15 years ago, on January 1st, 2001, I stood on the Black Rock Playa and watched the sun rise.
BurningMan is an event which often induces visions, creates expanded consciousness and provides life-changing experiences. At BurningMan ’94, I had a vision of a futuristic tribe of primitives that lived on the Black Rock Desert. They existed almost invisibly in the twilight of time after the TechnoRapture, when accelerating computer intelligence reached self-consciousness. In an attempt to recapture the feeling of that vision, I decided to spend the last night of the year 2000 out on the Black Rock playa in the dead of winter, under the stars, naked but wrapped in a blanket of dead animal skins.
Surviving a winter night in Northern Nevada is challenging enough with modern gear, but I wanted to do it in the Buffalo-robed style of Native American heritage. Real fur would be the only material which has the insulating and ascetic quality for this vision quest. How does one get fur in this age of PETA? My solution was thrift store mink coats, cut up and sewn together for a blanket.
I arrived in Gerlach a few days before New Years Eve to prepare for the experience, which included time for contemplation, reading and visiting with BurningMan staffers and some of the locals. The winter rains had not yet arrived to erase the footprints of our Y2K burn, so the playa was still drivable.
I spent some time at the Helen Thrasher Memorial Library, a warm, cozy place, filled with books, historical objects and Internet access. At that time there was a sign on the door which read “No Dogs, No Smoking & No Sex Beyond This Point.” I’ve spent many evenings here, quietly reading or sometimes engaged in lively discussion about the meaning of all things. The place was named after Helen Thrasher, who was one of the pioneer women who helped create the community of Gerlach and one of the few people to live in three centuries. At that time, she was 106 and living in Portola, California. I intended to visit her sometime, but she died the next year.
The town of Gerlach has always had an interesting mix of characters. I wondered if it’s an effect of the tiny trace of radioactivity in the drinking water that comes down from the Granite range. It was a couple years later that the US government made the town install an expensive filtering system to remove the tiny trace of radioactive element. The cost of water for the town quadrupled.
The last days of 2000 were spent with trips around the local area. I drove by the gravel pit on Hwy 34, just past the 12-mile access and noticed some cattle trucks and a temporary corral filled with horses. The BLM was engaged in a wild horse roundup to reduce the local population. A private contractor with a helicopter and bunch of cowboys had been hired to do the job. Two weeks prior, they had rounded up over 800 wild horses in the Black Rock area. They were getting paid $230 per horse. And those horses were only worth about $50 each on the open market. The federal government now runs a giant horse prison out near Pyramid Lake.
Had lunch with DPW’s Mr. Metric out at the Fly Hot Springs and then took a quick dip into the sacred waters where my goddess amulet slithered to the muddy bottom in ’97. It was in one of the Fly pools that the Water Woman sculpture stood for a couple of years. I found and retrieved the last remnant, a 3-foot long wooden lock of hair, which hung down her back.
On New Years Eve, I stopped at the Gerlach gas station, which was then a Texaco and run by Bill Stapleton. Both Texaco and Bill Stapleton are now long gone. Bill told me that conditions on the Playa were favorable. The surface was spongy, but dry and passable. That evening, I loaded the fur blanket, some water, two burn-barrels and some firewood into my old yellow pickup truck and drove north on the Playa. “Bring everything you need to survive” echoed through my brain. Navigating by the outline of the mountains at night, I headed towards Double Hot Springs for a midnight rendezvous with DPW’s Bill Carson and Ranger FearlessOne.
Arriving at Double Hot just minutes before midnight, I was handed a glass of champagne. After a suitable toast, I elected not to get wet in an environment where the air temperature was rapidly declining towards zero. After bidding goodnight, I drove back onto the flat of the Playa. The sky was full of stars as I steered towards the constellation Orion. Feeling the changes in the Playa under my tires, I pulled up to a spot that seemed right.
Primitives Camp was located at N 40° 54.194, W 119° 05.062, altitude 3,887 feet, one mile east of the BurningMan ’96 site. I set up the two barrels about 10 feet apart. My nest was between these two fires. The air temperature was 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
What is it like to be in 3 degrees?
— At 3 degrees, your breath looks like a steam locomotive.
— At 3 degrees, your 2 gallons of drinking water is a block of ice.
— At 3 degrees, your CD player will not play CDs.
— At 3 degrees, the 6-pack of beer you brought is slush.
— At 3 degrees, the LCD screen on your laptop displays alien hieroglyphics.
— At 3 degrees, you pour water into a coffee pot, and watch in amazement as a layer of ice crystallizes on the surface before you can get it over the fire.
It’s damn cold at 3 degrees. My mind recalled the story of a local rancher who got stuck in the mud out on the Playa one cold January night in 1922. He died of exposure inside the cab of his Model T. Personal survival is an option in the Black Rock Desert. Danger can survive this, I thought to myself, and besides, the goddess is here. After firing up the barrels, I curled under the fur blanket for a while to warm up and then strip down. It seemed warm enough. I drifted off to a night of broken sleep, rolling over from time to time and moving my head as the frost formed on the blanket just below my nose. The hours passed.
Finally, I awoke with my head and face a numbing cold. The fires were down to a few live embers in the bottom of the barrels. The rest of my body was still fairly warm under the blanket of mink. I said a prayer of thank you to the furry little critters. The moisture in my breath created a semi-circle of frost on the top of the blanket. I discovered that shivering, a muscle spasm reaction of the body to cold, uses a lot of energy.
The sky was just starting to lighten above the mountains to the east. Still under the blanket, I pulled on some clothes and then threw off the blanket, jumped up and madly tossed more wood into the barrels.
The sun began to lift above the mountains and the entire panorama changed from a black line of playa and into the mountain outline that which we are so familiar with. I had survived. Sleep deprivation and the magic of this place finally set in. With the sun completely up, I closed my eyes once more and the vision came… an orange-red playa surface seemed to flow towards me. I set the brain on record as I flew through Playa Space. Soon enough, I opened my eyes. The memory lingers to this day.
Is our experience on this desert plain teaching us to be the surviving primitives in a cybernetic future?