Crossing USA: Burning Man
So how are you enjoying your first time?
-I… don’t know. I’ll get back to you when it begins to compute.
On paper, Burning Man is a cultural festival at Black Rock Desert, Nevada, where participation is essential and most of the hundreds of little events organized throughout the week are done by those who pay to attend. At the end of the festival, a large wooden installation with a statue of a man on top, is burned to the ground.
On paper, an ocean is a body of water. I hope you get my point.
Black Rock City, as it is lovingly called, is an infinite amount of things more than the gathering of hippies you might assume it to be. It is definitely that, more than you or I might want to tolerate even, but once you submerge yourself in the dust and learn to swim with your eyes open, you might look beyond it; at the history of the city that rearranges itself every year, at the art both amazing and awful, the people that somehow find the energy to accumulate into an undertow so strong, you’ll be pulled away at the first touch.
As a first timer, I didn’t want to come empty handed. Gifting is one of the 10 core principles so I figured out a way to share my most personal belonging: An email address for people to contact me at, so I can send them my photos. With a bundle of these little paper hearts in my sweating fist, I entered Black Rock City.
And by entering I mean, get stuck in traffic. Rain had turned the dust into a clay-like substance, sticking to tires and feet like nothing you have ever seen. A lockdown was put into effect and nothing on wheels was allowed to move, pinning us at 100m before the gate. There we sat, and waited, for over 24 hours as showers reset the timer repeatedly.
This year’s theme was ‘Caravansary’, referring to the caravans traveling the silk route to safely sell their luxury wares in the west. I suppose it was only fitting for us to be stuck in an infinite row of cars, with our goal in sight, like a carrot on a stick.
You know nothing of dust, Virgin.
We found our carrot eventually, setting up camp right next to it. You could sit inside it and rest, and have Sweet Pea find your spirit vegetable (I’m a carrot, go figure) or buy coke from her friend. Good neighbors to have.
The rest of our hood wasn’t much excitement. There were the party dudes east of us, the oddly themed airplane camp to the north, and -how could I forget- the nudist couple providing us shade with their camper. The mind-stretching sight of deeply disturbing piercings in intimate places were a bonus.
Black Rock City is a spiderweb-shaped network of roads, which follow a confusing logic in their names. Outward streets were named after the numbers on a clock, and lateral streets had names from A to Z as they were located further from the center. Camp locations were shared using the nearest crossroads, pinning us at 4:30 and Isfahan. Not that anyone needed to find us ever, which was a good thing because this system is flawed as fuck.
On our way to the center we would pass a camp where we could brand our ass with the BM logo, the fire-breathing dragon on 4:30 square (which ran away after a few days to roam the desert), the Suck ‘n Fuck where I witnessed some expert rope bondage, and the misfit treehouse. And then, the inner city ended end you and your bike were released to the endless space lovingly nicknamed, “The Playa.” By far my favorite place.
In the middle, the Man. You could see him from every crossroads inside the city but from up close, you could really get a feeling of how colossal this wooden figure really was. At his feet, a souk was built, offering shelter from dust storms and a place to share stories or trade whatever valuables you might possess.
But even further, past this monument, there was more to discover, hidden behind the sun’s glare. Mechanical solar systems, a gigantic metal globe for you to climb and spin, a truck-sized octopus spitting fire in all directions. With every moment where you stop and stare in awe, a feeling creeps up on you that you haven’t seen nothing yet.
We went out for pancakes, didn’t get any but we’re very stoned and slightly drunk. What’s for lunch?
The city itself, shaped like a crescent moon, hides many treasures if you know where to dig. The booklet that we got has about a thousand different events listed, including ‘socially appropriate menstruation day’, fisting workshops, dance classes, orgies, talks on higher consciousness and whatnot, it goes on and on and doesn’t even cover half of what’s really going on. Things arise spontaneously or behind closed doors, or aren’t listed because of the camp organizers’ laziness.
Sex is everywhere. The fully nude ones don’t even look quite as naked as those who dress to provoke. And that provocation worked, let me tell you- There were a few times when I donned my mirror goggles just so I wouldn’t be caught staring. This week, I saw more primary and secondary genitals than ever before in my life. Most camp names are a sexual innuendo like Sexagon, Sin City or Amoral Corral. It was getting hard to figure out which exactly were the camps where sexy rumpus was going on, and which were just “plain” bars like the Suck ‘n Fuck.
I missed out on the Tantric Blowjob Workshop calling for male volunteers (“come well hydrated!”) but I still found plenty to do. In fact, the greatest part about this whole chaos was that as soon as I set foot outside the tent, I was swept away and thrown from one little job or event into the next. Cleaning myself up from a capoeira roda at Center Camp, I would see the lamp lighters shuffle by through the dust storm outside, and grabbed my camera to chase them. One thing lead to the next, without fail. I kept losing my friends though, I wish I could have shared a few more sights with them. I guess it wasn’t all bad, being by myself allowed me to follow my impulse.
Participation is another one of the 10 principles and I’m proud to say that I nailed this one: I was a press photographer, a speaker onstage (find my blog post ‘the dogs‘ if you want to know), camera operator for a TEDx talk, bartender (yes with a bowler hat), and lamp lighter. I even helped the local roadies tear down the souk pre-burn.
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
and the perfect disguise above.
The Man wasn’t the only immense wooden installation on the playa, and certainly wasn’t the only one to get burned down. The day before the official burn, smoke plumes started rising up from various art pieces set ablaze. At night, the light from the towering flames illuminated the whole desert, casting our shadow off into the distance. During the daytime, you could see the wood being eaten away by the fire, heating our faces even more than the sun already had been.
But when the Man burned…
Thousands upon thousands of people had gathered, and sat on their hunger while the organization teased us with well-choreographed but ultimately boring fire dances and little rituals. But we were rewarded for our exemplary patience, when the Man, this huge statue, started raising his arms.
The discharge in the crowd was sudden. As fireworks exploded and started setting the wood on fire, people hollered and clapped, and with one single fireball, the figure was set ablaze. The winches keeping his arms up quickly failed and the arms slammed down, sending broken parts everywhere.
The structure was built solidly, so the Man stood proud for over an hour, while the fire consumed him. Even when his torso collapsed and his storm lines fell off, he wouldn’t give.
Eventually he fell forward, as people shouted in awe, onto his face, making me lose my bet that he would fall to the left. As soon as the Black Rock Rangers gave their go, the people jumped up and ran towards the fire.
I was among the first on the scene, pushed from behind into the blistering heat. Burning logs were everywhere but far more dangerous were the embers, indistinguishable from the soil, that were melting the soles of my shoes.
Girls were cursing the remains to hell. People jumped over the flames that they thought they could make, sometimes failing. Dancing, shouting, and fire, so much fire. I took my photos and then put my camera away, joining in the party.
Someone randomly handed me a bag of gigantic marshmallows and singing every hair on my body, I spent the rest of my time there frying and sharing them.
They were the best marshmallows in the fucking world ever.
We were advised to stay after the burn, to witness the burn of the temple. I had visited the building beforehand, walked among the relics and portraits of the dead. People come there to mourn and pay respects, to write on the walls, and eventually see it burn to the ground.
Where the burning of the Man was a release and a celebration, the temple burn was one of grief. There was silence, occasionally broken by someone calling out the name of the loved one they were sending their farewells to. I too had words in the fire, and I feel relieved they are gone now. The temple had been soaking up our collective sadness for a week, and is now reduced to ashes. What a fitting way to say goodbye.
If it wasn’t in a porta-potty
Don’t put it inside your body!
And so, Burning Man faded until only desert was left. We stayed for a bar shift and to dodge the infamous Exodus where 80,000 people have to be funneled onto a 2-lane road, and despite me losing my bet, my friends let me drive us out of the city. We hadn’t made it to the gate when the first stab of missing hit me. I feel like I got the most out of the festival and I was glad it was over, but the hard part is returning to our regular lifestyles.
“Burning Man is a point of change,” my colleague behind the bar told me between stolen hugs. And she was right, but that change means nothing if it isn’t part of a larger process, a bigger evolution towards tolerance, freedom of expression and open discussion about things that matter. I hope that at least some of what I experienced there will stick, and I’ll eventually be able to take it home. Even if it’s just a little, it will become part of that global change and a difference can be made.
I still have all the condoms I was given (I know you were wondering), and I’m almost out of email cards. On top of that, I now have a Lamp Lighters’ badge that says, “Illuminate – Navigate – Celebrate”, a bolt from the rubble that was the Man, home made lip gloss, a tiger’s eye stone, a penguin sticker, a silk scarf from the capoeira roda, a drawing of me talking onstage, a bartender’s badge saying, “Death Before decaf”, and a slip of paper from a fortune cookie.
“It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I’ve gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.”