So, You Want to Hear About My Week at Burning Man...
BLACK ROCK CITY, NEVADA—It’s 9PM, almost time for the hippies to burn their toys. Have your fun, but leave no trace they said, a maxim taken to heart by the organizers of Burning Man by blowing up and burning to the ground their iconic effigy in a fiery cloud of dust, ash, wind, and flaming embers. A semi-circle of 50,000 eccentric, nubile, and garishly costumed millenials encircles the area in front of the immense wooden replica of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, an ode to the theme of 2016’s Burning Man—Da Vinci himself.
The energy of the crowd is palpable, and only increases with each passing minute. People from all over the world—Denmark, San Francisco, and Brazil, most adorned with LED lighting and feather earrings—watch men and women draped in hooded costumes dance around with poles, axes, and lances doused with gasoline and lit aflame, as various Mutant Vehicles idle in a ring behind the spectators. The fire-dancers are here to entertain, but they also serve as a barrier between the growing Saturday evening crowd and the half-million dollars worth of explosives currently housed inside the Man himself.
The soundtrack to Burning Man is an incessant, pulsating beat from the hundreds of Mutant Vehicles driving around at all hours of the night, spewing flames and face-melting beats. One such installation, Dawn Patrol, boasts a thirty-foot hot-air balloon framed by faux clouds, subtly yet tastefully lit with soft, baby blue lighting. In the basket of the balloon sits, of course, the camp DJ, responsible for keeping the party going as the revelers chase dawn, circling in an indistinct pattern around what’s known as the open playa—the endless stretch of desert in between the ring of encampments and the Man, who is centered in very the middle of Black Rock City. Steaming through the desert at speeds topping 5MPH, Dawn Patrol is chased by dozens of Burners on bikes, weaving their way in and around the art car, pumping their fists to the beat of the music. Some peel off at will to join another, more appealing art car, but many stay with Dawn Patrol until it slows to a stop, and the bikers ditch their rides in favor of an impromptu dance party. So goes Burning Man, into the wee hours of the morning.
It’s these Mutant Vehicles, or Art Cars as they are better known—fashioned like hot air balloons, space ships, elephants and sharks, all gloriously lit in bright neon, spitting flames in tandem with the BPM, that surround the outer edge of the crowd gathered to watch the Man Burn...which of course, can’t be done without first setting off a spectacular display of fireworks, an experience enhanced by the 3D kaleidoscope goggles I was gifted by my neighbor just as the show began. Dust storms are a frequent occurrence on the playa, and tonight’s Burn was riddled with uncertainty—in the hours leading up to the Burn, the sand whipped through Black Rock City, incessantly, for hours, driving many to seek sanctuary in theme camps, cars, and tents.
Yet save for a freakish tornado that tore through the crumbling structure, taking with it dust, flames, ashes, and the remnants of mementos left behind in a single, cyclonic twist, dissipating into the ether before most could photograph what was happening, the Man Burned without further interference from Mother Nature. Once the Vitruvian Man toppled, the crowd began to dissipate and the hippies dispersed to pursue their own agendas for the evening: ranging from the dizzying consumption of psychedelic drugs to the search for a simple, loving, non-sexual human connection with a complete stranger.
Saturday night is the culmination of this paganistic festival called Burning Man, a week of radical self-expression, radical self-reliance, and radical getting-weird-in-the-desert—a gathering of kind-hearted ne’er-do-wells, if you will. Burning Man can be many things—a meditative journey into spiritual practice, a series of days spent dabbling in acro-yoga and ecstatic dance, or it can be an all-night—fuck it, an all-week rave, if you want it to be. For others it’s about getting away from society for a week, no cell phone, email, or real-life commitments. Others dedicate a year’s worth of work into art installations so numerous you’d be hard-pressed to see them all in a week. From a fifteen-foot Grizzly Bear made out of pennies to a life-sized statue of a whale made from beach glass, there’s always something to keep your interest occupied.
Burners freely walk about naked, gift you drinks, hug instead of shake hands, and present themselves as the idealistic incarnation of mankind. Free-loving, freely giving of self, and free from all judgment, Burning Man is an attempt to celebrate the best that lies within us all, though that’s not always the reputation that’s promoted by the mainstream media.
Over the past few weeks I’ve agonized over how to write about Burning Man: it’s an experience that is hard to describe to others because everyone has their own unique experience. I’ve heard that Burning Man is like a choose-your-own-adventure book: you can literally make it whatever you want it to be, as long as you’re back at camp for dinner at six. Or not. You can skip dinner, and scrounge up leftovers whenever you traipse back to camp at your will, delirious from a day spent biking for miles in a hot, oppressive desert (all thanks to your Camp Mom, of course).
So how might one describe this experience? As a participant, launching myself into a gonzo-like screed about a day in the life of a Virgin Burner? Or as a caustic observer, drily commentating on the innocent debauchery occurring all around me, at all hours of the day? Neither would be wholly appropriate; some things are best approached organically.
Many people think Burning Man is a music festival. It’s not. There’s music playing—it’s loud and pervasive—but there are no headline acts, no main stage on which Drake goes on at 11. Many think Burning Man is just a bunch of poor, dirty, hippies scrounging off of each other in the desert for a week—which it’s not; Burning Man grew out of San Francisco tech culture, and a shocking percentage of the attendees are wealthy, upstanding members of society. The degree of preparation required to attend Burning Man—the capital necessary to transport you and yours to the Black Rock Desert, and gather the requisite supplies for a week—automatically filters out those unwilling or unable to fend for themselves.
Radical inclusiveness is a central tenet of Burning Man, all are welcome on the playa—but radical self-reliance is just as important; you are expected to provide for yourself. Moochers need not apply.
So if Burning Man isn’t a music festival, and it’s not a bunch of dirty hippies dancing the night away far from the prying, judgmental eyes of society, then just what is it? Sure, it’s whatever you want it to be, but a trip to the grocery store can be whatever you want it to be…so what is Burning Man, at its essence? I’ve pondered this question for the past few weeks, during my infamous decompression back into normal life and the answer I’ve been giving everyone is this: Burning Man is just a bunch of people getting their weird out in the desert for a week. We all have a little part of us that wants to shed societal mores and be whoever we want to be, not whoever we’re expected to be as a product of our jobs or social roles.
Getting your weird out isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those who have never been will poo-poo this statement, but the overarching theme at Burning Man is love and acceptance. Burning Man is trolling the playa, and finding a camp where you can get your dirty feet washed by complete strangers, using supplies that other complete strangers have brought to the playa for this very purpose. Burning Man is not being shocked—in fact, it’s being grateful for—the opportunity to wash someone else’s feet once yours are clean. You’re paying it forward. Burning Man is riding down J street, and passing dozens of street hawkers…whose sole purpose is to get you off your bike, and in line for a free hot dog, or a crepe. For a week, the Black Rock Desert becomes Black Rock City—a veritable city, and one of the largest in Nevada, albeit without the exchange of cash for goods of any kind (except ice—the one commercialized item allowed).
Black Rock City is free from the norms that govern and bind everyday society. It’s important to note that while the exchange of capital is strictly prohibited at Burning Man—a practice known as decommodification, where all exchanges aren’t even exchanges, since nothing is expected in return upon gifting to another—that there is an unbelievable amount of money that goes into staging Burning Man. It’s kind of like going to Costco at the end of September and spending $1200 on gourmet meats, cheeses, drinks, and snacks—enough to last you for months—and patting yourself on the back that you spent no money on groceries during the month of October. No money is spent at Burning Man, but an unbelievable sum is spent beforehand in preparation for the week’s celebrations—after all, the ticket does cost $400.
Black Rock City is also free from normal rules governing nudity—you’ll see more breasts than you ever have in your life during a morning on the playa, particularly if you attend the Topless Bottomless Mimosa party, where Burners twerk from late morning ‘til early afternoon, just getting their weird out. Here lies one of the many critiques of Burning Man by outsiders, the judgmental—isn’t Burning Man just a wild, orgiastic gathering of heretics, getting their freak on in the desert? I guess it can be, if you’re out for it. But more than anything, Burning Man erects a temporary society—free from judgment of all kind. Some take this to the extreme and adopt playa names, alternate egos under which they can explore their innermost weird, free from judgment of others. An observed exchange went as follows:
Scene: Middle-Aged Man, sweating from his brow and sitting alone in a corner is approached by a Young Woman, who sits down next to him.
Young Woman: Hi there, how’s your day going?
Middle-Aged Man: Fine, thank you, how is your day going?
Young Woman: Fantastic, I’m enjoying my Burn very much. What’s your name?
Middle-Aged Man: My name is Odyssey.
Young Woman: Odyssey?
Middle-Aged Man: Odyssey.
Young Woman: Well hi there, Odyssey, I’m Sunshine.
One will find that embracing their innermost weird is celebrated and welcomed with open arms by others, complete strangers who you may never meet again. Friendships, albeit fleeting ones, are forged all over Black Rock City, just like that of the Middle-Aged Man and the Young Woman.
I found that there is really only one taboo at Burning Man, and that is discussing what you do in the real world.
For seven days, Burners live under a façade of virtual reality—that there is no world but the one right in front of them, populated by Burners festooned with leather chaps, elaborate lions heads, and small, revealing, electric-pink booty shorts. Chatter about what you do for a living is a no-no, and it’s a refreshing break from the real world. Outside of Black Rock City, you are constantly judged by what you “do”. You are judged by the implication of your profession, or your job—whether you’re a do-gooder that has dedicated their life to making the world a better place, or whether you’re a money-grubbing sellout. Whether you’re educated and come from a good family, or grew up poor and have not yet had the chance to fulfill your dreams. Back home, who you are is defined by what you do—but not at Burning Man. At Burning Man you are defined by the kind of person you are—whether you are kind, generous, sociable, accepting, fun-loving, and open to trying new things. Hands are not shaken; hugs are exchanged. This method of greeting, used for hellos and goodbyes, creates bonds far stronger than discovering that a fellow reveler is also from New York State.
More than anything, Burning Man is about visceral, human connection, a fact conveniently overlooked by the media. The New York Post ran a headline story detailing the destruction of White Ocean’s theme camp—a massive, fire-spewing stage rumored to sponsor a performance by Carl Cox, legendary trance DJ—by Burners who were miffed by White Ocean’s exclusivity. It stands to reason that the only press Burning Man will get is the sensational. What better clickbait than orgies, drugs, and fiery destruction?
Yet Burning Man is much more than that—it’s the chance to meet people from all across the world, who are searching for their own meaning in this weird, otherworldly city in the Desert. It’s the emotional opening of the self—precisely because everyone else is being so damn weird, so damn not their normal selves—that lets you relax, and connect with others on a level completely different from what you would in the normal world. To connect as human beings here on this planet, balancing our survival in the here and now with the very modern opportunity to enjoy the moment, free from the constraints of our society that allow us to prosper and grow as a whole, but often have the side effect of stifling the growth of self.
Burning Man presents a rare opportunity to live in the present.
For one whole week, I didn’t even consider checking my email, or really even about any commitments I had in my life back in Colorado. I was focused on the company of the people I spent the week with, both friends and strangers, on the incredible display of human creativity driving past you every moment, and the opportunity to live in a community quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Sometimes, a week in the desert, getting out all of your weird and inadvertently focusing on the growth of your self is what you really need. A week free from judgment, free from the tethering to responsibility via our various devices, and a week of encountering others that are simply out to have a good time, just like yourself. It’s refreshing to know that there are people in this world that take the time to step back from the hustle, bustle, and grind of today’s world to simply live in the moment, and enjoy the god-given gift of life by spreading the virtues of peace, love, happiness—and yes, on some nights, eccentric hedonism.