Rumor, myth and legend are magnified on the playa. Discerning fact from fiction can be a difficult endeavor and often one is disappointed with the lack of romance in the real truth. The legend of La Contessa is one such story.
In 2002, La Contessa made its debut on the playa, complete with a 40-person marching band playing on deck. This half-scale Spanish galleon, designed by Simon Cheffins and built in under six months around a full-sized yellow school bus was the coolest thing on the playa in years. In motion, it seemed to float along, sailing the playa sea, just inches of clearance between the bottom boards and the ground.
During 2003's Burning Man, however, things took an ominous turn for the sailors of La Contessa. The myths surrounding La Contessa continued to echo into this year's event. Tales told of a band of pirates commandeering the vessel. The nefarious pirates--of course, no claims of similarities to the original crew of La Contessa--virtually raped, pillaged and terrorized the citizens of Black Rock City for seven days and nights. Tales of women held below decks, men kidnapped and told to walk the plank and art installations barraged with cannon fire and in some cases rammed by the vessel continued to circulate.
In any case, after the events of 2003, the Black Rock City Department of Mutant Vehicles issued a letter to the owners of La Contessa which stated:
"There were numerous offenses of speeding and driving at night with minimal or no lighting which led to run-ins with the Black Rock Rangers. Eventually the vehicle had to be disabled. Numerous sets of keys and drivers made it impossible to hold a single individual responsible. 'Someone else took it out' was a common excuse. It repeatedly violated the principal tenet of Burning Man to 'not interfere in another's direct experience.' There were many complaints that people on the playa could not see it and were almost run down. Some folks expressed fear of going out on the open playa ... As a result, the Contessa will no longer be allowed in Black Rock City."
In 2004, many burners were disappointed that La Contessa had not returned to the playa. The truth, as far as anyone could discern, is that the La Contessa's operators took their pirate mentality a little too seriously. Its absence in 2004 only fuled the myths and legends.
This year, many "Burners" were thrilled to hear La Contessa was returning to the playa, but the doomed ship almost didn't make it. An August 31 report by the Spock Science Monitor, one of the many unreliable and satire-filled newspapers published and circulated by Burners on the playa during the week, described an incident with La Contessa.
"In a tragic blow to the psyches of hundreds of people who like to get drunk on boats, the La Contessa--the huge, galleon-like structure that has prowed the playa on and off the last few years--has crashed in to a sand dune and sunk, with no survivors." Apparently, as confirmed by this Burner with an actual operator of the vessel, the ship did crash into a sand dune on an excursion outside the official boundaries of Burning Man and broke an axle, ripping the port side apart. There were several injuries, but partiers on the boat had an impromptu continuation of their party as they watched the vessel sink.
A mysterious hand-written notice posted at Media Mecca early in the week added a new twist to the story.
"At 04:00 hours on the dark and perilous night of Wednesday, August 31, the playa vessel Contessa ran aground and was unable to venture furhter. Black Rock City emergency rescue salvage was contacted, and--braving the playa perilous conditions then existing--rendered playa salvage services at the request of the Contessa's master, thereby establishing the playa salvage lien right so the Black Rock Rangers and the AquaDot Team over the Contessa. Playa salvage lien rights are recognized in all state an federal courts of the State of Nevada and under the international law of the playa. The BR Rangers and the AquaDots have asserted their right to the custody and control of the Contessa, exclusive to the world for a resonable period of time in order to satisfy their playa salvage lien rights--either by proper and timely gifting from the owner of the Contessa, or by the playa arrest and libel of the Contessa and her sale by the Sheriff of Pershing County."
The ensuing salvage and recovery was successful in bringing La Contessa back to the playa inside the city. During the rest of the week repairs were underway.
I encountered La Contessa sitting at her moorings by Thunderdome late one dark, windy, sandstorm-laden night. She sat alone with her side ripped apart. Her gangplank was open to any who would dare venture into her tenebrous bowels. Once inside, I made my way to the deck up a steep set of stairs. There, about 30 feet above the playa floor, were several scurvy dogs milling about on deck. Carrying my God-goblet, full of grog, with a complete head of dreads tinkling with Indonesian beads, black cowboy boots jangling with silver spurs, a bright red silk robe from Hong Kong with an embrodered dragon on the back and black pantaloons, I commandered the vessel--not by force, but by subtle manipulation of other's psyches, like any good pirate would.
For hours, I stood on deck, receiving gifts of grog and trinkets of treasure. I never actually said I was cap'n, but I never said I wasn't. My confidence and poise was enough for most. At Burning Man, you can claim you are anything. People believe what they want to believe and most believed me to be the cap'n that night. The typical conversation went like this:
"Are you the captain of this fine vessel?"
"Yarrr, I make no claims of ownership of this fine ship."
"OK, right. So really, are we allowed up here or not?"
"Ye be on deck, ain't ye? I see no scurvy dogs around telling ye to walk the plank."
"That's funny. Can I climb up into the crows nest?"
"Aye, it may be above the bilge rats, but no lubbers could climb those ropes. Ye take yer own life into yer own hands. There be no rules on the high seas."
"So tell me about the ship."
"Avast, I told ye, lubber, Me be just a traveller on this lovely lady."
They'd look at me and then saunter off. One lass wanted to see my yardarm but I told her, "Well shiver me timbers, lass, ye be a few years too late, as I lost it to a shark in the South Seas."
With the way I was dressed she gave up a little too easy, presumably thinking I was a gay pirate.
A few days later, during the slightly more sober daylight hours, I ran into one of the sailors working on the ship. He was waiting for a visit by Sea Dog, one of the Black Rock Rangers authorized to give the OK for La Contessa to sail on the playa. We discussed the rumors surrounding the ship. One rumor I hadn't heard was that this was actually a sister ship built to look like La Contessa, since the original was burned to the waterline at sea.
While it took many days to get her repaired in port, on Tuesday morning--two days after most Burners had left the playa, and preparing my own vessel for the journey back to Boise--I stood atop my Streamliner and saw La Contessa, like a ghost, sailing amid the dust and wind as the sun rose over the mountains. She was sailing the playa once again. Under whose command, I did not know. But a ship such as the Contessa is her own master and commander.
For more photos, tales and experiences, visit www.boiseweekly.com. Then again, maybe they won't be there. If you attended Burning Man this year or in years past, feel free to contact Bingo@boiseweekly.com to discuss regionals or decompression. He will only share information with other Burners.