When in Black Rock City…
“Hey, why is everyone getting naked at the end of the line?”
The words blurt out of my mouth like an awkward afterthought.
“So…” I continue. “This isn’t the lineup for free guacamole?”
I look to my left and catch my sweaty reflection in a pair of oversized silver steampunk goggles. The midday desert heat continues to press down on our skin. The sun feels intent on dehydrating us. A gold veil underneath the goggles answers. “Oh, there’s still guac. The neon Viking chick is handing it out.”
I go back to playing with a rainbow slinky someone passed me.
I quickly stop, then look up.
“So…why is everyone naked?”
Steam Bath Project photo via their IndieGoGo Campaign
The woman to my right turns to face me. She looks like Catwoman—if Catwoman took up the color blue with a side hobby of being a dominatrix. “This is the Steam Bath Project campsite,” she says from behind her peacock mask. “It’s so refreshing.”
“Right,” I nod. “Naked group steam bath. That explains the silver sphere people are climbing into.”
The neon Viking girl walks down the lineup with a leopard print umbrella and a bowl of fresh guacamole. She spoons a dollop into my mouth while I continue playing with my slinky. “I guess I haven’t been naked yet this afternoon,” I say between licking my lips. “Mind you, it’s about 100 degrees in the desert in the peak heat of the day. I’m not sure a hot steam is what I’d call refreshing right now.”
Mr. Goggles-Veil chuckles to himself. “I know right? But trust me, it’s the closest thing to a shower out here and you’ll come out fresh and energized…it’s my third time getting my steam-on here.”
There are maybe 20 people in front of us. As the line moves we all start to shed more clothes until we’re in a naked single file line holding our belongings in front of us like a desert laundry offering. Blue Catwoman has the most difficulty undressing with all her buckles, clasps and straps. She balances it all like she’s holding a drunken Jenga tower. The guy in front of her helps hold half of it—he wasn’t holding anything before, he came naked.
“You came wearing the right uniform,” I laugh. He responds with a wink and a flappy hip wiggle.
The Steam Bath Project (photo by Marion Strecker)
We are greeted at the front of the line by a man in a vintage vaudeville tuxedo and purple velvet top hat—sans pants. “Welcome to the Steambath Project Sphere!” he exclaims as he gestures inside with his gold cane (literally a cane—not his man cane…which is also covered in gold sparkles). He cranks a wheel on the door like opening a bank vault. Steam and humidity spill out smacking against our nude bodies in line. Sunlight from the open door creeps inside to illuminate a floor of standing feet. I step over the ledge and into the small dark space inside. “Soak it up amigos!” shouts the velvet ringleader as he closes the hatch behind us. Before I can see or understand my full surroundings, we’re engulfed in blackness. There are maybe eight of us in the space of a small car. The darkness emphasizes the echoed sounds of breathing and wet foot tapping.
A quiet comfort continues to linger in the vacuum silence. The only thing awkward is how strangely agreeable the situation is. This would normally be the exact time when the civilly conditioned part of my brain starts freaking out: Wait, this isn’t ‘normal’… I don’t know these people…are we all really naked?…how am I supposed to stand…do I sit?...no one’s making smalltalk…can someone talk about the weather already??
The Temple of Transition (Burning Man, 2011)
Here I am standing naked in a sweaty desert sphere, stripped of my clothing and all preconceived notions of normal…and I’ve never felt more content huddled nude within a hugs distance of so many strangers. Each of us a bare core of ourselves: raw and exposed. Open only to the unspoken agreement of trust and comfort that permeates Black Rock City. The feeling is amplified in our sphere as it percolates within the steam and drips back down onto our bodies from the ceiling.
“I’m going to chant a few oms if anyone wants to join,” a voice says from across my right shoulder interrupting the dark silence. No one responds. The same voice lets out a long and deep oooooohm filling our small space. There is a pause when the voice finishes and I feel a collective breath being taken around me. Building slowly, the entire sphere combines into a loud and confident oooooohm. I can feel everyone pushing their breath from their lower diaphragm. The sound resonates deeply. The metal sidings begin to reverberate. Energy around us intensifies like living in a struck gong. Several more chants follow with different voices and frequencies building in confidence. If I didn’t have my eyes closed I would swear the sphere was filled with white light.
The Temple at Sunrise
As the moment begins to fade, the collective om slowly returns to the echoed sound of deep breaths and wet pitter patters. In the lingering rhythm of the chant I begin to lightly snap my fingers. A foot below starts tapping. Someone to my left starts to beatbox. Before anyone can realize what’s happening, the entire sphere is filled with handclaps, singing and freestyle rapping. Ecstatic shouts of joy get released in a mix of languages.
Suddenly the door flies open, blinding us in dry light. “Well, what has happened in here?!” The velvet ringleader shouts inside. “You guys sound amazing!”
We look around seeing each other for the first time. For a second we return to our lonely naked bodies, awkwardly huddled in a homemade sphere. As we look around, our smiles quickly get the best of us and everyone explodes into uncontrollable laughter. We pile out with high fives and back pats as we return back to our desert home.
It’s going to be a good Thursday in Black Rock City.
*[All photos by author unless stated]
One of the daily gatherings at The Man
The HeeBeeGeeBee Healers Camp home to the Steam Bath Project
Making new friends with neon photobombs
A video I put together of my virgin Burn in 2011