It’s Sunday night on the playa at the end of the Burning Man Festival, and the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, in ivory preacher’s garb and playafied blond-streaked hair, is giving a sermon about forgiveness. A choir sings gospel behind him, and a crowd of a few hundred have gathered around, many of them sitting at the reverend’s feet, others standing in tightly packed rows around the Temple of Forgiveness, designed by fabled sculptor David Best with artist Tim Dawson and built out of 15 tons of plywood, which will soon go up in flames.
I listen as the reverend, in his Southern evangelist accent, speaks of people we may have known who died before we had a chance to finish our conversations with them. He then asks us to turn to the person next to us, even if that person is a stranger, and tie up those ragged edges. “Clear it up!” he commands. “Clear it all up right now!”
The people next to me are occupied with each other, so I turn around to look behind me. I stare straight into the face of the law.
She is a stout, apple-cheeked woman, and she smiles. She has a radio hanging off her belt, and a gun. Her shirt identifies her as a federal agent working for the Bureau of Land Management.
I could forgive a lot of people today. I want to, in fact. But not her.
I feel as if a federal enforcer had just marched into a church, or barged into a spiritual meeting. The Reverend Billy may be funny, he may declare that Starbucks cravings are a form of demonic possession, and he may call Jesus of Nazareth “our fellow Burner.” But just as this annual pilgrimage to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is, among many things, a sincere religious ritual for many pagans, heathens and otherwise damned, the reverend is leading a sacred ceremony, for real. As the names of the dead are read by a big-eyed blond woman in the choir, as the sun sinks behind the temple, as eyes mist over and throats choke and we reflect on the inevitable regret that accrues in a lifetime, the focused gaze of this woman in the light brown shirt of law enforcement feels profoundly like an insult.
It would be easy to write off the presence of the BLM agents as a natural response to the week’s events, specifically the early Tuesday-morning arson attack on the Man, the giant effigy that stands at the centerof Black Rock City and typically burns on Saturday night. A San Francisco performer named Paul Addis is charged with the crime and becomes an antihero martyr; “Free Paul!” graffiti springs up on art across the city. Even Burning Man founder and self-described “messianic personality” Larry Harvey seems to forgive Addis. “People haven’t gotten to see the building process in years,” he says at a press conference announcing the rebuilding of the Man. “It will remind them that it’s our dedication that makes the city what it is.”
But the officers making their watchful way through the Reverend Billy congregation aren’t on the hunt for more arsonists. They’re looking for people with drugs.
Drug arrests are not unusual at Burning Man. A couple of years ago, I watched federal agents in an SUV with a K9 emblem shake down an art car — a big, silver shark that had been cruising happily down the street with its door open, reason enough to send the dogs in.
“He really likes it in there,” said an agent of his German shepherd, insinuating that something wicked had been stashed away and quite recently removed.
But this year is different. K9 Ranger vehicles prowl the playa in numbers to rival art cars. Our friend Jamal witnesses a man in a dance club raising a mushroom to his mouth when the authorities move in and handcuff him. Another friend, a first timer, snaps a photograph of a man in handcuffs kissing his girlfriend goodbye one morning as BLM agents on ATVs prepared to haul him away. Arrests are as ubiquitous as neon wigs.
Which seems ironic, because as any Black Rock veteran knows, the once-ubiquitous psychotropic substance of Burning Man, MDMA — Ecstasy — has been disappearing from the playa over the last few years, along with its side effects. No longer can you count on ravers on bicycles to greet you at dawn as you head from your tent to the rank Porta Potties, shouting, “I love you!” People talk of drug busts up and down the California coast — $2 million in MDMA seized in San Francisco, a major family ring broken up in Los Angeles — but as far as I can tell from here, the only major bust in the last few months happened in Utah.
I suspect what’s really happening is that MDMA has fallen out of fashion. People are getting tired of hugging strangers and jaw-grinding hangovers. They’ve moved on to other things. Like the bottle of Jack Daniel’s that some British partiers pass around as we wait out one dawn, 20 feet up in the giant metal lotus flower called “Guardian of Eden,”or the vodka tonics that pour from two chilled tanks the day we visit “Crude Awakening,” the 90-foot effigy of an oil rig that would explode two days later in an epic cloud of propane-fueled fire. Alcohol flows generously now, from stationary bars and roving platforms, day and night. Tequila shots, peach daiquiris, boxes of wine. It’s possible to spend the whole week drunk, even if you didn’t bring a drop yourself.
I think about this as I watch the smiling cops lurking in the crowd as the Reverend Billy joins two women in a holy union. I think about the Pershing County Sheriff’s deputy I interviewed a few years ago who remarked on the wide-eyed generosity and nonviolence that infuses the Burning Man culture. I think about the many nights I’ve walked Black Rock City’s streets alone without the slightest worry about my own safety. And I think about the man at this year’s Saturday-night burn, defending his right to yell at people, swigging hard from a bottle of Jägermeister, and remember a Black Rock night in 1999, at a playa club called Brain Drops, where a young, bald-headed woman with a broad smile insisted on kissing every person in the room at least once. I wonder if the woman in the brown shirt with the BLM logo had ever walked into a crowd ruled by a drug that compelled people to hug each other. I wondered how she liked her martinis. I did not return her smile.
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One of the best ways to appreciate the immensityof Burning Man is to walk into the middle of the playa, the dry lakebed on which the annual arts festival is held, at 2 a.m. and close your eyes. Last Friday, the desert seemed equipped with Surround Sound. Rhythm and melody arrived from every direction in a chaotic nonpattern. Cheering and howling gave way to the eerie hum of a sitar, which mixed with the big-ass bass line of Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” and wrestled with a ragtag drum corps marching along the Esplanade. About a half mile away, Prince’s “Erotic City” moistened the night. Collected, the music tracked like the combined eruptions of humanity swirling around in a black hole.
And then, amid all the chaos, I wandered into the Temple of Forgiveness, the centerpiece sculpture of the festival. Located in the middle of the 47,000-person community, the shrine stood three stories tall and was an oasis of calm and peacefulness. People sat quietly, hugged, sobbed, caressed. One man was a bawling, snotty mess, so out of control that his pain seemed unconquerable.
Then, within a brief moment, a swift evening wind swept through the cathedral like a flood, and the audio static was drowned by a smaller, less demanding plea: one man sitting on a bench dragging a bow across a musical saw. Though at first the notion seemed quaint, as he glided the bow over his instrument, it exuded a high, lonesome wail. In less than 48 hours, the intricately designed cathedral would be set afire, and in the late night darkness a few dozen people wandered the structure and read the Sharpie-scribbled confessions, apologies and remembrances. The writings burnwith the cathedral. “To my mom’s cancer,” read one. “You will not win. She is very alive. Proud. Strong. Beautiful.” Another was more direct: “My jealousy.” Another, bafflingly: “I believe in dragons.” And: “Kevin, nice sharing time with you. Next time don’t blow it.”
As the man, his head sitting on the lap of his lover, continued to bawl, the saw player bent his instrument until it was the shape of a parenthesis. The sound wobbled and wailed like a heroine tied to the train tracks, and then the wind died down. The beats from across the playa resumed, and once again the saw was but one part of an overwhelming whole.