A Touch of the Sacred: The Temples of Burning Man

Each year a temple is built at Burning Man where people go to leave messages honoring loved ones. The temples are burned down on Sunday night releasing the messages to the sky.

The reasons for visiting Burning Man are as numerous and complex as the people who go. For many, a sacred element is involved. One aspect of this is a visit to the Temple.

The Temple is where people go to leave messages for loved ones who have passed on and to give thanks for blessings received. It is also a place for love letters, philosophical observations and whimsical statements. Literally thousands of people participate annually.

The Temple is also a labor of love and one of the most beautiful and unique buildings put up each year at Burning Man. It is burned on Sunday night when the thousands of messages are released into the sky.

I make a point each year of visiting the Temple to read and honor the messages that have been left behind. But I also visit to pay homage to the volunteers who donate thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars necessary to build the structure.

The following photos are designed to capture the uniqueness of the temples and the diversity of the messages.

Panels like these covered the temple shown above and demonstrate the care put into building each years structure.

2010's temple resembled a huge sand dune. People gather here to read and leave messages.

The temple from 2006.

This provides an idea of the number and types of messages left at the temple.

Another example of the variety of messages left and how the surfaces of the temple are used.

The following messages I found particularly touching or humorous.

It isn't unusual for people to leave messages about pets.

Or to leave pictures or items such as this guitar.

Fly free, Singer of Songs...

I couldn't resist this message...

A final temple shot. Photo by Ken Lake

Advanced Whip Cracking??? Hey, It’s Burning Man.

There is always something new to experience at Burning Man. Last year, in 2010, this colorful balloon ride was added.

Getting to Black Rock City is always a challenge. First, we have the drive to Burning Man’s remote location in the northern Nevada desert. Upon arrival, we are greeted by a desert traffic jam.

Next, Burning Man makes sure we have paid. A friendly volunteer enters our small RV. Is someone hiding out in the bathroom? Nope. What about under the bed?

At $300 a ticket, give or take fifty dollars, the motivation to cheat is tempting.

But so is the desire to catch cheaters. I can’t help doing the math. Forty five thousand people times $300 equals 13.5 million dollars! That’s a lot of motivation.

While the tickets sound expensive, they aren’t, considering what you get. For me, the price of admission buys a seven-day ringside seat to one of the greatest shows on earth. Others see it as an opportunity to strut their stuff, to live out their fantasies.

Outrageous costumes make people watching at Burning Man a number one activity. The guy ‘looking the wrong way’ helped make this photo. Note the platform shoes on the woman. She wears them well.

A young woman works on mastering the hula hoop while her steed waits patiently. Later she will probably be part of a performance. Participation is highly encouraged at Burning Man.

Go ahead, put on that outrageous costume. People will beg to take your photo. Get out there and prove that hula-hoops are sexy, or that you can twirl fire, or sing, or beat drums, or wear pasties, or whatever.

You may even have an audience. Does it really matter?

Once past the ticket station, we are welcomed to Burning Man. Virgin Burners receive a hug and ring the bell… even in the wee hours. Not being virgins, we get the welcome package: a cheerful greeting, a map of Black Rock City and the Program.

The map is a critical. It shows where the porta potties are. Oh, and it also shows where the major Tribes live, where people can camp, and where Center Camp is located. It’s also the key to finding your friends… or not getting hopelessly lost.

Earlier I blogged about the guy who returned to his camp and found his car, tent and gear had been stolen. He hitched a ride to San Francisco. A week later Burning Man called him. They had found his car, tent and gear… right where he had left them. He’d simply forgotten the location.

Burning Man is that big and that confusing, especially when people steal the street signs for souvenirs, or a dust storm produces zero visibility, or you imbibe a bit too much and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning. Or all three things happen at once.

Dust storms can drastically reduce visibility, not to mention get in your eyes, nose, ears, vehicles, etc. Luna, aka Peggy my wife, bundles up against a dust storm as it roars through Center Camp. Photo by Ken Lake

Having completed our official duties, we zip in to Black Rock City, find a campsite, stake out our territory (literally) and set up camp. It’s time to turn on the walkie-talkies. Other members of the Horse-Bone Tribe will soon be joining us.

Playtime has arrived. If the hour is right, somewhere between 12:01 AM and 11:59 PM, a cold beer is in order. So is figuring out what we want to do. There is a week to plan, or at least the next hour. The options seem limitless.

As I write this blog, I am leafing through 2009’s Program. It is 95 pages long and lists 950 different events participants are invited to attend. They are all free and there is something for everyone.

The breadth of activities is difficult to capture but here are a few examples.

  • Critical Stilts: Stilt walk around the Playa, hitting stilt bars.
  • The Big Bang: The Black Rock City Roller Girls. It’s survival of the fittest on skates.
  • Geology of the Black Rock Desert: Learn about the landforms surrounding the Playa.
  • Lunacy: Honor the full moon by allowing your inner lunatic to emerge.
  • Cat Show and Tell: Share what makes your kitty the most special cat in the Universe.
  • Spudcraft: What will you create: a potato hat or a potato creature? Spuds supplied. (These guys also have a spud cannon.)
  • Rubber Chicken Social: Celebrate the bouncy barnyard fowl. Drink to it.
  • Ask a Physicist: Questions about the nature of reality and modern physics.

If it were possible to choose a scene that represents Burning Man, this might be it: a man on stilts pulls a piano while another guy plays the piano. I forget the song but it may very where have been classical music.

Modern technology, science, and environmental issues are emphasized at Burning Man. One site might feature alternative energy sources while another focuses on cutting edge physics.

Advanced Whip Cracking caught my attention on the Program. I bought a bullwhip once as a joke when I worked in Alaska. I’d break it out on the long dark days of winter to inspire my staff. It amused them. It amused the bank employees across the street even more. Since it was dark, we could see into each other’s offices. The employees would line up at the windows to watch me. Apparently, no one cracked the whip in their office. But back to Burning Man.

The Program lists a dozen ways to practice yoga and a few hundred ways to party. Or you can attend AA. You can write music, or cite poetry, or attend a film festival. Need a costume. You can pick one up for free. There are dozens of venues to view or practice fire art. Like to dance? There are opportunities ranging from the Tango to the Hokey Pokey. Lessons are provided. Parades go on 24/7. Dress up like a bunny or put on your little red dress and parade away.

There are also the adult only activities. They are carefully marked on the Program to protect the innocent. You can learn the art of sensual massage, get naked, or have your body painted. And that’s only a start. I’m much too young to attend such events.

My preference is to check out the visual art, watch and listen to performing artists, play at photography, and hang out with members of the Horse-Bone Tribe. I am also completely happy wandering around and admiring the multitude of costumes and mutant vehicles.

The 2009 Program listed 184 unique works of art created for Burning Man that year. This giant sculpture of a nude woman was placed on the Playa last year. One of my favorite activities is exploring and photographing the art… sometimes from unique angles.

The performing arts easily match the visual arts in Black Rock City. Impromptu jam sessions can be found at Center Camp almost any hour of the day.

A trapeze artist does her thing. Watch out Ringling Brothers. Circus type performances are common.

I liked the bright colors displayed by this troupe of Belly Dancers. I also felt the age range is indicative of Burning Man. All age groups are represented.

While we scatter during the day and again at night, members of the Horse-Bone Tribe always get together at dinner time. Photo by Ken Lake

Walking around and appreciating costumes can be a full-time occupation. This ape was handing out bananas to Burners, or ‘gifting’ as it is called at Burning Man. Photo by Tom Lovering

Volunteering is big. Become a Ranger and help maintain order. Volunteer to pick up trash, or moop as it is called on the Playa. Help light the hundreds of lanterns each evening.  Work as a coffee barista at Center Camp.

Volunteer Rangers. These guys are available to help when needed and patrol Black Rock City day and night. Photo by Don Green

As the evening approaches, volunteer lamplighters gather to distribute lamps to posts located throughout the Playa.

Fascinating at any time of the day, Burning Man becomes a surrealistic fantasy world at night. Fire breathing dragons and fire spouting art light up the sky. Dozens of creatively lit mutant vehicles cross back and forth across the Playa, as do thousands of light decorated bicycles. The glow stick industry must make a fortune. Even people become walking light shows. Dozens of venues along the Esplanade invite exploration. Watch a circus, see Godspell, climb on a giant teeter-totter, visit a maze or gyrate to music. Join a crowd watching a troupe of fire dancers work its magic on the Playa.

At night, Burning man becomes a kaleidoscope of fire and color… a very different world from what we are used to, almost magic. Photo by Don Green

Burning Man is not for everyone. It’s too big, it’s too dusty, it’s too hot, it’s too noisy, it’s too sexy, it’s too alternative. But if anything I have written has appeal, give this extravaganza in the Black Rock Desert serious consideration. Whatever you come away with, you will never forget the experience.

Tired of looking down? Look up. Something is almost always happening in the skies over Burning Man. Here, a sky writer completes the man. Sky divers are also a common site. There are even occasional military jets that zoom over. Hmmm… wonder if they are lost?

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to check out my five reasons for going to Burning Man in 2014.

Burning Man’s Black Rock City: A Remote Desert Becomes a Community of 50,000 for One Week

As we were waiting in a mile long line of vehicles to enter Burning Man, a rainstorm hit. The vehicles were stopped to protect the desert floor and people got out to dance. And then we saw this incredible rainbow. It was a magical moment.

Black Rock Desert is located in the remote northwestern corner of Nevada just a few miles east of the small town of Gerlach. Normally it’s as quiet as a tomcat on a mouse hunt.

But not on the Monday before Labor Day Weekend.

Thousands of cars, trucks, vans and RV’s clog the local roads and create a traffic jam that would make Los Angeles proud. Vehicles are packed to the brim with people, tents, food, water, bikes, costumes, mutant vehicles, cameras, building material, camping gear and things that glow in the dark… everything that is necessary to create a city of 50,000 and survive for a week in the desert.

Burning Man is underway.

For a brief week, Black Rock City becomes the third largest urban area in Nevada. Only Las Vegas and Reno can claim more people. Then it’s over. People break camp, pack their vehicles, and head back to wherever they came from.

The Black Rock Desert returns to the peace and quiet.

The following photos are designed to capture a sense of what Black Rock City and the remote Black Rock Desert look like.

The evening sun bathes the surrounding mountains at Burning Man in soft light...

...And lights up the clouds.

The flat playa that serves as the home to Black Rock City is in stark contrast to the surrounding mountains. This photo features our friends Ken and Leslie Lake along with their shadows. Ken, or Scotty as he is known on the playa, is wearing his kilt.

By Friday, Nevada's third largest city is three days away from disappearing.

Mega dust storms are a common occurrence and can create close to zero visibility. The mutant ship and giant slide seem like a mirage. Photo by Don Green

In 2010, the Man included a high viewing platform. This view is looking out across the playa toward the distant mountains. The temple, built to look like a sand dune, and the 'urban' structures beyond are destined to be burned during the week.

This photo is taken from the platform looking back toward Black Rock City. The dark line on the left is porta potties. They are found throughout Black Rock City in the hundreds.

My telephoto provides a closer perspective.

A final view of 50,000 people camping out together at Burning Man.

The Mutant Vehicles of Burning Man

The Cat Car is a wonderful example of how creative people are at Burning Man in designing mutant vehicles and how much time, money and effort goes into the project.

Driving your car around Burning Man is a definite no-no, unless of course you check in at DMV and obtain a permit. That’s the Department of Mutant Vehicles not the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My first acquaintance with mutants was Godzilla. Today we have the Xmen but I am still partial to the early Japanese horror flicks. There was something totally campy about them that is rarely matched in today’s standard fare of special effects.

I wouldn’t describe Burning Man’s mutant vehicles as campy but they are wonderfully creative. The rule is that if you are going to drive a vehicle at Burning Man it has to be decorated, i.e. transformed into something that has minimal resemblance to its original look. Check out the Cat Car above.

And here again there is a movie reference since we have Transformers, the vehicles that morph before our very eyes.

I’ve learned about Transformers from my grandson Ethan who has dozens of the toys and is an expert at changing innocent looking cars into a raging monsters, some of whom are forces for good while others are forces for evil. It is hard for me to tell the difference but Ethan is patient with me…

The mutant vehicles at Burning Man don’t actually morph but their persona does change between day and night when the already interesting dragons, bugs, elephants and ships are lit up like Christmas Trees and begin to breathe fire. It’s a transformation that is rarely if ever matched in our everyday world and I am still not sure whether it resembles a Fairy Land Fantasy or something out of Dante.

Mutant vehicles of the day take on a different persona at night. Photo by Tom Lovering.

Like my blog on the characters and costumes of Burning Man, this blog is better told with photos than words, however.

The "Never Was Haul" is another great example of the creativity, work, and expense that goes into creating mutant vehicles. This one is delivered by flat bed to Burning Man. Photo by Tom Lovering.

How often do you meet up with a polar bear in the desert? Photo by Tom Lovering.

And here we have a golden dragon. (Dragons are common at BM.) Many of the vehicles are designed to carry a number of people. The woman dancing at the left is probably responding to music coming from the vehicle, another common occurrence.

Mutant vehicles are also designed for individual use.

While not defined as mutant vehicles and not requiring permits, many thousand bicycles are also decorated.

This ship of the desert captured by Don Green reflects both the heat and dust of BM. Note the giant slide in the background.

Often mutant vehicles reflect a sense of humor.

Or, like this dragon headed vehicle, may appear a little scary. The gun-like device on top shoots out flames at night.

Tom Lovering caught this interesting vehicle as it drove by the Horse-Bone Camp.

And here we have a praying mantis...

And that’s it for the mutant vehicles. I don’t have a clue as to how many are registered in any year, but they have to be in the hundreds. In the last photo, Luna, AKA Peggy, tries to hitch a ride.

Sailor Boy and Luna of Horse-Bone Camp stop to check out a mutant vehicle masquerading as a Playa Taxi.

The Characters of Burning Man

Scotty wins the prize for being best dressed of the Horse-Bone Tribe. From painted toe nails to early morning dress, to elaborate kilts, he can always be expected to shine... or is that shock?

If people watching were a sport, Burning Man would be Big League.

Whether you are bicycling the Playa, hanging out at Center Camp, strolling down the Esplanade or sitting in camp, you are almost guaranteed a show. Even a trip to the port-a-pot can be a walk on the wild side.

Burners take their fantasies seriously and dress appropriately. Everyone is expected to wear a costume and most people do. Some go all out. There are no rules: exotic beauty and downright ugly walk hand in hand.

There is even a costume contest. I was lucky to be considered a paparazzi after one event and had a prime location for photographing some of the more elaborately decked out characters.

This particular blog is one that is better expressed in pictures than words. Scroll down and enjoy.

This shaman here wears one of the most elaborate costumes I have seen. It is Burning Man, however. Maybe it isn't a costume.

The Mona Lisa smile of this exotic beauty captures the imagination. Photo by Don Green

Here's another smile that's hard to resist. I also enjoyed the way her hat set off her face.

In the category of hairdos, it is hard to beat Mustache Man.Do you have a feeling you have arrived at a circus?

Snake Woman also reminds me of the circus, or possibly Las Vegas.

Sometimes, less is more, assuming you've got the body to pull it off. Or is that take it off?

The women of Horse-Bone Tribe often complain there is more eye candy for the men than there is for the women. Maybe this exotic guy fits the bill. Photo by Don Green.

Then there's the Purple Man...

Or what about the purple haired lady?

Rocket Man came by to visit us in camp and played us a tune. We rewarded him with a beer.

I call this war bonnet with matching sunglasses and lip stick. Talk about a fashion statement. Photo by Don Green.

I have to throw in at least one man in a dress. This guy was also an accomplished trumpet player.

We have hundreds of photos like these. But hopefully I have at least provided a flavor of the folks we see and enjoy at Burning Man. I will conclude with a pair of bunnies from the Horse Bone Tribe.

A pair of bunnies from the Horse-Bone Tribe: Ringer and Pape. Photo by Ken Lake.

The Horse-Bone Tribe of Burning Man

Bone and Horse share a moment at Burning Man.

Bone is jealous. We started out as the Horse Tribe of Burning Man. Bone reminded me that he was at Burning Man before the stick horsies were attached to our bikes and begin neighing around.  And he is, after all, a horse bone

So in my mind and Bone’s mind, we are now the Horse-Bone tribe. Whether other members of the tribe agree, who knows…?

Tribes are a big thing at Burning Man. Last year’s program listed over 500… and those are only the ones that bothered to register. (We never have, for example.)

They come in all sizes. The Horse-Bone Tribe ranges from 8-12 people depending on the vagaries of any given year. Other tribes have several hundred members.

The always dapper Scotty, a founding member of the Horse-Bone Tribe of Burning Man.

The tribes live in camps and come in a variety of flavors. Most are unique.

Their names provide a clue to just how unique. Here are a few: Academy of Fools, Arachnophobia, Barbie Death Village, Back to Heaven, Buddha Bunny Camp, Camp Making Bacon, Funky Town, Hippocampus, Jub Jub’s Plastic Circus, Picasso Camp, Reno Housewives, Space Cowboys, Twilight Over Atlantis, Vamp Camp, You Are Here… the list goes on and on.

Two Vamps at Vamp Camp Burning Man

Tribes tend to attract people of similar interests. The Horse-Bone Tribe is made of friends who have spent years working and playing together. Our group includes a bike shop owner, a restaurateur, a judge, a lawyer, an interior decorator, a writer, an elementary school principal, a psychologist, a hospital administrator, a teacher, a trainer/school consultant and other professionals.

HP, Ringer, Sailor Boy and Luna share a laugh at Burning Man.

In other words, we hardly resemble a group of New Age hippies seeking Nirvana in the Black Rock Desert. But we do adopt new personas; there is Scout, Luna, Outlaw, Sparkle, Sailor Boy, Boots, Horny Princess, Sparkle, Scottie and Ringer, plus other disparate characters.

Scout and Trigger pose for a photo at Burning Man.

The first thing we do upon arrival is stake out our territory, literally. We pound stakes into the ground and connect them with ropes. Burning Man has set aside vast area of the desert for tribes and individuals. We can grab as much as we need wherever we want to.

Sparkle sparkling.

Many tribes take on projects that benefit the larger community. These range from teaching Yoga to cooking pancakes, to taking on major art projects. For example, the artist Jim Bowers along with several laser technology scientists and craftsmen have joined together with the TriBe Camp to create the World’s Largest Working Clock this year. (Lasers will project a 5000-foot wide clock in the sky that will accurately reflect hours and minutes.)

Boots and Bone

As for the Horse-Bone Camp, we aren’t nearly that ambitious. So far we have been happy to provide a home base for our tribe to share camping space, dinners, laughs, and companionship on the Playa

Beth, Bone and Unicorn. (Unicorns sometimes join our herd of horses.)

Beth, our bike shop owner, did set up a bike repair shop and repair bikes for neighbors this past year, however. Bone was proud of her.

Self Portrait of Outlaw (thats me), Picasso style.

Last, but far from least, Bones horse, Eeyore, insisted on being included as a member of the Horse Bone Tribe.

Burning Man Art: A Celebration

Burning Man is about… well almost anything you want it to be. For some it is a deeply spiritual journey, for others it’s a seven-day party. One thing it is definitely: entertaining. I view it as an adult Disneyland filled with art; a modern day happening that challenges both the mind and body.

In this blog I provide a brief sample of art I have photographed during my seven trips to the Black Rock Desert. I am amazed at the variety of art and its quality.

Over the next several months I will feature different aspects of life at Burning Man as the date of this year’s event approaches in late August.

Bird Sculpture

Dragon head and part of its 50 foot body. At night his body and mouth shot fire into the air.

Friendly Pooch

A Daliesque photo collage captures the feel of Burning Man including the looming desert mountains.

One of the more impressive sculptures: two oil tanker trucks welded together.

Oriental temple.


And who could object to the sentiment. My wife Peggy, who is indeed a Mom, forms the centerpiece.

30 foot statue of nude woman.

30 foot statue of nude woman.

The Man. Standing on top of a tall tower, he will be burned at the end of the week.

Un-cool in Paducah Kentucky

I once spent time here in the late 60s when I was working out of Atlanta as a college Peace Corps Recruiter. It was a slow week. None of the young people, it seemed, wanted to leave the area.  And they certainly didn’t want to traipse off to West Africa where I had served as a Volunteer. We were on the edge of the Old South.

It felt like the edge of nowhere. I hung out at the motel and read Faulkner.

One of the Paducah murals on its Ohio River frontage. Flatboats like these are how my ancestors arrived in Kentucky during the 1790s.

Times change. The historic waterfront on the Ohio River has been filled with murals depicting the town’s colorful history and many of the old buildings have been reclaimed to their former glory.  A previous slum in Lower Town has morphed into a thriving arts community. There is an excellent museum on quilting.

As for the isolation, the good folks of Paducah are now only a mouse-click away from anywhere in the world.  Cell phones are ubiquitous and young people in town can whip out a text message faster than a male dog can mark his territory.

Peggy was complaining the other day about how technology dominates our lives. I think she meant my need to be on the Internet since I have never heard a squeak from her about our Verizon connection to mom, kids, grandkids and various other family members.

Actually, Peggy is as addicted to the Internet as I am. It’s just that her computer didn’t crash like mine did in Kona, Hawaii three weeks ago. I was not happy. My plan of blogging regularly disappeared like the Gecko climbing up our screen door.

I felt a tang of guilt about the blog but watching sunsets, drinking beer, swimming with sea turtles, avoiding fiery lava, and pursuing ancient Hawaiians took precedence over replacing the computer. As did being lost in dust storms at Burning Man in the remote Nevada desert the following week.

“You need to buy an Apple,” Tom Lovering admonished me at Burning Man. He took me over to Center Camp to demonstrate how wonderful his computer was while scantily clad women strolled by. “You need to buy an Apple,” my son Tony had admonished me weeks earlier in San Diego as the two-year-old Connor pounded on my leg with a truck that sang Old McDonald.

How could I resist?

I made the leap as Peggy and I dashed through Salt Lake City on our way east to celebrate Peggy’s Mom’s 90th birthday. I had been a PC man since I had purchased one 30 years earlier in Anchorage, Alaska.

“You are finally cool,” Tom Emailed me. If only I had known what it takes.

I decided to do a blog from Estes Park, Colorado because, well, a cool person would probably blog from there.

I fired up my shiny new Apple MacBook Pro. And got a zero with a line through it. Apparently I was not meant to be cool. The technician at the Apple Store in Boulder hooked up a diagnostic tool to my computer and then disappeared into his back room. He came out 30 minutes later with a new laptop.

“You’ve broken a record for our store,” he told me. “We have never seen an Apple crash its hard drive in three days.”

Native American sculpture on the lawn of the quilt museum... checking out Bone.

Thus you are hearing from the slightly un-cool Curt in Paducah, Kentucky. While I have temporarily left our trip down the Colorado River, I shall return to the subject. There are raft-eating rapids to face, oh my. But next I will blog about looking for dead people.