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News From The Playa 2014

Brandenburg’s Concerto Number 3 being played by a live orchestra is not the kind of music you would expect to be performed at Burning Man, but then again nothing surprises me there. Instead it delights me.

The Playa Pops String Orchestra was a colorfully dressed collection of 50 folks playing together for fun. Composed of symphony musicians, studio musicians, amateurs and a few kids they brought their instruments to the harsh playa environment to make a kind of music not often heard there. I had seen the conductor, Dr. Fire Tuba, entertaining the people in line to buy ice that day before. And yes, some kind of a flame emitting contrivance encircles the edge of his tuba horn and he plays “hot” tunes. He’s also a neuroscience researcher back east when he’s not tooting on the playa.

Dominating the music at Burning Man is techno/dub step. It throbs in the background 24/7 and sounds like the heartbeat for the playa. The really loud sound/music instillations in Black Rock City are on the very edges of the three-mile wide campground. Speakers are piled 30’ high and it is not unheard of to have 7,000 people dancing at night in one spot. Unfortunately I fall into the “If it’s too loud…You’re too old” category so I skipped the late night musical happenings. But I did check the musical listings in the “What, When & Where” guide and found I could go listen to an Afro-Cuban Gypsy Jam, Chick With Sticks drum circle, Blues, BlueGrass, Punk Rock, a Beatles set, Prince vrs. Michael Jackson, and if I had been alive between 2am and 5am, a Grateful Dead tribute show.

If I’d wanted to sing there was a Hootenanny, the Playa Choir, and a Disney & Muppet’s sing-along. For sport there was a nine hole disc golf course, five different forms of yoga, tennis, bocce, night dodgeball in a lighted court, capoeira, sunrise bicycle rides and a 50K 31 mile ultra marathon at 5am running around the seven mile perimeter fence of Black Rock City.

Who says Burning Man is nothing but 66,000 stoned drunk 30 year olds running around naked on the playa? Some of us, along with being there for the fellowship of friends, enjoy being part of a city where you can learn something new every day just a short bicycle ride away. The Earth Guardians (the nature folks) offered workshops on Playa Dust and what’s in it, archaeology, geology and meteor impacts on the playa. Home coffee roasting, a mead wine workshop, beekeeping, how to spin fire, introduction to acupressure, and Paul Stamets talking about the “Fungi Revolution” were all available. Our camp offered a Book Crossing Zone and huge stacks of books came and went all week long.

A Flash Fiction workshop gave you three prompts and 36 minutes to write a story, and then share it or you could join Sages in the Silt for a poetry slam. There were also gatherings to learn how to make solar cookers and evaporative greywater systems, both useful on the playa. Rotary and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were happening, as was a wide array of religious factions.

Burning Man is what you make of it. Over the years I have found that as long as you have no problem with 66,000 partially or totally naked human beings you will not be exposed to questionable sexual behaviors if you stay away from areas where such activities take place. You will not find your trusty correspondent in the Orgy Dome, nor shall you find me participating in the Naked Pub Crawl. I do not want to watch the Slut Olympics, nor do I want to know what their sporting events are. I am not interested in Group Erotic Massages and no way am I entering the Strangers With Candy Camp. I don’t want to learn about making Genital Puppets and my privates do not belong in the Genital Portrait Studio. I’m not making this up folks — there are many events I wouldn’t consider including in a respectable newspaper like the AVA.

Someone wearing sandals might want to stop at the Foot Washing Station where people lovingly wash and massage your tootsies but the Human Carcass Wash is just what it says, a car wash for naked people scrubbed free of playa dust. In public. I decided I didn’t need my aura “fluffed” and I couldn’t stay awake long enough to go to the midnight movie and magic show. What can I say, I’m an old lady and I need my beauty sleep.

My home on the playa is Mobility Camp. Gimps helping other gimps (It’s OK to use this term…even if it isn’t politically correct). Since we’re a service camp we are right in the middle of everything. Our unofficial motto is “worst served first” and our motorized art car tours take disabled and aged in wheelchairs and assistive devices and on crutches out to see the art on the playa. In an event where walking and bicycling are the only forms of transportation and you really want to see the Alien Sanctuary art instillation almost two miles away across the playa it’s good to know there’s a motorized way to get there. If Mobility Camp has extra seating on out tours we take able bodied folks along too.

While Ramparts Hospital in Black Rock City had 300 personnel working they couldn’t handle everything. They cared for 3,200 injuries and mishaps and when they ran out of crutches they sent the walking wounded to us. We gave away dozens of pairs of crutches, and walkers and wheelchairs donated to us. It amazed us how someone who broke their leg jumping off a trampoline would be sent to a Reno hospital, get a cast and come hobbling back on pain killers to complete the week on crutches.

I go to Burning Man to renew friendships with my camp members and start new ones. It’s like a reunion of family members you only get to see once a year and it’s hugs and catching up on news. I go to watch the human parade and laugh my head off. And as a journalist I go to ask questions. This year I was asking, “Where Are the Older Women”?

Only 5% of Burners are over the age of 60. With 66,000 people that’s about 3,300 elders if my math is correct (Note: I am not a mathematician). Now 75% of those elders are men so we’re talking less than 1,000 senior sisters. So with my trusty steno pad and pencil I approached older women and asked “Why Aren’t There More Of Us?” I got a lot of the expected responses…don’t like dust, wind, heat, porta-potties, noise, no cell phones, but some responses made me laugh out loud. One woman said “They’re not out here because they don’t know how much FUN they can have!” Another person in their 80’s said “If you’re still walking and breathing you’re never too old.” Another woman said “Black Rock City is a magnificent zoo, it’s all over too soon and you’ve missed too much. That’s no reason to be sad, that’s the reason to come back again and again.” So I consider myself to be part of an elite minority at Burning Man - the older women who choose a week every summer at the best party on earth.

Best story this year at Burning Man on what NOT to do involved two young guys who came driving in after dark. They parked, got costumed, drank a few brews, loaded their backpacks and wandered off to party. What they didn’t do was note where they had parked. Awakening at daylight under a shade structure somewhere on the playa they had no clue where their vehicle was and they would wander looking for their car until most of the 34,000 vehicles left by the following Tuesday. We hope they finally found it.

This year will live in legend for several things. It almost became Drowning Man when the heavens burst forth with rain and hail at dawn Monday and nothing moved for 23 hours. Thousands were turned around on the highways and told to wait in Reno. Vehicles on the playa couldn’t move due to mud. Luckily a few hours of sunlight hardened the playa. Then Saturday night the Burning Man became Boring Man. A man usually lasts about a half hour after drenched in fireworks and catching fire. He falls and then a huge party starts. Well, this year the man was 108 feet tall, sturdy built, and had no intention of falling down. He burnt and smoldered one hour and 45 minutes before taking that final dive into the embers. People were falling asleep waiting.

The Temple of Grace was a lovely lattice structure filled with remembrances of people who passed this last year. The Temple is open to all beliefs and when it burned Sunday night with probably 20,00 seated around it we all Ohh…’d in unison as it spiraled down into the ashes.

On a sillier note this year I noticed more sky divers than ever before over the event. An old timer told me they were called “meatballs” and when some had flares on their shoes that sent out color smoke they were called “Flaming Meatballs.” A bunch were going to try and set a Guinness World Record for the most naked sky divers in the air at once. Also it wasn’t silly, but refreshing, that Grover Norquist, a conservative activist, came To Burning Man, wrote a piece when he left, and actually UNDERSTOOD what Burning Man was all about. Will wonders never cease.

My husband retired in late August and I took the curmudgeon with me for four days, Any longer and I figured he’d be bored or peeved at me for dragging him into a crowded madhouse. He arrives, as did 5,000 others, on the Burner Express bus from Reno. He observed and participated and had a good time while grousing about drunk 30 year olds, being in the third biggest city in Nevada, the dust, and the incessant music. But he liked our camp and the other cranky old farts inhabiting it, the art cars and anything that shot flames. Would he come again? No. But now if he makes disparaging remarks about the event he has actually experienced it. Plus it gave him an excuse to eat a lot of bacon. Anything salty is good out there.

Having written about my Burning Man adventures for several years now a reader sent me a sincere compliment; She said, “I’ll never get to Burning Man. The only way I’ll know it is your words on the page. You’re my link.” Thanks reader, the event does stir enthusiasm in my soul to last until next year. And NEVER think you are too old to go and have the time of your life.


  1. Jorge Mono Montana September 23, 2014

    So thrilled to know there’s still an authentic ink-stained wretch journalist painting a vivid, almost-compelling portrait of our Wild n’ Wacky Western Woodstock. It sounds magical, Katy. Thank you.

  2. humbilly September 23, 2014

    Now I know why I elect to avoid the Burning Man…it is flat out rubbish, thank you Katy for the confirmation..old farts indeed!

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