Attending Burning Man made me simultaneously one of the most photographed people on the planet and one of the least surveilled humans in the modern world.
I adjusted my burnoose, covering up my nose and mouth and tucking its edge into place under the lower rim of my big, scratched goggles. The sun was high, the temperature well over a hundred degrees, and breathing through the embroidered cotton scarf made it even more stifling. But the wind had just kicked up, and there was a lot of playa dust—fine gypsum sand, deceptively soft and powdery, but alkali enough to make your eyes burn and your skin crack—and after two days in the desert, I had learned that it was better to be hot than to choke.
Pretty much everyone was holding a camera of some kind—mostly phones, of course, but also big SLRs and even old-fashioned film cameras, including a genuine antique plate camera whose operator hid out from the dust under a huge black cloth that made me hot just to look at it. Everything was ruggedized for the fine, blowing dust, mostly through the simple expedient of sticking it in a ziplock bag, which is what I’d done with my phone. I turned around slowly to get a panorama and saw that the man walking past me was holding the string for a gigantic helium balloon a hundred yards overhead, from which dangled a digital video camera. Also, the man holding the balloon was naked.
Well, not entirely. He was wearing shoes. I understood that: playa dust is hard on your feet. They call it playa-foot, when the alkali dust dries out your skin so much that it starts to crack and peel. Everyone agrees that playa-foot sucks.
Burning Man is a festival held every Labor Day weekend in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Fifty thousand people show up in this incredibly harsh, hot, dusty environment and build a huge city—Black Rock City—and participate. “Spectator” is a vicious insult in Black Rock City. Everyone’s supposed to be doing stuff and, yeah, also admiring everyone else’s stuff (hence all the cameras). At Burning Man, everyone is the show.
I wasn’t naked, but the parts of me that were showing were decorated with elaborate mandalas laid on with colored zinc. A lady as old as my mother, wearing a tie-dyed wedding dress, had offered to paint me that morning, and she’d done a great job. That’s another thing about Burning Man: it runs on a gift economy, which means that you generally go around offering nice things to strangers a lot, which makes for a surprisingly pleasant environment. The designs the painter had laid down made me look amazing, and there were plenty of cameras aiming my way as I ambled across the open desert toward Nine O’Clock.
Black Rock City is a pretty modern city: it has public sanitation (portable chem-toilets decorated with raunchy poems reminding you not to put anything but toilet paper in them), electricity and Internet service (at Six O’Clock, the main plaza in the middle of the ring-shaped city), something like a government (the nonprofit that runs Burning Man), several local newspapers (all of them doing better than the newspapers in the real world!), a dozen radio stations, an all-volunteer police force (the Black Rock Rangers, who patrolled wearing tutus or parts of chicken suits or glitter paint), and many other amenities associated with the modern world.
But BRC has no official surveillance. There are no CCTVs, no checkpoints—at least not after the main gate, where tickets are collected—no ID checks at all, no bag searches, no RFID sniffers, no mobile phone companies logging your movements. There was also no mobile phone service. No one drives—except for the weird art cars registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles—so there were no license plate cameras and no sniffers for your E-ZPasses. The WiFi was open and unlogged. Attendees at Burning Man agreed not to use their photos commercially without permission, and it was generally considered polite to ask people before taking their portraits.
So there I was, having my picture taken through the blowing dust as I gulped down water from the water jug I kept clipped to my belt at all times, sucking at the stubby built-in straw under cover of the blue-and-silver burnoose, simultaneously observed and observer, simultaneously observed and unsurveilled, and it was glorious.
“Wahoo!” I shouted to the dust and the art cars and the naked people and the enormous wooden splay-armed effigy perched atop a pyramid straight ahead of me in the middle of the desert. This was The Man, and we’d burn him in three nights, and that’s why it was called Burning Man. I couldn’t wait.
“You’re in a good mood,” a jawa said from behind me. Even with the tone-shifter built into its dust mask, the cloaked sand-person had an awfully familiar voice.
“Ange?” I said. We’d been missing each other all that day, ever since I’d woken up an hour before her and snuck out of the tent to catch the sunrise (which was awesome), and we’d been leaving each other notes back at camp all day about where we were heading next. Ange had spent the summer spinning up the jawa robes, working with cooling towels that trapped sweat as it evaporated, channeling it back over her skin for extra evaporative cooling. She’d hand-dyed it a mottled brown, tailored it into the characteristic monkish robe shape, and added crossed bandoliers. These exaggerated her breasts, which made the whole thing entirely and totally warsome. She hadn’t worn it out in public yet, and now, in the dust and the glare, she was undoubtedly the greatest sand-person I’d ever met. I hugged her and she hugged me back so hard it knocked the wind out of me, one of her trademarked wrestling-hold cuddles.
“I smudged your paint,” she said through the voice-shifter after we unclinched.
“I got zinc on your robes,” I said.
She shrugged. “Like it matters! We both look fabulous. Now, what have you seen and what have you done and where have you been, young man?”
“Where to start?” I said. I’d been wandering up and down the radial avenues that cut through the city, lined with big camps sporting odd exhibits—one camp where a line of people were efficiently making snow cones for anyone who wanted them, working with huge blocks of ice and a vicious ice-shaver. Then a camp where someone had set up a tall, linoleum-covered slide that you could toboggan down on a plastic magic carpet, after first dumping a gallon of waste water over the lino to make it plenty slippery. It was a very clever way to get rid of gray water (that’s water that you’ve showered in, or used to wash your dishes or hands—black water being water that’s got poo or pee in it). One of the other Burning Man rules was “leave no trace”—when we left, we’d take every scrap of Black Rock City with us, and that included all the gray water. But the slide made for a great gray water evaporator, and every drop of liquid that the sliders helped turn into vapor was a drop of liquid the camp wouldn’t have to pack all the way back to Reno.
There’d been pervy camps where they were teaching couples to tie each other up; a “junk food glory hole” that you put your mouth over in order to receive a mysterious and unhealthy treat (I’d gotten a mouthful of some kind of super-sugary breakfast cereal studded with coconut “marshmallows” shaped like astrological symbols); a camp where they were offering free service for playa bikes (beater bikes caked with playa dust and decorated with glitter and fun fur and weird fetishes and bells); a tea-house camp where I’d been given a very precisely made cup of some kind of Japanese tea I’d never heard of that was delicious and sharp; camps full of whimsy; camps full of physics; camps full of optical illusions; camps full of men and women; a kids’ camp full of screaming kids running around playing some kind of semisupervised outdoor game—things I’d never suspected existed.
And I’d only seen a tiny slice of Black Rock City.
I told Ange about as much as I could remember and she nodded or said “ooh,” or “aah,” or demanded to know where I’d seen things. Then she told me about the stuff she’d seen—a camp where topless women were painting one another’s breasts; a camp where an entire brass band was performing; a camp where they’d built a medieval trebuchet that fired ancient, broken-down pianos down a firing range, the audience holding its breath in total silence while they waited for the glorious crash each piano made when it exploded into flinders on the hardpack desert.
“Can you believe this place?” Ange said, jumping up and down on the spot in excitement, making her bandoliers jingle.
“I know—can you believe we almost didn’t make it?”
I’d always sort of planned on going out to see The Man burn—after all, I grew up in San Francisco, the place with the largest concentration of burners in the world. But it took a lot of work to participate in Burning Man. First, there was the matter of packing for a camping trip in the middle of the desert where you had to pack in everything—including water—and then pack it all out again, everything you didn’t leave behind in the porta-potties. And there were very strict rules about what could go in those. Then there was the gift economy: figuring out what I could bring to the desert that someone else might want. Plus the matter of costumes, cool art, and inventions to show off … every time I started to think about it, I just about had a nervous breakdown.
But this year, of all years, I’d made it. This was the year both my parents lost their jobs. The year I’d dropped out of college rather than take on any more student debt. The year I’d spent knocking on every door I could find, looking for paid work—anything!—without getting even a nibble.
“Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is cash-poor and time-rich,” Ange said solemnly, pulling down her face mask with one hand and yanking me down to kiss me with the other.
“That’s catchy,” I said. “You should print T-shirts.”
“Oh,” she said. “That reminds me. I got a T-shirt!”
She threw open her robe to reveal a proud red tee that read MAKE BEAUTIFUL ART AND SET IT ON FIRE, laid out like those British KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON posters, with the Burning Man logo where the crown should be.
“Just in time, too,” I said, holding my nose. I was only partly kidding. At the last minute, we’d both decided to ditch half the clothes we’d planned on bringing so that we could fit more parts for Secret Project X-1 into our backpacks. Between that and taking “bits and pits” baths by rubbing the worst of the dried sweat, body paint, sunscreen, and miscellaneous fluids off with baby wipes once a day, neither of us smelled very nice.
She shrugged. “The playa provides.” It was one of the Burning Man mottoes we’d picked up on the first day, when we both realized that we thought the other one had brought the sunscreen, and just as we were about to get into an argument about it, we stumbled on Sunscreen Camp, where some nice people had slathered us all over with SPF 50 and given us some baggies to take with. “The playa provides!” they’d said, and wished us well.
I put my arm around her shoulders. She dramatically turned her nose up at my armpit, then made a big show of putting on her face mask.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go out to the temple.”
The temple was a huge, two-story sprawling structure, dotted with high towers and flying buttresses. It was filled with robotic Tibetan gongs that played strange clanging tunes throughout the day. I’d seen it from a distance that morning while walking around the playa, watching the sun turn the dust rusty orange, but I hadn’t been up close.
The outer wings of the temple were open to the sky, made of the same lumber as the rest of the whole elaborate curlicue structure. The walls were lined with benches and were inset with niches and nooks. And everywhere, every surface, was covered in writing and signs and posters and pictures.
And almost all of it was about dead people.
“Oh,” Ange said to me, as we trailed along the walls, reading the memorials that had been inked or painted or stapled there. I was reading a handwritten thirty-page-long letter from an adult woman to her parents, about all the ways they’d hurt her and made her miserable and destroyed her life, about how she’d felt when they’d died, about how her marriages had been destroyed by the craziness she’d had instilled in her. It veered from wild accusation to tender exasperation to anger to sorrow, like some kind of emotional roller coaster. I felt like I was spying on something I wasn’t supposed to see, except that everything in the temple was there to be seen.
Every surface in the temple was a memorial to something or someone. There were baby shoes and pictures of grannies, a pair of crutches and a beat-up cowboy hat with a hatband woven from dead dried flowers. Burners—dressed and undressed like a circus from the end of the world—walked solemnly around these, reading them, more often than not with tears running down their faces. Pretty soon, I had tears running down my face. It moved me in a way that nothing had ever moved me before. Especially since it was all going to burn on Sunday night, before we tore down Black Rock City and went home.
Ange sat in the dust and began looking through a sketchbook whose pages were filled with dense, dark illustrations. I wandered into the main atrium of the temple, a tall, airy space whose walls were lined with gongs. Here, the floor was carpeted with people—sitting and lying down, eyes closed, soaking in the solemnity of the moment, some with small smiles, some weeping, some with expressions of utmost serenity.
I’d tried meditating once, during a drama class in high school. It hadn’t worked very well. Some of the kids kept on giggling. There was some kind of shouting going on in the hallway outside the door. The clock on the wall ticked loudly, reminding me that at any moment, there’d be a loud buzzer and the roar and stamp of thousands of kids all trying to force their way through a throng to their next class. But I’d read a lot about meditation and how good it was supposed to be for you. In theory it was easy, too: just sit down and think of nothing.
So I did. I shifted my utility belt around so that I could sit down without it digging into my ass and waited until a patch of floor was vacated, then sat. There were streamers of sunlight piercing the high windows above, lancing down in gray-gold spikes that glittered with dancing dust. I looked into one of these, at the dancing motes, and then closed my eyes. I pictured a grid of four squares, featureless and white with thick black rims and sharp corners. In my mind’s eye, I erased one square. Then another. Then another. Now there was just one square. I erased it.
There was nothing now. I was thinking of nothing, literally. Then I was thinking about the fact that I was thinking about nothing, mentally congratulating myself, and I realized that I was thinking of something again. I pictured my four squares and started over.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but there were moments when the world seemed to both go away and be more present than it ever had been. I was living in that exact and very moment, not anticipating anything that might happen later, not thinking of anything that had just happened, just being right there. It only lasted for a fraction of a second each time, but each of those fragmentary moments were … well, they were something.
I opened my eyes. I was breathing in time with the gongs around me, a slow, steady cadence. There was something digging into my butt, a bit of my utility belt’s strap or something. The girl in front of me had a complex equation branded into the skin of her shoulder blades, the burned skin curdled into deep, sharp-relief mathematical symbols and numbers. Someone smelled like weed. Someone was sobbing softly. Someone outside the temple called out to someone else. Someone laughed. Time was like molasses, flowing slowly and stickily around me. Nothing seemed important and everything seemed wonderful. That was what I’d been looking for, all my life, without ever knowing it. I smiled.
“Hello, M1k3y,” a voice hissed in my ear, very soft and very close, lips brushing my lobe, breath tickling me. The voice tickled me, too, tickled my memory. I knew that voice, though I hadn’t heard it in a very long time.
Slowly, as though I were a giraffe with a neck as tall as a tree, I turned my head to look around.
“Hello, Masha,” I said, softly. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Her hand was on my hand and I remembered the way she’d twisted my wrist around in some kind of martial arts hold the last time I’d seen her. I didn’t think she’d be able to get away with bending my arm up behind my back and walking me out of the temple on my tiptoes. If I shouted for help, thousands of burners would … well, they wouldn’t tear her limb from limb, but they’d do something. Kidnapping people on the playa was definitely against the rules. It was in the Ten Principles, I was nearly certain of it.
She tugged at my wrist. “Let’s go,” she said. “Come on.”
I got to my feet and followed her, freely and of my own will, and even though I trembled with fear as I got up, there was a nugget of excitement in there, too. Of course this was happening now, at Burning Man. A couple years ago, I’d been in the midst of more excitement than anyone would or could want. I’d led a techno-guerrilla army against the Department of Homeland Security, met a girl and fell in love with her, been arrested and tortured, found celebrity, and sued the government. Since then, it had all gone downhill, in a weird way. Being waterboarded was terrible, awful, unimaginable—I still had nightmares—but it happened and then it ended. My parents’ slow slide into bankruptcy, the hard, grinding reality of a city with no jobs for anyone, let alone a semiqualified college dropout like me, and the student debt that I had to pay every month. It was a pile of misery that I lived under every day, and it showed no sign of going away. It wasn’t dramatic, dynamic trouble, the kind of thing you got war stories out of years after the fact. It was just, you know, reality.
And reality sucked.
So I went with Masha, because Masha had been living underground with Zeb for the better part of two years, and whatever else she was, she was someone whose life was generating a lot of exciting stories. Her reality might suck too, but it sucked in huge, showy, neon letters—not in the quiet, crabbed handwriting of a desperate and broke teenager scribbling in his diary.
I went with Masha, and she led me out of the temple. The wind was blowing worse than it had been before, real white-out conditions, and I pulled down my goggles and pulled up my scarf again. Even with them on, I could barely see, and each breath of air filled my mouth with the taste of dried saliva and powdery gypsum from my burnoose. Masha’s hair wasn’t bright pink anymore; it was a mousy blond-brown, turned gray with dust, cut into duckling fuzz all over, the kind of haircut you could maintain yourself with a clipper. I’d had that haircut, off and on, through much of my adolescence. Her skull bones were fine and fragile, her skin stretched like paper over her cheekbones. Her neck muscles corded and her jaw muscles jumped. She’d lost weight since I’d seen her last, and her skin had gone leathery brown, a color that was deeper than a mere summer tan.
We went all of ten steps out from the temple, but we might have been a mile from it—it was lost in the dust. There were people around, but I couldn’t make out their words over the spooky moan of the wind blowing through the temple’s windows. Bits of grit crept between my goggles and my sweaty cheeks and made my eyes and nose run.
“Far enough,” she said, and let go of my wrist, holding her hands before her. I saw that the fingertips on her left hand were weirdly deformed and squashed and bent, and I had a vivid recollection of slamming the rolling door of a moving van down on her hand as she chased me. She’d been planning to semikidnap me at the time, and I was trying to get away with evidence that my best friend Darryl had been kidnapped by Homeland Security, but I still heard the surprised and pained shout she’d let out when the door crunched on her hand. She saw where I was looking and took her hand away, tucking it into the sleeve of the loose cotton shirt she wore.
“How’s tricks, M1k3y?” she said.
“It’s Marcus these days,” I said. “Tricks have been better. How about you? Can’t say I expected to see you again. Ever. Especially not at Burning Man.
Her eyes crinkled behind her goggles and her veil shifted and I knew she was smiling. “Why, M1k3y—Marcus—it was the easiest way for me to get to see you.”
It wasn’t exactly a secret that I was planning to come to Burning Man that year. I’d been posting desperate “Will trade work for a ride to the playa” and “Want to borrow your old camping gear” messages to Craigslist and the hackerspace mailing lists for months, trying to prove that the proverbial time-rich kid could out-determination cash-poorness. Anyone who was trying to figure out where I was going to be over Labor Day weekend could have googled my semiprecise location in about three seconds.
“Um,” I said. “Um. Look, Masha, you know, you’re kind of freaking me out. Are you here to kill me or something? Where’s Zeb?”
She closed her eyes and the pale dust sifted down between us. “Zeb’s off enjoying the playa. Last time I saw him, he was volunteering in the café and waiting to go to a yoga class. He’s actually a pretty good barista—better than he is at being a yogi, anyway. And no, I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to give you something, and leave it up to you to decide what to do with it.”
“You’re going to give me something?”
“Yeah. It’s a gift economy around here. Haven’t you heard?”
“What, exactly, are you going to give me, Masha?”
She shook her head. “Better you don’t know until we make the handoff. Technically, it would be better—for you, at least—if you never knew. But that’s how it goes.” She seemed to be talking to herself now. Being underground had changed her. She was, I don’t know, hinky. Like something was wrong with her, like she was up to something, or like she could run at any second. She’d been so self-confident and decisive and unreadable. Now she seemed half crazy. Or maybe one-quarter crazy, and one-quarter terrified.
“Tonight,” she said. “They’re going to burn the Library of Alexandria at 8 P.M. After that burn, walk out to the trash fence, directly opposite Six O’Clock. Wait for me if I’m not there when you show up. I’ve got stuff to do first.”
“Okay,” I said. “I suppose I can do that. Will Zeb be there? I’d love to say hello to him again.”
She rolled her eyes. “Zeb’ll probably be there, but you might not see him. You come alone. And come out dark. No lights, got it?”
“No,” I said. “Actually, no. I’m with Ange, as you must know, and I’m not going out there without her, assuming she wants to come. And no lights? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
For a city of fifty thousand people involved with recreational substances, flaming art, and enormous, mutant machines, Black Rock has a remarkably low mortality rate. But in a city where they laughed at danger, walking after dark without lights—lots of lights, preferably—was considered borderline insane. One of the most dangerous things you could do at Burning Man was walk the playa at night without illumination: that made you a “darktard,” and darktards were at risk of being run into by art bikes screaming over the dust in the inky night, they risked getting crushed by mammoth art cars, and they were certain to be tripped over and kicked and generally squashed. Burning Man’s unofficial motto might have been “safety third,” but no one liked a darktard.
She closed her eyes and stood statue-still. The wind was dying down a little, but I still felt like I’d just eaten a pound of talcum powder, and my eyes were stinging like I’d been pepper-sprayed.
“Bring your girly if you must. But no lights, not after you get out past the last art car. And if both of you end up in trouble because you wouldn’t come out alone, you’ll know whose fault it was.”
She turned on her heel and walked off into the dust, and she was out of my sight in a minute. I hurried back to the temple to find Ange.
Copyright © 2013 by Cory Doctorow