Burning Man’s been around since the eighties, so by now everyone knows someone who has gone. Every year, another photo series of incredible images from the festival emerges. Much has been said about the ten core principles, and I could talk about each of these and how they applied to me throughout the week, but something would get lost in translation.
Instead, I’ll provide a simple, concise way to describe the week: experiencing Burning Man is like living inside a society under the influence of a psychoactive drug. Not the people in the society, mind you. Society itself. When society trips, it’s manifested in multiple areas, from people’s positive outlooks and welcoming attitudes, to glowing buildings and art cars, to the desert playa itself, a post-apocalyptic wasteland where nothing naturally grows or lives. Humans impose themselves on this environment and nature fights back with wicked “whiteout” dust storms so severe you can’t see ten feet in front of you. The dust gets everywhere (and I mean everywhere), so goggles and masks are required to survive.
It would be easy to simplify the week as having a singular purpose. Is it a music festival? A hippie carnival? A place to experience drugs in a communal setting? The short answer is that it can be all of these things. But it’s also much, much more.
I receive a 150-page book of events on my bus ride to Black Rock City where Burning Man is held every year. I have plenty of time to read it, since the two-hour journey takes over nine hours due to the massive influx of traffic. Each page of the booklet contains a dozen entries, so the possible experiences are ostensibly endless. Every person’s Burning Man journey will be unique and no mortal can do everything inside of a week. The tome is so overwhelming my fellow campers don’t even bother highlighting it.
I flip to a random page. We have “Walk of Shame Aerial Yoga,” “Busty Bacon Brigade & Bacon Bloody Marys” (come in your best bacon attire!), a lecture on “Relating From Our Truest Nature,” a Coffee Tasting Workshop, and something ominously called “Bad Call Wednesdays.”
That’s on one page. And that’s all stuff going on from nine to ten-thirty in the morning.
Introductory parkour lessons? Yes. (Maybe next year.)
Sex olympics? It’s here. (And it was oddly disturbing.)
Bad Idea Bingo? I won it! (Is that good or bad?)
A maze that uses an electrified dog collar that shocks you when you hit the invisible walls? It was one of my favorite events.
Sure, you can outline your itinerary, but there’s just too much to do, and you won’t end up doing half the things you circle. Besides, leaving things to chance is half the fun. People hawk when you bike by to drink some free lemonade or join their radio show, acting as beautiful diversions and in line with the random nature of this event, whatever you define it as.
I arrive in the middle of the night, dropped onto alien terra firma. I must drag my suitcases through the city using my cell phone as a light source. The people I meet in my camp embrace me instantly, even though I’ve only met one of their members a single time for a few hours. Their first words are, “welcome home,” a phrase spoken widely during the first days of the burn. I quickly learn that these people and their attitudes are the core of Burning Man.
Since my camp revolves around inclusivity and provides amenities such as shelter, water, food and a bicycle, the other campers and I are both taking huge risks in agreeing to room with each other for a week. An innate trust is required to make the relationship work and ensure a positive experience.
It’s customary for a Burning Man virgin like myself to receive a playa name from someone else, and mine’s given by a guy who wandered into our camp and is impressed that I’ve already brought a gift, a vibrating glove that becomes a favorite among many here.
Thus I am dubbed Power Glove.
I suppose the difficulty in getting a Burning Man ticket acts as somewhat of a deterrent, but anyone who really wants to go will find a way. Besides, the cost is pretty cheap considering that tons of infrastructure has been provided for us and the event lasts an entire week. I’ve spent more on a small, weekend-long festival.
There are several factors to discourage the types that might attend Burning Man for the wrong reasons. Anyone who’s been to a festival (or perhaps their favorite bar on the weekend) knows the type, and they are refreshingly absent here.
The unavoidable dust, coupled with the fact that the desert is hard to get to, act as good deterrents. Then there are the naked people, which I suppose might make some uncomfortable. And of course, taking a week off for most Americans is antithetical to our workaholic mentalities.
A hell of a lot of packing supplies are also required, but not the stuff you’d bring for a European jaunt. For those that are determined to survive Black Rock City, an extensive spreadsheet with hundreds of items has been put together by a fellow Burner. Some of the items make you not hate your life: chapstick, gum, eye drops, tissues, hand sanitizer, a spray bottle for misting. Some are absolutely required: goggles, dust mask, a bike, both cold and warm weather clothes, and electroluminescent wire for nighttime illumination so you don’t get run over.
A trip to the Eiffel Tower this ain’t.
There’s no money at Burning Man, and many of the people I meet had overcompensated for the weeklong festival by bringing too much food and water, too many clothes, too many amenities that went unused. I count myself in this group, but on the maiden voyage I didn’t want to be lacking anything. Still, the Burner society buoys you up if you need a drink or a meal or if you’ve run out of hand sanitizer. During a dust storm in the remote deep playa, I realize I’ve forgotten my dust mask when a dust storm whips up. A fellow camper has an extra that I use for a few minutes until it subsides.
Burning Man wouldn’t be a proper city without structures like vehicles and buildings. Both take the form of elaborate art pieces that glow with bright LED lights and often shoot fire. See “El Pulpo Mecanico.” The mechanical octopus has moving tentacles and eyes and shoots fire out of its arms. You simply can’t believe that this steampunk-influenced creation is right in front of you. There’s also a huge snake chilling in the sand where people can create a flame symphony by pressing buttons that shoot flames along its vertebrae.
The burning of the man that presides from the center of town brings the whole week together, a pyrotechnics ceremony that ranks among the top spectacles I’ve ever seen. The decision to use fire is a symbolic one; we owe our entire society to fire, as a weapon, cooking tool, for warmth, and for the light it provides. Our society would not be around today without it, and the parallel Burning Man microcosm starts from the ground up from this element before it’s decimated. A week later, not a trace of the festival, its people or its beautiful artworks, are left behind.
After the burn, it’s difficult integrating back into what Burners call the “default world,” our familiar society with different rules that nonetheless provide us with the ability to engage in this alternative culture. Though radical self-reliance is one of the Burner tenets, none of us farmed our food or mined for water; we all brought granola bars from Whole Foods. We are indebted to the default world for Burning Man, but we engage in the burn to leave it, at least for a little while.
For me, leaving Burning Man means a pit stop in Reno before flying to the east coast. The Grand Sierra hotel is a strategic choice since there’s a pool, hot tubs and spas, though all I want is my first shower in a week. The fact is though, Reno, with its inane tagline as “the biggest little city,” makes the transition to the default world all the more jarring. Ellen Degeneres, Kiss, and Big Bang Theory slot machines chime their shrill sound effects in the lobby, but in light of the week I’ve just had their volume seems attenuated. The color at the poker and blackjack tables clustered with overweight, smoking midwesterners has faded. There’s a restaurant row as well, but it’s slightly better than a mall food court; the tacos have that flavorless iceberg lettuce in them.
Welcome home, indeed.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I can already feel myself sliding into my old ways, resenting the things that are out of alignment with my lifestyle. And yet I resist, since I do feel profoundly different. It’s a struggle to hold onto this overwhelming but ultimately transient feeling. I knew that reintegration would be difficult, and in the days that follow I find myself to be less bothered by small things, and to have more general gratitude. A juicy burger in the default world beats a sandy granola bar any day of the week.
What’s more, the week of Burning Man has called into question my very notion of society. Burning Man exists as an example of a possible alternate universe to how humans could live. The crazy thing is that it works. In the default world, we choose to let pithy matters interrupt our quest for achieving harmony with one another. We let gender, race, sexual orientation, politics, geography, religion, money, and dispositions get in the way of the whole point of it all: making a damn connection with another human being. At Burning Man, these barriers are irrelevant. I’m glad I looked through the window to this world, and look forward to gazing through again next year.
Visit Burning Man’s website to learn more about this incredible festival.