After a carburetor-mutilating, offroading, multiple F-bomb dropping, almost getting irremediably lost trip through the vast Nevada desert, my friend and I finally found the gathering in the middle of nowhere.
We parked our car among the Joshua trees and boulders and stumbled through the night into a hallucination: Three 12-foot tall monsters stood guarding a giant gateway to more darkness. A crowd of people dressed as colorful creatures and characters stood around, admiring the three effigies that would soon be scorched to ashes in a symbolic ritual.
A woman in a rainbow-colored coat stood chatting with a man dressed as a pirate. A petite woman in a furry cat costume scampered past while a large, imposing man in a plaid kilt stalked around alone.
Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, I didn’t feel like I belonged in this gathering of free spirits at the Dark Skies Arts Festival, a weekend-long campout/arts festival/community event held annually in the desert outside of Las Vegas, where the music plays all night, strangers become friends and sometimes lovers and every passing moment brings another odd experience.
Dark Skies, a beacon to repressed artists and the open-minded, has been attracting hundreds from Nevada and nearby states for a decade. Up until this year, it was located near Primm and the stateline, but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided that they wanted to start charging the organizers. The state makes around $40,000 in annual revenue from Burning Man, a five-day festival held in Northern Nevada, and they decided to start capitalizing on Dark Skies, too.
So, the Dark Skies community migrated, out past Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, out near the Western Ridge of the Grand Canyon. On a hard-to-find turnoff from Pierce Ferry Road, a dirt trail leads to a scattering of tents, cars and RVs, as well as several large, artistic structures.
A towering, electric blue hemisphere sits catty-corner to a stage strung with red and gold Christmas lights. A boat on wheels blasts bursts of fire from a row of pipes. A portable “Party Naked Tiki Bar” has been erected to host late-night festivities.
While we wait for the culmination of the festival, the burning, I go sit by a fire. As soon as I sit down, the man next to me stands up and pulls his pants down, his penis dangling in front of my face. He proudly displays his latest piercing: a transcrotal, ¾ inch plug, a white tube that intersects his balls and leads to who knows where.
I am wide-eyed and possibly open-mouthed, but the people around me are unfazed. “My sister is really into body modification,” comments the man sitting next to me. “She goes to Bodmod.com, BMEzine.com.”
“Yeah, he wants to dye the white of his eye and black out one of his arms,” says a blonde ponytailed girl with rainbow tights, a pink tutu and a nose ring. She is Olivia Laino, the girlfriend of Aaron Goodwin of the pierced scrotum. Aaron plops down onto a folding chair and gathers Olivia onto his lap. I ask her why she attends Dark Skies.
“To get away from everything in society for three or four days,” Laino explains while Goodwin leans his head back in a content, drunk daze. “You can express yourself however you want to—within reason, without harming anyone. You can have fun and not have to worry about everything for a while. The real world, it gets to people, you know. It’s an escape. I’m so happy I don’t have Internet access and a phone because that’s what I live off at home. It’s also a way of letting go of stuff, at the end.”
Goodwin rouses himself to opine, “It’s whatever you want it to be, man. It’s whatever you want it to be.”
Across the fire, a woman recites: “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam I Am …” then explains how The Cat in the Hat was written in 1955 using less than 250 different words.
Fittingly, another fire companion listening to the Dr. Seuss stories and factoids, is dressed as Cindy Loo Who, in a tight orange and pink spandex bodysuit and a tall orange beehive wig.
The man sitting to my right is sporting a pink cowboy hat, pink fur stole and a long, flowing black skirt. “It’s just some stuff I had in the back,” he answers when I ask him what he is supposed to be. Admiral Painjoy (his “playa name,” used for such events) has been attending Burning Man and regional events like Dark Skies across the country for 12 years and Dark Skies for five.
“The main reason [I go to events like this] is to be with my friends,” says Admiral Painjoy, “I also enjoy the art and the things people create. I also enjoy the burns; they are a catharsis for me. I also enjoy doing my performances.”
Painjoy’s performances entail a morning DJ show where he hands out free coffee and spouts ribald jokes between songs. He also runs a bondage scene in his camp. I want to ask about the bondage scene, but he suddenly yells “Fire! Fire!” and everyone gets up and runs over to the three effigies, which have been lit.
As they burn and gradually fall apart, I hear people marveling in hushed voices. An Asian couple in hazmat suits and hardhats snaps a hundred pictures. A tall man in a long coat and bandanna, Sam Gurr, the creator of the monsters, picks up a flaming head and holds it aloft with a grin, transforming himself into an ancient barbarian. Soon, all that is left of the three creatures is a scythe and an outreached, smoldering claw.
Afterwards, I wander over to the Christmas light-covered stage, where a man is drumming alone among dozens of drums. Anyone is welcome to drum, and several join the organic jam throughout the night. The music goes until dawn, as do the women hula-hooping out in front.
Two women are dressed as skeletons, their faces painted like skulls. They set up an altar, a “shrine, or dedication to the ancestors,” they explain to me. Primal music plays as they paint teal streaks on a large, lighted canvas. Both are members of a community who meet regularly to worship female goddesses and perform mystical ceremonies.
Later, everyone congregates at the Party Naked Tiki Bar, built by Jim, a man who also belongs to Las Vegas Bares, a local nudist clubs that holds naked volleyball parties every Sunday. A sign states that you have to be naked to enter, but everyone is wearing long fur coats and hats; it’s too cold to go nude.
But where there is a will, there is a way. A couple almost knocks down the back wall with their antics while a white-haired pirate enjoys a very public blowjob at the bar. He plays to his audience and exclaims with a smile, “It’s good to be captain!”
“There is a certain sexual undertone that occurs [at events like Dark Skies],” Admiral Painjoy explains to me when we meet once again, squatting at another fire in front of the Tiki Bar. “The flirtations mean nothing and everything at the same time. But, amazingly, there is no creepy vibe. There is a sense of safety and security; it’s lighthearted fun. You can fondle your best friend.”
“Does it count if you sleep with your best friend?” asks the same woman who proffered the impromptu blow job to the pirate captain. “He’s at the right height!” she quips, his head resting against her waist. They make out.
One of the skeleton women offers me blackberries and a bubble blower. There is no buying or selling allowed at these events; it is a “gifting society.” People just walk up to you and give you things. Earlier in the day, there was a gourmet barbecue feast with free tri-tip steak and lobster, and all the cocktails at the Tiki Bar are also free. Everyone is remarkably friendly and generous. If you need something, they go out of their way to help you out, which creates a very positive, happy community.
There are frequent references to Burning Man, the famous festival held every summer in a vast dry lake bed near Reno. They call it “organic” and “indescribable,” and rave about how people from all walks of life come together to share live performance art and classes on everything from massage to tantric sex. No one can fully or accurately describe quite what Burning Man is or what goes on; it represents something different for everyone. But they can all agree on one thing: They love it.
“These events stay with people forever,” remarks my friend, as we make our way home late on Sunday afternoon. I doubt that I personally will forget the experience anytime soon, but I don’t know that I want to repeat it, either.
We partied until all the fires had darkened to embers and the eastern horizon was lightening to turquoise. We fell asleep on a hard dirt road to thumping electronic music and awoke to a blazing, scorching sun and thumping electronic music. My chest still hurts from all the dust I inhaled.
The live art and music I witnessed, the expressive, giving people I met and the images of the raging fires and the starry sky, so clear that the streaming Milky Way stretched all the way across, are worth the sore back and hacking cough. Next year, though, I need a costume.