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Burning Man Redux

NOTE: This is not the review. The Burning Man Review is here.

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Burning Man Redux

By Patrick Mulroy

(note: we wrote this about a week after writing the Burning Man Review. This is a collection of our thoughts regarding the feedback we have received from writing the review.)

I’ve enjoyed the huge response we’ve had from my Burning Man essay: over 10,000 readers in four days. Yow! My friend Tim has enjoyed his role as queen bee and mother hen in arranging your responses. To the humorless few FnFers who picked on him, I suggest less ecstasy in your future. Your serotonin deficiencies have left you GRUMPY. In truth, if not for our awesome history of fun at FnF camp outs, we would have had nothing to compare our dismal time at Burning Man to. We expected Burning Man could be like the FnF Summer Camp Out times 100. In truth, it was all the fun we had at FnF divided by a hundred. In any case, many of your responses were hateful, angry and not in the spirit of FnF. Note: The alleged “bitter” and angry narrator of my piece was a character in a meta-fiction, not a real person, certainly not me. As for me, I don’t believe cannibalism or full-blown fascism will come to Burning Man until at least 2009.

The majority of readers seem to understand that my piece was meant to be creative and humorous -not investigative journalism. Though my facts were all accurate, my interpretation of these facts was personal and exaggerated. Some loved it, others hated it-few were indifferent. Most long-time burners agreed that the event has gone downhill over the years as the crowds have increased, along with the price of admission. In any case, the essay led to much lively discussion on the past, present and future of the event.

I was touched and proud to be invited back by many long-time burners and others with a sense of humor about my review. Many of you know that Burning Man is in trouble as an event, but you keep the faith and keep contributing to its potential for success. The event has morphed over the years from a gentle child with a wild streak to a wild gigantic insane child with a gentle streak. I applaud your courage for babysitting this deranged and ape-strong unpredictable child.

If you love Burning Man, it was not my intent to crap on your Christmas. I know that for many the annual trek to Black Rock City is Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Halloween all rolled up into one week. You spend a lot of money and time preparing and always have a great time. My rant was never aimed at you. If I had met fewer thugs and more cool burners, I know my trip would have been more enjoyable.

I was especially not aiming my rant at those burners who mainly serve others at Burning Man. Your goodwill and service is likely the only thing keeping Burning Man afloat, despite the growing influence of the bullies and yahoos. Burning Man will end one day, Larry Harvey will retire a very rich man, but your kindness will be remembered by the people you served with love on the playa. Of that I have no doubt.

Some of you were offended by my paragraph about the greeter. She was greeting us in a full on dust storm wearing the flimsiest of dust masks. Her enthusiasm and good cheer were amazing considering the shit conditions she was laboring under. I don’t really think she was on acid. That was a joke. It’s just that I could not imagine someone being so positive and perky under the miserable conditions she worked under that night. Her charm and enthusiasm, and that of her fellow greeters and underpaid workers and unpaid volunteers was wonderful and was not meant to be mocked. I’d French kiss you all, but I won’t since I know where your tongues have been.

I am not opposed to nudies, wild drug use and promiscuity in principal. However, when I’m shivering from exhaustion and altitude sickness, my tolerance for other people’s weirdness diminishes. Add some bullies and yahoos lecturing me on my missing “costume” and you can see how BM starts to look like a bunch of jerks and bullies telling me how to behave and dress. I was over that sort of bullying in high school. “Fuck your day” yahoos. I paid Larry and his cronies $300 to walk around in the worst time-share on Earth: I’ll dress any way I goddamn please.

If there is one redeeming quality of Burning Man it is the idea of letting people be their true selves for one week. For some, this is achieved by walking around with their cocks or coochies in full view or perhaps by dressing as a furry dog with no pants. In my mind, this is the most dull and superficial kind of weirdness and is about as creative as trick dog poo. However, everyone has to start somewhere on their journey to true perversion and weirdness. I fully support these weirdo kindergarteners as they try to be interesting. All I ask is that I not be attacked for being weird in my own way. My weirdness does not involve costumes, glow sticks, pacifiers or gratuitous nudity, but is no less profound. My friends and I could all teach postgraduate courses in weirdness, despite our pedestrian dress.

Some objected to the odd political turn at the end of the essay when I linked the playa bullies to the current failed regime in Washington. This moment surprised me too when I wrote it. It was clearly out of step with the rest of the piece but it seemed true so we left it in. I’ll gladly surrender all my Christmas gifts from here on for impeachment hearings next year. Please God, as we Irish say.

Note that despite my rant vs. Burning Man, I don’t call for it to be abolished or banned. If Burning Man continues to go downhill, it will disintegrate on its own. If the bullies are not reigned in someone is going to get killed, an “Altamont moment” which will end this twenty year adventure in a horrible way.

I hope that Burning Man improves, becomes less fascist and less all-white, and lives up to its potential for fun and creativity. I don’t expect life-altering “magic” but a cool party where all were welcome and none were bullied would be nice. Also, sexier nudies and free ice would be sweet. See what you can do Larry.

That’s all for now. Peace on the playa.

pat

Burning Man Review

On the long drive back from Burning Man, my friend Patrick and I talked about our many experiences during our week on the playa. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of Irritating Moments. We decided to write up a review and post it on my blog to share with the world. 

Achtung Hippie! : Reflections on the Burning Man Scam
Patrick Mulroy & Tim Wayne

The idea of holding a massive event in one of the hottest nastiest driest places on the planet seems stupid on the face of it. Why would almost 40,000 people pay over $200 for a ticket and probably $1000-1500 total to suffer in this godforsaken place for a week or more? For years my common sense kept me away, just as it has safely helped me avoid backpacking in Afghanistan, running an ultra-marathon in Death Valley or eating bacon wrapped hot dogs from the vendor carts in Tijuana. Though my common sense seldom fails me, my friends often do and they conned me into wasting a week of my life and about $1500 to attend Burning Man 2006.

To be fair, my friends had been conned themselves by glowing reports of the “magic” of this overrated hippie love fest at the gates of Hell. “Burning Man changed my life, man” was the word. Hey, we all want to change our lives: stop smoking, lose weight, quit drinking, fall in love. The promoters of Burning Man promised all of this and more in their feel-good web accounts of dull people who now lead exciting lives, thanks to taking the Burning Man cure. These absurd claims had the hollow ring of cult indoctrination, but I was hooked. I wanted to drink the spiked kool-aid and search for magic in the nothingness of the Black Rock Desert.

View from space
View from space

Nothing could have prepared me for the stupidity of this event, except perhaps an honest account of how truly awful it was. I’ve been unable to find such an account, online or elsewhere. I offer my dissent to the pretense that is Burning Man. I hope that my eyewitness report will save potential burn victims a week of vacation and at least a grand in misspent cash.

Few communities want 40,000 yahoos drinking, drugging and fornicating in their backyard for a week. I know I don’t. As such, Burning Man is held in a dry ancient lakebed known as a “playa“ in a state where gambling and prostitution are legal, respectable businesses and 24 hour boozing is a protected right: God Bless godless Nevada. When the gold ran out and most of the Indians had been murdered, they turned to exploiting human weakness to earn their daily bread. Promotion of vice is the state’s stock and trade.

Whatever Burning Man supporters claim, know this, the event is a 24/7 bacchanal of booze, drugs, nudity, S&M, public sex, and bad art, all done in a scorching flat dry oasis of misery that reminded me of the surface of Mars. This drug orgy is translated by event promoters on the BM website as a “radical experiment in self-expression.” Wasn’t that Jeffery Dahmer’s excuse when asked about the body parts in his fridge?

Playa compound magnified
Playa compound magnified

From San Diego, the Black Rock Desert is exactly 900 miles on my trip odometer. I arrived with two friends, Tim and Alex, just past sunset on the first official day, Monday the 28th of August. As we descended onto the site, we could see the flat and vast playa, ringed by the Jackson Mountains and Black Rock Range. Stark and beautiful, yes, but thousands of cars and RVs, combined with the constant wind, had kicked up a massive storm of alkali dust. Dust masks are required gear at all times though many do not wear them. Even with a mask on, it is impossible not to inhale alkali dust at Burning Man.

We waited in the Will Call ticket line for 30 minutes in this storm. Most of the Burning Man staff are volunteers and seemed stoned and disorganized, though cheerful. Most Burning Man tickets go for $225 if you buy them a well in advance. As “the burn” approaches, the prices steadily ratchet upwards.

While we waited in line, a staff member announced that all the $325 tickets were sold out and that the price was now $350, snickering as he made the announcement. There was now little pretense that this was not a massive grift. The only service included in your $225-$350 admission is overflowing portapotties, often devoid of toilet paper. That’s it. In what universe is that not a grift?

Prior to entering the BM compound, all vehicles are searched: not for drugs, guns or explosives (bring as many of those as you want), but for stowaways trying to avoid the $250 ticket price. “Don’t try to grift a grifter” is the point here.

Finally reaching the front of the line, we were met by a greeter: “Welcome home!” she gushed. Good acid, I thought. She must have mistook us for black rock beetles, the only living thing that calls the playa home, surviving mostly on hippie skin and other organic matter blown by chance onto the playa.

Larry Harvey - King Rat
King Rat

After a two-hour traffic snarl at the gate, we arrived at our camp: exhausted, surly and coated with a fine layer of dangerous alkali dust. If the founder and King Rat of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, had been present we would have gladly taken turns shocking his balls with a car battery, Abu Ghraib-style. We were that pissed. Larry was likely in St. Bart’s spending our money, or perhaps in a fabulous underground lair built by enslaved hippies from previous burns, or maybe just laughing from his Lear jet above in his trademark white Stetson. The man seems a curious cross between P.T. Barnum and Jim Jones, conning the same moon-eyed Bay Area seekers whom Rev. Jim hypnotized so tragically.

The first full day at BM felt like the worst jet lag of my life. I was tired from the 900-mile trip, exhausted from the heat, the dust and the 4,000 ft altitude and thin air. The word “nausea” barely covers the full body ache you feel when “acclimating” to the Martian landscape and punishing heat of Burning Man. You can’t move, you can’t escape the dust or heat and you are surrounded by some of the most perverse and deviant people you will ever meet. Everywhere you look a “porno-copia” of sagging balls, flopping peckers, hairy asses, flabby breasts and other uninvited unattractive nakedness will strip away any remnant of goodwill you may feel towards your fellow burners as the caustic alkali dust strips away your exposed skin. What gives these naked perverts the right to expose their ugly fucked-out carcasses? If being forced to view hundreds of hairy ass cracks as you gag down breakfast sounds fun, Burning Man is for you.

Super Pope
Super Pope

In the mad heat of Burning Man at 2pm on Tuesday, parachutes opened 6,000 feet above and I imagined that Pope Benedict, former child Nazi, had jumped in, leading a brigade of storm trooping Cardinals and castrated choir boys, his Vatican banners streaming yellow smoke from his Luft-Commando parachute, to lecture these folks on the spiritual benefits of wearing clothes.

The Black Rock Playa is about as far as you can get from the Garden of Eden and still be on the planet. Adam and Eve were said to be naked and perfect as God made them. Most of the Black Rock nudies were much less so, and could have hung signs around their necks reading “Behold the Ravages of Time.” At least viewing their tanned and leathery hides reminded me to apply sunscreen.

Then I saw a naked fat man walking alone across the playa into the dead oblivion of the Jackson Mountains, a Barbie doll sticking out of his ass. Ok, I got dehydrated and imagined that one. Still, the official Burning Man web site would welcome Barbie-Ass Man since “There are no rules about how one must behave or express oneself at this event.” When in human history has “no rules” ever been a recipe for harmony or peace?

Dust Storm Approaches
Dust Storm Approaches

The overheated Burning Man playa is subject to dust storms that may appear as slow whirling tornadoes or a massive wall. Though you can often see them coming, escape is impossible and winds can top off at over 70 mph: hurricane force. Shade structures and scaffolding with steel frames can be pulled from the ground and may hurt or kill you.

There are thousands of temporary steel framed structures, secured loosely to the playa, that may go airborne without warning as dust devils assault Black Rock City. Note to future burners: You may be injured or killed at Burning Man. The climate and weather of the Black Rock Desert is wholly unsuited for an event of this size with thousands of steel framed shade structures.

Burning Man Wednesday to Friday was a cauldron of dust, heat and shabby monster trucks (some absurdly labeled as “art cars”) crammed dangerously with partiers blasting bad music from blown speakers. Every day the noise and number of yahoos increased as the weekend approached. The post-apocalyptic spirit of Mad Max and Beyond Thunderdome were all around: monster cars, noise, chaos and intimidation.

Imagine a shabby, somewhat dangerous crew of NASCAR fans, bikers and other bullies looking to inflict their lifestyle on your camp site, then circling for hours and hours all night for another round of megaphone ranting and stupidity. These are the people who tailgated us at 80mph in overloaded RVs hurtling recklessly down the infamous Donner Pass toward Reno. These are the people who complained when firearms were banned from Burning Man a few years ago. If you want to live in a trailer park with 40,000 people where insane drinking, drugging, public nudity and lawlessness are the norm, Burning Man is for you.

The Department of Public Works (DPW) is the rowdy but hard-working crew of roughnecks that sets up and breaks down Black Rock City. They spend months on the playa in rough conditions with low pay to build the city’s infrastructure and return it to a pristine state, post-burn. During one rare moment of comic relief during BM 2006, the DPW paraded through the streets in their beat-down trucks, raiding each camp and demanding cold beer. We gladly surrendered our beer to this heat-crazed and desperate bunch. I have nothing but praise for them, as would anyone who prefers not to be tracked down and killed. “Fuck your day” was their motto: now it’s mine too.

Despite its pretensions as a wacky art project, Burning Man is not about art. Most of the art was terrible with garish acid-inspired images and other peeks into Hell. Any random collection of Toto and Yes album covers would contain better trippy art than all of Burning Man. A few of the “art cars” were inspired and brilliant, though most were just chicken-wire enclosed golf carts kicking up dust on the esplanade and trailing a few Christmas lights and dusty faux fur.

Furries
Furries
Twizzler
Twizzler

Burning Man is not for non-conformists. You must wear a Burning Man outfit or risk constant abuse. I did not wear any silly costumes at Burning Man, or dress in drag, or hang my ass in the breeze, nor did my friends. Surviving the heat was plenty: we had no spare energy for playing dress up. For this breech in burner protocol, weirdoes in furry suits chided us that “jeans are not a costume.” These “furries” dress in full fur suits, like comic characters in the Ice Capades or that big rat at Chucky Cheese, and like to do drugs and have sex in their suits while in character. If there is anything worse than a pervert, it’s a self-righteous druggie pervert, dressed as a chipmunk, offering unsolicited fashion tips. If you want catty advice on how to dress from a crowd of Rocky Horror Picture Show rejects, Burning Man is for you.

Despite pretensions of forming an “experimental community” the Burning Man demographic is whiter than the crowds at the Republican National Convention: Dick Cheney white and twice as mean. I saw less than a half-dozen black people all week and only a few Asians. This proves my theory that blacks and Asians have way more sense than whites. The lack of diversity and total indifference to this lack seem odd considering the pretensions of many Bay Area residents and other burners to racial and ethnic inclusion. There is nothing new or experimental about an all-white community.

I doubt that the white bullies who dominate Burning Man and define its aggressive personality make non-whites feel welcome or safe. If you are white and prefer to party with whites only, Burning Man is for you.

The climax of this neo-hippie hootenanny is the burning of a 40-foot wooden effigy, known as the Burning Man. Before his destruction, this blue neon lit figure is the center of attention in the middle of the Esplanade, the central plaza. I love fireworks and enjoy burning things so I had hoped that this final orgasm of flames and destruction would somehow mitigate the misery of my worthless trip.

The burning of the man is 90 minutes of fire dancers and neo-pagan ritual, all centered on a god-like central figure, with his arms raised in triumph towards a frenzied, expectant crowd, clearly united in some dark purpose. This finale of Burning Man is a kind of hippie Nuremberg Rally.

As the Burning Man burns, both his arms eventually fall to his side. Curiously, his left arm dropped first, leaving his right arm raised in a straight-armed Nazi salute. At that moment, a spontaneous cheer went up a thousand right arms were raised as one over the smoky playa. Heil hippie!

https://youtu.be/mWHoC0HMy1Q?t=2m28s

Despite my disdain for Burning Man, many claim that the event is “magic” and “life altering.” For some, this “magic” comes from their first Ecstasy, acid or mushroom trip. Powerful mind-altering drugs are consumed in massive quantities at Burning Man. People are very nostalgic about the first place they got really, really high. This is part of the affection many have for the event: nostalgia for a first high.

Though not officially a sex party, Venus rules Uranus at Burning Man. The young get laid because they are young and older horny guys can get laid using drugs and booze as a lure. Sometimes their prey will stumble into camp pre-drugged, always a bonus. For many creepy middle-aged guys, Burning Man is a week long frat party where they get their last real shot at nailing women half their age. Lone women are easy prey. The darkness, disguises, anonymous playa nicknames and extreme intoxication that occurs at Burning Man makes it a date rapist’s Disneyland. Of course, if sober and fully consensual sex is your thing, there are several approved swinger and sex-themed camps at Burning Man too.

If you did not get laid, high or loaded at Burning Man but still claim you liked it, then you may have been infected by their magic pods and are now a self-deluded supporter of the Burning Man cult. The cult mantra is that Burning Man is “magic.” I guess, but so is cocaine if you do enough of it. I imagine that the supernatural success of this event could not happened without some special help from the Devil himself, who I’m told holds the deed to Larry Harvey’s soul. If Hell is half as nasty as Black Rock City at noon, I’m going to start being good soon. If you love the Devil and the events he supports, Burning Man is for you.

If you read my review of Burning Man and assume I’m some hung-up religious prude, I can assure you this is not the case. My factual description of the event is accurate. I wrote this review because I could find nothing truly critical of Burning Man online. This is incredibly suspicious. Mother Teresa was considered a living saint yet there are many critical essays about her, but none on Burning Man? Many supporters of Burning Man defend the event as fervently as Tom Cruise defends Scientology. Anyone that is critical simply does not “get it.” My friend Tim responded in kind to a BM supporter when he replied “Is it possible I got it, but “it” actually sucks ass?”

Though a Burning Man “virgin”, I’ve been to a dozen weekend campouts with music and partying and have enjoyed each one immensely. None of these events cost more than $75 and often included meals. All were held in beautiful locations with plentiful water, usually in the mountains. No profits were collected and none of us were burned. Most of the participants were beyond friendly: downright open, affectionate and loving. This was not the case at Burning Man.

Note to hippies: Burning Man is not run for hippies and not run by hippies. It is run by thugs and bullies for the benefit of thugs and bullies. It is a festival for the Freudian Id, the sub-basement of the human psyche. Hermann Goring would have been in heaven here with the drugs, freaky sex, cool costumes and torch-lit rallies. If we all spent one more week in this dark utopia, I’m certain cannibalism and goose stepping would have been de rigueur, then mandatory.

Too many at Burning Man were not even civil or respectful of their fellow burners or themselves. In a sad way, the event reflects our current national temper, a country controlled by red-state yahoos, led by a reckless bully who refuses to change course despite the pile of bodies in his wake. Burn on W. Burn on.

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We packed in darkness at 3am Sunday morning, the day of resurrection. The road was empty and I was exhausted and wanted to escape before anyone sobered up. Perhaps this was the magic of Burning Man: surviving an annual death cult rally and returning to the joys of hot showers, air conditioning and dust-free living: civilization never seemed more splendid or necessary.

I reminded my passengers that we had spent one week in a desert hell but no one had shot at us or tried to blow us apart with an IED. Servicemen in Iraq are deploying for a year or more and are in constant peril. Severely injured and maimed Marines have become a common sight in my favorite Oceanside, California poker room. Black Rock City is better than Baghdad, that’s for sure.

The wind was rising, carrying the scent of the last bonfires into the Calico Mountains. I murmured a prayer for everyone. What else could I do? The whole world is bleeding but you can only burn off so much bad karma in a week. The Buddha urges patience in these matters. All is passing, everyone we love, the rights we enjoyed before 9/11, basic civility and human decency, all gone now.

The America I was raised in is dead, replaced by a monstrous pretense of democracy. I drank a Red Bull and kept my eyes on the road. I could not stop crying.

As we headed for Reno across the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, my friends drifted to sleep as the muffled voices of Native American spirits reminded me to stay awake and the horizon glowed with the heartbreaking blue light of the desert before dawn.

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You can read the follow up article, too.