The City gates open at 6pm on Sunday night, and cars stream into the city. The influx of burners is so heavy that the two-lane road heading north from Reno cannot handle it, and cars are held in Fernley at a staging area for hours before being allowed to drive north for two or more hours to the small town of Gerlach, Nevada (“5̶ 4̶ 3 bars, NO churches!”)
As we drive our bikes around the City on Sunday night, we see cars and RVs slowly driving through the city, already dust-covered, seeking their camping spots or an empty spot to call their own. First-time visitors to Black Rock City look wide-eyed out their windows. A group of grandmotherly ladies slowly peddles their bikes along the road, smiling widely and wearing not a stitch of clothing.
On Monday morning, we head over to nearby Thermonuclear Espresso for our morning caffeine. The camp has several vehicles laden with missiles and flame throwers, and labeled “THIS IS ART / Do not call 911!” Their expresso is freshly squeezed, smooth and delicious, and we drink two double shots apiece. It crackles inside us and sends us in the direction of the porta-potties. This is how every day starts in Black Rock City.
Then the heat settles in, and the population hunkers down wherever they can. Some hide under shade structures, but this year we have an RV, and we’re on a village power supply. Our air conditioner is running, and we have a dark, cool retreat from the mid-day heat.
On Monday evening the temperature drops and the streets are filled with tens of thousands of people. To all of us who have been here before, it feels like the last Saturday night in the City, the night the man burns. The energy is high, and the streets are crowded.
Everyone who has been here before is experiencing a weird sense of “Wait… what day is it?” The streets are crazy crowded. It feels like Burn Night, and it’s just the beginning of the week. What are all of these people doing here, and so early in the week? And what does this mean for the rest of the week?
It seems that for every burner wandering around in a playa-fabulous outfit, there are a half dozen people who look like they’re stepping out of their RV to buy supplies at Walmart. There is also a full-on invasion of sparkle ponies. They have apparently been breeding without control, and I have come to the conclusion that the herd must be culled. Dart guns are on order to ensure that this is done humanely.
(‘Sparkle Ponies’ are pretty young things who come to Black Rock City with several changes of clothing for every day, bring no food or water for their own survival, and spend each night traveling from dance club to dance club. They live off of alcohol, playa restaurants, and by asking theme camps “Can I fill my bejeweled water bottle? And aren’t I pretty?”)
The Man himself feels like an attraction at Disney’s Black Rock Adventure. After waiting in a line for entry, you’re grouped into a tight cluster and given a list of factoids about the structure (“This year’s Man base is 50 feet high and the widest ever at 115 feet wide! Please keep your hands and feet within the ride at all times, and you’re welcome to exit via the slides to the playa!”) Within the Man structure I watch a guy in a North Face logo t-shirt lecturing a hippie for climbing out through one of the holes on the saucer.
But then there is Church Trap, one of the best pieces I’ve seen in all of my burns. It’s a full-sized church, complete with a working organ and pulpit. But the walls and ceiling of the church are lifted up by a stick on one end, with a rope leading off from the stick. And despite the obviousness of the trap, people flock to that church every morning to listen to the organ. That piece pretty much summarizes how I personally feel about religion.
But the art is spectacular, and there are so many true burners of all ages who belong here. It’s not hard to spot them. They are beautiful without sparkles, and their playa clothes are carefully assembled from thrift shop finds. They offer beautiful and creative gifts of art, music, cocktails, coffee, or cookies, and ask nothing in return, not even water. Many of them build the city, working here in the dust for a month to give us a creative playground.
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Every night the lamplighters go out into the city to bring light to the streets. Every morning (as the sparkle ponies seeking shelter from the sun after a night in the dance clubs) the lamplighters gather up those same lanterns, which have slowly flickered out during the night. The lamplighters spend the day cleaning and refueling the lanterns, and the next night the process repeats itself.
Is this the best Burning Man ever? I think it might be. But it’s also the first year that I feel like the magic of Burning Man is at risk. I hope that the Burning Man org can rebalance the event, and I hope that the sparkle ponies lose interest and wander off to ‘Nutella’ or whatever the next trendy festival might be named. I’ll definitely be back, not for the pretty ponies, but for the proud old mares.