Evidence Presented from 2022 Lakes of Fire Regional Burn
I guess this is as good place as any to begin this story, the sordid tale of my descent into the dark hellish world of the "regional burn". A regional burn is a local event based on, and often sanctioned by, the organizers of the Burning Man not-a-festival event held annually near Reno in Nevada. While the Big Burn itself has had up to 80,000 wild-eyed participants, regional burns typically host a few hundred to a few thousands happy campers who come, enjoy, burn, and then leave no trace in a beautiful camping spot near you. True to their name, burners like to conclude these events by actually incinerating a large work of art. Each regional burn is typically unique. This is the story of the Lakes of Fire regional burn in Michigan as I observed it in the month of June 2022.
I am sitting with two friends on our folding camp chairs on a dirt road facing the seven portapotties near our campsite. It is dusk and we are watching a parade of illuminated people walk by after the effigy burn. They prance by, dance by, trance eyes glowing in the fading light. There are people dressed as vikings with glowing horn hats. There are people dressed in pulsating illuminated fur coats. There are people dressed in tiger onesy's with tails. There are people wearing electroluminescent wires artfully arranged so that they appear to be glowing stick figures. One person's face is a digital screen drawing you into a diamond-shaped tunnel. Some people are mostly or completely naked. It is all very very shocking and yet pleasant. We drink it in. We feast with our eyes.
My two friends and I call ourselves the Mod Squad, after the celebrated 1970's police detective TV show of our youth. One of us is drunk, another is high on edibles, and the third is tripping on mushrooms. Disjointed music from a nearby theme camp throbs and echos around us. The drunk one exclaims "This scenario reminds me of a Broadway musical. Notice how the opening and closing of the portapotty doors is in sync with the music, like the mechanical motions of the performers in a Fritz Lang film. I sense a 'Take the "A" Train' moment." The one high on edibles feels the moment is more like Film Noir: "People appear from the shadows, gift their glory, and then fade back into the background." The tripping one senses a third kind of magic infusing the evening. "Everything is perfect," he says. "Everything is geometrical, like synchronized swimming."
A woman wearing illuminated wings steps onto our impromptu stage and gyrates slowly to the music as she waits for her spouse who has entered the portal. We are each mesmerized by her in different ways according to the lens of the various plants we have partnered our minds with. She is simultaneously sexy, socially significant, and geometrical. A young man wearing a dog costume steps up to her and barks appreciatively. She barks back, joyously. They embrace. She then leaves with her spouse. Dog boy collapses to the ground and lies in a heap. We wonder if he is okay. A passerby bends down and addresses him. "Are you okay?" she says. He mumbles back an affirmative. "People here are doing things that don't make sense," I say, thickly, to my friends.
And I think, "How can I explain this on facebook, that the peak moment of my camping trip to Michigan was sitting in front of the portapotties with my friends watching people walk by? A photo on Instagram could not do this justice. A post on facebook could not capture the exquisite beauty, the deep drama, of this moment."
The King joins us as we move to four folding camp chairs facing the lake. Along the way our tripping friend gazes at an apparently empty space and exclaims "I've never seen so many hexagons in one place!" We are bemused by his comment and nod in agreement knowingly. As we settle in we begin to appreciate the mile-long strip of bright humanity all along the lakeshore challenging the deep night's darkness, competing with the ancient stars and winning gloriously. There are fire spinners and lasers and campfires across the water all jostling for our attention. 40-foot-tall flame effects periodically erupt along the lake's long necklace of light. I pass rainbow glasses to the tripper and he oohs and awes. I then pass them to the high girl and she giggles. The King sees through too and stoically appreciates the bursts of color.
Tiring of this spectacle we attempt to put our tripping friend to bed. But on the way to his tent he suddenly swerves into the brightly colored neighboring camp. We enter an empty dance floor decorated with day glo string art and spiraling aluminum ducts. A colorful striped cloth canopy hovers over the dance floor. I wiggle the canopy with my hands and my tripping friend's face lights up with amazement: "Do that again!" he says. "Do that again!"
We are the children of trauma. We are here because we have all been transformed in some way. We are here because we have all lost something or we realized something or we suddenly gained some mysterious superpowers that we are trying to come to terms with and we want to do that in the company of others who have had similar experiences, people who won't judge us, people who know our stories wordlessly, people who will help us heal and grow.
"Hi my name is Hazelnut," a new campmate tells me. She is in her mid-twenties and she has long brown hair that reaches all the way to her shapely butt. She hugs me without reservation, so tightly that her nipple piercings jab painfully into my chest, and then still holding me tightly she looks deeply and significantly into my eyes. She is not flirting with me, I understand. Even better, she's bonding with me. She is wearing a furry vest with nothing underneath so that the curves of her petite breasts are just visible from a side view. A swirling psychedelic pattern adorns her lengthy bell bottoms. "I used to be white trash," she says with a drawl. "I grew up down south in an oppressively religious family. Then something happened that changed me."
"Was it LSD?" I asked.
"Yes, you guessed it! How did you know?"
I know because six years ago something similar (but all-natural) changed me and I see that change in others here. Something changed our minds and made us dissatisfied with what burners derisively call "the default world". For some it was psychedelic drugs. For some it was something painful. For some it was some kind of random enlightenment event. What's your story? Why are you here?
"Hi I'm Alice Wonderland!" says a middle-aged svelte blonde woman at a neighboring camp. She is wearing a short plaid skirt overlaid with a leather utility belt and with a raccoon tail safety-pinned at the back. Her white cotton blouse is knotted at the front so that it pushes up her breasts alluringly. A photo pendant hangs in the valley between her breasts. I try not to stare at it too long. "I used to be a financial analyst but after my husband left me I became a yoga instructor. This is my guru," she says holding up the pendant with a photo of a tan oriental face surrounded by an orange scarf. She describes how she got into yoga for fitness reasons but found that it opened up other doors for her as well, significant doors. "Would you like a massage?" she asks. "I'm currently in massage school and I need to practice!" she says genuinely and innocently. I decline for now.
"Hi I'm The King," says a balding plump middle-aged man at our camp who is wearing a rhinestone jacket with matching bulging shorts. The King swivels his hips a couple of times and then makes some thrusting motions so that his humorous reference to Elvis is crystal clear. "I'm here because I like to make interactive immersive art," he says. In happier times he enjoyed making elaborate Halloween installations for his kids in the front yard of his suburban home near an upstate big city. He worked with mirrors and lights and his innate technical cleverness. He remembers his beautiful wife coming out onto their front porch and clapping her hands with delight. Later that year she developed a brain tumor, became irrational, ugly and mean, and then died. His kids have all grown up and moved away. So now he brings his installation art to burns.
"Why are you here?" we ask The King. He answers with his behavior rather than his words, by looking around hungrily at the women here. He is searching for but cannot find the love he knew before. He is caught in a vicious circle. He finds someone. He loves them. But then he sabotages his relationship with them because of a nagging feeling he cannot free himself from: "Dare I find and risk and lose again?"
In the default world he attracts women with his financial power and social status. But here he finds those attributes are meaningless, and so he uses his goofy boyish wit instead. He sees Alice in the distance. She is bending over her massage table. Her buttocks quiver as she rhythmically pounds a campmate. He falls for it. After she is done he strides over. He engages her in conversation. We see him thrust his hips a couple of times as he makes his introductions. And by her reaction it becomes clear that she too is looking for love in this amazing place where the people are self-selected for authenticity and audacity. And later that evening in his tent she says "Lick me dear sir and love me, spurt on me, I harden my nipples for you, I moisten myself for you, I wiggle at your request, I quiver and heave, I lick you and I believe, in you in you in you, and you in me. Deep in me. Deepen me." Orgasm. Then another. And then a third, her current record for this lifetime. OMG. "Thank you thank you my king!" They spend a sweaty night searching the murky depths of divine degeneracy and find only each other alone together, breathless. The next morning they emerge from his tent in t-shirts and no undies, genitalia waggling as they walk hand-in-hand to the porta-potties. We the Mod Squad observe them from our folding camp chairs as we bask in the morning light after a swim in the lake.
"Looks like The King has found his Queen!" we say loud enough to make them blush. And we wonder silently, "Will this relationship last? Please God bind them together with divine love."
Who are we? We are fifteen New Yorkers who drove twelve hours to be here. Our gift to the community is rides on Sparky, our giant rideable unicorn, which when we arrive we pull out of a trailer and assemble. At our camp we have set up various other structures: a 15-foot-high carport to keep the rain off of Sparky, a common kitchen made out of pvc tubes bent into a half cylinder and covered with a tarp, a pop-up tent mini-bar, a couple of solar panels and a dozen tents to sleep in. We scatter folding camp chairs around our campsite. My gf Juicy and I quibble as we set up our tent. We sometimes having trouble communicating when we are focussed on a joint project.
"Why am I here?" I ask myself. I am on the verge of a second marriage with my fiancé Juicy. It is on my todo list to create some vows for our upcoming marriage ceremony. I love Juicy. I want to spend the rest of my life with her enjoying the passing parade with her and making love with her every day. But how to express this? And is anything holding me back? Are there any deep doubts I need to explore? We consult our plant-based truth-speaking friends. On the first night we consult our friend Molly. We spend an evening in our little tent grabbing big handfuls of each others' flesh and howling. Molly confirms that our bodies are deeply compatible. On the second night we consult the Golden Teachers who inhabit the magical fungi. I ask them "Where does the path of togetherness lead?"
"It can lead to unimaginable joys," they state. "But ultimately togetherness leads to separation, and sorrow. Are you willing to risk the pain you felt those other times in your life that a person close to you left you?"
"I am," I say.
"Then go ahead and surrender fully to love," they reply.
During the daytimes Juicy and I clip metal cups to our belts and then take tours around the lake, indulging in the activities and gifts our 2,500 fellow campers have brought to share. A nearby camp named Valhalla has a chain link cage set up where people can somewhat safely try their hand at axe-throwing. Farther down at the "Country Club" we discover a whole miniature golf course made out of toys, with themes such as Godzilla in Tokyo, a time warp, and a rainbow land.
We encounter an older gentleman sitting alone at a picnic table. "I'm going to die soon," he says matter-of-factly. "Death is a great opportunity," we reply and he agrees. We sit with him to hear his story. He tells us that his name is Woody and that he likes to work with wood. In fact, he's made the table that we are sitting at, he tells us. He also shows us his staff that he made from a tree that was struck by lightning. He says that he himself has been struck by lightning several times. He says he is part American Indian. He recently attended a Sun Dance, where he is recognized by his Lakota friends as a Heyoka, a sort of a contrarian shaman. While he was there someone threw a black curse at him. He fell into a deep coma and travelled outside his body. He was called back into his body but the experience had changed him somehow. People around him at the Sun Dance saw this change in him. Mothers he didn't know would hand him their babies and ask him to hold their baby for awhile. Other people asked him to heal them in various ways. In exchange for his services each person would give him the gift of an eagle feather. At the end of the Sun Dance he met in council with the big chiefs. They asked him to ascend to a position of power. "Instead I handed my bundle of gifts to my friend who was a chief, for him to use. The chief opened the bundle and there were 36 eagle feathers in it, enough for a feather bonnet," Woody tells us. As is the custom of burners, Woody gives us some gifts. He gives Juicy a burlap bag, and he gives me a sketch pad. "Thanks for taking this. I'm trying to get rid of all my stuff before I die," he says with a sheepish smile. We receive several other gifts during the burn, including a piece of gravel painted blue, and a shrinky dink.
Farther down the road we come across camp "Bikes & Brews". We are gifted a can of Rolling Rock lager. We pull out the metal cups that we've clipped to our belts, pour the beer, and then we sit down with a guy named Troy. He says he is from Toronto and even though he looks very Irish, with big freckles and red hair, he too is part American Indian. He is also a maker. Troy and I descend into nerd talk while Juicy's attention wanders. He tells me about workshops he knows in Toronto where burner artists actually make a living creating art. One artist makes public art and art cars; this artist has recently been experimenting with laser welding. Another workshop is successful making public art with LEDs. He himself has been experimenting with a new kind of CNC router. "It's kind of like a roomba vacuuming robot except that it has a router attached," he says. "You send it your file, set it down onto a 4' by 8' sheet of plywood, and it crawls all over the plywood making very precise cuts. It's got a vacuum built in so that sawdust is very contained. I use mine on my kitchen floor!"
"I want one," I say.
Bikes & Brews gives us loaner bikes and we move on. We pass a two-wheeled cart with a sign that reads "Mystical Kitty: Knows little, sees even less.” A witchy woman is sitting at the cart giving tarot readings using hand-drawn stick-figure tarot cards. Juicy asks for a reading. "I've already been married twice and now I'm getting ready to marry this guy,"Juicy says, jabbing me in the ribs. "What can I do to ensure that our marriage is successful?" Kitty cuts the deck and Juicy flips over a card. The card reads "Communication."
"The fact that you are asking me this question shows me that you are already thinking about these issues and you are already on the path to success," Kitty says.
We bike around. We pass a big sign with the words "I'm sorry..." stenciled on it, with room and pens for people to write things they are sorry about. "I'm sorry I stared at your breasts," I write, thinking of all the women I have made uncomfortable at all of the burns I've been to. "I've got to figure out how to stop doing that," I think to myself.
Most of the activities we encounter are family friendly, but we see some risqué stuff too. We pass a man who has just pulled down his pants for a woman next to him who is preparing to spank him with a big wooden paddle. "Ready?" she asks. We see another man in a kilt swinging from a structure by cables that have been inserted through his flesh of his shoulders. Blood drips from his shoulders. At another tent we peek inside to see a naked woman being bound with ropes. People here are exploring social boundaries.
Juicy takes a break from our wanderings to attend a class on how to be a ranger. Rangers are volunteer burners who walk around with walkie talkies and keep everyone happy. Judy would start out as a "dirt ranger". If she encounters a situation she can't handle, she can use the walkie talkie to call in a "khaki", a ranger with more experience. And if the rangers can't handle a situation, which is rare, they can call the actual police. Even here a teeny tiny patriarchal hierarchy takes form.
While Juicy is away my friend Doug and I attend a drawing session with a live model. I draw on the sketch pad I was gifted earlier by Woody. A piano player plays live music while we sketch. One of the models has breasts that are so beautiful I cannot sketch them because my hands start shaking. I try to sketch her feet instead.
We all attend a "laughing yoga" class led by our campmate Sunshine. About fifteen people gather in a circle and Sunshine leads us through some exercises. We force ourselves to laugh at first, but gradually the laughter becomes real. At one point I feel a pain in my chest and my laughter becomes sobbing but then becomes laughter again. I feel a release of some kind.
Later as it grows dark the three of us head into Captain Nemo’s Flaming Carnival. Captain Nemo greets us wearing a utilikilt and a top hat. He tells us how much he admires our art car Sparky. He describes some of his own art cars, including a floating dragon that spouts fire. He shows us around his theme camp that features a flaming clown bean bag toss, a flaming strength tester where you swing a hammer to make a bell ring to impress your girlfriend, and a ping pong table in which the net is a row of flames that dance to the music. A man is standing by the ping pong table. “Are you the referee?” I ask. ”No, I’m just making sure nothing catches on fire," he says holding up a fire extinguisher. "Safety third,” he says smiling, which is a burner aphorism meaning "I know this is dangerous but it's also fun so don't give me a hard time."
We return to our camp and take a shift giving people rides on Sparky. Sparky is a steel structure my artistic partner Doug and I have welded into the shape of a unicorn and covered with chicken wire and tulle cloth. Doug has woven LED light strips into the chicken wire so that especially at night Sparky inspires awe in all who see him. People come running when they see him gliding along in the distance. People can climb up a somewhat scary ladder to sit on a motorcycle seat that we have welding on top of Sparky's frame. "It's perfectly safe! Safety third!" I tell reluctant riders.
Sparky sits on a four-wheeled cart powered by two electric motors. It is my responsibility to keep the motors running, and partway through this burn, after going round and round the lake multiple times, one of the motors overheats. We discover that one of the hall sensors that tells the motor controller which way to turn has burnt out. I stress out about this for several hours and then we determine that to keep Sparky going it is only necessary for someone to push him about ten feet to get the motors started rolling in the right direction. We recruit passers-by to help us push, and this becomes a community-building activity. Instead of being a flaw, the burnt-out motor sensor becomes a feature.
After giving rides for a couple of hours we return to camp. We notice that at the camp next to us there is a group of women dancing around with a giant carrot making thrusting motions with it. They see us spying on them and so they come over to introduce themselves. "Hi I'm Sphinx!" says a thin woman with cat-like movements and gaze. She hands us each a cup of salad, which is the gift their camp has brought to the burn. "Hi I'm Katie Blue" says a large woman with a Mae West build and flaming red hair. "Are you sure you don't mean 'Katie Red'?" I ask. We exchange loving glances and emails.
At one point I try to engage one of my campmates in deep conversation about the discoveries Juicy and I have been making in our spiritual readings. Wide-eyed, I corner my victim and blurt out "McKenna believes our impulse to use drugs comes from an innate yearning for ancient matriarchal 'partnership' societies that had developed a relationship with, and were taught by, psychedelic mushrooms," I say. "You can still find the symbols and stories of these societies in various ancient artwork. Look for the mushrooms in Grecian columns, or look for bees, or cows, or women holding snakes."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" says my campmate, perplexed.
"The snake is an especially powerful symbol," I continue, "that Jeremy Narby explores in The Cosmic Serpent. But these societies have all been obliterated by our 'dominator' culture, also known as 'takers'. Taker culture arose around 6,000 years ago when people started domesticating, killing, and eating animals. These people realized they could also enslave and kill other people. They broke their contract with Nature. Dominator culture has been killing and enslaving partnership societies ever since, and erasing them from history. In Europe the Christians killed all the witches in in the 1300's. The church enforced a patriarchal hierarchy that distanced people from their own spirituality. Partnership societies are almost all gone. But their messages are hidden in our artwork. It's all coming back."
"I've got to go now," my friend says as he tries to move past me.
The last night of the burn arrives and as it grows dark we join crowds of people surging down the road to the big finale, the big burn. We pass three plastic wise men standing by an artistic pyramid. The pyramid has a little window on its side and we look in. There is a cute little baby alien Jesus in there hooked up to a life support system. We giggle appreciatively and move on.
We nestle into the crowd as fire spinners step into the perimeter and begin their acrobatic spinning of various flaming implements: hula hoops, swords and staffs. Then suddenly fireworks shoot up into the sky and burst above our heads, over and over again. Then the effigy is lit. This year the effigy is a 20-foot-wide spherical structure with a ladder inside going up to a plant-like viewing platform. Fires lit in the interior of the structure start to peek out. The fire grows. Then two oppositely swirling flaming horns appear from the entrance and from their tips emerge two billowing columns of smoke. Then puffs of smoke start spinning round-and-round the spherical structure like clouds racing around a globe. At every new development the crowd gasps and cheers and their phones go up to record the devastation. And we feel the devastation inside each of us too, and we feel that somehow our sorrows are released. It is a cathartic experience. As the last flaming boards of the structure collapse into a heap a feeling of love and magic flows through the crowd.
When we return to camp I feel the urge to be contrarian and I say out loud to no one in particular "Are burners demonic? I mean, many of us have horns, and some of us have tails, and we like to set things on fire, inside and out, and we like to take drugs, and have sex, and have fun, and make art, and tell the truth, and follow our intuition, and not take any bullshit, and all of that. Is that healthy? It certainly feels healthy. But who are we? Have our traumas opened us up to ancient wisdom hidden in our DNA? Are we channeling an ancient matriarchal society? What are we doing here? Are we witches? Are we demonic?" I wonder out loud.
"What's wrong with being demonic?" Juicy says. She understands. I love that woman and I intend to marry her.