I have been fascinated by Burning Man for many years, but never was able to go to it because of the demands of my job. But when I heard at last that there was to be a Burning Man regional event taking place in upstate NY, I finally saw my chance to participate in an event that, though not the big Burning Man gathering in Nevada, would at least be Burning Man-related. It was called PortalBurn, and was to take place in a field at a horse farm in Burdett, NY. There was a limit of 300 tickets, and they sold out.

I arrived at the site, unloaded my supplies, and pitched my tent. I had some brief but pleasant chats with my nearby campers. I had brought a bunch of musical instruments with me, various flutes and drums, thinking there would be opportunities to play them, and even hoping I would find other musicians to play with, but as it turned out such opportunities were rare. I soon discovered that there were some theme camps there that played extremely loud canned dance music, loud enough that it could be heard everywhere at the PortalBurn site, almost all the time. I had come there, a dedicated musician, foolishly assuming that an event ostensibly devoted to creativity, imagination and self-expression would have a lot of people playing live music. Wrong! There was essentially no live music. Just some D.J.s playing that tedious and tiresome dance music, on and on. This music got on my nerves after a while, especially since they played it late into the night and there was nowhere one could go to escape from it.

Another of my ideas that turned out to be not so great was that I had planned to walk around the site and offer people free booze. Seemed like a friendly gesture, possibly a way to meet people and talk with them, and who wouldn’t want free booze, right? This turned out to be a miscalculation on my part, because it turns out there is an enormous amount of booze everywhere at PortalBurn, so to try to give away booze is kind of redundant. It’s almost like to trying to give away air. Nevertheless, I persisted in my attempts and managed to give away a liter of Jameson’s on the first day. The second day I was only able to give away a half-liter of Jim Beam. After that I decided to give up in my quest to give away liquor because there was obviously no point to it. Everybody already had all the liquor they needed. Giving away things to other people is apparently one of the main activities at a burn event, and I liked the idea of giving away stuff, but it became clear that I had picked the wrong kind of thing to try to give away.

Some of the people were very nice but in general I felt I had a hard time connecting with people. Of course there was the issue of my age, since I was older than most (though not all!) the people there. So I really belonged to a different culture than most of those folks. But many if not most of the people there seemed to be already part of a common burner community (a community I had no connection with) and knew each other. I felt very much like an outsider. The events that were being hosted at the theme camps seemed too silly to be of interest to me. I walked around thinking: where is all the creativity, the artistry, the freewheeling and daring imagination that I had heard so much about in connection with Burning Man, and which I expected would be the hallmark of a regional burn event as well? There seemed to be very little art or creativity in evidence. There was one artist who called herself Kimmy D who had a large and very impressive sculptural construction, which I and several other people helped her assemble. It was the only artistic thing that I saw at the whole PortalBurn site that really excited my interest. I got to talk with Kimmy and found her to be friendly and full of energy, enthusiasm, and ideas. She was also an amazingly hard worker.

I had arrived on Friday afternoon. Saturday morning I decided I would finally have a chance to play some music. Mercifully the D.J.s had taken a break from playing their canned music. Around 9:00 AM I set up a chair in the field in front of my tent, and sat and played Japanese music on the shakuhachi for an hour. At that time of the morning very few people were out and about, but a few people who passed by told me that they liked the playing. After the hour was up I was done. For the rest of the day I was mostly rather bored.

Saturday evening was the night of the main burn event. In the tradition of Burning Man, a large wooden effigy was to be burned on a hillside overlooking the field where all the people where camped. As the time for the burn approached, people started to congregate near the burn site. Many of them wore fascinating and ingenious costumes, dazzling with beautiful multicolored patterns of lights. I brought my davuhl, which is a Turkish-style bass drum, to play during the burn. I assumed that many other people would be drumming as well. Surprisingly, only a couple of other people besides me showed up with drums. I was puzzled as to why there were so few people with drums there. I figured at an event like that there ought to be hordes of drummers. One fellow named Mike approached me and begged me to let him play my drum. I really didn’t want to loan him my drum but he was insistent, so I reluctantly let him use it. I offered him the drumsticks with it and tried to explain how the drum is supposed to be played but he didn’t want to hear it. He flailed around with it for several minutes, trying to play it as if it were a djembe, and then finally gave up and gave it back to me, complaining that it “didn’t sound good.”

After I finally got my drum back from this jackass, I settled into playing some rhythms with the couple of other drummers. I let them set the rhythm and then followed it with some very strong beats on the davuhl to reinforce the basic rhythm. I thought it sounded pretty good. Some fire performers came out and danced around with flaming batons and fire poi. Some of them were amazingly skilled and graceful. I felt caught up in the flow of things. I was inspired in my drumming. I was filled with energy. Where it came from I don’t know. I experienced the fire, the dancers, and the drumming as all one thing, like a river flowing, of which I was a natural and integral part. I thought: yes, this is the reason I am here, it was worth it to come here just for this.

The fire dancers stopped, and the effigy was lit on fire. Huge flames rushed up into the sky and people all around cheered. We continued our drumming. People from the surrounding crowd started dancing around the fire. This went on for quite a while, until the fire started to subside and the people around got gradually less energetic. Some of them wandered away. When it looked like the whole event was drawing down I said goodbye to my fellow drummers and thanked them, then walked back to my tent. It was midnight and I had been drumming nonstop for two hours, but I didn’t feel the least bit tired.

After I got back to the tent and lay down though, then I started to feel tired. Unfortunately the theme camp just across the field from my tent was still playing that awful dance music, at superloud volume. There was nothing to be done about it. I hoped they would eventually stop, but no. I spent the night in a half-conscious state, alternately dozing a little and then reawakening to the ongoing blast of music. At one point I woke up again and looked at my watch and it was 5:00 AM, and the music was still going on.

Finally giving up on getting any real sleep, I got up around 7:00 Sunday morning, took a sponge bath, and ate breakfast. I planned to do another hour-long shakuhachi “performance” as I had the previous morning. Around 9:00 I started in on my shakuhachi playing. I had played for about 20 minutes and was well into the Buddhist celebratory piece “Kumoijishi” when I heard someone calling from one of the nearby tents. At first I ignored it, being very much focused on my playing, but the sounds persisted, and eventually I made out that someone was calling to me. A plaintive voice was saying “Stop playing, please stop. Stop man, please. Stop playing,” over and over. I got to the end of the piece I was playing and stopped, picked up my stuff and returned to my tent. I sat in my camp chair in front of my tent and pondered what to do next. There didn’t seem to be anything of interest going on that day, and I couldn’t face the idea of sitting around being bored for another day. I decided to just cut and leave a day early. I packed up my camp and drove home. When I got home I felt absolutely exhausted. It took me another two days before I felt normal again.

In general I found PortalBurn to be something of a disappointment, although some parts of it were very good. The main burn event on Saturday night was certainly an amazing experience. And Kimmy D’s awesome artwork. But most of the rest of PortaBurn was, frankly, kind of lame. It consisted mainly of: (1) a lot of people at the various campus just sitting around bullshitting, and (2) the awful and almost constant onslaught of crappy recorded music.

Having gotten that complaint off my chest, I would like to say that nonetheless there are some things about PortalBurn, and about the Burning Man culture in general that I find to be admirable:
1. The freedom from the pressures of commerce. No buying or selling. It is a great relief to go somewhere where we are not constantly being bombarded with commercial messages of one kind or another, where people will actually be recognized as people and not simply as potential customers for some product or service.
2. Generosity. The generosity of some of the people I met there was amazing. People freely gave away food and beverages, all kinds of little presents, and some services like massages, and when help was needed with anything plenty of people could be found immediately to pitch in and help out.
3. Body acceptance. People of all sizes and body types go around freely in various states of dress or undress, and it is all the same to the attendees. You can have any kind of body and you can wear anything you like, or go naked, and it makes no difference to anyone. Everybody has the same status. It is a great thing to be freed from our pervasive American culture of body-anxiety for a while.

So I have confusingly-mixed feelings about PortalBurn. I don’t know what, if any, conclusion can be drawn from it. Some things about it I like very much, but much of it is just a pain in the ass. At this point I doubt I will go to it again next year. Unless I happen to get some really great inspiration

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