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burning man (revised)

Posted: November 5th, 2010, 11:25 am
by mnaz
On a desiccated expanse you note the planet’s most elemental form, the energized plane from which Dali’s Apparatus and Hand arose. You are held for as long as it takes, watched by obscure desolations stretching left and right of nebulae. Time passes, clouds pass. Dark webs spread on naked rock. The plane, the rim and sky are in flux. Umber shapes on the rim cap a lighter dirty ivory table, but the manic clouds reverse it at times, light up rim over a darker table in chocolate shades. Sullen clouds breach the western peaks but shoot by, look for an easier mark, pile up on a high bluff, and thunder rumbles faintly. Would one lifetime be enough to explore everything you can see?

You rest on the bed of former Lake Lahontan, which covered some ten thousand square miles at its Pleistocene height, from Reno to Idaho. Now it is dead-flat cracked clay, a boundless playa named Black Rock Desert, after a black ridge that juts into the void, once a dreaded landmark for pioneers on the Lassen-Applegate Trail. On the playa there is only blinding, indeterminate span. What seemed a vehicle on the horizon may only be a small rock, and such cognitive dissonance may cause fatal miscalculation or instill poetics of wide open passage. If you made the desolate rim you might travel to an inward connection. Gravity emanates from bare rock, pulls in troubled spirits, but it can be unfit ground, or a creeping lonesome, more to the heart of it. One might become too deeply embedded.

“Where pavement ends and the west begins”. A sign outside Gerlach, Nevada (population 200), which sits at the southern tip of the Black Rock playa. Pavement actually runs a few more miles, but you get the idea. Gerlach is the only fragment of a town for a hundred miles in any direction, aside from the gypsum mine seven miles south, a dust-ridden place named “Empire,” in perfect sun-demented hubris. Gerlach is rimmed by abrupt mountains, Granite Range on the west, dotted by thin juniper and rabbit brush, and Selenite Range on the east, darker and starker. The playa runs out to its self-generated radiant infinity from there, a waterless fjord to a waterless sea, and it knocked you flat upon first witness.

You had to get away, and away is a real possibility on a plane of raw light stretched beyond indecipherable nebulae, in rarified arid air, giddy whiffs and gusts and intensity in the interval, still as cracks on the playa floor, and thermals wobbling mysteriously in alleys of oblivion barely seen. Span, but no scale, no reference point, only mercurial wind, ringing quiet, a metaphor of history. Induces poetry you can’t afford. No life or sound but a heady lurch of dry air, lurch and lull, a lull to wreck your ears, a true unmatched baseline. The moon? No. Too many craters. The ocean? Water slosh.

Gerlach is best known as the town closest to Burning Man, forty thousand mystic freaks camped on a canvas each September, that yearly cosmic art storm splatter on the mind-blowing flat, a “postmodern Brigadoon in an ancient wasteland.” It costs a few hundred dollars and a Scooby Doo van to get in, and for four days a magic city of narcotic, naked art sprouts from the Black Rock’s vast intoxication of expanse, “like a strange and beautiful mushroom,” culminating in the enormous, splayed effigy himself consumed in blaze. Black Rock City, as it is called, is the sixth largest city in Nevada for four days, dwarfing (overrunning) sleepy Gerlach fifteen miles south. But you’re not here to discuss cosmic breakthrough; you simply wonder how such a freakish display can survive the rugged west, people running naked in the middle of naked.

It can't be thirty miles off, that bare ridge dancing at its base across the playa, the expanding part. It can’t be that far. Hell you could walk there and back in an afternoon. Nothing in the way but thin-skinned powder sky, set to explode. Not sure how you got here. The state liquor store in Delta, Utah was boarded up, so you rolled west into mystic overflow, past a dust farm or two, onto a straightaway like you’ve never seen, where a state trooper materialized like a cruise missile demon out of the arid sea and poetic mist with a radar gun across your bow: 72 miles an hour. He spun a heated U-turn in your rear view on that fine two-lane light beam. You’ve been issued a warning. You vow never to set foot in Utah again.

In Nevada the law is tempered by greater laws, such as proportionality. One cannot pin down the expanding desert for no compelling reason; the law shall exhale in its presence. It is impossible to miss its gift: elevated light, moved and removed, the stuff of religion, in parched, rare air that never paces itself across endless salt bush and shadscale realms, run aground on ragged tuff shores in the midst of all that blown span, and unexplained gravity at its fringe. No machine, no campaign. You might be alone.

Stars rioted on the playa last night, and you rise amidst dire volcanic reefs and spectacularly humble new light, and you’re projected onto the dry slopes, into soothing misperception, onto wondrous ramps, mounds and scarred chocolate complexes in every shade. You should stay longer, except the fringe pulls. You creep beside the playa, as foretold; it was written in the scarred strata. You grab a soggy chicken wing from the cooler and watch sun flare crack open craggy rhyolite fields, one at a time. By and by you spy a distant co-mingling on the playa, an odd vision. Maybe it’s the rocket geeks who sometimes come here to launch homemade projectiles. No matter, you will cross over those deep volumes of cracked clay to the western shore. You recognize Trego Peak on the horizon, your jump-off point.

On the playa nothing is amiss, except that flotilla of rocket scientists is larger than it appeared. No matter. You cross the stunning flat toward rumors of eventual pancakes. Halfway across you spot a tiny subcompact car ripping toward you with a flashing cop light stuck to its roof like Buford T. Justice in that Burt Reynolds flick, charging over the playa for miles it seems. Wha?... What day is this? Oh no. No, it can’t be. Oh God no! Burning Man? You’re intercepted by a guy wearing Elvis Costello glasses. “You’re too close,” he says. “I am?” You can just make out a low thump thump thump of high watt techno music far downwind. Warned by the law, sent to the fringe, then warned by the fringe. You may run out of desert.

On paper you should embrace this thing. Burning Man was hatched in San Francisco twenty years back as some kind of ceremonial wicker Druid hippie prison break pyro-purge, attended by twenty people or so. What’s not to get? And it caught on like implants. Two hundred showed up the next year, and hundreds more thereafter, until the city rejected its annual pyro wicker implant and knocked it clean over the Sierra Nevada into hard infinitude, as it should be, as foretold. Forty thousand mystic freaks in the desert. Hard to imagine the thing staying in its metaphysical groove under such a crush, but it happens on a limitless flat captivated by photon storms and spatial disconnect, like a get out of hell free card, brimming with exquisite desolation. Peruse photos of Burning Man past, and you’ll see absurdity flowering in every conceivable form out of the formless plane. Example: five kneeling men in yellow haz-mat suits in a semi-circle with steel pipes for heads, worshiping a central steel pipe welded to a steel plate. And the Billion Bunny March drew protest from citizens dressed in carrot body suits and green tufts.

Gerlach appears on the horizon at last. Not much in Gerlach: a post office, a few bars and slot machines. Bruno’s place is the social hub, and its owner, whom you’ll call Giovanni, owns more than half the town. Giovanni is a man of medium stature, into his eighties, with a full head of white hair, neatly buzzed. He came from the old country after the war and got a job at the gypsum plant, where he warmed up to Nevada’s majestic, silent otherworld-scape, and began his empire by leasing a bar in Gerlach. He is shrewd and tough, curses a lot sometimes when telling his best stories, and still tends bar every night. The Burning Man meltdown brings in business, though when you brought it up he said, “don’t get me started on that bunch.” Forty thousand pilgrims trying to get away.

Away? With seven billion others. Station to station at best. Powerlines cross the most desolate leached minerals and sweet smell of sage, apparitions that count as mild shock sixty miles out, but sometimes you follow the crackle and buzz, turn off and camp on a full moon empty. In time you find the next settlement, small and proud, a little smug in its quiet separation, as the skeletal towers and wires slice the sky, bring electric fields, and satellites hover, pipe in the news. We all have a little noise. Not to sell desert powerlines short, nor the ravaged rock they traverse, panorama and fuzzy ribbons, vectors to ends of things where the maker tired, fickle wind and destination, fickle mind, useful illusion.

The playa exudes possibility of away, so you turn back into the white ocean. It's clear now, that random point. The sun drops and a wind comes up. Whiskey shots transpire along with timeless thoughts about a woman, poured into a notebook to be thrown out in the next motel dumpster, but getting it out is enough. Now the wind pounds with a little more ferocity and you blast music from the dashboard. You wander out and lean into the most powerful blasts, and crescendos of gale erase the music, but there's an incongruent sense of warmth and home, and you wander the flat, generate erratic orbits around a dome light and recite entire scenes from a Sergio Leone film until the orbits converge again on a shot. Scene over. Next scene: haze. You wake inside the truck in a contorted knot, and the wind is spent, a crescent moon up, at a complete loss. Where are you? The reticent moon isn't much help, but you recall your place on a dark, flat earth, so you roll slowly from insinuations of dawn, a hundred yards or so, then drift back to sleep.

Re: burning man (revised)

Posted: November 5th, 2010, 12:53 pm
by Lightning Rod
this is such a pleasure, mark
reads like honey dharma travelogue
ringing experience unpushed panning like a natural eye
I love it when you put your stuff in a tumbler and it comes out all shiny and seemingly without edges
go on wichu bad self

Re: burning man (revised)

Posted: November 20th, 2010, 4:16 pm
by mnaz
thanks clay. the tricky part is how to "integrate" the darker edges, as always.

Re: burning man (revised)

Posted: December 11th, 2010, 12:45 pm
by dadio
Impressive work of prose.