I first heard about Burning Man about three years ago. Some told me it was an arts and music festival in the desert. Others told me it was the party of a lifetime. Others said “I can’t explain. Just go”. Having been to a fair few music festivals in my time, I assumed it was one of the same, and wondered what the point was in having it in an unpleasant dusty desert environment where one gets easily dehydrated. Particularly with effects of the extra-curricular substances some choose to ingest.
A month ago I was a Burgen. That is, a Burning Man virgin. Not so the case today. And I, for one, am hooked. And I’m certain I’m not alone.
To try to describe what Burning Man is in any sort of succinct, eloquent way is an exercise in futility. But I’m going to try my best, as having experienced what I did, I can’t not. Quite frankly, these ten days were the most intense, crazy, beautiful, soulful, honest, raw, real and eye-opening days of my life. And I consider myself a pretty conscious and aware person to begin with.
I feel like I came home.
Home to the desert.
Home to the unbridled imagination of my inner child.
Home to Black Rock City.
A temporary metropolis in the desert, Black Rock City is an entire city erected every year upon a pre-historic lakebed desert environment in Nevada known as the Playa. When I say city, I mean just that. It is an entire city where you can find anything you could in a normal city - there is a functioning post office, a Department of Public Works, a newspaper and a party no matter what time of day, night, or oh-dear-god-here-comes-the-sun dawn you find yourself in.
The moment I pulled through the gates with my rideshare buddy Bernie, I was pulled out of the RV by a guy wearing green goggles and a fun fur vest.
“We have a virgin foks!! Ring the bell and make a dust angel!!”
Despite being a volunteer, as is everyone at Burning Man, the guy had an authoritative aura about him, so I complied with both his requests, despite being aware that Bernie might not appreciate dust all over the passenger seat of his RV. I reminded myself that if you can’t handle dust, you don’t come to Burning Man.
Dust personifies Burning Man. This is not just any dust. This is the finest alkaline dust imaginable. It gets everywhere. Yes, everywhere. Any place that you can imagine, and then some. You learn to love it. You learn to embrace the dust. Afterall, everyone is in the same boat. Those who are fortunate enough to spend the week in an RV get a day or two’s respite. But by the weekend, everyone is filthy.
Something that strikes you right away about Burning Man is the amount of time, money and effort that people pour into contributing towards the mutual benefit of all that attend the festival. Burning Man is an entirely participant-driven week-long event. Literally hundreds of art installations are erected on the Playa, ranging from the tiny and poignant to the grandiose and the plain bizarre. Many of them interactive, as if part of a giant toy store for adults and many utilizing fire on an impressive scale. Most were within the centre circle of the radial outline of the city which spans from 2 – 10 o’clock, though many other art installations could be discovered out in the “deep Playa” which can be accessed by walking or biking any direction from the outer limits of the city. Nothing quite like discovering a boxing ring full of blow up beach balls, after walking 45 minutes from your last human contact.
Countless “mutant vehicles’” (someone told me there were 700 this year, though that has yet to be verified) cruise around at a leisurely speed of 5 mph; cars, buses and motorbikes dressed up as butterflies, ships and aliens. Provided there is room whenever you chance upon one of these art cars, you are welcome to hop aboard and go for a ride. I rode from one side of the city to the other inside a 60 foot long caterpillar on two separate occasions.
Want to climb a 100 foot steel tower to reach a metal globe that sits atop? Go ahead. Your ticket clearly states that by entering Black Rock City, you are entirely responsible for your own safety and that Burning Man is not liable for any injuries that may occur. So if you want to be an idiot, you do so at your own risk. Likewise you are responsible for bringing with you all the water, food and shelter you will need to keep yourself alive and healthy for the time you are out there. And as Burning Man is a Leave No Trace event, you are responsible for taking out everything that you bring in, including all your garbage and grey water. In fact, it’s so much ingrained in the culture of Burning Man to leave no trace that there is a specific term for things on the ground: MOOP - Matter Out Of Place. This is no insider’s cult reference. After one day in the desert everyone is aware of what MOOP is, and anyone caught MOOPing can be expected to be ridiculed and chastised to the point where, red faced and full of shame, they will retrieve their cigarette butt and quickly slink away like a dog with their tail between their legs.
The open-ness of the citizens of Black Rock City is second to none. People greet each other with hugs, not handshakes. Many people adopt a ‘playa-name’ for the duration of the festival and are known only by that name. One guy at my camp who I had hung out with on several occasions during the week, asked me as he was leaving “Hey, what’s your name?”, almost as an afterthought, having known me only as Kiwiburger all week. That’s part of the beauty of it, you can be who you want and what you want out there in the desert, and no one bats an eyelid.
There are workshops occurring all day long at various theme camps throughout the city. At any one time there could be a sock puppet-making workshop, a poetry slam and pyjama party happening on the same block. There’s so much going on, the perpetual question on everyone’s lips is “What is going to happen next??” Some of it planned and some not. At 2pm Tuesday for example, I was torn between attending Henna tattooing, dildo fencing (logically following the make-your-own-dildo workshop), a Kiwi vodka party, DIY bike repair and veil dancing. I chose to mingle with some of my peeps at the Kiwi vodka party, but before I got there, I was accosted on the street by a fellow with one of those ice cream vendor carts who told my fortune before giving me a packet of Cracker Jacks pop corn with a small envelope stuck on the back containing a figurine of the Man made of beads and plastic jewels. Upon reaching the kiwi party I was rewarded with copious amounts of 42 Below vodka being poured into both my stainless steel cocktail mug and down my throat – all for free.
Because the most spectacular thing about this whole experience out in the desert is that everything is free. At Burning Man there is no commerce. It’s all based on a gifting economy – not to be confused with trading, gifting is the act of giving someone something and expecting absolutely nothing in return except for perhaps a smile and a thanks. The feeling you get from gifting is like watching a kid open their presents on Christmas morning. Aside from ice and coffee at Centre Camp Café which can be purchased at for a small fee to cover costs, nothing comes with a price. I booked a massage on Monday afternoon. Free. I ate bacon and drank mimosas on Wednesday morning at the Barbie Death Camp. Free. I sat at the Fuck Your Guilt bar, shooting the shit with two bartenders named Swagwhore and Delicious for several hours consuming Malibu and pineapple cocktails. All free.
Officially the festival lasts 7 days. But if you have the chance, get yourself an early entry pass – most easily obtained by joining a theme camp and volunteering to come in early and help set up. And stay late to help pull stuff down. The bell curve experience of watching the population and energy of the city grow from pre-gate-opening, throughout the week to the exodus of the masses on Sunday/Monday is truly awe inspiring. From humble beginnings on the first Monday, the city expands to a seething mass of over 50,000 people gathered in the centre on Saturday evening to watch the event from which the festival draws it’s name – a giant effigy of a Man burning to the ground. Immediately prior to the Man Burn, 1,000 fire artists spin staff, poi and hoops in an amazing fire show, as if part of a sacred ritual of ancient days. Whether the Man burning be interpreted as anarchistic symbolism of “sticking it to the man” or just an excuse for some good old fashioned pyrotechnic fun on a scale seldom witnessed, it is certainly a sight to behold.
On Sunday evening, the Temple burns to the ground. The Temple is the city’s spiritual space, a space reserved for quiet contemplation and for writing messages on the walls to lost loved ones. On both occasions I visited the Temple the pure energy, love and peacefulness of the place had me in tears, along with most who visited. In contrast to Saturday’s rowdy Man Burn, the Temple Burn is a subdued affair, with tens of thousands of Burners watching in silence and contemplating the week we had all collectively experienced, to which each of us had contributed in our own way. We realized then and there the true beauty of our limited time in Black Rock City and pondered what we might take with us back to our mundane every day lives.
Burning Man is a festival which is often misunderstood. Many people have the view that it is nothing more than a bunch of hippies running around promoting nudity and rampant drug use. While both can be found with little effort, these elements are certainly not the predominant focus of the festival. Burning Man is about Radical Self-Expression and Radical Self-Reliance; it’s about demonstrating that there is another way to go about our lives that does not follow the dog-eat-dog capitalist system to which, from infancy, we are taught is the only way to succeed in this world.
Myself, I know I came out of the desert a changed person. All I want to do is give all of my possessions away just to watch the faces of those who receive them. The whole experience has shown me that there is hope, there is another way. The only problem with Burning Man is that now that I’ve been, I don’t know how to stop going. This is going to be an expensive addiction. But it’s one that never wish to recover from.
See you on the Playa.
Love and Dusty Hugs