This guest post by writer, photographer, and Friend of the Snark Quinn Norton is part of Border Town Online, a digital complement to the Border Town Design Studio which will be on display in Detroit starting on September 21st. You can find the rest of the posts at dividedcities.com.
(Let’s just get the silly literary allusion stuff out of the way. Yes, in this Bordertown essay I’m talking about Gerlach and Burning Man, but they’re standing in for the interstitials of modern life and the internet, because we all live in that bordertown now, and frankly, we’re still kind of crap at dealing with it. But Gerlach/Burning Man and IRL/the intartubes are also sometimes synecdoches for the tension between physical need vs the life of the mind. You get deconstructionist bonus points for spotting when, but don’t ask me, because I probably don’t know that much better than you, and intend to lie anyway. HTH, HAND.)
Sometime in the 1970s either Leslie Nielsen, or someone that sounded remarkably like him, did the voiceover of a video about the tiny and worn-down mining town of Gerlach, Nevada. It began, intoned with the solemnity of biblical tragedy or spaghetti westerns, “The town of Gerlach, Nevada endures alone in the vast alkali flats of the Black Rock Desert.” The residents were poor, but hardy and proud. Even then it was already fighting impending death, sitting at the edge of a desert with none of the resources that make modern human lives possible, its little train station on the transcontinental cargo arterial rendered obsolete by the growth of the world around it and by technology. “It’s second best, if you like a rough life,” said one of the residents, the woman who ran the hotel. The video is grainy, low-res, and degraded, in a way that feels true to the subject.
But Gerlach survived, meeting the needs of its dusty people in the coming decades, with gypsum mining, dribbles of tourism, and fixed income retirees. Then, somewhere in the 1990s, Gerlach became a transit town, the last outpost before the edge of this world. Gerlach gave up its position as the last stop before the Black Rock Desert to an intruding municipality seven miles further down the road: Black Rock City.
The line between Gerlach and its neighbor isn’t merely one of land management. It’s one of the most tightly controlled borders in the world, with 24/7 monitoring of ground radar that can pick up a coke can bouncing in the wind, and interstitial agents can be dispatched to check it out within minutes. Access is tightly controlled, vehicles entering are searched. It is actively patrolled by three, sometime four agencies of the law, and even more agents and actors of the city itself. This is what happens at the edge of Black Rock City, home for one week a year to Burning Man. The perimeter of Burning Man is not just a border, it’s a kind of magical frame for the city, what modern man needs to hold the contours of inverted custom, a wellspring of creative madness. It keeps the bodies inside safe, and the minds outside sane.
What is custom in BRC is madness in Gerlach, and vice versa. But they must get along, or it’s likely both municipalities will die. There is animosity, interdependence, the need to be so close they can almost touch, but never risk mingling identities, because Gerlach and Black Rock City are meant to be dichotomous. One is permanent, the other ephemeral. One is an expression of mighty infrastructure, a daughter of commerce; the other, self-generated and money is against custom. The two are trapped in the high energy state of tense borders, conflicted and needful. If you are used to the Gerlachian world, nothing but going can really explain Black Rock City. But Burning Man becomes natural so quickly, because it’s a place of imagination, directly linked to our internal worlds. It is city and deep playa, man and temple, music, sex, and places to cry. Old naked men you’ve never met welcome you home. It is sparkly and glows at night, it has plenty of pain and meanness, and people fight. It is full of actual, non-metaphorical fire, and if you’re used to the safety rail culture of modern life, it dawns on you slowly that no one out here will stop you from stupidly killing yourself.
In the run up to Burning Man and the week you are there, you may, for the first time, put a value on your own life. Burning Man will look for ways to push you. It is full of secret gardens: some sublime, some comfortingly dull, some downright Boschian. You are responsible for your own moral development on the playa; you have no one to blame for your experience. Barring the occasional violence of all cities, you always had the option of walking away, going out from the city, into the darkness and safety of the deep playa. You didn’t have to take that pill, no one made you kiss that boy, and no one can ever take it away. If Gerlach is a place where the work of survival requires the books be balanced, the outer world placated in exchange for support, Black Rock City pushes its citizens into a state mental agility that exceeds their native frame of mind. Burners learn to cultivate serendipity; they come to harness it, and ride it towards the next distant light.
Somewhere, sometimes, in the deep playa you can find a place called the Dust City Diner. It is best found in a mild dust storm, by following the clinking of thick cheap china, and the sound of greasy spoon waitresses calls of “Order up!” Surrounded by nothing but the sterile, basic playa, you will find a small diner bar with red pleather stools. If you sit down on the stools a woman, sometimes chewing gum, will say, “What can I getcha?” All around is the corpse of a sea that died before the first human made a linguistic mark on a piece of bark, or clay, or in charcoal on a stone cave, before the first time imagination was snatched from ephemerality. Now this dream sits on it, ephemeral still but captured, mediated, contained for the outer world.
You can order coffee at the Dust City Diner. You can get a very good grilled cheese sandwich. You can talk to the man seated next to you about the things you’ve done so far today. He might be naked, or if it’s a Tuesday, he might be wearing only a tutu. The sandwich will really be much better then it has any right to be, but everything will taste a bit of dust. You may hear dance music in the distance, but getting louder. Eventually you will work out this is a three masted wooden sailing ship, running so low on an old car it looks to be floating across the fine white playa. Dozens of people, sparkling and many in tutus, are on the deck, dancing. This is also normal.
Beyond the diner and the ship is the trash fence, the border of Black Rock City. Outside the fence is the perimeter, and beyond that, nothing. playa the stretches for a 100 miles, soundless and barren, a landscape of pure physical need, and without the trappings of civilization, absolute danger. In the other direction is Gerlach, Empire, Reno, and all of real life. This is the psychogeography of Black Rock City: trapped between mortality and reality.
Wednesday night we biked along Birthday, near 4, looking for something we never found. A man in a trench coat ran nearly in front of my bike, screaming in exasperation that we were both late. We glanced at each other in trepidation for a moment, and pulled off into his camp. “Wardrobe!” he yelled, in between admonishing out tardiness and expressing an extreme relief that we were there at all, “WARDROBE! Get them into costume!” Moments later we were both wearing fedoras, and I another trench coat. They pulled us into the set of a 1930s private detective’s office. I was seated behind the desk, surrounded by incandescent lights, scattered typed pages, books, cigarettes, matchboxes, and a full crew. I heard theme music, a lonely sax, which may not have been real. Everything was dusty, but it wasn’t playa anymore, now it was the dust of troubled neglect. The playa was ten feet away, but it could have been miles. A crew member ran in front of me with a giant pad of cue cards with our lines on them. Turned out I had pictures of my friend’s wife, cheating on him.
She’s just no good.
What can I tell you, Kid?
You’re right. When you’re
right, you’re right, and
I was Jack Nicholson at the beginning of Chinatown. Our scene continued only a couple of minutes, and the crew broke into applause and pats on the back. “You were great, you were perfect!” our director effused, still full of Hollywood. The matchbooks had the password to their speakeasy on the back. We returned later, to a dimly lit bar with more sax and piano, this time definitely real. They gave us excellent Manhattans, and we sat at a round cafe table, legs tucked under a floral tablecloth, munching at mixed nuts and watching the detectives wander by and chat.
Both BRC and Gerlach testify to a common quality; they are both expressions of human effort. These worlds are a lot of work. Gerlach and Burning Man share another tragedy; you will never really know either of them. Gerlach is hidden by your disinterest. You are trying to get through it, either to or from Burning Man. You suspect the locals hate burners. (You’re right.) Some sense of social propriety makes you think maybe trying to get to know Gerlach is impolite, because you’re a freak, and getting to know them is also thrusting yourself upon them. You can’t easily get the things you need most as you’re passing through, which are gas, and an Indian taco. You can’t even say “Indian taco” without feeling a little guilty, especially this close to the res. But by god, you do want one. You’re driving through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation, and you won’t know it, either. Thousands of years of history that make this country what it is, likely formed your character — the story of the genocide that made the world is here, but there’s no chance you’ll find it, because it’s underneath normal life and you need to get somewhere, either back to your life or out to BRC.
You will never see all of Burning Man. If you had a year, you’d never see all of it, and you only have a week. You can’t go to all the parties you’d enjoy the hell out of. Your soul mate is likely out there this year, and you almost certainly won’t run into them. You probably won’t fly in an airplane over the event, even if you know it’s not hard to get a ride at the airport. You not only won’t have all the experiences you could, you won’t even have all the ones you planned on. You will not find the friends you planned to see, and will miss even more friends than that. You will not see a fight at Thunderdome, despite promising yourself that this is the year, damn it. You will run over to climb up inside the Man too late, and it will already be blocked off as people are hauling explosives and accelerants into it. You will miss the artwork your friends made, and you will regret this. but when you tell them this, you will sound like a disingenuous asshole because you’re simply too overwhelmed by that point to sound like you care. You will miss events you really wanted to make, because you were at camp exclaiming that you were bored. You will fall in and out of love several times. You will do things you never imagined yourself doing, and miss other things because of that fact, while extricating yourself from a shade structure converted to a pleasure palace. You will not be able to bring yourself to regret it. You will miss precious things. You will cuss at the weather, and the fucking hippies, and the fucking sparkle ponies. You will know, finally, totally, that the best things and perfect moments are beyond the reach of your time, dribbling into the oblivion of the past, possibly while you were hunting around for your spork. There’s a term for this anxiety at Burning Man, this unease that arises from that which is unseen, from the ghosts of the future missed rather then the past dead. It’s FOMS — fear of missing something. The trick, and this is a very important trick indeed, is to learn that this is OK. This is how you make a life. You miss things, you reach into the river, grab what you can carry, and let the rest go. Instead of finding the best in the infinite out there, you craft an experience one moment chained to the next, made of choices, and appreciated as your own masterpiece, singular in all the world. You feel it all out there, in its tremendous bounty and wonder, and you trust your fellow burners to drink in what you can’t.
It is not easy to leave Black Rock City. The process is called Exodus, and it can involve a whole work day’s worth of waiting, ass in car seat, in the line to get back to the paved earth, back on the narrow two lane highway that took you here. People run out of gas, water, patience. You have to work Burning Man, and you’re working right up to the moment you make the left turn onto the highway. Once you’re back on that highway, you will find a plethora of shabby temporary stands have popped up along the side of the road to offer you everything from Indian tacos to trash dumping ($5 per bag, less for sorted recycling), drinks, bicycle rental returns for your dust covered bikes, and even blessed showers. All of it yours, now exchangeable for precious money. You’ll see trash dumped on the side of the road, something exceedingly rare at Burning Man, because of the banal indifference foreigners always have to the little towns, like Gerlach, they pass through. You will feel bad about this, or at least know you should.
The process of coming back out through Gerlach, Empire, and Reno and coming back to the “default world” has a name among burners: decompression. It can be rather like the bends in some ways. The customs are different out here, and you’ll have to remember them. You must remember to stay dressed, and in mostly normal clothes. There’s no dust; you’ll shower more, pick your nose less, and not start every meal with whisky. The next week will be hard. You won’t get enough done. The default world is not about how you feel, or even what you can build; it’s about where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. There’s a kind of a relief in this; radical self-reliance and radical self-expression have a lot of self in them, and it’s good to not have the whole world you’re called upon to inhabit be about what you and you friends like. It is deeply unhealthy to have your main responsibility be making an experience that is only for you. Back in the real world, you’ll need to have something required of you by others. It’s good to not care so much about what’s in your own head. But nevertheless, you try to carry the mind of Black Rock City home with you. To be a full person this day and age, you have to live in both places at once, alternating, meshed, and distinct.