If you've heard anything about Burning Man, you may be tempted, like me, to assume it is a wild drug-fueled orgy in the middle of nowhere. I can safely assume that there was some drug use, and alcohol certainly abounded, as well as a healthy dose of medical marijuana. These are things I can also see any given weekend at a bar as well.
Some of the things I did not see at Burning Man were fighting drunks, people trying to sell drugs, broken glass, authoritarian harassment, or any kind of exclusionary activities. Those sorts of things only exist in the default world, it seems. Burning Man is the biggest party you've ever been to at night, but the days are full of quiet reflection, socializing, and a sense of adventure and belonging. People come to for many different reasons.
To put it simply, you can experience certain freedoms that are virtually non-existent in our day to day lives at Burning Man. The first and most intriguing to people is the clothing-optional rule. Yes, people go nude in the desert heat. There are naked events, and adult themed camps. As a veteran of college life-drawing classes, I can say I am fairly desensitized to the human body, but it was still striking.
People are in terrific shape. Burners tend to be outdoors-oriented, and everyone rides bicycles often. From age 20 to over 60, everyone was beautiful in the sun. I cannot speak directly to the experience of women, but I personally never saw any topless girls being harassed by groups of guys. I have seen far worse behavior at nightclubs.
Artistic Burners have the opportunity to build and display some wild things. Installation art and giant sculptures are a familiar site in most large cities, but the process of getting your work displayed like this is a daunting process. The average artist is lucky to get a spot on a museum wall. Imagine getting the chance to then build a twenty foot tall structure that interacts perfectly with the stark desert environment.
Beyond the size of the art, you can also include motion and fire, two factors that you rarely see, especially not on this scale. Every artwork is lit up like a Christmas tree each evening, and the effect is amazing, given that there is almost zero light pollution from urban centers.
Some burners choose to build elaborate Art Cars over the course of the year. These are totally original vehicles built to cruise the streets and open playa of Black Rock City at a walking speed, blasting music and dazzling crowds with their light shows. Often these cars will feature bicycle racks and dance floors, compelling whoever wants to come on board and ride for a bit.
Smaller Mutant Vehicles will act as a semi-ludicrous mode of transit for one or two people. A 15 foot tall bicycle, a unicycle with a giant truck tire, a tie fighter golf cart, and a motorcycle rocket were all common sights this year.
To the Artist, Burning Man is a unique venue with an audience 60,000 strong, with very few restrictions. This is enough for some to invest the time and money it takes to move their massive work out into the desert, and often burn it down at the end.
Getting to Burning Man takes so much forethought, that the only people who go really want to be there. No one is making any profit, and the only agenda is to have fun experiencing this mystical party. I truly believe that the difficulty travelling to Burning Man filters out the assholes somehow. Maybe all the assholes just decide to be good people for this one week.
I have been to a number of parties, birthday celebrations, holidays, etc. in my life, where there is potential drama, but all attendees choose to have a good time. We all manage to swallow pride and get over minor grievances, and then suddenly realize you are at a great party, and you feel alive in the moment. Burning Man is a week long cocktail party where there is always something to talk about. There is never any pretense, and raw honesty and positive feedback abounds.
Regardless of how one describes it, Burning Man puts people in a good mood. They let go of the normal social identifiers, and re-learn the basic meaning of community. You become re-assured that wonder and imagination are vital to all ages. You remember that art is alive and well, and should not be restricted to a cold museum.
Burning Man does not generate individual celebrities. Every burner is interesting. Chances are, if you have made it to Black Rock City, you probably have some adventurous and compelling stories to tell. Everyone shares the burden of creating this experience, and thus everyone is filled with the pride of accomplishment as well as the wonder of experiencing the work of others.
There is a spiritual aspect to Burning Man, which is central to the whole experience. The principle of Radical Inclusion means that there are no religious denominations pandering for followers, and there is no "church of Burning Man". The 10 principles are non-religious ways to improve the experience of life. Atheists are often criticized as being amoral and lacking spiritual direction. Burning Man is not specifically Atheist, but it welcomes all faiths and credos that can agree with the 10 principles. If there was a church of Atheism or Agnosticism, I think it might look a lot like Burning Man.
There is a devoted organizing body of individuals, though the emphasis on expression and acceptance means the cultural ethos is dictated by the masses, not by any central figure. One of the original burners from the San Francisco group, Larry Harvey, remains a significant figure in the organization, but the spirit of Burning Man rejects individual celebrities, and encourages everyone to share in the labor equally wherever possible.
The actual burning of the Man is a wild party. It is done in the spirit of joy and rebirth and the end of the year. Indeed, many burners consider this event to be their New Years Eve party. The website for the Burning Man Project displays a constant countdown to the next burn.
On Sunday, the Temple is burned. This is always a quiet and contemplative moment, in stark contrast to the wild burning of the Man. Many burners choose to leave the morning after the Man burns, but the devoted few hold out for another day, and watch the Temple fall.
Over the course of the week, the Man and the Temple have stood at this symbol of the temporary city we have built. You celebrate the Man like the birth of a new year, and you fill the temple with your quiet meditations. At the end of the celebration, you let go of these creations in one giant fantastic display of man's interaction with nature.
The Man is burned in a wild party, featuring pyrotechnics and fire-wielding dancers. The mood is ecstatic. The Man raises his arms, mimicking the Burning Man logo, and his show begins. Fireworks shoot from his hands, and more from the pedestal. For a few minutes, I am witnessing the biggest firework display in my life, from the closest vantage point ever. The pedestal ignites, the man ignites, and then propane accelerators activate, throwing mushroom clouds twice as high as the effigy itself. As the flames slowly subside, several burners engage in the tradition of walking in a circle around the smoldering base. Shortly thereafter, all the biggest dance spots explode with their best performers. Every dance floor is filled with people having a terrific time. The party lasts as long as you can.
The Temple burn is much more somber. After being filled with messages of grief and loss, the structure is released to the cleansing flames. Like an image rendered in colored sand, the Temple is temporary just like all of the Burning Man festival. You feel a profound sense of release and personal growth watching it disappear into the fire.
The end of the summer has been the spiritual 'New Year' for all of us who went to school on the traditional US schedule. The end of the summer, the end of the heat, the end of the celebrations, and the recapitulation of how you have grown have all been constant themes in our lives. Now you gather yourself, slightly older and wiser, and face the coming winter with new eyes.
You feel enriched, but exhausted at the end of the Burning Man week. You are glad to get back to your modern conveniences, but you also long for the mysterious joy of the playa. You try your best to cling to the growth and reassurance you felt out there, and carry the positivism into your daily life.
Cynicism is rampant today. The age of youtube has taught us to seek out small bursts of fame. We all recognize the 'jackass' style bodily harm people undergo to taste a bit of fame, but what is far more detrimental is the cynical comments that accompany every endeavor online. The perfectly-worded witty criticism has the potential to reach millions, whereas creating something unique and positive takes effort and confidence. It is far easier to proclaim what you dislike than it is to assert what you do like.
Boldly standing for something you consider good - that is the antithesis of the modern cynical troll. Agreeing with something wholeheartedly with no concern of criticism. This is a sensation I rarely feel, and it was non-stop at Burning Man.
I have mentioned a sense of belonging several times already. Human community desires a sense of belonging, but I have rarely shared in something so big. Sports have never interested me, but seeing the multitudes of people who can rally around a single color for no logical reason makes me envious. I wish I could rally behind a single cause, but I have never been able to turn off my internal cynic. I am constantly negative aspects such as how the Superbowl and every sporting event is a medium for advertisers to sell beer and cars, how celebrations like Christmas are just Pagan rituals co-opted by an often immoral religious machine, and Halloween is meant for children and anyone who wants to don a festive costume and dance must be a sexual deviant.
The feeling of isolation in a world that was not made for the eccentric spirit is significant. Seeing a million people rally behind a football team, a religious ceremony, or a single famous person is a depressing thing to the outsider. Your separation from popular society is reinforced at every newstand. You logically know that the smartest thing to do is conform and live your life privately.
There is money in the belief that you need the machine. The truth is, what you need is community and social responsibility, and that is what the machine should be. We are all the machine, and we all dictate how society looks and acts. 60,000 people are willing to venture out into the desert and declare that THIS is how society might look and act if we were all in touch with our most basic selves.
This is clearly not a sustainable model for 365 days per year, but the week long celebration is vital. The reassurance of the community of the eccentric is priceless. 60,000 people create Nevada's third largest city anew each year, and it is cleaner and happier than most cities in the country. People are not savage and evil if they are rallied by the appropriate values.
All in all, the event is a giant reassurance of the human condition. Every belief system practiced today is at most a mere five thousand years old or so. Humanity has been creating culture, community, and celebrations for tens of thousands of years. Burning Man makes you feel connected to the hugeness of humanity across the planet - all rallied under a common point of focus.
For me, the temple seemed to absorb a great deal of emotional baggage from my twenties. It is impossible to please everybody, yourself included. Inevitably, a person disappoints other people. You neglect things important to your friends. People grow apart. You forgive each other, and you try to forgive yourself, but certain things always come back. Walking slow laps inside the Temple of Whollyness reminded me how this is true for everyone. All of those wishes and confessions written on the walls made me understand how grief and loss are part of the human condition that gives life importance. I wrote my own simple message on a corner, and as the thousands of burners joined me, I watched it burn to the ground. Transcending culture, we all decide to fill this Temple with importance, and then release it to the vast unknown as smoke over the empty playa.
You are filthy with dust and ash, but you are surrounded by old friends and new ones. You forgive yourself and rejoice for the people who joined you in this inhospitable place. You laugh, you cry, you meditate, you bike, you sleep, and you dance for hours and hours. You shed your inhibitions and grow as a human. You load up on memories of dancing in the desert that warm you all winter, to get cheesy about it. You begin the departure ceremony with some casual brainstorming for next year.
The so-called Afterburn is a bittersweet re-engagement with the default world. You have to remember to dress appropriately, douse yourself in precious water every morning, and often hold your tongue when you'd prefer to speak your mind. You are no longer embarrassed or ashamed of admitting you attended Burning Man, and you realize most people will never have the patience to listen to your stories. Your photos are tantalizing, but barely cover the hugeness and diversity of the things you saw. Burning Man really only exists in the memories of its devotees.
You unpack, and clean some things, throw away others. The local Whole Foods caters to the burners by offering well-organized donation spots and recycling bins in their store's parking lot. The crowd at Whole Foods in the days before and after Burning Man are fairly hilarious. Eccentrically decorated cars, trucks, RVs, and people populate the area. Local car-washes are slammed with remarkably dusty vehicles. Some burners elect to leave the dust on, like a religious declaration of their pilgrimage.
Leaving Black Rock City is every bit as tedious as the entrance. The exit road widens to fifteen or more lanes, all filled with dusty vehicles carrying weary burners. Lanes move forward about two hundred feet at a time, then stop for forty-five minutes. Riders wander from car to car saying final goodbyes, and meeting a few more random burners to hear their origin stories.
The entire experience washes over you as you slowly cruise home, and watch the civilized world come back into focus.
You remember the good times with friends as a blur, but mostly you focus on the spiritual release you have experienced. All the emotional burdens written on the temple walls, as well as several keepsakes and works of art have all been destroyed and sacrificed to something bigger than yourself.
In summary, Burning Man is the modern version of a primal celebration that has been a part of human society longer than the written word. A spiritual retreat for the information age, Black Rock City reaffirms your role in the universe, and is a profoundly positive experience.
If any of this has piqued your interest, you should realize that YOU TOO in fact CAN experience Burning Man. The only prerequisite is that you share the same values as outlined by the Burning Man Project. You must also sign up for a ticket in the fall, then prepare to shell out close to 400$ for each person going in the winter. You will also need a ride, as well as all the supplies mentioned above, and then quite a bit more stuff.
The burner community is an open and welcoming one. If you wish to experience Burning Man as a solo camper, you are welcome to do so, and people often have a great time this way. Otherwise you can easily find impromptu groups of solo travelers who choose to pool their resources and camp together. This is not for the casual vacationer, every attendee should truly want to be there, dust and all. The burners are, for the most part, just like any other person in their daily lives, they just feel enriched by this exotic and primal festival once a year.
A good place to start your adventure would be to visit the group on reddit.com devoted to Burning Man. The community there featured tons of veteran advice and just a taste of the welcoming nature of the burners.
- Robert Bruce Anderson