I once went to a B.B. King concert, not because I'd ever owned a single song of his or had any familiarity with his music or his genre, but because I knew he was the best at what he did. In that same vein, I've always wanted to experience Burning Man, not because I care about hippies, techno music, drugs, or art, but because it's the biggest and best event of its kind in the world.
For years I intended to go to Burning Man, but the problem is that Burning Man requires a huge degree of preparation. As I found out firsthand, it's located in one of the least hospitable areas of the United States, which means that you need more stuff than you're used to needing (goggles, water, etc.), and you must provide it all yourself. So each year passed by with my intentions dissolving into the reality of a fast approaching deadline and not having prepared at all. But this year was different. A friend of mine took the initiative to rent a huge RV, recruit a Burning Man veteran to come with us, and generally organize the trip.
"Well," I thought, "it's never going to be easier than this. I may as well go."
Because of an existing trip to Boston I would only be able to go for about 48 hours-- Saturday (the day the man burns) afternoon until Monday. Good enough.
I landed in Reno, picked up my rental car, stocked up at Whole Foods, and made my way to the desert. As soon as the Playa-- that's what they call the desert where Burning Man is held-- was in sight, my jaw dropped. The ambivalence cultivated by the tedious drive from Reno morphed into awe and excitement. My jaw remained dropped for a good half an hour as I made my way to the camp my friends were staying at. The sight was unlike anything I'd ever seen before.
Everyone was either dressed up in a costume or simply undressed. Bizarre cars shaped like giant fish and boats meandered through the streets. RVs, cars, and tents stretched as far as the eye could see, limited only by the all-consuming dust clouds. Every camp, car, and even some bicycles blasted techno music. Huge scale nightclubs with 30 foot tall dance platforms were packed full of writhing burners. It felt as though I was in a post-apocalyptic society of hedonists who colonized the moon.
A friend of mine asked someone if he was married. In all seriousness he replied with the question, "you mean here or in real life?" This sounds ridiculous, but in the Burning Man mindset it actually makes a lot of sense. Everything about Burning Man is so totally different from real life that it's awkward to think about things that aren't at Burning Man. There's just no context for it. I started talking to Todd about the new Kindle and then stopped myself because it seemed inappropriate.
Consistent with the idea that Burning Man isn't like normal life, everyone is on drugs. Literally everyone. I actually wondered if I was the only sober one there. People I know who don't even get drunk in real life were doing rails of cocaine. I'd never even seen anyone do cocaine until the trip. We asked one girl, who was barely coherent, thanks to the cocktail of MDMA and cocaine she'd indulged in, if she did drugs back in San Francisco.
"Oh, no. I mean... maybe weed once in a while."
People talk about the sense of community at Burning Man, and I always assumed that they were exaggerating. But they aren't. You can't walk anywhere without being offered various sorts of hospitality. Bars are everywhere, and they're all free. Costumes are given away for free. One lady stopped us and gave us all frozen blueberries. Giant structures are created and you're invited to climb them and share the view. Monstrous art cars / buses / boats-on-wheels roam around and will give you a ride. People stop and say hi, smile at you, and ask if you need anything. A lot of this stuff is really dangerous, but somehow you don't need to sign a waiver.
The community, which I'll freely admit I only experienced a small part of, was my favorite part of Burning Man. It all worked shockingly well. Part of the appeal is that it's completely authentic. Performers are performing because they love doing it. People's creations are built not for the promise of an hourly wage, like they might be at Disneyland, but because the creator desperately wants to make, say, a giant bicycle with ten foot diameter wheels. The clubs weren't built for profit, but because they want you to come enjoy them. I'm a capitalist to the bone, but I have to give credit where it's due: there's something magical about an entire civilization built on passion.
Most of our time Saturday was spent roaming around the Playa, climbing things, pushing our way through brutal sandstorms, and dancing. The nightclubs are more extravagant than most I've seen in civilization and the sound systems, unencumbered by any sort of regulation, are blaringly loud and surprisingly high quality. After midnight I found myself dancing on a platform above hundreds of fellow burners, quietly satisfied with the confirmation that I'd gotten over my fear of dancing in public.
The real highlight was watching the man burn. It's one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. After a wholly gratuitous firework show there's a Hollywood-style explosion which fills your field of vision with a huge fireball and ignites the man. Then everyone watches in awe as the entire structure is engulfed and eventually weakened to the point of dramatic collapse. This whole sequence was probably a good 300% better than I anticipated. I'm not one for audience participation (which, I think, is a shame), but I had my hands in the air and was whooping with everyone else.
Around one in the morning I'd decided I was done dancing. I don't particularly like techno music, and after dancing for two or three hours I'd had my fill. I wandered around for a while checking out art cars and other clubs and made my way back to the RV, which was littered with leftovers from dinner, alcohol bottles, the personal possessions of seven different people, and drug paraphernalia.
"I've had enough," I thought, as I looked around.
I wasn't upset or regretful that I came. I'd had a great time, but felt like I had my fill. It's sort of like an art museum -- I like looking at art, but I don't necessarily need to sleep in the museum and see more of it the next day. My friends were all still dancing, so I packed up my stuff, scribbled a note on the back of a paper plate, and slipped away in my white rental car that used to be blue before the dust hit it.
My plan wasn't a well thought out plan, or really even a plan at all. By the time I left it was almost two in the morning and Reno was two hours away. I had arrived from Boston earlier in the day, which meant that according to my internal clock, it was almost five in the morning. I struggled to keep my eyes open and to dodge the foxes and mice that kept crossing the road. Finally in Reno, I pulled into the first motel I saw. It was sold out, as were the next five I checked. It hadn't occurred to me that this might be the busiest weekend Reno sees all year.
Desperate to close my eyes I circled up the parking garage of Harrah's. I put the car in park, reclined my seat and closed my eyes. Ford clearly didn't have any rest stops in mind when they designed the Focus, though; the seats recline to such a small degree that sleeping in them is impossible. Besides, it was really bright and security would probably see me and wake me up. I looked behind me and had an idea.
Two minutes later I was curled up in the small but dark trunk. I'm going to be honest with you-- the trunk of the car is a pretty awesome place to sleep. If I had some sort of pad under me I probably would have slept with no interruption. As-is, I woke up only three or four times to awkwardly roll over to my other side, and got a good five hours of sleep. Unfortunately there are now dusty footprints all over one side of the trunk, so I'll probably be investigated for kidnapping at some point in the near future.
Now I'm in the lobby of a 4.5 star hotel (thanks, Priceline!), covered head-to-toe in dust, giving me the appearance of a lost chalk miner, waiting to check in. Waiting for a shower. There's nothing I want more in this world than a shower.
Anyway, back to Burning Man. If you like techno music or drugs or art or are a hippie, you HAVE to go. Even if you're not, it's such an experience that you probably owe it to yourself to see it once. Despite leaving early, I may go back again next year for the full week. I can't really explain why, but even with such a slight exposure to the event, there's something that pulls you back.
Over three hundred replies to the last survey. THANK YOU. I'm getting a really good idea of who I'm writing for and it will definitely affect my writing.
My one regret at Burning Man is that I didn't visit Camp Nomadia.
I predict that September's posts will be some of the best yet. Why? Because I'll be on an airplane for a lot of the time for the JetBlue thing, and that's where I do some of my best writing. It's a good combination of clouds to stare out at and limited interruption.
Photo by mdanys. I didn't take any because it was so dusty.