where we fortified with pancakes and coffee, and I drove northeast towards Gerlach, the last outpost before Burning Man. Gerlach’s an interesting place only in that nothing exists or happens there that seems to be of any interest other than that one weekend a year when thousands—now tens of thousands—of happy lunatics come through, stopping at the store (yes, the store) for last-minute supplies like water, sunscreen, hats, or whatever else. The store gets pretty much stripped by the end of the weekend, but they make a lot of their yearly sales in those few days, so come on in! The people coming through Gerlach are some of the most colorful folks on the planet, and if some small percentage of them wear their freak flags through town, then it’s better than TV or the movies, either of which weren’t all that available to them, anyway. So it’s a pretty good feeling in Gerlach among both residents and visitors, and there’s a lot of cautious smiling going on.
I know some of the local folk must drive out to the site as it’s being built, but I don’t know how many locals get out there for the event itself. Don’t know, don’t care, it’s not part of the story and I wish I could erase this paragraph.
Gerlach was just stirring when we came through at nine-ish. We knew what to bring, and we had it, so we bought some extra water and headed for the Playa.
Let me explain: Burning Man takes place on a dry lake bed that I was told is forty miles long by ten miles wide. I’ve also seen its length listed at 100 miles. It’s the kind of lakebed like at the Bonneville Salt Flats, where land speed record attempts are made because the surface is so flat and empty of features like hills, bumps, vegetation, rocks, stones, leaves, dampness, animal burrows, or any irregularity at all. The lakebed in the Black Rock Desert is so flat and dry that land-speed records attempts are made there, too. And they call the lakebed the Playa, which means beach, but what are you gonna do? When in Rome you go to the Lido; when in Havana, you go to the Malecón. When in Gerlach, you go to the Playa. We were headed there forthwith.
Northeast out of Gerlach, you soon see the Playa on your right. There’s a winding, two-lane country road out of Gerlach, and we had it to ourselves. The shoulder of the road was sometimes five yards, sometimes thirty yards of gravel and brush to the edge of the Playa. Every once in a while we’d pass a sign on the shoulder with the Burning Man logo and an arrow pointing onward, I guess so we’d know that we were still going in the right direction, and not tempted to leave the road and try to get on the Playa. I’m sure the locals knew where to do that, where to get onto the Playa without paying the entrance fee, but people were coming from all over the world for this, and none of us knew the tricks to avoid paying our entrance fees. (I don’t want to sound snotty here, but we had passes and weren’t paying, anyway.)
Ten or fifteen miles on, one of those signs pointed a little to the right, and the next one pointed directly to the right as we approached a wide turn-out with a series of hay bales, stacked in a curve, in the center of which they’d placed a twenty-foot gap, and that was the entrance. We showed our passes and I asked, “Which way do we go?” Still looking at me, in slo-mo speed, he arced his thumb over his left shoulder and said, “That way.” We drove a couple of miles until the gate was a distant dot and we stopped.
First thoughts: Away in the far, far distance were the hills that surrounded the lakebed, and we looked behind us and tried to triangulate between where we were when we entered, the angle the guy pointed at, and the distant peaks that we could aim for. We picked a hill to aim at and drove in that direction. We couldn’t see any signs of life in front of us, behind us or on either side. It was a flat, open plain. There were no structures, posts, signs, notices or any other evidence of civilization. No trash, no tire tracks, no leftover detritus of human passage that we’ve come to expect in any but the most extreme conditions, and many of those—like Everest, the Arctics and various rain forests—already show those signs. So this was sort of new for me, no signs of direction, no sight of people or things, no lanes and no clear idea of which way to go, how far, and how we’d know if we’d missed it.
We stopped and thought, lost-but-not-lost, and this called for burnage. You know what I mean. Along with hats, sunscreen, water, sleeping bags and the rest, we’d prepared for this, too. And it was time. It was fine, fine, burnage and we were ready to go on. We were in the mood.
We had chosen our hill and headed thereto. I had a new Jeep Cherokee, we had the right tunes, we were in the right place at the right time and we both felt right. It was an amazing experience- just driving, with no road signs, no lanes, and no exact direction, just a sense of … that way. I could take my hands off the wheel and drive with my knees. There was no one nearby, and if they were nearby, we’d know miles in advance because the lakebed had a thin, layer of fine dust on it that raised a rooster tail of a mile or more behind us. We could see anyone else’s rooster tails on the lakebed from miles away, and see what direction they were heading in, so running into another car or anyone out there was unlikely unless they were invisible. So that was no worry. Besides, there were only two such trails that we saw on our way in, and they were miles away. So it seemed there was nothing to worry about. So it seemed.
So we cruised, paying less attention to the road than I ever had, and it was liberating. We drove about five miles (?) toward our hill and I began to feel that something was wrong, but what could it be? We had everything under control for a memorably great experience and I had a nagging… something. What? No, it wasn’t that something was wrong, it was more that something… wasn’t… the same. Yeah, something was different. Something seemed out of place in a place where I knew I was in the right place. There was nothing… wrong, it was just that something wasn’t… right.
The new car was keeping the dust out, no leaks, and that was a relief. I knew I had it all covered, but…
Maybe it’s because of my heritage, but I believe that worrying is a right, if not an imperative, and also an admirable way to pass the time. Which I had at the moment. So I drove and I processed, and I drove and I processed until… I got it. Wow! I had it!
In a moment of epiphany, I became highly aware that ever since I’d begun paying attention to cars I’d been trained to obey the rules of the road. And obey is a strong word. When I started to outgrow being a simple passenger in my father’s car, when I began to watch how he drove and thought about how to drive, among the first things I observed were the lines in the road and the curbs and the stop signs and stoplights: the rules of the road. The Rules. And once I started thinking about getting my driver’s license, I began studying and memorizing those rules in earnest. We all did that. We all had the same experience. We all paid attention to the same things and learned the same universal rules and we’ve all lived by them all of our lives, usually every day for most of us. We never think about it, and that’s a good thing. Thinking about the rules while driving would be like thinking about each step as you go downstairs. It’s so automatic for us that it’s almost autonomic. And that, my fellow automobile, motorcycle and bicycle travelers, is a good thing. But why was I feeling… what?
I was disoriented. That’s what it was. For all of my driving life I had to follow the rules that we all knew and lived and drove by, but here there were no rules. Here you could drive as fast or as slow as you wanted, you could veer left or right and there were no lines to cross, no one to hit, and no one and no danger anywhere nearby. I could drive with my knees. I was doing it already! See? I could drive with my eyes closed, and I did that for only a few seconds because it was scary, but I could do it! I was doing it! See? We weren’t even at the event yet and we had already broken one of society’s most fundamental rules- one by which we all agree to obey. It’s vital in any society to establish basic rules of living near other people, but there on the Playa—before we even got there!—those most fundamental rules were abandoned.
There were no solid lines, no dotted lines, no lanes, no signs, no lights. No bumps, hills, rocks, ruts, no tree limbs or animals. Alone. With no direction home. It was an impossible feeling of liberation. It couldn’t be true. Everything I knew told me it was wrong, and yet…
It was so simple and yet so… happily, invasively complete. I hate to drone on about this, but it was exhilarating. There we were, about to enter the encampment of the most socially liberating event on the planet, an event designed to let people cast off their ordinary lives, to be who they want to be. It was a weekend of liberation, and opportunities for this were everywhere around you, if you but wanted it. We were headed for this, and we had just unexpectedly liberated ourselves, thrown off some of the most basic conventions of society- before we even got there!
It was either genius planning or fortuitous happenstance, and when we got there, we were ready! What an experience! Burning Man is the most visual, delightfully lunatic controlled chaos imaginable. I should tell you about it sometime.
So it was the road to Burning Man that set up the vibe! And how many people got that? I mean, I’m sure everyone went there with their own expectations, and maybe liberation wasn’t on their dance card. But they could have it for free whether they knew it or not! And whether or not the people who put on the event intend that to be part of the experience, that is what is available, and that is just brilliant. Try it yourself sometime. On the road to Burning Man, I mean.
We got there before the gates opened—to a tenth of how many people will be there this year—so maybe the driving-there thing won’t be available to you, but the event is designed to let you be who you wanna be, and I wrote this in the hope that some of the magic will happen to you.
And because this column is called “The Music In me,” here’s a track from the Mermen at Burning Man: LINK
Soak up some images of Burning Man: LINK
If you’re going and haven’t been before, check this out: LINK
Gilbert (Spinal Tap T-shirt) and friends
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.