Storms Can’t Stop the Party at Black Rock City

One of the running gags among Burning Man attendees is that “everything was better last year,” a sentiment that probably a reflects more on the memory of one’s first year on the Playa — with its psychic overload of sites, sounds and whimsy – than on the reality of the latest Burn.

The fact is that every Burning Man is distinct, not only because of the Festival’s variety of activities, but also because of the unique way every person sees the event.

However, this year felt truly different, and you can probably blame the weather. A freak desert thunderstorm that brought lightning strikes within the grounds of Black Rock City, plus hale and a torrent of rain, put a temporary kibosh on Burning Man, and suppressed attendance for the first few days, even though every ticket was sold.

The gypsum-based desert surface turns into a sticky, muddy mess when it rains, and this storm was no exception. It was hard even to walk in the immediate aftermath of the storm because feet or shoes caked up with the wet surface, which turned into a kind of cement that made it difficulty to take a step without feeling like you were getting sucked into the beige tinged desert.

Lamplighter neighbor Water Dragon picks her way through the mess created by the Monday storm

Lamplighter neighbor Water Dragon picks her way through the mess created by the Monday storm

For vehicles, the situation was even worse. Mud-encrusted car or truck tires would halt any vehicle almost as quickly as it got moving. This meant that service vehicles (such as the porta-potty cleaning trucks) were out of commission. In fact, the Festival was declared closed on Monday, August 25, which should have been its first complete day (gates opened at 10 a.m. on Sunday, but the activity list for that day was skimpy).

With entry barred to all traffic, vehicles quickly backed up along Nevada Highways 447 and 34 – the two-lane roads that take Burners from I-80 to the event. The backup began at Wadsworth, the first town driver’s reach after exiting the interstate. The Nevada Highway Patrol, at the request of the Burning Man Organization, began turning cars at or near the gate area back to Gerlach to wait out the weather. Cars south of Gerlach all the way back to Wadsworth were turned around as well, and told they’d need to wait it out in Reno/Sparks or another nearby town and try again in 24 hours, when the playa was likely to have dried out.

As a result, the next few days for those who had successfully negotiated their way into the festival prior to the storm were unusually uncrowded. There were with no bicycle traffic jams at main intersections, shorter lines at some of the more popular attractions, and plenty of room on disco dance floors. There were also many more open spaces where camps had been scheduled for set-up, and a larger number of incomplete art installations.

And while Burning Man’s population had righted itself by Wednesday, with total attendance reaching 65,000 on the Friday morning of Labor Day weekend, there were noticeably fewer art cars roaming the Playa for the length of the Burn; in fact official figures from the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles), showed the number down from 650 in 2013 to 605 this year.

Did any of the weather and resultant traffic issues make it a less successful Burn? Probably so for those who had spent 20 hours in their vehicles between the drive to the general vicinity and the long wait for the gates to re-open. But if you were looking for a typical Burning Man event with monumental desert sculptures, art everywhere, a loose-tongued population un-tethered from day-to-day working lives, and – here and there – some naked bodies, then you found it in spades at the 2014 Burn. And if you happened to have arrived prior to the weather-related closing, then you enjoyed a rare day of Burning Man leisure talking to old friends while waiting for the Playa to solidify.

A highlight of this year’s Burn was the rococo-style temple – viewed by Burners as a sacred space, but not necessarily a place of religion. The temple, designed this year by Bay Area architect David Best –who originated the idea of the temple at Burning Man in 1996 and has designed more of them then anyone else — was awe-inspiring with its towering height and sculpted details. People may well be raucous during most Burning Man events, but they are quiet and respectful in the temple, where many individuals go to honor lost friends and family members.

Temple Burn underway

Temple Burn underway

Another eye-catching art installation – for both its grandeur and meaning – was “Embrace,” a 100-foot high wooden sculpture of two heads intimately close to each other. “Embrace” was nearly as visible across the Playa as the Man itself – this year a monumental 140 foot tall effigy that stood on the Playa surface and was surrounded by a bazaar know as The Souk that typified way-points along the Silk Road that opened the far east to commerce from the beginning in the 2nd century CE into the 1800s.

Burning Man’s theme for 2014 was Caravansary, a kind of travel stopover that marked the treacherous trip along the Silk Road. As usual, there were a number of art exhibits (such as a giant genie’s bottle) that reflected the theme. But uniformity is not one of Burning Man’s strong suits, and there were many art installations and exhibitions that veered away from the theme.

One example is the Black Rock Observatory, situated beyond the Temple in the area known to Burners as Deep Playa. The observatory provided a unique opportunity to view the crystal clear desert sky through professional telescopes. On Thursday at sunrise, a musical composition written especially for the observatory was played live in Deep Playa by an ensemble that included keyboard, violins, cello and voice. It was an awesome example of the melding of art and nature.

Among the other new features was an actual Ferris Wheel located along the Esplanade – Burning Man’s main street.

People who have a “drugs, sex, rock n roll” image of Burning Man might have been surprised by late Friday night’s annual Marching Band Competition in Center Camp. Three bands competed for audience and judges’ approval this year, with the nattily attired Love Bomb a Go-Go taking top honors. The bands all played gigs around the Playa, so they weren’t just there for one night’s show. Most eclectic of all was the Burning Man Orphan Band — a collection of musicians, majorettes and dancers who had come to the Playa independently. Meanwhile, the Burning Band, the festival’s original marching band, celebrated its 19th year of entertaining Burners.

Bluegrass jam

Burning Man’s traditional million-bunny march wound up its boisterous show at the man base. Bunnies were followed quickly by the BRC Bureau of Animal Control, which vainly tried to keep its charges under constraint by offering a carrot (literally) instead of a stick. One white-suited, highly official looking Burner with Bunny ears carried a brief case labeled, “Bunny Civil Liberties Unit,” and was apparently there to defend any captured hare.

On Burn Night, eight robed Lamplighters (my wife and I included this year) carried the fire cauldron out to the man. Torchbearers on stilts, a line of drummers, and org officials carrying multiple radios were all led to the Man by Crimson Rose, one of Burning Man’s top executives and its artistic inspiration. The man itself was set ablaze around 9:30 and took an unusually long 90-plus minutes to fall.

The 140' tall Man engulfed in fireworks just as the burn started.

The 140′ tall Man engulfed in fireworks just as the burn started.

While some of the art installations remained incomplete until well after the event’s start, and a few never recovered from the drubbing they took in the Monday storm, there were still eye and earfuls to keep one’s attention. And the feeling of openness that resulted from the briefly suppressed attendance made it seem to some of us long-time Burners like an older, some would say better, Burning Man experience.