Imagine an entire city built solely for the purpose of self-actualization and gratification. A city composed entirely of nightclubs and art galleries, bars and bordellos, playgrounds and hookah parlors. No sirens or alarms; no doors or locks, gates or fences; no fighting; no police; and no money. Then imagine that after a mere week, this entire magical metropolis erases itself from existence in a blaze of glory, only to be reborn like a phoenix once more the following year. Imagine Woodstock, Mardi Gras, Studio 54, Monster Garage and The Wicker Man, all rolled into one. Welcome to Black Rock City.
“It’s 300 miles to Burning Man: We’ve got a full tank of gas, five cases of bottled water, half an ounce of weed, it’s dark out, and we’re stoned.”
The subtle cadences of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond coaxed the sun from behind the mountains as Vaporella and I cruised the desolate dirt road into Gerlach, NV. Our pilgrimage had begun the night before, in Palm Desert, CA, where we’d set off into the desert twilight. Now, 12 hours later, we’d arrived alongside the new day at the largest sacred-arts festival in America. After years of hoping, I’d finally made it—I was actually at Burning Man.
The event began four days earlier, so most of the city had already been constructed; trailers and cars, tents and tarps, temples and statues—the ancient lake bed known as the playa was mapped out to geometric perfection—but within those lines, chaos reigned. We located our camp, Moonlightenment, in Asylum Village and unloaded. Before I could even erect my tent, Vaporella slipped me a hit of LSD.
“Welcome home!” she said with a Cheshire cat smile.
By the time we’d set up camp, the acid was kicking in, so I started out across the playa to explore the bizarre heliopolis before me. In every direction were swarms of people, on bikes or on foot, either naked or in flamboyant costumes, and mutant vehicles covered in fur, spitting fire and blasting music. I headed dead center, toward the Man himself, towering up ahead. Around his base were banners created by visionary psychedelic artist Alex Grey for Tool’s “Lateralus” tour.
From there, I walked to the far right edge of the semicircle and made my way back along the Esplanade (the main avenue on the playa) toward Asylum. Eventually, I came across Area 2257, the adult-themed village housing the camp of adult star Jennifer Steele. Jennifer and I had become instant friends after I wrote about her in HIGH TIMES (“Almost Infamous,” Nov. 06), and it was her generous gift of a pair of tickets that had been the impetus behind my journey here. I knocked on the door of the trailer and found her inside with her husband, Mike, smoking weed from her “sex pipe”—a glass piece incorporating all of the male and female erogenous zones.
“You’re here!” she shrieked, giving me a big hug and kiss. “I’m so glad you made it!”
After a major smokeout, she led me over to the next camp to meet her friends the Temple Whores—a tantric massage and spiritual sex workshop group from Seattle. “Whores!” shouted Steele as we turned the corner to find a tent full of half-naked men and women in various states of bliss. “Whore!” they shouted back. I was going to like this camp.
Jennifer introduced me to her personal masseur, Donovan, and Robert, the guru of the group and a colleague of psychedelic author Daniel Pinchbeck, who had lectured there earlier in the week. Next, I was led to the tent of another of Pinchbeck’s associates, renowned psychonaut Sporeboy and his wife, Gina, who shared with me some superb Spanish absinthe and freshly picked mushrooms.
Soon the sun was dipping below the mountains, casting the clouds in a soft pink light and transforming the playa into a bright neon wonderland. There are no words to describe what appears upon that dark and dusty plain once the Man and his disciples come glowing to life each night—entire dancehalls on wheels, giant living Transformer robots that spit fire and spaceships that spin and blink and shoot fireworks as they rove the dry expanse. It was a fantasmagoric feast for the senses.
At 11pm was the Hot Sex Fire Jam — Jennifer’s big erotic fire-dancing exhibition. An artcar provided dance music as men and women from all over the country got up onstage in sexy outfits and swung various objects around themselves — chains, hula hoops, balls, staffs, even swords and nunchakus, all dripping with flame — with incredible sensuality and skill. A trio of hot women burned each other’s clothes off and danced seductively. Two male-female couples set each other’s bodies on fire, then extinguished the flames with their tongues. Everyone was having a blast, until the unthinkable happened: One male performer accidentally lit his head on fire. The safety crew was on him immediately, but he had still to be taken to the hospital.
Originally, the Whores had planned an orgy after the Fire Jam. I’d never taken part in an orgy and was hoping to expand my sexual horizons, but the somber mood after the accident led them to cancel the evening’s revelries.
At the next morning’s wake-and-bake session, I listened enviously to accounts of numerous sexploits from the night before — who had fucked whom, who had snuck into whose tent — and I felt left out. Shit, I wanted some action, too! Then Jennifer told me she’d heard a rumor that one of the Whores, Christina, was interested in me. Great, but who was Christina?
“She’s very hot,” Donovan assured me. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.” He led me a few yards over into a large tent whose floor was covered in blankets and pillows. “Good morning, Whores,” he announced as we entered. “This is Bobby — he’s from High Times.”
Lying half-asleep before us were Kali — a petite cutie with braided red hair, and her lover, Christina — a curvaceous dark-haired goddess wearing nothing but panties. She flashed me a groggy smile that could have melted the ice caps and motioned with her finger for me to come closer. As I leaned down over her, she reached out and grabbed the bottom of my shirt. It seemed as though she was about to pull me down on top of her, but instead she merely used my shirt to wipe her eyeglasses. She slipped them on, looked up into my eyes and said, “Hi, Bobby.” From that moment forward, I was enthralled.
At 5pm the entire Moonlightenment crew met back at camp for our group photo. The camp leaders had chosen a “Last Supper” theme and custom-made a wooden table with lit-up glass inlays, different-colored robes for each of us to wear (Vapey made mine black, of course) and “paraluns” (instead of a parasols). Since it was a moon-themed camp, I also donned a creepy moon-face mask I’d procured years ago in Barcelona. Just before sunset, we sojourned out to the far end of the desert to break bread, drink wine and take pictures together.
By the time I made it back to the Whores’ camp, everyone was gone except for Donovan, so we popped a hit of Ecstasy each and ventured onto the playa together. For the rest of the night, we rolled from attraction to attraction, scoping out girls and waxing philosophic on everything from magick and religion to sex and relationships. Whenever our buzzes and constitutions would wane, we’d swallow another pill and keep on walking. Before we knew it, the sun was coming up, and we’d returned to Whore camp as close friends.
Despite getting zero sleep, I couldn’t refuse the girls when they invited Donovan and me to accompany them down the Esplanade. We each dripped a few drops of liquid acid onto our tongues and set off. Christina wore only a sheer piece of black fabric and black panties underneath. Even within a swarm of scantily attired women, she stood out. She walked along in childlike rapture—stopping to smell every proverbial rose, viewing even the smallest of spectacles with giddy wonder and naïve bliss. It was like she had the sun itself bottled up inside her, and joy and love were beaming out from her every pore.
Eventually, we reached Entheon Village, Alex Grey’s camp. The village was set up as a series of art galleries, with the largest tent devoted to Grey’s work. First, we entered the tent to the right; we were under the influence of the five drops of acid, and the paintings were transformed into breathing, living entities—the shapes flowing and pulsating, the vibrant colors bleeding off the wall. As Kali and Donovan moved on to the next gallery, I led Christina into Grey’s tent, in hopes of introducing her to him. I’d met Alex and his lovely wife, Allyson, several times — at his gallery/temple in New York (the Chapel of Scared Mirrors), at the Cannabis Cup and at their home in Brooklyn for their renowned full-moon gatherings. When we approached them, they were both busy at work on projects and surrounded by acolytes.
But Allyson remembered me, greeted me warmly and pulled up a stool for me. I sat Christina on my lap while Mrs. Grey asked me what my impressions of the festival were and, to my delight, even took notes on my comments in her journal. Soon Kali and Donovan joined us, and after bidding the Greys a good Burn we headed back to camp to prepare for the main event.
As the sunlight faded, the anticipation grew in proportion; the Burn was finally upon us. Kali and Christina had gone ahead to wed at the base of the Man at sunset, and I’d made plans to meet them and Jen at 2:30 (the street, not the time). But by the time I got there, the sky had grown dark and the playa was mobbed. After about an hour, I gave up searching and resigned myself to enjoying the event solo. I chomped down some mushrooms, found myself a spot with a good view and waited.
The BRC Rangers had cleared a huge perimeter around the now-illuminated Man, inside of which the hundreds of members of the Fire Conclave had assembled to kick things off — all of them spitting and spinning, jumping and juggling, twirling and drumming in one of the greatest spectacles I’d ever witnessed. Next, the Lamplighters — cloaked clerics chanting and ringing bells — arrived with torches to light the effigy. Suddenly, fireworks began erupting from everywhere, along with the screams of the nearly 40,000 strong crowd.
Then came the flames — rising, growing, glowing, engulfing the titan and his pedestal. As the flames and fever reached their climax, I rushed in with the crowd toward the pyre and began a spiral dance around it. Finally, as the inferno subsided, I wandered off in search of my friends and adventure. But after many hours of fruitless wandering, my back and feet were in agony, so I headed back to camp for a quick nap.
I awoke in a panic. What time was it? How long had I been unconscious? What had I missed? I poked my drowsy head out of the tent to get my bearings, and who should I see wobbling through our camp on a bike but Vapey’s ex, Ted, from Disorient camp, wearing a full-length fur coat and pink Afro wig, swinging a gallon jug of vodka and wailing for Vaporella like Rocky Balboa at the end of a title fight. He looked down and started laughing, as if I were the one who looked ridiculous.
“Bobby Black?!?” he cackled in disbelief. “What the fuck are you doing in there? You’re about to miss the last sunrise of the Burn! Get your ass out here and help me find Vaporella!”
“I can’t — my feet are killing me, and I don’t have a bike.”
“You pussy — just steal one! There…take that one. Get on, let’s go!” I hopped on a random bike and followed him out onto the rapidly brightening playa.
“We’ll never find her,” I complained. “I looked all night, and I couldn’t find anybody.” The words had barely left my mouth when we passed a solitary bench facing the horizon, and sure enough, sitting on it alone was Vaporella.
Ted threw down his bike, dove on top of her and kissed her. “I spent the last five hours dancing atop a giant speaker at Nexus being adored like a god!” he boasted. Then he ran off toward the rising sun, stripping off every stitch of clothing and stretching his arms up over his head as the day’s first rays of sunlight shone past his slim, dark body and ghost-white ass.
“I love you, Bobby!” he warbled as he ran back, grabbed me in a headlock and kissed me. “You’re the only man I’d ever kiss! You, and Elvis.”
When he and Vaporella set off in search of an artcar to steal for a joyride, I opted to ride back to camp for some breakfast. After enjoying some scrambled eggs, I was approached by an Asylum neighbor asking me to officiate at an impromptu group wedding — which, being a Wiccan priest, I was happy to do. Next, I headed to Whore camp, where Robert and the girls introduced me to their friend Johnny — a.k.a. the Playa Cruizer — and his homemade vaporizer known as the Hotbox. Beyond simply enjoying the THC vapor, Johnny also spikes his bags with a shot of nitrous first—producing a devastating hit he refers to as a “right hook.” Within 10 minutes, I was on the ropes.
Vapey and I spent the rest of the day packing up our gear and cleaning up our MOOP (matter out of place). In the course of my packing, I came to the devastating conclusion that I’d lost my cell phone.
The Man may burn on Saturday night, but everything else burns on Sunday. Unlike the loud, frenzied atmosphere of the previous evening, the Temple Burn was a solemn, silent ceremony. People focus all their prayers and energies on the pyre to raise a cone of power.
At first, all I could think about was all the people I’d lost contact with forever now that my phone was gone. But then I let go my petty lamentations as a far greater revelation eclipsed them: As I watched the Temple burn, I contemplated the theme of this year’s event, “The Future: Hope or Fear?” I thought about the fascist policies of the Bush administration, the complicity of the media and the complacency of the public. I thought about their endless talk of freedom and contrasted it against the true freedom I’d experienced here — possibly for the first time in my life — and I realized that we were the Hope, and they were the Fear. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my American flag bandanna, walked toward the pyre until the heat was so strong I thought I’d combust and hurled it into the fire.
I followed Kali and Donovan back to Whore camp, where we reconnected with Christina. I exchanged parting hugs, kisses and warm wishes with my new family (I was made an honorary Whore), then watched as they drove off, knowing our paths would cross again soon.
Despite the painful blisters on my feet, I made one final, solitary trek back across the playa to watch the Waffle burn. The Belgian Waffle (as people had taken to calling it) was an enormous avant-garde structure built entirely out of two-by-fours by a group of Burners from Belgium, which when lit up with green light at night became one of the most happening dance clubs on the playa. Now, set aflame, it became the largest, most magnificent bonfire I’d ever seen.
When the structure had collapsed, I hitched a ride on an artcar with girls dancing on a stripper pole back to the Esplanade, woke Vaporella and said a final farewell to Black Rock City.
Perhaps someday America will be a land where civility, compassion and generosity don’t need to be enforced through guns and jails — where respect for individuality and freedom of expression are ultimate. Perhaps someday we’ll evolve into a culture that truly celebrates the unusual and unique rather than ostracizing them, that embraces ethical hedonism and rejects puritanism. Until then, there’s Burning Man.
Author’s note: Upon arriving at home, I received an e-mail from my friend Arthur in Palm Desert saying that someone had found my cell and called him to find out who it belonged to, and that it was on its way back to me. If that isn’t magick, I don’t know what is. Thanks, Keith.