Hugh Mann on the Playa

Sunday, August 30, 1998



[why not have my puuter read this entry to you in realaudio? Click here for the regular version, click here for the in-the-cave version]

Well, I've arrived in Black Rock City. It's not the carnival I expected, at least not yet. This is still the day before Burning Mann officially begins. What strikes me about this place -- and it strikes me hard -- is the desert. The immense, heartless void that is the Black Rock Desert.

Everyone is warned before coming here that this is a dangerous place that should be taken very seriously. But hubris is hard to tame, and I figured I'd driven through a bunch of deserts without incident, so what the hell, I'll pack a little water and everything will be fine. No no no. This is a desert's desert, brutally arid with not a thing living here. This isn't a desert that someone could crawl across without water as they do in movies, crying "water! water!". If you had no water or shade, this desert would kill you in a few hours.

An image that keeps flashing in my mind is that we are each a mobile 10 gallon puddle, and the sun is evaporating us with the same speed it would any puddle. So I chug water all day, but still I have trouble keeping up. I get so dehydrated I go past lethargic and become punch drunk. It's a strange thing being dehydrated even while constantly drinking water.

And this is the desert in which we're trying to build Black Rock City. As of this moment, Sunday August 30, 1998, 11:55 pm playa time, the day before the festival officially begins, I'd estimate there are 2000 people here, most of whom are building unbelievably intricate theme camps. Right now the camps are sparse, each separated by a hundred feet of empty space. But I imagine the days ahead will see that empty space filled by thronging masses come to participate in what I've heard described as at worst the best party you'll go to all year, and at best the best experience of your life.

I'm staying with the Cyberbuss camp. We spent the last two days in a three vehicle caravan making our merry way from San Francisco, in CB communication the whole way. Our pilgrimage involved crossing an 8000 foot mountain pass in 90+ degree heat (my poor poor aircooled VW van), and then driving deep into the increasingly lunar desert landscape. Then from the instant we arrived on the playa we were working hard on the framework of the CyberBuss Camp. We worked on the various and elaborate shade structures, hammering frames out of two-by-fours, pulling the tarps and parachute over the structure, unloading the incredible amount of stuff from the buss and the caravaning vehicles, and so much etc.  I tried to work at my usual pace, but I burned out so quickly my body rebelled. I felt like I was too drunk, and aware that soon I would be unconscious. I had no choice but to rest in some shade that seemed miraculous, and I was too tired to drink any water.....

Which is to say that this city is being created slowly. But surely:   I look in any direction an hour apart and I see a new and amazing structure suddenly erected. This isn't just a big party space with tents and camps arranged willy-nilly: there are actual roads laid out by what could be called city planners, and they have overly normal names like "Baltic & 6th". It's definitely a city, and would pass for one anywhere, though it's built under a vicious sun in a few days or weeks tops, then enjoyed for a lightening fast 7 days, then burned. It's a city replete with cop cars racing here and there with colored lights flashing. And like any real city, you need at least a week to experience it.  I havn't yet experienced much at all, except the feeling of trying to build it.

I just got back from a night bikeride on the open playa, far beyond the city, and looked back at the citylights, and they're as vibrant as any city's. Everywhere are strobes, neon, and various light configurations, and everything is shimmering through the still-radiating playa. And separated by a distance is The Man That Will Burn, looking every bit the icon.

I rode deeper into the void of the playa, over the surface which is so unfailingly flat that I trusted riding no hands in the dark without even looking where I was riding, and the city faded behind me, and ahead was nothing but an infinity of space. They say this is a dry lakebed, but it seems more like a dry sea, hundreds of miles of caked sand cracked into polygons that resemble fish scales. And the whiteness of the playa reflects the moon, making the night bright enough to write by, even from a crescent moon.

It was hard to get completely out of earshot of the city. There was usually the sound of some heavily amplified band or at least a few drums carrying across the flatness. And sometimes a well-aimed conversation floated across the miles of flatness and reached me loud as if the people were 10 feet away. But eventually there was just silence, no animals or insects or birds making a sound, even the wind had nothing to rub against and was therefore silent. Dead stillness and silence, so silent I realized I didn't really known what silence meant. And the darkness was broken by the milky way overhead and flashes of lightening in the distance from a faraway rogue storm.  It's all a strange mix of beautiful and brutal.  

That's all for now, I'm exhausted.  I'm dirty as hell, my feet are prune-dry from the playa dust, my eyebrows are brittle with dust, and I'm so exhausted I can hardly sit up.  But cool nighttime is when things happen here in the hot desert, so I want to make contact with the mothership and send this entry to the web so I can go check things out.  If all goes well in this delicate blending of desert and electronics, tomorrow I'll post some pictures.

-Hugh Mann
August 30


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