black rock city, nevada -- thesigns on the road leading into the infamous Black Rock desert tell approaching "burners" that this year's Burning Man will be a foot shorter than last. That's two feet shorter than the year before.But none of the thousands converging on this desert spot for Burning Man 2001, the annual week-long festival of art, radical self-expression and anti-consumerism, cares about that. They just want to get inside, set up camp and get a freak on.
The greeters at the gate have a tradition of spanking all Burning Man newbies. I spent a night with these welcome-wagon pranksters. Not only did the spankings abound, but so too did the gifts of cold beer, snacks and other treats. Here, money isn't needed. The economy is gift-based. Get a beer for a story. A spoon for a promise to return it. A ride to the beach for a smile.
But Burning Man has changed. Few would argue that. This freak show of fun and fancy fireworks, this feast of imagination and desert endurance has grown immensely -- some say too much -- since a hundred-odd folk gathered on San Francisco's Baker Beach to watch Larry Harvey burn an 8-foot-tall "man" one night back in 1986.
Tickets now cost up to $200. It's not the underground phenomenon it used to be. Major news outlets like CNN and media from as far away as Europe and Japan now cover the event. It's even had the obligatory mention on The Simpsons.
Then there are the cops. You can't light a doobie or pee on the beach as freely as you once could.
The vets who've been coming for years can also be heard complaining about the Disneylandish commercialization of the event and the "frat boys," "normal folk" and "yahoos" in RVs who flock here to avoid becoming commonplace.
They come here. Watch the man burn. Clog the porta-potties and generate more litter for everyone. And contribute nothing to the creative and innovative atmosphere. How'd they get a ticket? Organizers are silent on the matter.
Veteran burner Bill Lee says, "Burning Man has turned into an overpriced, fucking tame, controlled, over-regulated event with pigs rolling through camp busting people for smoking pot in their tents." But other participants are just sick and tired of those who moan about the cooler old days.
Has Burning Man lost its fire? You can't get free magic mushrooms at the gate any more. But there's still more than just the DJs, pretty lasers, the techno and the raves.
The dried lake bed affectionately called "the beach" is truly a unique place, from the vehicles trolling for revellers to the glowing people clad in fluorescent garb.
Canadian burners were the sleeper hit of this year's event. While red-and-white flags dotted the landscape of Black Rock City like never before, we Canucks or "fucking Canadians" took over the beach and Costco Soulmate Trading Outlet, a long-time Burning Man favourite. And behind the central camp offices of Burning Man's own daily Black Rock Gazette was radio station KBK, the Kanadian Broadkasting Korporation, which hosted the second annual Kanadian Koktail party. We took the place by storm and proudly wore our toques (even if Americans call them ski hats) in the cold desert nights.
Burning Man is now big enough that you'll never see it all. I missed so many things this year, from battling with foam pads while suspended from a bungee harness in the Mad Max-inspired Thunderdome to the simple but joyous treats of Homoerotic Mexican Grab-Ass Wrestling Camp. I also missed riding on Draka the Dragon, the fire-spewing steel beast housing one of the more spacious bar lounges on wheels.
"Next year," I say as I stack backpacks waiting for their turn to be cleaned of the omnipresent desert dust.
A few universal truths can be shared by newbies and Burning Man veterans alike: we all want it to continue, we all know how important it is to keep the city functioning and the land as clean as possible for future years.
We all love to get out to the desert, let go, create, get naked, burn a piece of ourselves and then disappear without a trace . We all need to take that energy with us and harvest it for the next time.
Northbound on the interstate driving away, the Tragically Hip grinds through the car speakers and out over the night sky.
Dust everywhere. Until next year, Burning Man.