Burning Man: The Epiphany
You feel sweat constantly dripping down your spine, moisture wicking off you and dehydrating you within mere minutes. You chug gallons of water and you constantly piss clear, in a clear plastic piss jug (the rules prohibit you to go in the sand). You want to reconsider drinking the alcohol and certain other substances that you brought with you. However, the mind-altering experience of Burning Man proves to be its own drug.
I’ve spent the past ten years of my life in the Nevada desert, the urban part of it. I grew fairly accustomed to its hot-oven summer heat, its brutal seasonless charm, the unpredictable dust devils it harbors and the ferociously vocal winds that had shaped the ancient canyons and could blow your car off the road. I got used to the ever-present layers of red sand in my window seals, the scorpions hiding in my shoes, the mountain sheep road kill, and the annual monsoons that give me and my perplexed cat a full Noah’s Ark experience. It seems it made me develop new senses. With the absence of greenery, I learned to appreciate different angles of beauty – the unexpected, excruciating depth and contrast of evening shadows; the opulent color range of sunsets and sunrises.
I learned that the desert has its own perish-or-thrive religion, and Burning Man is one of its true manifestos. It had always aroused my curiosity and, for many years, I was asking others: what exactly is this place? What is Burning Man?
Some pompously described it as a creative gathering, a lesson in love, a place of no judgment, others – as some hippie crap that nostalgic white-collar professionals gab about on their Bluetooths, a silly psychedelic playground where high tech oligarchs like Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos hug each other out, a Bohemian Grove for liberals, a drug fueled debauchery with unclear boundaries between public and private space.
Ultimately, one thing became obvious, what I presumed was just an art festival, was much more than that. So what is it? A cultural movement? A ritualistic orgy? A revival of the ancient Roman Saturnalia? What do you need to be to feel in place there? A swinger? An exhibitionist? A stoner? Do you need to have engineering skills and be in the possession of a pyrotechnics license? Clearly, if your goal is to define the enigmatic and ephemeral nature of Burning Man there’s only one way to do it: pack your shit and go there.
The official website explains that Burning Man is “an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self expression and self reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada”. It was founded by ongoing Chief Philosophical Officer Larry Harvey, the first Burner, and his buddies, nearly 30 years ago. Since then it has grown from a personal healing ritual held at breezy San Francisco’s Baker Beach to a bizarrely mysterious massive annual gathering in the driest and harshest part of Nevada’s desert. This year, Larry’s flock of Burners has reached 70,000 free spirits who gladly shelled out $380 each at least six months in advance to reserve their camping spots in the crusty alkaline dirt.
If you decide to join the steadily growing crowd and get your feet dirty at the wild and dusty carnival, you need to keep in mind that it’s not anything like spring break from back in the college days. You have to be able to tolerate temperatures of up to 40C, battle against the elements, embrace outrageous outfits, and, most importantly, leave your societal inhibitions and personal hangups behind. If you don’t, Burning Man has a way of ripping them apart and burning them to ashes, pun intended.
Make sure to bring a bicycle, preferably an old one because you’ll donate it to a charity afterwards. Don’t worry, you will, even if you’re a cheapskate, if you indeed are one then bring a lock too since bikes are a valuable commodity on the playa. Mine was stolen at a crowded Porta-Potty station by a vulture who had the nerve to take from a person with her pants down trapped in a sauna of filth.
You’ll bike, or walk if it’s stolen, an average of 15 to 20 miles a day in hostile conditions including frequent dust storms reminiscent of those in Mad Max, which have been known to last for up to nine hours. You can complete your post-apocalyptic look with a pair of your coolest goggles and a dust mask. Bring plenty of baby wipes because you will feel the sand not only in your teeth, and your hair, but in all the cracks and crevasses of your body. After a 15-minute storm, I ended up not only with a significant amount of sand up my butt, but also a few Say’s stink bugs who swarm into the playa attracted by the white installation lights.
Sorry, there are no showers. While there might be something more advanced in Elon Musk’s elaborate 8 RV compound, the closest I got to a shower was when I borrowed a gardener’s spray can from an experienced burner who adopted me, a virgin at the time. The good news is that there are three pubs where the drinks are free. So go ahead, rinse the sand from your mouth with a shot of tequila and start concentrating on the visual aesthetics of the bare prehistorical alkali lakebed of the Black Rock Desert surrounded by the majestic mountains.
Black Rock City is organized as 2/3 of a circle. The European Space Agency’s Proba-1 took some impressive high-resolution pictures of it from space, but you’ll need a more detailed map to get around. The road signs will only be up for the first couple of days, then the numerous mischevious spirits will take them down to trick you into getting lost. Actually, it’ll be in your best interest to get lost. A quick trip to get ice might turn into a few hour long bacchanalia with some newly acquired friends. For me, it turned into a spanking class, with about 20 minutes of taking and 40 minutes of hands-on spanking, and it was gender and sexual orientation non-specific. What’s great about butts is that everyone’s got one.
The schedule and the content of all activities is clearly spelled out so there’s no guessing, you are absolutely aware of what you’re getting yourself into. Don’t forget to hit the “Ass Stamp Camp” where you can score free liquor shots for a quick rubber stamp on your behind. During “Canadian Beaver Licking Contest” we are briefed on the strict rules of no photos and no penetration, but the inventive poses and style were highly encouraged by a group of extremely helpful Canadian judges.
Burning Man is not just a group activity of practicing all sorts of madness. It serves as a constantly evolving platform for experimenting and challenging universally acceptable morality codes. Hardly a nihilistic act of destruction of the countless ethical decorations our culture is heavily adorned with, it is more accurately described as a spontaneous deconstructing process of our routine codes of righteousness, an attempt to reshape the culture without assigning an absolute meaning to it and prescribing it a new system of reformed virtues.
Being a purely experimental world, an antidote to the individualistic nature of everyday society, it is altruistically based on a gift economy and filled to the top with glitter, feathers, sparkle ponies, yoga bunnies, flamethrowers, furry bicycles and flamboyant art.
Before you joyously hop right into all of the above to ride the mechanical duck of your dreams, and join a friendly dude who calls himself Mr. Blowjob to watch the Critical Tits topless bike ride, and then take part in the parallel Critical Dicks parade, you should study (and worship) the Event Survival Guide to help you prepare physically, if not mentally, for the trip.
Food is the last thing on your mind, but when it comes to water you will easily use the entire two gallons each day. Bring lip balm and vinegar to stop your lips and feet from cracking in the dry, alkaline environment. I brought a few sticks of good old Blistex which easily, especially in its well-melted state, doubles as a lube, hand lotion and a hemorrhoidal treatment.
One thing I didn’t need to bring was cash. You can’t buy anything (except for dry ice and coffee) as it is a community built on giving. When you happen to run out of stuff, others are willing to help. Let affection, big hugs, and acts of kindness act as your currency. I’d given out more hugs than a batch of puppy pugs. Don’t be shy, you can always throw in something extra, perhaps after successfully completing the 1-Minute Hand job workshop. Remember, leeching off someone else goes against the Burning Man concept of radical self-reliance, so you’ve got to make yourself useful in every possible way.
While having an absolute and utter blast, please make no mistake, the beehive structure of the Burning Man community allows plenty of room for a security detail that consists of several moderately friendly rangers, and if you try to smoke a joint right in front of them you’ll get arrested. However, they do say, and I believe them, that they “don’t really go looking for drugs”.
Group sex creates zero carbon dioxide emissions to help you comply with Burning Man’s “leave no trace” policy. There are no trashcans available so keep your carbon footprint in check and produce the least amount of trash possible. I had to take everything back with me including rotten banana peels, cigarette butts, used tampons, my friend’s dried-up vomit pancake, and even dirty water. Before you head home, you have to pick up absolutely everything leaving the desert in its pristine condition, free of any burn scars, condoms or debris. When everyone is gone, a crew of highly inspirational, sleep deprived, dehydrated and overheated volunteers will stay behind to rake the sand in order to make sure it’s not littered with even a single sliver of wood.
This is not a spectator event. It’s an experimental temporary community. You’re here to survive. Relationships are formed, neighbors meet each other, everyone plays a role in collective survival. People here come from all walks of life – corporate bean counters, artists, nerds, geeks, models, CEOs, Facebook billionaires, revolutionaries, naked people, clothed people, pessimists, optimists, new age folks, old fogies, Bay area residents, foreigners, etc. The only thing they have in common is their anarchistic, fun loving spirit and the fact that they all are covered in dust. There are always a few creeps and tourists present, but the place isn’t exactly swarming with them.
I quickly found out that residents of Black Rock City tend to be extremely unapologetic about all kinds of things we normally try to excuse. For instance, clothing there is optional and being naked is considered a costume. If you are not comfortable naked, or you have a rather pronounced tummy but incredibly beautiful legs you’d like to show off, you are welcome to join a group of “shirtcockers” (if you still are somehow confused, these are men who choose to only wear a shirt).
Bikinis, tutus, wigs, masks, headdresses, floral crowns, feathers – anything goes. Wear what you are most comfortable in (or without) and get lost in the sea of flashing fuzzy flowered bikes going in every possible direction.
After a few days without a proper shower everyone, myself included, was covered with a mixture of sunscreen, Blistex, glitter and body paint – combined with a fine layer of playa dust. Despite the freshly starched tutu, on day four I started to feel like a chalk miner with an expensive manicure.
If you are under the impression that this place is one big daytime rave party with obnoxiously loud music pumping from numerous mutant vehicles aka “Art Cars”, while people around you are dropping acid and having sex in the desert, then yes, you’re right, that element is there and can be easily discovered if you’re open to it, but it’s not nearly as prevalent as you would anticipate. I personally never engaged into any type of “dust love” or “tent trysts” with someone whose name I didn’t remember the next day, but during my 6 a.m. bike rides I did encounter quite a few random lovers passed out next to each other in the neon lights of surreal flower gardens.
Yes, you may come across a hit of acid lovingly stashed in a journal, a hookah with a chamber full of weed, or a pile of “shrooms” wrapped in a national flag, all carefully placed on the altar at the temple, surrounded by candles, the remains of a pet, handwritten prayers and divine images. At a glance, it might seem like a crime in the making, but to an average Burner it’s a pass into the realm of a sacred knowledge, and the mind-altering substances are simply a way to reach the God of your choice. The virtue code of Burning Man celebrates a personal choice, while highly encouraging personal responsibility at the same time, a tricky combination but you do get better with practice.
There are plenty of other activities you might prefer to engage in, for example, riding a giant mechanical snail (or a duck, or a unicorn, or some other animal of your dreams), shooting fire out a huge octopus, learning laughter yoga, attending geology classes, or a circus workshop, impromptu massages, group masturbation, naked foam parties and dildo crafting shops, just to name a few.
Another fun fact: there is a real hospital filled with real patients here as there are plenty of injuries happening throughout the densely populated 5.5 mile section of the desert. Most of them are broken toes and twisted ankles from climbing the art pieces. There is at least one known cock ring accident, when the dude’s testicles got swollen to the size of a bowling ball and he had to be taken to a nearest hospital for drainage. Regardless, you are in good hands with the perky titted RN.
Of course there’s art, too. It’s very present. Creations are strangely random. From the biggest funded art projects in the open playa that boggle your mind to the exhilarating, at least to the Americans who have a genuine fear of fish eggs, ritual called “The Bravery” performed by a Russian bartender that consists of eating a pancake dipped in caviar, drinking six ounces of vodka and then eating a pickle.
In the light of the growing demographic of young wealthy tech entrepreneurs, the latest Burning Man art installations reveal a bit of the buzz-killing trend towards media-heavy, tech-friendly artwork, such as LumenEssence, a sculpture made up of 33 interactive towers surrounding a central viewing platform. The towers use capacitive touchscreens to create “interaction”. Another electronic setup was DreamBox, it initially raised almost 30K from Burners in a successful Kickstarter campaign, has been going to Burning Man since 2012, and is part concessional booth and part recording studio of “dreams” that also utilized touchscreens.
One of the previous year’s most memorable sculptures, “Embrace”, took two years to create, three weeks to assemble — and an hour to burn.
Everything goes up in flames, including the iconic Man, the subject of the numerous poorly written “I am but the wood” hippy poems, a gigantic 100-ft structure which takes a different form every year. The Temple of Grace, Burning Man’s spiritual refuge, is the last one to go up in smoke. Somewhat similar to the Bohemian Grove tradition of burning a coffin effigy to commemorate the “cathartic release of life’s worries”, with apparent roots in pagan rituals. As a spectacle, it’s strange and absolutely unforgettable, and it stirs deep emotions as if you were at NYC’s Ground Zero, and you’ll bawl like a baby.
While the Temple burning sends poetry, tributes, rants, prayers and other heartfelt nonsense written on its wooden walls up into the sky in smoke, you’ll feel the moment of deep connection with the divine, or with yourself, and you’ll be completely, more so than ever before, immersed into the process of living in the here and now, even if you’re not high any more. And, I suppose, that might be the very moment when you understand why you are there, the knowledge your foggy, dehydrated brain will never be able to put into words. You’ll realize that explaining the experience with language would be as inadequate as the man in Plato’s Cave trying to describe light to those who have never seen it.
The spectacular crescendo is followed by the Burning Man exodus, one of the craziest exits to an event, a pulsing system of moving vehicles waiting in line for up to five hours to leave the area, 60,000+ people leaving through the straw of a two-lane highway. The Burners start heading back home to return to the commodified, capitalistic nature of what they call “default reality”, to their full-time jobs, alarms, mothers-in-law, bills, taxes, parking tickets, drug tests and other societal burdens.
It has to be said, the counter-cultural society created by Burners is an impressive endeavor. I don’t give a crap about all the empty talk of pseudo-bohemian trustafarians and smug yuppies slumming it there, I haven’t met any. It is completely what you make it. For me, Burning Man has a way of unblocking and unleashing the uncensored energy trapped under the wraps of Western culture’s overemphasis on narrow-focus modes of perception and thinking.
Don’t intellectualize the experience, get consumed by it, like the Man gets consumed by the flames. Take it with a grain of salt and a handful of sand. Meet new friends, try new things, get yourself a cock ring, a new tattoo or an ass stamp, find your path to spiritual enlightenment, or simply let your freak flag fly high and proud. Either way, everything you bring is still going to get dusty and dirty. You will wash off the dirt but the experience will never leave you.
Photo credit Ludovic Ismael