October 2006

Earth and fire

By Art Goodtimes

BURNING MAN … I’d heard about this wild event in the desert north of Reno for years. But I never had the chance to attend. Until this year. It was a 2,000-mile round trip. A lot of driving for a week-long party, but what a party! A Roman Bacchanal, a 14th Century Masque, a decadent costume ball, Halloween on Castro Street, a Telluride 4th of July, and more — like nothing you could ever imagine! Try Las Vegas on acid. Or maybe a 21st Century Sodom & Gomorrah. But Burning Man is a phenomenon and an experience all its own … Put 40,000 crazies — mostly West Coast folks (but from as far away as Florida and New England) — out on a hard-crust alkaline playa without a tree in sight. Set up villages and tent cities and avenues and outrageous sets with towers and domes and free bars on almost every corner. Add RVs and truck-trailers and double-decker buses, art cars and platform vans and bicycles decorated with every conceivably outrageous design. Mix in floats and scooters and fourwheelers tricked up as dragons and Mad



   Coming down the road from Placitas
   after morning tea with Larry Goodell

   I flash on the first time I made the grade
   up to the village -- some 20 years ago.

   Anxious & excited. Not knowing what
   to expect from a poet I’d not yet met.

   And a tarantula caught my speeding eye.
   So I pulled over & walked it off the macadam.

   My first assist for an arachnid. A species far down
   the Linnaean ladder from wise old me. Or so

   I’d thought. Until here. High above the Rio Grande
   but below the Sandias, where I fell in love with

what I’d always feared. Learning at last to match
steps with the slow lumber of the insect race.

Maxmobiles, gigantic pirate ships, steam locomotives, H.G Wells fantasy machines. Attach neon and colored lights, glow sticks and flame throwers, loud sound systems and hordes of revelers hanging to every strut and cable. And you have just an inkling of the chaos and cacophony that is the Black Rock City open playa, surrounded by a city twice the size of Montrose — with hundreds of theme camps, dance halls, art sculptures, playgrounds and meeting places … It’s a party that starts with breakfast and runs all night, all day, for seven days. Crowds throng the Esplanade. Bicycles and tricycles by the hundreds dodging pedestrians in every imaginable state of dress and undress, costume and fantastical creation. Artwork and installations spread out for a mile in the open plaza north of the city, from a 50-by-100-foot freeform organic dance hall composed entirely of two by threes (the “Belgian Waffle”) to a flaming dragon with propane belches of fire to a 30-foot flower blossom on an articulated cherry- picker stem – all lit up and moving around the playa. And everywhere dancers and noise, fire twirlers, whizzing vehicles, total and complete madness. With no one directing traffic, no one in anything like charge (although that is more appearance than reality), and anything goes the order of the day – from the most obscene to the most kind and generous. Because once one pays the initial fee, everything else (except ice) is free … And people don’t just attend. They belong. They’re “burners”.

ENTHEON VILLAGE … As a firsttimer, I hooked up with a camp set up by MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. It included a huge dome gallery where Alex Gray exhibited his hallucinatory paintings. Two smaller gallery tents displayed the work of other visionary artists, including Robert Venosa and Martina Hoffman, both of whom have attended the Telluride Mushroom Festival. And I got to visit with old Telluride friends and world-renowned psychonauts, Ann and Sasha Shulgin. For me one of the highlights of the event was a screening in the dome of Jan Kounen’s entheogenic cowboy, Renegade – the most dazzling cinematic representation of the psychedelic experience that I’ve ever seen … Entheon also included a large rave hall, where psychedelic rock wailed into the morning hours. One of the great places I got to shake my booty … And with Entheon as base, I ventured out with new and old friends to stroll, marvel, dance and be enchanted. I even set up a tent of sorts for shade, that became a shared communal structure, a small neighborhood where my friends Dave and Eric and Giddy and I slept and tried to assimilate what we were seeing, hearing, experiencing.

CHRIS MYERS … Although this “experiment in radical self-expression” (as one friend called it) wasn’t overtly political, peace and “impeach” signs did pop up in a number of places. But if was Telluride’s Chris Myers (with the help of some friends) who brought the traveling cross exhibit of all the American soldiers killed to date in Iraq and Afghanistan to the playa. The 2500+ white markers, all clumped in a row like an impromptu cemetery, was both moving and sad … Thank you, Chris, for not letting us forget we are still involved in a brutal war.

EARTH & FIRE … As one long-time Burner/Rainbow crossover explained, if the Rainbow Gathering is an earth gathering – held in the woods, alcohol & combustion engine-free, without admission or money of any kind — Burning Man is a fire event – urban, techno-geekish, dependent on generators and solar panels, with a steep entrance fee but hosting a gift economy once through the gate. And indeed, fire is the event’s icon. Poi balls, propane torches, neon, fiber optics, light wires, flaming sculptures – there was more illumination in that desert sky than I’ve seen in most big cities … Of course, there are downsides. The alkali dust is choking, omnipresent. It coats everyone and everything. Great clouds of it. And one day, there was a wind-driven whiteout that lasted for an hour. Breathing was difficult. Visibility dropped to a few feet. Plus, unlike Rainbow, it’s an adult event, not a family gathering. Not only because of the many obscene and wild visuals, but it’s not a kid-friendly place. There were a few children, but it wasn’t recommended or encouraged … At Burning Man danger and fire go hand and hand. The big event on the Sunday of Labor Day was the torching of Burning Man – a giant neon human-like figure, in the center of the playa, with a base that itself was two stories tall. Fireworks spewed out of the burn in wave after wave of color, sound, and explosive brilliance -- as the flames licked their way into the heavens, outshining the moon and stars and turning the dazzling figurine sculpture to hot rubble. A most amazing event. Something one has to experience at least once in one’s life, if not as a cult addiction that continues to draw burners from all over the country to the Nevada desert year after year.

SPENCER HOT SPRINGS … Of course, no trip across the Great Basin would be complete without a stop at these wonderful free pools on BLM land between Eureka and Austin. We pulled in at midnight on the way out and camped amid the sagebrush after a lovely star-studded soak. It’s why I always take Highway 50 going west.

INCLINE VILLAGE … And on the way back from BM we took a detour down to Lake Tahoe to visit with my dear friend from my wild days in Sixties San Francisco, Dr. Francesca Bero. She’s a full professor and head of the Education Department at Sierra Nevada College. She was having a block party and we got to meet wonderful people, eat delicious barbecue, catch up all the changes of the last three decades and get hot showers to boot (finally washing off that thick playa dust) … Nothing like packing a lifetime into one week of travel.

Art Goodtimes is a San Miguel County commissioner.