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September 27-October 4, 2006

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Burning Man

Sugar Cube: This 20-by-20-by-20-foot white structure on which "burners" leave art and graffiti is the only square object on the playa.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

In part two of our Burning Man travelogue, the author encounters Dale the Nail, the ambivalence of controlled destruction and the return to 'default reality'

By Laura Mattingly

Second of two parts

She has very short hair and wears nothing but a piece of shimmering cloth tied around her waist. I walk along in the late-afternoon desert sun with my new acquaintance, Viv, toward her camp.

She tells me that what she likes most about Burning Man is the kindness of people and the ease with which she's made friends.

"No, that's not it," Viv interrupts herself. "There was this family I met who'd been taking their kids to Burning Man since they were young." Viv explains that the daughter is now a little older, about 15 or 16, and this year has brought her boyfriend to Burning Man with her. Viv had seen the girl walking around naked or nearly so.

"Can you imagine being a young girl, and being naked in front of your father around boys? I just thought it was so cool that their family could do that, that she felt comfortable enough, and that her father did not judge her. That's my favorite thing about Burning Man, that that could happen here."

I want to take Viv's picture, but I've never asked to photograph a naked person before, and I've just met her. It feels odd.

We happen to walk by an enormous kaleidoscope, perhaps 6 feet long, and a couple feet wide. Viv stands at one end and I at the other. Her face multiplies into at least 30 triangle windows all facing different directions. Viv now has many smiles and many minds, many shoulders and many breasts. She waves and has many hands. I ask to take her photo and all her mouths say OK unanimously with one voice.

I snap a few photos, doubting if enough light is coming in through the metal tube, and knowing almost certainly that the detail and complexities of those many Vivs could never be captured correctly on Metro Santa Cruz's frequently fallible and smudgy printing press.

At her camp she introduces her traveling companions Frank and Laurel. Frank is napping in a shaded folding chair as we approach. Viv produces ice out of a cooler, and it has the effect on me that the spectators experience when wandering Gypsy magicians display ice in a tent before the age of refrigeration in the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

She pours us drinks and tells us about her day. She says she rode in the Critical Tits event that afternoon.

"There was this huge bunch of thousands of women without shirts zigzagging through the desert. It was like Dykes on Bikes but way bigger," says Viv.

During her ride a man had called out to her, "Stop the race, we have a winner."

The man's name is Dale the Nail, and he's looking for a woman to do a cast of for an art project he's working on that will be on display in Portland, Oregon.

"He's marvelous," Viv says. "He's got a tattoo on his belly that says 'Butch Dyke.'"

But the cast had not been completed because Viv, from either heat or just having to stand in place for so long, had passed out during the process.

"I'd never passed out before, but it wasn't an unpleasant experience. They took care of me while I was out. They told me my eyes were open the whole time and I was snoring."

A neighbor with long braids walks up when she hears us talking about Critical Tits.

"I had a friend who came back crying," the neighbor says. "There were all these men standing around ogling with cameras, and she got really upset because she thought the event was supposed to be comfortable, and just about women."

Dale the Nail rides up, a small middle-aged man riding a tiny bicycle wearing a shear black wrapped skirt with skulls on it.

He talks for a bit about his project and about wanting people to make the connection between contemporary women's real bodies and Paleolithic Venus images that have proliferated through Western culture, often presenting women's bodies in ridiculous and derogatory proportions.

"I also just like casting large boobs," he says.

The conversation turns to body alterations. Dale the Nail has metal rings pierced in his back that he hangs from. He talks about his Prince Albert piercing, and I mention I've never seen one. Without hesitation he removes his skull-print wrapping to display a silver ring at least 2 inches in diameter, and very thick. He also has small flames tattooed on the base of his penis.

"Oh, interesting," I say.

Frank, Viv and I hold hands during the burn, and when The Man falls to his knees, the crowd rushes forward to the enormous fire, and we walk right beside it, counterclockwise, our faces and arms hot from proximity.

When everything has fallen and we've circled around the flames again and again, a band begins playing, the same old-style '40s music I heard on the first night. I hear a woman near us say, "I wish the twin towers could have gone down like this." I don't know what she intended, but maybe she meant she wished their makers could have burned them, and that America could have been there watching, to celebrate their existence and their fall.

The band plays The Man into the ground, a strange and upbeat dirge, an act reminiscent of the orchestra that played the Titanic its final sinking lullaby.

I understand now, watching. There are so many things driving 40,000 people out into the middle of the desert to do an assortment of drugs and share food with one another. The edifice of The Man is simultaneously the lover that dumped us, our dick boss and ourselves, all beaten down each year slowly or quickly, by the parking tickets, the deadlines, money troubles, love sickness, watching or living through wars, parents dying, friends leaving and the systematic displacement of different parts of ourselves. In the desert of Nevada, we become the creator and the destroyer. We build the pyre, we build the person and we destroy him.

One person I meet refers to the burning as a spectacle of "controlled destruction."

For a week we start from scratch. We create the world again. We take control of all the things that slowly hurt us every day. And by consciously seizing this control, suddenly there is a joy in the loss, and a joy even in an inevitable end. With every piece of The Man that drops--from the first arm down to the final pillar of the platform--people cheer at the fall and at the whoosh of swarming embers that follows, rising into the dark sky like burning snow, or deranged fireflies.

Viv, Frank and I part shortly afterward, Viv going to rest back at her camp, and Frank going back toward the Esplanade to find a bar. I come across a small pink bicycle abandoned in the middle of the playa, pick it up and ride out into the blackness. I reach the perimeter fence. It's far quieter here, and aside from the occasional straying art-car, there are no lights. Dark huddled figures are apparent only from their eerie dim glow-sticks, but no one seems approachable. I assume that by this point in the evening everyone has come out to the edge to be alone with whichever new friend they've found, and to wait out whatever drug they've committed to.

I'm suddenly very tired, and decide to turn in early this night. Reaching the Esplanade, I ride past the long series of parties with various heavy-based techno outlets, everyone decked out in their wildest costumes and dancing with vacant eyes. I can't tell whether I'm just tired or whether the energy is different tonight. Without the spatial orientation the standing blue Man always provided, getting back to Center Camp takes twice as much time. I abandon the bicycle and start out on foot to find my car and tent. I've lost my flashlight, and on the darker streets search for signs by holding out my weak green glow-stick ahead of me. But the signs have all been taken down. The city is taking its first steps toward its undoing. Without the practical grid of familiar names and signs, it's nothing but an unordered gathering of tens of thousands of tents and cars, an unpaved, overcrowded parking lot. Strangers nearly bump into one another, and ask with varying degrees of irritation in their voices, "What street is this? Do you know where we are?"

It takes me a couple of hours to find where I'm going, and I don't get to sleep until about 4am. I'm supposed to meet Viv and Frank at their camp in the morning for a pancake breakfast before they leave, to return Frank's long underwear that I'd borrowed and to exchange contact information. But I wake up late. The wind has picked up dramatically, and the horizon fills with billowing clouds of white dust. I can't tell whether or not the cars forming a line to exit cause the wind, stirring the circular desert ground like scraping flour off the bottom of a large mixing bowl. I take apples with me to share for breakfast. Without street signs, relocating Viv and Frank's camp proves difficult. I had always used a large yellow school bus as a land-marker, but it's nowhere in sight. I see a large vacant space where I suspect it may have been.

I walk to where Viv and Frank's had been the night before and it's gone. Two nights before, when Viv had headed out before I returned, she had left me a note informing me of where I could find her, and a whistle to blow to help her find me. But this morning the ground is empty and there's no note and no whistle.

I approach a man in a Hawaiian print shirt next to a trailer near where I think the bus may have been. He tells me that the bus left that morning.

"The next few days will be very difficult to find where you're going. The landmarks will change constantly," he says.

The volume of dust in the air increases, and my eyes develop a pasty sensation as tears rush to ward off the dry powder. I ask if the cars are kicking up the dust. I get the paranoid sense that the desert is angry with all this movement.

"This is a completely natural phenomenon. It's not from the cars. The dust here can come at a moment's notice," he says. "Once I got so lost in a dust storm I left camp at 4pm and didn't get back until 11pm. I just stayed calm, put my shirt over my face and took a nap out there for a while."

He then tells me of a friend of his who had been attacked by two loose dogs during a dust storm, and he had warded them off with his bicycle while he could barely breathe or see.

He offers me two packaged breakfast bars. "To go with your apples, " he says.

As I walk out toward the open desert the wind picks up even more and I have a hard time seeing more than 10 feet in front of me. There's a sign at the edge of the open space that says "No Diving on the Playa."

I walk out a dozen yards past the sign and sit down. I watch the wind pick up dust off the unimaginably flat white surface and drag it across, the friction of all the billions of fine particles sounding like the movement of ocean water dragging in and out of an intertidal zone. On the ground next to me is a long brown human hair, one end rooted in the ground, and the other end waving in the wind, as though it had sprouted there.

I sit alone in the close whiteness and bite into an apple, such an unlikely food in the desert. Out here so far from everything familiar, a piece of fruit is more valuable than gold.

I get up and slowly walk further, one foot in front of the other, the wind at my back, until I approach a dark spot on the desert floor. People with their faces completely covered in cloths and goggles hunch over the ground picking through ashes, some patches still smoking. Someone beside me comments that the site resembles ground zero. A tall older man, completely naked except for reptilian-patterned paint covering his entire body, walks into the ashes studying them.

I ask one man what all this is and he tells me that this is where The Man went down the night before.

"He held up pretty good this year. It's fun doing all the postmortem stuff and looking at all the body parts," he says and nudges with his foot a forlorn piece of ash-covered metal. "See, this is his arm."

His playa name is Dr. Dee and he's done artery work at Black Rock City for years, overseeing and assisting the artists in their construction.

"This is either an archeological dig or a grave robbery, depending on how you look at it," he says referring to the small gathering crowd of squatting sifters.

I spend the day wandering between the Conexus Cathedral, the Temple and the Uchronia, the largest structure on the playa this year, made of wood and commonly referred to as the "Belgian Waffle." In the daylight the structures and the playa ground gleam white as bones against a spotless blue sky. This is the last day they'll be standing, before the Sunday evening burns, and a significant-size crowd gathers at the temple after the dust dies down. Each wooden structure has become a palette for people to write names of those they've lost, fears, hopes, wishes and memories. All the structures have become altars for people to leave photos and objects of significance. I sit all day watching people walk slowly among them, reading what others have written, meditating, writing their own contribution or quietly crying for whatever they've laid down.

As the sun falls, I feel an urgency to find Burning Dan and Jax again, to make sure I have a way to contact them once I get off the playa, and to thank them for everything.

As I approach their camp I see Burning Dan in loose yellow pajamas working on his Yot Tub, as Jax in a black lace shirt lights up and gives me a big hug.

"Look at you!" she says. "You're all playa-fied!" I stand before her, significantly tanner than our first meeting, wearing a bandanna on my head and covered from head to toe in dust.

"I have the perfect thing for you," she says, and runs into their camper to find a lady's turquoise cowboy hat, with a matching turquoise bow tied around it.

We hitch up the Yot Tub to a neighbor's truck and drive around the open playa, slowly letting out the water, the truck driving spirals and figure-eights to make a dark, wet design behind it. Jax smiles dreamily at every onlooker.

I lie in their bed-swing as the sky darkens and they get changed for the temple burn.

A huge crowd has already developed by the time we walk up to view the temple, and Jax is impatient to get a spot with good visibility. Most of the crowd sits down to allow for others behind them to see, but a few people in front remain stubbornly standing. A man next to us wearing a cowboy hat grumbles loudly at a standing couple until they leave. A man on my other side sits with his two young children, and threatens a standing photographer in front of them.

"My son will stick his finger up your ass if you don't sit down."

The crowd waits for what seems like a long time, all of us scrunched up on the playa floor sitting cross-legged, and some still standing. Tension grows with the proximity of so many people. Loud arguments break out. Dan sits quietly, but finally comments, "We're all alive, aren't we?" It's the end of the week, so maybe it's time for us all to go home.

The cowboy-hat-guy sitting next to me who'd been grumbling a moment before settles down and offers us a hit of weed from a small pipe. He's a video game designer from San Francisco named Paul.

I lean forward to ask Dan and Jax if they've written anything on the temple and they say yes. I ask Paul if he has.

"Yes, I wrote my divorce on the temple," he says. "This is the first year I've been here without my wife. What about you?"

"The end of a seven-year relationship," I say.

He holds my hand as the crowd falls quiet, and we watch the temple and all our words turn into smoke.

After the burn we walk around in the dark, drink wine and talk about what we think the appeal is of watching something so large come down. It disturbs me.

"People like to see things destroyed, it's the same way with buildings being demolished," says Paul.

"But it's horrible to watch a house burn down. I grew up in Southern California and I've seen houses swallowed up when the Santa Ana winds blow. It's awful."

"This is controlled destruction," he says. "But like houses or anything else, once the fire has gone too far, the only way to stop it would be to drop the whole house into the ocean."

I think about how many things are just like that.

The next morning I wake up sunken into the middle of a partially filled waterbed sandwiched against a large strange man dressed like a cowboy. It's interesting being in such close proximity to someone I've just met. I watch his stubble from inches away as he grumbles in his sleep. But it's hot in the tent, and my clothes feel wet, with either sweat or one of us pissing in our sleep, I can't tell which. I climb awkwardly out of the trench our body weight has made in the bed. I have no idea what time it is. I have to pee but don't know if I'll be able to find my way back to this tent if I leave. Writing a note doesn't seem appropriate. I have no idea what to do in a situation such as this.

I tell him it's time to wake up.

He's very hung over and tired, and he can't understand why I'm waking him up at 8 in the morning. We drink water and take Ibuprofen as a preventative measure for a headache that promises to arrive. He can't remember my name, which he says he feels is understandable under the circumstances. He seems slightly irritable and we leave the tent to get coffee.

When our cups are empty he says he has to get going to pack up, and scribbles his email address on a piece of paper. So this is what leaving day feels like.

On the way back to my tent I feel hot, dehydrated, underrested and overcaffeinated. The turquoise cowboy hat on my head is heavy and ridiculous.

I feel the desert has chewed me up and spit me out and I can't wait to get off the fucking playa. Nearing the perimeter road of the city, Hope Street, I see an enormous line of dusty unmoving cars waiting to get out.

On the way to my tent, most of the camps have been dismantled and the cars are gone. Large blank spaces on the playa show little to no trace of the people and homes that existed here hours and moments before. The town is evaporating quickly and completely like a puddle of water on a hot asphalt road, or like sand that mysteriously gathers on an unmarked spot to make a dune that stays for a time, accumulates the girth of a mountain and then dissipates again, each grain being carried away by the wind, until it vanishes just as mysteriously as it was made.

I walk by a woman sitting on a blanket next to a small tent. It appears she's camping alone. Her long curly white hair extends down her back and flutters slightly in the wind. She sits still and her cigarette slowly turns to ash in her hand. She has a smile on her face as she looks into the distance, either toward the mountains or toward the long line of cars, or maybe she's thinking of something else, or not thinking at all.

I tear over the 17 back home just to return to my empty apartment, a failed relationship and the unnervingly quiet, early morning streets of Santa Cruz. Silverstone, my hitchhiker for the drive home, had referred to Burning Man as a "crowbar of consciousness." He'd said, "When you get back home, it's hard because you've changed but the rest of the world hasn't."

Inching along Pacific Avenue, everything looks so clean, the angles standardized. It feels contrived, and creepy, like the abandoned set of a movie. I'd never noticed how the trees on the sidewalk are so evenly placed.

Silverstone had talked about the strangeness of buildings and how they're all so square, and how he hates being inside squares. He says one day he'll design buildings with more organic shapes.

My apartment is a square now. I plug in my cell phone to check my voicemail. My muscles are rigid from the drive and the caffeine and my heart is beating too fast for my head. I dial a friend's number, grinding sand and dust between the buttons as I press it to my face.

"Sorry to wake you up."

"How was the desert?"

"I don't know. It was great. I guess I didn't realize how great it was until now. I feel like I've been to another country. I think I have that re-entry culture-shock thing. It's so weird, I found a place that makes a little more sense to me, but it's gone. It's not there anymore. ... How the fuck am I gonna go to work tomorrow?"

Once in a while someone I've never met will walk up to me and say, "You just got back from Burning Man, haven't you." Walking down Pacific Avenue, I hear calm clean people sitting on benches speaking in urgent tones about dust storms.

I remember one conversation I had with a woman wearing a small pink bikini the Monday morning that I left, who said she would be flying back to Iran in two days. She'd been visiting Iran for the past couple years, staying with family and working on a novel she hoped would help bridge the cultural gap between Iran and the United States.

"Sometimes when I'm out booty-shaking on the playa having fun, I dance for the women of Iran who can't do that in their country," she had said. "And when I'm in Iran and frustrated that I can't feel comfortable dancing when I go out, I just turn on the music and close my eyes and I'm back here again. This place comes with me."

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