I’m thinking it’s about 4 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, but I’m never sure about time at Burning Man. I’ve been inside the ToTeM Massage and Chill Tent (the name stands for “Temple of the Eternal Mysteries”) getting a massage and napping on a floor sprinkled with soft red cushions. The wind has kicked up hard; dust wheezes in under the red-and-yellow tent walls and the whole 100-foot-long structure shudders. I don’t pay much attention. A guy named Aimless is playing some odd but enchanting blend of Celtic and Indian melodies on an idiosyncratically tuned violin. His bow has little animals perched along it. Another man picks up a didjeridoo to accompany him, and a ridiculously beautiful woman starts singing. When I wake up to the sound, goose pimples cover my arms.
Rubbing my eyes, I wander over and sit with the musicians. I sing a melody that I think syncs up with the tune that Aimless plucks out on his fiddle. “Want a sip of wine, sister?” says the woman, Coco, and then pours me a whole glass. The didj player, who calls himself Panini (“Like the bread,” he says), hands me a five-holed flute that smells of cedar, and the six notes it produces match exactly the ones I’ve been singing. The music starts up again, and this time I’m part of it. The remainder of the afternoon evaporates.
Outside in the windstorm, people are crawling toward shelter, scarves over their faces; at ToTeM, however, everyone is dreamy and smiling. ToTeM has been at Burning Man since 1998, but this year it joined with six other camps to form the Red Nose District, an “independent circus collective” of aerialists, stilt walkers, chefs, artists, construction experts, musicians, fire eaters and a man named Darkling Thrush who wafts among us convincingly disguised as a pine tree. I came here loosely aligned with L.A.’s Cirque Berzerk, which has aerialists, fire hoopers and a straitjacket escape artist to marvel at.
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I know that beyond our self-contained universe, the Playa — with a record 39,500 people attending — is full of wonders I should see for myself. An artist named Jan Kriekles has spent $250,000 of his own money to buy 100 miles of two-by-fours and build a curvy 150-foot cave to dance in on the Deep Playa (the cave got nicknamed “The Waffle” just because he’s Belgian); a group called Burners Without Borders has built a camp to display photos of their post-Katrina reconstruction efforts. But right now I find myself disturbingly unmotivated to leave.
“I’m camped with the cool kids this year,” I tell my friends back in the Alternative Energy Zone and Hushville, and selfishly insist that we meet each evening at the center of our village in the Nome, a scrim-covered shelter several rooms deep and high-ceilinged enough for stilt walkers. In Black Rock City, your social status is determined by your generosity — everything you do you do for free — and even with a 90-foot interactive fire-breathing serpent sculpture and quarter-mile-long strings of lights to mess around with on the Playa, the Red Nose District beats everything. In the Nome (“It’s not a fucking dome” is how someone explained the name to me), designed by Dr. Nome and ToTeM’s Chuck Nichols, we have hot showers and a fully stocked kitchen with burners, electricity and running water; we eat dinner at long tables, snooze in hammocks and sort our trash into preassigned bins. In our camps we have DJs and musicians from the Mutaytor and Moontribe collectives. On the border of our village, people from downtown L.A.’s Do-Lab are working furiously to finish their Venus Fly Trap, a glowing, white cranelike mobile object several stories high and wide as a house. About 4 o’clock one morning, I drift out to look at the sky and follow the floating down-tempo beat to where the Do-Lab-ers are quietly working under floodlights. “They’re like oompa-loompas,” observes Bo, who put on his clown makeup in a parking lot in Fernley so he could arrive in character.
When I finally emerge from my Wednesday session in the ToTeM tent and walk the 20 or so yards back to the Nome, everything looks different. The wind that rocked the tent has ripped through the city at 70 miles per hour. An eighth of an inch of dust, like flocked snow, covers every surface; large swaths of fabric lie in the street. The makeshift bar that once sat between our camp and the street now sits in a crumpled pile of tarps and poles on top of our dome; I later learn that a man had been lifted into the air trying to secure his shade structure, and broke a couple of ribs when he landed.
At the Nome, however, the edges have been battened down and all is calm. Inside the kitchen everything is orderly and neatly busy. I consider stepping out into the Black Rock City night, but a West Hollywood chef named Anita has begun to prepare dinner. She’s serving filet mignon.