So many great mistakes and stupid lessons at Burning Man 1999. It was my second Burning Man.
Folks have a wonderful year the first year they go to Burning Man. Minds blown. Then come back to Burning Man for their second year and have a terrible time of it.
I call this “The Terrible Twos”, and I was no exception. I had a crap year for my second year at Burning Man. Was pretty sure I wouldn’t come back when I left. Wrong, but pretty sure anyway.
I suppose the overarching stupid lesson of Burning Man 1999 was “not a good idea to smoke weed the entire time I’m out here in this desert city that takes so much presence and effort”.
You may remember the folly of my LSD trip at Burning Man 1998. Definitely had no plans to do that again for Burning Man 1999. I took learning from 1998 and applied it to 1999. Or so I thought.
It’s not quite possible to apply learning in a liminal space where magic exists. It takes something other than learning, more like practice – like yoga. And I was anything but practiced.
This year, it’ll be different, I say, and bring the same camp chair. That sweet, terribly uncomfortable chair went to Burning Man twenty-one times. It became more of a place to rest things than to sit in. But this year, I sat in it. Too much.
This year, it’ll be different, I say, and bring only one person. Once again, a person I’ve known for only about three months. This time, though, it’s different – because that person is Tommy Boom-Boom.
We’ve had our ups and downs in a rocky start to a relationship, but this is our do or die moment. Though he is not particularly useful on playa his virgin year, he is damn good company.
I figure with his help, it’ll be different. He’s a California boy, right? Southern Cali, born and raised. He has to know a thing or two about the desert.
It turns out that not only is desert knowledge about Black Rock desert specific to that desert, that kind of desert (high desert dry lakebed), and this experience (Burning Man 1999) in that kind of desert – but additionally Tommy Boom-Boom is not particularly good with any natural things or physics.
He’s a city boy, he’s got street smarts and moreover dive bar smarts. I’d want him with me if I happened upon a tweaker den in the desert. But here, at Burning Man 1999, well, I’d be hard pressed to say which one of us is more useless. At least I have one year of experience behind me.
I know some small thing of what not to do.
Like, I know to bring shade, considering my previous year’s experience was scarred by not having done so. So we bring some tarps and some two by fours and some rope and bungees and guess we’ll figure out how to make shade when we get there.
Ours is a prime example of doing it wrong. One cannot figure out anything on playa except how to patch holes in a very well made plan should something go wrong with the tested, planned, repeated blueprint of a plan. Our plan is terrible. It’s not a plan at all.
The way to do any structure for Burning Man is not to bring the ingredients that might form a structure and hope for the best. The way to build a structure for Burning Man as for any survival expedition is to build and test it in one’s home environment first, to at least rule out obvious issues.
Speaking of obvious issues: our shade structure does not at all account for the wind.
The structure becomes our pet. It needs constant tending. It’s the other reason I don’t leave camp enough to enjoy my time on playa. This year I’m only out there for three days, but instead of making the most of them I’m involved in this solemn sisyphean shade structure setup.
This is not rare. I am not the only person who has gone to Burning Man just to work all week on something that fails in the end. Spectacular failures were one of my favorite things at Burning Man. But it is stupid. I mean, spectacularly failing at a large project is wonderful. Spectacularly failing at providing shade for two people is just stupid.
I spend much of my time sitting in my shitty camp chair with my plastic honey bear bong. Swatting at the tarp that’s set just above my head and full of static electricity. The tarp is using the vehicle as an anchor with nothing higher than it involved so there’s no room between it and the top of the tent. This of course causes mad scritchy noises at night and as well doesn’t really provide air flow for cooling or a large shade footprint.
I don’t know all of this, at this point. It’ll take years for me to learn. At this point, I simply know that I am Doing It Wrong.
Tommy Boom-Boom has one useful tip from maybe sailing idk, which is that if you slice a hole in the tarp, the wind will be less likely to take it away. So he’s out there with a knife looking hot, slicing holes in the tarp every time our poorly thought out structure starts to blow away. Soon the tarp has much of the shade cut out of it.
And there I am, giving the fuck up. Wrapping everything that we had brought with us that was not inside the vehicle itself in the tarp that we so valiantly tried to convince to provide us shade. Then throwing bikes on top of this tarp-wrapped failure burrito to hold it down because the wind takes everything not battened.
Hours of futzing ripped apart in seconds by the wind. Stupid lesson of Burning Man 1999 #2: A few ripped tarps and some two by fours do not a shade structure make.
(I’ll give you a little foreshadowy treat: Stupid lesson of Burning Man 2000 #something: Commercially produced shade structures will not hold up to desert winds without reinforcement and anchoring.)
We arrive on a Friday and do this dance for most of Saturday and Sunday. We camped somewhere in the 3:00 range of the map, facing out towards the mountains, either on Mars or Jupiter. The theme of Burning Man 1999 was “The Wheel of Time” and it had streets named after planets.
Most of what I remember from Burning Man 1999 involves mistakes. Other than “don’t smoke weed the whole time you are at Burning Man” and “How Not To Make A Shade Structure” – there is one more good one that I make:
It takes a few days for my body to get used to the harsh climate of Black Rock City. We arrive on a Friday and leave on Monday morning. The Man burns on Saturday this year.
I do have the good presence of mind not to do the drugs on burn day or night, this time, but this means I give my body no time to adjust to the climate before deciding it’s a good idea to do MDMA with Tommy Boom-Boom.
He was valiant, I’ll give him that.
He stood outside a series of port-a-potties waiting for me to shit my guts out in my stimulated state which did nothing for me but make the fact that I spent hours of one of my only nights at Burning Man 1999 inside of a port-a-potty slightly less horrible. Couldn’t have been much better for him. I suppose in a way it was an MDMA bonding experience.
At the other end of the spectrum, I feel only slightly cuter than the previous year in my skirts made from silk scarves knotted around my curves. Clothing always seems to push and pull me into a shape that isn’t for me, and this proto experience of designing something myself that is soft, forgiving, alluring, and comfortable is in some small way doing it right.
I plan costumes expecting it to be the same temperature range as the previous year, and instead it ends up being much colder. Classic Terrible Twos, thinking you know something from your one experience…
I run into the weirdest guy from film school on the street one day. He wore a shrunken head around his neck, both in his everyday life and at Burning Man 1999.
“What’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?” I ask him.
The population of Black Rock City jumped massively between 1998 and 1999, from 15,000 to 23,000 people. Not the last time I ran into someone I knew from the outside world.
Anyway, the best and worst mistake of Burning Man 1999 wasn’t made by me, or by Tommy Boom-Boom, or by shrunken head dude.
I still recall the burn from Burning Man 1999 as the single best Man burn from all my twenty-one years.
There were three wooden orbs set around the man, as well as three fire cannons that shot flame 120 feet into the air.
The orbs were supposed to burn, the cannons to go off, and the Man was supposed to be lit by a flaming stung person. Well, the stunt person accidentally set the Man off at the wrong time and the wrong place.
THAT was not even the worst mistake of Burning Man 1999.
This ignition caused the whole Man to go up in flames at once, rather than the planned sequence of pyrotechnics. It looked like a giant blast of magnesium or thermite. Everything, the neon, the wood, the pyrotechnics, the fuel, it all burned white hot in one moment.
I don’t know what was happening on the ground because I was just staring at that in disbelief. When I did look down, what I saw was two of the giant wooden balls on fire, but the third one was not. And a couple people – likely in that mindset that happens when one is trying to save the show and doesn’t think of the cost – were tipping one of the fire cannons over diagonally to use it to set the ball on fire.
This a bad idea for so many reasons. The first being that if it works, there are humans standing around on all sides, and aiming a cannon that shoots flame a hundred and twenty feet while working with another person to do so at great physical strain for the first time in a crowded space is iffy at best.
Also: cannon not designed to shoot that way. If the fuel tips out and all lights on fire at once, the whole thing could go up at once, which, you know, we just saw an example of.
I do see this, and grab Tommy Boom-Boom and run.
Not so stupid lesson of Burning Man 1999 (and 1998): I react well in life or death situations.
Amazingly, they manage to light that ball on fire without burning anything else or anyone involved. The Man burns so hot and quick that very year thereafter compares as a drawn out ordeal.
Can’t explain what happened next very well. Maybe it’s that when you go through something stressful together, it brings out sexual and romantic urges.
The crowd begins to drop to the ground in a giant orgy.
Spreading like wildfire. Couples, groups, husbands and wives, strangers. A cloud of erotic energy that enveloped some portion of the crowd.
These were the days before nudity and sex were policed. I remember the year prior seeing a small, low train that would circle Center Camp repeatedly – a series of linked, astroturf covered, square platforms. A couple was having tantric sex on one of the platforms for hours. No one really cared.
There’s more sex going on around me than anywhere I’ve ever been in my life. Hundreds, thousands. Strangers, couples, threesomes, quads, and beyond. I look at Tommy Boom-Boom and we grin.
The hot, dry air on my naked body and how smooth and silky the dust made my skin. Not him though, ruddy satyr, doing all the work and working up a sweat. Tacky shoulders, browned and freckled. Hands in his hair. He eats my pussy as I arch my back, eyes rolling back, I see the flaming remains of the Man as I shake into orgasm…
…yet still what stands out the most in my memories of Burning Man 1999 is the fucking failed shade structure.
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