cisler on Sat, 9 Oct 1999 12:12:08 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Letter from Nevada: Desert Rituals

Letter From Nevada: Desert Rituals

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

 by Steve Cisler
      First Monday, volume 4, number 10 (October 1999),
(includes JPEGs)

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 19991 . 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 to bring high-speed, two-way Internet access to this
remote desert event. Other attendees hooked their spread-spectrum radio
links  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

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

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  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 FalwellŐs House of Pleasure; Camp David;
BateŐs 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. Cliff 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 hear, carried by the
winds which were picking 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.
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  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.


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.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

            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

            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.

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   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  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.

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.

The JPEG 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

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.

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.

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

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 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!

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.

      Copyright © 1999, First Monday

      Letter from Nevada: Desert Rituals by Steve Cisler
      First Monday, volume 4, number 10 (October 1999),

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