Letter from Nevada: Desert rituals
First Monday

Letter from Nevada: Desert rituals

I grew up in California in the 50’s, and my father loved automobiles. At 15 and a half I got my learner’s permit and practiced in a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. He also had a 1948 Lincoln Continental and a 1955 Chevy Nomad. In spite of this stable of great wheels I did not have any dates until the summer after my senior year in high school, but I still look back fondly on those automobile–centric years. As I grew up I did not own sports cars or anything very distinctive other than motorcycles, but I can still tell the difference between the different models of 40–year old machines that are rarely seen outside of events like Hot August Nights (HAN). HAN is a summer festival for car lovers organized in the 1980’s in the desert town of Reno, Nevada. It is now an annual event with its attendant rituals that mix commercial hucksterism with a genuine devotion to the music, dress, and transportation of the time.

Nevada is an unusual place. Much has been written about Las Vegas, but very little about the rest of the state. As a kid I crossed the United States in our family cars about a dozen times, at first on two–lane blacktops and then on the new Interstate highway system which connected up a nation but also led to the demise of many small towns bypassed by the non–stop traffic. However, in Nevada, Interstate traffic went up to and then into the small towns. They recognized that a freeway bypass would mean death to their tourist–oriented economy. Most people just wanted to get through the desert. I was always glad to get through Nevada though my father liked the 99–cent breakfasts available in Reno. He never gambled, but the big meals in the casinos were always a reason to stop before heading westward into California or eastward into the Great American Desert.

This August, I was camping at Lake Tahoe, about 90 minutes from Reno, with my family and several of my 17–year old son’s friends. We made the drive to Reno one evening to attend the big event. Hot August Nights gives a chance for guys to show off the cars they could not afford when they were in high school. It is a predominantly white, middle–aged group of men (like me), and the 1999 event attracted more than 4,000 cars plus a huge number of cops. I only saw a couple of people under 40 at the wheel, and only a few Latinos (this was not a low–rider event) or blacks or Asians. The 1998 festivities had ended with a mini–riot, so the organizers brought in more hired muscle to keep things calm. Civil libertarians accused the police this year of inconsistent and unfair enforcement of some rules. A Reno resident told me that he watched the police motion for a Latino man to cross the street to talk to them and then cited him because he jaywalked (at their request). There was a 9 p.m. curfew for youth, so we did not have much time to spend on the streets before heading back to the campground.

I was dropped off at the Hilton Hotel parking lot, one of many where hundreds of show cars were parked prior to the evening cruising event. There were large numbers of Fords and Chevys from the 50’s but also from the 30’s and 40’s and 60’s. The engine compartments were chromed, and the upholstery was flawless. Owners were exchanging information about carburetors, cooling fans, gear ratios, iridescent paint schemes that changed color with the angle of viewing, and some were trying to sell their vehicles. The conversations were, on the surface, about machines and statistics, but it was really the details of a love affair with their cars. Many cars had stuffed animals and human figures propped up by the steering wheel or peering out the window. Some owners had elaborate dusting devices to rid the surface of the tiniest speck. These collectors had restored (or just acquired) small, perfect mechanical worlds and were sharing them with the rest of the us. I watched the face of one man who sat in his ’58 Impala as he switched on a tape of Gene Vincent, adjusted the dice hanging from the mirror, put his arm out the window, hands on the wheel, and I realized he had been transported back 40 years.

The commercial aspects of the event were not really integral to the display of cars. Other than the hotel and gas station trade that benefited, the participants seemed to spend most of their time with each other, at oldies music events, and like most other tourists, in the casinos. There was a tent selling Hot August Nights shirts and hats, and some car dealers and auto parts suppliers had booths. Who wants to look at a new Ford Explorer when you can see a ’57 Fairlane with a retractable roof? The ’55 Corvettes attracted more attention than the ’99 models.

The most important ritual was the evening cruise along Virginia Street in downtown Reno. Thousands of cars that took part rolled slowing up and down the streets, cops lining barricades, and the crowds shouting and whistling as the dream machines rolled by. My son and his crew sighted Paul LeMat, the actor who played John Millner in American Graffiti, George Lucas’ first big hit. Millner was the quintessential car–crazy young man who never grows up, never really leaves the ambience of high school and weekend cruising. (At the end of the movie he races Bob Falfa, played by Harrison Ford, who rolls his Chevy and loses the match). LeMat captured the attitude and style of the cruiser that many Hot August Nights participants still emulate.

A few weeks later I was back in the desert one hundred miles north (160 km) of Reno for another ritual called Burning Man, one that also depended on motor vehicles for its success.

The fine print on the $100 admission ticket said it all:

“Burning Man 1999. Black Rock City, August 30–September 6, 1999

You voluntarily assume the risk of serious injury or death by attending this event. You must bring enough food, water, shelter,and first aid to survive one week in a harsh desert environment. Commercial vending, firearms, fireworks, rockets and all other explosives prohibited. Your image may be captured without consent and without compensation. Commercial use of images taken at Burning Man is prohibited without the prior consent of Burning Man. A Survival Guide will be made available thirty days prior to the event, which you must read before attending. You agree to abide by all rules in the Survival Guide. This is not a consumer event. Leave nothing behind when you leave the site. Participants only. No spectators.”

I had been invited to Burning Man in the early ’90’s by a geek researcher who had been attending the event for a few years. I declined to go. At that time there were about 600 participants, but with publicity and a book, the event had grown to attract more than 10,000 people in 1998. In 1999, John Gilmore saw the demo of Tachyon’s satellite connection to the Internet at INET 99 and talked to the head of business development about setting up a demo at the 1999 Burning Man event. As a consultant for Tachyon, I tagged along with the engineers who drove a huge motorhome from San Diego and set up two small dishes

Tachyon satellite dishes
Tachyon satellite dishes

to bring high–speed, two–way Internet access to this remote desert event. Other attendees hooked their spread–spectrum radio links

Wireless links to the Net
Wireless links to the Net

into the LAN and also enjoyed good connectivity for the first time since the event moved to the desert.

Burning Man began in 1986 in San Francisco when Larry Harvey and friends burned an eight–foot figure in San Francisco in honor of the Summer Solstice. Twenty people attended. Like the Internet, this event has grown to involve a thousand times more people. At the burning this year, they estimated more than 22,000 people paid admission to attend. Unlike the Internet, it is not a commercial endeavor, and no big company sponsors the burn or the concerts. There is a concerted resistance to commercialism of any type. No vending is allowed, and only tea, coffee, water, ice, and lemonade are for sale. People spoke disparagingly of Apple Computer and Pepsi sponsoring Woodstock. Of course, most of us are used to cultural events being sponsored by large firms. Even in Guatemala, the Day of the Dead ceremony is financed by Coca–Cola which hired a band and displayed a huge inflatable Coke bottle outside the cemetery near Guatemala City. None of that at Burning Man. In fact, there was a request to “cover up logos” on shirts and vehicles. The vehicles were essential for the event to happen. The place is too isolated and rugged for hikers or backpackers to make their way here on foot.

Participants were given a rule book, survival guide, and a copy of the daily Black Rock Gazette, one of the two newspapers published during the event. The alternative paper, Piss Clear, has been published for the past five years and sees itself as “the sassy, snarky perspective of our rabble–rousing selves.” A fellow in a sun hat, tu–tu, Salvation Army clothes, and a big smile gave me a five–minute orientation about basic rules, camping sites, the need to drink water, register cameras, and have fun.

I drove slowly to the Moon Circle, a sort of administrative center, around which were radio stations, the central tent where drinks were sold, the press center, the message center, Black Rock University, a medical station, the Ministry of Statistics, the lamplighters, and the ranger station. The whole event runs on a spirit of volunteerism, experimentation that includes pranks, exhibitionism, role–playing, and sharing. The volunteers helped set up the whole infrastructure, kept things running, gently policed the area, and helped satisfy the requirements by the country authorities and the U. S. Bureau of Land Management.

The rangers wore khaki shirts, shorts, and hats. They roamed around, answered questions, mediated disputes over noise, behavior, and tried to use conflict resolution technique rather than their “authority” to solve the problems. The newspaper reported on a few serious ones: on Friday someone set off a large bomb on the playa, the large open area where art exhibits were constructed, and the area was declared a crime scene and a $3,500 reward was announced. The newspaper conceded that the explosion was beautiful, but that it could affect the future of the event. That afternoon a young man jumped from the Temple of Mez, a thirty foot structure, and he was evacuated to a hospital in Reno, but generally there were few problems, and very few arrests (even though the use of controlled substances was very open).

The desert near Black Rock City has been used for high–speed vehicle runs. The flat, treeless expanse is the vestige of a huge prehistoric lake that covered much of the western part of the United States. In 1999 the only water available is what you bring to the lake bed. I had a 26–liter jug, some 4–liter containers from the grocery, and various fruit concentrates to provide about 8 liters (two gallons) a day for the duration of my stay. Some peopled arrive weeks early to help set up the camp. The Burning Man Web site has maps showing the layout on which all the temporary residents constructed their camps. With the Burning Man

Burning Man
Burning Man

at the center, concentric rings (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, etc.) were intersected by spokes for the hours on the clock. It was easy to designate a location of a camp or art installation. I was staying at the Oregon Country Fair Embassy (Mercury at 2:15). There were over 300 camps; some had fanciful names, defiant names, and even some descriptive ones: Camp camp; Clamp nipples; Stalag 69; Nevada State Police Lemonade Stand; Jerry Falwell’s House of Pleasure; Camp David; Bate’s Motel; The Hog Farm Tent; and Camp Stay Away From Our Camp. The Oregon Country Fair Embassy was a compound of people who helped plan an annual fair for Eugene, Oregon, counterculture people. They were a mix of techies, aspirants to Eastern religions, and performers. Clif Cox, one of the leaders, had designed a wonderful cross–shaped tent made of PVC covered with a reflective silver skin. Nearby was a large yurt in which a number of people slept, and in a rectangle, cars, recreational vehicles,and trucks formed a barrier to preserve an open area. This clan of about 30 people had located in the “quiet” sector of Burning Man. Those who wanted to make noise, put on loud concerts, and party late located in the “loud” sector. Unfortunately, two sites in our sector did not observe that, and I grew to hate techno music after a couple of sleepless nights in the back of my small station wagon. One of the loud sites was run by Bianca’s Smut Shack, the very successful porn site on the Web. My car was boxed in so I grabbed my sleeping bag, mat, water bottle, and jacket, loaded it on my bike and pushed off into the outer reaches of Black Rock City. A slight breeze was blowing, and the moon was rising. I lay down on the cool flat hardpan and tried to sleep. The thrumming of the bass even reached here, carried by the winds which were picking it up. I covered my head, put my back to the wind, and tried to hibernate. About an hour later, a carful of drunks returned from a party. One shouted over and over, “I’ve got the coldest beer in the whole world.” To which his friends would affirm, “Fuckin–A!” Finally, I got up, grabbed my bedding before the wind carried it away and made my way back to the car. The music had stopped, and I found a few hours of sleep before the sun came up.

The next day a friend made the wide observation, “Burning Man is not a place to sleep.” I was trying to recover from a cold and sore throat from a previous trip to Thailand. I did not recover, and this affected my attitude about Burning Man. The climate can be brutal, so you have to be in good health at the start of event, or you will be wasted after a few days.

Author
Author, (ill, not drunk)

Temperatures can rise to 105 degrees F. (40C.), but this year it was very mild but exceedingly bright, and the sun was very powerful. The Burning Man survival guide has a number of rules and advice, many of the about the elements: sun, earth, wind, and fire. Winds can exceed 120 km/hour, and the low humidity can cause dehydration. The medical aides helped a number of people suffering from this, as well as drug–related problems.

I had forgotten how many people used recreational drugs on a regular basis, but after seeing a young man bartering opium for food, friends sharing bowls of grass rather than sharing beer, and alluding to the LSD they had just taken, I realized it was probably just more open in this laissez–faire setting. According to camp statistics, the most popular was marijuana, then mushrooms, LSD, and amphetamines.

The Tuna Guys are commercial tuna fishermen from Charleston, Oregon. Four days before the event started they caught tuna and packed away half a ton of fillets in a trailer filled with ice. They drove 15 hours and set up camp to give away and barter the marinated and grilled fish. Luckily they were right across from my camp, and besides enjoying some of the best fish I have eaten, hundreds of people passed by to chat and sample the fish. This was a very relaxing and congenial place. As you can imagine, it was good place to hear fish stories, and everyone came with ideas and items to barter. One entrepreneur wanted to raise venture capital and somehow promote this concept: selling fresh fish at events. As the days passed, more and more people came by for free fish. Toward the end of the week, they went mobile. Someone loaned them an open trailer into which they loaded their stoves, some fish, and slowly drove through the camps dispensing grilled tuna and salmon. Another fellow who did not have the same productive capacity, followed on a bicycle. Blender–man

Blenderman
Blender–man

had a motorized blender on the back of his bike, and he mixed margaritas for some of the people waiting for fish. They even converted some fanatic vegetarians and of course those people who claimed they did not like fish. It was class act, well organized, altruistic, and delicious.

Volunteers

One of the most interesting aspects of Burning Man, over the years, has been the growth of people filling roles and meeting the needs of the population. Many were individual efforts: ice–cream delivered for free from a refrigerated truck; free sun screen massages, and shower guy: a pedal rikshaw with a large bladder of water on top of the cab. People would come out from the camps, disrobe, take a set and be showered with warm water. After lathering and rinsing, the next person would take a seat, and then shower guy would move on. A flat–bed truck carried a large tank of water with high pressure sprayers. It would drive around and shoot a fine mist at individuals or crowds, most of whom welcomed the cooling spray. The lamplighters were a team of people who kept the kerosene street lamps filled and lit. Each day they would remove, fill, and then light about 600 lanterns. They paraded around the inner circle in their flame–motif clothes, carrying racks of lanterns on their shoulders.

Lamplighter Brigade
Lamplighter Brigade

There were lone guitarists, bagpipers, drummers, and a team of flamenco dancers, and many other musicians.

Other people started radio stations; nineteen were listed in a program. Others set up colleges, massage parlors, movie theaters, and of course concert stages. There was fortune telling, and a surprising number of confessional booths, usually making fun of the religious part of this act, but not always. Other sites encouraged outrageous and goofy acts of public humiliation — sometimes tied to S&M rituals. The Passport office issued “passports” which could be used to get “visas” at different camps, but you had to submit to a rather extensive verbal and physical examination by “doctors” and “nurses” and various officials. The Ministry of Statistics handed out a 71–question survey plus an intelligence test (Sample: what’s the capital of Senegal?). Most of the questions would add to the knowledge base about BM attendees, but many were just thrown in for fun. A few examples:

  • Does the idea of being spanked turn you on?
  • If you had ten extra hours in the week, how would you divide it between these activities: sleeping, reading, Web surfing, watching TV, talking on the phone, or sports/exercise?
  • Do you expect government authorities to safeguard your health and well–being while at Burning Man?
  • Have you ever become sexually aroused by the sight of something burning?
  • What forms of transportation have you used at BM 99? walking, bicycle, motorcycle, car or truck, land yacht, mobile bar, motorized furniture, other?

Department of Mutant Vehicles

The ban on driving did not extend to anyone who registered their art–cars at the Department of Mutant Vehicles. These strange machines floated across the desert, putted along the camp circles, and stopped frequently to pick up anyone who wanted to jump on. There were motorized bars and a complete living room with sofa, chairs, tables and TV, but there were sofa golf carts, motorized scooters, moving pyramids, and trucks covered with the detritus of popular culture.

Mutant vehicle
Mutant vehicle

  • A small boat driven by a “captain” chugged through the central camp with six guys in women’s bathing suits on skateboards. They were quite graceful and appreciated the attention.

  • A woman astride an eight–foot phallus waves as the barker announces from the back of the truck news about an upcoming event.

  • A cluster of cars modified to look like the post–nuclear holocaust vehicles of the Mad Max movies. The Death Guild was a camp on the inner perimeter where black leather clad members gathered their cars

    Death Guild vehicle
    Death Guild vehicle

    and motorcycles. Besides the high speed run some made on the desert, the members constructed a Thunderdome and drove donuts around the perimeter. For those of you who are not Mad Max fans, the Thunderdome was a gladitorial hemisphere

    Thunderdome
    Thunderdome

    where Mel Gibson fought the idiot–giant named Blaster, as they were suspended from bungie cords. Instead of chain saws and morning stars, the Burning Man combatants used foam swords. What was disconcerting was that the Death Guild’s main fighter looked very much like “Wes”, the crazy opponent of Mel Gibson in Road Warrior.

When the sun was out, nudity did not prevail, but it was very common. The participants had an amazing faith in the power of sun block to protect their not–so–private parts. Devoted naturalists with full–body tans were there, but many had disrobed just for this event. One afternoon, about 300 bare–breasted women on bikes rode through the camp area, cheering and shrieking. Swarms of photographers pursued them. This event, known as “Critical Tits” (after a San Francisco anarchist/activist bike ride called Critical Mass), was becoming a BM tradition. In the central area, near the cantina, it seemed that the world was divided into exhibitionists, gawkers, and the media. A Rasputin–like character was surrounded by barely clad “cowgirls.” They seemed to be coming on to other men, and it struck me they might be prostitutes hustling business to be conducted in their motor home. Lots of writers and photographers wore Dan Rather vests. This is the kind of paramilitary vest that Rather dons to show he’s in a very far away place. It’s a cue to the viewer that danger is in the air. They were very popular in Burning Man, for those who wanted you to know they were “on assignment.” I thought I saw Hunter Thompson sipping a drink in the cantina, but I decided not to bother him. We are from the same hometown, and I could have asked the guy an indirect question: “Is your mother still a children’s librarian in Louisville?” because only Thompson would know the right answer. I became friends with a French photographer who remarked at all the nudity, “American women seem to think it's rebellious to go topless.” However, there were plenty who were totally naked. One woman led her obese mate around by a silver cock ring. On Saturday morning a photographer who only photographs nudes arranged for an abstract shot of nudes lying on the desert floor, side by side, face away from the camera. Several hundred volunteers showed up, signed waivers, stripped, and sprinted to the enclosed area.

Photographing nudes
Photographing nudes

The photographer shouted for other clothed people to get out of “his shot” and when everyone had taken their places, including the single lone black man, it was a very odd sight.

nudes gather in the desert
The nudes gather in the desert

The JPG image here is not very sharp, but all those faceless bodies made an impression on me. It was so abstract and unusual. The only time lots of bodies are together is after some tragedy: Jonestown, civil war, a hurricane. But this was voluntary; it was for Art. Everyone quieted down, and then someone shouted, “Hey, you with the boner!” Laughter broke out and hundreds of bellies shook in unison. After that, the photographer got his shot.

Fire in the night

When the sun went down, the clothes went back on. Temperatures dropped to above freezing on some evenings, and some of the e–mail we sent for campers was destined to friends who had not left for Burning Man. “Bring me warm clothes!” was the gist of most of the messages. So how do you warm up? Fire, of course. Fire is such a central element to Burning Man, but only certain fires were allowed. One of the reasons is that the fire bakes the desert floor, and hundreds of camp fires would be hard to clean up after everyone departed, so fires were limited to the main event and to artists who planned to burn their works, as part of the performance, or as a way of not hauling it all back home.

Friday night was a wonderful night for sanctioned art fires. Each artist or art coop had an address, and some had very elaborate theme parks that must have cost thousands of dollars. One group constructed a rocket launch ramp. The tale they told was that their founder had died, and they planned to launch his ashes into space. Thousands of people came to watch the countdown. The silver bullet ignited, zoomed up the ramp and rose about 20 feet more into space and then splatted on the desert floor as the ramp went up in flames, and the builders paraded around the inner area wearing the most amazing headgear that shot rockets and fireworks for another ten minutes. It was incredible, and it looked very dangerous. But that’s what drew people to this event, and to the ones that followed.

If you imagine Dracula working for International Harvester, he would design machines such as these devices which breathed fire and attacked each other with claws and metal–piercing spears.

Killer machines
Killer machines

Another group set up a theme park from hell where the barker exhorted, “All you sick fuckers come on up and volunteer.” A young boy, a woman, and some other person subjected themselves to being caged in metal enclosures that were surrounded by whirling fire or metal paddles that banged on the cages. The audience cheered the machines on and then moved on to the next conflagration. A group of conceptual artists from Los Angeles, part of an international movement called Cacophony, had built a model of Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” which played the theme over and over throughout the week. Chairman Mouse marched his troops around, and the Burning Band, a live brass band, played the theme, while representatives of all nations were shackled and humiliated. And then there was an explosion, and up popped a huge skeleton which spread its arms over the display which burst into flames, and the audience went wild. This was one of the best choreographed burns that I saw. It was spectacular, yet more followed. After a couple of hours, I headed back to the quiet camp, the fires behind me burning like Dili in the wake of the Indonesian Army running amok.

In reviewing my notes for this piece, I realize how much I did not see, and how much happened as I slept. Dances, contests, talent shows, an elaborate opera which ended with, you guessed it, a big fire!

Yet everyone wanted some other activity or service added. Piss Clear is the alternative newspaper for Burning Man. The ads are parodies of Sauza Tequila, Absolut Vodka, and Apple Computer. After so many years, quite a few people are nostalgic for the small, cheaper, and less organized version of Burning Man. Piss Clear’s wish list for the future included:

  • An Internet café
  • Do it yourself body piercing camp
  • A dog barbecue to offend all the idiots who insist on bringing their dogs (dogs were charged the same admission as humans, and there were not many)
  • Fewer law enforcement officials
  • Y2K mart.

There is an undertone of something more than rebelliousness in some of the art displays. One place near the inner circle has dozens of black gravestones on which people have written who or what should die. There are rants against rapists, Martha Stewart, child molestors, capitalism, flag–wavers, Microsoft, Disney, lost loves, cell phones, “the bitch who kept screaming sit down last year at Burning Man,” and American culture.

A mile or so from the main camp there is a make–shift airport. The rich, the busy, and some journalists fly in, experience a dose of desert insanity, and then fly back to their comfortable hotels and homes. Air Force transport planes fly over the city several times and tip their wings before heading back to base.

To get away from the crowds, a visit to the art works constructed on the open space was very relaxing. The most beautiful pieces were the submarine rising from the desert floor. H.M.S. Love’s foredeck thrusts upward, and the bridge is tilted back. Anyone could walk or even bicycle to the top. It was a well—planned, clean design.

ship
H.M.S. Love

The Bone Tree was a tall treeless object made up of bleached bones from animals that died in the desert.

Bone Tree
The Bone Tree

The fellow who constructed is did not want to give his name or any background, and I don’t know what happened to it at the end. It was certainly worth preserving. CD Man was a tall, colorful looking alien figure, lit from the inside.

CD Man
CD Man

A single chair provided a unique listening experience. There were fountains, mazes, metal birds, towers, and sculptures of various kinds. It was extremely eclectic.

I spent the afternoon of the final burn on near the central cafe, talking to passersby and the French photographer. A desert rat who panned gold all around California and Nevada, railed against the choice of this desert over other, better, deserts where he had lived or crossed. While there were plenty of people to talk with, this whole event was much less verbal, more action oriented than any other meeting I have attended. Consequently, this article is as close to the real things as a description of a swimming meet is to actually being in the pool and in a race. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies to the displays of unusual behavior. It becomes increasingly perverse as the number of cameras focused on the people. Most of the cameras were aimed at two well–built young men on stilts. Their pants reached from the earth up to their thighs, and they danced lasciviously for about an hour. One stayed aloft as he finished off a bottle of Jack Daniels. I was shocked, just shocked.

As night fell, those of us who wanted a good seat for the burn headed for the outer circle of the Man. The burn was to take place some time after 8:30 p.m. About 7 I headed for the inner circle, found a space, and just sat down and waited. By eight the crowds began forming several people deep. Rangers paced inside the ring and explained the rules, the dangers (being swept toward the raging fire by enthusiastic fans), and tried to establish a rapport with us. The burn did not begin, and we sat down, surrounded by much of the camp. Fire eaters, dancers, and other opening acts were not widely appreciated. The crowd began complaining, and one man said he had dislocated his hip. The ranger offered to evacuate him, but he said he’d be okay if he could sit at the front and stretch out his leg. No, said the ranger, it’s evacuation or nothing. So the fellow sat down. Finally the Man burst into flames, and fireworks exploded, sending rockets landing in open areas, and everyone cheering. Using a metal cable, BM organizers pulled the figure down, and the crowd stampeded. This was the beginning of the night–long festivities that included dances, other rituals, more burns, and parties that must have lasted long after sunrise. I headed back to my car and began the drive home, trying to sort out just how I felt about this strange event.

Intermediate thoughts

It really is hard to maintain a sense of identity if you are only a spectator, a consumer of these bizarre sights and events. The event is a little like the Web but with almost no semblance of a search engine. You rely on others, on message boards, and some printed matter to find out what is meaningful, or you create that yourself or with some friends. It is also a good idea to start the event in good health. I would not recommend attending unless you create or attach yourself to some activity, and because of the climate and isolation, this necessitates a lot of planning, and in some cases, a lot of money. The Web is central to the spreading of the experiences (and some of the myths) that people have had at the event. You should use it to find an art collective, an activity, or an ongoing camp and volunteer. Of course, you can just show up and begin sculpting, singing, juggling, or doing magic tricks. but do take part.The media is there to explain but also to capture snapshots of absurd behavior that contribute to the (mis)understanding of what the United States is when viewed out of context in a newspaper in Hong Kong or South Africa. That is why the photographs and even this report may not help you decide if it’s worth your while to take a week off, spend hundreds of dollars on tickets, food and transport, and live in a desolate area with 20 thousand strangers.

As one sign noted, “Y2K is four months away and you’re naked in the desert. Smart.” As for Internet connectivity, will it grow next year? People were glad to have lights on the posts, the porta–potties emptied, water sprayed on the dusty streets, and some semblance of authority to lodge complaints, so I’m sure they will find more uses for the Internet during the event, even if many in attendance were here to get off the grid, to leave their keyboards and screens back in their urban homes and offices. But most people don’t come here to think about infrastructure, even though it reached to many levels and allowed much of the crowd to have a good time. The event is growing so rapidly, that the population will become a problem for the organizers who have been encouraging other, self–organized events in other parts of the country and on other continents. Whether they can distribute the zaniness depends on others, so start making your costume, working on your tan, buy some ear plugs, and reserve an recreational vehicle for next Labor Day weekend and the week preceding it. See you back in the desert! End of article

 

About the author

Steve Cisler is a consultant whose background is in public and special libraries. He has been a teacher in the Peace Corps, a wine maker and search and rescue coordinator in the Coast Guard. Now he focuses on public access projects and community computing projects in the United States and developing countries. He is currently working with Tachyon, Inc., an Internet services carrier using Ku band satellite for high speed access. He has written for Online, Database, American Libraries, Library Journal, and Wired. Steve has two sons and lives with his wife in San José, California.
E–mail: cisler [at] pobox [dot] com

 


Copyright © 1999, First Monday.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Cisler.

Letter from Nevada: Desert rituals
by Steve Cisler
First Monday, Volume 4, Number 10 - 4 October 1999
https://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/697/607





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