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Burning Man 1998

Burning Man 1998 is not something I plan. It’s July and I’m over at a horrible lover’s house who has invited me there and is now ignoring me as I sit alone in his living room near his roommate who is working, yet still trying to be nice to me because of the awkward situation. I should just leave, but it isn’t obvious to me that this still isn’t a date. 

My horrible lover’s friend stops by with photos from Burning Man 1997. They’re photos he took on a disposable 35mm camera, this being before the true onset of the digital age. Photos he left to get developed and then forgot about until this week, and then picked them up from the pharmacy photo section, as we used to do, and got so excited by the memories he needed to show them to someone.

That someone ends up being me, as I’m the most interested in looking busy. I’ve been looking for my crowd, shuffling through the subcultures of Los Angeles and finding things that almost fit, but not quite. One of the almost fits is the rave culture. Another is the drug culture. I have newly turned 22, and newly out of grad school, and didn’t do any drugs until I was 21. MDMA changes my self-image, I’m experimenting with psychedelics, and I’ve also recently started smoking weed on the daily.

I flip through the photos, images of fire and nudity, bodypaint, stark lakebed, and punk and hippie. Bright colors and dusty landscapes. Each photo triggers powerful emotions and an absolute mandatory necessity to attend.

These are my people. Where are they?

I search the internet and find some basic information. A list of necessary supplies. Some local ticket vendors. In these early days Burning Man tickets were sold through TicketWeb. I make a trip to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip and buy two tickets to Burning Man 1998 for $80 a piece. Emblazoned across the front of the ticket in all caps: YOU VOLUNTARILY ASSUME THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH BY ATTENDING.

It doesn’t deter me. I search for someone to go with me. I’m drunk at a party and ask a woman from my graduate program that I have never really talked to outside of this party, and she agrees. This ends up being a terrible idea.

I attended Burning Man for twenty-one consecutive years and slowly but surely became an absolute professional. But this, my first year, I am not at all a professional. I am flat out DOING IT WRONG. This is best shown by my Burning Man 1998 packing list:

  • One loaf of bread
  • One bunch of bananas
  • A jar of honey
  • Five gallons of water
  • Tent
  • Tarp
  • One pair of shorts, two short-sleeved shirts, four pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, and two bras. 
  • One pair of shoes
  • One camp chair
  • One box of wet wipes
  • One honey bear bong
  • One quarter ounce of weed
  • One tube of sunscreen and a bottle of bug spray (there are no insects)
  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste
  • Flashlight
  • One pack of glow stick necklaces

And, thankfully, my saving grace:

Fifty hits of LSD dropped into twenty-five sugar cubes.

I remember my shitty drug dealer coming over to my apartment to prep the sugar cubes. Using a bottle of Visine to hold the LSD and not taking any precaution. He didn’t wear gloves and kept getting it on himself and licking it off, then realizing what he’d done and cursing. I stay far away from his work. My first LSD experience involved being dosed. After that surprise I only trip when I want to, with a lot of intention.

No coolers or shade. No costumes or bicycle. Nothing to contribute other than a fuckload of LSD.

I drive the entire way from Los Angeles to Black Rock City to attend Burning Man 1998 in one day. My new friend is absolutely no help. Her music taste is different from mine and so every other CD we listen to on the way is excruciating for me.

In Bishop, California we are pulled over for speeding. My mind flits to the weed and LSD in my trunk. The officer even asks me to open the trunk and stares directly at the box of sugar cubes. He lets us go with the speeding ticket and no real search.

It’s late afternoon when we reach Gerlach, the closest city to the event. Then comes the hilly approach to the entrance, with no shoulder and a shitty, torn up road. Not too far from the actual event we pass a dead cow, on its back, stiff legs in the air. 

“Where the fuck are you taking us?” my friend asks.

“Burning Man 1998.”

Burning Man 1998

We pass the greeters who give us hugs, a map, and a booklet of events. The theme for Burning Man 1998 is “The Nebulous Entity”, but I have no recollection of it impacting the experience in any way, nor any of seeing the central art piece that embodies that theme. Later I learn it’s the first year with a city grid and street signs. 

We drive through the streets of Black Rock City looking for a place to camp. It’s the end of the week, Thursday, and there’s almost no space left. We end up on the very edge of the city, called 20th Street South, almost on the corner of Atlantic but not quite, a couple camps closer to The Man. 

Burning Man 1998 Map

Looking around it immediately becomes clear that we are woefully unprepared. People have serious survival gear. We’re not too far from the Alternative Energy Zone which has solar panels and wind power. It hadn’t occurred to me that showers and electrics would be available, let alone necessary. Thankfully we are only going to be there for four nights. We set up the tent on top of the tarp, but do not push the edges of the tarp underneath the tent.

A harsh lesson looms.

My friend almost immediately ditches me for the neighbors, and begins sleeping with one of them that she isn’t really interested in, just so that she’ll have shade.

I sit down in the tent with my honey bear bong, feet sticking out of the tent, but flap closed to prevent any law enforcement from seeing me take a few hits. Then I walk out onto the open playa.

The first thing I see is a giant roll of bubble wrap, and a line of grown adults in costumes, naked, painted, popping it. Some sit on the ground, pulling it between their jaws and popping it with their teeth. Others stomp on it. One nerd in taped glasses and a pocket protector is methodically popping every bubble in a grid pattern. As I pass the person nearest to the roll calls out.

“Hey you want to pop some bubble wrap?” 

I pass. 

The next thing I see is a naked fat man with a tuba, stumbling a few steps this way and that between blasts that show him clearly very well practiced.

Two people on a camel pass by, slowly ambling towards The Bone Tree, a large tree made of cattle bones that returns to Burning Man for many years, and beyond to a small building made out of recycled plastic that looks like stained glass when lit at night.

I hear beats, and as the wind blows different threads of electronic music come my way. A train passes on the tracks that run closer to the event than any other year I’m there, blowing the horn at us. And in the middle of it all is The Man, standing on some hay bales. The sun has set and the neon tubes that delineate his form click on.

I burst into tears. This is it. The perfect fit. This is where I belong. At least for the next twenty-one years.

Burning Man 1998 still runs on the barter system, before “gifting” took it over. Due to this, I’m able to get pretty much anything I need for one sugar cube. It turns out that fifty hits of LSD is pretty much the best currency I could ever ask for. I even buy coffee from Center Camp with one of them – traditionally the only place that accepts cash money (and nothing else) in the city. The workers, though, are volunteers, and anyone and everyone is swayed by my offering. 

It pours rain the second night, and the tarp underneath the tent turns into a neat little basin that soaks everything. I try to hang things to dry over my car. My friend and I go out together. She’s wearing a butterfly choker and we meet a young lepidopterist who takes a fancy to her. It seems like it’s supposed to be a threesome and I’m down, but when we get back to the tent he’s clearly only interested in her and then once he sees the puddle we live in, not interested at all.

It’s the last night my friend sleeps in the tent.

The neighbors include a photographer and his waif of a wife, who scantily dresses in flowing outfits while he takes photos of her, triggering every bit of body image disorder I have. They’re new to co-counseling, but their other two campmates are seasoned professionals. They offer to teach me, but like most Burning Man promises it’s never realized. The last of their neighbors is the creep that my friend ends up trading sex for shade with for most of the weekend. 

I feel intensely unattractive and sad with my one pair of shorts and street clothes. It keeps me from doing much socializing. 

I spend some time sitting in the tent with my honey bear bong, flap now open, staring off into the desert. Once a cop drives by in a police SUV. My eyes widen, knowing that this is Nevada, now a zero tolerance state, and also that this is Federal land, with mandatory minimums. The cop just waves and drives on by.

Another time I’m there mid bong hit and see four people pushing a wooden frame on wheels. A man with a big grin on his face hangs from the frame by hooks sunk into his chest. I remember how the bumps in the road jostled him, and how it made me dump out the rest of the bowl, no longer in the mood to get high.

When the neighbors hear of our plan to take LSD for the burn, but to drop in the morning, they shake their heads and call us silly young folk.

Even more so when they see that I have a special sugar cube prepared for me with five hits of LSD. This is back when the burn happened on Sunday night. I know that the next morning I’ll have to make the drive home, and tripping all night before driving all day seems like a bad idea.

They’re right, though. The trip ends up being excruciating. I just keep looking for somewhere to get out of the sun. I remember early in the day standing in Center Camp, and as the heat rises other people with no foresight nor ability to take care of themselves straggle towards the shade until it is crowded and hot in the midday. Thus comes the lesson that when things are good, humans are cooperative. But when things are bad, and resources scarce, humans become competitive. 

I circle back to camp a few times and see that my friend is having a cleaning trip.

She’s wandering around in a mesh bikini dragging a trash bag collecting what she thinks is trash from neighboring camps. The creep neighbor keeps an eye on her, which is probably lucky as I witness various other creeps leering for a turn.

I have one of my gallon water jugs sitting on top of the car holding my damp sleeping bag down. Neighbor husband photographer gently mocks me.

“You heating that up for a shower?” he asks.

“No.” I respond, throwing it and everything else but the tent into the car. Nothing dries completely. The bread is moldy. I’m living on bananas at this point.

Towards dusk I play poker with the neighbors, betting sugar cubes in exchange for I don’t remember what, because I lose.

It’s so dry and awful and I have inhaled so much dust that I keep taking sips of water without realizing how much I’ve been drinking because of the LSD, which results in me suddenly running to the road and puking it all up while the husband photographer laughs at me. 

Later that night we all walk out to the burn together. Husband photographer decides to wear lingerie for the first time, but doesn’t bring any other clothing. As we’re waiting for The Man to ignite, he is shivering, freezing, and miserable. He hasn’t realized that wearing scanty clothing will expose him to the elements. His dick looks like it wants to crawl inside him. I point at him and laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

The burn hurts my dilated pupils, but is phenomenal. Pyrotechnics and a big, big fire.

It’s the last night of Burning Man 1998 and suddenly everything is on fire. It looks like a war zone to me. I’m well down from the LSD at this point, and able to get my bearings despite the biggest landmark in the city, The Man, being reduced to ashes. 

People go wild. There’s a frenzy. I watch as they start to burn everything. What started as small fires of people burning their artwork become huge bonfires as they are fed with random items people don’t want to take home. They’re everywhere, in the open playa as well as in the city. 

I see people throw a couch into the fire, and then tents. I figure this is a good time to check on my own tent and head back towards the southern part of the city.

At the edge of the city, I see people throwing PVC pipes into the fire. 

“Fuck.” I say out loud, knowing the consequences. In this small way, I am prepared. I cautiously continue, but run into a wall of volunteer Black Rock Rangers and law enforcement with megaphones.

“Stay clear of the south side of the city. We repeat, stay clear of the south side of the city. There is chlorine gas in the air, and this is lethal. It’s written on your ticket, assholes, take this seriously.” comes the cry from a Bureau of Land Management officer.

I decide my life is more important than my tent, and begin the process that takes me through most of the night – staying upwind of fires. I don’t sleep that night.

The next morning at the crack of dawn we drive out. I am too exhausted to drive the full way back and we end up staying in a cheap motel in one of the towns on the 395. I can’t remember which one. My friend lands back in herself, having completely transformed into someone else for the week.

I, however, do not. I am forever changed by Burning Man 1998.


Other Burning Man Stories:

Israeli Man at Burning Man

Persian Stripper

Latex Fetish Sex


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