Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (7 of 8)



I’m watching the Man burn from roof of the Death Star art car. It’s owners were generous enough to give a few of us Ducks a ride out into the playa. We couldn’t have asked for a better view. The burn itself is a fine display of pyrotechnics, even though it hasn’t emotionally moved me since my virgin year. Likewise, the Duckpond has become adept at breaking down camp and packing the trucks by mid-afternoon. Very few of our veterans and de facto leaders stay for Burn Night anymore. It’s ultimately a night for the virgins. I’ve come to vicariously enjoy this denouement of their week-long adventure. I’m with a group of them now. Seeing the firelight and wonder on their faces reminds me of my own virgin year.

I’ll continue coming back here until the light is too far from me to validate the effort. I miss the innocence of my first couple of burns, but have no need to mourn them. Most people’s taste for this event has a finite timeline. I’m already a relic. The magic of Burning Man will favor the newer burners, the newer Ducks, as much as it will be shaped by them. The sooner I embrace this reality, the more gracefully I’ll age.

But a couple of them did wear their clubhouse T-shirts tonight instead of actual costumes. Maybe we’ll work on that for next year.


So the Man is burning and I had to go drop a deuce of spades. Blame it on the Adderall. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a port-a-potty and ended up walking all the way back to the ones across from the Duck Pond. When I came out the fireworks had already begun. I’m circling the blaze from a mile away like some wary animal. Walking towards it doesn’t seem like a realistic option. I don’t know where to go or what I want. Too tired to dance and too numb to care. It’s fitting. The event and I have grown estranged. Some time apart might be in order.

I can hear the faraway cheers of the city’s population declaring in no uncertain terms that they are where the action is. They are a mirage. I’ve been chasing them for years but have never pinned them down.

I see the Man and it sees me. The party rages on and leaves me in the dust. I can admire the poetry in that.


They burn the thing. Great.

The massive assembly scatters quickly and the chaos of Amateur Night begins. Maybe that’s a little harsh, but Saturday is the time of the week that feels most like a Spring Break free-for-all. As the effigy collapses, so do many pretenses of civility.

Just today, Nadine caught two strangers fucking in her tent. Right on her bed. The dude had the casual, apologetic attitude of someone who had just caused a light fender bender.

I’m with Medium Tim, Nat and a couple of other Ducks making an abridged exploration around Burning Man. A few of us need to sleep enough to drive the trucks in the morning. But who knows? Maybe we’ll get into some last-minute mischief.

Probably not.

We find a bar that’s only serving drinks to people who pick up 10 pieces of MOOP (ground litter). I try but can’t find any. A rotund young fellow in a lizard-print kimono looks way more frustrated than I am. I let him have my flask and its contents.

Passing by Ashram Galactica, there’s a woman sitting outside with a boy maybe 8 years of age. His face is painted up. He likely did it himself. The kid, who I assume is her son, looks tired and unhappy. It’s clearly past his bedtime. Tim tells me to shut up even though I don’t say anything.

Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (5 of 8)

DUST MITES by Bolivar

In keeping with my defeated ambitions, I’ve missed most of the shows, art and burnings I wanted to see. I’m no longer upset about that and have accepted my slackerdom.

But I did manage to come watch Burn Wall Street ignite. Too bad it’s not on fire. The mock-up of the New York Stock Exchange is full of people who won’t be evacuated anytime soon. Maybe it’s too dusty to burn right now. Unfortunately it’s too dusty to wait around for it.

It’s not that I’m full of anti-capitalistic sentiment. I just wanted to see something reminiscent of Burning Man ’96, when other corporate totems were burned in the event’s last true celebration of anarchy. At least that’s what I’ve gleaned from documentaries.

I head back to camp, nearly running over several darkwads to whom I bark curt suggestions of illumination. Attempting to sleep, I have a bad dream involving a floating zombie cat over a great gushing reservoir. I wake in a sweat around 2am to the painfully redundant song “Get Low” by Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz. It sounds like the final bars are being dragged out way too long, which was feeding my nightmare. I get dressed and venture back out.

It’s been a good week, but not phenomenal. One more thrill would make it complete. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Exploring the backroads, I find a nice mom-and-pop dive: a full-size, outdoor bar decorated from top to bottom with trinkets. It’s also literally run by a mom and pop. Their adult daughter is drunk and hilarious. In my opinion, the heart of Burning Man is in these out-of-the-way places. I hang out for a couple of hours and banter with a woman from San Diego who is friends with the family. It goes nowhere but I tell myself I’m okay with that.

I move on to another small bar surrounded by an arrangement of couches under a large festival tent. There are a handful of people still awake and socializing. I meet a stunning Swedish girl called Narnia and her American boyfriend, Randall. The three of us begin a riveting conversation about the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, but their drunken friend keeps interrupting us in an aggro-playful manner.

Let’s just call him “Brett.” Maybe 6’1″. 180 lbs. Class 3 fratboy. The first I’ve spotted the entire trip. He keeps interjecting things like “Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey… These were some fine-ass bitches running around today, right bro?”

And I keep deflecting with replies like “Absolutely! Nothing that puts pep in a gentleman’s step like top-shelf bitch! You look like a man who prefers the vintage. Am I right?”

Then I give him a bro-ish fist bump and he stumbles away for a few minutes.

Brett is precisely the sort of specimen that challenges “Radical Inclusion.” On a cynical note, I know a few women who would fuck him.

On one of his return visits, he suddenly barks at me, “What are you, a fag?!”

Well shit. A full-on Class 4. This is exactly the sort of person I say warrants a throat-punch regardless of the setting. I stare directly into his face as I make a mental inventory of my resources. The walking stick/flashlight in my right hand. My steel toe boots. Regardless, I’m already aiming directly for the groin. Nothing fancy.

(Fashion note: I removed the leather tip of my left boot to expose the actual steel toe underneath. Then I coated it with a clear, industrial-strength epoxy. It gives your footwear a nice, post-apocalyptic touch.)

Brett’s eyes are wild and unfocused. I realize how unsatisfying this would be; the fight equivalent of date rape. I’m irritated that this may be the highlight of my Burning Man: a braggart tale of kicking a drunk fratboy in the balls and watching him vomit on himself. No. I ignore the sterile little HAL 9000 voice telling me to punish him and opt for something stranger.

I answer, “One way to find out.” I grab him by the waist and begin a fast, furious dryhump. The thick, padded codpiece over my jeans bangs against his legs.

Amazingly, he flips back into party mode and begins wooting and humping back. He once again retreats to a couch. Time for a graceful exit.

Randall asks to see my walking stick. I oblige him but say I’m leaving soon. He inspects it for a moment and compliments me on the mounted lamp. Then Bretts asks for it and Randall hands it to him. What the fuck?

Brett starts swinging it around. He’s probably going to break it. I politely ask him to give it back. He doesn’t. Then I politely put my elbow over his wrist and twist the stick out of his hand. I spin around and throw a feigned elbow at his nose (which deliberately does not connect) and then gently use the stick to knock his trucker hat off his head.

Brett yells, “What you got, huh? What you got?!”

A scene from the movie Tombstone with Val Kilmer and a tin cup comes to mind. I swing the stick around like a sword in a playful series of martial art flourishes. I don’t like to show off, but this is my nonviolent solution. Silly enough to avoid engagement. Deft enough to show I can knock his molars out. I finish with a bow.

The fucker actually applauds and cheers.

Randall, however, looks pissed at me. Something is more wrong with this situation than I realized. I leave before it gets any worse.

I’m biking back to camp now, finally admitting that there’s nothing more for me tonight. Then, only a couple of blocks from the Duckpond, I spot a sign that I’ve somehow missed all week:

Swing City – Santa Monica Muscle Beach  

A sex camp? No. There’s a scaffolding rig maybe 30’ high suspending a consecutive row of 6 flying rings. Rings from which gymnasts perform aerial feats. I’ve never done anything like that before.

The lights are all on, but no one’s around. I climb the launching platform, which looks like a section of gym bleachers. I take off my hat, gloves and codpiece.

After a quick stretch, I hold the first ring with both hands and step off the platform. I swing out to the second and grab with my left hand. I pull back on the first ring to charge my momentum before releasing it to grab the third.

My feet are dangling 4 feet from the ground. I could let go if necessary, but it wouldn’t be pleasant. My boots feel like they’re made of lead. For some reason though, being improperly dressed makes this more fun.

Pull back and swing to the next.

Kicking my legs out helps, but only slightly. I’m relying almost entirely on arm strength but I understand the pendulum motion required. The proper technique is revealing itself. It’s like an isometric puzzle.

In the air, I feel heavy like a wrecking ball. The sensation is liberating. I swing out in a wide arc on the sixth and final ring. My legs flail out from under me as I spin around almost parallel to the ground.

Holy shit!

I focus on my grip lest I go flying into Swing City’s shade structure. The endorphin rush is electric. I catch the previous ring for the returning trip, which now seems twice as far.

I’m suddenly aware of how little sleep I’ve been functioning on all week. I can feel exactly which tendons will be the first to tear. They are taut like guitar strings. I just have to push myself. I’ve always been able to push myself.

The launching platform is only a few feet away now. There’s a purity in the exercise; a meditation.

My boots slam down on the dismount.

Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (4 of 8)


A mutual friend told me that Ivy would be dancing at Distrikt today. Since Distrikt is almost directly across from the Duckpond, I don’t mind making a sweep of the massive, gyrating crowd. But 15 minutes was the limit I put on this little Where’s Waldo? exercise. I’m not chasing anyone this year. Searching for people, waiting for people, at Burning Man will devolve into “Waiting for Godot” before you know what happened.

I’m about to leave when here comes a tall, beautiful woman. She has jet black hair and is wearing some sort of skin-tight, space corset adorned with esoteric symbols. She very beautiful. Many would say she’s too tall for a man my height. Honestly, I’m a little intimidated.

Then I remember that I don’t give a shit. I’ll never see this woman again and have nothing invested in this interaction. I go for the easy opener.

“What do those symbols mean?”

She stops and stares at me without a hint of emotion.

“You’re the first person to ask me that,” she says.


I look again and realize her techno-corset is actually painted on; she’s completely topless. It’s so well done that it really resembles a textured fabric from a short distance. Better to just pretend I knew that the whole time.

Her green eyes are already searching for a more interesting location than my immediate company.

I ask, “Are you saying most people are too busy gawking at your body?”

“Pretty much.”

“I guess you should keep better company.”

“And that would be you, right?”

“I may have a little time later.”

“I’m flattered.”

“I’m Damian.”


“Good to meet you.”

“Excuse me, folks,” says a young guy walking up to us. He’s wearing a steampunk vest, an army helmet and has a video camera wrapped in plastic. “How’s it going? I’m doing a project and I need some volunteers. I’m making a time capsule for people who come to Burning Man 10 years from now. Can I record both of you separately giving some brief advice to future burners?”

“As long as it’s from the neck up,” Francesca say. He points the camera at her face as he steals a quick glance at her sci-fi painted breasts. Which are fantastic.

“And… go,” the man says. I wonder why he didn’t say “action.”


“Ouch!” I say. “That’s a serious preemptive scolding for the future.”

“You can’t coddle them,” she says without looking at me. This whole moment is clearly a forgettable interlude for her. “Who says there’ll even be a Burning Man 10 years from now?”

“Your turn, sir,” says the camerman. I think for moment.


The young guy laughs, turns off the camera and thanks us. Francesca is staring at me.

“That came from deep,” she says, holding back a smile.

“Yours was so good, I felt I had to escalate. I don’t even know what most of that meant.”

She squints her eyes at me me for a moment then says “You ever think about sitting down with someone?”

I grin and say, “My camp’s bar has some comfortable seating. It’s right across the street.”

She laughs.

“I’m actually going to dance at Distrikt for a while. You can join me… if you can find me.”

“You any good?”

She makes a gasp/scoff like she genuinely can’t believe I had the nerve to ask that. Interestingly, she had barely flinched when I said the crazy shit.

Without another word, Francesca does a saucy little strut towards the dance floor to the beat of the music, looks back at me once and disappears into the crowd.

I take my bike and pedal out into the street feeling strangely satisfied.

I’m not chasing anyone this year.

Flame Retardant: a questionable account of Burning Man 2012 (3 of 8)


So I know what they say about me. Just between you fine readers and myself, about 80% of it is kinda true. The trick is to shift that 20% bullshit in the right places. Don’t be fooled: Bullshit is not always a problem. It can be a cosmetic. Your job. Your family. Your social circles. It’s always one unspoken masquerade or another. If you keep your mask on and dance well, you will be rewarded. Burning Man is no exception. Amongst the desert-goers, we construct “playadentities” on a number of levels. They’re like art cars for your ego.

I didn’t invent these rules and I never claimed to be good at them. Judge me all you want. Consider any sense of moral superiority I inspire in you as my gift to the community. Everything I’m going to tell you is true, but you didn’t hear it from me.

But in the spirit of honesty, my memory of most of the week is a dusty fucking blur. The chronology is especially hazy, so I’ll condense what I can into a fast-forwarded approximation:

Alright so my camp the Duck Pond is having our Early Bird Sunday night party. We’re balls-deep in a full-tilt rager by the time the gates are scheduled to open. The Pond may spend all year sharing duckie photos but when the clock strikes partytime they’re All-Pro. Madrone asks for my help moving Freddie who drunkenly passed out in the wrong tent. Turns out he got dosed with date rape drug but luckily Freddie didn’t get fingered. I meet a girl with blonde dreadlocks who might’ve qualified as my “Mondaynighter” if we had bonded more. We slam shots of bourbon, share vitamins in my tent, make out and I crash. Next thing the sun is up and I’m pissing behind some cars with NO MEMORY of getting up to pee. When I get back to my tent the girl is gone but this isn’t a problem. I ponder this mystery a few seconds before sleeping off a few more hours of the inevitable hangover. After I can no longer hide from consciousness behind my eyelids I go sit at our front porch. This area of community shade has become cozy with hammocks, a table stocked with booze, a bean bag chair and an unnecessary sign that reads “FRONT PORCH” (which I wonder if belonged to the camp known as the Front Porch). Plenty of lush trappings that can lull you into a self-congratulatory stupor, but like all things at Burning Man it’s refreshing in moderation. I have a strange conversation with Bolivar who won’t come out of his tent for some reason which is probably self-pleasure related. He’s an intense weirdo who thinks he’s a tough guy. Some people think his outfits are clever, but I’m not the only one from whom he earns blank stares. I try to be nice even though he’s too old for the angry college dropout vibe he gives off. Whatever. It’s his problem and we’ll go on pretending to be friends for years. I leave camp and head over to the French Quarter. It’s impressive and the 2nd story balcony is packed. Advertised treats include coffee, lemonade and gumbo but I have no patience for the long lines and move on. The air is dusty but hardly apocalyptic. Center Camp is as uneventful as ever and host to a more undesignated breed of burner as I weave through the hula hoop aficionados, capoeira show-offs and the Black Rock equivalent of street urchins. I hit my threshold for sage and B.O. before finding a punk rock show on the back of a flatbed truck with a DPW mosh pit next to a dragon art car. I stop at a bar called Homojitos which I didn’t immediately recognize was a gay bar. I stay for a mojito anyway (excellent) and converse with the bartender while another man with a camera takes about 40 photos of me. On the way back to camp I spot a massage workshop with a posted schedule which I note but never revisit. The daytime party at the Pond is raging so I stick around. Melanie (who I’d made an effort to be nicer to) haplessly fucks up our tenuous rapport by telling me my “work ethic has greatly improved this year.” God knows why she thinks her opinion is important but I consider that her problem. I meet a cute college senior from Vancouver who studies film. Back at my tent, we discuss Guillermo del Toro movies and her budding bisexuality before we make out. I jot down where she’ll be later which I promptly but unintentionally forget. Later I enjoy my campmates’ anecdotes, jokes and little white lies like fine hors d’oeuvres before dinner, which consists of a lovely Cuban spread. I ask Joe if I should feel guilty for kissing a 21-year-old but he assures me that she should feel grateful. I stuff my face like a hog and lay in my tent where I start to dream before I’ve fully fallen asleep. 4 hours later I wake up mumbling about fascist dystopias before slamming an energy drink and meeting Jason for a night ride. Turns out he’s a formidable road dog whom I hadn’t gotten to know before. We drift from one sound system to the next and find some people with a flat tire. Amazingly Jason has a spare tube in his hydration pack along with a pump. He fixes the wheel, saves their night and thinks nothing of the deed. We discuss life, women and Alaska as we cruise the playa and I silently reassess my own merits. Robot Heart is rocking out as the dawn shines its rays on our night-weathered faces. I spot the blonde dreadlocked girl I made out with earlier snuggled up with an older guy on an art car/giant chair known as Chairman of the Bored and I decide not to wave. Leaving my bike I wander aimlessly until I come face-to-tentacle with El Pulpo Mechanico aka the Steampunk Octopus. Its originality, craftsmanship and very existence is awe inspiring and represents everything I believe is right about Burning Man but I am absolutely unmoved by the wonder I find here which is a sign of me being dead inside and possibly having a problem.