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.
I love your mentioning of the community feel. That is my favorite part as well. For me, that's what sets Burning Man so apart from the rest of the world, not the parties. You're right - it IS a city built on passion. Passion and compassion. Such a stark contrast from the "real world," where negativity and selfishness seem to be the main theme.
And goodness, there is absolutely no way in the WORLD a 24 hour stay in Black Rock City could possibly provide you with enough of an overview to write a review on Burning Man. I agree with Christopher Rasch's comment, the whole mood of the Playa changes on Saturday. Sure you were there for the most triumphant (and extreme) night there was, but you only saw one little slice of what Burning Man is all about. All too often Burning Man is painted a negative image in the media of being a completely outrageous orgy of shocking misconduct and free-flowing drugs. It all depends on what type of experience you make for yourself and what you surround yourself with (just like real life). I never once ran into drugs on the Playa, and perhaps only saw 2 girls on E.
During the week, there are all manner of events to participate in. You spend your day frequenting fabulous restaurants, tea parties, day spas, bbq's, religious camps, you name it. I remember there was one camp that brough 2 TONS of watermelon to give away in the heat of the day. One really does need the full experience to participate, bond, and fully grasp what is Burning Man.
I'm glad you got over your fear of public dancing! ; ) So did I!
Just thought you would like to see the terrific math problem from Burning Man...
Sorry I missed you at Burning Man! Camp Nomadia is indeed awesome. Would recommend that you attend for a full week, and that you join a theme camp. The character of Burning Man changes over the week, from the quieter, more contemplative construction phase early in the week, to the Dionysian frenzy you observed at the end. There's also great pleasure and camaraderie to be had in creating art for your fellow Burners. Also, one of my favorite parts of Burning Man is the pleasure of long conversations with friends during the interstitial moments. Your defenses are down, and empathy is often easier achieve than it is outside of the playa. You have more of those moments if you stay longer.
This makes me sad. I've been all around the world and like to think I've hit all the great party spot. Full moon party in Thailand, Ibiza, Florianapolis. But I've never done burning man right here in my own country and every year it seems a little sillier to do it but this post has given me the incentive to get a crew and do it. thanks.
Camp Nomadia regrets that you didn't stop by either :)
Actually.. next year, bring your home with you and join us for the full week and really grok the whole 'welcome home' thing! We had an absolutely off-the-charts awesome community of 90 travelers.
24-hrs is hardly experiencing much at all of Burning Man, let alone getting one's fill (but it can certainly be overwhelming and blindside one). Heck, the full 8 days is barely enough to even begin to scratch the surface of it.
After reading your wrap-up of BM, I'm not sure if I'll ever go.
From the outside looking in, it seems like one of those things that must be experienced fully to really "get it".
I'm curious about BM, because I hear about it all the time online, but not curious enough to go there... yet. maybe someday, maybe not.
Anyhow, awesome review of your own personal experience. Thanks for that
cool to see that you broke through your fear of dancing in public. I bet that felt like quite a break through.
Looking forward to your next post!
Would you go with your RV next time, or are you worried about it eaten alive?
I want to know the camera setup of that picture? What did he use that didn't get eaten alive by the sand?
I'd managed to go twenty something years without ever actually dancing, but it was becoming increasingly clear that my streak was going to end tonight. I'd always envied people who could dance. They made it look so easy and fun, which was how it was when I danced in the mirror, but the thought of dancing in front of other people mortified me.
"Come on, man. Go with them! Dance!"
We had met a couple girls on the cruise, and like any girls, they wanted to dance. Somehow all girls are built with this ability, while a good number of us guys become borderline disabled when led to a dance floor. I noticed that in direct contrast to his goading, my friend wasn't making any effort to join the dancing masses himself.
From the WIkipedia entry on Upaya in Buddhism, translated into English roughly as "skillful or expedient means to an end" --
"Shariputra, suppose that in a certain town in a certain country there was a very rich man. He was far along in years and his wealth was beyond measure. He had many fields, houses and menservants. His own house was big and rambling, but it had only one gate. A great many people--a hundred, two hundred, perhaps as many as five hundred--lived in the house. The halls and rooms were old and decaying, the walls crumbling, the pillars rotten at their base, and the beams and rafters crooked and aslant. At that time a fire suddenly broke out on all sides, spreading through the rooms of the house. The sons of the rich man, ten, twenty perhaps thirty, were inside the house. When the rich man saw the huge flames leaping up on every side, he was greatly alarmed and fearful and thought to himself, I can escape to safety through the flaming gate, but my sons are inside the burning house enjoying themselves and playing games, unaware, unknowing, without alarm or fear. The fire is closing in on them, suffering and pain threaten them, yet their minds have no sense of loathing or peril and they do not think of trying to escape! "Shariputra, this rich man thought to himself, I have strength in my body and arms. I can wrap them in a robe or place them on a bench and carry them out of the house. And then again he thought, this house has only one gate, and moreover it is narrow and small. My sons are very young, they have no understanding, and they love their games, being so engrossed in them that they are likely to be burned in the fire. I must explain to them why I am fearful and alarmed. The house is already in flames and I must get them out quickly and not let them be burned up in the fire! Having thought in this way, he followed his plan and called to all his sons, saying, 'You must come out at once!" But though the father was moved by pity and gave good words of instruction, the sons were absorbed in their games and unwilling to heed them. They had no alarm, no fright, and in the end no mind to leave the house. Moreover, they did not understand what the fire was, what the house was, what the danger was. They merely raced about this way and that in play and looked at their father without heeding him. "At that time the rich man had this thought: the house is already in flames from this huge fire. If I and my sons do not get out at once, we are certain to be burned. I must now invent some expedient means that will make it possible for the children to escape harm. The father understood his sons and knew what various toys and curious objects each child customarily liked and what would delight them. And so he said to them, 'The kind of playthings you like are rare and hard to find. If you do not take them when you can, you will surely regret it later. For example, things like these goat-carts, deer-carts and ox-carts. They are outside the gate now where you can play with them. So you must come out of this burning house at once. Then whatever ones you want, I will give them all to you!' "At that time, when the sons heard their father telling them about these rare playthings, because such things were just what they had wanted, each felt emboldened in heart and, pushing and shoving one another, they all came wildly dashing out of the burning house."