In 1996 I worked as a finance manager for a car dealership in Colfax along I-80, halfway between Sacramento and Reno Nevada. Michelle and I had moved to the little mountain town to get away from the gangs. We still had gangs, they just wore cowboy hats. At the dealership I started to notice an annual pilgrimage of strange “contraptions” driving up the freeway, then a week later, they’d come limping back down, leaving a cloud of dirt and dust in their wake. The following year one of them came rattling into our shop on a tow truck. I asked the tie died freaky dude where they were headed?
That’s when I discovered Burning Man. “It’s an annual art festival of radical self expression man! That was all I had to hear…although the part about naked chicks everywhere didn’t hurt either.
I asked my boss for the rest of the week off whereas I got a resounding “NO”! Just short of quitting and throwing on my own hippified shirt , I reluctantly waited out the week and come SUNDAY at 5PM, my best friend Randy, Sheril Barker, Myself and one six pack of warm beer headed for Black Rock City.
Once we passed Reno, we headed out across the open desert where we didn’t see another car for thirty miles in both directions along the long, two lane country road. When we finally did have a car catch up from a light year behind us, he flipped on his pretty red lights and pulled me over. “You’re wandering all over the road” he said.
“Well there’s nothing out here to hit officer, so I just figured I would see how many bumps I could weave in and out of.” “Have you been drinking?” the officer asked as he leaned toward me to get a whiff in the truck. ” No, sir” I said. The state trooper shined his flashlight in my face while he glanced around the truck for open containers and the smell of wacky tabackee. “You folks drive safe and try to stay to the RIGHT of the bumps.”
An hour later we rounded the bend into Gerlach Nevada. Off in the distance, out across the desert, was a bright glow in the middle of a dry, white lakebed. Plumes of smoke and tall flames looked like an entire city was on fire.
“Oh shit! They’re burning it!” I shouted as I pounded the pedal to the metal. We raced up the narrow highway out of Gerlach and turned off the road at a cardboard sign directing us off into the desert. Bouncing along the makeshift road, we choked as fine white dust poured into the truck from every open window, vent and cigarette lighter!
Two miles down the “road”, we approached a ticket booth in the middle of our path. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Apparently when they got ready to burn the Man, everyone said screw it and bailed! Woo-Hoo! We just saved $45!
We hopped back in the truck and drove on toward the raging fires in the distance. The closer we got the more apparent it became that this was not going to be your average art festival. The roads were loosely roughed out of the dry cracked lake bed to form this “city” of 12,000 revelers, all scattered about in tents, campers and psychedelic painted motor homes, decorated to look like rolling art. The streets were pretty deserted but I could see hundreds, if not thousands of people off in the distance running back and forth across the open desert. A giant mobile space ship hurried passed us with a dozen naked people hanging off all sides of it whooping and shouting, “The Man is dead! The Man is dead!”
“Follow those aliens!” shouted Sheril. I pulled in behind the space ship, tailgating the non-humans into the semi-circle city center where all the commotion was taking place. It was around 10:30PM by the time we had finally “Landed on Mars”. I looked around me in awe as I reached behind the seat of the truck to move Sherils empty beer bottles out of the way so I could get at my camera and half dozen rolls of film. Dozens of raging fires burned all over the city, including the camping areas. Sparks and smoke billowed high into the night sky. I could hear people way off in the distance howling like coyotes at the moon.
Right in the very center of the festival was where the 50′ wooden man once stood atop hundreds of hay bails. But now it was gone and they were all dancing around the raging fire that brought him down. It was as close to complete anarchy as I’d ever experienced. It was exciting and exhilarating. I wanted to get right into the very center of it all!
Sheril grabbed the last hot beer in the truck and said she was headed out to find a friend. A huge fireball lit up the entire festival as it exploded in the night sky. “This is SO fuckin’ cool!”, I shouted to Randy as we headed into the crowd of mayhem and madness.
I had surely died and gone to “photographers heaven”. Everywhere I looked there were the most incredibly amazing images to be captured on film. Although I had five rolls of film with me, I knew I’d be out in an hour if I didn’t pace myself.
Shooting at night presented it’s problems in that I would need a flash. But, the fires were so bright, it made for much more dramatic images to shoot without the flash and capture these shadowy figures lit by the raging flames of fifty foot bonfires. How often do you get to take a picture of a viking setting fire to a 25′ wooden duck?
An eight foot praying mantis ran past behind me. Two naked hippies were “doing it” on a chaise lounge. Some guy shouted “The Man Is Fucking Dead!”, hurling a flaming 2×4 into a bon-fire.
Suddenly I saw it. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a lone character standing silhouetted against the raging fire. As I walked across the desert around him, I was in awe of this perfect image. I could barely make out his long brown hair and his dusty white flowing robe. He stood alone on the vast playa with his head up. His arms outstretched toward the millions of bright stars in the unobstructed night sky. From horizon to horizon there was nothing but fire in the way of my camera. I broke out into a full sprint to put this Messiah into perfect position against the fiery backdrop. About twenty yards away from him I squatted to steady the camera on my knee. I needed to hurry before his arms came down and this perfect moment in time was lost forever.
I focused. I adjusted the aperture wide open. I held my breath, squeezed the shutter button and…
Son of a Bitch! The damn flash went off and I’ve blinded the poor guy. Before I could even re-cock the camera to shoot again, He lowered his arms, and the moment was gone. I had missed the perfect shot. At best, I would have a washed out portrait of a stoned hippy, freakin’ out on peyote.
I got up to move on but noticed that “Jesus Christ” was now walking straight toward me. I stood there tinkering with my camera as if to be doing something important while he took his sweet time getting to me.
“Hey there! Hows yer’ Dad doing? I joked as he walked up. “Sorry about that flash thing. I was trying to shoot without it.”
He just looked at me calmly, then looked down at the camera around my neck.” “You’ve captured my eternal soul in your camera.”, he said in a soft voice.
“I hope so!” I replied. “Can I mail you a copy?”
He reached out and gently grabbed hold of the camera hanging around my neck. “Uhhhh, what’s up?” I said backing away, not quite sure what he was after.
“My soul is in your camera and I need it back” he muttered. “What…. are you kidding me? I said. All I did was take your picture buddy, I didn’t take your soul.”
“My religion believes that if you capture ones image, you’ve captured their eternal soul.”
He just stood there… staring at me with his hand out as if I was really going to hand him my camera. “Well” I said, “I have the right to take your picture, and you’re NOT going to get my film. I’m really sorry if I’ve condemned you to hell, but I have dozens of photos on this roll and I’m not giving them up to save your eternal soul.” And with that… I turned and walked off.
But, It didn’t matter how fast I walked. If I turned around, there he was slowly walking behind me with his long lanky arms outstretched. If I stopped to take a picture, he would catch up to me and reach over my shoulder for the camera. Never angry or violent. He never raised his voice. He was like a damn pet monkey! He just followed along behind me…like he was my pet MONKEY fer’ “Christs” sake. His long arms pawed at me. He was truely convinced that his soul had to be hangin’ out in my Pentax AE1. It’s not like the guy was a priest or an indian or somethin. He looked like an irish kid from Brooklyn…But with long hair…and MONKEY arms!!
So, my lankey monkey was starting to piss me off after over an hour. No matter what I did just short of kickin’ him in his monkey nuts was going to keep him from his mission of rescuing his eternal soul. Finally, I decided it was time to track down a cop, or this guy Larry that i’d heard was in charge of this shin-dig. Eventually I’m directed to these guys they call Black Rock Rangers. They kinda looked like Eagle Scouts without all the “stinking badges”. “Have you guys got a taser?!” I shouted as they walked up.
The three listen to my story and then take my monkey off to get his version of the apocalypse. Ten minutes later, one of the rent-a-weblos walks back over to me and says, “Well sir, that man truly does believe that you have captured his eternal soul in that camera. Now, we do realize that you have the legal right to take his picture. However,… he has made it very clear that he’s not going to stop following you until you give up the ghost”.
” SO!” he says calmly, “My partners and I have decided that in order to peacefully resolve this matter, I will give you FIVE new rolls of film if you will give him that ONE “roll with the soul.” The ranger just stared at me with a whimsical smirk…
At first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They all knew that my little monkey was a complete whack job, but they didn’t want to haul his monkey robed ass to the burning man pokey. I pondered the offer…These guys were ACTUALLY willing to give up their own personal film just to resolve this predicament.
“Hmmmm, What to do?” Put up with my adopted monkey all night, or go out and shoot five times as many pictures all over again?”
“All right, Fuck it!”…I said, “Cheetah can have the damn film!”
With a reluctant “CLICK!” , I popped the back lid, exposing ALL of the fifteen or twenty frames of film. I “r-r-r-r-ripped” the film out of the camera tossing it into the night breeze, and in an overly dramatic gesture, I released his “spirit!!”.. “YOUR FREE!, YOUR FREE! I shouted as the film rolled, spiraling through the dust.
Monkey boy just stood there. He didn’t smile, or make a move to catch up with the film as it rolled away. He just stood there, and stared, with his beading fuckin’ monkey eyes… straight at me!
“Well, there we go!” said the manscout with pride, “We solved yet another incident without the help of Johnny Law.” Then he reached into his hip pack and dolled out five black canisters of Kodak Film.
We all just stood there… waiting for the Jesus monkey to say something! “Thanks” maybe… “God Speed?”… “I forgive you my son” “Got a banana?” Something fer’ Christs sake!
Suddenly he walked over, looked down and again and reached out for my camera. “My soul is still INSIDE the CAMERA…!”
Randy and I just stood there and stared back and forth at each other as the Rangers picked up the monkey by his outstretched monkey arms and carried him slowly off into the darkness. I could only stand there, staring…. at my five rolls of brand spankin’ new film.
“Wow” I said to Randy… “If THIS is the kind of shit that happens at Burning Man, I am SO coming back next Year!”
[While this story is based on real events, conversations have been embellished and probably down right fabricated for your entertainment pleasure]