The Evolving World
Burning Man 2009
 
 
I dreamed I was in a strange house, with small rooms, lots of wood trim, and clothes piled about. A stereo was playing “Comfortably Numb.” I went down the narrow stairs and found Mom on the short couch. She was trying to repeat the line “You are only coming through in waves,” but because of her aphasia from her stroke she was stuck on the last word. “Waves, Mom,” I said. “It’s waves.” She looked me in the eye. “Waves,” she said clearly, and then she laughed… I woke at sunrise Saturday, the air silent and still. Somebody’s car alarm went off in the night, but otherwise I slept right through.
There was a Yellow Bike at the porta potties, all personalized with glow wire and saddlebags. I think people were taking the complimentary Yellow Bikes and just keeping them for the week, hiding them in their camp. My feet looked okay, but felt terrible. I figured I’d better do something about that. On my way to Center Camp, I passed a familiar face: Tick-Tock, whom I trained with at Interfuse. He was off duty, but people kept asking him for directions. “It’s like I look official or something,” he said. A sign at Playa Info said the population at 4 PM Friday was 43,758. I walked past Center Camp, noting just how few bicycles were parked outside. It seemed empty. Of course, it was really early. I walked to Ranger HQ to get my assignment for the burn. The officer did not know exactly where I’d be assigned; that would be up to the officer in charge. There was a chance I’d be assigned to patrol the city, since the burn was prime time for looters. He said to show up at 5:45 for my assignment.
From there, I walked next door to the Med Tent. My feet felt a little better, but I figured I’d better get a professional opinion. A guy named Kevin checked me in, noting that I had low blood pressure, which was normal for me. He suggested I wear an alert bracelet for it. I think I got there right at shift change. A nurse looked at my feet, cleaned off the blisters and put bandages on them. One blister on my right foot was open—she suggested I come back Sunday to have it looked at again. She thought it would be okay for me to wear shoes that evening. I told her I really appreciated all she was doing. She said simply, “That’s what we’re here for.”
From the Med Tent, I squinted at the morning glare and I walked out to the Man. I kept finding moop everywhere: a broken necklace, a camera lens cap, a dollar bill! (That, I kept.) At the Man, I ran into Ranger Agent. The perimeter around the Man had already been fenced-off, and lumber was already being piled up for the burn. Agent said he first heard about Burning Man when his daughter went one year. She loved it, and planned on going again. By the next year, however, she was pregnant. Agent said, “You’re going to sleep in a tent in the desert with my grandchild? I’ll get my motor home and meet you there!” The problem was, Agent arrived 2 days early. Not knowing any better, he parked his RV right up on the Esplanade, next to a drum camp. Soon, he was drumming with the drummers and involved with an opera being produced on playa. By the time his daughter arrived, she found him on a bicycle wearing only a loin cloth. “I told you you’d like it!” she said. Another Ranger arrived to brief Agent on some stuff. Agent greeted him with, “What are you famous for?”
 
I departed, and met up with a different Ranger, who said he'd heard the weekend weather report: 40 MPH winds Saturday and Sunday, starting that afternoon. I walked over towards some art cars parked on the playa. The Triceratops car reminded me of Emerson Lake & Palmer's "Tarkus." The Neverwas Haul was out and about. Walking further, I saw three little birds fluttering around on the ground! I couldn't remember ever seeing birds on the playa before. They looked pretty lost. There's usually no birds there, because there's no bugs, because there’s no plants, because nothing grows on the playa. 

I walked back through Center Camp and back to HOTD. In my camp, I made myself a hot cup of tea and wrote a little. In years past, I'd tried to document everything that happened at Burning Man, keeping track of all my pictures, but I knew that year my pictures would be all over the place. The next time I did a Ranger shift, it would be on a bike-- a good bike. The population was down, compared to previous years, but 43K was still a bunch of people. I got hungry, and decided to cook up some ramen noodles.

Dot rode by on her bike. She said she'd probably be leaving earlier than expected. Things just hadn't worked out for her. She said when the Temple burned Sunday night, she'd probably be on the road. That got me thinking. I didn't want to miss the Temple burn, but nothing said I had to stay Sunday night. If I took off right after the burn, and at least got to Empire, that might save hours on the road Monday. Any time saved would be worth it. I figured I could spend Sunday cleaning up, packing up, stay for the Temple burn, and then take off. I could get some sleep on the road before Fernley. I'd probably need a nap Sunday before striking camp. The ramen was the best ramen ever!

I got out my road atlas and looked it over while sitting at the bar with several other folks. Someone had dropped off a case of cans of fruit cocktail. We talked about desert lobster, nuclear waste, and Native American agriculture. Anne asked, "You up for some bacon?" I'm always up for some bacon! I gave her one of my empty pasta cans to collect the grease in. I donated the last of my homebrew to the bar. Friday night, the Rocket had some good pyrotechnics, but didn't really launch. I heard weather precluded the flaming parachutists.

Mark arrived! Work kept him from getting to the playa any earlier. He gave me a big hug and shared some string cheese. We all got bacon! It turned out Mark was in such a hurry to get to the festival he left a bag of groceries back in a store somewhere. He did remember the keg of beer, though. The wind picked up. Dust obscured everything. We all thought it was going to be another white-out burn.
 
At Culture Labs, I ran into Inkwell, and we talked until some old friends of hers showed up. She pulled a graveyard shift as a Ranger, and it did her in for the whole next day. She said, "I'm really glad you stopped by." The sky was white with dust as I walked across the playa to Burners Without Borders, but when I got there everything looked closed up. I stopped by Lost Penguin but didn't see my friend. (It turned out she was using a different name.) Someone did give me some chocolate, tho. I passed the Fishbug, an impressive steel sculpture.

There was another big jam session going on when I got back to HOTD. I went back to my tent for a nap and was  surprised when Jenn came by to visit. Jenn's sister thought about joining her for the week, but she'd never even been camping before. Burning Man would've been a big learning curve for her. Jenn watched the Rocket from her camp at Radio Electra; the radio DJ gave a hilarious live play-by-play of the "launch." The color commentary included: "The Rocket was paid for with Larry Harvey's 2008 tax return." Jenn correctly guessed I was part Cherokee. It was a joy to see her again. After a warm goodbye, Jenn headed back to her camp. That was the last I saw of her.

The winds picked up as the afternoon wore on. Above, the skies were an angry beige, swirling and churning. On the streets, the dust cut visibility to 30 yards or less. I got a Coke and listened to "the first super group" jam on the stage. At one point the blowing dust got so bad you couldn't see the other side of the bar! Everyone was bundled up against the elements with goggles, hats and dust masks-- and yet, still playing music on the stage. Somebody left a guitar behind. Mark said it belonged to somebody named Squirrel, so I put it in a safe place. I sat with Spoon and Steph listening to the music. It looked to be a dusty burn.

About 5 PM, I started getting ready for my shift. I put on my Ranger t-shirt, but packed the long-sleeve shirt in my hydration pack, just in case. Carefully, I put on my shoes. As I walked to HQ, I had three different people ask me where the Black Rock Post Office was. It had been right there next to Center Camp all week. That day, however, the post office packed up and closed. At HQ, they put me on duty, and I signed up for the burn, Quadrant 4, 9 to 12 o'clock. So far, my shoes were working out okay. That was where I ran into Wild Child, who had to change her playa name to Katpaw because there was already a Ranger Wild Child. We'd trained together and rangered together at Interfuse. She was excited about working the burn. She said she wasn't worried about being close to the fire, after being so close to the conflagration we worked at Interfuse. She pointed out the events we had been to together, and I said, "We need to find more events to ranger at." It turned out her boyfriend Frank was a DJ at... Radio Electra. She said Halston was going to work the graveyard shift after the burn.

Ranger Vegas came through picking out sandmen: those would be the Rangers that worked the inner perimeter closest to the burn, the ones who stood watch against any "runners" who might try to run into the fire. Ranger Brooklyn showed up wearing a camo bikini. Ranger Tool got up and briefed everyone on the procedures. We'd all be on the perimeter, watching the crowd. We'd all have special laminates; only people with that special laminate would be allowed into the perimeter. Someone asked what the schedule was. Tool said, "At some point tonight... the Man will burn. Before that, there will be other stuff." Everyone laughed. Crimson Rose got up to give a more detailed schedule. At 9 PM, the Man's arms would go up. That would be the signal for everything to begin. Four different music groups were to march around the interior. The Fire Enclave, the fire dancers inside the perimeter, would then begin their performance. That would go on for about 20 minutes or so. After the fire dancers were done, then the fireworks show would begin, and then the Man burned. After the Man fell, we were to assemble at a rendezvous point to be dismissed from duty. Someone looked at the sheer number of Rangers that had signed up to work the perimeter. "We're gonna be able to hold hands around this thing!" he said.

I went around back to the Ranger potties. You're not really a Ranger until you use the Ranger potties. A few minutes later, we all assembled outside Ranger HQ and marched out to the Man, about a hundred of us, heading off into the dust. Participants on bikes and art cars applauded us as we walked. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride to march as a Ranger—with my fellow Rangers. Art cars honked and people waved. I met a Ranger who was also feeling proud. He said the Rangers would probably be the only uniformed force he'd ever be a part of (until the military dropped "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," anyway). The swirling winds obscured our vision. I couldn't make out any landmarks beyond twenty yards. I just followed the lampposts leading out from Center Camp. Ahead, the dust parted, and the Man appeared suddenly before us. That was a thrilling sight.

We held up at the orange fence around the Man as Scoutmaster and K8 ("Kate") got us split up according to our quadrants. We were then issued our special laminates. The wind turned cold, and I was glad I brought my long-sleeved shirt. Even bundled up with goggles and bandannas, the wind pushed the dust everywhere. That was the first time my goggles had failed me. The wind poked dust up around the edges and into my eyes. At 7 PM the neon lights on the Man lit up for the last time. The wind was howling all around us. It looked like we might not get started for hours. Someone said, "We'll be lucky if we get out of here by midnight!" About fifteen minutes later, the dust cleared enough for us to tell the Sun had gone down. We spread out along the interior fence, forming equal distances between each other. We could see the Fire Enclave already starting to set up inside the perimeter. They all had laminants. They had permission to be inside. No one else would get past us.

It started to get dark. It was hard to see in the dusty dusk. At one point, a girl on a bicycle, blinded by the swirling dust, appeared out of nowhere and almost rode head-long into the fence. On signal from Scoutmaster, we marched straight out from the interior fence, checking fire performers on the way, and took up position on the outer perimeter. The Ranger on my left was a tall guy called Malachite. He named himself after a mineral found all around that part of Nevada. He even had a necklace made of the stone. He sounded young. To my right was a seasoned Ranger called Business Buddha. He seemed to know what was going on. Someone came along and handed out little electronic blinking lights to hang on our hats. I put my blinky in front, but then another person (K8?) came along and pulled it around to the back of my hat. A vehicle from Eschelon, the Ranger support group, came by with water and hot coffee. They were lifesavers. Still the wind buffeted us back and forth. It felt like more than 40 MPH.

It was getting close to 9, but there were still only a couple dozen people waiting at the perimeter. Our quadrant was special: we were on the downside of the prevailing winds. Any flying embers or extra smoke from the burn were bound to come straight at us. As such, we had to move the perimeter in our quadrant back outwards, about 10 feet further away from the Man. That added to some confusion about where people could sit for the performance. Nine PM came and went. More people trickled in along the edge. We had the ones in front sit down, to give the folks in back a better view. Art cars had to be parked about 30 yards back. We had to tell people to park their bikes back there, too.

Finally, about 9:20, the winds died down, the lights of the city appeared, and the crowd cheered as the Man’s arms rose skyward. The musicians played for another 20 minutes, and then the fire dancers got started. All the while, we other Rangers and I held the line. We could kneel sort of sideways to see both the crowd and the dancers. I mostly watched the crowd, but what I saw of the dancers was amazing. They didn’t get to perform the year before, because of weather, so they were making up for lost time. My job was to watch the crowd. As such, I missed most of the show, but that’s okay. I got to see the faces of the people in the audience, bright with astonishment and delight. At one point, I looked over my shoulder, and it looked like the whole world was on fire.

A girl in red brought a camera that looked like a three-legged eyeball. She tried to get closer to the action, but I couldn’t let her pass. She sat up on the edge of the line trying to get pictures. She must have set up her camera and put it away a half dozen times. I don’t know why she didn’t just leave it set up. There was a dark-haired girl with goggles and scarf that stood there watching like a defiant aviatrix. A group of older folks sat on a big blanket. It was a hoot watching them laugh and clap their hands at the show.

After the dancers were done, they all came out towards our positions and sat in a big circle inside the perimeter for the fireworks. I missed most of that, and most of the burn, keeping my eye on the crowd, but what I got to see up close was frightening and enthralling. I got to steal some glances. When the Man and the surrounding structure went up in flames, it was an enormous, scary sight—when the fire performers moved back for safety, I knew it was big. I’ll bet it could be seen for miles. Most of the people in my section were polite and behaved themselves. What ticked me off were the drunken dweebs that showed up late and sat down in front of people that had been waiting for hours, blocking their view. One guy figured that since the fire performers were sitting inside the perimeter it’d be okay for him to sit inside the perimeter. I sent him back. There's a way to say "Can I help you?" in a certain tone of voice that unconsciously sounds like "What the heck do you think you're doing?!?"

As the structure burned, K8 came around telling everyone to hold the line, “even if the Man falls.” She didn’t have to worry. It took forever for the Man to burn. The entire surrounding structure went up in a magnificent blaze, and yet still the Man stood. People started to stand up, mingle around. I watched people filter through to the inner perimeter all around me. There were so many, up and down the line, it was impossible to stop them. A Ranger came through announcing “we have a porous border,” which meant it was all right to let folks in. Thousands of people passed me to stand in the light of the flames as drums and techno music boomed across the desert.

It seemed like it was time to muster at the rendezvous point. For our quadrant, we were to muster at the porta potties down the 9 o’clock road from the Man. We never got an official order to muster, we just all sort of headed that way. I walked along with Katpaw and caught up with Scoutmaster, who was waving his flashlight in a circle to rally us. We soon picked up everybody except a guy called T. None of us could leave until we were all accounted for. “You guys were awesome!” Scoutmaster said, and we all cheered. “Except for T. T’s an assh*le.” And we all cheered. (He was kidding.) It turned out T was in the porta potties, and when he came out we were all released from duty. Just then, back behind us, the Man finally fell into the flames.

I worked my way back inside the perimeter to the edge of the fires—the heat was unbelievable. I got someone to take my picture among the ruins, tho I doubted it would turn out. (It didn't.) I had to work my way out from the people dancing around  the burning rubble and past the mammoth art cars—how the heck did those huge things ever get out to the playa? I walked in the crowded moonlight back to Hair of the Dog. J.C. was there with a beautiful Ranger called Harvest. I was worn out, so I changed out of my uniform and hung around the bar. The band Dooky Doodle was performing on stage, doing one of their hits: “Hand Jobs for the Homeless.” They sing the voices of the masses. By 1:30, I realized I’d been up for most of the past 19 hours, so I went back to my tent to crash. It had been a busy day.
 
  
 
LINKS
The Neverwas Haul 
Radio Electra 
The Man burns on YouTube: HERE and HERE 
The Black Rock Rangers 
The Fishbug 
All original content copyright 2009 by Tim Frayser. If your image appears on this site, and you'd rather it didn't, drop me a line and I'll remove it. Pictures appearing on this website are for personal use and are not for sale. 
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Introduction  Day 1  Day 2  Day 3 
Monday  Tuesday  Wednesday  Thursday  Friday  Saturday  Sunday 
Day 11  Day 12  Day 13  Day 14  Day 15  Epilogue