Wearing horns, fur and a tail in the middle of the Nevada desert may sound embarrassing. But wearing horns and fur and getting your tail stuck in your bike chain… now that’s truly embarrassing. And I was thoroughly stuck, unable to even turn around because my tail was wrapped too tightly around the gears. Over my shoulder loomed the words “THE END,” written in plywood letters stacked twenty feet high, and I could scarcely dispute their literal implication; my wanderings had effectively ended unless I found a way to extricate myself from the machinery.
The Burning Man Festival tends to throw its participants into one surreal situation after another, I’ve noticed. Inviting 50,000 artists, nudists and hippies onto a lifeless plain in the Black Rock Desert and perpetually dehydrating them produces strange and uneven results. Yet somehow each year they manage to build a city from scratch, constructing million-dollar sculptures, circuses, dance clubs on wheels and everything from thirty-foot bottles of ketchup to mechanical spiders that belch flame.
A fellow citizen of Black Rock City came to my rescue before I was forced to remove my trousers and work on my bicycle naked from the waist down. Unable to tug my furry tail free, the stranger pulled a sharp knife from his backpack. “Is it going to hurt?” I whined, cringing as the blade sliced through the fake fur. I was free, but wounded in dignity. I had become rather attached to that appendage, but I guess furry tails and bicycles were not meant to be together.
I was left holding pieces of my severed tail, but it is hard to remain glum when there are so many places to explore and so many structures to climb, such as ten-story skyscrapers, dance club jungle gyms, fireman’s ladders, and even tetrahedrons made of baseballs and bats. Most people assume a festival of this sort would be amoral and anarchic. I find a strong sense of civil morals exists in Black Rock City, but to fully engage in the culture, you have to quiet the voice in your head that tells you not to wear mismatched socks or run with scissors. This is not the place for conformity. Radical self-expression is the furnace that supplies energy to the world of Burning Man, with the caveat that your actions should be respectful to your neighbors.
The Black Rock City community also thrives because of its gifting economy. The only items available for purchase are ice and coffee at the Center Camp, but by walking through the streets of the city, one is presented with free lemonade, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, tattoos, costumes, popcorn, cream sodas, and all manner of cold beverages, which taste exquisite in the 100-degree heat that radiates off the playa. If citizens cannot provide goods, they often contribute services, such as massages, tarot readings, yoga classes, and even workshops on fire-spinning and lockpicking.
If you have any sort of need, then most likely a camp exists to fulfill that need for you. The day after I expressed a desire for horns to compliment my animal costume, I discovered that I lived a block away from Horny Camp, which lets you sculpt and bake your very own set. Pie was never my favorite dessert until I stumbled across the camp called Betty’s Diner. One man and two women, each wearing 1950’s-style waitress uniforms and a “Betty” nametag, served tea and coffee to four customers at a time, smiling politely while taking their order for pie. It was an oasis of Southern hospitality in the midst of the unforgiving desert.
Dry air and dust steadily took its toll on the skin, however, and on the fifth day of the festival, my toes were cracking and my hands had the texture of coarse sandpaper. When the desert sun forced me out of my tent in the morning, I took my bike and went off in search of a water truck, which typically roamed the streets sprinkling water to keep the dust level down and dousing Burners, like me, who were looking for a quick rinse. However, this time my instincts failed me, and every water truck I found was already empty. I desperately wanted to feel fresh for my musical performance tonight at the Center Camp Stage, but I needn’t have worried. By the end of the afternoon, I had received a hand massage, a steam bath, and a snow cone, so I was as relaxed and limber as my performance anxiety would allow...