Burning Man Annual Festival - Burning Rubber

The Incredibly Weird Wheeled Wonders Of Burning Man

Burning Man is an annual festival of creativity run amok. Originating 20 years ago in-where else?-San Francisco, it outgrew its original urban beach setting and is now held deep in the Nevada desert. Each year's theme is different. Last year's was The Future, which gave this wandering scribe added incentive to attend, to see visions of tomorrow by some of the most creative and twisted minds of our time. The festival is held over Labor Day weekend in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada, two hours northeast of Reno and just south of the Oregon border. Best known to gearheads as the site where the land-speed-record car Thrust broke the sound barrier in 1997, it is similar to the Bonneville Salt Flats but far larger. If there is a point in the United States that is more in the middle of nowhere, I know not where it is.

Never having been to Burning Man, I hooked up with the Airheads Beemer Club, a fun-loving group of vintage BMW enthusiasts. Being part of a group is not only beneficial if you ride your motorcycle to the event, as each member brings various items such as stoves, tables, chairs and tents, it's also good if you turn up missing or injured. Many of the Airheads did indeed ride there, despite the summer heat and the last three hours being a long, straight slog along two-lane roads. A few braver souls arrived via dirt roads on their GSs, which at least made the ride more challenging. The destination, however, makes the journey worthwhile.

The scale of Burning Man is hard to fathom. Last year's attendance was 40,000, creating a temporary city that exists for a week in the middle of an alkali plain. Hundreds of theme camps line the temporary roads, which are arranged radially, stretching for at least a mile in every direction. In the center is The Man for which the festival is named. On Saturday night, there is a great ceremony with hundreds of fire-spinning and twirling dancers performing around the perimeter of the two-story wooden effigy, and at the end of the show The Man is torched in a giant pyrotechnic bonfire. It is a staggering climax to an amazing week, the party typically raging on well into Monday before it winds down.

One disclaimer: If you're offended by public nudity, Burning Man is not for you. A rough estimate would put the nude population at 5 percent, and topless women are everywhere. The Airheads camp had an open shower with no curtains, and it was used by many of our neighbors daily. Modesty becomes less of a concern as the week proceeds. Perhaps as a result, this is also a sexually charged environment, with wide-eyed, open invitations the rule rather than the exception. The various massage and bondage camps are there for a reason.

Everything is allowed except money and commerce. This is a non-cash society, with no food available for sale. The idea is to be self-reliant and bring something to share with other people. Some of the food theme camps were indeed welcome. One of my favorites was the Leopard Martini Lounge, which became my local watering hole after attending a party there on the first evening. Many attendees use pseudonyms instead of their real names, and Armadillo-one of the Leopard Martini gals-had a clever two-wheeled contraption: a surfboard mounted on a scooter, perfect for surfing the playa.

That surfboard was my introduction to the mutant vehicles of Burning Man. The organizers control access, and motorized vehicles are not permitted without pre-approval from the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV). All vehicles have to be true art projects, not just motorcycles or golf carts with a feather boa and signage. To gain access to the playa at night, one also needs to have his vehicle's lighting system inspected, for without lights the playa would be a potentially deadly environment. In fact, many attendees wear glowsticks, more as a survival mechanism than as d_f__f_,cor. Some participants feel the Burning Man DMV too closely parallels the outside-world equivalent, and so they stick to pedal power, thereby avoiding the inspection and certification/approval process.

The mutant vehicles encompass everything from a 1923 steam-powered tractor to golf carts that resemble rolling eyeballs to motorized cupcakes (see sidebar). Many are three-wheeled, the inherent stability a huge plus at 3 a.m. while wandering aimlessly in a sea of campsites. The Mad Max theme camp operated the Thunderdome, where there were nightly matches of personal combat. A sign read, "Days since last injury: 0." By day the group's menacing Kawasaki Ninjas prowled the playa, encouraging people to attend the evening's matches. And by nightfall the geodesic structure was completely covered with spectators hanging from the rafters.

Holding to the Burning Man theme, a common feature on the mutant vehicles is the flamethrower. Competing with the dozens of flame-shooting rolling contraptions are such art installations as the jet engine pointed straight up, its afterburner shooting flames high into the night sky. The mad scientists of Dr. Megavolt brought a semi-truck towing a trailer with a large generator/transformer on it. Directed by a person wearing a large metal birdcage over his head, their Tesla coils shot electricity through the performer, a massive rolling display of electrical chaos. Another amazing sight was a giant two-person trike with wire wheels that must have taken hundreds of hours to assemble. An incredible contraption, it had large propane tanks for the flamethrowers mounted vertically at the rear. Don't look for the UL label.

While I was inquiring about the DMV process at the inspection station, I was invited to ride on a rolling tiki bar by Duff and the Tribal Thunder Harley campers. From this contact came some of the best friends I would make on the playa. Mid-week, while visiting them, a windstorm kicked up right after dinner, cartwheeling a large metal-framed geodesic dome through the center of their camp, smashing picnic tables, golf carts, bicycles and tents. It was good fortune that the people who had been eating at that table had just moved, for injuries would certainly have resulted. Wearing goggles and face masks in the dust storm, we disassembled the twisted wreckage and then retreated into tents until the weather subsided.

In keeping with the theme of The Future, my bicycle was decorated as a UFO with faux rocket engines, Area 51-replica "No Trespassing" signs and an inflatable alien riding on the handlebars. Overly conventional perhaps, I eventually succumbed to the delightfully inappropriate suggestions of Sherri from Tribal Thunder and my green friend was transformed into an alien love doll with accessories befitting her new role (necklace, lipstick, rosy cheeks, etc.). Sadly, I lost my companion to a puncture the final day, likely resulting from her handcuffs.

One evening, before venturing forth on yet another all-night playa party expedition, Sherri brought me to meet her friends from the Bay Area at a camp called Troglodyte. This delightful group of sub-humans eventually became my companions, and their camp became my second home. Noelle, the CEO of the Troglodytes, rides a Ninja and her husband races in the AFM series at Sears Point. And in a bizarre parallel-universe scenario, Teresa and I were shocked to discover we'd been to the same two races in the past month. Even stranger was the fact that my first name was printed across her T-shirt! Clearly we were destined to meet. I had found myself in a camp that was Nirvana by any other name, with shared racing passions and friendly, fun-loving people, around the corner from Fate Street.

Up with the sun on Sunday morning after the burn, it was time for me to depart. Heading for the exit as the Burners slept, I turned on the CD player and Tom Petty's words struck a chord:
Save a dream for me.
The words hang in the air.
Her demons take the dare...
Turn this car around.
Turn this car around.
I'm going back.
Yup, I'm going back. MC