Burning Man, The Body
by Morrisa Sherman

Photographs of the Action

Morrisa @ Home

I usually avoid Grateful Dead quotes, but my, what a long, strange trip it's been! Alas, nj couldn't get the time off from work, but I was by no means at a loss for companionship! I'd like to send my affection and thanks for a wonderful trip to my van-mates Paul Lord, Brian Cash, Jen, John Edwards, Mark Cleary, Evolve or Perish, Soren and Dana, as well as our campmates billbill, Mary, Kristen, Nat, Bree, Pygmy, Dr. Strychnine, and Gina. It was truly intoxicating to bask in the presence of so many friends at such an auspicious occasion, and I shall remember this trip until I am very old indeed!

Our coordinator, leader, den mother, and all around inspiration Paul spent Thursday afternoon with me packing, fetching the 15 person Rental Van of Doom, collecting our crew from airports and bus-stops and cafes, and of course, shopping. Not content with our box of bulk-purchased assorted glow sticks, 15 inch tent stakes, and a box-load of small percussion instruments, we ran ourselves ragged AQUIRING. "Yellow duct tape! Flashlights! Interference violet pigment! Water soluble paint sticks! A fine length of fabric! A bucket! Twine! A most captivating gauze skirt!" Yes, we went forth into the Haight, and bought it.

We then packed our crew up to the Sweetwater in Mill Valley to hear the band Jambay play. I liked them enormously. They reminded me of a combination of King Crimson, Steely Dan, and Sly and the Family Stone, with a touch of Tracy Chapman thrown in. The band had far more energy than our entire crew and were still bopping and singing and shining as each of our heads in turn dropped to the table in exhaustion from our sundry jet-lags and early risings. If they ever head your way, see Jambay. They are an intelligent, wild crew, and they command their instruments well.

As for the rest of the evening, well, I have to stop this business of sleeping on floors. My back is too old for such nonsense.

On Friday, Paul drove us all the way from San Francisco to the playa. We stopped in Reno to pick up Soren and Dana, and then went on a huge food, water, and ice blitz, but Paul did indeed get us through all the mountainous and desertish scenery, drove the twelve, tense, off-road miles through the zero-visibility playa dust-storms, carefully following the tire tracks in the dust of the pilgrims who came before us, right into camp, AND found the talk.bizarre camp already comprising billbill, Mary, and Kristen, all praise be to Paul, Hallelujah.

Paul observed well and quotably how "the playa just STARTS." The desert is a live thing, full of insects and lizards and birds, sprouting bristly with brushes and bushes and thistles and grasses, but at the edge of this ancient dried salt lake bed, life simply refuses to even attempt the flats. Every last blade of grass stops short as if to say, "nope, uh-uh, can't live there. I'll just stay here where it's safe." I felt a sudden need to count our water containers again, and was gripped by an awestruck respect for the playa bordering on fear.

Can't say the same for all the heads and freaks and off-roaders, though! Even from the road we could see the plumes of dust rising from the tires of the cars, the vans, the trucks, the motorcycles, the wheeled windsurfers, and the light aircraft.

In camp we could see the little flagged stakes demarcating our place in the burning man scheme, and we could see to a band playing on the central stage, but the fine alkali silt clouds raised by the wind and the many vehicles entering the campsites was so dense it was quite difficult to catch my bearing at first. Having a arbitrarily infinitesimal sense of direction meself, I didn't venture out on explores until we pitched the tents and I had others to wander with me.

We wandered past art cars all decked out in dinosaurs, dolls, and daisies, a handmade camera obscura, a little roofless house of many doors, a huge and inexplicable sculpture involving a pedestal of mortared books supporting a tank wherein mysterious tendrilly things were floating, a full blacksmith shop creating giant, spiked wagons of the damned, and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence own Wigabago. There were tarot readers, cavorting nudes, dancers, jugglers, bands, and a McSatan's where the hungry could refresh themselves with damned burgers.

Alas, emboldened by my increasing familiarity with the organization of the camp, I decided to wave my companions on and stayed at the drumming circle to belly dance. Predictably enough, I torqued my knee out. Watching the rangers helicopter a casualty out of the camp (I never did find out what happened to that person) while limping back to camp sobered my mood distinctly. Someday I really must give dancing up entirely, but so far I've always feared more for the pain of my soul than the pain of my knees. The walk back to Camp talk.bizarre was slow and achy, and I remained the least motile creature in our sea for the rest of the weekend.

I did take a walk Saturday, though. I painted my face elaborately; shaded myself well with my huge, Chinese, peaked rice paddy hat and a veil; decked myself out in my leather bodice, layers of gauze skirts and scarves of earth-tones and gold, and girded my hips with lots of jingly jewelry until I felt appealing enough to contribute to the general ambiance, and ventured forth.

It was a rather slow and ponderous venture, mind you, for I was fasting in preparation for the evening's festivities, and I was taking frequent stops for sips of water and knee rests, but I saw the "Gates of Dis," its towers decorated with pikes and the skull of a demon, its courtyard full of writhing acolytes wearing sneakers, streamers, stilts, body paint, masks, and little else as they practiced their pageantry. I got to meet their goat and feed it a bit of the hay-bale on which I was seated, and a fine and gentle nanny she was!

As I passed Smiley-Face Camp with its white picket fence and its pathway of brilliant green Astro-turf, I stopped to appreciate the rows of happy, yellow smiley-faces mounted on slender, wire stakes, and was rewarded with a languorous "Have A Nice Day" from a Smiley camper supine on a chaise-lounge.

I admired a lissome young woman with high Somali cheekbones and a headful of long braids wearing nothing but a string of huge pink beads around her midriff, as well as a small caravan of sporty gents on bicycles the view of whose muscle definition was also uninterrupted by clothing. I listened to the cacophony at the 88 Pianos site where noiseheads took up the scattered drumsticks from the playa and pounded like delighted children on the monstrous structure made all of the skeletal soundboard remains of many hapless pianos. I saw "Lost Vegas" with its bereft icons of dissolution, where Elvis and Marilyn are always home. I saw the Jolly Roger pirate Winnabago with its lusty seafarers swaggering and shouting from the roof wandering the oceans of the playa and harassing wayfarers. I saw an ethereal face of metal wire, taller than I and most Byronic of aspect. I met a fabulous queen named Fatima whose dangling, fleshy ear-lobe sported a piercing wide enough to accommodate a small zucchini. And everywhere the air hung heavy with music, drums, and the maniacal laughter of the happy campers.

It was a treat to see billbill and Mary frolicking on their home planet. The hot desert air and parch-crackle earth made Mary twinkle and dance, and life far from the hum of florescent tubes clearly agrees with billbill. They whirled in strange play around each other like a binary star. I love their love. They painted their hair and decorated it with spindles of cable-ties, black, Medusan feelers for Mary and a row of perky lime green ones for billbill. As Mary pointed out, "here is the male of the species, note the colorful plumage!" Mary looked most Bedouin in her veils of thin cambric, and billbill painted a different shirt each day with a new burst of color.

The mise-en-scene brought out the creative pageantry in all of us. Brian found a new use for yellow duct-tape, as an art media! He created us an aboriginal cave-newt that bore striking resemblance to the scheme of the Man, clearly our emblem for all T-shirts, kites, badges, and commemorative dinner plates next year. Nat strummed songs for us on a guitar and a banjo. Pygmy, who also belly dances, deigned to grant us a few fetching tummy shimmies. Dr. Strychnine read us finnegan's Wake to the tune of the talkin blues. Nat and Brees gas stove-lette actually saw some genuine cookin action. Mark Cleary, hereafter known as Mudboy, became one with the earth, and sported a fashionably crackled layer of playa silt as often as possible. Both Paul and Brett looked wonderful in flowing skirts, and we could all see that Kristen was up to something artful as she paced around a sheet of mylar placed just so and photographed its surface. John spent a good amount of time considering fire by pouring out a stream of rubbing alcohol on the playa and lighting it.

That night as we grew stranger and stranger, I painted and drew on my companions, wild, flaming, dripping scenes of goddesses and cat people and eyes and birds. I watched Paul juggling and manipulating and twirling glow sticks. Brian created us a glow staff by duct-taping a half dozen or so glow-sticks to each end of a heavy wooden dowel, and man alive, would Robin Hood himself envy the effect of such a staff! We saw the far-off burning of the Gates of Dis, roiling like a hurricane of flame on the horizon, and we could hear the banshee cries of other revelers. I read finnegan's Wake, and felt as close to understanding as ever I had before, there with the wide landscape of puzzle-piece desiccation a-glow with twirling colored lights, the stars laughing bright, the thrum and pound of distant bands, and the crack and spray of fireworks in the air, and my friends so beautiful I like to die, oh, yes, Mr. Joyce, I see, "Hark, the corne entreats, and the larpnotes prittle."

The experience got a bit less glamorous when, after falling asleep in the shut hatchback of the Colorado contingents van, I awoke breathless, claustrophobic, and dangerously heavy in the bladder, and realized I couldn't open the hatch from the inside. I knocked until my knuckles bled, but of course, on such a night, I only succeeded in freaking out my poor cohorts, who, dimly wondering what that creepy knocking noise was, shuddered and went back to sleep. When I cried "help" a couple of times, Jen came to my rescue and release, bless her. I lurched off to the porta-potties and left the van open on my return. I was nervous about shut doors for three days afterward.

I was awakened far too early on Sunday morning by the sound of a saxophone trying to sound like a conch shell. For many minutes this loser escapee from the set of "Lord of the Flies" tormented us with his blasts. I wanted to go find him and explain that we had been up all night learning philosophy from the whirling of glow sticks, and perhaps to rip out his throat with my teeth if he persisted, but I was worried about getting lost in the dust clouds, so I just sighed, cross and resigned, got dressed, and rediscovered food. After a day of fasting in the desert, chocolate was far more than it had ever been.

Sunday I stayed in camp. There were a number of adventurers who went to the mud pit to get naked and slippery with other like-minded playa-mates, but my knee was giving me grief, and napping, reading, chatting, and watching the poignant prettiness of Soren and Paul as they took their own naps seemed like enough of a challenge for me poor old bones. Had to rest up for the spectacle, don't you know. Visitors to the mud-pit were entitled to actual showers at the Water Woman camp, so our cohorts came back to camp pink and clean, their hair already dry from the desert heat, with stories of mud slickened wrestling and the seductive dangers of playing twister in the mud-pit!

Seemed that sessile though I was, many of our fellow travelers were happy to play Mountain to my Mohammed. Though I stayed in camp, a great many sights trundled past for my delectation. There was the bike rigged out like a giraffe. There was the little scooter shaped like an anteater. There was the flatbed truck with the electric band on the bed. I musn't forget the motorized couch putting across the desert at a pretty admirable clip, as well as the art car that sported two caudal fins that arched higher than the car was long. Oh, and then there was the chap who was being dragged on a tether behind a truck like a water skier, only he was seated on a commode with his pants down about his ankles, reading his newspaper! I liked him!

Also, Sunday's sky was punctuated with quite a number of sporadic parachutists. Everybody wave!

Later in the day we fell victim to a rumor ruse as a truck drove by bearing a prankster and his megaphone telling us about a mythical storm warning. We struck camp before the spectacle, terrified of Paul's lurid tales of his experience during last years rainstorm that ripped his tent from its stakes, but billbill and Mary brought us back to earth by actually toddling out to the ranger station and checking out the spurious tale. Drat!

Around dusk, things started to ignite. The neon-lit arms of the Man were raised to signal that the time was coming. We saw blasts of fire releasing huge, mushrooming smoke signals that dissipated into black and perfect smoke rings in the air coming from the direction of the man. We tied our remaining glow-sticks to strings for proper twirling and set out to investigate. There was a long line of fire a short distance from our camp, probably someone discovering rubbing alcohol or lighter fluid. Then we found that the little house of doors had been set on fire, and the heat blast from conflagration was quite powerful. It was quite a photo-op; I hope John's pictures came out well! For a time it seemed best to just follow the fires. The tank and book sculpture was also ablaze. Little rockets and roman candles spit parti-colored flame morsels into the dusk, illuminating the costumes and bodies all around us, thronging toward the Man. We stopped to twirl our glow lariats and glow-staff and to juggle our glow-balls. We were met with approval from other glow-campers, and the fire-eater asked to try out the glow-staff.

Some poor chaps clearly misinterpreted their audience when they hit upon their idea for a commercial venture at Burning Man, and in these last hours had brought their truck to the crowd to try to give away their shunned wares, beer. Their cries of "Free Beer" fell on such unanimous apathy, that they deteriorated into desperate little rants of: "No, really and truly! Honest! Actually free beer! Expensive, micro-brewed beer, and were giving it away, free! Free beer!" Yes, in the land of the hallucinators, you can't GIVE beer away.

The crowd grew thicker, and the proscenium became populated with paraders, painted, masked, dancing, be-ribboned, hatted, frolicking paraders carrying pikes and giant puppets and huge masques with floating voile streamers, ranked with stilt walkers and jugglers and acrobats. Someone brought a giant papier-mache fish into the fray, as well as a giant slice of toast!

The colored neon illuminating the man changed colors, and then again, and finally, to the shouts and entreaties of all the paraders and pressing hordes, a lick of flame shot up one leg. The flame ignited the Mans inner guts of fireworks, and his body began shooting spurts of color and to squeal with flashing fiery pinwheels at his wooden chakras. The fireworks set the massy wooden frame ablaze, and he swayed with the trembling activity of his flames, his Chinese-lantern head burning orange. The big fireworks spread over the inferno-effigy like huge layered umbrellas of green and red and white light, all so bright the entire multitude was illuminated, bright as day, and I could see everyones internal effigies burning along with the man as I gazed at the faces all around me.

The frame shuddered and collapsed into an enormous, shapeless bonfire, and the crowd dispersed into smaller klatches of merrymakers, drawn to one fire or another, dancing to one beat or another, driving one vehicle or another, or lighting one rocket or another.

Camp talk.bizarre was still neatly packed away after our earlier bamboozlement. Brett and I went to sleep in the van of doom and the others pitched a hasty camp for our last night on the alkali flats. After a spate of sleepy conversation, we dropped off to the music and fireworks still booming strong in the dark.

The next day after a frazzled packing session, endless concatenations of individual and group hugs, and two jump-starts, one for Kristen from billbill, and one for the Van of Doom with the help of kind strangers after billbill and Mary had departed, we followed the Tire Tracks of Life off of the playa, back to the road, and to the comforting, patchy green and brown of the desert.

Paul got us to Reno for a big meal at a casino restaurant where I ate deep fried fat and some fat in a fat sauce with fat on top and a little fat on the side. Then we crossed the street to another casino to play some pool and have some ice-fat for dessert! After a weekend of mostly water, fruit, and tortillas, it was a welcome feast indeed! I drove the rest of the way back to San Francisco from Reno, smiling at my pals in the rear-view and rockin out to the Butthole Surfers, pouring like an avalanche, coming down the mountain.

I will brook no dissent; nj is coming with us next time.

You can too. Remember, that's Burning Man 97, Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Don't forget your air-mattress.

©Morrisa Sherman